“Movin’ On” by  Mark W. Harris

 June 2, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

 Opening Words –  from Theresa Novak

Come into this place
There are healing waters here
And hands with soothing balm
To ease your troubled days.
Bring your wounds and aching hearts Your scars too numb to feel.
Your questions and complaints,
All are welcome here.
Rest awhile.
Let the warmth of this community Surround you,
Hold you,
Heal you.
When you feel stronger,
Just a bit,
Notice those that need you, too.
They are here.

They are everywhere. Weep with them, Smile with them, Work with them, Laugh along the way. Pass the cup,

Drink the holy fire. Take it with you Into the world.
We are saved

And we save each other Again, again, and yet again.

Reading  – “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives, 

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

 

Sermon

A week or so ago I received an email from a parishioner asking me if I had moved yet? I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  I was thinking are you hoping I’ve left, or sorry if you missed me, or just not sure one way or the other.? My immediate answer was no, I’m still here, and here is the schedule for my departure.   I wanted to say, haven’t you read the newsletters? Now it is all becoming very real.  We figured out a schedule for my departure what seems like several years ago now.  I was trying to determine when we would have our last intern, and when I would take sabbatical, and so it is at least three years. The sabbatical is a distant memory, and the book is in print.  And Jolie will begin a new ministry in the fall in Sharon, Massachusetts.  The long notice of departure is unusual.  Most of my colleagues like to wait until the last minute to tell parishioners they are departing.  I am not sure why.  Keep them guessing, I suppose, or perhaps it prevents people from thinking you’ve already moved!

But maybe it is hard to let go, especially if it means retirement, as we are often not sure of what lies ahead.  My colleague David Bryce in Belmont was saying that this time is different.  He, too is retiring, and moving to Wilmington, North Carolina to a place where he and his wife don’t know anyone.  There is a UU church there, but that’s it, no family or friends. And he wondered this week when we met for lunch how he would feel.  Before, he could always say,” I am moving to a new church, and therefore I am still a minister.”  But now both he and I  will no longer be active ministers. We will sit in the pews, too. How will that feel? My retired colleague Ken Sawyer said the big difference for him was that he no longer received a pay check. No basic remuneration was what he noticed first and foremost.  Will I feel unemployed?

As most of you know, some years ago I left the parish ministry for a few years to work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, as its Director of Information.  Yet I still preached quite a bit on Sundays to neighboring congregations. One Sunday, I drove out to Sudbury with my then young son, Joel (who is now forty), who was a first grader in Newton.  When we drove into the parking lot, he suddenly yelled out, “Dad, you’re not supposed to be doing this, you’re retired now.” Of course, I was a young man then, but he reminded me that I was a duck out of water when it came to parish ministry. I didn’t belong any more. I immediately wrote a sermon called “Life From the Sidelines,” and preached it several times while I was on hiatus from parish ministry. I know I found that experience difficult when I went to church in Newton, and felt like some anonymous parishioner. Today, I don’t know how I will feel because I have not made the switch yet.  I know I am anxious.  I know I like to work, and am not 100 per cent sure what I will do with myself. Andrea is convinced there will be daily trips to town. My old sideline sermon, used a sports metaphor, which was about how it felt to sit on the sidelines, and not be in the game.  I wanted to play, not watch. What might be the good things about watching?

I think first of acceptance.  There are stages of life – young and active, and productive at first, but as time passes, we realize that we have been there, and done that, and at some stage we conclude that we can’t maintain the level of activity or enthusiasm we once had, but also that there is a younger generation clamoring to have their time in the sun.  Time passes, professions change, and a new day arrives.  Recently I was with an old friend who suffers from post-polio syndrome, and is physically limited.  She said she can no longer go on these long walks or march in demonstrations. And so she now sees her role as sending off others to make their voices heard. She is an enthusiastic cheer leader for justice, encouraging others to go. Acceptance may mean we can’t do it, but we can help make sure that others do.

On Thursday I spent the entire day at Harvard participating in commencement activities.  The minister of the First Parish of Watertown is one of six clergy to be invited to graduation to commemorate that we represent the six founding towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  I have infrequently attended this ceremony, but this year Andrea and I decided we would both attend the entire day’s proceedings for one final time. Angela Merkel the chancellor of Germany was the commencement speaker.  The biggest applause for her came when she told the audience: “We must be honest with others and with ourselves, and that means not calling lies truth and not calling the truth lies.” She was given a thunderous standing ovation for this comment.  Not unusual when you speak to graduates, Merkel also mentionedthepassing of the torch from one era of leaders to the next. She said her generation would soon be doing nothing more than “exercising leadership in history,” while today’s college graduates lead into the future.

