Ten Thousand Sundays
June 12, 2011
Rev. David W. Chandler
For many years I have concluded this to be the first law of the universe: “There is no free lunch.” Humans are continually discovering, despite all our machinations, there is no way past that one – but we can and will keep trying.
The second law of the universe I now must conclude is this one: “Be careful what you wish for.” No likelihood we’ll escape that one either.
This sermon is the last I will give until January 2012. The topic proposed was intended to offer thoughts about the long arc of history around our congregation and our church. The congregation is of course the people of the church, but in this context I want to note we are fortunate to still possess one of our two historic church structures, a matter of some pride and significance now and for our future.
I had no idea this week would open with one targeted shot from the Fates – a devastating fire in a historic wooden Unitarian Universalist church uncomfortably nearby us. The week has closed, sadly, with another even harder blast – the death of a beloved member of our congregation at a tragically early age.
Be careful what you wish for. Every preacher wishes for the perfect fanfare to the intended exposition. I wished of course for neither of these catastrophes, but they have happened and there I am, with absolutely unintended irony raising questions more deeply piercing than intended.
What is a church? What does a church mean and do? What is a church for? How does a church live, or not? Where has this church been, and where might it be bound? This Sunday of our Annual Meeting is a good time for all of us to consider these questions. Today they are cast into a larger frame. We have been served up sharp and painfully, not a few budget matters to hash out, but the darkest and most persistent queries of human life. Why are the things we value destroyed? Why do the people we love die? If lightning never strikes twice in the same place, it has crackled awfully close in these few days.
My personal theology has always been more pragmatic than not. Yet the core quality of optimism about the course of the universe, and the often unspoken but no less foundational notion that arc somehow connects to us – at least in the aggregate, at the moment seems exposed as the distinctly shallow end of the pool. The deeper waters? I am not sure I have even recognized them, let alone ventured forth. The old prayer was for “those who go down to the sea in ships.” Would that be me? Would that be us?
Then there would be the everyday operating assumption, things generally do work out. Of course they do – except when they don’t. Of course we need at some level to believe they do – except we don’t. Any modest student of religion and culture across time and around the world knows most human societies demonstrate deeply rooted belief things do not work out, at least not in any way comprehensible to human beings. It is not cynicism to note how much religious practice is accommodation to what nastiness fate deals us. Nor is it an exaggeration to understand most cultures as founded on the idea the underlying malevolence of the universe is only tenuously held at bay by rituals of propitiation. The Gods do not love us. The angels do not guard us. They hover to do casual or intended harm in myriad ways – and we hold them off with trinkets or whining. They step on us with intent – or without even noticing.
Have we, as poet William Stafford puts it, followed the wrong god home?
We can choose to say we have not. Some ten thousand Sundays over almost 200 years have been dedicated to making that choice within the walls of this building and the Universalist church, within the hands and hearts of this community and the two historic communities that are its progenitors. It is a sliver of human history, not even a grain of sand in solar time – but it is not nothing. It is a stubborn something, often swamped by the flood of human disaster and surely beset just as we are by loss and grief. Still, it is not nothing. Thousands of people lived their lives through those thousands of Sundays. It cannot be nothing. Fearlessly or foolishly, you and I can still choose that truth.
I learned some years ago it is not a good idea to stake trees when you plant them. Too much artificial support and the root systems they need to flourish will never develop. It is the wind they must resist that thickens the sinews. I had such a tree. After five years of apparently thriving growth, it just fell over when pushed – no roots. I had chosen that tree carefully – even a little obsessively, as anybody who knows me on these matters can testify to. I had located it exactly in the right place after much – again, surely excessive – measuring and cogitation. I am quite hilarious to watch when figuring out exactly where to put a plant, let alone a tree, the centerpiece of our new front yard and redesigned entrance. I watered and fed and pruned it. I mourned it when it was gone – but none of these things mattered in the end. I had to accept that.
If we are gardeners in truth and not just in recreation, we learn this lesson. We go on planting things. Sometimes they grow; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes what flourishes will quite suddenly fail – or go into a long decline that cannot be arrested. Perhaps it is silliness to say, but each one of us is a beloved plant in somebody’s garden. Somebody has watered us; somebody has nourished us; somebody takes delight when we flourish and mourns when we fade or fail. Somebody always misses us.
What is a church for? It is a container. Some people would add it is a “mere” container – just a building. I do not agree. Every day these walls have been open to what has taken place within them. Days and months and years of human life are impressed on these walls, on these pews, polished deep into the grain of the wood. The very breath of decades has passed into this paint and plaster – and of course, into these horsehair seat cushions. For almost 200 years this building has proclaimed the existence of this religious community in the larger world. It has stood proudly – even if sometimes not so polished and gleaming – for our complicated existence.
Where do we stand in what Stafford calls “the parade of our mutual life?” Here each of us agrees to be that “somebody” – not for ourselves, but for those around us. “Nobody loves me but my Mother,” said B.B. King, “and she might be jivin’ me, too.” Here is a place where we agree to stand in for Mother on the days when she isn’t up to the job – or won’t be up to it. Here is a place to agree to love each other. It sounds like hopeless fluff, doesn’t it? Hallmark, here we come. Well, here then is a place where we don’t settle for the schlocky card. We do the work of living together. We don’t ask each other to change, to be what others happen to want or even need.
We ask each other for safety to be who we are, and gentle but prevailing winds that lead us to become that which we might. Who we are and who we want to be – at one and the same time – is the human dilemma and the eternal human desire. It is worth believing this can happen.
We choose to believe it can happen here. Ten thousand Sundays say it does. May there be ten thousand more to come. There is no free lunch, but here is a place where you and I can be fed richly at an amazingly modest cost – which we do not have to even have on us at the moment. We must be careful what we wish for: Here is a place where we take such care, together with each other, together with the past and the future, together with the spirit however shown to us. May there be ten thousand more to come.
Amen. Blessed Be. Shalom.