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A Good Church Is Like A Great Bartender

For much of the history of our congregation, both on the Unitarian and the Universalist sides, both here in Beverly and in Salem, a Sunday’s sermon could be expected to follow a consistent format. Each began with a reading or readings from scripture – either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Testaments, or both. The sermon which followed was then expected to derive from and expound upon those passages. This remains the practice of worship in many Christian churches, and you can even find it still being upheld in a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations. But here, as in most other UU churches, we no longer hold to that practice. This is because over the course of the last hundred years or so, our religious movement has come to realize that the Christian biblical canon does not have a monopoly on the profound revelation that shapes and informs human life. We have come to understand that the truth is bigger than that, and so our tradition has come to draw its wisdom and meaning from many different sources: from the holy writ and wisdom of all the disparate religions of humankind, from the insights and new understandings of science, and from the raw experiences of our own particular lives.

This morning, I am returning to that past practice of grounding my message for you in a single passage of scripture: but it comes from the scripture of common life itself. Each year, at our annual auction, I offer for bid the right to choose the topic of one sermon during the following church year. That item was won, this past winter, by Pam Perkins. She asked that I preach on a passage from her life and the life of our congregation: the story of how she came to be a part of this church. So we will begin with that story, and my lessons drawn from it will follow after.

Pam loved Mike, and he loved her, and they shared their lives and lived together for a good long while. And when he got sick, Pam took care of him. And when he died, she was left with the memory of him in her heart, and also with a great many problems. The house Mike inherited, which they had shared was badly in need of repair. It was full of stuff: not just the stuff that Mike had collected on his own, and the things that Pam had brought into the relationship, but all the accumulated material of Mike’s father’s unresolved estate. Mike had been his father’s executor, charged with seeing that his possessions were properly distributed to his heirs. But then Mike got so sick that he couldn’t finish that work, and then he died himself, with no further arrangements for his father’s estate, or for his own. Which left Pam, in the midst of her grief for the man that she loved, living in a house with no clear owner, full of things with no clear place to belong. That house, and Pam’s grief, wove together into a seemingly inescapable web of uncertainty, and burden, and fear. Standing still was impossible, but at the same time there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

Pam is an adaptable and creative person – but that was no protection against being completely and utterly overwhelmed by the depth and scope of her situation. And she had support: dear, caring friends who looked out for her and did what they could to see her through a very hard time. But, and this is something that Pam asked me to be clear about in telling her story, that wasn’t enough. She was at a moment in her life that she couldn’t overcome all on her own, and that even the most compassionate friends couldn’t tackle for her. She needed help, on a lot of fronts.

One of her most immediate needs was heat – winter was coming. She was able to get a little help with that cost from the folks at Beverly Bootstraps, and it was there that someone suggested she might be well-served by seeking out a spiritual community. And that person, whoever they were, suggested she try out the Unitarians. Which is why, in the late fall, Pam came into this sanctuary, and sat in a pew near the back, and cried through most of her first service here. But she found something in that service to be worth coming back for, and so she did. Pam told me recently that the worship hour on Sunday became her respite. Everywhere else in her life was chaos, and what felt like an inescapable situation. Coming to church gave her a sliver of time in which to put that all aside.

It was not long after she first started attending services hear that Pam found herself standing alone at coffee hour, crying softly and hoping that no one would notice. But someone did, and that someone was Ron Sweet. A long-time member of First Parish, Ron took it upon himself to walk up to an unhappy stranger and ask her what was wrong, and what she needed to help make it right again. “What I need right now is a lawyer,” Pam said, without holding out much hope that it would lead anywhere. But Ron knew that there were a few different lawyers at First Parish, and that’s what led him to introduce Pam to Julie Low.

When they met at Julie’s office, Pam tried to explain the broad strokes of a situation she didn’t even fully comprehend herself. More importantly she tried to make clear that she had virtually no money to her name, thinking that there was very little that anyone would be willing or able to do when she couldn’t possibly pay the fair cost for their work. But Julie offered to take Pam’s case anyway, and help her escape from the Russian nesting doll of trouble she was in. “Do you have one dollar?” she asked. “Then that will be my retainer.”

Eventually, with the two of the working hard at it together, Pam got out of the precarious limbo she’d been living in. And over the course of that grueling process, Pam gained some significant legal experience from working with Julie on her own situation. The two worked so well together, in fact, that Julie ultimately hired Pam to join her staff, where Pam reports that she particularly enjoys being able to speak from her own experience with clients from time to time. To say to people who have just buried a loved one or are facing that loss, that she has been in a place like theirs before – and that now she and Julie are there to help them.

There’s an old piece of tavern wisdom that says that a great bartender – if they really are great – ought to be able to help any customer find a job, a date, or a place to live. This makes sense because a bar is a place where people come to meet each other, where the bartender plays a matchmaking roll – not just in uniting the lovelorn, in helping to bring together people with complimentary ideas, abilities, interests or needs. And the bar and the congregation have always had more in common than teetotalling churchmen like myself would probably care to admit. Both places serve as gathering points for diverse groups of people. Both offer some sort of purpose or collective ambition to the folks they attract. And both, of course, are most renowned for distributing intoxicants: alcohol in one case, religion. You may already be familiar with the vast corpus of mystical poetry – particularly in Islam – which equates the experience of the Divine with being sloshed; sloshed in a very good, very holy way, you understand. And it is not just the mystics who draw comparisons between religion and the love of wine; in a rather famous attack on Unitarianism which once appeared in the Princeton Review of Books, its author wrote that, in our anti-orthodox rationalism, the Unitarians were, “Reeling and stumbling like drunken men, intoxicated by their own theories.”

