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Sermons at First Parish Church

Strong and Strong Again: Steeple Navigation Part Two

Sunday, September 18, 2011
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

It won’t come as a huge surprise to most of you by now that my sense of direction is extremely bad. One of the ways I get around is by finding landmarks. For example, I have learned that if I am lost in Westford, and I see that little one-room schoolhouse, I need to get the schoolhouse on my right, that is, on the passenger side of the car. If I go by the school house in that direction, (whatever that direction is, I think it could be west) and don’t panic, I will come out at a cross roads, not that I can tell you which cross roads, but I know how to get home from there.

I figured out something I now call steeple navigation when I was on sabbatical three years ago. When I was on sabbatical I spent a lot of time walking on the rail trail as it runs through town, here in Groton. Now we have a dog who needs to run off leash so I venture slightly further afield and get lost in Groton woods, but we didn’t have a dog then. So almost every day for four months I walked on the rail trail. As I was quick to point out three years ago, I did not get lost on the rail trail, it being a straight, paved path from point A to point B, but I did get a little how shall we say disoriented at times and realized I didn’t know where I was in relation to the rest of the town. If I got off the rail trail, for example, at one of those overpass bridges and climbed up the bank to the road, where would I be? No idea. And in those idle moments of wondering where I was, I realized the First Parish church steeple could help me. I found, in fact, I could orient myself by the steeple. There is the steeple, I would say to myself, so the library and playground are over there.

Since then, I have realized that steeple navigation actually has a wider application. For example whenever I am lost in Chelmsford Center, where 20 different roads intersect and then spoke off in different directions, I have learned to look for the First Parish Church of Chelmsford steeple. It isn’t as tall as ours so it doesn’t work quite as well but once I can see the steeple, I know I need to get the steeple behind me on the passenger side of the car and then I will be on the correct road back to Groton. I have learned that if you are lost anywhere in New England, you can get help by looking for steeples. If you can see a steeple, especially an old, white one, you are probably near the center of town, because that is where the old churches are. And at the center of town there could be road signs. At the very least there will probably be other people to point you on your way. This works surprisingly well for me.

I know that every time I mention getting lost like this, which is regularly, since it happens to me all the time, some of you, especially those of you who know how to read maps and follow directions, get anxious on my behalf and suggest that I get a satellite navigation system for my car or my cell phone. You remind me, with great patience and kindness, that people like me don’t have to get lost anymore, that we now have technology to solve this problem, But still, and no doubt to your frustration, I resist. I resist and not just because I have borrowed and rented and driven with friends in cars with GPS systems and I am living proof that is indeed possible to get lost even as the computer voice tells me exactly where to go. I resist even though I am sometimes infuriated and bewildered and late to events because of the ease with which I get lost. I resist because maybe some part of me knows that getting lost, being lost, is important for me. Because maybe some part of me knows that every time I get lost, I am reminded of a basic and humbling fact of the human condition -human beings get lost.

We get lost in a thousand different ways — we get lost in addiction. We get lost in debt or just barely making it or not making it at all or some other financial trouble. We get lost in fear. We get lost in regretting or idealizing the past, or in fantasizing about how the future will be different. We get lost in self-hatred or judgment of others. We get lost in the pursuit of success, in the desire for wealth or for things to be easy and good for us or our children, in the yearning for control over things we can’t possibly control. We get lost in the thousands of details of life. We get lost in superficiality or trivia. We get lost in grudges and resentments and busyness. We get lost and it is inconvenient and painful. We get lost and it is embarrassing and makes us feel uncertain and incompetent and usually very lonely.

But here is the good news, especially for those of us who are feeling lost this morning, or for those of us who suspect it is possible we could be a little bit lost but we haven’t really looked around in a long time to see where we are so we aren’t sure. This place, this sanctuary, this community is an excellent place to be lost. Because one of the most important reasons this church, this religious community, exists at all is to help us find our way home again. Or to help us find our way home for the very first time and then invite us and challenge us to help others who are lost do the same thing. I am reminded of a little story I have long loved in writer Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. She writes:

When [my minister] was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.” (Traveling Mercies, p. 55)

I think that what Anne Lamott is saying is that what I have come to call steeple navigation might actually be helpful for all the members and friends of a religious community, and not just for the severely directionally impaired. Anne Lamott writes about how she has been much less lost since she found a religious community to point her in the direction of home. She writes: “…that is why I have stayed so close to [my church]—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their …voices, I can always find my way home.“ (Traveling Mercies, p. 55)

I have been thinking about steeple navigation for several years now and what it means and I like the kinds of questions that steeple navigation raises: Questions like, What is our compass? By what do we orient ourselves? By what do we navigate and is it a trustworthy source of directions? Is that source something that will allow us to find our way back to our true north, our truest self? Like Anne Lamott, I believe that this church is a trustworthy guide. And by church I don’t mean the building or only the building, but our congregation and all that goes on here as well as the larger faith tradition of which we are a part. I believe these are trustworthy guides. They are good things to steer by.

