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The Kindness of Strangers – 9/25/2011

This week I was an observer of sorts at a meeting of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the MFC, is the body in our movement that counsels those seeking to become ministers and determines when they are ready to enter our ministry. It was a tremendous honor to be with them for three very full days, and during that time I had the privilege of meeting the talented and dedicated ministers and lay people who sit on the panel together. One of these awesome folks is the Rev. Karen Gustafson, who serves in Madison, WI. When she had known me for all of one day, Karen told me a story and she said, “I’m giving you this story as a gift. Maybe you’ll preach it sometime.” And when she’d finished telling it to me, I knew I had to come right here on Sunday and tell it to you. Here is the story:

Many years ago, Karen made another trip from the Midwest to Boston, and she brought her 12 year old daughter along with her. They had gotten to the city and were walking from one place to another, through the Common and across Tremont St. to the public garden. Karen started across the street and – whoosh! – a car sped wildly by and came very, very close to hitting her. Turning immediately back to the sidewalk, she faced her daughter who was a few steps behind her. The thought that she had almost been struck by the speeding car was frightening, of course, but at least as frightening was the thought of what might have happened to her daughter, stranded suddenly and violently in a strange city. Shaking off the adrenaline, Karen asked her daughter: what would she have done if something had happened to her mom, and there was no one to take care of her. The answer she got back was this: “If something had happened to you, Mom, I would have found a policeman, and asked where the nearest Unitarian church was, because I know there’d be people there who’d take care of me.”

When Karen told me that story, what it made me feel was a fierce desire to live up to it. Her daughter showed such faith in our faith, such trust in our congregations and their commitment to practice loving kindness. It’s a high bar that she set, of a church where a stranger from far away, lost and stranded, could show up unannounced, and the people there would do whatever they could to help. That’s the sort of church I want to be a part of, though. It’s the sort of church I believe we aspire to be together. Last Sunday, after worship, we had a meeting right here about our Tuesday Night Supper program, about the free meal that this congregation has been serving for years every Tuesday to whoever shows up. The source of the donated food that the program was based on had suddenly dried up, and we needed to talk through the hard questions about continuing the program. Could our community commit to the major increase in volunteer work and cost that would be necessary to continue providing a meal to 35-40 people per week for 52 weeks a year?

And the answer that came back from you, loud and clear, was ‘Yes!’ Of course we can do that. Of course we must do that. In a moment that I found particularly moving, I heard one of you say that you could think of nothing that would be more important for our congregation to be doing than this. It is a matter of fundamental compassion to fulfill a fundamental need. But practicing compassion, living with compassion, requires something particularly challenging from us. It requires us to cultivate an orientation of trust.

I want to remind you of a story from the Christian tradition that many of you may know. It comes from the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus is holding an informal class, and when he talks about the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself, someone from the crowd asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

There is a pattern in the Gospels in which someone will get a little too cute for Jesus, and he will respond by taking them to school, rhetorically speaking. So the teacher answers the question with this story:

“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two coins, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”[1]

To Jesus’ audience, the priest and the Levite were respected figures, but the Samaritan was something else entirely. Samaritans would have been viewed as villains and enemies by the Jewish gathering that Jesus would have told this story to. The reasons are complex, but basically one group thought of the other as a nation of frauds, and while the second camp saw the first as a circle of fools. The idea of a Samaritan stopping to help an injured Jew would have been shocking and disorienting to a Jewish audience hearing the story for the first time. It disrupts the idea that the Samaritans as a group can just be written off as evil or worthless. It sends a message that anyone can choose to do what is right. And that happens to be a deeply Unitarian Universalist message.

