Harold Babcock's Sermons

April 21, 2013

Engagement

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 4:45 pm

Hear the sermon.

April 21, 2013

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy,
the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.”
– Goethe

 

The events of this past week were yet another reminder, if we still needed one, of why community is so important.  So many selfless acts of generosity, courage, and heroism were performed in the aftermath of the terrible bombings at the Boston marathon.  In spite of the horror and, for some, the complete devastation of Monday’s events, the human spirit shone through in so many glorious ways that at least a little of the raw edge of a senseless and cowardly act of violence was softened and made less horrific than it might otherwise have been.

But why must it take an act like this to bring us together in such profound and meaningful ways?  Why do we not always show each other the kind of care and concern that was so vividly demonstrated on Monday and in the days following?  Why do we not recognize how vulnerable we are each and every day, how mortal, how superficial are our differences, and reach out to one another as if our lives depended upon it, which, of course, they do?

I don’t know the answer to those questions.  As one who believes in and is committed to building a beloved community in good times as well as bad, I can only guess that many folks believe that they are invulnerable, that they are immortal, until something like the bombings in Boston wakes them up and makes them understand otherwise.

Many people feel no need to belong to an intentional community such as a church.  Often it is only when a tragedy occurs, or a death in the family, or a rite of passage such as a marriage or child dedication, that they turn to the church for solace and sustenance or, just as important, for a place in which to share their joy.

It’s great that we are here for them.  That is certainly part of our mission.  But it would be even better if they recognized the ongoing benefits of belonging to a living, breathing community of people, a community of people who travel what Amiel calls “the dark journey” with us, and who, as Garrison Keillor writes so poignantly, “love us, and are glad to see our faces.”  As one of my ministerial mentors, John Cummins, once wrote,

The greatest rewards are long term ones.  You cannot plumb the depths of our principles nor discover all our common values nor explore all the possibilities for growth in one year or five.  And, of course, the greatest rewards go to those who give as well as take.

The fact is we could use their ongoing presence and support, because an institution like ours cannot continue to exist without the care and support and commitment of many dedicated people.  We cannot be there at hard times like these unless there are those who are willing to sacrifice and to labor on our behalf.

I have seen what this kind of belonging can mean for people at difficult times in their lives.  While nothing can completely take away the pain of losing a child, or the devastation of a teenager’s death in a car accident, or the hurt of a loved one dying too soon, a caring and comforting community can certainly help.  Not only at extreme times, such as the events of last week, but in those times that inevitably come to all of us: illness, disappointment, sadness, and, of course, the death that naturally comes to each of us, and to each of those we love, in time.

I’m grateful to our friend John Mercer for my sermon title this morning.  Engagement, thought of in the marriageable sort of way, means a much more serious kind of commitment than simply dating.  Engagement, in that more serious way of deeper commitment, is something that our church could always use more of.  How do we get more of us fully engaged in this enterprise of the church, specifically, of our church, the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Newburyport?

My late colleague, Peter Raible, once wrote, 

When we give ourselves significantly to others and to causes, we open our existence and we unclog the arteries of being.  Existence turned inward toward the self is ever a death warrant: while existence turned outward toward the world enlarges us and gives meaning and purpose to our life.

This, theoretically, is why we choose to make a deeper commitment to those we love, when we become engaged and when we marry.  We recognize at some level that we cannot live for ourselves alone, that there is much to be gained in giving up some independence in order to gain the benefits of interdependence.  Self-centeredness is such a dead end.  It is such a lonely place to inhabit.  When we make a deeper commitment to the ones we love, or even just to the ones we live with, we often find that we are happier and more fulfilled than we were before.  Not only do we gain the support of others, but we also learn important lessons about ourselves, and we come to see that we are not alone in either our distress or our good fortune.

This week, John sent me a lovely silhouette of a young man on one knee proposing to his lady love, a kind of prompt for this morning’s sermon.  Of course, nowadays that silhouette could contain any number of combinations of young men and young women!  People of whatever gender proposing their love to—people of whatever gender.  Thank God we are coming to recognize that commitment is the most important factor in a relationship, not some imagined “right” or “natural” juxtaposition of the sexes, which, as we know, offers absolutely no guarantee of a successful or sacred union.  I celebrate true commitment however and whenever it is made!  And we all should.

