On a bright fall morning more than a decade ago, Sam Zurich began the day as he usually does with his radio tuned to NPR. As he was getting breakfast together, his ears pricked up to an item on the news: a couple of jetliners that had left Boston’s airport for the west coast were unaccounted for, and authorities were puzzled as to where they could be. Only minutes later, he heard that apparently one of those planes had smashed into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center, and within 15 minutes the other plane had plowed into the south tower.
Sam knew the World Trade Center. For some 30 years, before he and his wife, Elaine, had moved to Asheville, he had commuted from his home in Westport, Connecticut, to a radio announcing job in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan. The twin towers were unmistakable landmarks, looming in the distance. He and Elaine had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary only a few years after the towers had opened with lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower.
As he listened to the rest of that day’s horrifying events unfold – the collapse of the towers, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the fourth augering into a Pennsylvania forest – one of his first calls was to the church. Sam had been helping out on the worship team, and he asked what the church would do and volunteered to help in any way he could.
Before long he got a call from the minister, Maureen Killoran, to say that there would be a service that evening and asked him to call local radio and TV stations to let them know. A large poster was prepared announcing the service and propped on an easel in our front yard with the words prominently displayed – “Everyone is invited!”
Sam says he recalls the service that night that packed this sanctuary as the moment he was proudest to be a part of this congregation. And the responsive reading that he led in that service tells why: “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted,” it began. “We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.”
Seven years later on a late summer Sunday, Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, and his daughter were having breakfast with Debbie and me, getting ready for a day at Bele Chere, when Chris’ cell phone rang. The signal was spotty, but he could make out enough to hear: “shooting at church.”
He dashed off not knowing what he would find, and we jumped on the Internet. Before long we learned about the man who had entered the sanctuary that morning with a shotgun hidden in a guitar case, pulled it out and began shooting while children of the church were putting on a production of “Annie, Jr.” Two people were killed; several were injured.
A little later I got a call from Taryn Strauss, our religious education director, who had grown up in that congregation while her mom, Lynn, was minister. She came over, and as we commiserated in shock we resolved that we needed to hold a service in solidarity with the Knoxville church. The service was set for Monday, a time when Womansong usually rehearses in our space, and they not only gave up the rehearsal space but performed in the service. Taryn told a story; we sang “Spirit of Life” and “One More Step.”
I began my remarks by quoting remarks that Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, gave in their service after the events of 9/11. “I am so grateful to see you, each and every one. How profoundly we need one another, especially now, but more than just now. We are not human beings because we think. We are human beings because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning. The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away.”
So, what is religion about? Many tend to associate religion with edifices of various sorts: edifices like this one of stone, wood, and glass, some grand and some simple. But we also associate religion with edifices of another kind: structures of words that organize the world in certain ways, that separate the world into the sacred and the profane, that outline a prescribed path to peace, to salvation, that state of final happiness that we humans imagine in so many ways.
It is in these sorts of words that most faith traditions locate their identities, words intended to inspire, to frame a sometimes hostile word in understandable terms, to offer comfort and serve as bulwarks in times of doubt and need. And yet, as Monika illustrated in her exercise to begin our service, edifices of any kind resist the natural motion of things. Those that endure must find some way to adapt to that motion.
Nearly a century ago, Lewis Fisher, dean of the Ryder Divinity School in Chicago, a Universalist seminary, was struggling with this issue. The denomination had recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of one of its founders, John Murray, in America, and launched a campaign to double its membership. In truth, though, the denomination was in decline, split between conservative rural churches and progressive-minded urban ones.
In his book Which Way? Fisher argued that every religious tradition evolves. Words take on new meaning in the light of new circumstances, and denominations must learn to move with them. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
This famous quote has a new currency among us Unitarian Universalists with the announcement that our denomination’s iconic headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street, off the Boston Public Garden and right next to the Massachusetts State House, and several other buildings nearby have been put up for sale. Headquarters will be moving to an up-and-coming but less prestigious neighborhood at 24 Farnsworth Street.
There is much to recommend the move. The old buildings are hopelessly out of date, and it would cost enormous sums – more than we can afford right now – to retrofit them. The sale of these buildings during a booming real estate market in Boston is likely to net the UUA a handsome profit to help pay off debts and put us on a strong footing for the years ahead.
