A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
To listen to these comments by Rev. Ralph Mero, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
Sermon text part 1 by Rev. Ralph Mero
Having lived in Providence for fewer than four years, I am a newcomer by New England standards. I have known many congregations in my years as a minister, but this one is unique. Founded in 1720, this church is the oldest of which I have been a member. Our Meeting House is singular and outstanding. We have uncommon excellence in our staff and our volunteer leadership, and our heritage in the community can make us proud.
But we live in an American culture that is increasingly about “me first” at the expense of caring communities that hold and nurture each other. Our national culture is showing less and less that it cares about people beyond our borders. This is the root of the political slogan, “America First” and it is toxic.
We need to turn this around, reverse this, and I believe that flexing our charitable instincts, increasing our personal giving, is essential to our institutions and country.
For a few months, I have been part of the team organizing our annual financial appeal, called our Commitment Campaign. The leaders of this group are truly creative and hardworking people; they are giving significant time to nurturing the future of this congregation.
Speaking bluntly I have to say that our church is at a crossroads: one path leads to increased service to others, the growth that comes from warm welcomes and mutual respect, defending the safety of immigrants and those less fortunate than we are. The other path leads to decline.
I would not have moved from Pennsylvania to Providence had you and this church not been here.
My life was transformed by Unitarianism when I was a teenager. I can’t imagine a healthy community without the presence of this kind of church. I need the meaningful words said here on Sunday morning. I need the messages of affection in our greetings, our music, our prayers, and our service to others.
It is said that there are three selves in each of us. One is a self that gives, one is a self that grabs, and one is the self that knows the difference.
The church’s duty is to keep that awareness in the forefront of our minds, and evidenced in the choices we make. One choice can be for thoughtful giving in our pledges, simply being as generous as we honestly can, changing some priorities, and rethinking what is truly important for tomorrow and the years to come.
To listen to the sermon by Rev. Liz Maclay, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
Sermon text part 2 by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
Thank you so much, Ralph, for kicking off our sermon with your words and your wisdom. You are one of the many fantastic people who are quietly, wonderfully, here in this church, every one of you a gift. Ralph and I first met when he left a vital ministry in the Pacific Northwest to come to the UUA and run the church staff finance office, where he changed and lifted the level of service to congregations and also enormously raised the level of giving to the Living Tradition fund that helps meet emergency expenses for those who spend their lives in service to our faith. And like you, Ralph, I too would not have moved here to Providence had you and this church not been here.
You, First U, mean so much to so many. You are the answer to the second hymn we sang earlier, Where is our holy church? ‘Where is our holy church?’ we sing. And we go on, because we do know the answer: ‘where race and class unite, as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right.’ These words mean a great deal.
‘Where is our holy writ? Where’er a human heart a sacred torch of truth has lit, by inspiration taught.
Where is our holy land? Within the human soul, wherever free minds truly seek, with character, the goal.
Where is our paradise? In aspiration’s sight, wherein we hope to see arise ten thousand years of right.’
Speaking at Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorial service in November 1962, Adlai Stevenson quoted Albert Schweitzer who wrote:
No ray of sunlight is ever lost. But the green which it wakes needs time to sprout. And it is not always granted to the sower to live to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith.
He said, “Mrs. Roosevelt rekindled that faith in ourselves. Now that she is gone, the legacy of her lifetime will do no less.”
Church time is like that – it’s long and long because it’s made up of lifetimes. While we live, this large, beautiful community is in our charge. All that it can be, all that it will be, is up to us. I had the privilege to hear Rev. Otis Moss III preach recently. Rev. Moss is the minister of the UCC church where the Obamas attended when they lived in Chicago. He is a beneficent and powerful presence and preacher. He was preaching to a roomful of UU ministers about our work right now. He said: “We are in the desert right now. We are all doing desert ministry” – whether we already knew anything about deserts and how to live in them, and pass through them, or not. His sermon was inspiring and renewing, even though part of what he was doing was simply reminding us of our work and what we have to do, because he was also reminding us how much it matters.
In his sermon, Rev. Moss told the story of a man who was planting trees, adding them to a beautiful orchard down south. He had owned and harvested that orchard all his life. And when the visitor encountered him, he was a very old man, planting trees that wouldn’t mature and bear fruit for years – unlikely that the proprietor would still be around by then. When the visitor asked him, the man said: I didn’t plant these trees. I inherited them. Someone planted them and took good care of them, kept them strong and healthy so that when they came to me they were a great blessing that shaped my life. Now it’s my turn to do the same thing for someone else.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to eat the fruit ourselves. Sometimes our effort goes to fruit we’ll never eat. Rev. Moss says this story holds for all of us. He said: “We’ve been eating fruit from trees all our lives. It is our job to plant trees whose fruit we may never even taste. And it is our job to ask who are we planting for ?” Because “it is always our job to open the door for someone else.”
