Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, June 2, 2019
“The letter fails, the systems fall, and every symbol wanes;
the Spirit overseeing all, Eternal Love, remains.”
(words by John Greenleaf Whitter, from the hymn “Immortal Love”)
What is the church, if not a community that reminds us and helps us to put Love at the center? We are here to hold open a space where people can gather, where you can ome expecting that there is big Love to be found. Where you can come, hoping, “There’s a place for me here,” and not be disappointed. It’s what Starhawk says we are looking for and longing for: “Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.”
Because things do fail and fall apart, and we need some people and some place, to restore our hope, to call us to our better selves, to remind us that Love does abide. And isn’t that why you are here? Isn’t this what we are about? Those of you who were here yesterday at our visioning workshop, that’s one thing I heard you saying again and again, that we’re here to make Love more visible, more real, in our lives and out in the world.
I started here as you pastor back in August of 2008. That first week I was settling in, meeting some of you, learning my way around this big old building. One warm afternoon I was alone here, and I wandered into the kitchen. Standing in front of the fridge, a deeply spiritual longing came over me. I had the thought: “What I’d love right now is an ice cream sandwich.” Who knows where that came from? For the first time ever, I opened that freezer door, and you know what? There was a box of ice cream sandwiches in there, half-full! It was like a prayer answered. “Thank you God!”
I regularly check the fridge and freezer in our church kitchen—you never know what you’re going to find in there! But I don’ t recall any other appearances of ice cream sandwiches until a couple of weeks ago. So it’s not like they are a regular feature here.
Looking back now, I see the unexpected appearance of that simple dessert treat as a symbol for what I’ve experienced here with you: that this is a place where miracles happen! I hope this is your experience too. That in this community we sometimes we get even more than we expect or hope for.
Our worship theme this month is “community,” and at this moment, this is my definition of community: a place where miracles can and do happen. Where people are not afraid to hope, to seek after and ask for what they want and need. Where, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we affirm that Love does abide, now and forever.
What I didn’t know back then was all the miracles I was going to get to witness around here. Now if you are a literal-minded person, you might ask what I mean by a miracle. I don’t mean a suspension of the laws of nature or of physics. No, I mean an unexpected gift or blessing, the realization of a long-awaited dream, the blessed release from suffering or captivity.
These words from the UU minister Lynn Ungar come to mind:
It would take a miracle, you say,
to carve such a solid life
out of the shell of fear.
I say you are the stuff
from which such miracles are made.
Here I’ve had the privilege of blessing babies, little miracles come to life. Of witnessing some of you making the courageous journey of recovery, and others traveling the way of loss and grief. I’ve had the profound privilege of companioning parents whose child was lost and feared dead, and who one day, finally, came home. So don’t tell me there are no miracles anymore; I know there are, because you keep showing them to me.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon wrote. Yes—if we will have eyes to see, and hearts open to behold the life and Love right here, moving in our midst.
Last summer some of us read the memoir Here If You Need Me, by the UU minister Kate Brastrup, chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. She tells stories of faith and redemption and articulates an on-the-ground theology. It’s a testimony to the power of presence. So listen to her story of what happens when a woman with dementia goes missing, and the Warden Service and volunteers try to find her:
“In a small northern Maine community, an elderly woman, an Alzheimer’s patient, had wandered off, and was last seen near some woods. The wardens established a command post, and by the time I got there, it was swarming with men and women in green uniforms… A small army of volunteers was assembling at the firehouse, eager to assist the wardens in their search.
“Some of the volunteers could lay claim to a certain level of applicable expertise. There were emergency service providers of various kinds: local firefighters, off-duty sheriff’s deputies and town cops, and woods-savvy members of the local rod and gun club. The volunteer Maine search and rescue dog teams, those middle-aged hobbyists with their fine, trained dogs, had arrived in force.
“Then there were the less obviously skilled: A half dozen elderly backwoods guys in torn flannel shirts, a gaggle of college students with unfortunate piercings, some overweight Elks, and a Shriner or two. The members of the local equestrian club appeared with their horses. Also present were the owner of a stained-glass studio and her domestic partner; a retired state trooper, and a state senator with his teenage daughter in tow.
“The high school varsity soccer team abandoned its late-summer practice to come out to search, along with a bunch of U.S Marines who had been cooling their heels in Bangor, awaiting deployment to Iraq. And arriving in a van with wire-mesh reinforced windows and under the direct supervision of a guard, was a group of men in neon yellow shirts, inmates from the Downeast Correctional Facility.
“Jim, the son of the missing woman, able-bodied and fiftyish, announced that searching the woods for his mom would be less stressful than just sitting around waiting. So Jim was put on a team as well…
“The search was hard going. The terrain was rough. The weather turned ugly. Rain fell, and still they searched. Everyone wanted to find the woman. Even those who had never met her wanted to find her. Through the very effort of searching for her, they had begun to love her a little. At the very least, they wanted to know what had become of her…
“After many hours, Jim, the son, comes back to the firehouse with a heavy heart. He has scratches on his cheek, twigs in his hair, pine needles down his pants, and his mother is still nowhere to be found. Yet he takes in the scene before him, mops the rain from his face, and smiles.
“‘Look at this this,” he says. ‘Look at this! This is incredible!’
Braestrup continues, “The firehouse is filled with people. The old coots in flannel shirts, the middle-aged dog handlers, and the college students with piercings are sharing American chop suey with the state senator and the teenage daughter. The U.S. Marines are comparing blisters with the soccer players, the sheriff’s deputies are breaking bread with the convicts, game wardens share Jell-O with equestrians, the stained-glass artist offers the retired state trooper an oatmeal cookie.”
“In a little while they will go out and search some more. They will try to find a body, living or dead. For now they are here together, joined in community, bent on the common purpose of love.
“‘Everyone in the world is here,’ the lost woman’s son exclaims. ‘It’s a miracle!’”
Rev. Kate Braestrup believes in miracles because she has witnessed them with her own eyes. I believe in miracles because you have shown them to me. So I ask you, what can happen when we show up for one another, when we open our hearts and reach out our hands? When we name our hopes and our dreams for our shared ministry, like so many of you did here yesterday? Miracles can happen, miracles do happen, right here in our midst.
Kate Braestrup says “sometimes the miracle is a life restored,” but, she reminds us, “the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time,” she writes,” a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”
This is our Universalist faith: the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of illness, of brokenness, of suffering, of death. We don’t always get the miracle we pray for, or hope for; but still, if we put our faith in the resurrection of Love, that will provide miracles enough.
And I don’t know anywhere you can find that but in community. It can happen in a neighborhood when folks come together to help the family of a sick child. In a small town when people gather to search for someone who’s lost. It can happen, and does happen, in a church with good people like you. But it doesn’t happen without people showing up, and having a common purpose, and putting love at the center.
This is why we are here, my friends. To see that we are living in a time and a place of miracle and wonder. This is our story: trusting we are companioned by a great Love, so we’re joyfully helping to heal and bless our world. And this is our song: “Come and go with me to that land of miracle and wonder, come and go with to that land where we’re bound.”