of Scituate, Massachusetts
First Parish
Unitarian Universalist Church
To Be a Beacon (March 2, 2014)
by Pamela Barz on March 3rd, 2014

To Be a Beacon
March 2, 2014


The First Church in Hingham, where we’ll worship next week, is more often known by its nickname “Old Ship.”  As you’ll see next Sunday, it’s called Old Ship because when you’re in the sanctuary, you feel like you’re in an upside-down ship.  It was built by ship-builders who built what they knew, so the ceiling looks like the inside of the hull of a boat.  Its nickname comes from what you see from inside the building.

Our nickname, on the other hand, comes from what you see from outside the building.  Our church is known as the Old Sloop Church, not because our building looks like a sloop in sail, but because it was a beacon for sloops.  The building before this one, which was built in 1774, had a steeple which was 95 feet high – 5 feet taller than the steeple on this current building.  In those days, Scituate was an active shipping harbor, and on foggy days sailors used the steeple to find their way into the harbor.  It was a sign of shore, a sign of safety, a sign for many of returning home.  Our name for the parish hall, “The Old Sloop Room” and the stained glass window of the ship in sail remind us of our history.  They remind us of how we served as a beacon for people looking to find their way.

I don’t know if sailors today ever use our steeple as a navigation point, but we can still be a beacon.  In fact, if we are to be a living vibrant church, we must make sure we are a beacon for those metaphorically at sea if not literally on the waves.  “Love Reaches Out” is the theme for our General Assembly in Providence this year and for our Union service next week, but “love reaches out” is implicitly the theme of everything a healthy religious community does.  Love reaches out to those who are seeking to live in wholeness and fullness; love reaches out to those who are seeking to develop their own understandings of truth and meaning; love reaches out to those who are hurting in body, mind, or spirit; love reaches out to care for the earth and all its life-forms; love reaches out to those who are trying to use their gifts and strengths to heal.   

Sometimes the call of love can seem overwhelming.  We look around us at the needs of our family and friends, the needs of our community, our country, our world, of the earth itself and think, “What can I do?”  “What do I have to offer?”  Feelings of fear and inadequacy can stop us from doing anything.  Like the widow in today’s reading who turned to the Prophet Elisha for help when she was overwhelmed with the demands facing her, we may look for someone else to come in and save the day.  But that’s not the way things work.  The widow in that story didn’t get the miracle she’d looked for.  Elisha turned it back on her – making her reach out to her friends and neighbors, and with their help, gathering the richness of what she already possessed to save herself.  

In her book Hope Will Find You , Rabbi Naomi Levy writes about how she came to understand this story in a new way:
I didn’t really understand this story when I was a kid, and I certainly didn’t understand it when I was an adult feeling angry and empty.  I thought it was just a legend about a miracle worker.  But now … I could see that the Prophet Elisha, who lived two thousand years ago, was talking to me, he was talking to all the people who couldn’t see what treasures they had.  He was telling me I had more blessings, more potential, more strength than I thought.  And all of that abundance wasn’t waiting for me in some far-off land or some distant time.  The treasures were already here with me, inside me, all around me.  How could I learn to uncover them and rejoice in them?

This interpretation of the story struck Rabbi Levy because she had come to a place in her life where she was living out of fear.  All she could think about was what might happen in the future.  She’d blinded herself to the riches all around her then and there, riches which might not keep away the future she dreaded, but which could help her deal with whatever the future brought. Her book describes how fear took over her life and how she learned to open herself to the oil within and around her which could wash away that fear.   

I often live like that – worried about the future – will what I hope for happen?  What if it doesn’t happen?  What if things go really wrong?  And I am so busy looking for signs of what lies ahead that I miss the things blooming under my nose.  Do you ever live like that?   

We’re used to hearing that the opposite of love is hate, but most religious traditions point us to a different polarity – the opposite of love is fear.  Fear may lead to hate because it blocks out the light of love, but fear is always at the root.  The great spiritual quest is to live rooted in the richness of the present, trusting that as the future unfurls, we will continue to have the resources, the strength, the love to deal with what it brings.    That’s what the Prophet Elijah was trying to tell the widow – she didn’t need to come to him in a panic looking for a miracle.  Within herself and her community she had enough.  But in a society which tells us over and over that we are not enough and that we can never have enough, the good news that love casts out all fear is hard to hear. 

