Photo by Beth Avery
I attended a funeral the other day and was, as is often the case, reminded of the words from Hebrew scriptures in Ecclesiastes Chapter Three which are given as a form of comfort. There is a time for everything under the sun; death being one of those things. The writing is often attributed to King Solomon, but further research over time has shown this not to be the case as it uses terms and references not available to the king in his time. Rather it can be said to have been written by a “teacher” as translated from the Greek – Qoheleth – who uses the voice of Solomon, considered to be Israel’s archetypal sage. A little knowledge gathered up from Hebrew Scriptures 101! Thank you, Dr. Kim! And as I thought further of our Ingathering this morning and the idea of gathering up these things began to come together in my mind and heart.
Qoheleth posits these opposites – birth and death, mourning and dancing – and one might be tempted to turn them into statements of good and bad, but the intention really is to show the full spectrum of what can happen in a lifetime, it’s totality and variety, or to suggest that there is appropriate human action required along the continuum. I reread all the possibilities, and a few stand out for me – for us – this morning. Planting and ‘plucking up’ what was planted; throwing away stones and gathering stones together; breaking down and building up. This writing falls into the category of wisdom literature in the Hebrew scriptures and so I am given today to seek out and gather up what wisdom I can from it. Wisdom in Jewish teachings is said to be the source of all creation; that out of which the one thought created and the whole which has been evolving ever since. What creative thought is making itself available to us today?
When I first came to you, we were at the very beginning of a pandemic, and I suggested then that we use our time wisely – this space of waiting for danger to pass, this unlimited space to dig in and plant seeds for our future, for that time when safety returns and we can return to life with some amount of normalcy. We didn’t know then how long that would take or how much we would be changed in the ensuing three years, but we endeavored to keep our minds sharp, and our focus attuned to things we valued, all of which would be tucked away in the soil until the time arrived for germination and visible growth. We worked on a mission statement, studied about racism and oppression in our tradition and world, looked to our covenantal roots. Out of necessity we became creative about how we could maintain the spirit of this place, even as we remained distant from its physical form. We held one another in love and care across the ether and eventually more and more in person. And as this time began to wane, we began to think about our future together. Seeds began sprouting, ideas bubbled up to the surface and we took action in order to discern the next right thing for us to do.
So here we are today at a place nearing harvest time – the plucking up of what was planted. Our wise action might be in gathering up from all that has been planted and culling through it to determine what is of use. Certainly, the Search Committee is engaged in a process of listening for what is of use in the ministry of the Meeting House – of gathering up from the hearts and minds of those who hold this place close. I’ve tried to keep it fresh here on Sundays, getting us out of our heads and into our bodies more of the time, to invite Spirit and to invite action. What other areas of church life are asking this process of us?
And what are these stones to be thrown away and gathered up? Qoheleth reminds us that there are always both – things we discard and new things or even old things that we gather unto ourselves. Stones are ‘rock hard’ but also worn by time – varied in their content that they have gathered up from their surroundings, their paths, fused together, just like each of us and all of us here together. The point rests in the timing. We can go at life all helter-skelter without giving a lot of thought to wise timing, or we can spend a little effort in considering what time it is, taking the temperature of the times. Where are we on this journey? It is a critical juncture in the life of the Meeting House; a time to think seriously about sustainability. We have said that we are in this for the long haul. How best to ensure that takes measured and creative approaches. When you are working on a stone wall you have to see which stones best fit and which ones to leave for another spot in the wall. This is how you ensure that the wall will stand. How are we doing at sorting stones; at wise placement?
When I look at the world around us, I am honestly, sometimes, at a loss for how we can maintain sustainability. But I put on my big girl pants and face the day, nonetheless! The time is clearly now – I would say we are actually late to the game – but better now than never – to take wise action in ways big and small. I wonder about our Earth home and what I can do to help – just one person, but I believe that even one person, one action can make a difference. And together as we gather up our accumulated knowledge and will to save this beautiful chariot we ride the universe in, we can work together and multiply the effects. We were reminded this summer about white nationalism and the threat to LGBTQ+ identified folks, about one organization’s advocacy based in love and inclusivity, and we are encouraged to think about and support efforts locally and nationally where people of faith have something to say. Love is the Spirit of this place we repeat each week. How do we translate that into action? Who else might we gather with toward common goals and what relationships no longer serve us?
And what of this breaking down and building up? My feminist schooling tells me that we need to deconstruct in order to reconstruct. Sometimes we get lost in the deconstruction part – all militant and tearing down oppressive structures, but we need to replace those with something! The face of the Meeting House has changed over time. You are no longer the same people or sets of beliefs that you were nearly forty years ago. Not even the same as when I first met up with you nearly four years ago! We are constantly in the midst of breaking down – shedding old skins – letting go as individuals and it is true for organizations as well. At least for those who intend to remain well into the future. Evolution does not end with the arrival of homo-sapiens! We are not the end-all and be-all just by virtue of our humanity. So, there is a building up that needs to occur. I think that we worry sometimes about letting go of this or that practice or ritual or way of thinking or doing – that we put too much negative energy into the what-if’s instead of employing positive, creative energy with them.
So many churches and so much of our culture is in this phase of rebuilding. It can be a scary time. Qoheleth reminds us that this breaking down and building up has always been a part of our evolution, a part of life. If we can normalize this idea, it will be less frightening and less apt to cause us to freeze mid-stream, digging our heels in and becoming mired in the muck. How many things have you successfully taken apart and put back together – cleaned up and repurposed for good use? Not to jump the season, but I remember last year buying a super old wooden sled from the thrift shop – taking it apart to some extent, sanding and painting and staining, replacing broken parts, ultimately adding greens and a bow. Now I have holiday decoration for my front porch that will last for many years to come! We can do this on a more personal level when we see parts of ourselves that no longer work for our best interests and collectively as we think about and look toward what church means to people, post-pandemic in the 21st century. To my mind, there are as many ways to ‘do church’ as there are people doing it!
This morning we came together with waters from our favorite Cape Cod places, waters we had gathered up from the ocean with its rising and ebbing tides, from rivers and streams making their way to the sea, from kettle ponds left by glaciers of long ago, rainwater and dewdrops alike. All of it gathered up and poured into our common vessel. Each drop represents one of us or even one idea that one of us has; represents a seed planted or a fruit ready for harvest; a stone’s ripple effect as it touches the surface; a cleansing and a renewal. It is in this coming together of waters and all they symbolize for us in this time on this journey that we celebrate our annual ingathering, prepare ourselves for the work of the church year ahead.
May we look to Wisdom as we envision our future together. May we seek out that creative spark, that one thought that propels us onward through time. May we engage the full spectrum of life’s potential with courage and love. May this gathering up of people and water; wisdom and creativity be for us a new beginning on the path of blessing.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, September 10, 2023