To navigate by steeple, particularly to navigate by this steeple, the one standing above us, means to navigate by the commitments and values we hold in common, even though our individual beliefs may be radically different from the beliefs of the person sitting next to us. Despite our differences and our lack of a requirement or even interest in a common code or creed of beliefs, there are deep commitments we hold in common here. We need to know what these are. We also need to decide if they are trustworthy, if they are strong enough and compassionate enough to guide us.

What are the commitments we hold in common here? What does our steeple stand for so that we would choose to steer by it? The steeple represents our past, of course, and all the generations who have gathered here since this meeting house was built in 1755. It represents those who chose to make this congregation Unitarian in theology in the 1820’s, believing in the oneness, the singularity of God and the belief that people could do something to effect their own salvation — that our actions and choices do matter in an ultimate sense. Our spiritual ancestors chose to be heretics, that is, people who chose their own beliefs. We can steer by their courage and conviction.

We can steer by the courage and conviction of not just this congregation’s history but our denomination’s history, which is mostly one to be proud of — a history in which Unitarians and Universalists have been at the forefront of almost every social justice moment in our country’s history — from the abolition of slavery to the rights of women and African Americans to vote, to public education, to healthcare for all, to civil rights and environmentalism. We can steer by the seven promises or Principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith, beginning with Respect. Respect each other, we teach our children. Or as we say in adult language, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

And this year especially I believe we will learn that we can steer by the six Sources or roots upon which our faith tradition is built. This year we will be taking a deep look at where our faith tradition comes from, the sources or roots of Unitarian Universalism and they are worthy guides. You heard them earlier and can see them in their simplest language. But here they are in more complex language:

Our sources help us understand why and how our faith tradition developed as it has. They remind us of the deep and strong foundation upon which our congregation stands and they can help us understand who we are now and what is most important to us. If our faith is an old and strong and beautiful tree of life, it is the strong and deep roots, the sources which nourish this tree and allow it to grow. It is so important that we come to understand these sources of our strength.

In addition to the Principles and the Sources, we can steer by the collective moral and ethical wisdom of this congregation in the present day. We can steer by our mission, our deepest and most basic reason for gathering here, which most simply put, though it is not simple at all, of course, is to deepen spiritually, to take care of one another and to be a blessing to the world.

And, of course, community and the strength of the community we create and re-create here is another reason why steeple navigation is trustworthy. Community is why many of us come here. We come because, like Anne Lamott we want to see one another’s faces and hear one another’s voices. We want good adults for our kids to be around; we want to see the teenagers here because they help us believe that the world is going to be okay once it is in their hands. We want to know elders who are vibrant and engaged and generous and neighbors who can mentor us in living and in dying.

In many ways, it is a paradoxical thing we do here — both intensely personal and communal at the same time. We come to connect with our deepest selves, our most serious and precious and intensely personal dreams for how we want to be in the world and how we want the world to be. And we come to connect with each other and with a past, a present and a future that is larger, much larger than any one of our individual lives. The poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo writes about this, saying:

What good are all our questions and deepest thoughts if we can’t be touched? This leads us to a core paradox: how no one can live your life for you and yet we need each other to be whole and complete. How often do we cycle through this struggle: fighting off the influence of others to discover and be who we truly are and then fighting off the loneliness of such truths in order to feel the sweetness of belonging. (The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life, p. 139)

We are not here only to ask our deepest questions and discover who we truly are, but also to create a place where the sweetness of belonging can be felt, along with the challenges and demands of belonging, because we cannot be whole without one another.

So the steeple represents many things: it represents our history, our values, our Principles and Sources, our mission, our community and also something more, something ineffable and hard to put into words about what is perhaps our deepest and most trustworthy commitment of all, and that commitment is to Love. Because all of our principles and each of our sources point to Love. The true north, the direction of home is always love. Love is the ancient path, the good way, the place where we find rest for our souls. Love is what allows all of us to find our way home, to find ourselves and to find one another. The theologian Matthew Fox writes this way about the truest purpose of religious community. He writes:

Come… all you who are burdened by lack of praise, lack of beauty, lack of vision in your lives. Look about you at the starry heavens and the deep, deep sea; at the amazing history that has birthed a home for you on this planet; at the surprise and joy of your existence. Gather together — you and your communities — in the context of this great, cosmic community to rejoice and give thanks. To heal and let go. To enter the dark and deep mysteries, to share the news, to break the bread of the universe …Be brave. Let your worship make you strong and strong again. …bring your bodies; bring your play; bring your darkness and your pain. Gather and do not scatter. Learn not to take for granted and learn this together. (from Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ)

In another part of Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, she talks about why she makes her son go to church with her. In fact the name of the essay is Why I Make Sam Go to Church. She writes:

Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church — who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go. …it does not help to remind him that once he’s there he enjoys himself…. It does not help that I always pack some snacks, some Legos, his art supplies, and bring along any friend of his whom we can lure into our churchy web. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there. All that matters to him is that he alone among his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church. You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say. I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds. But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know that have what I want — which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy — are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith… people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.

That is why Anne Lamott goes and why she makes her son go with her, to be part of a great meaning, part of something beautiful, part of something all of us need in order to be fully human, fully alive. So let the steeple be your north star. Whether you feel lost or found these days, whether you are walking through days of darkness or days of great light, look up and let the steeple point you in the direction of your truest home.

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1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Most recently updated 2011-10-01