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Forward Through the Ages
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, February 28, 2016

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Our first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every subject under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to castaway stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and time for peace.
What gain has the worker from her toil?
Our second reading today is by Dorothy Day, is from our hymnal and is entitled Commitment. Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, an organization grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person.

Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms. Dorothy Day wrote:
People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There's too much work to do.

Our theme this month has been Transitions and Changes. That seems like a particularly relevant focus for a congregation preparing to move forward into a relationship with a new religious leader, especially when you don't have much of an idea yet of who that new minister might be. Throughout the month we've also observed that, beyond the congregational level, our lives are also in a constant state of transition and change. So my hope for the month is that you might find this theme helpful congregationally, or religiously, as well as finding it helpful individually, on a spiritual or soulful level.

We have been exploring the terrain and the cycles of change. We focused on the dynamics of making choices that affect the outcomes in those changes – outcomes that we will then live with, that we will then live in. Last week in the Wholly Family Service, you celebrated the theme of changes and transitions within a number of our families. Today, I want to look at the continuity which provides the backdrop in the life of the congregation and in each of our lives, a continuity that I trust can offer us confidence and hope as we move into the future.

For this morning's message, I initially thought we would explore some of the history of this church in order to establish a case for that continuity. Based on conversations taking place within the History Committee, I understand that there will be quite a historical extravaganza coming your way soon as a lead-up to the commemoration, this fall, of the 200th Anniversary of these magnificent facilities, and in preparation for the 300th Anniversary of the congregation itself, just four years from now.

I look forward to at least beginning these explorations with you this spring. But as this morning approached, I found myself needing to go in a somewhat different direction. The truth is, I find you needing to go in a different direction than that, as you determine who you are as a congregation and where you might want your new ministerial leadership to lead you.

I've heard a comment repeated a number of times in the months I've been here with you, a comment about the center, the core of this congregation. Perhaps it does not represent the sentiments of everyone here, but it does represent a number of you. It's probably worth exploring, at least a bit, by all of us. Just this week, I heard someone say something else that gives me an inclination into understanding that more recurring comment that I've heard.

Before we go there though, I want you to listen carefully to the words of the hymn we all just sang, "Forward through the Ages." It's one of our UU classics. Frederick L. Hosmer wrote the hymn in 1908, when he was the pastor of the First Unitarian Church, Berkeley, California. The question I would ask you to consider as you listen is this – just what is it that is moving forward through the ages?
Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
Move the faithful spirits, at the call divine;
Gifts in different measure, hearts of one accord,
Manifold the service, one the sure reward.

Wider grows the kingdom, reign of love and light;
For it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified.
Poets sung its glory, heroes for it died.

Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall;
In each loss or triumph lose or triumph all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
Move we on together to the shining goal.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.
So, what is it that moves forward through the ages? This was one of the questions our professors enjoyed torturing us with back in seminary – what is it that is moving forward through the ages? By the way, I hope no one is lightly dismissing them self from this excursion because of a mere theological quibble with the notion of, "God's far purpose…" If you need to translate that line, you might choose the purpose of nature, or the purpose of life, or whatever works best for you. But please, go ahead and make the translation, so that you might take this excursion. The question I would ask you to pursue is – within the context of religious community, from time immemorial, what is it that moves from age to age, from generation to generation, even from ministry to ministry?

Now, back to the comment that I've heard echoed from a number of you over these past months. It is this – First Unitarian Church is a wonderful community, one that holds your dedication and your affection, but as a religious community, it is one bereft of a spiritual or religious center. I've heard a number of you say this. I have to say that I struggle with this perception because it is not one that I share. I find that you do, indeed, have a very heartfelt center, which is both spiritual (supportive of your individual journeys) and religious (supportive of your shared, cooperative journey).

From what I do know of your history, this center has existed since the beginning in 1720, through the dedication of this Meeting House in 1816, and forward through all the subsequent ages until this very day. I feel there is good reason for confidence and hope that it will remain so in your new ministry and in the ongoing unfolding of your story yet to be told.

I was involved in a conversation the other day that helps me to understand this different perspective that some of you hold. I was talking with some folks in one of the church groups about the topic of faith. One person spoke up saying, "I don't believe in faith and I don't have faith." This was not someone peripherally connected to the congregation, but someone who has been here… for ages! Someone who has been a leader here in numerous ways and many levels.

"I don't understand," I said. "I think of you as a person of great faith."

"Well I'm not," came the response. "I don't believe in any outside force or any external source that gives me or any of us cause for faith. I don't believe in God or in anything like God." And so I asked, "Why do you serve this church with such dedication? Why do you serve those in need with such devotion? Why do you march in demonstrations with such determination?"

