The Rev. Ellen Rowse Spero
Spring is here! Allegedly, anyway. It feels as if it is having a hard time getting traction. We get glimpses, and then the colder weather returns. Hopefully, we are done with the snow.
Our worship theme for April is Possibility—very apropos for a season whose sacred stories revolve around new life, rebirth, liberation and resurrection. Possibility is part of all these things, as each begins in what Quaker folksinger Carrie Newcomer describes as “the almost but not yet.” Possibility invites us, like new life, rebirth, liberation, and resurrection, to be open to the truth that we do not know it all yet, and that the end of the story has not yet been written. Possibility invites us to be open to imagination, to discernment, to faithful risk taking. Possibility also reminds us that we are not in control of the universe. The world around us changes both rapidly and very slowly. There are things that we can’t keep up with and other things that we wish we could move swiftly through, but find we cannot. There are things we wish we could hang onto that leave too soon, and others that hang on despite our hard work to release them. This being human is a messy business. It is also a remarkable and beautiful one. It is what we have been given, along with this creation, and one another.
Hope is also an essential part of this season of Possibility, of new life, of rebirth, of liberation, of resurrection. Carrie Newcomer reminded me that hope is not a feeling, but a practice of faith. She offered a definition of hope by Parker Palmer--another Quaker teacher--as seeing what is and seeing what could, what might be and working to narrow the gap between them. Parker Palmer himself draws upon the words of a Unitarian Universalist, the Reverend Victoria Safford, for another definition of hope: Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right,” but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
May we choose wisely the gate through which we enter into possibility.
The Rev. Ellen Rowse Spero
I am noticing small signs of spring: longer days; bird song; the hint of buds on the trees. And in our congregational life, the start of the annual stewardship drive. It’s time to talk about pledging and budgets and money—topics that some might meet with joy but most of us would just like to get through so we can return to the more appropriately “spiritual” aspects of our congregational life. No one, it seems, joins a religious community in order to talk about money.
The stewardship drive is interesting in that it is a very concrete embodiment of our free faith. We choose how we will run our congregation. We elect our lay leadership and call our ministers. We choose which programs we want to run and the staffing we need. The flipside of this, of course, is that we are also responsible for making it possible—for providing the time, talent and treasure to make the congregation run.
In January, I gave a sermon about the work of balancing economic accessibility—making sure that everyone from every class and economic background feels welcome and valued with financial sustainability—meeting the obligations we have as a congregation with a staff and a building. As individuals, we come from different economic backgrounds and we have a diversity of social class. This diversity exists both in our abilities to give and receive financial support AND in our assumptions, experiences and beliefs about money. At the same time, we, as a whole community, are responsible for the stewardship of this congregation. We are responsible as employers for compensating our staff fairly. We are responsible as property owners for maintaining our building, and ensuring that is safe, clean, and hospitable. We are responsible for putting into practice the embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist faith through worship, spiritual and religious programs for all ages, and social outreach and justice in our larger world. And while we can and do give lots time and talent in service of these responsibilities, treasure is required as well, particularly with regard to our commitment to be a just and fair employer. We can’t NOT talk about the money we need for the stewardship of community because in our larger culture, money is a primary currency through which we commit to what we value. Donating to First Parish is more than an act of charity. It is an act of mutual promise and care—not just between us gathered here, but in relationship with the generations before and after us; and with the other Unitarian Universalists congregations across the country and around the world.
We are living in anxious times. Many of us feel stretched to capacity—emotionally, financially, spiritually, energetically. Our circumstances can and do change quickly because personal events outside our control—the loss of a job; the loss of a loved one; an illness, an accident, or other unexpected crisis. But our capacity to survive, to endure, to experience a quality of life in the face of these things is nurtured and sustained in beloved community. The more we are able to practice authenticity, generosity and wholeheartedness with one another, the more resilient we become individually and the more transformative we become as a community. We learned this in the course of the building project. When we dove below the surface to explore the values, assumptions and beliefs about accessibility and our building, we realized that we had to make some transformative changes in order to make our building reflective of our faith. And transform it we did. But it required us coming together. No one donation on its own was enough. Every gift of every financial size mattered in reaching our goal. And the gifts of time and talent were just as necessary to make this transformation happen.
If we want to be good stewards of this community and this faith, then we may need to engage in more faithful risk taking. Maybe, we can try diving beneath the surface of fundraisers and canvass drives; past the patterns of giving, and the structures of budget planning and congregational meetings all the way down to the beliefs, assumptions, and values that bring us here, in search of beloved community. Perhaps this will help us learn how to practice economic accessibility—making everyone of every class and economic background feel welcome and valued while also committing as a community to the financial sustainability of our congregational life. Perhaps we will learn that these are not competing commitments, but in fact are transformative practices that will deepen our resilience and our capacity for beloved community and transform our hope for compassion, justice and equity into reality within and beyond our walls.
I am grateful for the generosity and commitment of the members and friends of this First Parish community. Thank you for living into this practical but important aspect of our religious tradition.