The Tale of the Storyteller
Rev. Douglas Taylor
(Using “The Storyteller” by Evan Turk)
Our story begins like this:
“Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the fertile Kingdom of Morocco formed near the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, delicious water to quench the dangerous thirst of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together.
“But as the kingdom grew and life became easier, the people forgot their fear of the desert. Soon they forgot the fountains and the storytellers, too. One by one, the voices of the storytellers were drowned out by noise and silenced by age, and one by one the fountains dried up.
“As the last fountain dried, far away in the Sahara a great wind began to stir.“
That is how the story begins. It sets the stage, if you will. It lets you know we are about to go into a story that is about the struggle between living at the desert’s edge and needing water. But it will also be a story about storytellers.
Here’s what I can tell you, by way of warning. Stories are not only told to entertain us. They also serve to give information. They impart wisdom and – here’s my favorite part – they can tell us about ourselves, about our hopes and fears, about our struggles, and about who we really are. This story will do that, if you let it. You might begin by imagining we are living at the desert’s edge – that we are living near something dangerous, maybe not a desert exactly, but something that could be harmful if we are not careful. And that there is a resource like water that is usually readily at hand, but lately has been in short supply. I’ll leave it to you to ponder what the parallel might be while we listen to the story.
As a second warning, I will tell you this story is a story within a story, which also has a couple stories in it.
A boy listens to a story from an old storyteller by a dried-up fountain. In the storyteller’s tale, a young girl listens to a blind woman’s story. In the blind woman’s story, a young weaver listens to the story of an older weaver who used to be a princess.
And you will see the princess’ story is the foundation of the young weaver’s story, which in turn leads into what is happening in Blind woman’s story – which is what the Old storyteller has been talking about all along. All that said, you may still find this confusing. So, I’ve asked Jan F. and Trebbe J. and Amanda J. to help me out. They will take over the tale in turns as we get into the different layers. And later when we get to part II, Nathan E. will join in the fun
[instead of including the text of the book, I offer this youtube link of someone reading the story]
So, what do you think this story might mean? A good story, of course, will have more than one meaning. Perhaps a better question is, why do you think Douglas chose this story to tell us today?
Certainly, there is the obvious answer that this is a story with many little stories embedded that seem to be about the importance of stories. So, on a Sunday when we are talking about stories, this one seems like a good choice. But there is more to it than that.
Let me offer you this, as a blessing, the preacher smiled across the zoom screen …
In this story with many stories, the desert is a dangerous reality. We have been dealing with this pandemic and its dangerous reality for over a year. We have been struggling and we have suffered. And the important thing to notice after the desert is the role of water. Water, in the story, is the resource everyone wants. Water is what helps everyone survive and keep the danger at bay.
So, what might the water be symbolizing for us today? If the desert symbolizes the pandemic and its dangers, the water would be the resources we have to keep the danger at bay. Perhaps it is not just the pandemic but also the consequences of it such as our loneliness, our fear, our powerlessness, and even our loss. The water, then, is hope and connection. Our water is whatever keeps us engaged with the best parts of our lives.
It has been many long months. Our wells are growing dry. Impending doom has been at the gates of our cities howling about destruction. And yet we still tell our stories. We share our memoires and our simple joys with each other. We are buoyed by hope. Such stories and memories and connections keep the danger a bay. So tell your story. Share your messages of hope. Reveal to others your connectedness. We still struggle, we still suffer. The storm has not passed. But even now, there is more water among us than we thought we’d had. Even now, we have what we need and we will see each other through.
That is our story. That is our water.
And as a small extra bit of spice, I will tell you there is a very little bit remaining to the story that I will share with you now. If you remember,
[The sand storm in the form of a djinn] had retreated farther and farther until he was deep in the dunes of the Sahara …
“And that,” said the [young] storyteller, “is the story of how not long ago, a young boy saved Morocco from the desert.”
“But what happened to the boy?” asked a small girl in the audience.
“Ah, well,” he replied with a wink. “That is a story for another day.”
In a world without end,
May it be so!
The Sacrifice and the Promise
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Spring is upon us. The snow has melted and the temperature has come up. There are Crocuses popping up where once the Snowdrops had dominated the gardens. This past week, people have been out walking, strolling, sauntering even, in the sun. It is a time of light and life and the refulgence to good things.
This has been a hard winter with heavy snow, heavy news, and a heavy burden of illness and plague. Spring arrives with an easing, a lifting of the heaviness. Even now when the weather gives a sudden, momentary turn back toward cold, we know it is not in earnest. In countless cultures over untold eras, celebrations existed to welcome this turning of the year to spring. Not to say everything is suddenly okay, only that there has been a lightening of the load, an easing of the hardship that is an archetypal and almost expected aspect of spring’s return.
