Called to Life and to Love
September 23, 2012
Rev. Marta Morris Flanagan
Frederick May Eliot was President of the American Unitarian Association 1937 to 1958.
During his presidency Frederick May Eliot brought in Sophia Lyons Fahs to create a new approach to religious education, an approach that continues to shape how we teach our children.
Beacon Press, the denominational publishing arm, became a commercially competitive publisher, which it remains to this day.
In 1940, when the atrocities of the Nazis became known, the Unitarian Service Committee was established to assist people in need. The UU Service Committee continues its work advancing human rights and social justice in the United States and around the world.
In 1944 Eliot helped create the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an attempt to better serve unchurched Unitarians. Today CLF it uses social media and more.
And during Frederick May Eliot’s presidency lay-led groups were encouraged to establish fellowships, many of which grew to become congregations large enough to support ministers and which continue the work the work of liberal religion today.
Frederick May Eliot is responsible for much of what we know as Unitarian Universalism today.
In September 1955 Eliot was asked by a Boston Globe reporter why he went to church. Our reading is his answer:
First of all, I am looking for spiritual fortification. This is a very personal matter, but it is the basis of all the rest. I want to have my often wavering sense of the presence of God replenished, and renewed because this is my source of courage and faith for the daily struggle.
Next I want a renewal of the sense of human fellowship in the quest of a better life for men and women everywhere. I want my individual purposes and endeavors to be caught up into a common effort. In other words, I want to be made aware of the church as a vital institution with a program for the community and the world.
Finally I want my church to give me an opportunity to express my thankfulness for the privilege of living and serving on earth. I want to be reminded of the joy of life that is so much greater than the tragedy, of the kindness of human hearts that so exceeds pettiness, and of the love that never fails. My church does these things for me and in return I owe to my church a loyalty and a devotion that will help to keep it strong and extend its influence.
I suppose you go about your day much as I do, thinking about when you are going to pick up that much needed bag of fresh kitty litter at the store, or noticing that it is time for an oil lube and filter change for the car. I suppose like me you try to beat the traffic through the Alewife Circle or Lake Street from Route 2. I suppose like me you stand at the store checkout and take in the headlines on magazines: the scandal of a topless princess and the secret of younger looking hands.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Thus begins the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible – at least in most English translations. But despite the familiar and lovely ring of those words, they would be wrong.
In the fourth century Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. He rendered the Hebrew word hebel into the Latin word vanus -- which wasn’t a bad translation. The Hebrew word hebel refers to vapor, fog, steam, breeze or breath. And the Latin word vanus is where we get the words vanish and vane -- as in weather vane.
All would have been fine but for those later translating the Bible from Latin into English without much regard for the original Hebrew. They translated vanus as vanity. They said all is vanity, which suggests to our ears conceit or pride. But the original meaning is wider in scope, more along the lines of “Everything is all but a breath, fleeting and elusive:” the kitty litter, the oil lube and filter, the magazines at the checkout.
So much of our days are filled with passing matters. If we are lucky we receive wakeup calls, perhaps not as magnificent as the shofar sounding at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and our worship last week, but just as holy.
And here’s the thing, the reason I’m here not only as minister, but as a human being: I am here because this beloved community is so often what gives me a wakeup call, that calls me to what is life giving and love enhancing.
This week I sat in my office and listened to one of you tell me what it is to live with a chronic illness …what it is to live knowing you will die sooner than once expected. And as you spoke I saw in you not so much fear as much as wonderment toward life and death.
This week I got a call from a former minister here, Kathy Huff, now serving a congregation in Oakland, California. This summer First Parish member Doug Carson moved to Oakland to be with family. Living with Parkinson's, Doug is now receiving hospice car. Doug’s family called Kathy Huff. She came to Doug’s bedside with an old First Parish picture directory. Together they looked through the pictures and together they sang “Spirit of Life.” Three thousand miles away you are a comfort to Doug in his final days.
This week I received a phone call from a young colleague in another state to whom I am mentor. On Sunday night a lay leader in the Unitarian Universalist congregation she serves committed suicide. The woman had taught OWL, our values and sexuality curriculum, and been at worship that very morning. No one had suspected. My colleague shared what had happened, asked for advice and then sent me a draft of her sermon as she struggled with the right thing to say this morning to her congregation. We are tied to one another, bearers of life and love.
This week I visited Oakes Plimpton in the hospital. At age 79 Oakes had a seizure early Friday morning. In a hospital bed Oakes joked with me, still in good spirits, still amazed at the turns of his life, of life itself, and telling me about the corn he collected from the gleanings of local farms to give to food panties and shelters in the Boston area. Sometimes the Spirit of Life burns oh so brightly.
