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June 5, 2011: “A Search for Harmony”

I enjoyed our recent “Blue Sky Folk Festival” and hope for many more; it was a new tradition started that may blossom into great success in so many ways- fun, first of all, a great resource for new musicians to play on occasional Sundays, fantastic advertising, reaching out to the community, and drawing in those Unitarian Universalists without knowing it who we know are out there, needing us!

The theme that the incredible planning committee came up with was “A Search for Harmony,” and so I stole the title for this sermon for Annual Meeting Sunday, a time when Harmony is especially needed!

So let me start with a little story: Playing It Safe

“Once there was a small jazz club in New Orleans. In a corner of that club sat an old dilapidated piano. All of the jazz artists complained about this antiquated instrument. The piano players dreaded playing on it. The vocalists dreaded singing with it. And all of the combos that played the club wished that they could bring in their own piano – just like they could a saxophone or a trumpet.

Finally, after years of listening to these jazz musicians complain about his piano, the owner of the club decided to do something about it. He had the piano painted.”

I performed at the folk festival and played my beloved 12 String guitar, no I don’t have a name for it, but it is a Guild Guitar, one of the best names in guitars, and I have had it now for some 20 or more years. I won’t go into too much detail, but a 12 string is used by a lot of the of folk musicians, and has a wonderful rich and vibrant sound, like a group of guitars are playing. It’s actually not much more difficult to play than a regular 6 string, but I think the sound is more than double the 6 string, partly because of the way it is strung. The first 4 sets of strings are tuned an octave apart and the last 2 sets are tuned in unison. There is therefore a harmony that is actually built in to the way it sounds. To take the metaphor even further, my first 12 string, bought for a whole $100 was made by a company called, “Harmony!” I bought it freshman year in college, 1968! I loved that guitar and it sounded as good as many others that were a thousand dollars more expensive. But it wasn’t made as well as those thousand plus dollar guitars, and eventually, after some 20 years or so, the neck began to warp, to bend, so that it would not stay in tune, in harmony, if you will.

I took it to the folk music shop in PA where we lived, and was told that there was nothing they could do to fix it; unlike the more expensive guitars, it didn’t have a steel rod in it. I was fortunate that I had gotten such good use out of it for as long as I did. SO I ended up buying the Guild Guitar, a lot more expensive, but worth every penny to me. And the name “Guild” after all, implies a community which works together, a guild, of course, being the term used for a group of artisans, something like a union, who get together to strengthen their craft by organizing and creating common requirements to be a member of the guild.

So going from a guitar of Harmony to one of Guild was OK, you see. The metaphor was still important to who I was and eventually to the ministry and the leadership of the church, of the beloved community, working as a guild in harmony to create a beloved community to come together in worship, in play, in work, and in social justice. Last Saturday I conducted a memorial service for one of the founders, perhaps, THE founder of this church, Lincoln Christensen. I hadn’t known him very well, so asked for people’s memories, and only a few of our folks are still around that knew him. I went back to the 50 year History book that Jim and Celeste Opfell so kindly put together when this church celebrated the 50th Anniversary in 2006. One line especially stood out that I used from a 1965 Annual Report from the Membership committee thanking folks for helping; “And last but not least, Lincoln Christensen carried out his permanent job of greeter at the door in his usual dignified and dependable way.” He served in many capacities, on the first Board, and even gave an early talk at a service on “Our Unitarian Heritage.” He was one of the representatives of the church to the 100 Anniversary of Unitarianism in Cleveland held at First Church. His children remember growing up in what was first a fellowship, then became a church. Remember finally buying a building, the old mansion called Graystone, and which, they told me, it seemed like Lincoln was always at, and every Saturday they had to go and mow the lawn or fix the boiler. And long time member, Norm Shure, who had been such a good friend with Lincoln and his family that he said it was the best of times and it was like as social club, everyone was close, and I kind of miss that, now.

I read a piece called,

The Reverend Charles Donald Saleska
(April 10, 1935 – February 7, 1991)

Life itself is my guide
I shall not be denied its sustaining power.
The green earth provides me with lavish nourishment;
Cool still pools of water refresh my spirit.
A deep intuition leads me along a path that is true
for the sake of existence itself.

Even though I walk through a valley where dark shadows
prevent me from knowing where life
finally leads in death,
ultimately I will not fear,
For the energy of the universe is within me.

The tools by which I am kept from wandering
off into despair,
They are a comfort to me.

Even in the face of threats to my well-being
and my very life,
The spirit of life nourishes me,
honors me with its presence,
and reminds me that I really
have more than I need.

