The first sermon of fall is always a tough one - I'm out of practice. But I’ve had time to store up ideas. I have too much to say and too little time to say it. I think of a favorite "Marvin" cartoon in which Mom and Dad are sitting next to mischievous little Marvin in church. Frame one: Mommy whispers, "Mommy’s so proud of you, Marvin." Frame two: "You’re being so good and quiet." Scene three, Marvin, smiling benignly, thinks to himself: "I’m saving my energy for the sermon." I couldn’t have said it better.
Allegedly, there is a bumper sticker which reads: "Warning: dates in calendar are closer than they appear." So it is that fall sneaks up on us when we least expect it. For me it is decidedly a mixed blessing. The annoying whine of jet skis is replaced with the insistent whir of the computer; the disturbing drone of motor boats with the deep resonance of the organ; the rhythmic lapping of water on shore with the equally soothing sound of congregational singing. As I move from the lake of wholly tranquillity to the church of holy activity I experience a rush of spiritual adrenaline.
It comes as I sit here and watch you stream into this house of worship; it comes as you share moments in your lives with this congregation. In a single hour I experience a rapid yet reassuring transition from summer's solitude to fall's frenzy. These feelings all coalesce in our "Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea" ritual, a unique moment in our corporate religious life.
There is a well-known Fortune 500 company that advertises significant "moments" in our lives we try to capture on film. This week I picked up photographs of around 200 such moments experienced on a recent trip to The Czech Republic and Austria with a Unitarian Universalist group. The "Kodak Moment" is a clever public relations strategy, but it also suggests deeper meanings. There are "moments of inherent excellence" when the "something mores" of our lives come into perspective. Sunday worship - especially Homecoming Sunday worship - is one of them.
Some of these moments are ecstatic - they send the spirit soaring to the mountain peaks of human experience. Some of them are painful and send us to the deeps of the valleys. And some of them are rather ordinary - plateaus - but somehow that ordinariness seems to be the very stuff of human meaning.
My wife Joyce and I were dining with another couple on the outdoor wooden deck of a restaurant on Seneca Lake. It was time to pay the bill. As our waitress turned to head for the cash register with that neat black folder containing the bill and my credit card, the latter came loose. In slow motion I saw it twist end-over-end through space toward the floor boards which had about a quarter inch space between them. My credit card found the open space perfectly and disappeared before I could move a muscle.
The waitress confidently said a waiter would crawl beneath the deck and retrieve it. I was grateful, because getting a replacement card just a few days before leaving for Europe was not a pleasing thought. But, alas, the crawl space was too small. I thought about going for my chain saw, but Joyce talked me out of that. We could see the card with a flashlight, less than a foot below. By this time we had quite an audience of waiters, waitresses and fellow diners.
I was furious with Fate for disrupting a very pleasant evening. Not to worry. Problems exist so we can find solutions. Another waitress came along with a roll of duct tape. Carefully she unwrapped a strip and slowly lowered it through the gap between the boards. Deftly she steered the sticky side toward the card. Contact. Patiently she raised the duct tape - card attached - through the hole and into my hands - to the cheers of the multitudes. The magic of duct tape.
I am planning a letter to the company with this story and my suggestion for an advertising slogan: "Duct tape fixes everything but a broken heart," which led to a still a loftier slogan: "The church is the duct tape of the spirit - we specialize in hearts." So emerge great spiritual insights from trivial events. It was a Unitarian Universalist "moment."
Lest you think my "moments" were all so mundane, there were others of somewhat greater weight. Less than two weeks ago I was in The Czech Republic, a proud nation recovering from decades of war and oppression.
We were walking along a street in Prague for a meeting with a group of Czech Unitarians who had been locked out of their church by a group of usurpers. Those we sought were the descendants of Dr. Norbert Capek, founder of the Prague congregation, and originator of the Flower Communion we celebrate each June. I spotted what appeared to be a chalice atop a church tower and surmised we must have found the place of meeting. It was a Hussite Church from the tradition of Jon Hus, a great Protestant reformer burned at the stake in 1415 for his heresy. The Bethlehem Chapel in Prague honors Hus with a plaque: "When the Almighty God wanted to show his truth he heartened a devoted man called John Hus and him he placed in a golden candle to burn to all who want to live in compliance with God's faith." Hus’ ministry and martyrdom led his followers to wear a flaming chalice on their clothing, combining the communion cup which was to be sipped by all - not just the priest - with the fiery martyrdom of their leader.