For perhaps as long as they have existed, people have come to religious congregations seeking some help in meeting their own needs: for health, and safety, and companionship. My grandmother, after she was widowed at a relatively early age, found her second husband through the church they had in common. Pam, you came here because you had a lot more in the way of needs than you could hold on your own. And because two of the people who were already here did a really good job of caring about someone they’d never met before – Ron and Julie, I owe you both gold stars – because of them, and your own perseverance and work, those needs actually got met.

In the age-old rivalry between the bar and the congregation we are already losing in the music and refreshments categories. If you don’t believe me, please consider: how many contemporary congregations play some rock music in their services, at least from time to time. Alright, now: how many taverns have pipe organs? I submit then, that it is particularly important for us to maintain our natural edge in the arena of connection, which we enjoy because you’ll find a wider variety of ages here on Sunday morning than you will down the street on Saturday night – and also, the lighting is better.

Putting people who need each other together is a great part of what might be called the community virtue of a congregation. This value is a bit unpopular, just at the moment. I encounter a lot of concerned voices from my colleagues railing against ‘community’, in fact, as an idea they equate with comfort and complacency. The commodification of religion, encouraging us to focus on what church can do for us, instead of the higher, grander, more ambitious callings of religious living. But what I say to you is this: the care and cultivation of community can be the single greatest virtue of our congregation, if the scope and the depth of the way we understand community can be kept large enough. As a network of relationship that extends far beyond the limits of these walls, out past the present circle of our members.

In the 16th century, the Jewish mystical thinker and Rabbi Isaac Luria crafted a new layer to the story of the world’s creation in the book of Genesis. In Luria’s version, the radiance called into being by the phrase, “Let there be light,” arrived in the world in ten enormous vessels. But those vessels could not hold all of that primordial light through their travels, and they cracked. The force which was meant to form a perfect, flawless world instead became scattered throughout the new realm of being, creating the beautiful, but imperfect world that we know as our home. That Holy light became embedded in the world as sparks of the Divine essence; so that the great work of the world is to gather up these shattered fragments of the perfection that might once have been and to form them back together, repairing the world. Viewed through this lens, everything that it means to be a congregation of people dedicated to searching for truth, struggling for justice, and serving human need in the spirit of love, is really all just different manifestations of the same ideal.

To sign a petition, to go to a rally, to challenge injustice in the public square; to share the truth of who you are, to listen to another’s equal honesty, to pray; to host a homeless family in this sanctuary, to greet a stranger at coffee hour, to serve on a committee. All of these things and more can be a part of that effort to regather and recombine what is fragmented into new forms of wholeness. That project which is called in Hebrew tikkun olam – the repair of the world. The work of this church or any other can be this. But it only actually is this, when move along each of these means of repair at once: healing ourselves, healing each other, healing our world. Neglecting any of these three dimensions and the church is diminished into an activist cell, or a mutual aid society, or a therapy group. All of which are fine enough things, but they aren’t, by themselves, what a congregation is meant to be.

There is a sacred story from the Lakota nation, about a time when coyote decided he wished to live by himself, away from the other animals. When he set out on his own, rabbit followed him for a while, trying to chat, hopping out ahead of him and offering to scout the way forward for him. Coyote wanted to know what rabbit had seen up ahead, but he was stubborn, and refused to speak; so rabbit turned back and left him alone. That night, as coyote made camp by himself, he lit a fire, and danced, and played the flute and drum, but he found he could not remember how to sing. The next day he came to the place where moose lived, and moose greeted him, offering to show him a safe, easy path through. But coyote was still stubborn and certain he was better off alone, so moose left him to himself. That night coyote made a fire and danced again, but he could not remember how to play his flute and drum.

After that evening, coyote met some birds, who chirped and sang and wanted to talk to him all day and night. But coyote barked and snapped at them until they flew off and left him alone. That night coyote made his fire, but he could not remember how to dance anymore. So coyote became afraid, then, that if he spent another day alone, he would not even be able to remember how to build a fire anymore. That night, White Buffalo Calf Woman, who is the great prophetess of the Lakota religion, spoke to coyote in a dream. She reminded him that his songs, and his music, and his dance, and even his knowledge of how to build a fire, all depended on things he had learned from others. When he shut them out of his heart, he lost the things that they had taught him. His only way to regain the things that made him himself, was to return to living among those who were different than him.

We become who we are, and grow into who we can be, by our connections to each other. We gather together in community because we are stronger in acting together, because we are wiser in reading the signs of the times together, because we can get and give the help that we need together, but first and foremost because we can only be ourselves – our truest, deepest, and finest selves – by being together. Pam, I am grateful for your giving me permission to share your story this morning. My friends, if you take nothing else from it, I hope you will hear this: in this bar, where the wine we serve is the intoxicating spirit of love and justice and wholeness and truth, we are all of us patrons and bartenders at once. We need to be connected to each other to realize the fullness of the sparks within our souls. So it is up to each of us, in each moment, and every exchange, to search for the new arrangement which will bring more light into the world.

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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