We know what church is for, what we hope to gain and give by our presence here together. ‘Peace, love and understanding.’ Connection. Strength. Relationship. Inspiration. Succor. Deepening. Lessening of our loneliness. Strengthening of our hope. Redemption. Opportunity. Learning. Justice. Support. Death. Life. Faith. Love. These are the reasons we are all here, every one of us.
And we are here because here someone opened the door for us. Someone kept the orchard that is a church healthy and vital and full of goodness and nourishment, and that is what an open door looks like, a door anyone can walk through and eat and taste the sweetness and the goodness of what grows here.
Look at this extraordinarily beautiful place that belongs to us – to you and me. This grace, this soaring space is ours! These columns, these windows, this great balcony and organ, this lofty pulpit, these gracious pews belong to us because we have inherited them – what a legacy of beauty and the power and appeal that come with beauty. Do you know that in the beginning, fluted columns like these were invented by the ancient Greeks because they looked like great trees, covered in bark, and the earliest temples were sacred groves of trees. And then temples were built of simple, covered spaces with pillars that really were great trees covered in bark. And then stone, symbolizing those mighty trees and sacred precincts of nature.
So here in this space, with these columns, still using those forms that reflect great old trees – it really is, in some ways, our orchard. Look at all of us who gather in this orchard for its fruits. All of us older, younger, married, partnered, single, Christians and athiests and humanists and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and nothing, and panenthiests and more, miraculously together because we believe in an expansive spiritual journey and in learning from each other and all the world and the world’s faiths have to teach us. Gay and lesbian and trans and straight, people of different shades and colors and heritages. People you don’t know yet, people who look interesting or kind or tired, people who are all here, every one of us, for the same reason you are. We all belong here, and we all belong to each other and to something bigger.
Our children, and I say this as one of the many who have no borne no children of my own, our children are over in the Parish House and the Atrium classrooms, learning to live in the world with courage, respect, love, justice and recognition of the sacred. The sacred howsoever they define it, as it inhabits and transcends and graces all life.
We have people struggling with joblessness here, with loss, with illnesses and heartbreak. We have people sharing joy here, sharing hope here, sharing love and life lessons, working for justice and caring for others, and growing into new, beautiful incarnations of themselves. We have people here who make extraordinary music of all kinds, and people here who appreciate extraordinary music of all kinds, and music is a strength and a blessing for us, another form of beauty and grace.
Many of us know pain and blessing both, all of us have known them at one time or another. We come together here because we don’t believe in a gated community heaven in the next life, we live to make this world the closest to heaven we can get, and to get everyone, everyone, inside the gates with us. We expect heaven will look like everyone having enough to be safe, clean, fed and clothed and knowing dignity and able to be educated and choose the work they do. We expect heaven will look like people who spend time with each other and learn from each other and trust and share and transcend fear and selfishness. We expect heaven will be green because we will live sustainably on this exquisite gem of a planet, and that we will share it with many many species who will also continue to live to grace our world with their beauty and strangeness because their habitat will not be destroyed by greed or ignorance. Our heaven is attainable, and part of it has been planted right here by all of you, all of us, we are creating it, and learning it, and growing it with our choices and commitment and joy in what we are becoming, what we have already become.
I heard that Albert Schweitzer quote at a memorial service last month, for Denny Davidoff, one of the strongest and most transformative leaders ever in the history our movement. She was a lay person, not a minister. She had such passion for our faith, such belief in what we could do and be, such commitment to doing all she could to help us live into our principles and our potential. She made us better – many of us UU individuals, including me, and the larger, collective us, during her tenure as our Moderator and thereafter an ongoing continental leader. She was one of my favorite fundraising voices, because of her commitment and because she was so straight up in what she said. She would always urge people to give all we can, not just of our time but of our treasure. Because churches require money to operate and to thrive. And she would say – and this took chutzpah, but Denny was never short on chutzpah – she would say, NPR and Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders and all the great and good causes to which you give will get lots of money from lots of people. Every time they put out a call, they get vast sums in response. But Unitarian Universalism only gets money from us. This church only get money from its people. So make this community your priority, just as this community make its people and all those it serves, its priority. Because this community only has all of you to keep it strong and make it great. Be there for your church with your money as well as your time, and it will thrive.
Denny’s passing is a huge loss for all of us who loved her and learned from her. But as we heard in her memorial service, and knew already, her legacy lives on, including in my memories of what she said that I can still relate to you this morning.