And yet . . . it causes some pain to lose that prominent and historic address that has been home to the Unitarian side of our tradition for nearly 90 years. And there are those who see in this move signs of trouble for our movement at a time when we, like other progressive-minded religious, are, again, struggling. But here I want to affirm the UUA’s use of Lewis Fisher’s words, written for a different time but applying to a surprisingly similar circumstance.
It is not a prominent edifice that defines us as a religious body; it is the way we are in the world that opens the path to life-giving hope, that raises us above our self-concern and helps us see the possibility of a greater life, that creates connections among people centered in an affirmation of each person’s inherent worth and dignity and our kinship with all things.
It matters that we are joined, not by unalterable words, but by a covenant of principles and ways to be together that we learn by living. It matters that the sources of our tradition, some of which you heard the choir recite this morning, are a gift to draw on, not iron strictures. It matters that we have room to move, because it gives us space to breathe, to grow. So, it is a good day to join with other UU congregations across the country to mark Association Sunday as we celebrate the future that awaits us.
This month in worship I am inviting you to examine the “default settings” that you find governing your religious life – untested assumptions, routine ways of thinking that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace. And today I want to suggest that attachment to these kinds of edifices I’ve been talking about is one of them.
Oh, we certainly need them. This lovely edifice that we occupy makes possible the gathering of this community in light-filled, aesthetically pleasing space. But we have also seen it evolve and know it will continue to evolve as this congregation and its needs evolve. We also have our own edifice of words – our mission statement, covenant, by-laws, governing document, as well as the wise words of celebrated women and men. All that gives needed structure to our life together, and it, too, continues to evolve over time.
The life of a congregation, though, is something more. It is embodied, not in its edifices, but in its people and how being part of a gathered community has changed them and changed the world: in short, not so much what we stand for, but how we move.
I began today with two stories of such change, of how our way of being in the world opened doors, opened hearts and made possible something life-giving and good. Sam recalled how the 9/11 service made us both a force and a voice for a community coming together. Our service after the Knoxville shootings not only served to offer comfort in the face of meaningless violence, but made room for an interfaith conversation that we hosted on how faith communities respond to violence.
And there are many more stories to tell. So, to make a start at this I invited people who have been a part of this congregation for 10 years or more to share some of their stories. Sam’s was one; here are some more.
Arthur Poultney recalled the camaraderie of growing up in the 1950s when barely more than a couple of dozen people met at the old YMCA and then a large home on Vermont Avenue. An oasis of liberal religion provided a welcome respite for progressive-minded people, and their gathering sparked community involvement, such as recruiting Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to a U.N. Day gathering here, such as serving breakfasts to African-American kids and registering their parents to vote at a time when the schools here were still segregated.
Bob MacPherson recalled his wife, Ann, bumping into UUA President Robert West in a trip to Germany and recruiting him to speak at a banquet before the dedication of this building. Among the 250 or so present at that dedication on October 15, 1972 were Paula Sandburg, whose gift help make the building possible, and Reuben Robertson, who donated the land where it was located, both of whom died within the year. Those present dedicated this building where we sit to “the life universal, that it may bring blessings to many people: guidance to the young, consolation to the troubled, encouragement to all.”
Nels Arnold remembered an all-church project in the 1990s to support the Helpmate domestic violence center, with congregation members taking part in everything from fund-raising, to child care, and building playground equipment.
And in perhaps no other way we have brought about the change we seek than through religious education that, in William Ellery Channing’s words, aims “not to stamp our minds on the young but to stir up their own.” I couldn’t begin to weigh the impact that dozens of volunteers have had on the hundreds of children who have taken part in our classes, yet I see it resounding in the joy of those who have been touched by it. Anna Olsen says she has taught religious education here for 24 years because she gets so much out of it.
“My theology is open to self examination,” she says. “My patience is increased, my appreciation of wonder at the small details of life and relationships are experienced. I become more of the best part of me because that is (what is) expected. I feel accountable for who I am.”
It is a measure of what a crucial role we play that so many of you have supported this community over the years to preserve a liberal voice in religion in this part of the world. Michael Lord will be returning to his native England within the year, but before going he has contributed $25,000 to our endowment in a bid to help assure that this congregation not only survives but prospers.
