“A State of the Parish Address”

“A State of the Parish Address”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, January 29, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

Opening Words:

You must understand this is no dead pile
of stones and unmeaning timber. It is a
living thing. When you enter it you hear a
sound as of some mighty poem

Listen long enough, and you will
learn that it is made up of the beating of
human hearts, of the nameless music of men’s
souls, that is if you have ears.

If you have eyes, you will presently see the church itself
a looming mystery of many shapes and
shadows, leaping sheer from floor to dome.
The work of no ordinary builder!

The pillars of it go up like the brawny trunks of heroes :
the sweet human flesh of men and women is
moulded about its bulwarks, strong,
impregnable: the faces of little children laugh
out from every cornerstone.

The terrible spans and arches of it are the joined hands
of comrades; and up in the heights and
spaces there are inscribed the numberless
musings of all the dreamers of the world. It
is yet building and built upon.

Sometimes the work goes forward in deep
darkness; sometimes in blinding light: now
beneath the burden of unutterable anguish;
now to the sound of a great laughter and
heroic shoutings like the cry of thunder.

Sometimes in the silence of the night-time
you can hear the tiny hammerings of the
Comrades at work up in the dome…
the Comrades who have climbed ahead.


Last Sunday morning we welcomed back our historic Prescott bass, quite wonderfully restored and now with a new 4th string. I explained that back in the 1800’s a fourth string was feared to lead to dancing or rock-and-roll; that its original 3 strings seemed a modest godly number; and that even though this was by then a Unitarian church, most people agreed that one string was not enough.

I have since heard that once there was a man who played the bass, and he practiced his playing morning, noon and night such that his neighbors heard his bass-playing at all hours of the day. He was a dedicated musician! There was, however, something unusual and distinctive about his musicianship for he played but a single – that is but one, only one – note. He pulled his bow and produced but one and the same note always. Now after a while, the man’s neighbors became curious about this and they went to the bass player saying, “You know, we’ve heard other bass players and they play a variety of notes while you play only one. Why is this?” “Ah!” said the man, “those other players are looking for the right note but I – I have found it!”

This morning I will play a number of notes, some harmonious and some dissonant; indeed this is a state of the parish address, for mine is not the only perspective in this room and yet I feel responsible to let you know where I stand, what I see and feel.

First of all, since Megan’s installation last Sunday, I have been high as a kite…so proud, so happy. All the preparations, the processing, the praying, the preaching, the choirs, the kids encircling Megan with their singing and making her cry, the covenanting, the confetti, the conviviality, the flying clownfish once again circling the chandelier, the snowflakes…the affirmation, the enthusiasm, the hope…it was wow, just wow.

You know, when this meetinghouse was dedicated in 1817, Rev. Samuel Stearns cautioned that “(this) is not an occasion of mere ceremonial parade and festive indulgence, but a strictly religious exercise…Here let no unhallowed thing ever enter. From this place, be all appearance of levity forever excluded.” And in the peculiar magic of this place, flying fish and all, last Sunday was a strictly but liberally religious exercise. This remains, in poet Philip Larkin’s words, “A serious house on serious earth it is.”

That we should now have two full-time called ministers is a rare and remarkable thing, especially when you know that this congregation – more than most – has been and remains a hotbed of lay leadership. It is a challenging and delicate balance to strike between the need for strong leadership, lay and professional, and the also essential need for strong followership, lay and professional. Our minister emeritus once observed that the remarkable thing is that strong ministers create strong congregations…and vice versa. Together we are learning to be better leaders and better followers.

Sunday evening, after the installation, I went to my annual gathering of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn until Wednesday, and I’m going to use some of the things said and done at Fraters to frame this address. The Fraters (F-R-A-T-E-R-S), brothers (and now sisters) have had their pre-Lenten retreat at the Wayside Inn since 1902. Originally Universalist (and now Unitarian Universalist), we stay at the Inn and meet in the Old Kitchen where, with a fire in the fireplace and by candlelight we hear more-or-less scholarly papers written by our members. We worship (we even have communion on the last morning), and every morning we are awakened by a Frater who sings hymns and show tunes, recites poetry and knocks on our doors…Omar Khayyam, for example: “Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight,” etc. (Occasionally, he is pummeled by pillows.)