Surely goodness and kindness
radiate upon me constantly,
and I shall dwell within this universe
with its transforming processes, forever.

One of Lincoln’s sons said that they had known Reverend Charles Donald Saleska in some of their travels, he had been at one of the churches they were a part of when they were grown and moved away. They thought it was a wonderful coincidence that I had chosen that piece. We are such a small denomination that we find ourselves always connected, always surprised that so many of us ministers have served in so many various places, and had profound influences on so many people over the years.

We call those people who do so much for the church, who are dedicated to the building up of a beloved community “Church Pillars,” don’t we. Leonard Sweet, a Christian minister known for his great preaching, discusses the difference in Pillars, using Matthew 5:13-20 in his sermon “What Kind of Pillar Are You?”

“Who are the pillars of the church? If others look to you as a “pillar of the church,” what kind of pillar are you? Jesus answers that question in our gospel reading for this morning, but to get to his answer we’ve got to exercise the discipline of historical context. We’ve got to put his words and images in the context of the culture of his day. So here we go . . .

Anyone who has ever had a class on Greek and Roman culture has had to recall and recognize the three distinctive types of architectural columns used to support the stately monuments, temples, and public buildings that adorned their world…The three (kinds of pillars) are the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. These three styles of supportive pillars framed the graceful entrances of some of the most imposing, majestic architectural wonders the world has ever known. Yet today they stand in ruins. Time, decay, wars, earthquakes, floods have left us little to look at except a few of those stately pillars. The glory of the Parthenon, the grandeur of the Coliseum, are merely hinted at by the few remaining columns that still stand upright and intact, like the bones of some long extinct dinosaur. The pillars remain. But the people and powers that put them up long ago crumbled into the dust of history.

In the ancient world pillars could be either a sign of welcome or a sign of warning: a portal into new possibilities, or a symbol of a last outpost, a sign of the end.

The so-called “Pillars of Hercules” – the mountain peaks that flank either side of the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar – have shared both of those titles. The Pillars supposedly marked the farthest reaches of Hercules’ journeys during his “twelve labors.” They were symbols of the end of the world and were believed to be inscribed with the warning “nec plus ultra” – “nothing further beyond.” The original understanding of the Pillars of Hercules was as a huge “do not enter” sign before the waters of the unknown and the worlds that lay beyond the Mediterranean. Too many “pillars of the church” are like these “Pillars of Hercules” beyond whom no one might sail.

But by the time of Charles V, aka “the Holy Roman Emperor,” the symbol of the Pillars of Hercules offered a different message. As Spanish explorers sails across the Atlantic to the Americas these “Pillars” were re-christened to proclaim “Plus Ultra” – “Further Beyond.” In other words, the Pillars had gone from being a protective gate closing in the Mediterranean to being the entrance gate opening into a whole new world of possibilities.

These are the kinds of “Pillars of the Church” that Jesus summons forth….”

I believe that to be in harmony means to be in right relation to each other, ourselves, and the community, to be a pillar of welcome, not warning. I think of Jesus like I think of Buddha, an enlightened teacher, prophet; one who incarnates a special spiritual dimension that is so rare, religions spring up in their wake. Harmony is a crucial subject in Eastern religions, even today. When Buddha speaks of the 8 Fold Path, it is, I will argue, his “Sermon on the Mount.”

The threefold division of the path

Right understanding
Right intention

Ethical conduct
Right speech
Right action
Right livelihood

Sam”dhi: mental discipline, concentration, meditation
Right effort
Right mindfulness
Right concentration

samm”-v”c”), deals with the way in which a Buddhist practitioner would best make use of their words. In the Pali Canon, it is explained thus:[30][31][32][33][34]

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

The Sama”aphala Sutta, Kevatta Sutta and Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta elaborate:[35][36][37][38]

Abandoning false speech… He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world…

Abandoning divisive speech… What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here…Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord…

Abandoning abusive speech… He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large….”

Concord is another name for harmony, peace, calm, compassion. Searching for harmony whether in music or in self, or in community is a religious occupation, part of our mission I think as Unitarian Universalists, as people, as a beloved community.

Last weekend it was a memorial service, this weekend, I performed a wedding, the cycle of life, and these are the words I use to end my homily part of the service: “Remember this simple truth- Love is the answer to everything- religion, relationships, life itself. No one really has to teach us how to love, we only need to listen to our heart and live our lives accordingly, for love will teach us all we need to know if we will but be honest in our dealings with each other, with ourselves, and with everyone else. Just live your life with love and you cannot go wrong; though it is not easy. Beware the competition though, of ego, power, greed, lust, oh the list is long. Trust love, my friends, live love, practice love, believe in love, make love!

