“A State of the Parish Address”

“A State of the Parish Address 2016”
Sermons by Revs. John Gibbons and Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, February 21, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor,
to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements.
The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets,
wind, fire, serve us day by day, and cost us nothing.
—from “Civilization”




A few days ago, a story in the New York Times began this way:
“Earlier this month, Noel Santillan, an American tourist in Iceland, directed the GPS unit in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik. Many hours and more than 250 icy miles later, he pulled over in Siglufjordur, a fishing village on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle. Mr. Santillan, a 28-year-old retail marketer from New Jersey, became an unlikely celebrity after Icelandic news media trumpeted his accidental excursion.”
How many of you, having placed your faith in your GPS, were ever led astray?
The same article continued, “Faith is a concept that often enters the accounts of GPS-induced mishaps. ‘It kept saying it would navigate us a road,’ said a Japanese tourist in Australia who, while attempting to reach North Stradbroke Island, drove into the Pacific Ocean. A man in West Yorkshire, England, who took his BMW off-road and nearly over a cliff, told authorities that his GPS “kept insisting the path was a road.” In perhaps the most infamous incident, a woman in Belgium asked GPS to take her to a destination less than two hours away. Two days later, she turned up in Croatia.”
And there was a couple who ignored a “Road Closed” sign and tragically plunged off a bridge. And so many people have disappeared in remote parts of Death Valley in California that rangers have coined the term, “death by GPS.”
The point of the article is that parts of our brains may literally be deteriorating as we become more and more reliant on artificial substitutes for actually thinking.

Place not your faith in your GPS!

So what does this have to do with the “state of First Parish?” That’s what both you and I want to know.

Well, I suppose it goes back to what I usually tell people when they ask how things are around the church. Often I say that it seems we have prepared the soil, gotten our hands dirty, planted some fertile seeds, mixed in good compost, had the right amount of rain and sunlight and then, wow, good things have grown. Plants don’t grow because gardeners yank them upward; they grow when the conditions are right.

It was just a year ago that we punched some good destinations into our GPS (remember these posters that are up there in our Common Room?): Grow Through Service; Embrace Diversity; Engage Youth and Families; Integrate Body, Mind, and Spirit; Reach Out Beyond First Parish; and Secure Our Future.

And, so far we have not found ourselves in Siglufjordur or Death Valley but, instead, there’s been an amazing Climate Justice Task Force that hauled Evan, Janet and Brown off to jail, and lobbied, and testified, and organized and is still gaining momentum.
There’s an incredibly ambitious ECO Conservancy Task Force working to reduce our energy footprint. In a few weeks, insulation will be blown in here, there and everywhere; and HVAC equipment installed.
There’s the Access For All group that will lead the service next Sunday (and, with a little luck, there will be new accessible signage installed later this week).
And there’s all our end-of-life programming that is becoming, not just a flash in the pan spate of programs, but part of what we routinely do at First Parish.
Just like comprehensive sexuality education for teenagers is part of what we do here – and, starting today, sex education will also be offered here to adults – in collaboration with folks from our churches in Carlisle and Billerica.
There’s fresh energy in religious education and youth programming, and fresh energy in social justice, enlarging upon our commitment to Black Lives Matter.
And, as for Securing Our Future, in two weeks, there will be a planned giving event here so that when you’re done getting arrested, and having sex, and when that messy end-of-life phase is behind you, you’ll still be making a progressive contribution to First Parish, if you know what I mean.
And when it comes to Integrating, Body, Mind, and Spirit, there’s that fertile juggernaut we call our music program, and small group ministries, and well, I’m sure I’ll hear from those I’ve neglected to mention.
And in almost every one of the things I did mention, they’re not happening because your ministers made them happen. They’re happening because you want these things and much more to happen.
There’s an old joke about the minister who visited the train station every day just to see the train pass by. “Why do you do this?” the minister was asked and the minister answered, “I just want to see something that moves without me having to push it!”
Megan and I don’t need to push. It’s like a bicycle that rides by itself: “Look, Ma, no hands!” It’s like a driverless car – but, yeah, there are still some kinks to be worked out with that. And this brings me back to the cautionary tale about the limits of a GPS.
We did plug in some good destinations and we’re making progress. We still have to use our heads and our hearts. We’re still quite capable of making wrong turns. I do make mistakes sometimes and we all do. We need place our faith in deep places of the spirit. We ever must be recalled to our better selves, that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
And as we began with the cautionary tale of the GPS, I’ll end my portion with a similarly cautionary tale.
In the early 1800’s, in the days when the great fleets of ships went out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to scour the oceans of the world, the most famous skipper of them all was Eleazar Hull. Captain Hull took his vessel into more remote seas, pushed the limits farther, brought home more bounty, and lost fewer crewmen in the process than any other captain of his time. This was all the more remarkable since he had no formal navigational training.
When asked how he guided his ship so infallibly over the trackless seas, he would reply: “Well, when the skies are clear at dusk, I go up on deck, rock slowly with the pitch and roll of my ship, listen to the wind in the riggin’, get the drift of the sea, and take a long look at the stars. Then I’d set my course.”
One day, however, the march of time caught up with this ancient mariner. The fleet’s insurance underwriters from Boston insisted that all ship captains be required to attend Harvard College for advanced training in the science of navigation. Three of the company’s top executives met with Captain Hull and told him that he must either go back to school or retire.
To their amazement, the old fellow responded enthusiastically. He had, it appeared, always wanted to know something about “science,” and he was entirely willing to spend several months studying it, especially at company expense. So the arrangements were made. Eleazar Hull went to school, studied hard, and graduated near the top of his class. Then he returned to his ship, set out to sea, and was gone for two years.
When he returned to the dock he was met by the company’s officers and members of the board. They asked him how it felt to navigate by the book, after so many years of doing it the other way. “It was wonderful,” Captain Hull replied with a grin. “Whenever I wanted to know my position, I’d go down into my cabin, get out all the charts, work through the proper equations, and set a course with mathematical precision. Then I’d go up on deck, rock slowly with the pitch and roll of my ship, listen to the wind in the riggin’, get the drift of the sea, and take a long look at the stars. And correct my computations for error!”
My point is that the state of First Parish is good but we cannot depend on any GPS; we cannot dial it in, phone it in…We continue to depend on what each of us does or does not do. Each of us. All of us.
Oh…and just one last thing about Mr. Santillan, the fellow who inadvertently went to Siglufjordur. He redeemed himself! When he got to Siglufjordur, he got out of the car, marveled at the scenery, and decided to stay a while. Reykjavik could wait!
Wherever we go, here we are. And we are lucky indeed!


