Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, April 8, 2018
Breaking news: sometimes the church, and church people, get it wrong! Like how church folks can focus more on the death and suffering part of the Easter story, than on the resurrection part; because sometimes it’s easier to stay walled up in the tomb. I know this in my own life—I can focus on the negative, can tend toward the melancholic. So this Easter season, I have a simple goal: to be happy more. Like we heard earlier from Wendell Berry, his confession “that I have not been happy enough, considering my good luck.”
Isn’t that the invitation of this season, this time of increasing light and slowly unfolding spring? To let the sun shine on your face, and be open to the blessings of these days, to be shedding the protective husk of winter, and opening yourself to the possibilities of new life?
You hear this call in every faith tradition: to be awake and open to what is present and what is possible, to see what you could miss if you are too busy or self-obsessed. You heard it in Rumi’s words just now about the community of the spirit. “Sit down in this circle,” Rumi says, “Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd's love filling you.” He asks,
“Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down
in always widening rings of being.”
He’s describing the life of the spirit, which is really just being more alive; this life which is available to us, if we will to practice being open and receptive.
Our worship theme for April is “transformation,” and I was in conversation with some of you about this, and a common theme was the different voices we have in our heads, and which ones we listen to. Do you know what I mean? There are those critical voices that say, “You’re never going to be good enough, it’s risky to hope, you’ll probably be disappointed.”
Change comes when you start listening to the life-affirming voices: “I am good enough. I can follow my longings where they lead. I thank you God for most this amazing day” (E.E. Cummings). That place of openness and gratitude, that’s where we’re supposed to live! Where we can sing, “for all that is our life, we sing out thanks and praise,” and mean it!
So how do we do this? In a culture that tells us to go, go, go; that tells us our worth is in what we own and earn; in a time of such fracture and conflict, how do we stay grounded and hopeful, openhearted and happy?
Twenty years ago, I wasn’t living the life that was mine. I didn’t know it then; I just knew something felt wrong, like the pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fit. I was approaching forty and had a good life; a loving spouse and two young children, and still I felt this gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, that there was something else I was meant to be doing. Talking to a friend about this, he thought I was crazy. “Look at what you have,” he said, “why risk it?”
That question was certainly in my head too. And other voices, of hope and fear. I’d started attending a vibrant UU church, and felt the invitation to be open to the Spirit, to ask questions and seek answers, to go where that might lead. And this changed my life. I found the path that was mine, and it led me here to you. For which I am so grateful.
So what about you? Are you on the path that is yours? Or are you searching for it? Or are you feeling stuck or lost? All of these can be part of the journey. I hope this church offers you what I found: encouragement and support to imagine a new way, and then, to get on with it. I hope this is a community of the spirit, a house for hope, where your soul is renewed and challenged. A place where we offer support and encouragement and tools to help you make the changes you want and need to make—a transformation station. That’s what we aim to do here. Transforming lives, and, in the fullness of time, transforming the world.
You know what an electric transformer does, right? It takes high voltage current and steps it down, transforms it to a level we can use to power things in our lives. Likewise, we have these high-voltage experiences in life; joys and sorrows, times of mystery and revelation, times of frustration and despair, times of being lost, and of being found. When you’re celebrating a birth or morning a death, is this something you want to do all on your own? You could, you know. But why would you? Life is meant to be shared, the celebrations and the hardships. And we have these seasons and these rituals, sacred words and songs too, that remind us that people have walked this way before. That we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. And this helps us to hold life’s joys and sorrows; all that is our life.
“Why do you stay in prison,” Rumi asks,”when the door is so wide open?” It was that church community, twenty years ago, that helped me to see that I had made a prison for myself, and that helped me see that I could walk out of it, into a more expansive life.
When I came here ten years ago, someone in the wider community said to me, “Haverhill needs the UU church to be strong and vital.” I took that to mean that our openness, our willingness to stand on the side of love and justice, our commitment to helping people and inviting them in, this is needed, and making a real difference, in this city.
We are also needed to provide a place of spiritual hospitality for those seeking a life-affirming faith, and we can do more of that here. We can provide more nourishment and encouragement and companionship for those seeking it.
It sometimes seems a miracle to me that places like this continue to exist and thrive. It’s not a given, you know. You see plenty of examples of churches with dwindling membership that have to close their doors. We’re not a big congregation, and this year we’ve had a higher than usual amount of repair work on our building. We want to pay our staff fairly; we’re trying to pay our fair share to our Unitarian Universalist Association, for the ways they help and encourage us.
So it sometimes seems a miracle to me that this group of around 150 to 200 people, of differing backgrounds and resources, is able to give enough time and effort and money to keep this transformation station up and running; not just existing or surviving, but humming along, thriving and growing. The way we do this is by your support and participation, by your love and prayers, by all the ways you show up and help out and give. Including, of course, your money.
This is the time of year when we ask you to make your pledge of financial support to the church for the coming year. We’re grateful for what you give in the offering on Sunday, and for what you give in other ways, but it is your annual pledge that makes what we do here possible. This yearly stewardship effort is necessary, and it’s a reminder of our interdependence. We need one another, and we need what each other is able to give. It’s not something a few of us could do all alone. But if each of us will do what we can, if we each do our part, then it works!
If you’re new here, you should know that most folks pledge based on their pay period: giving a certain amount of money per week or month. What people give varies, based on income, of course, and how generous they decide they can be. We don’t do guilt or arm twisting here; but we do need your help. Your generosity makes a difference, the difference, between surviving and thriving.
It may be helpful to know that the average pledge here is between $1400 and $1500 per year; about $25 a week. Of course, some folks can’t give that much, and some people can give more. Please know that we are grateful for whatever you can give, and together, our contributions, our tangible expressions of love and care, they, we, make this church community possible. And it’s not just for ourselves; we hold open a space for those who aren’t here yet, for those who need a community like this one, a house for hope, a place that welcomes diverse theologies and ways of being, a transformation station for the living of these days.
I hope you received a stewardship packet and pledge card in the mail. If not, please pick these up at the Welcome Table at coffee hour, or at the back of the sanctuary. We hope you’ll take time to think about what you can pledge, and then will return your card to the church by next Sunday. I’d welcome the chance to talk with you about this—just let me know.
Please know that we need you. If you think your gift, your presence, your participation doesn’t matter, you’re wrong. People regularly show up here, wondering if this is a place where they might be seen and heard and supported. Might this be a place where my questions, including my doubts, will be taken seriously? Where I can be myself, without shame or fear? Where I feel that I belong, and start to listen to affirming voices for a change? Where I sense that my life is for something, and take the risk of becoming who I was born to be? Where I dare to be happy?
Aren’t we fortunate, to have found each other? To have this community of the spirit, this transformation station, that help us and holds us and sends us out to do the work we have been given to do? There’s a line from one of our hymns that always gets me, because it describes how I feel about you all here in this church. It says
“Drifting here with my ship's companions
All we kindred pilgrim souls
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home.”
My spiritual companions, let us be ever grateful for these blessings, and glad that we are on the way together.