Last Words: View from the Tightrope, by Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz, June 13, 2010

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Last Words: View from the Tightrope

by Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz June 13, 2010

CENTERING WORDS:

deeper is life than lose:higher than have
-e.e. cummings


Only connect!
–E.M. Forster


READING: A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.


SERMON: “Last Words: The View from the Tightrope”

        The poem I read by Walt Whitman, the one about the patient little spider, is a poem I carried with me, folded in eighths in my pocket, on my first weeklong retreat on the streets of San Francisco.

        Ordinarily we go through life grounded in some assurance of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going, but on the streets, a lot of that drops away. It is easier there to see the terrible aloneness that many of us use a lot of energy hiding from. You spend long stretches of your day standing in line for food, your body pulled in tight, trying not to be touching the bodies in front of you or behind you. When you sit down to a meal at St. Anthony’s vast dining hall, you keep your eyes on your plate.

        The streets are a place where certain truths of human life are starkly revealed. If you have ever once felt that nobody knows you, nobody cares about you, on the streets you’ll know it’s true.

        Except – there are moments of shocking hospitality, startling generosity, unbearable kindness. Sometimes they come to you out of nowhere, freely. And sometimes you find yourself standing, alone on your little promontory, tossing out filament, filament, filament, hoping against hope to land a connection.

        “Can you spare change?” That’s one of the ways you try for connection. You’ll take what you can get, and I often felt more grateful for a look of recognition, a look that saw me as a human being, than for a dollar.

        This congregation is not so different. You all come here, hoping for – what? For some of you, maybe most, it is connection. You find it here, or you don’t; you think you’ve found it, then you think you haven’t; you’re sure you’re not finding it here, or not the way you used to back before … policy governance. Or whatever.

        That little spider has been on my mind as I finish my last days with this congregation which I love deeply, and prepare to move to a community where awaits a congregation I have only begun to love. I have tossed out a filament to First Parish Brewster, Massachusetts, and I have set out across the line. I imagine all of you down below, watching as I make my away across the tightrope.

        Better not look down!

         Here on the tightrope, between two poles, it’s obvious the way it’s obvious on the streets – my life depends on making the connection hold.

        This is my last sermon at UUCA, so I imagine I may have your attention in a way I might not always, and what I want to tell you is this: you came here not so you could make this church into a mirror of some other institution in your world. You came here out of some wild hope that you might find a way to be in the world that wasn’t like anywhere else.

        A way something like this: you build connections of trust and caring; you act to make the world better; you tend to your own spiritual growth; you find and practice a deep well of generosity; and you share what you have found with others. Those are the aspirations for membership in this community, from the policy newly crafted by your Board of Trustees.

         It’s a wild hope, and it’s not the way most of the world works most of the time. So a lot of the time, in my life and yours, we forget. We stand alone on our promontories, and think it’s the fault of the system, or the institution, or the ministers, or the Board of Trustees, that we feel so disconnected. We think there’s no way to make it hold, not here, anyway. We forget that our life – our life – depends on making the connection fast. When we remember, when we know our life depends on it, we do not despair. We become very, very patient. When we fail, when the institution fails us, we keep trying.

        This is also Annual Meeting Sunday, and the tradition on this Sunday is for a minister to talk about the “State of the Church.” Usually this is Rev. Michael’s privilege, but he generously ceded his time to me so I could deliver a last sermon. But actually, when I thought about what it was I wanted to tell you, all of it had already been said – and by Rev. Michael, in his Celebration Sunday sermon on March 14, titled “If Only Our Hearts Were Big Enough.” It’s on the website, and I urge you to go back and listen to it again, or read it through. Rev. Michael listed all the ways this church could create heaven on earth, if only our hearts were big enough. Most of his list consisted of work the church is already engaged in, already doing pretty well. We are already stepping up to protect the rights and celebrate the lives of gay people; this year for the first time in many years we had a presence at the Capitol Pride Parade last night and the festival today. We are already creating soul-stirring worship, and our creative artists are growing their own hearts and ours with music and dance and drama and visual arts. We are already making a difference for the people of Guatemala with our support of a civil rights accompanier and scholarships for girls. We are already reaching out to get to know our neighbors, and to act for justice in partnership with them, through VOICE. We are already offering liberal religious education programs for a wide range of ages and needs and learning styles, doing our part to raise up a generation that cares about the earth and recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

        We do a lot. As Michael said in his sermon, this is a church to be proud of.

        And yet – every year I wonder why it is that at budget time, there are hard choices and hard feelings. Why it is that year after year, the pledge drive is flat. Why is it that those of you sitting in these wonderful new pews make statements like, “I’ll give more when we give more of our budget to social justice,” or, “The arts are chronically underfunded at this church.” Or, “I only come to this church to sing in the choir.” Why it is that this is the wealthiest church in the Joseph Priestley District, but the financial commitments you make average out to the lowest.

        Recently Mark Ewart, the UUA’s consultant on our capital fund drive, said this church is a collection of passionate constituencies, but that the commitment to the core is weak. I think he hit the nail on the head.

        What is the core? If the core is social justice, doesn’t that mean we have to pay our staff a living wage, and not expect them to do just as much work in reduced hours? If the core is the arts, doesn’t that mean we have to fund religious education robustly, so there are new generations of people to create and be inspired by the arts of liberal religion? If the core is worship and hospitality, don’t we have to pave our parking lot so people aren’t at risk when they come here to take part?

        Dear ones, I am sorry. This is my last sermon here, and I think you may have been expecting a love fest. The last thing I would want is to leave you feeling scolded. I do know that many of you are generous, both financially and with your time and your committed hearts. I also know that life circumstances can hold any of us back at any time from making a greater commitment of time or money. I’m not talking about these life circumstances. I’m talking about the way some of you sit on your hands or your wallets, waiting till it gets better in some way that matters to you. What I mostly want to say to you is this: it won’t get any better until you commit. Until you know your life depends on building this community, this community will remain peripheral in your lives – just like all those other institutions that have disappointed you.

        If the church is like those other institutions – if it is not counter-cultural – it is nothing. You are the only ones who can make it be the counter-cultural, life-affirming, world-changing community it can be.

        Do you believe that your connections here will change your life?

         Do you believe that your work here – with and on behalf of this community -- will change the world?

        Do you believe it enough to grow that deep patience, so you can stand on your lonely promontory and throw out a line, and another one, and another one, knowing that many of them will not connect, knowing that your life depends on this?

        Do you believe it enough to give, and give, and give, so that giving transforms your life?

        Dear people, this religious home is worth the gamble. This church is a place to practice a new way of being. The more of you who know it, the more of you who take up the practice of it and stake your lives on it, the sooner it begins; the more obvious it becomes; the more real it feels. The faster come moments of shocking hospitality, startling generosity, unbearable kindness – so fast that these moments start to become what we know as life – first in our church, then in the circles surrounding us. This is what is possible, here.

        I will be watching with passionate interest, from a promontory on the other side of the wire.

        I love you.

        Amen.

BENEDICTION

I wish I could say all the love in my heart … but. The words have all been said. The love remains. May you find that deep well of patience it will take to imagine and create heaven on earth. Go now and make it real, by living love with one another, and with everyone you meet. Amen.


Photos of the Service

Sources and Inspirations

  • cummings, e.e., six nonlectures
  • The Faithful Fools Street Ministry, and recent conversations with co-founder Kay Jorgensen
  • “Funny Bones,” 1995 film directed by Peter Chelsom
  • The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia – its ministers, leaders, people and history
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