Take a look over the fireplace in Sandburg Hall before you leave today to see who else has given or plans to give from the abundance of their lives to sustain the promise we hold for the world. When that list is next updated, you will see my name and Debbie’s there as well. Won’t you join us?
This is important, but in the end we will be measured as a religious community by how we realize our hope for all humankind. It is why our members were key organizers of Building Bridges, a community anti-racism training, and why we are life members of the NAACP. It is why we hosted overnight undocumented workers campaigning for immigration reform, and why we have had teams of visitors, donated books and served as reading tutors to prisoners at the county jail.
It is why our building has been a host of advocacy groups for transgendered people, and gay, lesbian and bisexual teens; for guardians ad litem, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Cathy Agrella recalls one evening more than a decade ago when she was in the foyer outside the church office and heard a group in the RE common area downstairs singing traditional Christian hymns. She says, “I thought, ‘What in the world?’ These songs, filled with references to Jesus and salvation, were certainly not being practiced by our own choir. And yet, the sound was so beautiful, and so heartfelt, that my eyes filled with tears. When a staff member came by, I asked about the music, and was told that members of the Metropolitan Community Church were having services.
“At that time, when it was still rare for gay people to be welcomed in Protestant churches, where else but in our building could these singers have felt so free? We had offered them a safe and open haven for a spiritual gathering. I was never so proud to be a member of our congregation as at that moment.”
And, of course, the welcome that we provide for others makes that much sweeter the welcome we can offer to each other. I offer you these words of our member Carol Taylor:
“This Christmas, Betty and I are flying to Portland, Maine, to get married—because we can. After 40 years together, we figure it’s going to last. Betty says it will turn us from an old couple into an old married couple.
“Maine in December isn’t exactly what I want. I want to be married here, in this sanctuary, where, for 13 years, I have been moved to laughter, tears, and action. I want to be married by Mark Ward. I want a reception in Sandburg Hall, with champagne and a big cake, surrounded by family and friends, including many in this congregation. I don’t think this will happen soon. When you’re both in your 70s, you can’t afford to wait around.
“When Mark asked everyone who’s been here 10 years what impact UUCA has had on their lives, I had lots of answers. Most of them were about community. This community clarifies my thinking, nudges me outside my comfort zone, draws me out of my shell, brings me friends, and makes me happy. But the clearest and most dramatic impact has to do with who I love.
“When the state of Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a lesbian friend who lives in Seattle said she was surprised by the effect on her, since she had no plans to marry. It changed everything. As she rode the bus, dined in restaurants, shopped in bookstores, she looked around and thought, ‘These people voted me into existence. I’m a citizen of this state. I’m real. I belong.’
“I know how she feels, because I’m a member of this congregation. Oh, this is how it feels to be accepted as just another person. Accepted casually, as a matter of course (“say hello to Betty”). This is what it feels like not to be a category. It’s wonderful to know that if you dislike me, I have earned it. I was rude, or insensitive, or unkind, or stupid, or you haven’t gotten over the checkout lines at last year’s auction.
“When you live in a culture that despises you, it’s impossible not to take that inside. When you belong to a community that affirms you, that brings you in, that accepts you with no particular interest in who you love, you take that inside, too. The hard-edged defenses dissolve, and you can move on.
“In a diverse congregation of 600, there have got to be people who oppose same-sex marriage, and who think that the least I can do is shut up about it. I suspect they don’t talk about it much, because it’s so clearly contrary to the ethos of this congregation. Bless their hearts. In their own way, they’re in the closet. They belong here, too. Community matters. It is comforting. It is transformative. It is life-giving.”
My friends, never doubt the power of religious community, of this religious community. Never doubt that in how we move we are changing the world, even if one silly brick at a time, even if it takes far longer than it should.
But we can trust in the process, in the hope that, as the crusading Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” because we can see it at work, slowly moving in the world at large, and moving in ourselves as well.
Moving, with all that has ever lived or will live in infinite space and infinite time, letting go of false assurance and giving ourselves over to possibility: emergent, vital and alive, arising in us now.
Thin January sunlight filtered through leafless trees as about a half dozen people gathered a little self-consciously along a sidewalk in the hills of Berkeley, California. Facing them, along the doorway of a small, squat building that is Starr King School for the Ministry, were about 30 others, standing in silence. At some unspoken cue that group began singing the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:
Come, come whoever you are
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come.
