Rev. Ellen's Reflections, April 2018

Thank you for being so gracious and caring in the wake of the sudden loss of Tom Wight. I have said to many of you and to Edith and Rick, Marion, and Dan, Tom was involved in every nook and cranny of our congregational life. We feel his loss deeply. We will honor is life at a memorial service on April 7, at 1 pm at First Parish.

We are in the midst of so many things within and beyond First Parish, as spring (hopefully) arrives, including preparing our building for the upcoming renovation and holding our annual canvass campaign. In order for First Parish to function, we ask all members and friends to make a financial commitment, a pledge, so we can determine our operating budget for our next fiscal year that begins July 30.

In preparing this past Sunday’s sermon on our annual canvass drive, I came across the quote by Matthew Fox from his book, Confessions: “Community is another source of grace. In community we are meant to grace one another; to be sources of grace; healers by way of grace.” And what follows in an excerpt from the sermon:
By definition, grace is a gift—unexpected and unearned. We cannot know when or why grace will come or even that we were in need of it. However, I believe we can create and nurture the conditions in this community so we are attuned and welcoming of grace’s presence; to name it and lift it up; and to embody its possibilities. Grace does not require us to reach a state of spiritual purity or perfection to give or receive it for one another and our world. Rather, I believe our commitment to the ethics and practice of gratitude and hospitality opens us to its persistent possibility and presence.

Two Sundays ago, I talked about membership in the congregation as having two different but overlapping spheres: the corporate, secular definition of membership we need to function as an institution—to handle our financial, legal, employer and property owning responsibilities. Then there is the religious and spiritual sphere—belonging to a community engaged in seeking and making meaning; engaging with the sacred and the holy; gathering for worship, in joy and sorrow, for the seasons and celebrations of the year, of our lives, and of life itself. Gathering in love for the world as it is and in hope for what it could be, healed and whole. Gathering in love for each as we are, and in hope for what we could be, healed and whole. We need both these spheres. Beloved community, spiritual community doesn’t just happen. It requires a commitment from all of us to do the best we can to create the conditions for it to thrive.

While we are very uncomfortable about talking about money, we need to learn to do it. We are an economically diverse congregation. It is difficult to talk about money because it is a measure of success and prestige in our society. However, in this, our spiritual community, we value equality. Talking about money means recognizing that we are not “equal” economically and that can make people feel vulnerable, judged or even ashamed. I understand this but I think we also need to work through it. Our congregation, our “spiritual body” is like a human body: every member is important and needed for the body to live a healthy life. We cannot sustain what supports our religious sphere, our shared spiritual life, the ministries of our congregation: worship, music, religious education and faith formation; mutual care and fellowship, outreach and social justice—if we do not take care of our secular institutional responsibilities: compensating our staff justly and fairly, paying the bills for use and upkeep of the building and grounds; purchasing the equipment and supplies we need to support our programs and ministries. We have to talk about money as part of our spiritual commitment, our spiritual practice, as part of how we walk together in covenant. Because money is a currency that we use in our daily lives, throughout our society, to express what we value, what matters to us. I also want to be clear that if you cannot afford to pledge, this will in no way prevent you from being a welcome and important part of our congregation. Because as a community, we take care of each other, including if we can, to give at a higher level as an act of hospitality and mutual care.

I am not only asking you to pledge. I am asking you to participate in the whole of the stewardship process: reviewing the proposed budget, attending the budget hearings to ask questions and discern priorities and, if you have officially signed the membership book, voting at our annual congregational meeting. I am asking you to learn about what it takes to keep First Parish healthy, alive and growing: the ministries of the staff, the ministries of our elected lay leadership, and the ministries of all the committees and groups in the church. Yes, the canvass and the budget express the corporate and secular needs and responsibilities of the congregation. They also express the concrete witness to how we live into the values and commitments we express in our covenants. They are our faith in action.

Thank you for your generosity and your graciousness.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Rev. Ellen's Reflections, March 2018

Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was one of the most influential theologians and ministers in Unitarianism during the Transcendentalist Movement and leading up to the Civil War. In a sermon entitled Justice and the Conscience, which he published in 1859, he said:

God has made man with the instinctive love of justice in him which gradually gets developed in the world. But in Himself justice is infinite. This justice of God must appear in the world, and in the history of men; and, after ‘all the wrongs that patient merit of the unworthy takes,’ still you see that the ploughshare of justice is drawn through and through the field of the world, uprooting the savage plants... Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.

This is probably the source for the phrase “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” spoken by many social justice activists and religious leaders within Unitarian Universalism and beyond, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

I used this as one of the readings for a sermon two weeks ago, reflecting on the question “What Does It Mean to be a People of Perseverance?”. This was the Sunday after 17 students and teachers were murdered at their high school in Parkland, Florida. As I said that Sunday, while I do trust that this is true, deep in my heart, that the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice, there are times when it is very hard for me to believe it, where, as Parker notes, my eye does not reach far enough to see it and I do not have the lived experience yet to know for sure. And yet, something in me trusts that the divine spirit calling us to life is love, not fear. At least, most of the time. And then there are times like the ones we are in, when I wonder and when I doubt.

Trusting that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends toward justice, I realize both the heartbreak and the hope. The heartbreak comes in realizing that this bending can’t come soon enough. So many people are suffering at the hands of the hate, fear and violence inherent in unjust human relationships and systems. So many will not live to see that bending. Paradoxically, perhaps, herein lies my hope. Reading back on the sermons of Theodore Parker and the works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the African American Unitarian author, speaker, suffragette and abolitionist I preached about this past Sunday, I realize that I live in a time when I see things which they did not experience, and could only imagine might happen. Parker did not live to see the end of slavery. Harper did not live to see women get the vote. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when our schools, religious communities and other gathering places are free from the violence of assault weapons. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when every human being can live authentically into who they are, regardless of the ways in which we separate ourselves into us and them. Perhaps I will not get to see when we realize that true love and care for our children requires us to take care not just of each other’s children, but of our earth. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And for it to happen at all, I need to live, even as imperfectly and short sighted as I do, as if it were true.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824

978-256-5133