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Still In Bud – 6/15/2014

Today is the third Sunday in June, which is the same day on which the vote was held to call me as your minister, four years ago. That was one of the peak experiences of my life, so it is a day I remember with vivid intensity. It was hot, damn hot, to begin with. The air was thick and wet, like it had already done the sweating for you before it hit your skin. Despite the weather, and the fact that we were just discovering how effective the new insulation in these walls was at holding the heat in, a great many of you came out to worship that day.

After the service you held a meeting to debate and decide: were you going to take a chance on this long-haired kid or not. My family and I – we were only three then, my daughter the same age that my son is now – went to the coffee shop down the street to wait on the decision. It was just a hint of something I would come to realize later on: that the Atomic Café is an unofficial annex of our building, and that there is no hour of its operation during which a member of this congregation is not either inside it or on their way there. We had enough time to get there, and sit down, and think about ordering something out of respect to the proprietors before one of you came with the news: the meeting was over, the vote had been taken, I was to be your next minister. The meeting had taken almost no time at all, either because it was completely uncontroversial, or because you were all very ready to get out of an over-heated sanctuary. I wonder if you remember this, Martha and Julia and Madeline – you were the first people to greet me outside of the church before I went in to say, “Yes! I accept! Hooray!”

On that day, I had already some sense of the things that needed doing, that we could and would do together. And after four years I am very proud of the things that we have done, that you have accomplished. We stood by our commitment to feed people who are hungry in this town, to grow the free supper program even as it has required more time, more energy, more volunteers and more money. We made a commitment to open this building and this sanctuary to house people who have no houses of their own and we kept and pursued that promise no matter how many roadblocks got in the way. We’ve found some creative ways to expand the spaces we use for doing church: to the park in the summertime, to our wonderful neighbor, Montserrat College of Art who’ve let us barter with them for Sunday School and committee space. And I am very proud that in less than a week we will be marching alongside many other people and organizations in the North Shore Gay Pride parade. More and more these last four years, we have become the visible force in our community for the generosity, compassion, and love which are at the heart of our faith.

Today’s blossoms were only half-promised and uncertain when I first joined you, so now four years later I want to look ahead, to what great things still wait for you to do them. What possibilities lie still in bud for First Parish, waiting to bloom? Your great strength as a congregation is in your hospitality – I take no particularly credit for that, you were like this when I met you. The joyous and needed work that I see ahead for us is just a natural expansion of this great strength: To refine and renew, again and again, the work of welcoming and including others as a spiritual practice. To weave a way of being together where everyone acts as though this is their home, and everyone else a guest in it. To reach out to each other, to new faces and old, from a place of curiosity, and genuine interest and concern.

But let me get a little more specific here. These are some of the challenges I believe we will be facing in the next ten years or so: Coffee hour is going to keep getting more and more crowded, and we’re going to need more space for the greater variety and higher attendance of congregational events and activities. That’ll mean making the most use possible of the building we have, which means making all of it fully accessible, which means someway somehow, we’re going to need an elevator. At the same time, we’ll be needing more space for more and more children and youth in the Sunday School. So we’re going to have to use some of that creativity and hopeful dedication that we try so hard to instill in our young people. Whether it means renting or buying or building, we will need to find more space for our Sunday School – and I know that we will find it, because I know that you understand how essential our ministry to and with children and youth is to who we are as a spiritual community.

But all of that is inward focused and the even greater unopened blossom I see for us is our place in the community of Beverly and in the larger world. You have begun from a place of open-heartedness, of interest in and care for the lot of those within and beyond our immediate circle, and you’ve let that lead you to try to fill some of the basic holes in our society. The next step is to add to the service of offering food and shelter a determination to strike at the root of that need. To ask why there are hungry people in a nation with too much food. To ask why there are homeless people in a nation full of empty houses. To put the same full hearts, clear eyes, and fierce wills that drive our service of charity to work in the service of activism. To start challenging the structures and the collective evils in our world that make people poor, and keep them poor, and make all of us who are not poor deathly afraid of becoming so.

The final half-open bud that I see is the place of this congregation within Beverly itself. It lies ahead for us to grow and regrow our role in this neighborhood, this town, and this region. To celebrate the 350th anniversary of this congregation’s founding – our 7th jubilee – in a way that honors our history and the responsibility that comes with it. To be a place of art, culture, learning, debate, and reflection for the people we live among – and not just the folks we think might one day sign up for our team. To put this great hall to work, more and more, in the service of the common good, and to take up our responsibility as stewards of the public space – Ellis Square – just beyond that wall. To help foster meetings between and across those invisible lines that too often divide us as a city and as a nation.

This is the season, in our movement, when new ministries most often begin. Folks are being called to new pulpits, embarking on new and exciting efforts, discovering for the first time what good work lies for them in store. There is so much excitement, so much promise, so much possibility in a new congregation, and a new call, like the one you extended to me, so recently and yet so long ago. Today, four years later, I do not have quite that same giddy energy, like a child unwrapping a new and coveted gift.

What I feel is something deeper, something clearer, and something far, far better. I feel the hope that comes from knowing you, of seeing what you are capable of and coming to believe that you have even finer things within you. My sense of what lies ahead as I stand in your pulpit comes not just from that one whirlwind week we spent getting acquainted over almost-daily potlucks, but from years spent with the privilege of being your minister. I hope for many more. So much of what this congregation can do, and can be, waits to be realized. I want to realize it, together, with you.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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