The Bright Thread of Hope

The Bright Thread of Hope [1]
We gather this morning, just two days from the end of the election cycle. Two days, my friends, two days.  And over these months of the campaign- or has it been years, or an eternity – how many of us have muttered at the radio, the television, the computer screen – miserable, unrepeatable things….?

How often have we too wondered what meaning hope could have in these days?

How often have we sought to hide our hearts, protect them from the weight of this difficult and broken world with its wars, and its floods, and the way it seems insistent on reducing the story of human life to the results of the latest poll….?

Over these months, these years, this eternity, perhaps you too have gone out to get the newspaper, only to immediately recycle all but the comics and the coupons.

Perhaps you too have sat across from your friends, your partners and children, all of you with your own electronic device – playing games, or flipping through Facebook, finding ways to numb and distract yourselves from the pain you each carry, the stories of your days, the words that were said to you, the words you have said, the absence of the intimacy you deeply long for.

Perhaps you too have watched more reality TV, played more Words with Friends, eaten more of your children’s Halloween candy, made more of a ritual out of beer and potato chips – done all these, or others, more than you would like to admit.

Perhaps you too have done all you could to keep this world, and its heartbreak at bay.

Let’s just say it.  Living in the world with an open heart can be exhausting and sometimes it can be terrible.  Living in this world with the faith that not only can love overcome all hate and pain and suffering, but that it will – feels so often incompatible with remaining informed, feels so often incompatible with paying attention, feels so often so risky and dangerous, and even foolish.

Living with an open heart in a battleground state, especially foolish.  Such an accurate description, more so than a swing state.  No, we’re a battleground.  A battleground where our common humanity is the casualty.  Our sense of vision is what we lose, our sense of common purpose, our sense of trust in our neighbors, our faith in our common goodness, our willingness to hope.

Hope – like fear – begins in the imagination.

Hope – like fear – is a possible response to what we experience in the present as it relates to what we can imagine about the future.

When we experience life’s goodness and joy today – we may hope, or fear, about whether this goodness will continue and perhaps even grow in the future….

When we experience life’s brokenness and the darkness surrounds us today, we may also meet this brokenness with either hope, or fear…

It’s a choice we have.  Hope or fear; trust or anxiety; faith or cynicism. We all have a choice, and it is a choice we make every day with our lives. Rational, reasonable people might support either choice.  There is much evidence to support either position.

250 years ago, a man named Thomas Potter faced such a choice.  (For those of you who were at Buckhorn, you might remember I told a version of the story I am about to tell.  It’s another on my list of top 10 stories I feel like all Unitarian Universalists should know, and so even if you heard it at Buckhorn, it’s ok.  It’s an important one.)  [2]

About 250 years ago, in one of the places hardest hit by the storm last week, the shores of what would become New Jersey – on those same shores, Thomas Potter, a farmer and what today we’d call a religious seeker – was spending a lot of time thinking about some big questions.  The nature of life.  The question of hope.  And most of all, whether or not love would have the final word for us all. Which in his day, was a matter of – whether or not hell existed, and what determined whether you’d end up there.

In his search for answers, Thomas Potter stumbled upon the ideas of Universalism, and its hopeful claim that a loving God would never send God’s people to hell, and that instead all would be reconciled in Love. All.

Unfortunately for him, however, in 1770 America, there wasn’t yet a Universalist church, and there weren’t any Universalist ministers.  And so Thomas Potter’s deep longing to hear a message of hope, and to be a part of a community that embodied that message, remained unfulfilled.

And then one day, the story goes, as Thomas Potter worked his fields, he heard a voice in his heart.  The voice said, “If you build a chapel, a Universalist minister will come and bring a story of hope to all who come here.”  And so Thomas Potter decided right then to build a chapel near his farm house.  He built it, and then he waited for that minister to come.