One evening in the taproom around the Flowing Bowl all of us sang everything from the anthem of the National Embalming School (“We live for you, we die for you, National Embalming School”) to Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Come to think of it, let’s sing just one verse of that right now: No. 199…stay seated, just the chorus.

I brought the flying clownfish with me to Fraters; he flew around the dining room startling other customers, and in our business meeting I was fined $500 for this offense, but then given credits of $300 for creativity, another $100 for chutzpah, and $80 for flying skills. It just encourages me!

I was asked to be a Frater about ten years ago and then I was among the youngest. Trying to bring down the average age, we now invite no one over 50. And we find some interesting generational differences. Older Fraters come to the retreats expecting, in addition to our business, to stay up late, talk, argue, cavort, play cards and drink, knowing that they will return home happily exhausted and a little hung-over. Younger Fraters come expecting peace and tranquility, sleep and tranquility, hoping to return home refreshed. In case you wondered, I am somewhat between these generations: in all things, moderation mostly.

I observe some of the same generational differences in the current state of our parish. Some come here for stimulation and action; others come to be de-stressed and rest. People come to church, wanting and needing to hear more than one string or one note, but many.

Thought-provoking inspiring papers were presented. In one of them Frater Helen Cohen (minister emerita at First Parish Lexington) addressed a letter to 21st century Unitarian Universalists in which she identified major issues.

Helen observes a dangerous trend in modern culture whereby “people want the world to end in their own time.” She means not so much the apocalyptic fundamentalists who predict some rapture as she means those of us who want our needs to be met while letting the next generation fend for itself. Of course, we see this in national politics but we also see it in church life. Focusing on ourselves, Helen says, is contrary to who we are for we are the ones who affirm a life that maketh all things new, we are the ones who revere the past but trust the dawning future more. We are most true to our faith when we are responsible to the needs of our children and grandchildren.
Unitarian Universalists, Helen observes, are sometimes blessed but often cursed by our individualism. Too often – meow meow – we are adolescents wanting to do our own thing in church but also expecting church to perfectly meet our needs.

Recently I saw a cartoon showing a living room full of a dozen cats…on the sofa, on the floor, on the shelf…each one with a balloon over it’s head, thinking, “I am God.” The cartoon’s caption: “The primary reason that cats will never develop a system of organized religion.”

Helen also observes how the American dream has been ever expanding in our parents’ and our own lives, but now is in danger of contraction. Helen’s mother, like my mother recalled her first vote (how many of your mothers and grandmothers were the first to vote?). Our parents’ generation saw the rise of labor unions, greater economic equality and limits placed on robber barons…all now at risk. Many of you remember your first TV, and now cell phones and IPads. We saw the civil rights movement, feminism, the inclusion of GLBT sisters, brothers, cousins…. And assuredly the American Dream is not yet realized.

So too, Helen says, it is the unique mission of the liberal church to change, evolve and expand its mission; and yet she also observes, many people regard the ideal church size to be the size it was when they came into the congregation! This First Parish – to your credit but also to the credit of those on whose shoulders we stand – is changing and growing.

Take our recently completed renovations. In making these renovations, you have been responsible to our children and grandchildren as well as to our own futures when we may not be so nimble as we are today. You made many things new. Accessibility has been an issue here since 1730 when settlers realized that Concord and Billerica were inaccessible and a new town was needed. Accessibility was enhanced when the 1st, 2nd ,3rd, and now 4th additions were made to this meetinghouse.

Nor will the need for accessibility end in our time for more still will be needed. We celebrate this most recent accomplishment nonetheless. I ask the members of the Building Committee Amy Lloyd, Karl Winkler, and Joan Bowen to please stand and receive our appreciation. You have no idea of how much these people have done. As token of our appreciation, we have these prints of the church made by our parishioner and town historian, John Dodge.

As we recognize these volunteers, we remember that church is a voluntary association and volunteers are our lifeblood. There are thriving lively committees and individuals who give of their time in many unsung ways. There are also struggling committees and unmet needs. Our volunteer coordinator Sandy Boczenowski tries to match your interests and abilities with these needs. If there are insufficient volunteers, pressure grows for these needs to be met by paid staff. Teaching in the church school and keeping the kitchen clean are current pressure points. Some would wish these to be paid positions. As you are able, I encourage you to volunteer. Eighteen volunteers are needed each and every Sunday morning to greet, usher and make coffee. You don’t have to do any of this but, as we are able, let’s cultivate a culture of asking how to help and saying yes when we are asked.

