When last we met, it was Palm Sunday and we were talking about hard-working donkeys and the sacred nature of carrying church work on our little burrow backs, so to speak. I left quickly, in a kind of "Elvis has left the building" whirlwind, and drove off with my sister and her boyfriend to Scituate, to await the call from your Search Committee. Alas for technology! I was on a cell phone, and the reception, when the call finally came, was less than pristine.
I was shaking with nerves and emotion and trying to hear what Sue Robinson was saying. She sounded as though she was being broadcast over a ham radio somewhere in the South Pacific. However, the message did come through that you had made me your minister-elect by a unanimous vote, and there was great rejoicing when most of the search committee and Jay McCosker came to the Allen House B&B where I was staying, to present me with this stole (fashioned by Joanne Howard) and to pop a cork.
It was a great and happy day and it was hard to leave you, to drive back to Maryland the next day, and hard to leave Norwell. But we all had closure to attend to, relationships to conclude and plans to make for a new ministry here.
Transitions are hard. Even when they are happy they are hard. I left many beloved congregants and friends behind in Maryland. You have the anxiety of entrusting your beloved church to a relative stranger. We are walking together in trust and hope, and perhaps a little blind faith.
This congregation has been rolling along for well nigh 360 years now. When I mentioned that to a friend recently she remarked, "Three-sixty. A full rotation." That's a nice image, and a good balance to the notion that "everything old is new again." Maybe everything new is old again. Time marches on in a linear fashion, as years go by and history writes new chapters with every era. But we might also consider time as a circular proposition as history repeats itself and human beings spiral back through perpetuity to the same questions, struggles and challenges. We are a new people in technological ways, perhaps in psychological comprehension, and in scientific knowledge. We have been introduced to a wider variety of theological concepts and the world has become smaller through affordable, accessible global transport and worldwide media. The make-up of the family has changed, and women and men have a broader spectrum of choices to make about how they will live, and work and love.
But really, the human reason to gather in religious communities and houses of worship hasn't changed much, and shall probably not ever change very much. We are here to pause in the midst of our rushed lives to reflect, to give praise, to ponder life's meaning, to remember cherished people and ideals, to grieve hurts both communal and private. We come to feel the closeness of being together in one place, to wonder together, to catch a brief intimation of the preciousness of life. To find sanctuary in the sanctuary. The Jewish philosopher Elie Wiesel wrote that sanctuary "is often something very small. Not a grandiose gesture, but a small gesture toward alleviating human suffering and preventing humiliation. The sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. And that is why you are here and that is why I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other's shelter."
Sanctuary as a dream. Sanctuary as a human being. Very beautiful ideas. When I read Wiesel's words, I recall that it was the Jews who gave the western world the concept of the moveable God, the divine presence who goes with you, who might dwell in this or that tabernacle but who is present in time more so than at a particular place in space. You and I are sanctuary when we bring the love and compassion of our communal ideals to all of our lives. And perhaps never so much so as on Sundays, gathered to remind ourselves that what we are trying to be in the world is decent, considerate, and honorable what we are trying to do in the world is make a contribution to dignity, justice, compassion and beauty.
There is nothing wrong in taking a morning once a week to affirm this effort, it is, after all, a serious and difficult effort and is worthy to be refreshed on Sunday mornings. Assailed as we are on every side by the temptations to hypocrisy, cruelty, sarcasm, suspicion and paranoia, grandiosity and narcissism, and general apathy and cynicism, it is right to set aside some time to counteract these influences. I like to think that every one of us, when we step over the threshold of this meeting house, renew our private vows to the promise of our lives. If, along with the poet Mary Oliver, we think of ourselves as "bridegrooms taking the world into our arms," let this be the place that calls us back, again and again, to being the lovers we were meant to be.
The Reverend Barbara Merritt recently remarked to a gathering of Unitarian Universalist clergy, "Sometimes I think we're part of a special education program. The only way God can figure out how to make us good is to pay us for it." I know I went to church as a kid because my parents took me. I went as an adult not because I was faithful and pious but because I wanted to be I wanted to be more in love with the world than weary of it at the end of a long work week, and I needed the practice. I would drag myself out of bed on a Sunday morning and say "Bye, I'm going to human-being rehearsal." After all those years as an actress, going to rehearsal to practice being someone else, I was drawn into the life of the church to have practice being myself.