Our tradition affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that worth and dignity comes bundled up with the power to act out of love and a sense of justice. So our faith counsels us to a certain sort of optimism about human beings, pulling us into an orientation of trust. The 19th century Unitarian poet Lydia Maria Child said that “Every human soul has the germ of some flower within”, and so we owe it to ourselves and each other to trust in the possibility of that flower: the potential in each of us for wisdom and compassion and love. With that in mind we need always to allow for the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. We need to hold firmly to the belief that it is always possible to choose to do what is right and good, and that life is filled with unexpected opportunities to care for one another. Such an attitude brings dignity and respect to every party: to the one who serves the food and the one that receives it, as both admit to themselves that if the world were only a bit different, their roles might be reversed. The stranger, the person who arrives in a community unknown and unrecognized as ‘the same’, becomes less a frightening uncertainty and more of a welcome possibility.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois pronounces at the close of A Streetcar Named Desire. Every one of us here, every life everywhere, has reason, at some time, to depend upon the kindness of strangers. The degree to which we are open to each new person we meet is a risk, and at the same time, the possibility in every moment is fresh and real. We serve ourselves and each other best when we accept the risks of discomfort, of disappointment or of being thought foolish in order to remain open to goodness from people we might have doubted. This does not mean that trusting everyone always, unconditionally and without any limits to protect ourselves. If the foreman refuses to pay your wages at the end of a fair day’s work, you should not go back the next day to work for him, until he first gives you what he owes you.

The experience of oppression – of systems of power and privilege, much larger than each of us but which touch all of us – based on race, gender, class, sexuality and gender or any other identity forms a powerful barrier to trust. But bit by bit, the bitter stone of prejudice can be chipped away by a faithful grounding in cautious optimism. Trust in our own deep worth can give us the breathing room to acknowledge where we have unjust privilege, and to seek to change ourselves and the systems that shape our lives. Trust in the potential good of others can help us to venture into partnerships across boundaries and borderlines, to risk meeting and knowing and struggling with people who do not look or sound or feel like us, and yet share the same beautiful and resilient human spirit. It is a vast and challenging undertaking, I know, and so I would ask you now to try practicing just a bit of it with me:

Take a moment to look inside of yourself. Find someone there whom you do not want to reach out to: someone who seems too strange to you to know, or who you know too well and too painfully to want to trust again. It might be someone you know personally or it might be an abstract idea of a type of person you can’t stand or can’t understand. It could be a sports team you root against, or a politician you oppose. It could be someone who has hurt you or betrayed you or harmed you. Do you have them in mind? Without the need to forgive or forget or pretend you understand them, let us take a moment together to imagine them showing kindness to someone else. Picture them hugging a sibling or petting a cat. Think of them calling to wish an old friend a happy birthday, or loaning their car to a neighbor in a rush to get to the hospital. Imagine the finer half of their humanity, not because it is all that they are, but because it is always a part of what they are.

I want to leave you with one final crystallized moment, one that has lived with me for many years. In college I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter.  The place had a strong, antiseptic smell, and when I began volunteering I had the feeling of being perpetually in the way, out of place, lacking purpose.  The staff sometimes seemed at a loss for what tasks to assign us volunteers, and as the only man in the group, I couldn’t even perform the one consistent job of answering the office phone. For a line used mostly by women who were seeking a way out of abusive relationships with male partners, the policy of never having a male voice answer was sound. But as I say, it didn’t leave me with much to do. And then one night I was present for the first time when a guest was being admitted to the shelter. She was a woman a little older than I was then, a little younger than I am now. She had two rambunctious daughters under six years old. At last I had a job to do: I was put to work making up the room where all three of them would sleep. In the moment that still hangs in a particular corner of my heart, I was tucking in the sheets on one of the bunk beds when I looked up to see our new guests, this woman and her two young daughters, standing in the doorway.  The mother watched me with a look of confusion and wonder and she said out loud, “I’ve never seen a man make a bed before.” I do not know where she and her children went when they left the shelter. I have no expectation that she has thought of that moment even one more time in her life. But I think of it often, because in that moment, I felt as though what I was doing mattered, like my life was touching the life of another in a way that hinted at the potential to do good that I knew I had but was hungry to find evidence for.

On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, we will all, sometime or another, find ourselves waylaid and in need of help. And sometimes we will notice ourselves in the role of the passersby, crossing to the other side of the road to avoid the fallen traveler. Sometimes, if we are lucky and open to it, we may allow ourselves to see what is wrong, to stop and give what we can of ourselves, even and especially though it crosses some line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But most of the time, all of these roles at once are present in us. We are hurt, and we are helping, and we are less than certain about what exactly we should do. But if we can trust that we, like everyone else, are capable of doing good, we will be far more likely to recognize the opportunities to do so. Let us never stop reminding ourselves and each other, of the flower that grows in the heart, waiting to bloom. So that when a stranger ventures through the door of our meetinghouse, we may trust them, and trust ourselves enough to risk finding out who they are.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

Come play with us…

Come play with us… We are off to an exciting church year. Our pews are full with both returning parishioners and new-comers. The same is true in the church school. Our classrooms are over-flowing and there is such enthusiasm and energy in Hale Hall. Please consider joining our church school family.

