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The Pillars of the Church – 9/18/2011

On a certain street in a certain town in northern Illinois that I know from my childhood, there is, or at least was for sometime, a rather unusual little building. Between two houses at the end of a fairly normal driveway there sits a little one-story shack that seems only to be half there. It starts out quite normally on one side – the walls start out a good bit from the right edge of the drive, they go up to the roof, the roof goes up to a point and then – nothing. The left wall goes straight down from the point of the roof and stops right in the middle of the driveway. There’s a door on the front about the size of a door you might have on the front of your house but its not on the front of the structure, its pushed all the way over to the left side. It looks for all the world like a one-car garage that someone cut down the middle and hauled the other half of away. Not surprisingly, there is a story behind all this.

You see, the two houses on either side shared a driveway, and at the end of it there was a single car garage. This was an unusual arrangement, but it was a stable arrangement for many years, possibly because the neighbors on the left didn’t drive. But then somehow or other the folks on either side got into a dispute and the neighbors on the left decided they didn’t want the neighbors on the right to park in that driveway anymore. There wasn’t anything they could do about it though – it was a shared driveway and they both had a right to use it. So instead the neighbors on the left went out one day and they tore down their half of the garage. By all accounts this did not satisfy either party in the dispute – the wisdom of Solomon apparently does not work with garages.

The shape of a space – its dimensions and elements and ornaments – all come together to tell a story. Looking at and visiting a house can tell you something about the people that make it a home. It won’t tell you everything, of course, but it will give you some hints as to the things that they value and that matter most to them. The same is true of this place, of our spiritual home. This building has been rebuilt and reshaped numerous times since the first construction on this site in the 1700s. One of the more symbolic changes is that the floor and ceiling of this room have a distinctive construction because they’ve been expanded. The original building was quite a bit shorter and the portion where I’m standing wasn’t added until many years after it was built.[1] That’s a story I had to be told, not something I could guess at just from looking with my untrained eye, but there are many other things to be learned about who we are and what we’re about just from being in this sanctuary.

There are several plaques on the walls surrounding us that honor members and one-time ministers of this congregation. Several express our gratitude to members whose hard work and financial generosity made it possible to restore our great windows. Another recognizes Phillip and Carroll Morrill, father and son, who between the two of them served this church as sexton for nearly the whole of the 20th century. As Carroll told it, he came here with his father beginning in early childhood to help him with his duties as sexton, and this continued for decades until Phillip retired and Carroll took over the title officially. Even then, the father continued to help the son do his job, just as the son had helped the father for years before.

Hanging nearby at the back of the sanctuary are a collection of gifts that signify our international connections as a congregation. One is a wood carving with a picture of a snake forming a circle around a crowned dove and the Hungarian phrase “Egy Az Isten”. This was a gift from our partner church in Trannsylvania. “Egy Az Isten” means “God Is One” – it is the chief slogan of the centuries-old Unitarian community there. The emblem of the snake and dove is one of their major symbols, a reference to instructions in the Gospel according to Matthew: “Be you wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”[2] Just to the right is a small painted cross with scenes of country life, another gift from our friends in El Salvador and the rural social service agency that members of this congregation have long supported.

That’s just a few of the stories that this room has to tell us. There are more that you would have encountered even before you entered the church today. The Greek revival façade on the front of our building was added long after the building was built, and it includes two pillars flanking the door. Approaching from the street, the open doors on Sunday morning suggest a spirit of welcome and hospitality, and the two pillars that frame them offer a sense of strength and solidity. The image speaks of a community that is open and accepting, and also resolute enough to endure and to offer shelter from life’s storms. The columns also call to mind for me – completely unintentionally, I assume – a feature of the first Temple in Jerusalem. It’s said in the Hebrew Bible that the Temple had two bronze pillars on the platform in front of the entrance.[3] They had names, Boaz and Jachin, and one of the theories about those names is that the two together meant that the Temple was ‘established in strength’.

That’s one of the most important things that we come to religious community for: a sense of grounding, of having something strong to hold onto. We need a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives in order to guide our decisions and help us endure when the hard night comes. We each need a sense of what we’re here for and what we are seeking toward and that is what we come here to get. As I was discussing with one of you this week when I met with you about your interest in joining the congregation, one of the particular gifts of Unitarian Universalism is our refusal to summarize ourselves in binding and eternal professions and creeds. Our faith has values that inform our living and a rich tradition of experience and inquiry that shape who and what we are. That spirit that courses from our ancestors, through us and on into our descendants cannot be restrained and bottled-up into a handful of human words. Oh, it can be articulated; here, I’ll do it right now: “There is holy power in every life and the only just and sane response to that truth is to cultivate the sacred capacities in ourselves, to call them up out of other people and learn from each other, and to use all of our wisdom and all of our strength together to build a world defined by compassion and shaped by the understanding that everyone in it matters.” That’s a one-run-on-sentence summary of Unitarian Universalism, and I’ll stand behind it, but the fact is that no one else, all of you included, has to join me in it.