At the song’s conclusion, Rebecca Parker, president of the school, began reciting her poem that you heard earlier:
“We are at the threshold; we are here.”
And then other members of the group took turns reading:
“We who have crossed many thresholds already
to arrive at this space and time” and so on:
Coming out – coming across – coming with – coming to – coming again.
Crossing a threshold, poised for possibility.
Then, the new students standing on the sidewalk were invited to enter and be greeted.
This was the scene I witnessed nearly two months ago when our daughter Erica, one of those people gathering on the sidewalk at the start of the ceremony, formally took her place in that student body, beginning the challenging walk of ministry.
It came to my mind as I reflected on this service today where we welcome newcomers into this community. I don’t presume that joining this congregation is anything like entering seminary. That place, after all, is in many ways a rarified setting, removed from much of the daily flow of life so that students have room for a depth of study and reflection that few of us have time for, and the commitment of leadership it demands is far greater than what we seek as being part of a congregation. But the parallel is not as far off as it might appear.
We hold up this moment of joining this community, we take time for it in our Sunday worship because we believe that this is something that matters – to you who are joining us, and to us who welcome you. As I told our newcomers our Connecting Points class, when you join a congregation like this you are making a statement. You are taking a public stand. In the words of UU minister Roy Phillips, you are making a declaration “about who you are and who you intend to become.”
The culture we live in today atomizes us. It breaks us up into the tiniest possible bits, disconnects us from each other, and then spins us around. We either fly off in random directions or bash into each other. In between the work of getting and spending we look up in despair and wonder what on earth we are running so hard to accomplish.
Meanwhile, there is in us a yearning for integrity in our lives: to make some sense of the world, to raise our children as decent people, to live with character and compassion, to lift our dull gaze from feeding our own hungers so that we might make some difference in the world. But all of this is too big to figure out on our own, and besides we quickly run out of time and energy to accomplish much.
Rebecca Parker tells of a time at the start of her ministry when she was a young pastor at a tiny congregation that was on the verge of closing. Still, she saw hope in the caring of those who remained. So, she began a practice of watching for visitors and calling on them in the following week. Though often surprised, she said, most people were hospitable.
She says that she found that no one ever came to church casually, as if they had nothing better to do that Sunday. Instead, Parker said, most of them came for, in her words, “life-and-death reasons.” One woman who had finally given birth after years of infertility and miscarriages was looking for a way to offer gratitude for life and to find a community to help her raise her child. A man came with his partner after he had lost his job because the school district was firing gay teachers. Angry and heart-broken, they were looking for an expression of kindness that might ease their pain and give them hope. One woman had just been diagnosed with cancer and was feeling scared and overwhelmed. Another had spent years working to defend the Earth and was looking for something deeper than anger to keep her going.
Change some of the details of these stories and add a few more and you would describe many of the people who I have welcomed into membership in this congregation. Our congregations are not just convenient places to spend a pleasant Sunday morning. They are places where people bring some of the deepest struggles of their lives, hoping to find a community that will take them seriously, that will confront head on some of the gnarliest knots that living presents us and will stick with them and stay in conversation when the going gets tough, that will support them in their struggles and the twists and turns of life, and that will celebrate often and with great joy the wonders of this good life and how good it is to be together.
And so I begin each newcomer class with a chalice lighting and reading from our hymnal: “We bid you welcome who come with weary spirit seeking rest, who comes with troubles that are too much with you, who come hurt and afraid. We bid you welcome, who come with hope in your heart, who come with anticipation in your step, who come proud and joyous. We bid you welcome, who are seekers of a new faith, who come to probe and explore, who come to learn. We bid you welcome, who enter this hall as a homecoming, who have found here room for your spirit, who find in this people a family.”
So, welcome! Now what? Some weeks ago I introduced you to comedian Tina Fey’s “Rules for Improvisation.” You may recall that one of her principle tenets was that when you enter a scene you should begin by saying, “Yes.” Rather than question what your partner offers, begin from an open-minded place. In Tina Fey’s words, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” But she also said that “Yes” alone is not enough. Your partner depends on you to help keep the action going. She or he expects you not only to play along, but also to add something of your own: not just “Yes,” but “Yes, and . . . .”
As she said, “don’t be afraid to contribute. Your initiations are worthwhile.” And so it is here. Having said “yes” to becoming a part of this community, what might you contribute to helping keep the action going?