Well lo and behold, at about the same time that Thomas Potter was building his chapel, a young minister named John Murray was making his way across the Atlantic Ocean.  John Murray – a one time Methodist minister who had converted to Universalism only to be cast out as a heretic.  John Murray, a man who had recently lost his young wife and his child in a great tragedy. A man whose experience of brokenness had led him to decide to give up on preaching, to give up on faith and religion all together, and head to the new world and start over. Specifically, he’d imagined starting over in what is today New York.  But, as John Murray’s boat got close to shore, the winds picked up, and instead, he went aground on the coast of New Jersey, coincidentally, right near the fields where Thomas Potter had built his chapel.

Seeking shelter and help, John Murray went towards the farm house, where he met up with Thomas Potter.  Before long, Potter discovered Murray’s background in ministry, and their shared belief in the gospel of hope.

You can just see the light bulbs going off in Potter’s head at this point, right? (OK, maybe not light bulbs, it was 1770…) But just imagine how excited Potter was as he told Murray about his chapel, and about his vision of a minister arriving to preach the message of hope.

“So I heard this voice, and I built this chapel, and you are the minister!

And Murray was like, “you’re crazy!”

No really, John Murray had decided he was done with preaching, remember? Done with this idea of hope.  Life was not a blessing, it was terrible and broken and he wanted to go get lost in the wilderness.

But Potter didn’t give up easily.  And so the two men decided to make a deal.  If Murray’s ship was still stuck on the coming Sunday, that is, if the wind didn’t change so that they could head to New York, Murray would preach in Potter’s chapel.

Well, lucky for all of us today, the wind did not change.  And so that Sunday – September 30, 1770, Murray preached a sermon on Universalism in Potter’s chapel to Thomas Potter and to all his family and neighbors. It was the first known Universalist sermon on American soil, and today John Murray is considered the founder of Universalism in America.

Today, we are the grateful inheritors of Thomas Potter’s vision. Grateful inheritors of Thomas Potter’s choice to keep hope alive, to create a place for it – a literal meeting house for it, to kindle the flame of hope in his time, so that it might be here for us in ours. And we are the grateful inheritors of the ways that Thomas Potter greeted John Murray and all his pain with love and vision, and reminded him of the power of hope to transform even the deepest heartbreak.

We stand here today keepers of this story, guardians of this tradition, stewards of this message of love – so that 250 years from now, good people like us will receive the gifts of our broad vision, and continue to take up the mantle, as Love’s People.

Love’s People.  That’s what the Rev. Justin Schroeder calls us Unitarian Universalists. Are Justin’s parents here today? Rick, or Marianne, you can tell Justin I’ve been listening to his podcasts, and I think he’s a rock star.

Which is important for everyone here to take in (not just Justin’s parents) because Justin grew up in this church.  And this child who grew up in this church, he’s out there, now, senior minister to a large, vibrant UU church in Minneapolis, kindling a bright flame of hope.   I am not overstating it, he is a rock star…It makes me wonder what the kids who are in our RE classes today will bring to this world.

Anyway, so yes, Justin calls us Love’s People.  And as “Love’s People,” we stand together, making the choice, whatever life may bring, to meet it with love. To greet it with hope.

Give them not hell but hope, as John Murray said – give them not hell, but hope.  That’s our choice.  That’s our story.

Now, if you hadn’t guessed, today’s service is a collaboration with our Stewardship team.  And I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t yet guessed. I mean, in many congregations “Stewardship” is basically a code word for the annual pledge campaign.  And the committee is charged with raising funds to support the church budget. And everyone kind of avoids getting near them like they have a very painful and very contagious disease.

Well, not our Stewardship Committee. This Committee is regularly sponsoring classes on things like, intentional giving, paying bills online,

the basics of insurance, and identity theft prevention. Because this Stewardship Committee wants to help us all think about what money means, and how we get it and how we spend it, what that has to do with our values, and what we believe about the world.

