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Fields of Promise

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Back in August when I dreamed up my preaching schedule for the year, I imagined that by the end of January I would need to do a sermon about how the contractors are finished with their renovation work and even though we still cannot meet in person, we can start filling the building with a vision of who we will become in this next chapter of our congregation’s life. I imagined I would say “We are done building, now we must fill the rooms.” That’s how I imagined it.

Our Soul Matters theme for the month of January has been “imagination.” Even though the contractors are not yet finished – such a project always take longer than expected – I invite you to imagine with me about this stretch of time between when we are finished with the renovation work but the pandemic is still keeping us from large in-person gatherings. It has been a long journey up to this point, and now that we are nearly finished with this new building, what are we to do with it? Who are we to be in it?

I want to be intentional about who we are now that we have this new building. That old cliché that ‘the clothes make the man” is commentary about how we are judged by our appearances. And Jesus did scold the Pharisees saying they would clean the outside of their cup (Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11:39-40) while the inside was corrupt with greed and indulgence. Do we need to be wary of such problems? I think not.

We have this shiny new building, a cup that is clean on the outside, fancy new clothes if you will. It is important to notice that we have not neglected the insides. The point all along has been for the renovations to help make our building a better reflection of our community.

We have been living out values and our mission through this in-between time. The “spiritual home” we talk about in our mission statement has continued while we have been displaced from our building. Our mission talks about honoring our interconnectedness, encouraging growth, and working for justice and compassion. I have witnessed, as surely you have as well, that we have remained committed to these guiding values. The building can be perceived as a reflection of our community because each step along the process was grounded in our community’s values.

Here’s an interesting counterpoint to ponder. Perhaps the shiny new building is more than a reflection of our community. Perhaps it is not only a mirror of who we are and have been, but also of who might may yet become. There is an excitement in this project. We’re done a grand thing with this renovation project. And, we have put a bit more into this project than everything we’ve ever been. There are some dreams and bold hopes build in as well. Some vision of something yet to be. It will be exciting to be in the building when it is done, to inhabit the new spaces, fill them with our activities and our love.

The point is, we have not merely polished up the outside of our cup. We have made the whole cup a better reflection of who we are as a community. The counterpoint is, we have added into the plans some hopes and dreams of who we may yet become.

For the past month, I have done something a little unconventional – at least by my own standards. I have used the same benediction for five Sundays in a row. “Gee, Douglas – how bold!” I know it is a small thing, a subtle change that might not have been noticed. That’s why I point it out now. It connects to my title “Fields of Promise.”

It has surprised me how well this benediction has fit for the various topics of White Supremacy, Healing in the Pandemic, Young Adults worship, and interplay of Truth and Imagination.

V. Emil Gudmundson was an Icelandic Unitarian minister from the mid-1900’s He wrote:

And now, may we have faith in life to do wise planting that the generations to come may reap even more abundantly than we. May we be bold in bringing to fruition the golden dreams of human kinship and justice. This we ask that the fields of promise become the fields of reality.

This field we’ve been working for decades, this community we have been tending, has just received a dramatic overhaul. For years we’ve discussed maybe making some changes to the building. These fields, so rich with promise, are transforming into reality.

A few months back I declared we need not wait until the building is done to become the people of a new building. We can be those people now. As I have reminded us again and again – we have found creative ways to stay in touch and keep connected through this pandemic and renovation. We have found ways to still serve the community while we are scattered across the wide lands. Throughout this in-between time, we have not just been waiting and watching. We’ve been living our mission still.

Back in the fall of 2017, when we were still near the beginning of this bold building project, I preached a sermon entitled “Building an Audacious and Dangerous Faith” (October 29, 2017). In that sermon I asked us to think about the magic of our congregation, the essential burning ember at our core. I asked us to recognize the good stuff going on in our congregation and the consider – “What will we be doing better in 5 years?”

And I said: As we think about changes to our physical space, renovation and additions, consider it through the lens of our mission and our vision. Consider what we might do for our building as a way to better live our faith.

That was three and a half years ago. I asked you to consider a five-year stretch. Use your imagination with me for a moment. Imagine we are sitting together a year and half from now – so as to hit that five-year-mark I mentioned earlier. It was the fall of 2017 when I asked “What will we be doing better in 5 years?”