As with our Time for All Ages story, we notice how people the world over have created these grand celebrations for the return of spring, with color and fragrance, with symbols of freedom, life, and fertility. In our Unitarian Universalist practice, we often note Passover and Easter and the Spring Equinox. These three holidays help us celebrate the shift from oppression into freedom, from loss back into hope resurging, and from the cold and dark season giving way once more to new life and light and warm days.
They help us recognize the pivot, the shift, from what was into what will be. They remind us that such cycles are echoed in our own lives even when our personal experiences don’t align to the calendar – you may find spring in your life during July some year, or an Easter resurrection in some December. But here we are in this moment of Spring, and the holidays ask that we all take note of what is happening in the world around us, take note and notice that it can and does happen within us as well.
These holidays invite us to honor our experiences of winters, to know and name the experience injustice and oppression that occur to us and those around us, to live through our share of loss and death.
Just recently, my mother died. She passed on March the 20th just ahead of the equinox and the return of spring. And in noticing that I recalled the opening line of a memorial reading by Rev. George C. Whitney, “If I should die, (and die I must)/ Please let it be in springtime/ When I and life up-budding/ Shall be one.”
But that reading was not in the small packet my mother left for me of readings and songs she wanted included in her memorial service. As I consider the messages of Passover, Easter, and Spring, I am struck by a different piece from that packet of memorial readings my mother left me. This piece, by Nancy Wood, is from one of my mother’s favorite poetry books, Many Winters.
Reaching back from here
All that I remember of my life
Are the great round rocks and not
The unimportant stones.
I know that I experienced pain and yet
The scars have healed so that
I am like the tree covering itself
With new growth every year.
I know I walked in sadness and yet
All that I remember now
Is the soothing autumn light.
I know that there was much to make my life unhappy
If I had stopped to notice how
The world sings a broken song.
But I preferred to dwell within
A Universe of fields and streams
Which echoed the wholeness of my song.
I want to talk for a moment about what we experience of our losses and our suffering. As this reading suggests, it is good to focus on our great round rocks, our healing and growth, our time in the soothing light and song. Yes. Looking back, remember the light.
And Spring invites us to notice the return of life while by bidding a grateful farewell to winter. Easter asks us to not rush past Good Friday without honoring the loss first. Passover would have us remember where we have been and the sacrifices we’ve made. As we heard in the reading, Wendell Berry reminds us “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”
As the reading from Many Winters suggests, we will remember the best parts. But to embrace the message of these spring holidays, let us sit for a moment with our loss and our sacrifice. For in so doing we can honor the reality of our hardships. We do not need to stay here, but we do all pass this way. We do not live in our hardships; they do not define us – but we do not ignore them either. The reality of our losses and our sacrifices shows our strength and patience and resilience.
We are entering spring, we come now into a good time – and it is this time we will remember. But more importantly, when next we find ourselves in hardship, we can remember the promise of this season and of these celebrations.
Listen to a little more from Erik Walker Wikstrom. In our reading he said: “…if we are to honor life—not just the wonder of it but the whole of it, not just its triumph but its truth—then we must learn to honor, even embrace, both winter and the tomb.”
He goes on to say:
There is a promise here. And, as Martin Luther noted, the promise is written not just in books but in every springtime leaf. It’s even closer than that. The question is not whether we believe in resurrection but whether we have known it —known it in our own lived experience, seen it in the lives of others, felt it in the world around us.
Persephone returns to the world of light; Osiris is resurrected by the power of the love of his wife Isis; the Phoenix is born anew from its own ashes; Jesus leaves behind the tomb. Snow and ice melts, giving way to new life.
The promise of our Unitarian Universalist faith is the promise of the seasons and these stories—winter is not perpetual, the wheel will keep on turning, the tomb is not the end. We affirm the promise of rebirth, of resurrection; of life’s ultimate victory over death; of hope’s triumph over hopelessness—not just as some abstract concept but as the miraculous reality of our lives. This is what we celebrate today!
(from A Rite of Spring: An Eastertide Celebration in Three Acts By Erik Walker Wikstrom)
I have always felt drawn to the power and the promise found in the celebrations of Easter and Passover and the Spring Equinox. I sometimes grow concerned that we Unitarian Universalists will shy away from the deep massages by getting caught up in what we don’t believe about Jesus or the God of the Hebrew scripture. Our early Unitarian and Universalist history is often an extended theological argument against orthodox interpretations of God and Jesus and how we see ourselves as human beings in the grand universe.
