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.
Many thanks to my colleague, the Rev. Jon Rehmus and to the Worship Committee for leading the morning service this past Sunday. I was with our Coming of Age youth, mentors, and facilitators for a retreat in Vermont. We talked about worship, credo writing, and bonded over "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and good food. I am so impressed with both our young people and the adults who volunteer to mentor them—their thoughtfulness, insight, good humor, and creativity are amazing. I am looking forward to the COA service on May 22nd.
Next Sunday's service kicks off the pledge drive for the 2011-2012 fiscal church year. As I say every Sunday (almost), we are a free church, a self-sustaining religious community. What we are able to do to live out our Unitarian Universalist faith within and beyond our congregation is a direct result of what each of us is able to give of time, talent, and treasure. We require all three to keep our congregation going and thriving. The Canvass Committee, led by Dennis Gray, will provide more information about pledging next Sunday, and the Fiscal Subcommittee of the Standing Committee has already begun to get feedback on a proposed budget. We will be asking members and friends to pledge what financial donation they think they will be able to offer over the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Based on these pledges, the members of the church will then review and vote on a budget at our annual meeting in June.
Pledging is one way we work with one another to live out our First Parish covenant. Obviously, being good stewards of our congregation falls under this category. However, pledging covers the whole of the covenant. It is a part of nurturing and sustaining our beloved community, bearing witness through service, and welcoming all souls. We couldn't do this work if we didn't take care of the building, pay the staff, and fund the committees and materials make them happen. Another piece is "being present to one another in our joys and sorrows." The economy is still struggling, and as a result, so are several of us. Part of being present in one another's joys and sorrows is taking turns in carrying one another in the best ways we can. Some of us can give more than our financial share, just as some of us can give more than our share of time or gifts or energy. Others of us need right now: need this community's presence and sanctuary. We all take turns with this. So the question I ask you to consider when you pledge is not "what is this community worth to me?" but "what is this Unitarian Universalist community worth to me, to those with whom I worship, and to the larger community?" I thank you for your commitment to First Parish and to Unitarian Universalism. I believe our presence and our voice are much needed in our world today.
My deepest gratitude to Bonnie Rankin, Johan MacKenzie, Laura Monteodorisio, Tom Coffey, Chris Sweetnam, Paul Windt, the Standing Committee, and all of you who contributed your time, talent, and sweets for the open house for our steeple. Getting caught in the middle of town politics is always a tricky business. I appreciate the graciousness and goodwill that all of you have displayed with reporters, town officials and officers, and citizens. It is not easy to have such scrutiny and assumptions of poor or bad intentions directed at our church.