Because, you see, I believe that this practice of “yes, and” is not just a good idea; it is integral to who we are as a religious community. To make this case, let me bring in Bernard Loomer, who we heard from earlier. Loomer was a theology professor associated with the University of Chicago, who late in life joined a Unitarian Universalist church, as it happens it was in our daughter Erica’s haunting grounds in Berkeley, California.
For a good part of the 20th century he was an important figure in process theology, a movement that sought to bridge the gap between science and religion, arguing that creativity is woven into all things and that the universe is constantly growing in size and complexity.
Loomer reached the conclusion that this growth occurs in the making of relationships. What matters in the end, he said, are the relationships that this process working in the universe makes, and the making of these relationships is what creates us as individuals and a society.
What determines how effective these relationships are, Loomer said, is their size, their ability to grow and expand, and also to accept tensions and contradictions. At the Berkeley church in conversation with other members, he was said to challenge them to reflect, “What is the size of your soul?” Here’s what he said about that: “By size I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality.
“I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.”
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that our relatedness to one another and the Earth is not some random fact of our existence. It is essential to our nature; it defines us. And so, returning to Loomer’s remarks, when we look for the source of love in our lives, we see that there is no external principle of love that determines our interdependence.
“Love,” Loomer said, “is an acknowledgement of our interdependence. We love because we are bound to each other, because we live and are fulfilled in, with, and through each other. We love because a failure to love is a denial of the other, a denial of ourselves, a denial of our relatedness.”
By expanding our souls enough to add the “and” to the “yes,” – “Yes, And . . .” – bringing ourselves, our own creative capacity into play in the communities we join, we affirm what we already know in our hearts: that, while we see ourselves as many, in the end we are one.
So, here we stand at the threshold of this evolving community, a community that changes as we change, as the world changes, yet remains routed in the possibility of relationship that links us with each other and all things, that finds the sacred in this world, in this life, within and among us.
It is space where each of us seeks to grow, and so as those of us who have been here a while welcome newcomers, we also welcome each other in our continuing journeys, some of us also still coming out of identifies that didn’t embrace fully who we were, crossing boundaries that once limited our lives; coming with our loves, our partners, our children, our memories, our wisdom; coming to our senses, our awareness of that which holds hope and possibility; coming again to our commitments, to our deep knowing:
Come, come whoever you are;
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.
Come into this space, into this community that we create together, poised with possibility of thresholds yet to come, joined in the commitment to say, “Yes,” and with that affirmation bring our full selves into relationship with all that is and all that might be with our common endeavor.
Sometimes we need to take a step away
to see something we care about more clearly,
to size it up in the larger context of our lives.
So, today we gather in different space
with a big screen, stage and theater seating,
but none of this changes who we are:
people who join as one community
in an ongoing journey of religious discovery
inviting each of us to a walk of faith.
This space may feel strange, but it is soon made familiar,
for we hallow it with our hopes;
we bless it with our laughter.
May this time away renew our spirits
and inspire our service to the vision we hold
of peace and freedom, of justice and love
made real in beloved community.
SERMON: Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–
Randy Pausch would have been the first person to tell you that he had always been a nerdy kind of guy. He was the kind of kid who brought a dictionary to the dinner table and whose hero was Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.
Growing up in suburban Maryland in the 1960s and 70s, he persuaded his parents to let him decorate the walls of his room with his own drawings of cool stuff. His idea of cool stuff was a rocket ship, a submarine, pieces from a chess set, and the quadratic equation. He even painted a silver elevator door on one wall with up and down buttons and, above the door, floor numbers one through six, with the number “three” illuminated, in his one-story, ranch-style home.
Like many kids, he spent a lot of time in his imagination, dreaming about futuristic things like alien worlds and flying in space ships. So, for Randy the big event of his young life was a trip to Disneyworld in California. He couldn’t believe the amazing rides he went on and all the cool things he could do. He walked away determined to make stuff like that some day.
As you can imagine, Randy was pretty good in school. In fact, he went on to get a PhD in computer science and got a job as a college professor. But even then he hadn’t given up on his dream of getting inside the rides at Disneyland. The funny thing was that when he wrote to the people at Disney who designed the rides – they called themselves Imagineers – they didn’t seem to be interested in hearing from him.