A Pew Research Center report in 2015 states that switching religions is a common occurrence in the United States. 42%. of Americans currently have a different religion than they did in childhood. What are people hungering for, yearning for, looking for? And what is our response to that hunger? What can our beautiful ancient-future church offer the people of today?

In an interview, writer Annie Dillard spoke about how she constructed her memoir, an American childhood. She’s comparing the work of writing a book to raising a child, but she could easily be talking about life in a community like this one: “willpower has very little to do with it. If you have a baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, that baby will starve. You do it out of love. Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong. You don’t have to scourge yourself with a cat-o’-nine-tails to go to the baby. That’s the same way you go to your desk (or I might say, the way you come to church). There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t (…) against human nature. It’s what we are here to do.” When we say Love is the spirit of this church, that is our call, our mission, and our vision. I believe it’s that’s simple. But how we love is nuanced and requires us to stay relevant to the times.

Willpower is a weak idea, says Annie Dillard. And guilt is a weak idea; babies are not fed in the night because of weak ideas like guilt. Liberal congregations are not attractive, nor financially supported on weak ideas like guilt. They thrive on love and empathy, passion and a sense of mission.

What is it that people are hungering for when they come to church? “Our needs, if we’re honest, are really pretty basic. We need shelter and food and clothing. And beyond this, we need friendship. We need comrades in the struggle. We need art. We need a way to hear music often. We need trees and grass and water fairly close by. We need noble work, paid or unpaid, in the home or out of it; and each of us needs a calling.

For all these reasons, we need religious grounding. Some of us need a mature and sustaining experience of God. Some need prayer. Some need glimpses of the transcendent, a sense of something larger than themselves. Some of us need ethical clarity. We need chances to dig deep in worship. We need solitude. We need community.”

In an economy that we can’t count on, with a political system that is paralyzed and a polarizing election ahead of us, a national culture that feels shallow and self-serving, over scheduled kids, and anti-institution sentiments on an all-time high, we want and need places where we can build trust and create constructive, realistic, and heartfelt ways to engage in deepening authenticity with our world.

Here at First Parish we use 4 words to talk about the purpose for which we are gathered. Spirit, Justice, Community and Sustainability.

Spirit: We seek to live lives of joy and meaning as we question, learn from one another, and worship together. Strong, healthy congregations – like strong, healthy trees – bear good fruits. When the spirit of a congregation is fundamentally vibrant, generous, hopeful, joyful, compassionate, grateful, patient, and persistent…the congregation is doing well. That is my experience of this congregation as evidenced by many possible examples; but here is just one. I visited the kids for ingathering in the fall, and when I entered the Common Room, everyone age three to twelve was lying on their backs in a circle with a rock rising and falling on their belly. They were all so quiet and still for so long I could hardly believe it. It brought tears to my eyes to look at the peace on their faces. Their experience of church was manifesting peace in community. That’s worth more than all the words we’ll say here this morning.

