It was a rainy day in April many years ago. About one hundred people were crammed into a tent deep in the woods. They had come to grieve the loss of a young couple’s first child. Olivia Rose was her name. She lived exactly 4 days, 3 hours and six minutes, before dying of viral myocarditis, an early cardiac malfunction. Her parents were crushed, a seemingly healthy baby girl who had suddenly taken a turn for the worse and died. Dashed were the dreams this family had for her; the future of dances and parties and growing up and getting married. I was a young minister and a young father and this was especially hard for me because I was projecting losing one of my own children into the moment, something we all do quite naturally, it is our way of feeling the grief. Olivia’s father stood up to speak: “We seem to have lost our star, our way, our love, our dream. She was to be so much, a way to live beyond ourselves in a future not our own. And now it seems that future is gone.” And he cried. I had struggled to find anything that could console this family and their friends. What inadequacy I had came out eventually as this: “I believe” I said, “that no life is wasted. That even in Olivia’s all too short life, robbed as we all are of our future brilliance, that her living left us with a great gift, a prophecy of what could be, a family brought together, a community of grief that transforms that grief into helping other children live and a world we have still to make for those children to live in. Olivia brought you all together, here and now for a purpose. We do not yet know what that purpose is, but I do believe she was a prophet of a future not yet our own.”
Ministry such as ours here is by its nature open ended. We never know from day to day what challenges we will face, or even who will walk through those glass doors. I am in awe actually as I meet with each of you and learn your journey, your joys and your sorrows. Ministry is being open to the possibilities of human transformation. It is our mission here, to inspire meaning, to connect with one another in that meaning and to act with compassion and justice in the world.
There is a lot about our future which is very scary. Global warming is now a reality, and the future we are leaving our children is not a bright one. Injustice and incivility are rampant it seems. We are leaving the generations to follow a future which will be unknown, perhaps even grievous. And yet, no life, no time, on our planet is meaningless. Because we have also equipped our future leaders with a prophecy of possibility. Not just technological possibilities which are truly miraculous but the will to solve these problems. I look to our youth who are leading the way in controlling gun violence, who are trained and speaking out about sexism, patriarchy and racism, and I take heart. This coming generation is so much more prepared to deal with the extremities of our future than I ever was. I do hope many of you will be with us next Sunday to hear our twelve young people deliver their credos of faith in our annual coming of age service. I have seen a few of them and I can tell you they give me great hope. As it is written in Deut. “We drink from wells we did not dig; we are warmed by fires we did not kindle.” (Deut. 6.11) This magnificent building, and our Unitarian Universalist roots are evidence of that. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before and our children will stand on the shoulders of us.
How can we help these young prophets with this future to come? We can stand for the causes we already embrace with even more resolve. In the fall of last year we established a #MeToo Task Force to address the issues of patriarchy and sexual abuse and harassment that women have too long being survivors of. That task force has sponsored several powerful services. They are now prepared to offer up a resolution to this congregation to embody this work into our life even more firmly. You will hear more about this soon. But let point out several tools we will be equipping our own young people with as they meet the challenges of this new future. We have long been rightly proud of our sexuality curriculum, Our Whole Lives, OWL has been taught to generations of middle schoolers to educate them on the complexities and challenges of sexuality and gender relationships. Many times I have heard of our young people going off to college and correcting their peers about sexuality, defending non-normative genders and even correcting a few teachers. But we need to do more. Because we are learning about how many women were first abused as children. The percentages are staggering, well over fifty per cent. That is why starting this fall we will be offering OWL for elementary kids as well. We are looking for volunteers who will be trained to lead these classes. Talk to me or Mary Collins if you can help. But even more than that we need to educate our adults as well. We need to exemplify for our children what the future could be like even if we are not there to see it. In the coming months there will be course offering for OWL for adults, a special course on how to talk about sexual harassment we are developing entitled “Walking on Eggshells” and many other opportunities. While we may not live to see this brave new world, we have a part to play in helping it get started. For as long as we are living, we too are the prophets of a better future we cannot know. Can you hear me on this?
And what starts for sexuality extends to all the other emergent causes that need our help. We will be continuing our work on anti-racism, expanding our beloved conversations groups into an action network. We will continue to expand our support of immigrant and refugees. And our work with those who are tackling addiction especially in light of the opioid crisis in America. Beyond this the world is still ours to remake. The possibilities are endless.
And faith is my answer to a future we cannot see. The simply profound belief that WE can make a difference by simply acting, witnessing and doing. OUR faith must embrace not the particularity of relative belief but the meta-narrative of such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Lydia Maria Child, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all Unitarians, who believed that humanity was as a whole basically good and worth saving. And if it were not for them we would not be here today.
As Annie Dillard has written, “there is no one but us …. there is no one on this holy mountain, but us.” (Tinker at Pilgrim Creek)
Pope Francis once preached:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Two years to the day after that rainy memorial service for Olivia Rose, I attended the dedication of a new neo natal heart monitoring machine, a $250,000 piece of equipment donated with funds in memory of Olivia Rose. Today, the Billy Miller Neo Natal unit at the Frederick, MD Memorial Hospital is considered a leading center for neo natal care; all started from the short life of a small little girl. Her parents went on to have three more children, all of whom were blessed and dedicated in our brand new UU Congregation in Frederick. Before leaving for a new ministry on the West Coast, Olivia’s father stopped by to bid me farewell. We recalled that struggle so many years ago. He remembered what I had said, and with a hand that swept the entire sky whispered, “All this future because of her.” Indeed. Indeed. Amen.