A state of the parish address must acknowledge that in this, our third year of having two Sunday morning services, it has not been easy and yet this too is a means of making our church accessible to those who seek its stimulation, its healing, its many gifts of faith and service. Later today our members will vote whether to continue two services. I know and respect our differing perspectives about this and yet, with the unanimous support of our Board and our staff, I join in hoping we will continue.

It will continue to be difficult and problematic (if I repeat myself, I repeat myself) but, like those who think the ideal size of the church was the size it was when they joined, we have made ourselves accessible to more people who need this community and the numbers show it. It will remain difficult and problematic to continue; turning back would be demoralizing; and as nearly a third of our Sundays have but one service, we are finding creative ways of bringing the whole community together at the same time. And, yes, we will find a way to resume an after-service discussion for those who want it.

That said, I completely agree that we must redouble our efforts at maintaining a feeling of community, intimacy, connection and thorough communication. While calls for community are a bit like the Pachelbel Canon, ubiquitous and repetitive, they are nonetheless real. Leave no parishioner behind.

People walk in these doors yearning – straining – to hear a variety of notes.

So many people come for the pleasure of hearing and joining our wonderful choirs. On most days of the week, the joint is jumping with three kids choirs, the adult choir, plus jumping junior and senior youth groups, and Scout Religion in Life groups, and small group ministries, and a short story group, coming-of-age, comprehensive sexuality education, Peace & Justice films, SMART Recovery, and sometimes Qur’an and adult education and, well, sometimes just because this is our chosen family. Plus our satellite operations at the VA and Carleton-Willard.

People come here to make noise in the world, to change the world, and to hear themselves think. A woman came here recently, she said, to argue with a God that allowed her to be abused. A man came here recently because, after difficult times with his children, he’d made a promise to God. God can be the furthest thing from many of your minds. As Harry Golden explained why some atheist Jews go to temple, “Well, Flanzbaum goes to temple to talk with God; I go to temple to talk with Flanzbaum.”

I’ve gotten into some trouble already; why not continue and talk about money?

Stewardship. We’re coming up on the time of year when we ask for your financial pledge. We’ll have many wonderful ways to call your attention to this topic in the weeks to come, and I must preface every mention of money by acknowledging that our capacity to give varies dramatically and that each and every gift is appreciated.

You need also know that our average giving is quite a bit less than that of Bedford’s Congregational or Episcopal Church, and lower than that of every comparable UU church in the area. Even our largest pledges are about half of those at the Congregational Church, the Episcopal Church and every comparable UU church. We can do better and in many but not all cases, you can do better and if we want to sustain our current program, our energy and our momentum, we somehow must. We’ll be hearing more about this and I ask you to hear this with your ears, heart, head and pocket as open as possible, hearing it as if it were the first time, which it is.

Just by the way, this year we’ve lost at least $20,000 in pledges due to recent deaths. That’s a big and considerably bigger-than-usual number but it also represents a bigger-than-usual loss as these were the brawny trunks of heroes, the sweet human flesh of men and women moulded about our bulwarks.

I am worn down by these losses, these men and women no longer with us. They leave huge holes in our hearts. And so we need all our generations and the next generation as well. The times they are a’ changin’ and it is incumbent upon us to prepare the way for that next generation.

I have been your minister for 22 years and both you and I will be relieved to know that I am unlikely to be here for another 22 years, but I am relieved and gladdened that our ministry includes that of Megan Lynes and Joe Cleveland, who, thankfully, play notes different than those I play.

The state of the parish is changing, revering the past but trusting the dawning future more. We need those of you who have been around forever. We need those of you who are new. And we need reach out to others as well. We’re still trying to figure out how to make all this work.

The state of the parish is very very good but it’s always dependent on what we – you – do now.

And so there’s good news and there’s bad news: As it was said by Rabbi Tarfon in the 1st century: “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”

Sustained by our past, our present and a vision of what we yet shall be, it’s all good.

Together, playing every available string and knowing that we won’t get everything right, we nonetheless continue to look for the right note.

Closing Words:

The Way

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I’ll make here my place,
(The road leads on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey’s done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

~ Edwin Muir ~