On Thursday night I went to the Pereli’s to greet Zoli and Magdika Gal fresh off the plane. Six of you were there. I joined the conversation. We asked about Gagy. They asked about us. I listened as you told Zoli and Magdika how Unitarians in this country were the progressives reformers of the 19th century, involved in antislavery, prison reform, woman suffrage and public education. You told them how we continued their work in the civil rights movement. You told them about gay rights. You told them about how eight years ago you stood in force on the steps of town hall cheering the newly married gay couples. I watched Zoli and Magdika’s raised eyebrows turn to smiles as they tracked your enthusiasm. It was contagious.
The prophet says all is vanity, all is fleeting, all chases the wind. But that isn’t the whole story. Week in and week out we teach one another about what lasts, what is truly important.
Opening hearts to life and to love that is what we are about at First Parish. Last week the church year began in earnest. Three classrooms had more than 20 children in them with no room to expand. Sunday night more than 74 teens gathered here in the Bailey Room for Youth Group. On Thursday morning at 8 am we had to squeeze more chairs into the Tobey lounge to seat the 15 adults who had come for spiritual sustenance and Lectio Divina. We continue to have covenant groups and community groups that can’t meet in the building for lack of space. Our space limits the occasions at which we can open our hearts to life and love.
And now after a year of listening and investigating options our leadership has boiled things down to three options to renovate the building. I ask you to attend the meeting after church to learn more. I also ask you to attend next Sunday’s congregational meeting to vote on the options. But here it is in a nutshell….
The first option is about welcoming all -- regardless of physical abilities. It’s about an elevator and a parent in a wheelchair being able to pick up their child from a classroom, it’s about a woman in a wheelchair being able to come and go from the bathroom. It is about making green improvements. It’s about windows, heat, cooling and living responsibly on this earth. It’s about enclosing the parlor and creating dividable space in the vestry that we might both meet with one another in greater intimacy and spiritual depth as well as do the work of planning and caring, serving and organizing that can make for more kindness and justice in our time. Estimates for Option 1 are between 1 and 1.3 million dollars.
The second option includes all that is in option 1 plus more. Option 2 is about welcoming all, literally with a wider entrance to the sanctuary, the vestry and to Mass Ave. It is about making space for us to move amongst ourselves on Sunday morning so there is room for us to be at home. It is about improvements to this sanctuary, this fledgling sound system, these furnishings. It is about beauty and function. Estimates for option 2 are 2.2 and 2.5 million dollars.
The third option involves all that is in Option 1 as well as some enhancements to the sanctuary and extensive improvements to the religious education space including a 3-story annex, flexible classrooms and meeting rooms. Estimates for option 3 are 3 and 3.5 million dollars.
The leadership is asking us to tell them which of these options they should develop further before the members vote on whether to proceed with a capital campaign. Let me say that again. They want to know what plans to develop toward a congregational vote on whether to proceed with a capital campaign. This is a chance to shape the proposal that will be voted upon this winter.
Last summer seven of us traveled to Gagy, Transylvania. It is a small rural village in the Carpathian Mountains where shepherds lead the cows out into the fields each morning and lead them back in the evening. It is home to Zoli and Magdika. On Friday I walked Zoli and Magdika through our building for the first time. And I watched their faces light up at the thought of being part of the vitality that is First Parish, of standing together in a common endeavor to heed the call to life and to love where it is needed, in the city life of the United States and in the rural life of a country still coming into its own, choosing what modern ways to embrace -- or not.
In this time and place, in Arlington in the early part of the 21st century, there is a ripeness for our message and our vision. Ask the youth who come through our doors. Ask Oakes and the gleaners in the fields in and around Boston. Ask Doug Carson as he faces his final days. Ask those who arrive in chairs despite the fact that it is impossible to get in and out of the woman’s bathroom without assistance, to pick your child up out of the nursery or preschool. There is a desire for the values and the work, the love and the life, we embrace. The question is will we make it available to others in our time, to our children and to our children’s children, the next generation, just as we have received from the previous generation.
This week the news told us of the possibility that Jesus was married. Maybe so. Unitarian Universalism has long embraced new truth, woven wisdom from the discoveries of science and history.
This week we learned something about 47% of the people in this country; we learned about the dangers of them and us thinking. Unitarian Universalsim has long affirmed the goodness of all, the haves and the have-nots, the documented and the undocumented, those of color and those quite pale, the gay, the straight and the queer.
This week in the flurry of political campaigns there was little mention of climate change. Unitarian Universalists have long seen nature as inspiration and sustenance to the spirit. We are inextricably tied to the forces of nature and are responsible to tend and care for the earth. And so we keep at it doing the work of investigating solar panels for our roof, and of changing our ways in a society marked by excess.
“All is vanity” goes the mistranslation. But the message remains. When we chase after the ephemeral and insubstantial ways of this world we are left disappointed, frustrated, and empty. When we are move through our days true to what is lasting, the spirit of life and love, we know joy, kindness and peace.
I suppose you go about your days much as I do. And I suppose you yearn much as I do to be tied to what is of lasting value, to the call to life and to love. May the work of our hands and our hearts continue to flourish.