"Because," the person said, "I believe in the value of community. I believe I have a duty to those who are less fortunate than I am. I believe that, if the world is going to change, I'm responsible for doing my part, for doing what I can in promoting that change. I don't have faith that there is a divine being anywhere who can make those things happen."

So I asked, "Do you have faith that your many efforts make a difference in your life and in the world around you?"

"Yes, I do," was the answer. "Is that what faith means?"

"It is to me," I assured the group.

Faith is not about believing in something or someone we find to be impossible. Faith is about believing in what is possible, especially when we act in ways that promote that which we have faith in. Faith is what gives us reason for hope. Whatever trials and tribulations we might face, whatever decisions we might have to make, whatever processes we might undergo – faith in that which is possible is what gives us hope in navigating our way through all of the many transitions and changes of our lives, even in the life of this church.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." The mystic poet, Rabindranath Tagore said, "Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark." Your faith, our faith need not look like anyone else's. Our faith need not sound like anyone else's. Our faith in life, in the possibilities of love and in the potential for transformation can look and sound like our own. Our faith doesn't need to resemble anyone else's in order to make it real.

What is my answer to the question of what has moved through the ages and the generations of religious community? It is faith. What is my answer to the question of what is the spiritual and the religious center of this congregation? It is faith.

Over the decades and the centuries of this church's history, the understandings, the metaphors and symbols of the objects of faith have certainly changed, and they have been transformed. Just as they will continue to change and transform in the years to come. It's not the understandings, or the metaphors, or the symbols that are holy and central. It is what they give us access to; it is what they open us up for.

Wider grows the kingdom, reign of love and light;
For it we must labor, till our faith is sight.

Our task as a religious community is not to cling to those symbols and metaphors, those guides that served so well in the past. Our task is to embrace our spirits now, and to grow our souls on this spiritual/religious path, here, where we trod. Our task is to develop our own faith, as we go about finding and making meaning in our lives. There is the center.

Why do I believe that faith is at the center of this religious community? It is because faith has two dimensions that I find very abundant here. Having faith is like breathing; we breathe in and we breathe out. First, breathing in, by supporting the religious community that holds each of us within the context of our sacred life journey. Providing light where there has been darkness, hope where there has been despair. By building hope in the capacity of humanity to do good, replacing our doubts and fears. By promoting love where there has been hate, or even worse where there has been indifference. By promoting the possibility of joy where there has been heartache. By providing forgiveness and promise… by providing sacred shelter amidst tumultuous storms.

And second, breathing out, by holding one another accountable to a set of ideals that remind us that all of life is a sacred journey. You know the work I’m talking about: the work of raising a community of children in our religious education program, and more the children of the larger community as well. By promoting the worth and dignity of all: the work of women’s rights, the work of antiracism and the Black Lives Matter movement, embracing and supporting the Moslem community, and the work of equal marriage rights, that you accomplished in the recent past. Breathing out a vision of peace and an end to war. Breathing out into into work which the future iterations of this congregation might yet embrace... for the environment, for healthcare and against consumerism. Who knows what? Faith always expands any limits.

The vision of your work yet to come will be based in your faith, in your commitment to continue to be a voice of reason amidst a sea of superstition, fable and self-delusion. It is in doing your part to right the wrongs of social injustice. You have such incredible opportunity, such privilege, to be the recipients of the great heritage here. And you have the opportunity, the privilege, today to see the future of that heritage, the legacy you will leave to others – those who will follow us – and to stake your claim in that future.

This is a community that holds a faith that is based inwards and expressed outwards. It holds a faith in what is possible, not in what is fanciful. This is a religious community that holds and builds and expresses a faith in the holy process of living with intention, with attention, and with the hope of a better world, a hope in the beloved community, which our faith brings us into as partners in the co-creation thereof.

You will soon choose a new minister to lead you into your waiting, faithful future. Hold onto your center; make your choices; then hold onto your center all the more. Hold onto your faith, even more. Take that first step; take the next. Take each step in faith, in your faith.

This congregation began nearly 300 years ago. Let your vision today be nothing less than the promotion of faith and the meaningful pursuit of your place in it. Let us say to one another here: We are building upon a strong foundation, strengthening it and broadening it enough to sustain whatever building, whatever work, may come our way in the future.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

This, as always, is a season for moving forward through the ages.
This, as always, is a season for breathing in and breathing out.

This, as always, is a season for transition and change.
This, as always, is a season for faith, for your faith and your faith in this, your religious home.

Forward through the ages? Yes, forward! Always, forward! Transforming lives of individuals, of families, of the community and indeed, of the world.