Rev. Dr. Barbara Merritt’s 150th Anniversary Sermon

Worship: Tree of Life Church, McHenry County. 150th Anniversary. April 25, 2016

Rev. Dr. Barbara Merritt

Reading: Fredrick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

We are always remembering. In one sense the past is dead and gone, never to be repeated, over and done with, but in another sense, it is, of course, not done at all, or at least not done with us. Every person we have ever known, every place we have ever seen, everything that has ever happened to us- it all lives and breathes in us somewhere…

It is so much a part of us that we feel something close to its original intensity and freshness: what it felt like, say, to fall in love at the age of sixteen, or to smell and hear the sounds of a house that has long since disappeared, or to laugh till the tears ran down our cheeks with somebody who died more years ago than we can easily count, or for whom, in every way that matters, we might have died years ago ourselves. Old failures. Old hurts. Times too beautiful to tell, or too terrible.

The power of remembering becomes our own power.

We are all such escape artists, you and I. We pass the time of day. We chatter. We hold each other at bay, keep our distance.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” goes the old spiritual, and of course, nobody knows the troubles we have any of us seen-the hurt, the sadness, the bad mistakes, the crippling losses- but we know it. We are to remember it. And the happiness we have seen too, the precious times, the precious people, the moments in our lives when we were better than we know how to be. Nobody knows that either, but we know it. We are to remember it…and then we will find, that in some unfathomable way, all is well.

We have survived, you and I, and maybe that is at the heart of our remembering. We have made it to this year, this day. We needn’t have made it. There were times we never thought we would, and we nearly didn’t. I can say for myself that I have seen sorrow and pain enough to turn the heart to stone. Who hasn’t? Many times I have chosen the wrong road, or the right road for the wrong reason.

You are also survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving?

It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through, at least this far, at least to this day. Foolish as we are, wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us, if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads us forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.


I cannot begin to thank you enough for inviting me to be here to celebrate this great occasion, the 150th anniversary of the church’s founding. In anticipation of this wonderful celebration, I lost 10 pounds. (I intended to lose much more.) Yet I never figured out how to lose the appearance that I am a little older now then I was when I served this congregation, 33 years older to be exact, a lifetime.

There is a temptation to explore what you have been up to in that long stretch of time. There is a temptation to mention some of what I have been doing. But there would be no end to it. What I want to report is that in the church I served in Massachusetts, I never displayed my college diploma or the one from my seminary. I just had on display the beautifully calligraphy plaque that this church gave me when I left in 1982. It is still hanging in my home office. This church meant a great deal to me, and it still does.

The rules of our Unitarian Universalist Association demanded that I have no contact with members of this church after I left. I have come to believe that these rules are insane. They promote an unhealthy cut-off that hurts both churches and ministers. I should have followed the advice of my beloved, departed colleague, the Rev. Ruppert Lovely, who said, “Sometimes it is important to set aside your principles and do the right thing.” I hereby formally and publicly apologize for following the rules of the UUA and the UU Ministers Association. Today, it is wonderful to see so many people I knew and held dear. And it is wonderful to see the vast majority of new faces, you who are the new holders of the flame of the free faith.

Together, at long last, we celebrate this sesquicentennial, one hundred and fifty years of a free, liberal faith in McHenry County.  Only just as we cannot summarize and capture 33 years of our own lives, how can we possibly grasp 150 years in the life of a congregation? This covenanted community has survived wars and economic depressions. It has enjoyed seasons of strength and growth and seasons of conflict and limitation. What do any of us know about what really happened in history? Do we understand the hopes and dreams that have sustained the faithful? Do we comprehend the aspirations of all those who have called this their home of worship?

As we try to know what happened here since 1865 it might be helpful to hear a story from the Baal Shem Tov, the founding mystic in the Jewish Hassidic tradition. He was looking for an appropriate husband for his daughter. He heard there was a promising young Torah scholar a few towns away. He sent a disciple with the message, “What do you know about the Torah?”  The reply came back, “I have never known. I do not know, and I will not know.” This answer was satisfactory and the Baal Shem Tov introduced this young man to his daughter. The learned young scholar’s reply was not an unwillingness to learn, nor to study and engage. It was not willful ignorance. It was simply the confession of someone who understood some of the extent of his own foolishness and limitation.