I have wanted to honor Easter and Passover not only because I want us to know the joy and the bright promise, but also because I want us to honor the sacrifices and losses and sorrows through which we have traveled.
I suspect I have, at times over-compensated to defend Easter and Passover and the messages of resilience and promise they contain. And I suspect, I needn’t worry for the message. I have been amazed in our Unitarian Universalist communities by the depth of strength and resilience I witness among us in the face of hardship and suffering. I have seen our capacity to honor winter while living spring – and honor the coming spring while living winter. I have seen out capacity to fight against oppression both out there and in here, to allow the reality of loss and sacrifice while holding close to hope and the transformative power of love.
I should not be so concerned for redeeming the messages of these seasons. Instead, as I learn from watching my mother, from witnessing many of you, from allowing myself to embrace my own aching, blossoming heart: We know about the promise. We know the struggle and the suffering, and still rise to embrace hope and rejoice in the beauty of life’s resurgence and resurrection and deliverance.
Let us enter the celebration of flowers and festivity, of the triumph of hope and love, of the ‘miraculous reality of our lives.’ A new day is again dawning. Let it be a day of joy and song. Let our hearts echo the songs of promise and of wholeness. Let us say: It will be enough. And it will be enough.
In a world without end
May it be so
Sermon Our Commitments Rev. Douglas Taylor 3/7/21
I officiated at a wedding yesterday. Very sweet – there were 7 of us in the house along with a few more watching on zoom. It was brief and everyone wore masks, most of us wore two masks. It was perhaps the fourth time in this past year that I’ve worn my dress shoes for work. I wore my slippers to our Christmas Eve service, for example.
My point, really, is that weddings are special. It is the most common example of a commitment, a vow, a promise, that we all understand in our society.
Creating a family is about building a series of interconnected commitments with other people. In our first small story – the one about Little Critter trying to be www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtiJXg–D6M&ab – we can identify with wanting to keep a promise, a commitment to someone else, but also wanting to have fun and live in the moment. There may be a multitude of reasons you struggle to follow through with a commitment you’ve made to another person. This small story offers that our struggle to be true doesn’t mean we don’t want to be true. It doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.
The second most common connection for people into the concept of commitment is found in the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or among adults at a meet-n-greet, “So, what do you do?” It is a question of vocation or career. What do you do? What are your obligations and commitments because of your work? In the big story we just heard https://vimeo.com/73026206, the thief changed careers and became a sower of acorns and of beauty. She was almost tricked into a commitment, surprised by her own willingness to keep the commitment. She made the promise half-heartedly. When she discovered the depth of what was asked of her, she decided to stick with it. As a thief, she was just struggling to survive. Suddenly she found herself in a commitment that compelled her to do better, to be better – by making the world better.
Maybe these stories connect in some way for you. Maybe they do not. Tell me about your commitments? Think about the times you’ve struggled to keep a commitment (as with our first story) or a time you’ve been surprised to find you made a commitment and then chose to keep it (as with our second story).
And, just to keep this interesting, I’ll now share a third story. I attended a clergy workshop focused on commitments and theology and our calling as ministers. The opening activity was a reflection exercise done in pairs. My partner asked me “Whose are you?” and I would respond. After an acknowledgement and breathe, they asked again. This went on until I ran out of answers. Whose are you?
Whose am I? To whom or what am I most committed? To whom or what am I accountable? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. …That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives.” (from Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #563).
For me, when I attended that workshop and sat with this question about my commitments, I worked out some answers for myself. I made a list. I find making a list comforting. This may be true for you as well or it may not be. That part is not important. It is the wrestling and acknowledging of your commitments that is more important.
Here’s the thing though – I had my family on my list, my loved ones. Just like in our first story with Little Critter, I have commitments to people in my life and that is part of what drives me to do certain things. I also had work on my list, my calling, this congregation, and so on. Back when I made my list, I thought my work was to put everything in a ranked order. Which commitments are more important than other commitments? I put God at the top of my list, and myself second.
To whom am I accountable? Whose am I? The top of my list is God. Mostly this is a theological concession – what else can I do? I have sometimes clarified what this means to me by substitution the word ‘Love’ in place of the word ‘God.’ Whatever is the ultimate reality – that’s what I’m trying to acknowledge. That is what I am saying holds my highest commitment and loyalty.
Next on my list is myself. At the time that made perfect sense to me. But over the years I struggled to find a better way to articulate this second commitment.
I don’t mean this to say I am egotistical or self-absorbed. But there are so many examples of people in our society who are. Greed and narcissism have allowed significant tearing of the fabric of our society. “This above all, to thine own self be true.” This is a line – not from the bible or a sage, it is from a character in Hamlet written by William Shakespeare. The Character saying the line, Polonius, is a self-serving and ironically pompous character.