Children’s religious education classes meet downstairs in Hale Hall during Sunday Worship service and a staffed nursery for children under 3 is available. Our Greeter will be glad to direct you.

Many special events take place during the year. These have included a Halloween Party, participating in the Heifer Project, raking leaves at Hale Farm, Mystery Friends tea party, Christmas Pageant.


This year, our theme in the church school will be hospitality. This topic will mirror what Rev. Kelly will be discussing in the pulpit with ‘welcoming the stranger’. It is through hospitality that we welcome both strangers and friends into our church community. Through hospitality children learn to honor and respect others; an important part of the lessons learned at First Parish. While learning to be good hosts, the children will also be doing the following classes:

Preschool Class 

Celebrating Me and My World celebrates the wondrous qualities of the children and the world around them. This class provides children opportunities “to grow in their sense of trust and caring and to develop their self-identity and their sense of connectedness with all life.”

Kindergarten/Grade One Class 

Creating Home helps children develop a sense of home that is grounded in faith. The class will explore questions about the purpose of having a home and the functions a home serves, for us as humans and for other animals. The program speaks of
home as a place of belonging and explores the roles each of us play in the homes where we live. The program introduces the
concept of a “faith home” — our congregation — which shares some characteristics with a family home. Like a family home, a faith home offers its members certain joys, protections, and responsibilities.

Grade Two / Three Class

Timeless Themes explores stories from the bible, both New and Old Testament. Our faith has its roots in the Jewish and
Christian traditions and our society draws heavily from their values. Familiarity with the Jewish and Christian Bibles is vital from both an ethical and a literary viewpoint.

Grade Four & Five Class

A Kingdom of Equals, Jesus Radical Path to Love and Justice offers a Unitarian Universalist view on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Grade Six, Seven & Eight Class

The Gospel According to the Simpsons explores religion and morality through the eyes of one of today’s most popular TV families.

ASAPROSAR 25th Anniversary

Sunday, October 9, at 3:00 pm, Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport

As told through images, narrative and song 25th Anniversary Celebration of ASAPROSAR and its founder, Dr. Vicky Guzman. ASAPROSAR under Dr. Vicky’s leadership, has persevered over these years and continues its work even in the face of great challenges and Read More >>

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. Read More >>

OktoberFest Beer Tasting and Silent Auction

October 15, 2011 – 6:00-9:00 PM
Feeling thirsty?  Dust off your lederhosen,  text your friends, and come to First Parish to enjoy a variety of local beers, as well as bratwurst, pretzels, cheese and a silent auction.  Local non-alcoholic beverages and vegetarian food options will also be available. Read More >>

Out of the Depths – 9/11/2011


Narrator: “Taken from an article in the online news source The Onion, dated September 26, 2001. NEW YORK—Responding to recent events on Earth, God, the omniscient creator-deity worshipped by billions of followers of various faiths for more than 6,000 years, angrily clarified Her longtime stance against humans killing each other Monday.”

God: “Look, I don’t know, maybe I haven’t made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again. Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don’t. And to be honest, I’m really getting sick and tired of it. Get it straight. Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand.”

Narrator: “Worshipped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, God said Her name has been invoked countless times over the centuries as a reason to kill in what She called “an unending cycle of violence.”

God: “I don’t care how holy somebody claims to be. If a person tells you it’s My will that they kill someone, they’re wrong. Got it? I don’t care what religion you are, or who you think your enemy is, here it is one more time: No killing, in My name or anyone else’s, ever again.”

Narrator: “The press conference came as a surprise to humankind, as God rarely intervenes in earthly affairs. As a matter of longstanding policy, She has traditionally left the task of interpreting Her message and divine will to clerics, rabbis, priests, imams, and Biblical scholars. Theologians and laypeople alike have been given the task of pondering Her ineffable mysteries, deciding for themselves what to do as a matter of faith. Her decision to manifest on the material plane was motivated by the deep sense of shock, outrage, and sorrow She felt over the Sept. 11 violence carried out in Her name, and over its dire potential ramifications around the globe.”