And I closed the memorials service with these words, first by my colleague Barbara Pescan and lastly a Native American blessing:

Love Abides
Often we are found in our grief and comforted calmed by some kindness brought alive again by beauty that catches us undefended.
Even when the sun is most thin and far even at the hour the storm is at its height we can go through renewal nests within sorrow love abides, even beyond anger, beyond death.
We are held in an embrace invisible but infinite moving with all creation between wholeness and fragmentation moving always toward the one.
Small joys and great sorrows pass and we, with steps uncertain, move on to whatever is next
but continually seen, heard, held by Life infinite and remote, intimate and abiding.
Love, do not let us go. Amen.

~Pueblo Blessing ~
Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.
Let us search for true harmony.

Amen, Peace, Love, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Jane Ranney Rzepka

Words for a UUA Video

“I grew up in one of those Unitarian fellowships in the Midwest. And that little religious community really left its mark on me.

For one thing, the grown-ups there believed that we ought to use our heads. They encouraged us to ponder the big questions of beginnings and endings, and anger and love, and what was before and what comes next, and what helps and what hinders. They thought we were “smart kids,” they listened to our ideas, and we believed we were good thinkers. Now of course I know that the use of reason is a cornerstone of our long religious heritage; but then I just thought it was the way we did things at the Unitarian Church.

And then in another mode we planted daffodils along the long driveway, we searched for guppies at the Holden Arboretum, we held a worship service at the Chagrin river. These days we would call it spirituality I suppose, or earth-centered religion, but then we called it “miracle” and “wonder.” And that rootedness is in my blood as a Unitarian.

Finally, back then, we children knew that we were a part of a congregation who loved us. They taught us Sunday School. They doled out the cookies at coffee hour. They chaperoned the Youth Group. They wanted to know what we would do after graduation. They wrung their hands; they clapped their hands — for us, for one another. Now we call it community; now we call it connection. But for me, back then, it was just Unitarianism.”

Annual Meeting reading
Jane Raney Rezpka

“It wasn’t until last Friday … ….glancing through the obituaries in the paper, that jogged my memory. I noticed a death notice in the Globe that simply said of a man, “age 44, loved boating, and restoring sports cars,” and another notice yesterday that said in its little headline, “homemaker who enjoyed sewing.” And then I remembered deciding all those years ago in the sanctuary that along with everything else, the foundational point of “doing time in the sanctuary” was that you could get back in touch with what you love. You could settle down, sort it out, and remember again what it is you live for. You could use the sanctuary time to ask yourself, “When I die, what will they say I loved?” Did I love to plant trees? Did I live to make a difference in the scientific world? Did I nurture children? Did I love boats or sports car restoration or sewing? When the rush of the fall is long past, sanctuary time is a good time to remember, in the quiet, what you love.

And the pages of the calendar turn, the seasons circle around, and now we are in the muddy church parking lot out there in the Midwest. And it is spring. I am watching my father. A woman calls to him. He stops. They begin to argue again about paving the church driveway, a custom they followed every spring: She wants to go for it — “we’ll get the money somehow,” she says. My dad says, “No. That’s no way to run things. We need to wait and see how the pledges come in and make a one year plan, and a three year plan ….”

Twenty years later, the same woman stands up at my father’s funeral and says, “You know, Neil and I were on the opposite side of every financial issue we had at this church. Oh, did we argue. But one day, we sat down together — sat down together for two hours, and worked at it until we began to understand each others’ point of view. We never did agree, even after that. But we have been the best of friends.”

Church life can be so “every day.” We can come to church for years and begin to wonder what the point is, what with the kids running around in the boiler room, and the teens serving when they don’t even know how to make tea, and you spend hours sitting in the sanctuary but you can’t remember a single sermon, and everybody is promoting different strategies for getting the cars parked.

To make matters worse, today, in our church, is Canvass Sunday, the one day of the year when church members go out and ask one another for pledges to keep the place going for another year, and if the minister were wise, she would talk not about everyday boiler rooms and tea and parking lots, but about the great glories of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

But for me, the religious glories of big-time miracle and spectacular lightning bolts and dazzling conversions are few and far between. The value of church-life occurs more quietly, I think for most of us, as the cycles of life repeat, the small spiritual moments accrue — so often only years later in retrospect, and circles of the seasons accumulate.

In a few minutes we’ll see pictures of moments in time, moments that after years have gone by have turned out to have meant something or marked something, moments that recur as the seasons turn and the people grow and replace one another. For “Within the circles of our lives/ we dance the circles of the years,/ the circles of the seasons/ within the circles of the years….”

So may it be.”