And yet, to list myself as one of my top commitments I am trying to talk about keeping true to my own integrity. I am talking about taking care of myself so that I can keep all the other obligations I have made.
And maybe now I think a list of ranked order is less helpful because these commitments have dynamic interactions. My promises to myself and those to my spouse and these others to my congregation all interact. And sometimes one or another is momentarily more important. What I mean is, this is not something cut and dry. There is a messy imperfection to life and I am a messy imperfect person. Aren’t we all? Still, it’s worth wrestling with the questions.
How is it for you? To whom are you accountable? To what are you loyal? What are the commitments that impact your daily living?
All of these stories, all of my reflections, this is merely an invitation for you to name and acknowledge for yourself your own lines of commitment and accountability. Where does it fit for you? And tucked into that invitation is the opportunity to make a change if you find it warranted, to struggle perhaps to become better, if that is what would help you keep the commitments that matter.
Come, let us shine what light we have, let us live in our integrity, and we shall love to the best of our ability.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This video we just watched – KEEP LOVING: A Universal Love Song by Empty Hands Music https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLx7I9WcMK0LZ19ADweJE5IWFrnKeqTer1&v=5WAViUDYZOQ&feature=emb_logo is perhaps an interesting choice on my part. Rap music is not my usual genre of appreciation, is not what we usually offer in our worship services. But I could not resist using this video for two reasons. One reason, perhaps obviously, is the message of the song. The opening stanza says:
Whether you’re different, same, ignorant or intelligent
Whether you tell the truth, lie or embellish it
Whether you live in gratitude or for the hell of it
It doesn’t really matter, we’re still one single fellowship
The statement of unity is not new or radical. What struck me though is how loaded with judgement the listed differences can be. ‘Living in gratitude or for the hell of it’- it doesn’t take much to figure out if Rev. Taylor has an opinion about which is better. Spoiler: living in gratitude is better. “It doesn’t really matter,” the song says. Do you lie or tell the truth? ‘it doesn’t really matter, we’re still one single fellowship.’ I think it does matter. I am in favor of not lying (although ‘embellishing the truth’ is something I have declared acceptable a la Emily Dickenson.)
What I’m saying is that the message of radical acceptance in these lyrics is very unusual. It challenges me, pushes me to live my values.
So keep loving,
It’ll change your heart, it’ll change your mind
And then you’ll start to change your eyes
So keep loving
Everything you touch, everyone you see
Will soon become, your family
I offered us this auto-tuned rap song for two reasons. One is the radical message of acceptance and love in the lyrics. The other is the visual representation. For those of you who listened on the phone or didn’t see the video – it is a depiction of a variety of people on a subway. Over the course of the song, they shift from being wary of each other to smiling and dancing with each other. They go from being isolated to being connected. It reminded me of a very powerful reflection I’d found in a class I taught her several years back.
It was a reflection on justice-making as a spiritual disciple from the Spirit of Life curriculum. The author Robert Thurman is a Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. He writes:
“Imagine you are on the subway. In your subway car are all sorts of people, the kinds of people who would normally ride on the subway in a big city. A mix of working class, wealthy, and middle class people. People speaking many different languages, people of many skin colors and cultures, people of many ages. Some people who are clean and polished looking, others who are smelly and unkempt. Some who are quiet, some who talk too loud, some who talk to themselves. Some who annoy you terribly and some who you find attractive. All sorts of people are on this subway car, heading to their destination.
All of a sudden, Martians come and zap the subway car. And soon you figure out that as a result of this zap, everyone on the subway car is going to be together—forever.
How does that change the way you act? Think about it. If they’re freaking out, you’re going to try to calm them. If they’re hungry, you’re going to try to feed them. If they’re arguing, you’re going to try to figure out what’s going on and seek resolution. If there’s injustice, you’re going to try to make it just.
You do it because suddenly, these assorted people on the subway are your people. The ones you will dwell with forever. You care about them in a whole different way. What we do and what we care about matters. When we allow ourselves to see the bigger picture, we can see that we are all already on that subway car—Earth.
We are absolutely interconnected and interdependent, (Robert Thurman concludes). How we are, what we do, they ripple out. Whatever happens “over there,” happens “over here,” too. Because these people are your people. My people. Our people.“
This way of seeing each other is not normal for us. Division through fear and hate are such old tools in our world. The old genetic tribalism drives us to separate each other into friends and enemies, us and them, good people and bad people, my people and other people. Fear and hate are powerful tools that keep us small and fractured. A love that could build something better among us would indeed be revolutionary.