God: “I tried to put it in the simplest possible terms for you people, so you’d get it straight, because I thought it was pretty important. I guess I figured I’d left no real room for confusion after putting it in a four-word sentence with one-syllable words, on the tablets I gave to Moses. How much more clear can I get? But somehow, it all gets twisted around and, next thing you know, somebody’s spouting off some nonsense about, ‘God says I have to kill this guy, God wants me to kill that guy, it’s God’s will.’ It’s not God’s will, all right? News flash: ‘God’s will’ equals ‘Don’t murder people.'”

Narrator: Growing increasingly wrathful, God continued:

God: “Can’t you people see? There are a ton of different religious traditions out there, and different cultures worship Me in different ways. But the basic message is always the same: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism… every religious belief system under the sun, they all say you’re supposed to love your neighbors, folks! It’s not that hard a concept to grasp. I’m talking to all of you, here! Do you hear Me? I don’t want you to kill anybody. I’m against it, across the board. How many times do I have to say it? Don’t kill each other anymore—ever! I’m serious!”

Narrator: Upon completing Her outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and She wept.


If you were born before that date and were old enough to remember now, you have a story about where you were on September 11th, 2001 – where you were when you heard the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Each of us has a story – we heard from the radio, or from a coworker, or an urgent phone call. A few of us in the room this morning were actually in this building on that day; there was a playgroup for young children meeting in Hale Hall downstairs, and the parents found out something serious was going on when my predecessor, our Minister Emerita Sylvia Howe, came down to let them know. I was still in college then, on a small, insular campus in the Hudson River Valley. There were two televisions shared by a thousand-odd students, and it took a while for the truth of what had happened to sink in to the student body. We wouldn’t learn until later that the planes that struck the World Trade Center had likely flown over our heads – the hijackers had used the Hudson as a roadmap, following the river south to New York.

Each of us who lived through it has a story and an experience of that day. The experience unites us, and ties us together, forming an unhappy fellowship. The singular characteristic of an event like September 11th isn’t that it was more painful for any one person than any other terrible crime or traumatic loss of life. The thing that sets that day apart is how broad the suffering was; a whole nation touched suddenly and sharply by death and grief, and a sorrow stretching far out ahead into an uncertain future. When we are truly in the grip of sadness – real, deep, painful sadness – our world is upended. Everything seems wrong and out of order. Normally, that level of sorrow is something we go through privately. A father dies, a best friend gets cancer, a daughter tells us she never wants to see us again; the grief and the hurt might be shared with us by a small circle of other people, but for most of the world around us, nothing has changed.

Ten years ago, it was different. There was still the immediate circle of everyone who had lost a person they loved in the attacks. But out beyond them there was a far wider circle, a whole nation of people struck in the heart as well, and pouring out tears for folks in a far away city many of them had never even set foot in before. There is a teaching in both the Muslim and the Jewish traditions that whoever takes a single life, it is as though they had murdered the entire world. This felt as though the taking of three thousand lives had somehow taken someone precious from every person in the country, far beyond the bounds of their actual family and friends. The private suffering of a terrible loss was instead played out very, very publicly. And because we had all gone through it at the same time and the whole country was in the same circle of grief, we didn’t have a friend or a partner or a therapist we could collectively call up or break down with. There was no one to reach out to who cared about us, but wasn’t connected to the catastrophe we’d just experienced, who could listen to us talk it out and hold us while we cried. We had no collective national support system to handle our collective sorrow. Instead we muddled through together.

It can be tempting, very tempting, in the face of our own deep anguish, to run from it – to try to burn it out with anger, or hide behind a false wall of calm. But that is a dangerous and self-destructive impulse, because as hard as it is, sadness isn’t a bad thing. It is a perfectly sane response to tragedy and loss. There is still a place for anger in the face of grief – anger has its purposes as well but when we try to make it a replacement for our sadness, we can end up stuck in anger, and unable to get out. It is only through sitting with our tears and permitting sadness just to be, that we can reach the hope of a renewed life after the loss. We just heard our choir sing beautifully lines from the 130th Psalm. It begins from a place of deep sorrow: “Out of the depths I cry to thee,” writes the Psalmist, calling out to a listening God, “Let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” The singer is eagerly awaits the return of hope, “More than those who watch for the morning.”

