Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn on January 7, 2018

Happy new year. I was in South Carolina visiting my mom and stepdad last weekend. It was normal winter weather down there, but Carolinians were not dealing with it very well, as many of them don’t own proper outwear. I saw people running around with sweaters draped over their heads. And of course we have been in a devastating deep freeze here. I hope you all made it through the storm with everything intact that should be intact. I seem to have a leak in my roof but– knock on wood– no pipes burst. I know some of you have lost water or power. I’m very grateful everyone is safe.

I’m sore from shoveling…

In 1976, on this very date, our beautiful Byzantine-Gothic Universalist church on Nahant Street that was built in 1873 burned to the ground. It was a six-alarm fire that called in 400 firefighters from Lynn and fourteen surrounding communities fire departments from as far away as Boston.  Wil Boynton was the church president at the time. After the fire had burned out, Wil picked up a foundation stone and carried it away. He held onto it for forty years and it is now on display in the hallway case. I have left some postcards out on the usher’s table if you’ve never seen an image of the church’s interior. It was at one time the largest Universalist congregation in the country but by 1976 the Unitarians and the Universalists had officially merged their denominations, and in Lynn, the Unitarian Church (another important historic congregation) had closed their building and merged with the Universalists, so the church that burned down was a UU church.

After the fire, the congregation worshiped at Temple Beth-El in Swampscott (because of a friendship between the rabbi and Rev. Robert Slater, which shows how important local clergy fellowship is) — and then in the Universalist church on Burrill Street, the so-called Chapel Of The Rugs where Rowe Austin grew up. The building was small so they had two worship services on Sundays and held congregational meetings in a variety of locations big enough to hold that large a crowd. Here are some of the organizations s that extended hospitality: the Seventh=Day Adventist Church, Nelson Darling’s Motor Inn on Preston Beach, the First Church UCC on the town green in Swampscott, the Masons

And then this lovely church was designed by Chinese architect Paul Sun and constructed in Swampscott. Ray King and Nelson Darling, both right here this morning, were members of the building committee.

So here we are, risen from the ashes of that fire so long ago. Huge cathedrals like the one that burned are extremely expensive to maintain, and the congregation was dwindling in size, so there is reason to say that the fire, traumatic as it was, and as much loss as it precipitated, was somewhat liberating. We reside now in a 30-year old building with a strong new roof. There is a new ministry team made up of members who are doing the heroic task of sorting through a huge amount of records and archives and all sorts of relics from the old building. Some of what they have found is in the display cases in the Fellowship Room. Take a look sometime when you go down the corridors. We hope the Church History Ministry Team might give a presentation at some point that acquaints us with more of our background

When I was visiting my mom, she and I had one of those Abbott and Costello conversations where you circle around each other in total confusion even though you’re using perfectly ordinary terms. She was telling me that there was “a new church” across the street from her neighborhood. There had been a church building there all along which I had seen many times so I said, “How is that church new?” and she said, “Well, it’s just opened, it’s a new church” and I said, “But it’s been there, it’s not new!” and it turned out that what she meant was that a new CONGREGATION had gathered in that same building, which caused me to say, rather haughtily, I’m afraid, “OH, well, a CHURCH isn’t the building, Mom. It’s not a new CHURCH it’s a new CONGREGATION there.”  I think she ignored me or changed the subject, and I don’t blame her. This can seem like a very picky distinction.

But I thought about the difference between a church and a congregation a lot in the days to come. I thought about this community around us – Swampscott, Marblehead, Lynn, Salem, Peabody –and I wondered: does the general public know or care about the difference between a church and a congregation? More to the point, do people understand that the churches they generally appreciate having around, (because they have the general idea that the church does good things and tries to help people, and stands for something they sense might be important to lend a solemnity and depth to such occasions as weddings and funerals and the birth of a child) do they realize that the churches don’t just do that eternally and mechanically but that they need a living congregation in them or else they are literally nothing BUT a building?

Do you see what I’m asking? Let me phrase it as a statement rather than a question, then:

I think that people generally have a vague sense that churches try to do good things. I think they are generally glad that churches are still around. I know from experience that a lot of people are especially grateful that churches and houses of worship are still around to lend a depth and meaning to rites of passage like birth, death and marriage. But I think that most people have not really thought about the fact that what they call “the church” would cease to be that if there was no congregation active within the building.

Because we have no state-sponsored religion, as was once the case in the early decades of the Unitarian religion, when a congregation can no longer support its own worship and program life, there will not be a lone minister rattling around paying visits and attending to the general spiritual welfare of anyone who stops by. So it is up to you and me, but mostly you, to convey the worth and value of the Church in society to everyone you know who has a vague, but largely disinterested opinion that the Church is a good thing for communities to have in them.

