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And Now for a Message From Our Sponsors – 3/1/2015

About two years ago, the early-morning commuters driving along Old Street, in London, faced a rather unusual hazard. Rolling about in the traffic lane, bouncing back and forth between the buildings on either side of the street, was a beach ball. The ball was exactly the sort that you might expect to take with you on a trip to the ocean, or to see being knocked around the crowd at an outdoor concert, except that this particular beach ball was enormous – as in, larger than the average house. BIG. And there it was, just rolling about in the street.

This strange situation had come about because a building development company was renovating a vacant building in the neighborhood and turning it into an office building. At the end of the construction, the new property was projected to be so energy-efficient that it would produce 162 fewer tons of carbon dioxide than an equivalent facility with less stringent environmental standards would have. The construction company was rather proud of this fact, and wanted to advertise it as a selling point for their new building. So they got a super-sized beach ball – bit enough to hold roughly one ton of carbon dioxide – and attached it to the roof of their building. And then, a severe windstorm hit the city, and knocked the ball loose right around dawn. There was some chaos and confusion until one heroic motorist managed to pop the ball and keep it pinned in place with his car. Luckily, no one was harmed, but the whole odd affair comes, it seems to me, with an important lesson: advertising doesn’t always work out the way you expect.

We live our lives surrounded by advertisements: messages in words or pictures, video or music, all of which are trying to sell us something. A hamburger, a car, or a new brand of fabric softener. A weight-loss system, a political candidate, or a new city to move your home or business to. A song, a website, or a television show – which is particularly ironic because often each of those last three things come bundled with advertisements of their own. Something we want to watch, or read, or listen to comes at the price of enduring an advertisement. Every seven minutes or so they cut into the news or the sit-com you’re watching. Before you can see that funny cat video someone sent you, you’ll have to watch this pharmaceutical commercial first. In the early days of television, and well before that in radio, the advertisements on which the medium depended were often given an introductions that has become something of a stock phrase in our culture: “and now for a message from our sponsors.”

This Sunday is the peak of our congregation’s canvass season. It’s the time when we are talking about generosity and stewardship; talking about sharing our gifts and living our values; talking about money, and why this congregation needs some of however much we have. It can be tempting to compare this time to the advertisements that accompany our radio-listening and tv-watching: the unavoidable price of experiencing something we enjoy. The annual interruption of our regularly scheduled program about the search for truth, the struggle for justice, and the cultivation of love and compassion in each of our hearts. First a hymn, and then a prayer, and now and for a message from our sponsors.

It is tempting to see things this way, but I am here to tell you that it is not so. That, in fact, the canvass season, and this service in particular, is a time when we tune in to what is most precious and essential about life in religious community. Here it is, then: what is best about being a part of this or any other congregation is that it expects something of us. Spiritual community challenges us, it calls us to take risks, to attempt things we cannot reasonably expect to succeed at, and to give of ourselves in service to needs that are deep and real. In a world that whipsaws between the emptiness of disconnection disguised as freedom and the cruelty of injustice masquerading as order, the congregation we share asks of us without taking, and gives without denying us the opportunity to reciprocate.

Now certainly, sustaining this congregation is not our highest aim – our purpose must always be greater than mere self-preservation. The covenant we read each week speaks of love and service, peace, truth, and mutual aid. Nowhere does it mention shelling out enough cash to keep the lights on. But we have chosen to come together in the quest for meaning and the project of building a world of justice and peace, and this congregation is the means we have chosen to pursue those lofty ideals. Similarly, money is far from the only resource our community requires in order to flourish and grow: it needs creativity and memory, clear vision and moral courage, and a tremendous amount of hard work. But without the means to keep these lights on, to run the heat in winter, to patch the roof when it leaks, and to pay fairly and honorably for a staff whose own hard work puts music in our ears, an order of worship in our hands, love and self-respect into our children’s hearts, and cleans up just about everything else off the floor – without the money that allows for all of these things, it is possible there might still be a church. But it would not be this church, and it would not be capable of doing all the things that our present congregation does. It would not be capable of dreaming all the dreams that our current configuration allows us to envision.

There is a very famous work by the Persian poet Attar – in English its title is, “The Conference of the Birds.” The poem tells a story in which all the birds of the earth come together to choose a king to rule over them. There is debate and disagreement – their expectations for a leader are, perhaps understandably, pretty high. And then there comes the suggestion among them that the only creature who could possibly reach all their exacting standards would be the simurgh – a bird of legend and magical power, a bit like the more familiar phoenix. So the conference of the birds flew together on a far-ranging quest to find the simurgh.

At the end of their journey they came to the home of the simurgh, but instead of a tremendous, majestic bird, there was a lake. Together as one, the peered into the mirror surface of the water. Each of them saw all of them staring back. Each of the birds was different, each with its own gifts and faults. Separately, none of them could hope to meet the expectations they held for their king. But together – that was a different possibility.

We are this church – together. No one of us alone is all of it, but it takes all of us together to make the one of it. Stare into the pond and see yourself; see the many others beside you – whether here today, or at home, or in the hospital, or anywhere else. See also the faces of those who came before us, who built this place up, sustained it, and passed it on. Finally, see those who have not yet arrived. The folks who haven’t yet reached us and whom we have yet to reach. If we were to take a moment out of the service for a message from our sponsors, these – you – would be them.

Advertising doesn’t always work out the way you expect. The same is true of anything that tries to stir us to action. Life in religious community, for this reason, comes with some guarantee of surprise. Its best sort of surprise – the call to do things that we don’t think we can – is made possible because time and again we choose to do what we know we can in order to help this church flourish and grow. So thank you friends, for all that you do and all you have given, and thank you also for what you are about to give.



First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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