We each get to come to our own crystallization of our faith, to wrestle with our tradition and our own experience, to interpret it with the assistance and support of a loving spiritual community and then to do the hard work of living it out. Because as Unitarian Universalists we are always attempting to make good the promise that one of our ancestors made, in answer to the question of what we stand for as a religion. “We do not stand – we move.”[4] And just as we have the freedom and responsibility to determine for ourselves what our faith demands of us as individuals, we have much the same job collectively, to name what our congregation is for. So it was that several years ago, we composed and ratified a statement of both our mission – what we are here for – and our vision – what sort of future we are working towards. Both of these are critical things for us to know about ourselves as a congregation, just as they are critical for us to know about ourselves as individuals.

As we practice our mission, the building we inhabit will necessarily change and evolve to better match the reasons that bring us together. The Unitarian congregation in Sioux City, Iowa was led in its beginning in the late 1800s by two women ministers. They and their people decided that the mission of their society was to be a home and source of hospitality and support to its members and everyone else in Sioux City. So when they got it together to purchase a building they didn’t try to buy a disused church or build a new one. Instead they took up residence in a skating rink and converted it into a meeting house – they set up partitions to make a separate kitchen and used the main space as a great hall for worship and for hosting dances and civic events. Plenty of their neighbors thought it didn’t look like a church, but it looked exactly how it needed to in order to serve the mission of the people who made it a church and used it for one.[5] How will our congregation’s Mission shape our community and the space where we live and worship this year?

Vision also shapes the story that a space has to tell. This is our great miracle story, as Unitarian Universalists: its about a farmer named Thomas Potter who lived on the New Jersey coast, before the Revolutionary War. Through his own thought and study, he had come to a belief in Universalism – that all souls would eventually be reconciled to God, and no one was going to Hell. He used to invite people into his home to discuss his position, but his wife grew tired of having to play host to their dialogs and debates. So Tom built a chapel on his family land and began looking for a minister who would come there to preach the gospel of Universal Salvation. He looked for someone for ten years. Then one night, a ship ran aground on a sandbar off the coast. They sent a smaller boat ashore, and on it was John Murray, a Methodist minister from England who had lost his congregation and renounced his calling as a preacher. No pulpit he knew would accept him, because he was a Universalist. John met Tom, and Tom found out what John was, and he got him to preach in that little chapel he’d built ten years before. John Murray went on to serve as the founding minister of the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester, the first officially Universalist congregation in what is now the United States. Thomas Potter saw his vision for that chapel fulfilled, however briefly, and helped contribute to the current of our faith.[6] What will our collective Vision for our community drive us to build in the coming year together?

I want to take a moment now to remind us of our congregational mission and vision as they currently stand. I invite you to reflect with me on how the life we share together, and the place where we share it, are in keeping with what we’ve declared ourselves to be for and about. Think about the message of our building and of our rituals and practices and everything we do here, and ask yourself how it matches up. Dream for a moment about the relationship between who we are, who we’ve said we want to be, and what our faith and this place and time that we find ourselves in are calling out to us to become.

The mission of First Parish Church is to welcome individuals and families who seek spiritual growth and nurturing. To worship celebrate and learn together. To respect each other and value our differences in a way that reflects the love, compassion and openness of our faith. And to strive to build a better community for all people. Our vision is to be a community of life-time learning and caring, a recognized source of active support to the larger community, and a strong and self-sustaining community ourselves.

I believe that we have a good start on that to-do list. And there are sections that I would underline for deeper attention, particularly striving to become a source of active support to the people of Beverly and the North Shore. In the coming year together, I want to call on us to spend some careful time with these two guiding statements, two pillars of our church. We need them to remind us of what we’re here for, and we need them both. We need them in order to move in the world ‘established in strength’. Without a sense of purpose, all of us and each of us is like a building with only one pillar. Like a garage that’s only half there. So let us work together to continually find what we are here for, and to follow that calling wherever it leads.

[1] This point is different from the sermon as originally preached, in which I talked about the building being cut in half and expanded. Thanks to our Director of Music, Robert Littlefield, for the correction.

[2] Matthew 10:16

[3] I Kings 7:21

[4] From a quote attributed to Lewis B. Fischer, faculty member of the Universalist Theological School of St. Lawrence University.

[5] Those ministers were Revs Mary Augusta Safford and Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon; you can read much more about them and other amazing women in Cynthia Grant Tucker’s Prophetic Sisterhood.

[6] The site of the chapel is now a Unitarian Universalist retreat center called Murray Grove. You can learn more about it here:


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