I like the idea of exercising leadership in history. We can help hold up the lessons we have learned about community and church life and, whatever our area of knowledge or wisdom, we retired folks have much to contribute to the world. But we should not be running the churches, the states or the governments.  It is a time to let go, accept inevitable change, and let others carry on.  It is their world.  I think having interns at First Parish, and teaching at three seminaries was a significant way that we as a community, and me as a minister exercised leadership in history. We have a long tradition at First Parish.  It embraces the self-governance of congregational polity and the multi faith approach of Unitarian Universalism.  In that context ministers and interns have been grounded in a relational way of creating church and community.  Young people like Jolie and Margaret and Darrick and others with young ideas like Tracy, create new visions for ministry and wonder how worship might be transformed, or how we might make a commitment to social justice to transform ourselves and our communities. They want you to embrace their methods of leadership, and call you to envision a new way to conceptualize church life. You became a teaching church, but you also became the students of how you might revision your concept of ministry. 

In that way, there is a visioning of the future by accepting new leadership. But before we even get there, we have the painful process of saying goodbye, changing routines, adjusting to new places and people. I think first about the place. I am saying goodbye to a home and community I have known for more than a quarter of a century.  It is the longest I will ever live anywhere in my life.  By and large we have loved living here.  Watertown is not perfect, and of course; no place is. One may wish for more interesting stores, and less traffic, but the trade-off is a very livable, safe and welcoming place. Andrea and I have loved walking the streets, and seeing the houses, and greeting the people we have known for years. The newsletter description recalled some of those memories.  No more walks to church. No more tramping on every thoroughfare and side street, along the Charles by foot or kayak.  My journey with you is near the end.  Good bye library where we go to read the Globe, and see the Monday movies with Roger and Johanna. Good bye Dave’s Comic Stop, which gave my boys so much fun, and introduced me to a wonderful man.  Goodbye Joe’s crab cakes and beer.  Goodbye Brighton Y.  Goodbye Marshall Street and all our neighbors; those who remain like Schlomo and Peggie, but those who are gone, too, like Nick Pappas, who once inspired a sermon I gave here called “Honkers,” as he always honked when he pulled into the driveway to inform his disabled wife that he was home. Now I must honk and wave goodbye.  But in a way, I am lucky, because I am moving to a place that is like a second home, a place I love.  So, I trade the MFA and Peabody Essex for the Farnsworth, and Joe’s for Archer’s on the water, and the Charles for that ocean shore of Breakwater Lighthouse, one library for another, and one church community for another.

So that becomes the biggest transition of them all – the church community. Goodbye First Parish members and friends.  It has been lovely.  Maybe I’ll see you some time in Maine (but not right away). Maybe I’ll see you in my dreams. When we sold the portrait of our former minister Seth Storer to a museum in Maine, I called the sermon “Seth Goes Home,” (reprinted in my history of First Parish), now “Mark Goes Home, Too.” I will no longer shake Kathy Warren’s hand, have Elena say “good morning, Mark,” or wonder if I can get the squirrel out of the parish hall (never let a preschool leave doors open in any season), and if I can get the bird out of the sanctuary. You didn’t know ministers performed such duties, did you? Well, I succeed in both instances.  After twenty-three years, I could make a long list of accomplishments, besides animal control.  There were three amazing capital fund drives, and of course my heart was especially involved in renovating our sanctuary and creating the beautiful space we have now, which is not to short change the elevator and the conference room and their importance, or the amazing beauty of the new garden. I sometimes have referred to Watertown as a miracle story.  Read the David Rankin sermon in my history.  You nearly died, not long after he left, and the old church was torn down. Now you have people – old and young, a vibrant church school, and amazing music. You are poised on the cusp of a great future. While church life in much of America is listless, you have life and energy, and the vision to create a loving community.