If we set a date in the near future, say the fall of 2022, to look back over 5 years of work – the first third of that time (2018 and ’19) will have been planning and fund raising and dreaming and looking at floor plans. The middle third of that time (2020 and ‘21) will have been spent scattered away from the building during renovations. The last third of that time (this spring until the fall of 2022) will have been spent filling the building back up with our presence and our energy and our joy.

Some of our elders have been lingering at the sidelines, not interested in the online technology of zoom. Some of our young families have been overwhelmed by online technology and are also less present at the moment. Will people return all at once when we have a safe building in which to meet? Will they trickle back slowly and steadily as vaccinations become prevalent? Will the new faces and the returning faces be surprised to see each other?

In the fall of 2022, maybe we’ll be able to look back fondly at our 2021 Ingathering Water Ceremony in person in September. Maybe we’ll have hosted a grand Witches and Wizards Masquerade at the end of October of this calendar year. Maybe we’ll have held a big Thanksgiving Dinner for ourselves and guests served from our newly renovated kitchen. Imagine what it will be like.

What new classes and activities will we be offering. Will the Young Adults have hosted a regional gathering in building? Will we have seen the resurgence of the woman’s Crone Con? Will our focus on anti-racism classes and discussion lead to a bold new justice-making program of some sort in partnership with the local community?

Will we host community forums in our new space? Will we host community dinners? How will we be serving the broader community, serving needs greater than just our own now that we have this fine building to work from?

I am convinced, perhaps unrealistically so, but convinced nonetheless, that we will develop a multifaceted ministry related to nutrition and hunger. I imagine we might have a community gardens program or a soup kitchen or pantry that we sponsor. I imagine we could end up being a regular supporter of the new Greater Good Grocery in what had been the North Side food desert. I imagine we might partner with other congregations feeding the hungry. Or maybe none of those things will occur, because something better than I’ve even dreamed of will capture our excitement and passion.

I think these imaginings of our near future are realistic dreams because of what I have witnessed of how we’ve managed to live our mission and vision right now.

Our Reverse Advent Food Drive from last month was a great success. Over 30 people in our congregation participated in an obvious, countable way. It may be many others also participated in a quiet way. Canned food was delivered earlier this month to four different recipients including the Tioga Rural Ministry and the Binghamton Food Rescue. Financial donations were also made by many of us to over half a dozen different hunger support agencies.

Next week is the Super Bowl. A common activity is to donate soup to make it a Souper-bowl celebration as well. Consider donating some cans of soup next week to CHOW or another food distribution site near you.

But here is the best part of it all. Our mission and vision as a congregation is not locked into one specific way of growth and service. It can take nearly any form.

At the Time for All Ages, I painted rocks and talked about hiding them at parks later in the spring. It is a way of spreading beauty and encouragement. I was inspired by a song Lois sent to me.

Mat and Savanna Shaw are a father/daughter singing duo that became a YouTube sensation during the pandemic this past year. They produced a number of videos singing together and encouraging others to share their own gifts and talents as well. A few months ago, they organized a food drive to help the overburdened food bank in their area. Back in the warmer weather, they sang at a Socially Distanced concert in the courtyard of a nursing home. They launched their own twitter hashtag, #ShareHopeSpreadJoy, in an effort to encourage people to share kindness and support to others in their communities during the pandemic.

The point is this, they had a gift to offer. They leveraged that gift to help other people. You have a gift to offer. Just offer it. It doesn’t have to be leveraged; it doesn’t have to be grand. I may grow into something grand – I don’t know. But it doesn’t need to. The fields of promise are filled with possibility. Some of that grows into the fields of reality.

This isn’t about a result; this isn’t about a goal. We’ve already built the building. What I’m talking about now is less about what we end up doing with the building and more about how we get there. It is about how we arrive at the result, more than any particular result. Who are we as a congregation? Who are the people of this new building? How has compassion and justice shaped our path so far? How will we encourage growth going forward? Where has grace appeared on our journey and where can we encourage it to appear again?

The only way to become a Beloved Community is to behave a little more each day as people living in a Beloved Community.

We have done something grand together with this renovation project. We have brought our building forward to be a better reflection of our community. It is a better reflection of who we are and of who we yet may be. We have each taken part in our shared journey to this point. We have each contributed to the mosaic that is our congregation so far. What is next? What awaits us around the bend?

Friends, we are moving together into a new chapter of our faith community. We have set the stage. The first few pages are drafted. The canvas is prepped. The fields are furrowed and ready. And as it does every morning, an adventure of the spirit awaits us this day.

In a world without end, may it be so.