One of our greatest challenges as a congregation is, how do we move our friends and members to that deeper kind of commitment and support, from a kind of tentative, “dating” relationship, to a deeper and more serious form of “engagement”?  Because, as Goethe wrote in the quotation I have included on your orders of service, “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.”

There is a tremendous potential here.  We have so many wonderful and interesting and talented people of all ages.  What would it mean if we could come to know each other even better?  What if we truly came to know each other’s stories, which, in a small way, we have been trying to do with our Journeys of Faith program?

Julie Parker Amery and I have just finished leading together, for a third time, a religious education program called “Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.”  All I can say about that is that it is amazing the things we don’t know about those who come to church here.  What if we could come to know you better and to connect more of you in your shared interests and passions?  What if more people knew about your triumphs and struggles, your skills and talents?  Imagine what we might accomplish!

One remarkable event during this church year was the community-wide effort to build a playground at KelleherPark.  It’s simply amazing what we can do when we take the step into that deeper kind of commitment, when we join our hearts and minds and hands together, when we are fully engaged in a project or process.  I’m especially proud of all that members of this congregation have done to make this project a reality.  I believe that those of us who have been involved have come to know one another more intimately and meaningfully as a result.  And I hope that this will translate into an even deeper commitment to our church community.

How do we get more of us involved in projects like this, both within our church and beyond, in the larger community?  This has been a question that many of us have been asking for a long time.  How do we grow, not just numerically, but spiritually, and in terms of our bonds to one another, and of our commitment to this wonderful place that so many of us love and support so generously?  As I once read in a column in the newsletter of the First Parish in Cambridge, “It is commitment to our relationships that offers constancy and the sense of belonging that turn a building (whether a house or a meetinghouse) into a home, or a group of people into a community.”

This May, at our Annual Meeting, you will have an opportunity to decide if we are ready to take the bold step of adding a person to our staff whose job it would be to make this dream of deeper engagement a reality.  The Parish Board has accepted the recommendation of the task force formed to consider how to fill the huge shoes of our retiring Business Administrator,  John Mercer, to break John’s job into two positions: an Office Administrator whose primary responsibility is to oversee the financial well-being and business affairs of our church, and a Director of Community Engagement, whose responsibilities would include communications and volunteer coordination and fostering connections, among others.  You will have an opportunity to learn more about this proposed position and the task force recommendation in the next few weeks, leading up to the Annual Meeting on May 19.  You can also find information about it on the church website.

The bottom line is that even though we just completed our most successful pledge canvass ever—bless you, Brent Mitchell, and all who have contributed!—we are still short the money we will need to fund this new position.  This is the challenge that we face.

So many times over recent years your staff has heard wonderful ideas for programs and endeavors that would help us to grow in all the ways that I have been speaking about.  But the reality is that there simply is not the staffing or the time to do most of the things which would really take us to the next level of engagement and that would allow us to become the more deeply spiritual and active community presence that I believe so many of us long for us to be.

The rewards of a deeper kind of engagement in our church may not be self-evident to everyone, but I believe that they are the kind of rewards which will help us to weather the storm of terrible events like those of the week just past, and which will ultimately bear the mark of the eternal: as the late Jacob Trapp reminds us, those rewards are: 

The giving we have invested in others; the love we have expressed in deeds; the kindness we have shown; the work we have done because we loved it; the light we have shown that others might not stumble; the evil that we turned into good—because we saw that none of us lives apart, but that we are all indeed “members of one another.”

As I wrote to you earlier this week, at times like these, it is especially good to be together.  In the stress and strife of our busy days, we sometimes forget why it is that we are here, and what it is we are trying to accomplish.  Let us give thought to those things as we leave here this morning.

In closing, a poem to remind us that no evil and despicable act can break our spirit or turn us from our goal of building a beloved community of memory and hope, that life and love and good will ultimately triumph over all.  The poem is entitled “First days of spring—the sky,” by Ryokan:

First days of spring—the sky
is bright blue, the sun huge and warm.
Everything’s turning green.
Carrying my monk’s bowl, I walk to the village
to beg for my daily meal.
The children spot me at the temple gate
and happily crowd around,
dragging to my arms till I stop.
I put my bowl on a white rock,
hang my bag on a branch.
First we braid grasses and pay tug-of-war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air:
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
“Why are you acting like such a fool?”
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!

 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland, Texas, by Timothy Jensen

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