Opening Words, by Rev. Richard Gilbert
Be gentle with one another—
It is a cry from the lives of people battered
By thoughtless words and brutal deeds…
Who of us can look inside another and know what is there
Of hope and hurt, or promise and pain?
Who can know from what far places each has come…
Our lives are like fragile eggs.
They crack and the substance escapes.
Handle with care!
Handle with exceedingly tender care.
For there are human being within,
Human beings as vulnerable as we are.
Who feel as we feel.
Who hurt as we hurt.
Life is too transient to be cruel with one another;
It is too short for thoughtlessness,
Too brief for hurting.
Be gentle with one another.
Canvass weekend deserves a canvass sermon: canvass ‘weekend’ has been in full swing for about a month, so far! Have you made a connection with it? This year’s theme is simply called connections: it’s not simply about getting enough pledges to balance the budget–connecting income to outgo–it’s about helping us to make more, deeper and lasting connections. It’s about the intentional creation of community.
In the past couple of years we’ve had a big dinner with 500 of us in the same room. This year there has been an effort to create closer connections: there have been small dinners at people’s homes; a family gathering on Friday night; a poetry reading at the beach on Saturday morning; the Richie Havens concert last night; and there will be a concert this afternoon with Frederic Hand at 3 o’clock this afternoon; and a pot luck supper at 6 p.m. tonight.
Our canvass chair, Gail Pesyna, has been showing up at every event, taking your pledges; and her trusty partner, Tim McDonald has been at many of those events…and Ed has been at lots…so have I.
There’s still time to sign up for the potluck supper—and if you don’t like to sign up, just show up. Bring a golden-rule dish; something that you would like someone else to bring when you come to a potluck supper! It would be nice to have an idea how many of us will be here tonight; and if you want to help me cook a fried shrimp appetizer (I know it’s not on the diet) show up early and I’ll put you to work in the kitchen.
You’ll learn how to cook Ralph Bishop’s fried shrimp—the same recipe can be used to make scallops, haddock, cod, flounder.
It was exactly 50 years ago this month that I convinced Ralph Bishop to hire a little fourteen year old kid. I’d been asking Ralph if I could come to work for him in his tiny little take out fried food place in Woburn, outside of Boston.
Finally Ralph told me to come into the back room, to the kitchen, to see if I could reach the huge restaurant sink to wash the pots and pans. It was just out of my reach. Ralph looked at me and said, “Sorry.” Then I spotted a wooden milk carton in the corner of the kitchen, and I pulled it over to the sink, stood on it, and easily reached the faucets.
I worked for Ralph for the next 14 years, moving from pot washer to every other job, including food preparation and cooking—my favorite.
Now that I’ve made a segue between canvass weekend and Ralph Bishops—to promote the potluck supper that brings it all to a yummie conclusion—let me make a connection between last week’s sermon about prayer and the 23rd Psalm.
I talked to the children about prayer, offering a prize for anyone who memorizes the 23rd Psalm, and there are a few who are working on it.
Yesterday, after the poet reading at the beach, John Loynes gave me a shepherd’s crook; he said I would need it if I had any hope of applying for the job opening in Rome!
I used the 23rd Psalm as an example of a popular prayer shared by Jews and Christians. There was a lot of response—people told me about their relationship with the 23rd Psalm, including the Bobby McFerrin feminized version that he sang in honor of his mother; I’ve been listening to it in my office.
Someone sent me the following parable about prayer, called “Ice Cream for the Soul.”
“Children can teach us a lot about honest prayer. Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, “God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And liberty and justice for all! Amen!”
”Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!”
”Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?”
“As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.”
“Really?” my son asked.
”Cross my heart.” Then in theatrical whisper he added, indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing, “Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.”
”Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, “Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes, and my soul is good already.”
One response to that story would be to do some research to see if it really happened exactly this way. I don’t know if it ‘really happened exactly this way,’ or if it happened at all; I do know that it is happening every day.
Children need to know that their souls are ‘good already.’
They need to learn how to preserve, protect, defend and extend the life-cycle of the soul. They need a place to nurture that soul…to maintain the feeling that their soul is ‘good already,’ and to respect the sacred place in other persons.
This canvass sermon should emphasize the importance of our religious education program. When I think of the value of our program for young people, it’s easier to talk about money, and to ask you to ‘give generously.’
I’m asking you to contribute money to help pay staff salaries, including my own, of course! By extension, I’m asking you to support this place that is so important to our children and to their parents. Naturally we want to see it preserve and extend our program for young people.
I want to emphasize the need for your support of this place; I want to assert that giving is good for the soul; at least as good as ice cream, with a lot less calories, and it’s fat-free!
I want to suggest that generosity is generative; that giving a meaningful portion of the money available to you, is a way of doing something good for yourself, as well as others.
Notice that carefully crafted sentence: ‘give a meaningful portion of the money available to you.’
There are no second-class members of the Unitarian Church in Westport. There are people who give generously, not because of a specific amount of money, but because they give a ‘meaningful portion of the money available to them.’
We Unitarian Universalists have a leadership role in this community; we have a leadership role in this nation. Our forebears—the founders with whom we have a kinship–wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must assume responsibility for that legacy. Their gift to us has a strong string attached.
Our forebears insured that there would be a separation of church and state—now we carry that mission: we stand and speak for individual rights at a time when those rights are threatened.
We emphasize individual rights, but at the same time, we stress the importance of community—we’re committed to bridging the gap between self and others—that’s called, ‘connecting.’
