Our worship theme for this month of May is “grace.” These days, when I think of grace, I find myself thinking of you, and this place. Feeling so grateful to be your pastor, so grateful that we are in this together. Even when things are hard, or challenging, I know, deep down, this is where I’m meant to be. And I think this is at least partly due to the fact that we have been together for a while now. Some of you have been here longer, for decades, and there’s something graceful and grace-filled about that kind of constancy, isn’t there? Especially in a society that is constantly changing, that is so often telling us to keep our options open and to leave when things get hard; that the grass is always greener somewhere else. So staying put is an act of faith, that is counter-cultural these days.
That’s a prayer we just sang, isn’t it?:
For the world we raise our voices, for the home that gives us birth;
in our joy we sing returning home to our bluegreen hills of earth.
I so love this season of slowly unfolding warmth and growth, the invitation to be in touch again with this good earth. Earlier this week, I was driving down the highway, and a little patch of grass caught my eye. Because it was green! Which it hasn’t been for a while! And the thought came to mind: “Just this, right now, is enough.”
Several of us were gathered in my office last Sunday afternoon and I mentioned that Palm Sunday and Holy Week were coming up, and this month’s theme, which is “truth.” Neal Ferreira spoke up and said, “Didn’t Pontius Pilate have something to say about truth?” And then he opened up a bible and found it, there in the gospel according to John!
None of the four gospels are accurate history; they are different versions of the Jesus story, with differing sources, all written down decades after Jesus died. John is the latest, and the most mystical. In the reading we heard this morning, Pilate and Jesus are talking, and Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus is speaking mystically, but Pilate takes him literally and asks, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And then Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (see John 18:36-38)
When I was a kid, there was a young assistant minister at our church; he’d immigrated from Cuba, and he seemed kind of radical, at least for North Carolina in those days. He would begin his sermon with this prayer: “God grant us the courage to seek the truth, come when it may, cost what it will.”
If you found yourself in my mom’s kitchen these days, you’d see a full page ad she’s taped up on the side of her refrigerator. From the New York Times, it’s an ad for truth. It’s just a bunch of short sentences, 19 in all. Here are a few of them:
The truth is hard.
The truth is hidden.
The truth must be pursued.
The truth is rarely simple.
The truth isn’t red or blue.
The truth is worth defending.
The truth is more important now than ever.
This year Clare, Linda Sanchez and i have been meeting monthly with our Coming of Age youth. We’re engaging big theological questions with these high schoolers, and it’s wonderful to get to do this with them. Questions about good and evil, prayer and spiritual practices, our faith tradition, God. And it matters, what we think, and how we see and understand things.
What about you? Do you think people are generally good at heart, or not? And what is the nature of God? Angry and judgmental, or, as one of our hymns puts it, “caring and forgiving, till we’re reconciled”? When you hear the word God, what images come to mind? It matters, because how we imagine things shapes how we live in the world. Doing theology is simply engaging these questions and images with our own hearts and minds, and with others. One of my teachers, Carter Heyward, said, “The only theology worth doing is that which inspires and transforms lives, that which empowers us to participate in creating, liberating, and blessing the world.”
In this season of Lent I have been making a practice of listening—trying to listen more carefully to those around me; and trying to listen more deeply to myself, to hear that inner voice it can be so easy to miss. Some months ago Julia Bethmann shared with me a podcast by the writer, speaker and former pastor Rob Bell, called “You Listening to You,” that’s been really helpful. I commend it to you (and here’s the link.)
You know what happens if you listen? You learn things! You even learn things about yourself! And this may be uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s good, and necessary, if you want to grow. Lately this listening has made me aware that my life has been shaped too much by fear. Fear of making mistakes, of letting people down. Fear of failure. I think of a person I admired in the Portsmouth UU church. She was in her eighties when she started saying, “I want to be less of a worrier, and more of a warrior.”
A few weeks ago, at a committee meeting here, Bo Crowell shared a reading that said great spiritual leaders come to set us free, but people tend to build institutions, which too often become about rules and customs, and end up being more restrictive than liberating. One particular line in the reading struck me: “You don’t need the church or the priesthood to have a spiritual life.” And I felt compelled to respond: “As someone who has chosen to work in and spend my life in the institutional church, I know that what you say is true. And sometimes I despair for the future of the church.”
There was a moment of silence. I was mostly speaking to the fact that these are not the best days for organized religion, that spiritual innovation these days is often happening outside the church, and I do wonder about our future. Then one of you spoke up. And quietly said, “I need you to hear, that right now, I need the church.”
Sermon given by Rev. Art McDonald, March 10, 2019.
Last Sunday I talked about paying attention, about the importance of being awake to this present moment. I truly believe that if you want to have a better and more fulfilling life, if you want a more robust spiritual life, the way to do this to practice paying attention. This doesn’t necessarily make it an easier life; sometimes it would easier to check out, to look the other way, because life necessarily includes pain and suffering. But the invitation is to be awake to it all, as best you can.
We just heard Mary Oliver’s confession, where she says
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often
(from the poem “When I Am Among the Trees”).
In early January I was hurrying around, trying to get things done before I left on a month of sabbatical. It was a busy time, and I had a list, and I may have seemed a bit stressed, maybe a little over-caffeinated. In those days I wasn’t exactly living as I hope to—walking slowly and bowing often.