Unitarian Universalist Meeting House November 18, 2018
Last week I talked about the big cultural and political divide that has plagued our country for so long, an abyss that seems to grow wider and deeper with each new development. This week, many of us are dreading Turkey day, dreading the sharing of holiday meals with families where this divide must be confronted. What are we going to say to Uncle Oscar who is a staunch member of the NRA?
If you are dreading inflammatory topics at the Thanksgiving table, there are several ways you can deal with it. Probably the most sensible is to agree in advance that certain subjects are off-limits. I know I did this with anything relating to war and peace or racial issues with my southern family beginning in my late teens.
The reading I just did about the Christians and the Pagans points to another strategy: when the awkward questions pop up from your friends or relatives from the other camp, just answer them and try to keep it civil. You might learn something about each other.
What I tried to say last week was that both sides of the divide share the same original values. So once in a great while, you might get a situation where we could see through our differences to our common humanity, particularly if we are related by blood or marriage.
When we say grace, in other words, it would be great if we could find grace to see ourselves as others see us and to see the other as like us.
Grace is on my mind today. We had a big listening meeting last week to try to chart a future course for this Meeting House. I was very pleased with the number who attended and I am told that most of you were able to stay until the end. I’ve read the reports of what you all said and listened as the Board members gave their reactions at our meeting this past Thursday.
You attended with grace, and you spoke from your hearts. From all I could tell, the meeting accomplished what it set out to accomplish: it made people aware of the membership and financial crisis facing us and generated opinions on what to do about it. I had left early so that people would feel free to speak their views on all aspects of the crisis, including my own tenure as your minister. And you did.
And I am surprised at how much that has shaken me, but it has. I have said that my tenure here is definitely a factor on the table, and I have given everyone my blessing for it to be discussed openly. Yet when I read that people were in fact talking openly about it, it shook me. For I suddenly could envision that there would come a time when I did not serve this congregation any more.
And that shook me, because I care deeply about this Meeting House. I have given it ten years of my life, half of my total ministerial career. I am keenly disappointed that new membership has not kept pace with the members dying and moving away. Though what I have done and said or failed to do and say is only a part of the reasons for the decline, it is definitely a part.
Someone at the meeting last Sunday said, the question is whether Edmund’s continued ministry at the Meeting House will be a help or a hindrance to our recovering our membership
and financial balance. I want to say here that this is a good statement of the question, and I accept my responsibility to try to come up with an answer myself, and I hope to do that in a short time. My own inquiry, however, will go in parallel with the Board’s or what ever committee the Board may delegate it to.
The most important thing I want to say to all of us today, however, is that reasonable people can differ in their answer to this question. You can think I should be gone tomorrow or think that the place will crumble to the ground the moment I step out the door, and still I will come to see you in the hospital and talk about whatever you want to talk about. I will be your minister up to the time for parting.
The great blessing of this Meeting House for me in the last ten years is the absence of factions. Those of you who go back a long way will remember that the congregation had split pretty severely into factions around the question of the continued ministry of Ed Hardy, and it took 2-1/2 years of interim ministry to bring those factions together so they could call me.
There is no reason why deliberations over what’s best for the Meeting House with respect to my staying or going should devolve into interpersonal squabbling. Yes, these are deeply emotional issues for many of you as they are for me. But if I were a disinterested member of the congregation, I don’t know what position I would take.
What I am trying to say is that my greatest fear for the future is not separation from this place and these people whom I have grown to love, – though that’s huge – my greatest fear is that in the process of discernment and leaving, disagreements among you will tear apart the unity you will need to continue to operate, whether that involves calling another minister or not.
Now I don’t want to take up this whole sermon talking about our local crisis here, but I want to make a plea that in our talking and thinking we remember what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” and what might more simply be called grace. Many times in life, you have a choice of whether to say something kindly or meanly, whether to observe the sensitivities of others or run roughshod over them, whether to score points or contribute to the collective wisdom and inspiration. Too many people in our political life and our online life and our cultural life take the low road; grace is taking the high road.
Grace is a concept in Christian theology which means the power by which God saves sinners despite the fact that they don’t deserve saving. For our purposes here, I’d say that “saving graces” are any acts or words of spiritual generosity which redeem a situation that otherwise might lead to ruptured relationships.