We opened with worship, including a Czech translation of one of my meditations. We dined with Norbert Capek's granddaughter and others who seek to keep his spirit alive. We sang one of Dr. Capek's hymns, 'Mother Spirit, Father Spirit," simultaneously in Czech and English. It was a distinctly Unitarian Universalist "moment" not easily forgotten - transcending the barriers of country, culture and language. We ate and laughed and talked together. And I have brought back water from Prague - that beautiful city with those amazing people.
What we do here Sunday after Sunday - especially this Homecoming Sunday - is share such moments of our lives - happy and sad, good and bad - in a company of people who care about us. I've tried to find a figure of speech that captures what it is we do and are and become when we have this weekly Unitarian Universalist moment.
What we do can be seen as spinning our wheels - a useless activity. On the Sabbath says one scholar, "what is crucial is simultaneously to do nothing useful and to make it known to the world that one is doing nothing useful." Clearly, our gathering has nothing to do with efficiency - now the dominant value in our society. We're not here to see how quickly we can go through the motions and leave.
We're not here to produce anything to sell. We're not here to build anything tangible. But that does not really capture the meaning of this moment.
As this is football season and I'm a rather fanatic fan, I think of worship as a kind of huddle in which we plan strategy for the next play in the life drama. There is a hint of truth in that, but the analogy ultimately fails because a huddle is a dictatorship of the quarterback, not a democratic discussion. And besides, as one theologian pointed out, "many a congregation looks and acts like a football huddle: you know that a very important conversation is going on, but all you ever see are the behinds."
In a sense the space in which we meet is a "room with a view." Here we get what I call a "God's-eye-view" of ourselves - examining our lives from a perspective transcending the everyday - whether we believe in God or not. It is an exercise in imagination. Here we consider the "something mores" of our existence - life is something more than the routines of getting and spending. This is a time for "snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting."
This is a time to "overcome the tyranny of the urgent" which is the "enemy of the important." This image helps, but it is not all we do here.
Another image that comes to mind is that of the guitar. Here we bring our single note to combine it with the notes of others. This space becomes the belly of the guitar acting as a resonating chamber, allowing the ordinary moments of our lives to have increased sonority and intensity. Our worship is more than the sum of its parts. We create here something that can only be called divine - something beyond the ordinary. That, too, is part of this moment.
There is a Zen poem suggesting still another image for our corporate worship. It is about Zazen - sitting in meditation - but it applies to our sitting here as well: "When sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble." I know there are those among us who have wobbled into this house of worship - not only because of physical infirmity or the inevitabilities of aging, but also because life has been too much with us and we need the steadying presence of a worshipping and caring community. "Above all, don't wobble."
Still another image is from art. In the Jewish tradition the Sabbath has been called a "foretaste of eternity," the time when we stop doing what it is we do in the world. People come together to sing, to dance, to celebrate, and to reflect on what has gone before.
In the words of Arthur Waskow, "We need to be able to say, ‘HEY! We have done extraordinary things, now let’s pause.’....Artists have said to me, ‘There’s a moment in painting when you’re laying brush stroke after brush stroke after brush stroke and each one’s beautiful and each one enhances the painting. Then comes the moment when you put one more brush stroke on and it would seem that that brush stroke was just as beautiful as any one before it, but suddenly you have ruined the painting.’ You’ve got to know when to stop, when to catch your breath and say ‘Whoosh! This one’s over! I’ll put up another canvas. But in the meantime, I have to pause long enough to digest what I’ve done. Otherwise, I destroy it.’....We need to "go in a different direction, we are still putting on brush strokes which, in fact, are making (things) uglier and uglier."
Our Sabbath worship is a pause in which we stand back and behold what it is we have created and hope that it is good.
Poet Lynn Ungar provides a natural image for us when she writes about the lilies of the field, which toil not, neither do they spin.
"And you - what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down -
papers, plans, appointments, everything -
leaving only a note: "Gone to the fields to be lovely.
Be back when I’m through with blooming....
Of course your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these."
This sanctuary is a kind of greenhouse; we are the gardeners of the spirit; our goal is to bloom as human beings and to help others do likewise.
I hope one of these images comes close to how each of us understands a Unitarian Universalist moment. And despite our doubt that we have time for this Sabbath moment together - there is probably nothing more important that we do. In our Unitarian Universalist moment, then - we feel most deeply human and alive.
Perhaps one purpose in our existence is to be open to such "moments of inherent excellence," to enjoy this moment and try to have many more like it. A Unitarian Universalist moment cannot be captured on film - only in the deep and invisible places of the heart. Relish it! Enjoy it! Be glad! Savor the moment! Though it can neither be lost nor destroyed, it cannot, will not come again!