The Grace of Place

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, May 5, 2019

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. 

I love the hymn we just sang, and there’s a line in the middle that always gets me, because it makes me think of you, and the power of community, and what we have here in this place:

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.

For me church is all about connection—being one another’s companions on this journey, sharing our joys and sorrows, giving and receiving help. And it’s about being connected to that which is always more. It’s about the horizontal connections we make and share, and the vertical too, the heights and depths that we long to touch, that we are learning to abide in. 

The one issue I could take with those lines from “Blue Boat Home” is that word “drifting.” Because drifting connotes a sense of aimlessness, a lack of agency or purpose or intention. I think of a scene from the movie, “The Graduate,” where Dustin Hoffman is drifting on a raft in his parents’ swimming pool, and it’s a symbol for his aimless life. It’s a great scene. But I’m not an advocate for drifting, except as a respite and a repose from the work and struggles of our lives. We are made for effort and work and purpose; we are meant to do what we can, while we can, while we are here.

This morning we heard the ancient story of Jacob, who cheated his brother Easu out of their father’s blessing, and then ran away from home, fearing his brother would kill him. There’s a pattern in those oldest Bible stories, of good coming out of what was expected to be bad, of new life being found in unexpected places. Jacob runs away, and finds that the earth underneath him is holy ground. He lies down in the wilderness, puts his head on a stone for pillow, and has a dream of going up and down steps between heaven and earth. 

And this dream image, of a stairway to heaven, portrays the invitation and the requirement of being human, doesn’t it? That we hold two things, also horizontal and vertical: first, the awareness that we are made of dust and to dust we are going to return. And second, the understanding that’s not the whole story.  As Wordsworth wrote, “Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.” We are meant to have an awareness of of our mortality, our earthiness, and our divinity too, to hold both of these realities. That’s the invitation. As Oscar Wilde wrote,  “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Jacob wakes up from his dream, and has been changed by it. “Surely God is in this place,” he exclaims, “and I didn’t know it!” Have you even experienced this? A moment when you saw things in a new light, when you felt things in a new way? This is the invitation I want to lift up to you today. The simple reminder to look at your life and see it, as Frederick Buechner says, “for the fathomless mystery that it is.” Look around you and see if you can say, “Surely the Holy is in this place! And I didn’t know it!”

Sometimes what’s needed is not to change your location but to change your perspective and your attitude. As we heard in that poem (“Jacob’s Ladder”) from Gary Boelhower:

If you are keeping track of the times you
fold the laundry or take out the garbage
you are not an angel ascending or descending.

When you curse the baby bunny eating lettuce 
from the garden it is time to notice and listen 
how the angels sing of mercy and bread.

I hope and trust that being part of this church is helping your to open your eyes to both the beauty of this world, and to the need for our efforts to help heal and bless it, to give our hands to struggle, to work for justice. I hope and I trust that being here helps you to open your heart a little wider, to lean more deeply into this life you have been given. To live an openhearted life, which of course means you will feel pain and hurt. And you will also find solace and joy. And companions on the way. 

When I came here eleven years ago, I was still kind of new to the ministry. Which I entered because I wanted to lead a holy life; by that I mean a deeper and more engaged life. And I sensed from the start that this was a place where that was possible; that what I had to offer was a pretty good match for what you were seeking. 

But it also became obvious that this congregation needed all kinds of organizational help, from building new structures and systems to better support and leadership of staff. Things that I wasn’t particularly good at, and, to be honest, things I wasn’t that interested in. But this institutional work was what was needed here, and I believe in the institution of the church, so I did the best I could. I worked hard, and made some mistakes, and sought training and support. I learned, we learned, and together, we made progress. To the point that we now have pretty much got our institutional act together! We’ve built this solid foundation here, where not that long ago things were kind of shaky. We have a stronger sense of connection and commitment, of what it means to be in community with each other. This is something to celebrate! And it begs the question, what are we going to do now that we’ve got our act together?

I’m not in favor of drifting. Sailboats have masts and spars and rudders and sails so you can harness the power of the wind and can even travel upwind when that is where you want and need to go. We have built this solid foundation, we have this place of grace and potential, and the question now is, “What are we going to do with it, and where are we going to go?” What is our purpose in this place, at this time? What kind of difference do we want to make while we are here? Before you hoist your sails and set a course, you need to have an idea of where you intend to go.

And that’s where you come in. Because even though I get to stand before you on Sunday and lead worship and preach sermons, this isn’t my church. It’s your church. You saw a beautiful example of that here last Sunday, when a number of you wove together your voices and your vision to offer a moving and beautiful service celebrating our Earth. 

I have an important role, as do other leaders here. But it’s not all up to us. What we are trying to be about here is shared ministry and shared vision. When it comes to the big picture, when it comes to setting a course for the future, we need as many people as possible to be part of that conversation and that discernment. We need your voice and your vision, your experience and your energy.

I certainly have some ideas, but it isn’t up to the minister or the Board chair to say, “This is the direction we are going to go!” No, that determination is too important to give to one or two people. We’re not a corporation and I’m not the CEO. We are a faith community: acting on faith, as a community. 

To that end, our Board has hired a consultant named Liz Coit to help us do this visioning work. To celebrate where we have come, and to start making plans for where we want to go. I hope you’ve already heard about the gathering we’re having here in four weeks, on Saturday, June 1, that’s called “Creating our Future.” It’s a three hour visioning workshop that will be fun and inspiring and will start to set the course for where we want to go. You don’t want to miss it. We need your voice and your vision in order to move forward. So if you are brand new here, you have a perspective and a voice we want and need to hear. And if you have been here for decades, you have a perspective and voice we need to hear. We need everyone, so please plan to come. Please sign up on the sheet in the Murray Room or email Valerie in the church office to say you’re coming. 

Early on in my ministry a colleague shared an article called, “Staying Put: Ten Years in Ministry.” The author (Israel Galindo) describes what you’re likely to experience in a parish, year by year, for the first ten years. Starting the first year with learning peoples’ names and trying to figure out which key fits into which lock. Like trying to figure out where the secret switch is  to that far bank of lights in the Murray Room! Listen to what he writes to ministers in their tenth year:

“If you have lasted up to the tenth year and have invested well in your tenure of ministry, you and your congregation share a mutual relationship of trust, a shared corporate identity, and a common vision of ministry… Now is the time to begin thinking about the life of this congregation two or three generations into the future. Now is the time your ministry begins.”

I am so grateful to be here, with you, at this point in time, in this place of grace and possibility. Grateful for where we have been, and for what lies ahead. What we need now is that common vision of our shared ministry. And so, my spiritual companions, I ask you: who do you want to be? Where do you want to go? What do you want to build together?