Here he was teaching college students how to create virtual reality scenes on their computers. He felt sure he could contribute something to the people at Disney, but no dice. Randy was undeterred. As he saw it, those hurdles were there just to make him show how badly he wanted to do it.
One day he learned that Disney was developing a new ride based on the movie “Aladdin” that would use elements of virtual reality. So, again he pestered the Disney people until finally one of them agreed to meet with him. He says he probably did 80 hours of research for the interview and talked to every virtual reality expert he could find. In the end the Disney person agreed to let Randy work there during his upcoming six-month sabbatical. So, he finally got to work at Disney.
Randy tells the story of one night on a warm California night driving home from the Imagineering headquarters in a convertible with the soundtrack of “The Lion King” playing on his stereo and tears streaming down his cheeks.
And that wasn’t the end of Randy’s connection with Disney. Coming back to the university where he worked, he arranged for some of his students to have internships at Disney. His class on “Building Virtual Worlds” invited people across academic disciplines to enroll and turned out to be among the most popular at the university. Randy eventually was recruited to write the entry on Virtual Reality for the World Book encyclopedia, and the teaching tool he created to introduce students to virtual reality, called Alice, is being used across the world to teach people computer programming.
By the summer of 2006, at 45 years old, you’d have to say that Randy was a pretty happy, successful man. Not only was he a celebrated college professor, but also he was married to a woman he adored and had three young children.
But then came these strange pains in his abdomen that he couldn’t explain. A battery of tests gave him sobering news. He had pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly form of the disease. But Randy was determined to stay alive for his family. He underwent difficult surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, but in the end the cancer came back.
Walking out of that appointment after learning that his life could end in months, Randy realized that he’d need to find a different perspective on the days ahead, a perspective that helped him make the best of what life he had left.
One reason we know so much about Randy’s story is that earlier in the same year he received those disappointing test results he had been recruited by the university to take part in a lecture series in which star faculty were invited to reflect on their lives. It was called “The Last Lecture Series.” Never before, though, had the person giving the lecture known for a fact that he or she would not live long after giving the lecture. It really would be Randy’s last.
Randy wasn’t sure at first if it was a good idea to go through with it: preparing a lecture would take time from his family and his energy was waning. But he finally decided to go ahead with it because he hoped that sharing the passion that he had given to his life might encourage others to find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
I want to tell you a bit more about what Randy had to say at that last lecture. But first I want to talk to you about why it came to my mind to tell you his story at this service where we have gathered here in this downtown performance space in one strong body to celebrate this community and talk about why we support it.
Like Randy, most of us go about our lives knowing in a general kind of way that the days given to us are limited, but figuring that the time when those days would end are far off. Like the boy in our story we have moments in our lives when we receive love, or guidance, or wisdom. We experience how good those moments feel. We have a sense of being deeply connected to each other, to our own inner calling, and to the world. And we say to ourselves, “I’m always going to remember this moment.”
But memory fades. Life moves on. We get busy with other things. In his lecture, Randy talked about how he felt that he “won the lottery” with the parents he had. He grew up always knowing that he was loved and supported. When he headed off to academia – top grades, top honors – he was a kind of golden boy, feeling pretty cocky, like he could do anything. He was, he admitted in his lecture, a bit of a “jerk.”
Randy said it was a legendary computer science professor in college who set him straight. One day the professor took him out for a walk, put an arm around his shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Now, I don’t think that any of us necessarily arrives at this congregation as a “jerk.” But we all come here with things to learn and blind spots that limit how we experience each other and the world. Part of what we offer as a community is safe space for each of us to learn and grow. We gather for small group ministry, in classes, in dinner and hiking groups and more. All of this is religious work, for it connects us to life-affirming values that can help us grow into compassionate, spiritually mature, loving and giving people.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Randy showed up to give his “last lecture” wearing his Disney Imagineers polo shirt. Even with his PhD and other academic credentials, that shirt remained special to him because it symbolized a dream that had stayed with him since he was a boy that he was able to achieve.
And what made it important was not just that it was a childhood dream, but that it connected him to an important part of himself, a passion to create scenes and images that help people better understand the world. In a book he wrote about his last lecture, Randy said that as a high-tech guy, he never really understood what actors and artists were talking about when they talked about things inside of themselves that “needed to come out.” His lecture, he said, taught him that throughout his life there had been many things inside him that needed to come out.
