Thresholds: A Homily for Ingathering Sunday
September 11, 2016
Rev. Jenny M. Rankin
First Universalist Society in Franklin
It is good to be here with you. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your Interim Minister. You have said goodbye to Carol Rosine, your minister of long standing, with a splendid celebration and gift You have chosen, as a congregation, to have two years of intentional time between settled ministers. This is wise. Just as with other relationships in life, particularly long ones, before starting a new relationship, It is wise to take some time, Step back, take stock, Before you move on.
In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the minister is not appointed by someone on high— Rather, the candidate is found by lay people—a Search Committee composed of lay people; you will elect this group in June of 2017 to serve on your behalf. The minister is called by a vote of the people—you. So your voices and your intentions and your dreams are of paramount importance in this next two years. You will write the next chapter of your common life together, and I am here to serve as a guide.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. All that is for another day. Today is for gathering in, for coming together as a community.
Some of you may have come on Sundays in the summer; others of you have taken a break. Some of you, perhaps, like me, are brand new today. You are tipping your toe in the water. You are checking out this place for your child or your teen. Welcome. Perhaps you have been here for many years. Perhaps you are returning after a time away. Welcome. As we sang at the beginning, “Come, come whoever you are.” That is our Unitarian Universalist message of radical hospitality–inclusivity Whoever you are, however you come, whatever you carry with you today, Whoever you love, You are welcome here, In this place, this community. With its Universalist roots which has welcomed people, Again and again Since its founding in the 1850s.
In a world that sometimes seems to go at a breakneck pace— Where we can feel like we’re drowning in details. Scurrying to keep up In a world that can seem too noisy, or too quiet. In a world that can go too fast, or too slow. Where we can sometimes feel a bit lost or lonely. It is good to come here, to this place with its long roots in the ground, and the warm feeling of community wrapping around. A place we know we can bring our WHOLE selves. We don’t have to check anything at the door.
Today, we are welcomed not only by this particular community, but also by a spiritual tradition: this Unitarian Universalism. These two strands that developed on their own, each with their own proud history. These two strands that met and merged in 1961. The Universalists and Unitarians, traditions that made waves when they started—made waves for ideas that don’t seem so radical to us now— The notion of the divine as Love (the Universalists) The notion that the sacred could be found outside of a church building, in nature, and that humans are essentially good not sinful (the Unitarians)
Today, when we come here, we are welcomed by this present-day community,and by a long spiritual tradition of Unitarian Universalism. And know that in both cases, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us:
The men and women who founded this community. The ministers who served it over the years— Rev. Carol Rosine for the last 29 years– The lay leaders who kept the flame alive— The faithful nine— The people who found the land— who hammered and painted so these walls could be up and full of music and children, So this place could be full of life. So you could welcome people in—not just the people who are here now, but the next person and the next and the next, all those people who have yet to come in the door, have yet to find this place and the healing message of Unitarian Universalism.
Today—as we gather in— We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Whether we know their names or not. We remember them. We honor them. We would not be here if it were not for them. And so we give thanks.
Coming back together for this new year We acknowledge there are different emotions in the room Loss, grief, confusion, anger, We know from our own lives That when there is change it is like a stone thrown into a pond The water moves and bounces— There are ripples, reverberations. It takes time for things to settle down. Things to settle out. We have the time. We’ll take the time. Change takes energy and it takes time. We have both.
Sometimes, When September rolls around, and I stand with a congregation on the edge of a new church year, I get the image in my mind of stepping over a threshold. I think of Diana Eck, one of my professors at Harvard Divinity School. What she taught me, about thresholds as a place of spiritual power. Diana is a scholar of Hinduism, a founder of the Pluralism Project that studies America’s religious diversit. But what she’s really passionate about is pilgrimage. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, all kinds of pilgrimage. Her passion is pilgrims— why they go, where they walk, what they carry, the intention they set out with when they leave home, the way they are changed by the journey. She’s gone to India dozens of time, crisscrossing that great land. As she follows the pilgrims who walk—thousands of pilgrims— over high Himalayan passes, down dusty country roads, village to village, and across the Great Plains. Under that impossibly wide sky, they are often barefoot, these pilgrims, with staff in hand and clothes that have worn out on their backs, intent on a journey that can take weeks, months, even years.
Diana Eck tracks pilgrims, and the holy places to which they go. These places are known as “tirthas.” “Tirtha,” a word that literally means “crossing over.” Tirthas are threshold places that pilgrims seek out. It could be the top of a mountain, the bank of a river, the edge of a lake, the shore by an ocean. Hindu pilgrims believe these places are special, are holy, They believe these places possess a kind of power– spiritual power— That is not accessible anywhere else. That’s why they walk for hundreds of miles, give up days of their lives, to stand there. To try and touch something beyond them. A bit of the Infinite, the Mystery. Try and touch holiness.
We may use different words to try and name the sacred in our lives, But in the end, we know that– All our human naming is inadequate. The words don’t matter. It is our experience of the sacred that matters. The words don’t matter as much as the stories we tell. About the journeys we walk. And the places we seek out, and the companions we find along the way, and all we carry with us, the questions and sorrows and needs and desires, our hope for something different in our lives.
If you are like the people in other congregations I have served, I imagine you may have a special place or two or three in your life— and you may be imagining it now in your mind’s eye—I invite you to try and do so— Perhaps it is water—a lake, river, ocean. Perhaps it is a mountain range you love, prairie that calls to you, a forest path, a backyard garden. Somewhere, perhaps, there is a bit of this green earth that you return to, when you can, even if only in your mind’s eye. A bit of this earth that you know, deep down inside, is sacred to you, is a holy place for you.
We seek out places like these, I think, because they possess something that we need: Some spirit, some power, some beauty. Something wordless, that we hope might bless or heal us, and strengthen us for the journey ahead. We seek out those places and we return to them, again and again, over our lives, because we need them to help make us whole.
Today we stand on a threshold—a crossing over place— We step across into a new church year, yes, but it is more than that, We step across into a time when you, the people, will write the next chapter of your life together. A time when you the people will name and claim your history, will craft and design a vision of your future, will say who you are and where you want to go and what kind of new minister you want to call to walk with you on that journey. We stand on a threshold. It is a place, the ancient ones tell us, of power— of danger and possibility— and I believe it. I believe it because I have stood at other thresholds in my life And I know the feeling. I believe it because I can sense the spiritual power in this room— the fear, the possibility, the hope, the anxiety, all mixed and muddled up together.
I don’t know you yet, but I can imagine what it is we bring, when we walk into this place, you and I.
We bring the people we love, whether here or in some other place. We bring all that we treasure and are grateful for— we bring what we worry about, what we yearn for. We bring our desire for connection. We bring our loneliness. We bring the struggles in our lives, the grief and sorrow. We bring our desire to live a life that matters, that has worth.
This is a place of spiritual power because when we come here, we bring all of that and more besides. We bring our whole selves. Not just the parts we are proud of. Not just the parts we think are suitable for public consumption. Not just the pretty parts. We bring our whole selves. Our vulnerabilities, regrets and failures Our secret and private hopes
We bring it all right here. Right now. Think of it. A great river of humanity washing into this place, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. All that love and gratitude, desire and hope, worry and grief, streaming in. Right here, right now.
And all that leaves its mark, leaves its tears, leaves its blessing, and makes this place more sacred than ever. And so yes, as we stand on a threshold together, there is spirituawhat you will decide to do and be here, what next new chapter you will write, It is an honor to walk alongside of you on this pilgrim journey we share.
Copyright @ 2016 by Rev. Jenny M. Rankin