So keep loving,
It’ll change your heart, it’ll change your mind
And then you’ll start to change your eyes
So keep loving
Everything you touch, everyone you see
Will soon become, your family
Our reading this morning is from Valarie Kaur. In her recent book, See No Stranger: A memoir and manifesto of Revolutionary Love she offers a compelling message for our lives today. She bids us to look at others and say you are a part of me I do not yet know.
In her book she talks about the experience of being a brown-skinned Sikh from India in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In the days and weeks after the towers were destroyed, there was a rash of hate crimes against Arab Americans and South Asian Americans, as well as against Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
Many people were harassed, targeted with verbal abuse, threatened and banned simply because of their ethnicity and religion. The first person murdered in retaliation of the 9/11 attack almost 20 years ago was a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was gunned down at his gas station in Arizona by a man who claimed to be a patriot.
Valarie Kaur knew him. To her, Mr. Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate crime victim of 9/11 was Balbir Uncle. She shares stories of him in her book, his generosity, his smile, his faith. He was not Muslim or Arab, but he was brown-skinned and wearing a turban so it was close enough for hate. Valarie describes her anger, her grief, her pain after the murder of Balbir Uncle.
She also describes her first dramatic lesson in Revolutionary Love. There was an interfaith prayer memorial a week after the murder. Three thousand people came to pray and weep and share a resolution against hate together. Valarie Kaur describes the impact this had on Joginder Auntie – the widow.
She bore the pain, but she did not bear it alone. She shared it with people she had never met before. “They didn’t even know me,” she kept saying. “But they cried with me.” (p56)
For Valarie Kaur, this was an eye-opening. Her grief-stricken auntie, like Valarie herself, had been angry at the country at the people who hated her husband for no valid reason, at the pain this violence had caused. But her auntie saw something else as well.
There is a powerful drive toward division among us. But there is also a drive toward love. People can decide to hate and hurt people they have never met – people they do not know and never will interact with. And people can decide to love and bless strangers as well. “How can you say you love them; you do not even know them?” But people have done much and more out of a choice to hate, why not love? The choice to love strangers is not less illogical and irrational than the choice to hate random people because of some genetic characteristic such as ethnicity.
Valarie Kaur shot into our national attention a little over four years ago, at the edge of Donald Trump’s presidency. She had been a tireless advocate and activist for peace and civil rights over decades, but there was a moment when her voice rose into our national attention. She was one of the speakers on New Year’s Eve in 2016 for a Repairers of the Breach rally with Rev. William Barber. She asked, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKMEqF0OVxs&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=RevolutionaryLove
How do we breathe and push?
There is something different happening around us today, something like the massive social changes that occurred in the ‘60’s. More people are paying attention. More people are unwilling to back down in the face of ongoing injustice. There is a turning underway. The killing of black and brown people is not being swept under the rug as easily. The immoral plight of migrant children in cages at our southern boarder continues to be in the news. The urgency of the global climate crisis is looming and people are not backing down. Something different is happening among us today. People are pushing. We are breathing through the grief and pushing and pushing and pushing as the midwives have taught us.
Kaur calls us to act with Revolutionary Love. It is a key element of her faith as a Sikh. I imagine you will not be surprised to hear how The Golden Rule is manifest in all the world’s religious traditions. This call to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ is a call into Revolutionary Love, to see no stranger, to allow love to change your mind and change your heart as that rap song suggested – “and then you’ll start to change your eyes.”
It is a call to see the stranger as a neighbor, even as a sibling. We are all kin and we can treat each other as such. We are all on this subway car together. We are all in danger from this pandemic and from the rot of systemic racism and the impact of the climate crisis. We are all in danger and we are paying attention because we are kin.
And this Revolutionary Love calls us to live as kin, to see our connectedness beyond old tribal lines of fear and hate. It is not a new call. Indeed, it is a call that has echoed through the ages and cultures and faith traditions forever. Today, it is a call to raise a fist and say “Black Lives Matter” because we care about the abusive police in our white supremacy culture and want them to heal and stop hurting too. It is a call today to refuse the lies and conspiracies rampant in our politics because truth matters and also because we care about the people being deceived and spreading hate and want them to heal and stop hurting too.
And it goes on like this – wanting justice out of love instead of anger. It goes on like this for the poor and the immigrant and the abused and traumatized. The call of revolutionary love goes on like this calling us to see no stranger. To recognize that we are woven together in a single garment of destiny. To begin to change how we see the world and one another. To breathe and to push as the midwives have taught us.
And today, something new is happening. And our faith calls us into liberation. And our Love calls us to see each other as kin. And more and more people are pushing together to bring a better world into being.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
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.