SERMON: What I Learned on my Summer Vacation

OPENING WORDS

We gather this morning on the waning edge of summer, aware that time is passing and we are living the only lives we have.
We come together to be reminded of what is precious, what is holy, what brings our lives meaning.
We come together to be comforted in our sorrow and struggle and yet, be also challenged to carry on, knowing that making the best of the life we have been given is our duty and calling.
We gather to support and encourage one another, to strengthen and nurture our community as we gather fragments of holiness we find and shape them into a better world.
We gather in hope, compassion, and strength to celebrate our lives and all that is holy.

MEDITATION
Spirit of Life, known by many names and felt in our hearts, our spirits, and our very bones as Love, be with us.
As time passes and the world seems to move ever onward in a rush and frenzy: Be with us. And let us be with you.
As the days turn to weeks and years; and war and sorrow, heartbreak and violence, oppression and fear continue to wear at our souls: Be with us. And let us be with you.
As we grapple with our losses, our failures and our grief: Be with us. And let us be with you.

Let us be held in the warm embrace of Love,
The tender hands of Hope,
The gentle arms of Peace.

Let us join hands with each other, nurturing compassion and caring in this community, knowing we are not alone.

Let us reach out, into that lonely and frightened world, and invite others to come be with us as we bear witness to the beauty that is still present, even among fragments and ashes.

Spirit of Love, of Life that continues even in the face of grief, of Hope and Connection: Be with us. And let us be with you.
Grant us strength, courage, and wisdom as we carry on. Bring us reminders of joy, whispers of love and faithfulness as we continue our journey. Be with us. And let us be with you.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

SERMON

It’s hard to believe it’s time for this sermon. “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation?” How can that be? Isn’t it still the first week of summer—or even the waning days of spring? Where did the time go? How did we get here so soon?

The first lesson of this particular summer has been that time really does fly by. It seems like just a couple of weeks ago that we were welcoming our first intern. Now she is settling in to her congregations and New England, beginning her first year of ministry. It seems like just a month or so ago that we had our first workshops in our Sacred Travels program of Religious Education or started our Strategic Planning process. My head very nearly spins when I try to grasp that a year has passed and we have come again to the end of summer.

But here we are. Time does indeed fly. Noticing how quickly it passes has made me feel a kind of urgency. A little voice seems to be saying, “Pay attention, Sean—pay attention to every moment. Pay attention because any one of these moments that is passing may hold something precious. Pay attention, because each of these moments surely does hold something precious, and you don’t want to miss it.”

I sometimes fantasize about inventing a machine that would slow time. I daydream about this, of course, when I am most busy and overextended. If only I could turn a wheel, push a button, and give myself a bit more time to accomplish the things that I need to get done. If only I could grab a handle, enter a command, and feel the urgency, the hurry, the frantic and frazzled scurrying relax and melt away. If only I could create an extra hour here and there to spend with people I love, or read a good book, or simply sit and pay attention. I’m not asking for much—just the ability to control time!

Time has figured a lot in my summer learning. At General Assembly, I picked up the newest book by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry and one of our best and brightest Unitarian Universalist theologians. The book is called Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now and it is a collection of her sermons and essays. One of the premises of the book is that we have inherited from Christendom a certain sense of time. Key to this sense is the belief that one day time will end.

Depending on your temperament and what you’ve been taught, you might believe that time will end with a cataclysmic event—an apocalypse. Or, you might believe that someday humanity will evolve until we create a kind of timeless paradise: a world of universal peace, justice, health, and wellbeing. Or, you may believe a little of both. In any case, most of us have inherited a sense of time that is linear, that posits a beginning and an ending, with us somewhere in the middle.

Dr. Parker describes it this way:

According to popular religion, we are living on the eve of the Apocalypse. A catastrophic cosmic struggle is coming, when God’s forces will battle the forces of evil. Evil empires will be destroyed, and from their collapse will rise a new heaven and a new earth. In place of the thousand years of wrong will come the thousand years of right.

