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All You Need To Know – 6/17/2012

And so we come to the close of another church year together. Our liturgical cycle opens each September with the communion of the waters, the mingling of the different rivers and streams that feed our common spiritual sea. And now in June, we arrive at the communion of the flowers, as each of us will take with us from this place a blossom to symbolize the shared wisdom and commitment of this congregation. Water feeds the earth, and the earth gives forth its wonder and abundance. Each of us comes to this community with our own stories, our own gifts, our own dreams and insights, and mixed together they serve to nurture new hope and possibility.

Today is also the last Sunday before the official beginning of summer, and while we do not close for July and August, there is no arguing that we have a different mode than in the autumn, winter and spring. Lay leaders will be leading worship services for us at Dane Street Beach this summer, and I am looking forward to attending and being spiritually nourished by them. But this is the last time that I will be in the pulpit for a few months as I take my annual vacation and study leave, which this year also doubles as paternity leave. So this is my last chance for a little while to say something of value to you.

As you may already be aware, people of my vocation are known, generally, for being verbose. And I think often of Kurt Vonnegut’s rule that any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what his research is about is a charlatan.[i] Since my work requires neither lab equipment nor higher math, I can hardly claim that I deserve more leeway than this. So I thought that I should find some simple summary to offer you all – something to suffice if you take just one scrap of theology to heart from this year of church. And I very nearly found it, on the internet, that staggeringly powerful force in so many human lives that seems at times capable of solving any problem, other than fire and too much internet.

A colleague of mine pointed me to a quote from Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman emperor who was also a noted philosopher. Here are the words:

     “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

That quotation summarizes quite ably my own understanding of what living is for. For many different reasons and in many different ways Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have, for as long as we have been, hewed to some version of that statement. Most took the first route – that God is just, and loving – but however the many voices of our tradition got there, they sing together in grand consensus: we ought each of us, in every moment, to do what is right, because it is the right thing to do. Nothing satisfies the spirit like the struggle for justice. Nothing quenches the thirst of the soul like the project of peace. Nothing nourishes the heart like the work of love. Treating all people with fairness and mercy and confronting evil in the world around us and in ourselves may not lead to wealth or to fame. It can cost a great deal, in fact; friends and family, the esteem of our neighbors, our safety, our security, and even our lives. But still to live a good life remains the highest reward; it cannot be bought for any price.

But I said that this quote almost summarized my central message to you cleanly. It might have fit together in a fairly pretty package tied with a much better bow than I can produce in real life, except that Marcus Aurelius never said it. He never said anything particularly like it. As nearly as I could determine, it is a set of sentences conceived by some anonymous modern person that came to be attributed on the internet to the famous philosopher. This does not mean that the words themselves cannot contain truth – the fame or anonymity of their author should not affect whether or not we take them to heart. But it makes their story a little less elegant, and it points to how complex the work of living justly is. In order to do what is right, we need to understand what is. There is always more to learn about the situation that we find ourselves in, and each new fact can change our understanding of what we ought to do.

Every day that we do not spend together, my partner Sara and I will call each other and ask, “what would you like to have for dinner tonight, honey?” Because food is a fundamental need, and we are each concerned with the other’s wellbeing, and our own. So we are ready to work together, to meet that need.

The need to find the compassionate, loving choice, at every juncture in our lives, is no less essential. Doing that requires a clear understanding of the world we inhabit and insight that extends beyond our own limited perspective. And that, friends, is what we have spiritual community for. To assist each other in finding what the moment demands of us. To listen together for what we are being called to do by that still, small voice in the heart that some call God and which draws us in every instant towards a greater wholeness for ourselves and for all the world.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote this:


A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.


No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.


This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,



His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.


We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.


The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.[ii]


Though we should never stop seeking to improve our condition, we also must not expect that our problems will simply go away. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling. The work of compassion, of living with an attitude of justice, even in an unjust world, is constant, and challenging. But it should not be lonely. None of us is marked, FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE, though all of us ought to be. The delicate, breakable quality of ourselves and the world we inhabit directs us to what is right in each situation. We must be ready to carry one another across the road, and we also must be ready to ask for help when we are the ones who need carrying. If that is all you take home with you from a year of church, I will choose not to be too offended. Because, if you truly hold it in your heart, it will be all you need to know.

[i] From his novel, Cat’s Cradle, 1963.

[ii] From her collection Red Suitcase, 1994.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

As May turns into June and the transition from spring to summer approaches, you may be thinking of some of the joys that summer holds. Swimming, perhaps, or the smell of fresh-cut grass. Time off from school, for some of us, or a chance to laze in the sun with a good book. As the weather gets warmer, I find many things to look forward to. But the fruit of summer is a particular treat, with such an abundance of it here in New England.

Melon and grapes and peaches and plums and blueberries, strawberries and blackberries – a personal favorite. The natural world seems to celebrate life with a festival of flavor and color; a shared reward after the trials of winter. (Though this year’s winter was far less trying than normal, I find myself anticipating the reward of summer no less.) The months ahead offer so much to experience, and enjoy.