I have been thinking a lot about our Christmas Eve service just a couple of weeks ago, because this sanctuary was packed full of people I have never seen before.  I want to know who they are and why they attended church that night. It wasn’t all out of courteous tradition. Yes, some folks came as guests of family. Some folks just wanted to hear “Silent Night” and light a candle for peace. But there was an intensity here that night that I could feel.  I heard a need in the voices of people I greeted.

I feel very strongly that at this point in our congregation’s history we must go out and get those people and start a new congregation with them. I don’t mean a new church. I don’t mean that this congregation isn’t new enough or fresh or energetic enough, either.  I mean that I feel passionately that you and I – but mostly you – must go out and talk to those people and everyone else we know who might possibly be in need of religious community because people are terrified right now. And you and I are called to minister to that fear and anxiety and mounting dread by throwing our hearts and souls and arms around it and guiding those who feel oppressed and paralyzed or enraged by those feelings into the light of purpose, meaning and service.

I feel this so powerfully right now. I feel it every day, with every click of almost every article I read, in every conversation I have in the grocery store and on the street. It is an undercurrent, a powerful energy that we must harness with intention, love and courage.

When Mad King Donald tweeted a nuclear war taunt at Kim Jong-un the other day and then tweeted a day later that he is a “very stable genius,” I felt the shock and tremor of anxiety move through the air again. This is a time of intentional chaos presided over by an individual who loves chaos, who courts it and uses it to his personal advantage. We are nervous as cats because we have reason to be.

(I will add that the recent call for sanctuary for individuals suddenly threatened with deportation is another source of fear and rage in our communities. We know that this is not who we are, that a mother of six children who has lived in the United States since the mid-90’s and has no criminal record should be informed that she has days to remove herself from her home and family and return to Guatemala. We will be returning to the conversation about Sanctuary this year. We must.)

But the church stands against fear. It always has and it always must. Please remember with me that the ancient story of creation told in our foundational scriptures is one in which Order comes out of Chaos – order, and substance, and the beautiful heavens and earth and creatures and humans, and the day divided from the night, and that God called it good. Remember with me that we are heirs of an ancient faith tradition that is founded on the idea of that goodness and that order. That faithfulness undergirds and envelops the spirit of this congregation even today.  We rest upon it. When you consented to come through the door, even if this is your first time here, or when you consented to become a follower of this religious tradition as a member of this church, you joined yourself with that faith and reverence for this creation and its goodness.

Universalist Clarence Skinner put it theologically in these words, “The Universalist idea of God is that of a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature is love.”

The fear and anxiety and shock we are living with right now is a kind of Hell.  It is a Hell already well-known by those who have always experienced themselves as expendable, unvalued, and endangered by systems of oppression, what the apostle Paul called “powers and principalities.” It is a humbling time, a sobering time and a time when those who are heartened or even minimally inspired by the church need to go out onto the “highways and byways” to gather in a new congregation from among those who may not even know how much they need to be among faithful people.

I did not say “Like-minded “people, for there is a danger in that presumption. Our minds are not alike, and neither need be our thoughts. What brings us together is not the same thoughts or similar minds but a shared yearning for hope, for meaning, and for daily encouragement to practice faithfulness even when we have little faith.  To practice faithfulness is to orient ourselves daily to the eternal and essential facts of love, of beauty, of human dignity and of possibility. The church helps us in this orientation. The church exists to put structures and rituals around love, hope and possibility and to connect all who participate in it with networks and partner organizations that promote dignity, justice, hope, decency and love.

If you have been listening carefully you may have flagged that I said twice that “mostly you, not I”  need to be the ones to go get those new people to become part of this congregation, this place of practice of faithfulness. Why? Because I have finally figured out after over twenty years in ministry that to the unchurched, I am a weird “religious person,” suspect by virtue of my title and job description to be collecting souls for ego or financial reasons. I know this because I have seen the look in people’s eyes when I urge them to join with any liberal religious community, as they smile and pull back a bit from the crazy God-lady. I won’t stop inviting and urging. But I know now that it is you, lay ministers and leaders and lovers, who have to go out and talk to everyone you know. Go collect them. They need you and they may badly need this church, imperfect as it is.  They may know it but be anxious or suspicious about religious community. So you must talk to them and explain to them what we are about. I urge you to do so not in negative terms (“We don’t believe that, we won’t make you do this,” etc.) but in the affirmative! “I experience this from my involvement in my church, I love __________ I am fed and nurtured by __________. Here are our 7 Principles. Please come with me.” Speak not in sarcastic terms, which is an easy and common technique when we fear being too earnest (I use it, too) but speak from the heart. Give people you heart. Bring them in.

So I charge you today, church: I want every one of you commit to talking about this religion with at least three people in 2018.  You do not need to be ordained to do this. You do not need theological expertise. You only need your own experience of having been heartened and oriented well and rightly by your involvement with this beloved living tradition.

Do you accept this charge?

Go love the hell out of the world, and bring those who want to do the same into this community as you do.  This is our charge in this new year.