In the last century, a saint in India said that we think we are right all of the time. But in truth, we are wrong 60% of the time. (Each of us is right 40% of the time.) Now, if you are a typical UU you might take exception to this. Saying, “Of course I am right more than 40% of the time!” But when we think about our spouse or partner? Or our children? Or our boss? Or our politicians? Clearly they are wrong most of the time!  I suspect that the 60/40 ratio is a more than fair estimate.

Considering our own limited capacity to know what is true, what is real, what is actually happening, it is appropriate to do something very human, something that will give us at least a significant glimpse of reality, and that is to tell stories.

Patrick Murfin has done a superb job of telling a brief history of this congregation. I have read his chronicle not once, but twice. You may also want to re-read it on your church’s web site. He tells many of the important stories about this church. He reports how you found your liberal voice. He documents how you have been of service to the people of McHenry County. He shows how you have been front and center to building up the larger community and giving all the help you could to those in need. He records how you have continually and successfully met the challenges you have faced, and how you have survived.

I can add a few stories of my own to the accumulated legends.  That former Catholic priest that you had for a year in 1964? I was told by members who were present at the time that he announced from the pulpit, three separate engagements, to three different young women in the congregation. This was in less than a year.

In reading the summary of my own 7 ½ years here, I think it is absolutely hilarious that my ministry was noted for my fund-raising skills. For the 35 years I have served in the parish ministry, there is nothing I hated more than fund-raising.  I was also sited for my sermons having “intellectual depth”.

True story. My first sermon in Woodstock, I was 25 years old, straight out of seminary and intent on dazzling the congregation with my sophisticated grasp of comparative religions and theology. On that particular opening Sunday in 1975 it was the Chinese New Year, the year of the rabbit. So I wove what I thought was a brilliant sermon on rabbits, the Tao, Jungian psychology and making all things new. Immediately after the service in the receiving line going out of the church, Bob Vieregg, one of the older gentlemen in the church, shook my hand, smiled at me and declared, “I didn’t understand a word you said.”

Later in my ministry I gave a sermon where I spoke at length about three of my favorite saints: Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Don Beyer came up to me afterwards and said something like, “Barbara, all those people you admire were assassinated! Why would I want to follow in their footsteps?” (He had a good point.)

It is a mystery what we remember: some of what I remember most vividly about this church is concrete and particular, like  Mae Vieregg’s pies. She would organize an army of bakers to make hundreds of pies that our church would serve at the McHenry County Fair. I remember the bad taste party at the Hecht’s home where parishioners were invited to wear our worst clothes. And the appetizers! I especially liked the grilled cheese canapés with what looked like small bites taken out of each one. We all laughed so hard that evening. This congregation knows how to have fun, then and now. (Last night, singing and going through the motions of the song YMCA was fabulous!) During my tenure came the musical review of “Paradise People”. For the record, I was convinced that this particular show would never get off the ground. (This was part of my 60%.)

Another more troubling story. When I arrived I discovered that the church secretary was being paid less than the legal minimum wage. When I insisted to the Board that this was morally indefensible and could not continue, they replied that there was no money to rectify the situation. I then said, “then take it out of my salary!” and they did!!

What I remember is partial. Some of what I remember is wrong. None of us, especially ministers can grasp the big picture of why we are here, and what we are doing, and where we are going. And yet it is my belief that in the midst of our stories and memories and recollections we get glimpses of what is true and real. Even as we go astray, even when we get lost in our own versions of what happened, what is real and true keeps pulling at us, insisting that we pay attention. Reality shows up in new people, new situations, and new challenges, always hoping that we will notice, learn and focus.