The waiting is hard, but it is made easier when we do not do it alone. Despair gives way to hope most readily when we have a partner or a friend or a religious community to call on to share our trials, not to stop the tears from falling, but to dry them when they have run their course. This is what I would wish for any of us in our private pain, and in our hours of need, when we lie awake and wait for the dawn of hope.

In the reading which David and Elizabeth just offered us, we had the image of a frightened, angry and terribly saddened God, giving a press conference just after the September 11th attacks. The events were so horrible and so wrong that she fell to just shouting at humanity desperately hoping that this time we would hear her, this time we would listen. And then finally, hoarse and overcome, she simply began to cry. We each imagine the Divine in different ways, but we could do far worse than to understand God as someone who loves us all enough to be frightened and angry and brokenhearted when any one of us does harm to any other. In its way, that is what the grief that flows naturally from every tragedy does. It reminds us that what has happened should not have been, as the still small voice within cries out that the world ought to be made better than this.

Ten years later, we might debate if we live in a finer world than we did just after the towers fell. But we would agree, I am certain, that there is still much work to do – for the will of God is still invoked to divide people, and not to connect them. But the next ten years remain unwritten, and now more than ever our country needs people and communities who are determined to build hope and wage peace, affirming life even in the persistent reality of death. I look out at you this morning and I believe that I see many such people, and one such community. Today we begin another year of worship and service together. May it be a bold and hopeful one.


[i] Adapted from The Onion, “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,”,222/

See You In Church!

In the last few weeks, I’ve run into more than a few of you here and there and around town. On the street, in a coffee shop, walking through a park – you going this way and I going that. Each time we stopped for a moment, and greeted each other. We talked about how our summers were going, or shared concerns about the big, scary storm that was then looming in our near future, unaware that it would perform well below expectations. And when we parted ways, it was only after saying something like, “See you in church!”

And now we have almost reached the fateful day when those many predictions can come true. The worst of the summer heat has past, and we return to another year of worshipping in our beloved congregational home. The reasons that draw us together into religious community are many, but I’ve been thinking lately about one particularly factor that calls us to church on Sunday mornings. I was reminded of it recently by a short piece of video someone shared with me, of a lecture by the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

In the video – which you can watch here, if you like – Dr. Frankl tries to explain the value of idealism with an aircraft metaphor. There’s a technique for landing a plane in a heavy cross-wind called crabbing; instead of pointing the nose of the plane straight towards the end of the runway, you point it into the wind, almost like you’re trying to land sideways. Done right, this lets the plane turn with the wind just enough during the landing that it ends up moving in the straight line it needs to follow in order to stay on the runway. This is the image that Viktor Frankl offers for idealism – not just for the importance of having high standards, but of having equally high hopes that you and everyone else is capable of meeting those standards. The world has a strong moral crosswind, and if only believe in others to the extent that they have already personally proven themselves, they and we and everyone will just go about life on a constant downward slant.

But if we make the decision to believe in the potential in each other, and to follow the hope of that potential being realized, it provides some compensation for that moral cross-wind. We, all of us, are able to better fulfill our promise as caring and capable human beings when we have other people in our lives who believe that we can do just that. And that is one of the most compelling reasons for why we come to church. Because here we know that we will be challenged to live up to our potential and to do what we know is right. And more than just a group of people with high expectations, we are a community that affirms a belief in the amazing possibilities contained in every human heart. Gathered together we have the opportunity to encourage each other, to share the lessons of our own successes and failures and to practice being not just what we have always or lately been, but what we might yet dream to become.

Our church is a place to grow and learn and hope and try and fail and try again. Its not a place for the already perfect (which is good, because they’re a very small market); it’s a place for anyone who wants to move even a little bit further in the direction of wholeness and holiness, and to help those around them do the same thing. So when one of us says to another, “I’ll see you in church,” one of the many things we are saying is, “I know that you can be even better than you are, and so can I, and I want us to help each other get there.” See you in church!

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


Office Hours: T-F, 9-1

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