And of course that’s true of all of us. The writer and teacher Joseph Campbell studied many different religious traditions, and the advice he gave his students about their own religious searches was, “follow your bliss.”
He was clear, though, that “follow your bliss” meant more than just “do what you like.” It meant finding that path, that pursuit that you are most passionate about and giving yourself to it. And there, he argued, you will find your own fullest potential and the way that you can serve your community to the greatest possible extent.
Here’s what he said: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”
Notice that Campbell didn’t identify any one track, any one way that he argued would bring you bliss. Rather, he said, it is up to us to find the track that is ours and to be aware that the track will shift and change as we learn and grow.
There are many things we find ourselves passionate about over the course of our lives, from baseball to ballet, from rose gardening to rock and roll. We are all of us Imagineers of a sort, looking for ways to put our passions to work in our lives. But beneath all of that is something more, some way that we feel connected more deeply to each other and everything around us. From time to time something resonates within us, perhaps in a beautiful spot, listening to music, reading a poem, or sitting gathered in worship or with someone we love.
We struggle for words to describe this feeling, this knowing, this emerging truth. And so in each other’s company we try them out. We venture haltingly, listen carefully, reflect what we hear and affirm, or simply let silence work on us.
When I look back at the trajectory of my own life, I am amazed at how I have changed and in ways that I never could have guessed, nor do I believe that I am done with my changes. But I am grateful for a religious home that makes room for those changes and gives me companions who are ready to journey with me.
That’s what a religious community like this is for, to create a place where we can discover and name our deepest passions, our places of bliss, and put them work in our lives and in service to the greater world.
As your order of service reminds you, this is Stewardship Sunday, when we kick off the Annual Budget Drive that asks you to make financial commitments that will sustain this community for the year ahead. So, here’s my pitch. I promise it will be short.
The colorful brochure you received today describes how this congregation proposes to spend its money in the coming year in worship, education, caring and outreach and to support programs and maintain the campus where all of this happens.
I must tell you, it is such a privilege to serve this vital beacon of liberal religion. In the eight years I’ve been your minister you have grown and deepened as a community and stood fast as an advocate of justice, freedom and love. I’m proud of you.
This year, though, our Annual Budget Drive presents us with a challenge. In recent years, we have used money from a grant and bequests to help fund staff and programming needed to serve the congregation we have grown to be. We need to close that gap with our pledges. I have worked with the staff to keep next year’s budget tight. The only significant increase for the coming year is a 2% cost-of-living increase for all staff. This is important, since many of our staff received no increase last year. And for some of our part-time workers it will ensure that we remain a Living Wage employer.
To do all that, we ask you to consider a one-time major increase in your pledge. Details are in the brochure. We know that not everyone is in a position to increase, although we are encouraged by the results of some of our first visits. So far our team has received commitments of $101,450, well on our way toward our goal of $640,000.
Thank you so much to those who have responded, and as you weigh your options, please bring to mind the hopes and passions that this community serves.
Even though Randy Pausch was, by his own description, a high-tech kind of guy, the religious part of his life mattered to him, too. And that’s why he and his family were members of a Unitarian Universalist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In an interview with the UU World magazine in the last months of his life, Randy said that the support of his church community had made a big difference to his family.
It was a place where, like this congregation, people heard the heartbeats of each other’s passions, where they carried the baskets of each other’s gifts to a crossroads where they could be shared.
Randy died on July 25, 2008, a little over four years ago. His family was with him, and he knew he was loved. I reflect that in the past few weeks I’ve conducted memorial services for two of our members, Joe Haun and Joe Major. And it was good to have a number of you there with me helping to tell their stories and comfort their friends and families.
This is what we do for each other. It’s part of the passion that we bring to this community, the love that we give and receive in one another’s company.
When I think of all this, my mind turns back to the words of our opening hymn, “drifting here with my ship’s companions, all we kindred pilgrim souls, making our way by the lights of the heavens in our beautiful blue boat home.”
I’ve said before that sometimes our sanctuary back on Edwin Place feels like a big boat, with all of us gathered together, sometimes sailing under sunny sides, sometimes riding out a storm. And even though this space today really bears no resemblance to that one, with you here I can almost imagine us there: a place where our hopes and passions, where the commitments we make to each other fuel a fire that keeps love alive.