There is a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew that says, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” The author reminds the reader that the health and goodness of a tree or a bush can be judged by the fruit it gives; so too with people, the reasoning goes. Certainly it is our actions and the legacy of our living that attest most clearly to what lies in our hearts. As you live out the summer ahead, I know that many of you will be away – far from our meetinghouse, or simply on leave from it. You may not have as many reminders of your own best self, from your spiritual community, to rely on. So please do not forget that the tree of your soul bears its fruit in every season. There is an opportunity to seek justice and practice mercy for every one of us in every moment – even when we are on vacation.

But also remember that the goodness of the fruit reveals the goodness of the tree. Go out and taste life, experience the world. Search for whatever it is that you need in order to know the sweetness of existence. We are each the produce of our living planet home. Let us be reminded this summer, that we are fruit of a good and wondrous tree.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


P.S.: Three things to say by way of special announcement.

The first is to offer you my deep thanks for all of the care and support and encouragement and love that you all have shown to my family and I as we prepare for the arrival of our fourth member. If all goes well, we expect to have a new baby with us by the end of June – this coincides roughly with the vacation I normally take in July, but please be aware that I will be less available than usual during this time. (Though as always, in the event of a sudden illness, death or other serious crisis, please call me.)

The second item is to congratulate the congregation on your unanimous decision, at our annual meeting in May, to become a host congregation for Family Promise North Shore Boston’s Interfaith Hospitality Network. Expect to hear much more about this in the fall.

And finally, I want to remind you that while we have a reduced schedule of worship and other activities during the summer months, the congregation is far from closed. Services, led by members of our congregation, will be held every other Sunday, beginning on the 24th of June, at 10am at Dane Street Beach on Lothrop Street. We began this practice last year, and its a wonderful way to get fresh air, spiritual sustenance and the pleasure of each others’ company. I hope to see you there.

At the Water’s Edge – 6/3/2012

[This homily for our annual Music Sunday preceded our choir’s performance of John Rutter’s Deep River.]

There is a moment in every night, hours before the dawn, when the quiet of the dark is at its peak. A time when everyone who was ever going to sleep through this night has already gone to bed, and none of them are yet awake. A time when even the sleepless grow quiet, and the world itself seems to be alone with its thoughts and waiting. It is a moment most often experienced by folks who work the third shift, by the parents of crying children, and by people who are worried about what the morning holds for them.

In a few minutes, our choir will favor us with a cycle of songs drawing on biblical themes and images, some of which come from the Book of Joshua. For those of you who might appreciate a reminder, Joshua is the 6th book of the Hebrew Bible. Its story opens just after the death of Moses, who led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through forty years in the desert, to within sight of the promised land. Leadership has passed to Joshua, and at the start of the third chapter of the book named for him, he leads the people to the river Jordan. They have only to cross it, and they will be in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the place of freedom they have been seeking for generations.

But before they cross over, the whole wandering lot of them spend the night camped out on the banks of the river. And so I have to imagine that there were a great many of that nation of former slaves who shared that night’s moment of utter quiet and uncertainty. Forty years and it comes to this: standing at the water’s edge, about to cross over. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Life holds many such moments, for each of us, when we find ourselves perched on the cusp of something hoped for, or feared, or both. Seeking a new job, or just giving up the current one. Beginning a new marriage, or ending an old one. Becoming a parent; enrolling in school; telling someone you love them; putting the bottle down – the more that the change matters, the more likely that it will wake you up in the night.

As much time and work as it took you just getting to that riverbank, it doesn’t make the crossing any easier. Because it’s not just milk and honey on the other side. When Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan they knew they were in for a fight, and the first stop on their itinerary was the city of Jericho, with its mighty walls. There is always a way forward, in every moment, but there are also a million ways to stand still: just keep quiet, or back down, numb yourself, and keep doing whatever you were doing, and being just as unhappy about it. You can only take that first step into the river when you are ready to reach out to the struggle ahead. When you can say, “Give me some new trouble; I’ve had enough of the old.”

Some of us here today are standing at the water’s edge, about to take some great risk, or not. And some of us are already in it up to the hip. And it might just be that one of us here today is exactly one footstep into the river, and it’s the step you took when you came through those doors this morning.

The songs we are about to hear come from the African American Spiritual cannon. The stories of the Hebrew Bible loom very large in that tradition because the experience of a people living in bondage seeking and ultimately winning freedom spoke profoundly to the everyday reality of human beings living in the inhuman institution of slavery in America. Crossing Jordan was a metaphor for the passage to the North, and often on to Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply. Crossing any river, in fact, had benefit for a person escaping slavery because the water broke up your scent trail, and made it harder for the dogs to follow you on the other side. Things were a little different in the biblical story of Joshua, however. It is said that as the people entered the water, the river stopped flowing, and they walked across dry-footed.

So whenever you find yourself in such a predicament – when you wake in the quiet of the night and ask yourself, “Lord, is going forward any better than staying put?” – remember that you are not alone in that moment. Your problems may be personal, and no one else’s struggle identical to your own; but there are others, all over the world and stretching back long before Joshua, who looked out over their own rivers, and wondered about how they were ever going to make it on the other side. If your heart lies in another land; if there is only slavery in one place, and the possibility of freedom in another; if the only thing more frightening than pressing on is going back, then press on – with such courage and determination that the river had better get out of your way.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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