I am not going to detail the issues I think you need to work on.  I am yesterday’s paper, and you are tomorrow’s headline.  We learn from the old news, but the new dawn must be what you create with future ministers and leaders.  We sometimes think that churches such as this one are reluctant to change. I was surprised how attached you were to red chairs, but the pain of saying goodbye eventually led to the beautiful emergence of these walls and these chairs.  I once said to someone that one of the great strengths here is your openness.  You are willing to try new things in worship and programming. You are not afraid of God.  You are not afraid of the Bible.  You are not afraid of hearing about new ways to do things, and new ways of being in the world.  You are the embodiment of what our Unitarian Universalist faith should be.  You know the value of your long history.  You know how to exercise leadership in history. But you are also ready for the new day. You are open.  Another thing Angela Merkel said in her speech on Thursday was “I want to leave this wish with you: Tear down walls of ignorance and narrowmindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.”   I believe you are willing to look to the future, and now is a time to do so.  Look at your congregation, your community, your nation, and tear down the walls you see. The world today needs truth tellers because the truth is twisted in many ways.  The world needs kindness because there is too much mean-spiritedness and hateful ways.  Your central mission should always be to bring love to the world.

The other night Andrea and I were walking home from the library.  We stopped  at our new little library, which was a project of our church school guided to fruition by Will Twombly.   Andrea said she could not really see what was in there because of the darkness, but was joyful at how successful this was. Then we went on to list things that our children have been involved in.  The More Than Words collection box for books is the bookstore’s one number sight. It is often overflowing. It is a bookstore that employs young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. Then we went on to the Zen Garden, and how that brought beauty to our grounds as a prelude to the Memorial Garden, both Sours family led projects.  Then we thought of those who pick up the left-over bread from Panera, an ongoing project of 15 some years where children and adults together bring the donations to a Watertown Food Pantry. With kids, for kids, about kids, it’s all about the future.  And these are projects our members might not even think about or notice. When Angela Merkel was asked   what’s next in her career, she said it’s “completely open.” ” Only one thing is clear,” It will again be something different and something new.  That’s the exciting thing here at First Parish.  I am sad to go because I know you will do so much, and I will miss seeing the development of this great church.  But I have confidence in you.  I will see you and admire you from afar, and I will keep on saying Wow, as long as I live. Keep building that loving, caring community among yourselves, among the community, among the nation. Keep bringing bread to the hungry stomachs, and books to the hungry minds.  Bring peace to those who sit in the garden, and care to those who choose this community. Spread this great faith of ours, and I will continue to watch you, as I exercise the leadership of history.  

My journey to ministry began in 1975 when I crossed the country to go to seminary in Berkeley, California.  When I met the person who taught UU history, he said to me, “you know more about this than I do.  You will teach it from now on.”  And so, I did during my three years at Starr King. During that time, I had many outstanding students, among them was a young man named Mark DeWolfe.  Years later I learned that Mark had been a member here in Watertown when he was an undergraduate student at Tufts.  I saw his picture in a congregational portrait. I saw his signature on the membership book.  In class Mark’s enthusiasm and his grasp of the material were impressive. He was always engaged.  Seeing students like Mark affirmed my colleague’s depth of commitment and the future of my faith seemed hopeful.  He went off to serve a congregation in Canada.  After several successful years in ministry, he contracted AIDS, and a few short years later he died.  I felt grief that we had lost such a fine young minister, but also a personal loss for someone I cared about.  It was a reminder that loss is ever present in our lives.  We are haunted by illness and broken relationships, and difficult endings.  There is much love that is shared, but eventually this love leads to loss – the relationship ends, the job finishes, or illness saps us of our strength. Suddenly it is time to go. His congregation said goodbye to Mark, and I said goodbye to a friend. Then it was time to move forward to forge a new life, to create something different than what I had known, with different people, but nevertheless, it could be done.  His congregation would forge ahead, and I would go on without the presence of this friend. We loved him.  We admired him. Eventually we lost him. And finally, a new life awaited us. It is life’s lesson over and over again. We know meaningful work or relationships. In time, we lose this joy.  Then we move on and begin again.

As for me, I, as Stanley Kunitz says, am not done with my changes. Once I have said goodbye and accepted my future, then I can really look ahead.  I see history projects, and travel.  I see rest, and getting healthy.  I see enjoying time with the love of my life, and I see building community wherever I am — in Rockland, Maine or around the world.  As for me, I am movin’ on.

 

Closing Words – from Mark DeWolfe

 Know that the love which blooms inside you is stronger than fear, for people who love find strength they didn’t know they had. Know that the love inside you is stronger than illness, for people who love hang in when physical health is gone. And know that love is indeed stronger than death, for people who love are like stones tossed into a pool; the circles of love radiate out and echo back long after the stone has come to rest at the bottom. So remember your love as a source of strength; remember who you are: lovers tossed by these difficult times.