Grace is what people say before meals, but it is also the part of us which looks for things to be thankful for. Neuroscientists confirm that just asking ourselves the question of what we are grateful for directs our brain away from cycles of gloom and doom and towards pleasure and satisfaction.
What are we thankful for this November 2018? Some of us may be happy that the Red Sox won the World Series. Some of us may be grateful political candidates we favored won elections. Some of us may be happy that we had a clean bill of health from the doctor at our last checkup.
We tend to be thankful for the good things that life has given us, to look for those good things and hold them up and take comfort from them. And we should celebrate the victories. My son’s father-in-law over in Cambridge England, who had cancer in an advanced stage only
last June, has just been declared cancer-free. Why not give thanks for such a blessing?
But the thanks for the good things, the lucky things, the victories are not the whole story. Around this time of year I go back to an essay written by an early ministry mentor of mine, Susan Hull1. She starts with the metaphor of the river.
“There is a river that runs through us. It is Mystery, it is Life, some say God. It descends through my granite soul with the force of gravity and love, plunges through empty canyons, chisels out corridors with its wet hands and slowly, ever so, widens the cracks and crevices of my failures into pools where grace collects.” This river of life is destructive as well as constructive, it gives and takes away. It is maker and destroyer. Susan Hull goes on,
“The injury of the river is also its gift. Where I have been cut deeply, so there Life most deeply, most surely, flows. I don't believe that the gifts of God come in the form of goodness, but in the face of Life itself. In danger's shadow as well as dazzling light, in a disquieted heart as often as a still mind, in labor as in love. If we would receive the sacred, we must receive the river's flow, even as it injures, even as it takes away.” If we appreciate this aspect of the river, we give thanks for the whole, for what it takes away as for what it brings us. The injury of the river is also its gift.
When we remember the story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sitting down to the feast in Plymouth in 1620, we understand the tragic dimensions of that story. The English settlers were vulnerable; their chances of survival in the new environment were very poor. The Wampanoag saved their lives, taught them to farm and fish and made it possible for the new colony to take root. In retrospect, the hospitality of the natives led to their demise as a culture. This is why Thanksgiving is observed among many Native Americans as a day of mourning. To the extent that we are descended genealogically or culturally from the Pilgrims, it is fit that we reserve some part of our souls in sympathy for this mourning.
And yet at the same time we can be genuinely and fully grateful for the entire stream of life which has brought us to this place, laden as it is with loss, suffering, pain and injustice. The river carries all before it.
As Susan Hull puts, it, the river of life creates “pools where grace collects.” Grace in this sense is the quality which sees the whole cycle of life, which can see the seed and the bud and the full rose and the petals strewn on the ground as one and the same phenomenon.
Good and evil, win and lose, dark and light, life and death, justice and injustice, these are first and foremost categories of our minds. They are very important in many contexts days to day, but from a higher point of view, they usually resolve into two sides of the same coin. The same river which gives takes away. Grace is the ability to see this and reconcile the seeming opposites.
Susan Hull says, “Thanksgiving ... [is] not about being glad for the good things that have happened to us –– they are simply moments in the sun. Thanksgiving is standing still, with an injured and an open heart and letting the River run freely through us.”
1“Run River Run” by Rev. Susan Hull, Skirt Magazine November 1996
Saving graces rise above the binary categories that our minds generate. We have many young people today who reject the binary gender categories which society sets out for them because those categories don’t capture the full fluidity or nuance of who they are.
David Roth’s song we sang a moment ago, “May the Light of Love Be With” is one of the great Thanksgiving songs rattling around in my brain this time of year. Another one is from Bob Franke, called “Thanksgiving Eve,“ and it begins with this verse:
It's so easy to dream of the days gone by So hard to think of the times to come And the grace to accept every moment as a gift Is a gift that is given to some. That’s appropriate as we are charting our course for the future of this institution that we love. Easy to think of the days gone by, hard to think of times to come.
It takes grace to accept every moment as a gift. Maybe some of those gifts that life gives you you’d just as soon not get. You’d like to take them back to the returns window.