(In case you happen to be visiting this morning, or haven’t heard my definition of religion, let me summarize it: The root of the word religion, the Latin verb legare, means, ‘to connect.’ The belly button is a visible reminder that we used to be connected; when we were born we became a single, separate person; we needed to be received by loving arms—caring parents or parent surrogates—we needed to bond with them, as they say; which is another way of saying that we needed to ‘connect’ with them: legare means ‘to bond,’ or ‘to connect.’ We’ve needed to learn how to re-connect with our ever-changing, aging, occasionally failing self; and we need to re-connect with Nature, so that we feel at home in this world, so that we feel like we belong here, so that we feel safe here, so that we can accept the cycles and seasons of life. ‘For everything there is a season,’ is how the book of Ecclesiastes put it. All our lives we need to re-connect; in other words, we need religion, in one form or another, by one name or another. It’s a universal human need.)
Generosity is the process of reaching across the great divide between our individual self and the other…to connect. It heals the wound we sometimes feel…the separateness…the brokenness.
It nurtures the spirit. The spirit is the sense of self; a sense of integrity and dignity…the soul.
It’s one thing for the little child to say ‘my soul is good already.’ It’s quite another thing to know how to nurture that spirit, how to nourish the soul.
Generosity is the outward manifestation of kindness, and kindness is connection…it’s our way of overcoming the survival-of-the-fittest side of our human nature. We’re naturally competitive, but we’re capable of overcoming that base nature, and moving to something that makes this human existence more bearable, more meaningful, more purposeful.
We’re in the midst of a challenging time of transition: we’re going to hire an interim Associate Minister to work with me and the staff starting in September; we’re putting together a Search Committee to find the right person to serve as our new Associate Minister—someone with some special skills and talents to keep us moving forward.
We’re getting ready to find and hire a Social Justice Director, to help us get connected to agencies and organizations that serve those in need, focusing on the needs of children in Bridgeport, but not limited to children or Bridgeport; someone who will help to coordinate our efforts and to help every person in this congregation to make meaningful contributions that live out our affirmation: ‘service is its law.’
Jan Park stepped forward to make this possible by contributing the money to pay the salary of a Social Justice Director; and a committee has been working to come up with an appropriate job description as well as thinking through the intricacies of this effort. It will involve a Social Justice Council to include the diverse programs and efforts in which we’re engaged already, and to give direction to new efforts.
We’re also taking a close look at the ways we serve our senior high school youth. Bob Perry has served as our youth group advisor for more than a decade. We want to serve all the youth and need to offer a variety of opportunities for them to be together and to deepen their lives by their involvement with one another and, for some, their involvement with the younger children—to teach or assist in the church school, for example; and to have their own youth odyssey program, and so forth.
We’re in the midst of a challenging time of transition; it’s filled with all kinds of opportunity for our growth.
Whenever there are big institutional decisions to make there tend to be lots of ideas about what we should do; ideas are welcome.
It’s also a time to think about what’s working well, and what’s not working as well as we would wish; so there are the assessments and criticisms. And this is where we get into a sensitive area: how to give an opinion without sounding opinionated; how to give constructive criticism without sounding too critical.
It’s easy to sound like the woman who responded to the little boy’s prayer by saying, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!”
We have a dedicated Board of Trustees who are open to any and all suggestions, ideas and concerns. I would simply ask that you deliver them with the Affirmation in mind: ’Love is the spirit…’
Which reminds me of a good canvass story about Mr. McGreggor who owned a large vineyard somewhere in Scotland and was known to produce the best wines and prize-winning cherry brandy.
The minister of McGreggor’s church was a teetotaler who spent an extraordinary amount of sermon time railing against the sins of alcohol. But McGreggor was an understanding man, and he continued to be the largest financial contributor to the church in spite of the minister’s ranting and railing against his occupation.
Then it came time for McGreggor’s daughter to be married and a big wedding was planned, including a reception at McGreggors’s fine home. The wedding went well—the minister refrained from any reference to the sinful alcohol that was sure to be served at the reception.
The minister came to the reception and was enjoying the hors d’oeuvres and he inadvertently wound up with a glass of cherry brandy with which he was entirely unfamiliar; thinking it was simply a nice sweet fruit drink he sipped, then drank, then asked for more…a few times.
By then he realized what he had done, but he was unrepentant and he even sidled up to McGreggor and asked if he might have some to take back to the parsonage. McGreggor was please to oblige and said, “I’ll send over a full case, under one condition: that you thank me for it in the parish newsletter.” The minister paused, then agreed.
The brandy was delivered and the minister wrote in the parish newsletter: “I want to thank Mr. McGreggor for the delicious gift of fruit and the spirit in which it was delivered.”
I want to thank you for the financial gift you’ve promised, or will promise by filling out a pledge card today—and for the spirit in which it is delivered.
The church is in a healthy, vigorous time of transition. Your support is needed to assure smooth passage into the next new chapter in the life of this congregation.
We have good news for the unchurched folks in lower Fairfield County—for those who have not yet discovered this place, which can be a haven in a world torn by religious strife.
We have good news for interfaith couples who need a place that will honor their Jewish and Christian heritage; we have good news for parents who want to raise children in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect—who want their children to learn about all the various religions but not to be indoctrinated into one.
We have good news for those who feel compromised when they sit in the pews they were brought up in, who say words they don’t believe, who listen to ideas about the saved and the damned and find it hard to accept the idea of a good God who would choose favorites, or send non-believers to the fires of ever lasting hell.
Our good news comes with a price, however, and here I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about responsibility of another kind—that each of us must assume responsibility for our own spiritual development—it doesn’t come second hand.
We have to do it for ourselves, but we can’t do it by ourselves. We need one another. We need to maintain a strong sense of community—to deepen and extend it.
We’ll close with a little poem from E. E. Cummings:
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of