“Just Passing Through”
A Sermon delivered on May 29, 2016
At The First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA
Rev. Carol Rosine
When my call to the ministry came, I knew that one of the hardest things I’d have to do eventually was to leave my church in Manchester, CT. It was a “new-start” congregation which meant that it was a brand-new church that was going through a process of intentional growth with the support of the UUA. There were perhaps 60 folks there when my family first arrived, meeting in rented space on Sunday mornings and in each other’s homes during the week. I was pregnant at the time with my second child and following the birth there were some serious complications. I had no family to help out and my husband was traveling so I was feeling very alone and abandoned, when some of those folks from the church started to show up, offering their help, their support, their friendship.
This was the first time that my husband and I had been in one place long enough to consider putting roots down and actually joining a UU church. But it quickly became clear that this was the place where we wanted to settle in. We wanted that church to be our spiritual home. And so when a canvasser appeared on our doorstep a few months later, we knew that we would have to make a pledge of financial support. The problem was that I had grown up in a church in which it was assumed that you would tithe, that you would give 10% of your earnings to the church, while my husband had grown up in the Catholic church where he watched his father drop a dollar in the collection plate each Sunday. So here we were, on opposite ends of understanding what a pledge of financial support meant. The other challenge was that I hadn’t been able to go back to work yet and so we were dependent on one pay check for the first time. Things were really tight financially, with no wiggle room in our budget, until I realized that if I would give up smoking, I could give my cigarette money to the church. So that’s what I did.
That was just the first financial decision we had to make with that church because soon there was a capital campaign to purchase land and then another capital campaign to begin building and then a third capital campaign so that we could furnish the simple meetinghouse we’d built in the woods. There wasn’t much wiggle room in the church’s budget either through the years in which we were building a home of our own, so a lot of the work we did ourselves: clearing the land, pouring the foundation, scraping and painting and planting. Ten years I was with them, ten years in which my commitment to that church and my friendship with the people there deepened in a way I’d never thought possible. But then that call into the ministry came and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to remain within that congregation that I had grown to love so much. Answering that call meant that eventually I would have to move on. That much as I loved them, I couldn’t stay there. And so I did. I moved on. My life moved on.
I had given so much to that church: my time, my talent, my treasure. And yet I have never regretted one moment of my time or one dollar invested there. Instead I look back with such deep satisfaction at the foundation that I helped build because over time that congregation has flourished and has continued to transform lives, has continued to make a difference in the world. It was such a good thing that I was part of way back then.
As you can imagine, so much of what has happened here has been a déjà vu experience for me. A small struggling congregation, homeless, dependent on volunteers, always frustrated by bare-boned budgets. Yes so much of what has happened here is familiar to me because this is the way it was when I was a lay leader back in Manchester so long ago.
A few years ago I visited the Manchester church after having been away for a long time. The outside of the meetinghouse looked pretty much the same, but they’ve expanded down the hill and reconfigured their meeting space to the extent that I had trouble remembering how it had been originally. It didn’t have the same feeling that I had been remembering. There was also a Memorial Garden which was new since my days there, a Garden similar to the one at Ferry Beach, nestled in the woods, down the hill. I spent some time there, pondering the names of all those whose ashes were buried there. Most of those names were familiar to me, dear people with whom I had worked side by side, some who had been close friends.
The thing that struck me was that there was very little that had remained the same since I had left 30 years before. But why should it have stayed the same? My life certainly was not the same and so it was for those in that beloved congregation as well. They have moved on because that’s the way life is. Babies are born and grow up and before you know it they are off on their own. People fall in love and out of love and back in love again. Careers change. Friendships change. Dreams may be realized but are sometimes deferred. And, of course, some of those we love the most die. Because that’s the way life is.
There is an old story about a famous rabbi living in Europe who was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi’s dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city, and was directed to the rabbi’s room which was in the attic. He entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more. After greetings, he asked, “Rabbi, where are your things?” The rabbi asked in return, “Well, where are yours?” His visitor replied, “But, Rabbi, I’m only passing through.” And the master answered, “So am I, so am I.”
We are all just passing through my friends. I stand here before you looking out at your beloved faces, and am so aware of those faces that are missing. I’m thinking about Phyllis Russell whose weeping cherry tree keeps getting uprooted by the snow plow. Phyllis was one who danced and sang her way through the final years of her life. She had known great tragedy and yet she was filled with such joy for living. And so it was for Peg Giuliano as well. A white-haired sprite of a woman who was always ready for an adventure. What an inspiration both of these women were for those of us who grew to know and love them. Their spirits are still here as well as the spirits of so many others who’ve been passing through over the years. And not just through death.
Some of those who gave so generously during their years with us have moved far away, others have left either angry or disenchanted or just upset with a decision made that they didn’t agree with. A congregation that’s going through the rapid changes that we went through can expect to lose some along the way. And then there were those who left when their children were grown, and still others who left because they found that we were no longer supporting them on their spiritual paths.
And yet you’re still here. And when you are gone, there will be others who will find a place here. Because that’s the way it is with a religious community like ours. A religious community that’s grounded in a rich tradition. A tradition that has been evolving over time and yet a tradition that’s grounded in an approach to life that has sustained and nourished generations. What we have here, is something that is bigger than just you and you and you. It transcends each of us, because we, as individuals are just passing through, all of us are just passing through. What we are called to do during the time when we are here is to do is our part in making sure that this tradition of ours will stretch into the future as well. So that those who are to come after us will also have this free faith of ours to nourish and sustain them.
I retire in a few short weeks and following me will be other ministers who will help to guide this congregation. I anticipate that there will be changes, some of which I know I will not approve of. I’ll probably be muttering at a distance, totally appalled that you’ve changed something that I really cared about! And yet that’s just the way things are. We know that change is part of life.
When I arrived here I was still using a typewriter to write my sermons, literally cutting and pasting for last minute edits. We used a messy mimeograph machine to print our newsletter. The telephone and snail mail was our way of communicating with each other. Blue laws were still in effect here in Massachusetts which meant that Sunday morning was set aside for worship, not for shopping or schlepping children to soccer or football or birthday parties. We live in a world that keeps spinning faster and faster as you well know. Virtual reality, social media, self-driving vehicles, robots taking over so much of what we humans used to do.
And yet it seems to me that those who are yet to come will be pondering the same questions of meaning and purpose that brought so many of us to this church. Those to come will be looking for a community in which they can form relationships, connections. Those to come will be looking for like-minded and like-spirited folks, just like we were when we found our ways here. Those to come may be experiencing loss and sorrow, they may be consumed by fear and even despair. It seems to me that in an increasingly technological world, an increasingly isolating world, an increasingly dangerous world, the church may be needed more than ever, this church may be needed more than ever.
And so please, do what you can to sustain this church after I leave. Eventually I’ll be popping back in and I promise that I will do nothing but offer praise for what you’ve accomplished in my absence. This, dear ones, I promise you.
Sing ”My Life Flows On” # 108