Religious liberalism has its own variations on the apocalyptic dream. Our version doesn’t imagine that old worlds are destroyed and new ones created simply by the act of a transcendent god. We put ourselves into the drama. We assign ourselves the task of dismantling evil empires, and we go to work hammering together the New Jerusalem…As the hymn “We’ll Build a Land” says,

We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken,
We’ll build a land where the captives go free.

I think Dr. Parker describes us uncomfortably well. That hymn is one of our favorites. The sense that we religious liberals are called to fight injustice and evil and build a new world of justice and love is a precious part of our identity. To question it may even be a little dangerous, if one wants to be popular. Dr. Parker continues, “I am grateful for the energy, commitment, and service liberal faith inspires, but I have begun to believe that this theological worldview may no longer be adequate for our times.”

Rebecca Parker is calling into question one of our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our purpose as religious liberals. She is asking us to stop and pay attention to a belief we have inherited from our culture. Should we continue to believe and to base our actions on the belief that we are living in a pre-apocalyptic world?

It turns out Dr. Parker is not calling into question our desire to do good works and build a better world. She is calling into question our concept of time. She continues: “If we can imagine that the Apocalypse is not ahead of us but already behind us, consider how we might regard our religious task differently.”

Rebecca Parker’s insight into our relationship with time caught my attention this summer. Her invitation to an act of theological imagination, if you will, was irresistible. What if the Apocalypse is not before us, but behind us? What would that mean?

It is hard to deny the terrible things that have happened. We have seen the Holocaust, Hiroshima, genocide, terror, and rampant starvation and disease. Why do we believe the “four horsemen” have yet to ride? There is destruction and ruin all around us.

What would it be like to assume we have already seen enough of the Apocalypse? What would it look like to live as if the end has already happened?

Dr. Parker imagines it this way:

The task is to walk among the ruins, find what can be saved, and gather up materials to rebuild. In the aftermath of the Apocalypse, the religious enterprise can be imagined as a kind of salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life—resources that are ready at hand, not in some distant promised land. After the Apocalypse, we accept our dependence on sources of life greater than ourselves and open our hearts to receive survival knowledge from those who have already found restoration. We know ourselves to be living in a time of breakdown and breakthrough, chaos and creativity, fragmentation and resourcefulness, pain and grace. Our tasks include tending to injury in ourselves and others, collecting resources buried in the rubble, and constructing shelters for body and spirit, family and community.

The more I thought about it this summer, the more I liked this idea of post-Apocalyptic theology. In some ways, the tasks of our religious community are the same, it’s just the timing that has changed. We must still bind up the broken, let captives go free, and build a land…but not in some distant future—right here and right now, with whatever materials we can find. We can no longer to afford to wait for something to evolve or someone to intervene. We can’t wait until we find some kind of perfection. We must simply begin.

I’m reminded of a Wendell Berry poem:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in their ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

This congregation has suffered some deep losses this summer. Still, what we need is here. We have come face to face with the reality that the only time we have is now. Our hearts are tender with grief. One of the gifts of this new way of looking at our task is that it reminds us that tenderness is a gift. It is the soil in which compassion grows. It is possible for seeds of grace and change to take root in this soft soil and break through to become like sunflowers—joyful, generous, beautiful, and a symbol of our yearning for justice and peace. What we need is here.

A post-Apocalyptic theology does not make perfection our goal. Instead, it reminds us to pick up the pieces and continue on. What we build may not be a celestial palace, but it can be a true home for our spirits: a home full of love, where tears and laughter both flow, and we know we are truly welcome. What we need is here. It’s good to be home.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS
adapted from Rev. Sarah Lammert

Go in peace, embraced by the warmth of our gathering.
Go in beauty, ready again to struggle on.
Go in love, building and rebuilding our tattered world.

Go, knowing that you will be blessed.

Amen, Ashé. And Blessed Be.

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3 thoughts on “SERMON: What I Learned on my Summer Vacation

  1. These words touched me daily back in July and now in search of inspiration this morning I am once again touched by the fluid truths found here. You are a gift and a light. I am grateful.

  2. This is an amazingly beautiful sermon, Sparks! I’m grateful that you shared it. I’ll have to drop in more often…

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