A certain reality emerges when you look closely at the 150 years of this congregation’s life. In your DNA, in the systems and practices of this church, you have proven over and over again:

  • that you are a creative and resilient people
  • that you have a willingness to serve
  • that you have an astonishing capacity for risk, (for example) calling new and untested ministers, launching wonderful musical reviews, and being willing to shelter the homeless.
  • that you have always been inclusive, creating interfaith programs that have shown how people of goodwill, of different faiths, can work together and make a difference.

You have also survived an astonishing number of ministers; by my count you have had over 40 in only 150 years. Allow me to contrast this congregation with the one I served in Massachusetts. I was the 10th minister in 225 years. And when I retired after 27 years in Worcester, and 35 years in the parish (longer than any woman at that time in our Association, or any other major Protestant Church), some of my closest friends in the parish called me the “big quitter.”

As I compare the stories from this very limited sample of two congregations, here is my startling observation. The stories that each church tells about their history are nearly identical.

*Sometimes the church thrives. Sometimes it doesn’t.

* There is never enough money to carry out the vision and the mission of the church.

*Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, and indeed, all of God’s children are trying to do their best. And yet we frequently hurt and disappoint one another. Some of the most wonderful people I have ever met were in this church and at First Unitarian in Worcester.

*In the midst of good churches there was, is, and will be, conflict and harmony, success and frustration, heartbreak and comfort. Because of what happened and despite of what happened there will be wonderful celebrations like the one you are having this weekend.

Every congregation, I do believe, is well stocked with complicated people, wonderful people, and difficult people. (Most of us answer to all of those descriptions.) We are all struggling souls who, as Fredrick Buechner reminds us, have seen our share of trouble. Possibly even more surprising, we have all seen moments of real joy and happiness.

If a congregation is lucky, as this one is, some of those complicated people become devoted to the church. They show up on Sundays and warmly welcome the stranger and the former member who is estranged. They go out into the community and they volunteer. They speak out on behalf of those who seek justice, and they comfort the pain of those who are most vulnerable. They sew blankets for babies in the hospital. They serve coffee at funerals. All of this is the work of the church.

And you bake pies, and clean up after the potluck, and teach Sunday School, year after year. And you give generously to the local church and to the victims of earthquakes and hurricanes. And you take care of an elderly parent or neighbor. You encourage a friend who is suffering. You forgive someone, just because they need to be forgiven, and because you need to let it go. You show up for a rehearsal, even though you are tired.

How mysterious this work is that we do together because we are called to do it. We do it because we want to do it and because it restores our souls. This work often turns out to provide more meaning and satisfaction than all the honors we collect, or the toys we assemble, or the raise we got in 2004, or any other material benefit.

There is something real about love and service and compassion and giving unselfishly. The truth of it affects us in ways we might not even understand. Sometimes we are hardly conscious of how what we chose to do now, changes our future and everyone else’s. Most of the time we stumble forward, doing our best. We don’t know what will be required up ahead. We don’t know whether the better angels of our nature will show up when we are needed. Will we find the inner strength to prevail through the storms that lie in front of us?

On May 24, 1979, this congregation was asked to step up to the plate. And none of us, especially not your minister, were prepared to do what had to be done. The crash of American Airlines, Flight 191 at O’Hare Airport killed two of our young members. Steve and Susan Lang were 33 and 32 years old. They left behind a three year old daughter, Joy and her 7 year old brother, Bryson. Steve’s parents, Roy and Dorothy Lang were also members of this congregation.

After confirming that Steve and Susan were on this flight, I had to tell both sets of parents that there children had been killed. On that afternoon, a babysitter was with Joy and Bryson. I went out to their house to help take care of the kids. We turned off the TV, but as news travels quickly, concerned neighbors started dropping by. Because we wanted the grandparents to be the ones to tell the children the terrible news, I took the children out for a walk in the field behind Roy and Dorothy’s house. Joy, age 3, bent down our walk and grabbed little bunches of wildflowers, crushed them and said, “Dead, dead, dead.” Those children didn’t have the conscious knowledge that their parents were gone forever; but in some deep part of themselves they knew (perhaps from the expressions on adult faces?) that their world had forever changed.