But grace says trust the process, let go of the outcome. Grace says let’s keep faith with each other, even when we disagree. Grace asks in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words for the serenity to accept the things we can’t change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The difficulties of the road ahead, my friends, are made easier if we remember the great strengths of the Meeting House in this town. For four months in the summer we serve all comers providing low cost clothing and household furnishings which allow our foreign workers to make money here and support families back home. In the summer time, our magician amuses and amazes rafts of kids and our concert series is a stage for upcoming Cape Cod talent.
And this week we can appreciate the Turkey Trot, a hugely important effort to feed the hungry among us brought to a grateful community through the energies of Mary Parsons and Linda Redding and supported by the Meeting House in a variety of ways.
There is so much to be thankful for, so many saving graces. That we have freedom of religion in this country, and that we have the choice of a religion which meets us where we are, which accepts us as we are, which opens its doors to theist, atheist, Christian, humanist, Buddhist, Jew, religious naturalist, rich and poor, black and white, immigrants and natives, GLBTQ people, young and old, university educated and high school dropouts, which bears witness to its values on its sleeves and its bumpers and between its columns, which sees all its diversity not as an obstacle but as an asset, which gladly serves as a locus for concerned people talking about serious issues, which tries to live up to the ideal of the beloved community.
This morning I am grateful for all those who spoke their minds and hearts last week; you have moved the ball forward. I don’t know what my response will be just yet, but I appreciate the insight that your opinions have given me. I think we are all speaking out of love, and I hope we can continue to do so in the weeks ahead.
Some of you said that our services are not feeding visitors to the Meeting House, and that is one kind of message I am paying attention to. But some of you also said that our services are not feeding you personally, and if you are one of those people, I invite you to give me direct feedback on how the service is coming across to you. I have placed the old suggestions box in the back of the sanctuary and invite you to stuff it with your notes, either signed or unsigned. My
calendar is open for you to visit and tell me your feelings in person. I already get feedback from the Ministerial Relations Committee, whose members Barbara Hanrahan, Betsey Stevens and Bob Rice will also gladly convey your sentiments to me. Our services get reviewed every month by the Worship Services Committee, and the Board of Trustees is always willing to pass along feedback, for those who don’t want to tell me to my face.
This congregation called me to this pulpit 10 years ago by a unanimous vote. A small number of you can petition for a congregational meeting and I can be dismissed by a 2/3 vote of such a meeting. Short of that extreme, I can obviously offer or negotiate a departure on my own steam or the Board can ask for my resignation. The Board has the whole issue under advisement, as do I.
In the meantime, life goes on and I continue to be the minister of the Meeting House until someone decides otherwise. Before last week’s meeting, I gave to the Board two pages of suggestions for specific initiatives to attract new members. I have secured commitments from three outside speakers to address us in the coming months. I have been corralling musicians and actors from inside and outside the Meeting House for a Solstice celebration at the dark of the year. The deadline has arrived early for the December newsletter. I am grateful for the work of the Meeting House.
I know that many of you are anxious about the future; I am anxious too, but I am trying to control my own anxiety so I can be helpful to yours. Let us all pray for the saving graces to continue walking together as long as our paths remain joined, and to speak to one another in honesty but also in love, so that we together choose the path which is best for all of us. The grace to live each moment as a gift is a gift that is given to some. Amen.
Reading for Saving Graces
The Christians and the Pagans by Dar Williams
Amber called her uncle, said "We're up here for the holiday, Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay." And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree, He watched his son hang candy canes all made with Red Dye No. 3. He told his niece, "Its Christmas Eve, I know our life is not your style, " She said, "Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and its been awhile."
So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table, Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able, And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said, Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.
The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch, Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, "Is it true that you're a wtich?" His mom jumped up and said, "The pies are burning, " and she hit the kitchen,
And it was Jane who spoke, she said, "It's true, your cousin's not a Christian, " "But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share, And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere, "
So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table, Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able, And where does magic come from? I think magic's in the learning, 'Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning.
When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said, "Really, no, don't bother." Amber's uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father. He thought about his brother, how they hadn't spoken in a year, He thought he'd call him up and say, "It's Christmas, and your daughter's here." He thought of fathers, sons and brothers, saw his own son tug his sleeve, saying, "Can I be a Pagan?" Dad said, "We'll discuss it when they leave."
So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table, Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able, Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.