Even in churches that message can be hard to hear.  Often we live as if we were the sailor on the stormy sea rather than the beacon of hope.  We worry about preserving the church for the future or holding on to the church of the past rather than using our energies to develop our powers of love today.    Though Rabbi Levy doesn’t spell it out, one way she learned to uncover the treasures she possesses is through the help of others – friends, colleagues, even strangers met by chance.  Like the widow’s neighbors bringing jugs, these others gave her what she needed in the moment.  And isn’t that what we do for one another in church?  None of us has the resources to be a beacon all by ourselves; none of us can spread love inexhaustibly; together we supply what each other lack.  As UU minister Mark Morrison-Read wrote, “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too
narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.” 

Of course you can’t be a beacon without a fire, and a fire has to be fed.  In UU churches we’re not very good about talking about feeding the fire.  And if this church is to continue to be a beacon of the free search for truth and meaning, a beacon of the inherent worth and dignity of all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or ability, a beacon of justice and compassion, a beacon of the power of love over fear, that flame has to be stoked by the congregation.  We stoke it in many ways – by participating in Sunday services and religious education, by teaching, by taking part in discussion groups, by fiddidling, by raking, repairing, building, knitting, making meals, by marching, signing petitions, and lobbying our legislators, by gathering food for the food pantry, socks for the homeless, clothes and toys for children.  We stoke it by sharing our good news of boundless love and compassion for all with others who need to hear it.  And we stoke it by making a financial commitment to the church.  We don’t make that commitment just to keep an institution going; we make the commitment because we have found a deepening of our life in this place and we want to make sure that deepening continues to exist for ourselves and for others. 

The narrative budget you received in the mail this week outlines a vision for a church that is a beacon.  This vision was developed by you, through committees and conversations in small groups.  It sets forth a vision of lively, heart-ful worship with lots of music and silence, spiritual education for us and for our children, of love reaching out to our neighbors in Scituate and our neighbors around the world, and of a building to house this life, a building which shelters, welcomes, and helps to inspire us, not because of its steeple, but because of what happens within its walls.  

It’s a good metaphor that it’s our church spire that served as a beacon to ships, not a private home or business.  In one of my favorite novels, a character says, “Something happened to people's minds when man learned to build offices higher than spires.”  Church spires traditionally pointed human minds to the heavens, to the divine.  They point us beyond ourselves and our personal goals and needs.  Church buildings are places where we come together to open our hearts to mystery, to be fed by each other’s strengths and weaknesses, questions and answers, struggles with fears and openings to love. 

Today, just as it’s countercultural to gather in church, it’s also countercultural to orient our lives in this way.    But, hey, we’re UU – let’s be countercultural and support this crazy thing called church and this crazy way to live called love.                                         - Pamela Barz     
 
Readings for To Be a Beacon
2 Kings 4: 1 - 7 
(Contemporary English Version)

One day the widow of one of the Lord’s prophets said to Elisha, “You know that before my husband died, he was a follower of yours and a worshiper of the Lord. But he owed a man some money, and now that man is on his way to take my two sons as his slaves.”
“Maybe there’s something I can do to help,” Elisha said. “What do you have in your house?”
“Sir, I have nothing but a small bottle of olive oil.”
Elisha told her, “Ask your neighbors for their empty jars. And after you’ve borrowed as many as you can, 4 go home and shut the door behind you and your sons. Then begin filling the jars with oil and set each one aside as you fill it.” 5 The woman left.
Later, when she and her sons were back inside their house, the two sons brought her the jars, and she began filling them.
At last, she said to one of her sons, “Bring me another jar.”
“We don’t have any more,” he answered, and the oil stopped flowing from the small bottle.
After she told Elisha what had happened, he said, “Sell the oil and use part of the money to pay what you owe the man. You and your sons can live on what is left.”  

The Task of Religious Community by Mark Morrison-Read
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed. 


Posted in Minister's Reflections    Tagged with Canvass, Beacon, Stewardship


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