Reflections 4/24/11


    Three Things:  
  1. Turn in your pledge coupon
  2. Call your town rep and ask them to support the warrant articles regarding the CPC grant application for the steeple repairs
  3. Sign up to work at the May Breakfast

On a more spiritual note, here is the reflection I shared for the Easter Sunday service.

Easter is not a one-day holiday. It is week long remembering of Jesus' last days. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he is greeted as a hero and King by the ordinary Jewish people. The fear of the Roman rulers and the cooperating Jewish priests of Jesus' potential to foment revolution, and their decision to arrest Jesus and condemn him to death. Tenebrae remembers Jesus' last words through the darkness of his last hours, as he suffers death by crucifixion in the desert sun. Then comes Easter, the third day after Jesus died: From the Gospel of Luke 24:

1On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 'The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " 8 Then they remembered his words.

9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

So here's the moment of mystery, of awe, and of eventual joy when the women and men who love Jesus discover that their world has not come to an end, that somehow, in some way, Jesus' love for them, for God, and for the world had transcended his death.

In my experience, religious stories don't offer us literal, factual accounts. Rather, they describe powerful, transcending, and transforming experiences for which teach us eternal, human truths beyond words, beyond time, beyond space. Something happened that was beyond the experience and the words of Peter, the women, and the disciples.

When I listen to this story as I celebrate an Easter morning, I learn about what it means to be part of a community of resurrection. We all encounter times when we feel like the world that we know and trust has come to an end. We may lose a spouse, a parent, or a child. We might become ill or suffer a terrible accident. We might lose our job or watch a relationship we cherish come to an end. All of these moments feel like the end of the world. One of our responsibilities as a church is to be there, to walk with each other during these terrible times, to help one another reach the other side and see that indeed life is still possible. It will be different. It will require different things of us and we will need to develop new relationships, new skills, and new understandings to live there. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we offer a sanctuary for resurrection for ourselves and each other.

We also bear witness to communities of resurrection in our larger world. They are everywhere. Something happens––an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane and flood, or worse, an apartheid, a war, a genocide. Everything that everyone has ever known is wiped away. Whole families, whole neighborhoods, whole communities and towns. Looking at the debris, the mess, and the loss, no one can imagine how it will ever be the same again. We have witnessed this in South Africa, Rwanda, Japan, and Haiti to name a few.

And yet from these resurrection does happen. Communities rebuild and people return. It is not the same. There has been too much death and destruction for it ever to be the same. Because resurrection is not about going back to what was. It is finding and affirming life in the face of death and despair. And what I have learned is that resurrection is grounded in a love for mercy, a commitment to justice, and a trust in the transforming power of love. I have also learned that resurrection is not a moment, but requires a long, steady commitment.

My greatest personal experience of the resurrection community is New Orleans. Perhaps that is why I find my time there so spiritually renewing and challenging. The rebuilding efforts are truly grounded a love of mercy and a longing for justice. Neighborhoods have organized to oppose city government attempts to take their land for its own purposes. Volunteers continue to come from all over the country to rebuild neighborhoods and communities literally one home at a time. Almost six years later, displaced citizens are still working to find ways to come home, battling bureaucracy and red tape working together to rebuild missing services like schools, public health and community centers that the government has not restarted, in hopes of keeping people away. Resurrection is not just rebuilding or reestablishing one's life or the life of one's community. Resurrection rises out of the love of mercy and the longing for justice which require us not to despair when our world seems to end but to come together in a way of right relationship, to create something new from the ashes. We are witnesses and participants both in transforming a community through the power of love.

My colleague, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein speaks of resurrection not as belief but as work––specifically our work. Jesus to us is not a God to be worshiped but a spiritual guide and teacher whose love is so great, whose impassioned work for justice is so profound that they transcend time and death and the space between the stars. Here is what Victoria wrote: "The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year. Roll up your sleeves. He is not coming back, you know. He is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him, we who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he did on, his behalf--We who rage for righteousness in his insistent voice, we who forgive the sinner, even knowing that "the sinner" is no farther off than our own heartbeat.

He will not come back to join us at the table, to share God's extravagant banquet, God's love feast, all are invited, come as you are. And so it is you and I who must feast for him, must say the grace and break the bread and pass it to the left and dish up the broiled fish (or pour the wine) and pass it to the right. And treat each other so tenderly as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort to make it back from heaven, from hell but certainly from death to be by our side. Because of if by some miracle (and why not a miracle?), He did comeback, wouldn't he want to see us like this? Wouldn't it be a miracle to live for just one day so that, if he did, by some amazing feat come riding into town he could take a look around and say "This is what I meant!" And we could say it took us a long time... But we finally figured it out. Then, let us live to make it so. You are the resurrection and the life."

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

Reflections 4/10/11

I am currently in New Orleans until April 16th with a group from First Parish Chelmsford and First Parish Groton, to continue the rebuilding work in the poorer wards of the city. The Reverend Elea Kemler of First Parish Groton is on call for me during this time for pastoral emergencies. She can be reached at 978 448-6307. I thank you all in advance for your generosity to First Parish, as we begin to collect our pledges for fiscal year 2011-12. Below is the sermon I had written for Canvass Sunday.