The day before the funeral I watched one of the grand-dames of the church, Helen Wright, polishing the church handrail with a dust rag. Everyone wanted to help. What you didn’t know was on that same day I was sitting out on the rickety back steps counting to see if there was enough money in my checking account to buy me a one-way ticket out of the country. Never to return. I wanted to run away.

I did not want to bury my friends and parishioners, Steve and Susan. My heart was broken. I didn’t know how to adequately support the grieving parents or the devastated children. But together, this covenanted community functioned. I did conduct the service. And this congregation did embrace the family. We helped the children to get adopted by their aunt and uncle.

But here is what you don’t know. Roughly 25 years later, I got a phone call. From Joy. She asked me to conduct her wedding. She said that I would be there to represent her parents. She knew I would also be representing this congregation. You profoundly affected the lives of this family, then, now and forever.

The ministry of this particular congregation extends far beyond our ability to assess. All we can ask is that we can be of use, that we can say “yes” when we are asked to be of service. “Weak as we are” we can depend on a strength beyond our strength to get us through.

Sean asked me to speak on the future of liberal religion, in this church and elsewhere. This subject takes me back to the words of the Torah scholar.” I never knew. I don’t know and I will not know.” But I have my suspicions about the future of this congregation, as it enters its 151st year of existence.

*What is real and true and sustaining will be with you every step of the way.

*The care and love that you bring to this church matters.

* The love and kindness you offer to one another matters.

*The compassion and affection you extend to the stranger, to the one in exile, to the one with almost no voice, matters.

I suspect that the liberal faith would be in serious trouble if the world no longer needed our particular vision. There would be no understandable future for UU’s if no one needed to hear about their own inherent dignity and worth, or of the dignity and worth of every other soul on the planet. The future of the church would be problematic if there was no one in McHenry County who felt isolated, alone and in desperate need to hear beautiful live music and to feel embraced by a community of sympathetic and engaging people. Unitarian Universalists have important messages to give to those who are dying, for those who want to celebrate the birth of a child, or a wedding, and for those for whom rigid creeds and elaborate rituals simply don’t work.  People now, and always seek greater meaning and more courage to face he future. They just may find it at a local UU church. This old world of ours is especially needful of the ministry of the liberal religious faith.

Perhaps it would be helpful at your Sesquicentennial to remember that the best way to serve this broken, imperfect world of ours is not by pretending that the past was easy or that the future holds no significant challenges.  Reality keeps correcting our narratives.  You can probably over-simplify or “prettify” your stories of the good old days. You can tell yourselves that some of your ministers were wonderful and some of your ministers were terrible. (The way I see it, every minister has strengths and weaknesses, talents and limitations. Just like every member, man, woman and child has strengths and weaknesses, talents and limitations) You can idealize and wish-dream that someday in the future everything will calm down and there will be no more overwhelming challenges at the Tree of life Congregation!

But what was clear last night with the wonderful gathering and great music, what is visible this morning is that each of you brings essential gifts to this church. I hope you can see it in a wonderful musical performance of a ballad or a rousing song. In a choir, and in a church, each voice has a unique capacity to touch us. Each of us brings something important to the table.

In order for this congregation to stay together in the unknowable years to come, you will need to keep taking risks. You will need to stay open and curious about how you can be of use. Each of us will need to learn to forgive. Jesus suggested 7x 70 we will need to forgive one another, a limitless number of times.

A congregation is a covenanted community. We make sacred promises to one another. We are called into community by something greater than ourselves. We are witnesses to one another that there is something beyond our weaknesses, foolishness or faintness of heart. You are here! You have survived!

Thank you for welcoming me back to celebrate with you. I hope you will celebrate by welcoming someone this morning that you don’t know. I hope you will celebrate by forgiving someone who needs your compassion. I hope you will breathe in the love and the grace that surrounds you now and forever. God bless you all.

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