The churches in our movement that are growing and thriving are not allergic to religious language in worship. They aren’t afraid to bless and to forgive and to talk about theologically heavy words like sin and repentance, or pray together or light candles in the darkness. When I come to our Tenebrae service every year I always fear that someone will storm out, offended at the biblical retelling of Jesus’ last week on earth. Instead, the darkness is haunting, the music holds us, words which are now familiar to many tell the story of suffering, longing, and despair, a human experience shared not in isolation but community. The transient and the permanent of our tradition balance each other to create a sustaining force. It’s true that this service isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But rather than scoff at it, those who pass it by, know that their own needs will be met in other ways, and that this offering may be just what someone else is has been waiting for. The churches in our movement that are growing aren’t afraid to go deep, in many different kinds of ways, and does it mean touching places that hurt? Absolutely. But if we didn’t do this, then what does that say about us? Religious experience isn’t just about feeling better, or repeating a ritual, it’s also about changing and transforming us, for the service of our world.

Justice: We believe in taking action to improve social justice both locally and in the world. Our actions include volunteer work, giving funds, and providing education on social justice issues. Two examples: Racism is incompatible with our faith claim that each person has worth and dignity. Our Black Lives Matter banner is the beginning of an important dialogue and we are determined to do more. We must do more. We are becoming known as a the eco-justice church. This past year, we passed a Resolution Declaring Our Right to a Livable Climate, led Civil Disobedience, marched and attended legislative hearings. Last weekend, the eco-justice group shared what they’d learned with 18 other congregations, and the ripples move outward. The word Mission comes from the Latin word to send. We’ve sent forth the power of love in action.

Community: We have a community in which we support one another and build strong relationships. We strive to make all feel and truly be welcome here and extend our connections to the local and wider community. What we call committees and groups could also be called our ministries – and we have many of them – all seeking to make the world a better place, perhaps working globally, perhaps working locally. Whenever we head over to the VA with kids and puppets and stories and songs, or gather up a car load of teens to volunteer at the Prison Book program, we are fulfilling our multi-generational, theologically grounded mission of love as the spirit of this church.

Sustainability: We want to ensure that First Parish continues to thrive long into the future; and this means sustaining our vibrant congregation, our historic building, and our environment. A budget is how we allocate resources, in ways that will best further our ministries. It has been said that a budget is a moral document – the way we express our values and our mission. We are financially healthy here at First Parish, but every year we wonder will this be the year we don’t break even. When it comes time to pledge this year, I encourage all of us, and that includes me, to be generous.

In conclusion, and perhaps most important of all, I invite all of us now to into a moment of reflection and quiet among us, to pray for our church.

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour,

We give thanks for the companionship of friends and new faces assembled here beneath rafter and beam, this ancient-future church which holds us all. We pray for the health of our church community within and beyond these walls. We pray that the GPS of life does not lead us too far astray.
We think of the young children in our lives who climb into our laps, and who will one day sit as elders in our pews. We know that our church today holds the children and the elders, the new hymnals and the ancient pews, the sonorous organ and the quiet before the service begins. Together we face courageously our fears and most profound wishes for our time.
We gather this morning to celebrate the permanent in our faith. Three unseen guests attend: faith, hope, and love.

And we gather to celebrate the transient, asking how may we be agents of newness entering our world? Knowing that churches seldom die from taking risks, we vow to take some. We are humbled by the call to lead. For if we don’t, who will?

We gather in recognition of our religious ancestors whose innovative ideas changed the world in which they lived: freedom, reason and tolerance must morph in specificity through time. Yet with these same ideals as our guide, we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. We are led by what is eternal and we stand within that power in the same manner as those who have gone before us. Aware of our own mortality and shortcomings, we reach for the universal and infinite.

In our work here today, and in moving forward, let us be filled with the great and abiding satisfaction that comes to those who give generously of themselves in the service of others. We gather with the aim to make life more abundant and worthwhile for all; with our church as the springboard for this abundance.

We have come to “do our best” for the good of humanity.
In our shared quest to make meaning, lift oppression and bring joy, may we keep hopelessness at bay.

With faith to face our challenges,
With love that casts out fear,
With hope to trust tomorrow,

We hitch our greatest aspirations to a star.

And we give thanks for so much immensity in so measured a world.


Closing Words

“If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves,
We must be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be so bold, so brave, and so loving.

–Rev. Joseph Cherry