I see a theme emerging this year: why does First  Parish matter? Conversations around this theme are happening within and beyond our sanctuary walls. What began as a question about adding a second worship service has evolved into an examination of why First Parish matters to each of us. One thing that came out loud and clear in the surveys and the cottage meetings led by the WOW team was congregants’ concern about losing something precious about First Parish if we were to have two morning services. So the next question naturally, is what is the precious thing that matters and what are our responsibilities regarding its care? Of course, we may all have different answers but the bottom line is that First Parish matters. So the WOW team will be collecting stories about why First Parish matters: what brought you here and what keeps you here. I imagine that the stories of what brings us here will be as varied and complex as each and all of us. Sharing our stories of why First Parish matters is a crucial part of living out our covenant, understanding why we are here, and understanding our responsibilities and obligations to one another, to First Parish as a whole, and to Unitarian Universalism as well.

Of course the other place I see this conversation of why does First Parish matter is with regard to our building, most specifically our steeple. There is a very lively if sometimes misinformed and sometimes even hurtful debate going on in the town about why this building matters to the town. Our building is not only part of our history but part of the town's history. While we carry the financial and physical burden and responsibility for caring for this building, we are aware that it has a complex inheritance. Its history began with the town's because the town could not be without the church. In 1655, it served as the Town hall until disestablishment in 1879. And even today there is a perception that our building and our grounds are to be shared with the larger community. All kinds of community groups hold their meetings here and our parking lot serves for town events on the common as much as it serves us. We live in a time when people are afraid and angry, especially with regard to politics and money. Whether or not we will get a Community Preservation grant for our steeple repairs I do not know. We can only do our best to answer questions, to remain centered as misinformation or quick judgments are made about us, and educate and advocate as best we can. I have been impressed with how well Bonnie Rankin, Johan MacKenzie, Paul Windt, Chris Sweetnam, Tom Coffey, and many others here have patiently listened and patiently spoken about why First Parish matters to the town of Chelmsford.

First Parish matters beyond these walls for more than town politics. It also matters as a religious community, a voice for liberal faith. Here we are at First Parish, the voice of Unitarian Universalism in this town and beyond. Why does our voice matter? What would be lost if our Unitarian Universalist presence disappeared?

We are living in a time of a theology of scarcity, of fear and anger. Where do people go to hear honest messages of hope and courage, of reason and freedom? Where can we bring young people to nurture their spiritual lives in a way that opens them up to the fullness of themselves, the beauty of others, and the wonder of the creation and the vastness of the holy and sacred? Where would couples and families come to be embraced and celebrated for the love and respect and nurture that exists between them rather than being condemned for homosexuality or being transgender or some other difference, naming each and every one of us as made in the divine image, with all the variety and beauty and wonder our humanity can be? Where would people come to be nurtured and supported in living their life towards healing for this world and this life? Where would people go to worship in a way that does not condemn their souls and the souls of others but strives instead to lift up the power of love in right relationship, to transform what is broken in us and broken in our world? Where would people come to hear new voices, new knowledge, the power of music and poetry, as part of worship, with the recognition that holy scripture is not a closed book but a constant revelation that is never sealed? Where would people come to be lifted up in hope and to bear witness to the truth that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it does bend toward justice, and we need to help bend it.

Every Sunday I get up at the offertory and say something along the lines of: “as a free church, we are dependent upon the sharing of time talent and treasure, confident that when we bring together what we have, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words when we pool our resources of time and talent and treasure, we are able to do more together than any of us could do on our own. As congregations go, ours is one of the most economically diverse that I have ever witnessed. And that is why I always frame participation and giving as being time talent and treasure. I recognize that in different times of our lives or in different circumstances we may have more of one than the other. And all three are needed. There are times we focus on asking people for their time and their talents: for volunteering in religious education or for singing or playing in the choirs or working on the grounds or working in the kitchen or making May baskets or serving on committees or in leadership positions or donating to the Auction. There are a myriad of ways that we ask each other to share each other's time and talent as we go through the year. But then comes the hardest one to talk about because after all we are New Englanders and we don't talk about politics, we don't talk about religion and we certainly don't talk about money. That said, we do need to financially support our congregation for as Bob Thayer pointed out, part of the free church tradition is to answer first and foremost to one another and the congregation as a whole. We need to pay our staff and as a religious community, we are committed to paying them fairly (she says a little uncomfortably). For better or for worse, we are the trustees of this historic building and we must do our best to keep it up, keep it safe, and keep it accessible. Volunteers need the materials to carry out the work that they are doing: sheet music, art and RE supplies, paper, copier supplies maintenance, mailing envelopes, etc.

So in the coming weeks as you are asked to pledge, to make a promise of financial support to First Parish I ask you to consider the question why does First Parish matter, in all the ways that I have discussed? I frame it this way because it is very easy to think of it in terms of what is it worth to me, what am I getting out of it. But it is more than a zero sum game. The question really is what can I promise in terms of financial support not just for myself but for my fellow congregants with whom I walk in faith, for the congregation as a whole? It should not be financially painful to be part of First Parish and it should not be beyond anyone's means to be a full participant in the life of this congregation. We do not have a set amount of money that we require that people pledge and we do not preach that your soul is in jeopardy if you give less than a certain percentage of your income. We trust you to be able to determine what you can afford to give and we ask you to give generously in the range of what you can afford. A pledge is a promise and we understand too that circumstances change over the year. People are still losing jobs, an illness or crisis can strike, or some other unforeseen event may happen. It is never wrong to come to me or to our treasurer Dave Kaffine during the fiscal year to say I'm sorry but things have changed and I can't meet my pledge. But in the meantime, we ask you to pledge in this spirit of a theology of abundance, a responsible abundance but a theology of abundance nonetheless. We ask you to pledge in a spirit of love rather than a spirit of fear, the spirit of hope and courage for what this place means and what we can become. Thank you.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824