If you ask me why the church exists, I will have different answers depending on the circumstances. This morning I will say that the church exists so that we can have a safe place to become ourselves as God intends us to be, developing our minds and souls in a manner that brings deeper meaning to our lives while causing no harm to others. I believe in the church as an institution of learning and healing. I believe in worship as a time during which we prepare ourselves to face life's sacred moments and respond to the call of the Holy in our own lives. I believe in the church as a temple of kindness and care, where compassion is practiced until it becomes perfect. Church is a place where we should be able to set down our armor and leave it against the wall outside for awhile. It should be a place where we can learn to trust that most people are truly doing the best they can, and to understand that offense is almost never intended. If it is intended, we deal with that directly and express clearly how we prefer to be treated.
Church is a place where we speak to people rather than behind their backs. It is a place where we acknowledge that armor, while protective, also obscures vision and breathing and all those things that draw us into intimacy with others and with the Holy. It is a place where we keep risking to go beyond the surface, recognizing that the person sitting next to us in the pew may be the one baking cookies for our memorial service some day, and so it is probably worth it to let them into our hearts a little bit, or maybe even a lot.
I grieve with you that we have become such an armored people.
I remember going on a Labor Day retreat with a church community some years ago and watching this little kids ride around on their bikes wearing their safety helmets. We didn't have those when I was a kid; you just fell off your bike and bashed your head open on the rocks. So I'm glad they have them. The kids were very safety conscious, which also seemed fairly new to me. I was walking down the dirt road to the lake one afternoon and I overheard this little guy ask his friend, "Kevin, where are you going?" He had to be all of six, talking to a five year old. The even littler guy responded that he was going to the cabin to change. "Tell my parents I'll be right back, I'm going to the cabin to change!" And the older boy replied, in all seriousness, "Okay, just so we know where you are."
You know he had heard that phrase a million times.
Just so we know where you are. He sounded just like a shrunken-down father. It was very touching, but also a little sad, like a third little boy around the same age who kept his safety helmet throughout the entire retreat. I don't know if he was just proud of the thing or if he had some anxiety issues. But you'd see him at meals or at worship, looking like a little alien with this purple helmet covering his head. Maybe he just wanted to feel safe.
It's hard to feel safe at any age. We are sensitive creatures and we tend to remember hurts and shocks for a long time. It takes a lot of beauty, peace and kindness in our lives to counterract the anxiety that comes with having experienced destruction and cruelty. Certainly we have cause as a nation to feel painfully vulnerable lately. Bike helmets can't help that. But I do believe that church can, at least to some measure. Our religion does not give answers to "why," and you will never hear me say "this (or that) is God's will" or venture to guess the motives of some distant deity, especially one who chooses sides in war. I don't believe at all in that kind of God and I think following those lines of argument constitutes bad and irresponsible theology, like when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said last year that it was the God's wrath on the"civil liberty groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters" that caused the Al-Quaeda terrorists to commit their atrocities. We just have no truck with that kind of stupid theology and those easy answers. John Buehrens, the former president of the UUA wrote ,"Our faith tradition, I've slowly understood, is one that doesn't ask the creedal question, 'What do we believe in common?' It's far too inclusive for that. It asks the question of covenant: how are we willing to walk together? in what hope? and in what spirit?"
This question leads us to answer again with a message of love and compassion, squirming a bit because we've all heard it a thousand times, so why haven't we figured out how to do it yet?
Because we're human. Because we're not as whole as we were when we were born. Because we make the mistake of believing that we are human beings having a spiritual experience rather than accepting that we are spiritual beings having a human experience (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), and its often baffling and overwhelming thing to achieve. So we're here to practice, to give the chattering mind a break and breathe a "home free" if only for a brief moment. This is the place where we all care about where each one is, so none is drowned by the great project of managing life.
Annie Lamott tells the story of a little girl who got lost one day. "The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn't find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, "You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here" (from Traveling Mercies).
This place cannot heal all your wounds, nor can this community meet all your needs, answer all your questions, or solve all of your problems. But it can be a harbor, a resting place, a sanctuary where your life can be held and where you can hold others. "We are in truth each other's shelter." And when you get lost, as we all get lost from time to time, let this be the place that can show you the way home.
And you can leave your bike helmets at the door. Welcome home, and thank you for welcoming me home.