Every time I urge us all to be as generous as we can and give as much financially as we can afford to give, I worry about the people who will be stressed by that urging, people who don’t have a lot of resources right now. So I want to be very clear about two things. I preach this message as someone who has been there. When I first started in ministry, with two master’s degrees from Harvard, I had massive student loan debt – from my undergrad studies. Plus my graduate studies on top of that. I was making a very low salary. I could barely make ends meet. My parents – an educator and a social worker – were not in a position to help me out. Sometimes money was so tight that my credit card would be rejected at a gas station when I went to fuel up my car. So I have been poor. I will never forget that I have had to borrow from friends, I have known the shame that can wrongly come with being poor in our society, and I have known the stress that always goes with being poor. When I was poor, I gave as much as I could, even when that was a little, and understood that I was still fulfilling the call to give. And I felt good about doing what I could.
In this commitment drive, we are asking everyone to give what they can and to make sure their pledge really reflects their relationship to the congregation, their aspirations for this congregation and the commitments this congregation has made to itself. Our commitment is not only that all our members and friends will participate but that as many of us as possible will become ‘fair share’ givers. This means we’ll donate a percentage of income that we choose, based on guidelines and research provided by our own Unitarian Universalist Association. The fair share gift guidelines suggest the healthy minimum that allows a church to flourish. The guidelines are not onerous – in fact they are less than people pledge in many other denominations. They are the measure of a church that is in good shape.
I am making my pledge for the coming year at the sustainer level of 4 %, according to our guidelines. I find that this helps me know that what I’m giving is fair and meaningful and as generous as I can be, because I want to be generous to our faith that is so important, especially now. I pledge my gift to First U not as a member who expects to be served by this church, but as a servant who believes absolutely in what we are and what we are doing here. Again, that is all we can ask, and if we all do, truly, give what we can, our church will be in very good shape going forward.
What does very good shape look like? It looks like paying all our gifted and hard-working staff salaries that are at least at the midpoint of salary guidelines. Really they should all be paid at the upper end, because their performance is uniformly so strong, and there is such broad appreciation I hear all the time from so many of you for all that they do. But this is an important first step, establishing parity and midpoint pay for all the staff, some of whom have been very underpaid for a very long time.
Good shape looks like overdue technology and equipment repairs and improvements. These will allow us to have reliable audio and video systems, and office programs and equipment, and the capacity to share our services and programs online with folks who can’t get to church or want to learn more about us.
Good shape looks like small but critical improvements to our facilities, like appropriate recycling containsers and systems that support us in greener processes for our trash and recycling, so that we are living out our sense of responsibility to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Good shape looks like funding an excellent spiritual and community discernment process for our congregants and leaders. I am hearing from so many that this church was waiting or the new minister to embark on its next era as a community, ready to be and become more in our evolution. Good process around this is essential, so that we can be clear on who we are becoming, who and how we want to be as a church community, and begin to lay out our path forward in an explicit and spirit-filled way.
These are challenging times and in need or ambition or hope, people are drawn to us. Your staff is drawn – by the excellence of this community and what it is capable of – to serving you. You draw each other and new people every week. You are an inspiration and you are powerful. No bushel baskets for you. This church is a bright light, it needs to shine and our neighbors and friends in this region need it to shine.
Please take your giving very, very seriously. Someone planted the orchard, kept the orchard, opened the door for us with their generosity. Let’s do all we can now that it’s our turn. Ablaze, – not consumed, but ablaze, as Rev. Rob Hardies charged us back in the installation last fall – ablaze with the fire of commitment.
The guidelines are one measure of a church that is in good shape. Since all of you, beloved people, are also the measure of a church that is in good shape, I am very optimistic. Very blessed be. Amen
To listen to the meditation read by Rev. Liz Maclay, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
Celebrate the Interval by Rev. Dick Gilbert
Life is a brief interval between birth and death
Composed of a few notes between Prelude and Postlude
It is a drama quickly played between the rising and falling of a curtain.
What shall we do with that interval of time?
What combination of notes shall we play?
What thespian mask shall we wear?
The transience of life tempers our joy.
Discordant notes reverberate in the soul.
The ending of the play is ever in doubt.
Yet the brevity can be rich with joy.
A simple tune caresses our ears.
The play produces laughter from time to time.
Why, then, are we so careless with time?
Why do we not sound the music of our hearts?
Why do we not feel the stage beneath our feet?
Is it not time to enjoy the interval?
Is it not time to play our own melody?
Is it not time for us to act our part?
Life is a brief interval between birth and death.
May we celebrate the interval with joy.
May we sing the song that belongs to us.
May we act as if our very life depended on it.