And last Fall, the Stewardship Committee sponsored a service where rather than collecting money, they handed it out, and then they invited creative and thoughtful ways for that money to go to worthy causes, and encouraged you to find ways for it to multiply. And so though they handed out about $400 in that service, your creative responses resulted in nearly $4,000 going to local non-profits to further our values in the world.

Knowing all this, it didn’t really surprise me when this same Stewardship Committee heard this reading from Victoria Safford and said – that is the reading we want for the Stewardship service.  Nevermind that it was in a book about Unitarian Universalist theology and social justice.

This Stewardship Committee believes, no – they are passionate about, and are ready to lead us all in the belief and practice of stewardship not as a discrete action that you take as a part of church.  But Stewardship as the church.

Stewardship not as raising money.  Not about funding a budget.  These are outcomes of stewardship, sure, but not stewardship itself.

Our friends on this inspiring and faith-filled committee are inviting us to learn that stewardship is about keeping alive this story of hope.

It is about tending to the world we cannot yet see in full, but gain glimpses of in the abundant gifts of the every day. Stewardship is about taking life’s abundant blessings and claiming them as our shared destiny.

Stewardship is not a discrete action you take in the church.  It is the church.

Which is why, in this “stewardship” service, the Committee wanted to lift up the work of the ESL Tutoring program, as here is one way that we, as members of this congregation, tend the story of hope. With our time, with our financial giving, with our faith -here is one way we bring love to bear on the world’s struggles, one way we mend the world’s attempts to divide us into categories – immigrants/natives, speakers of one language/another – One way we instead proclaim the story of our unity, proclaim the story of our mutual needs and vulnerability, the ways we can learn from each other, the ways we can serve each other, the ways – as the African proverb goes – “I am because we are.”

And the ESL tutoring program is just one of many ways we, the members of Foothills Unitarian Church – are stewards of this story of hope.

Our Faith Family Hospitality ministry – where we host homeless families in our church, this is another. The memorial last Saturday for our beloved friend, Rick Gumina, that afternoon we were stewards for one another – of a story of hope in the face of heartbreak. And last Sunday – wow, that powerful service of story and song exploring el Dia de los Muertos, and the meaning of life, and death – and the lighting of candles, and the announcement of our big gift to the Food Bank, and later in the day, this same sanctuary filled with laughter and lit up pumpkins – in all of these we are keepers of the story of love, the story of standing for the common good, for compassion and caring, laughter and joy and the bright thread of hope.

There are a thousand examples.The Brotherhood, the MUUMs, the Spirit Films. The OWL Program, the youth group, Theology on Tap, and the Women’s Giving Group. The joy and generosity that filled the church last night at the Auction. The meals we bring to ill church members, the Dinner Circles we share, Serving each other coffee on Sunday,greeting each other at the door, the Children’s  and the adult Choir, the ways we allow the spirit make its way through this space, and the way we invite the spirit into our weary and willing hearts.

I’m leaving more out than I have listed.  Not the least because I’ve barely begun to know it all.

And still, when we talk about being stewards of hope let us not give the impression we mean only in the “official” ministries of the church. For surely our church becomes most powerful when it makes its way into our everyday lives, when our faith becomes the way we live. When we become, when we claim ourselves as stewards of hope, stewards of love. As Love’s people.

This is the choice we come here to be reminded of, the choice we come here to help each other make.

So that when we too find ourselves confusing pragmatism with cynicism, and turning all too often to the numbing power of beer and potato chips – or whatever it is that we might turn to in our lives to keep the heartbreak at bay -we know we can count on our friends in this community to say to us -“What kind of self-indulgent whining is this?” In the kindest possible way, of course.

We bear witness to each other this alternative story.An alternative to the story of division and separation and greed and self-interest that so often attempts to claim us.

We – the people of Foothills Unitarian Church. In Fort Collins, Colorado, at the end of 2012, in this place called a battleground, in this life that can so often feel like a battle ground. We come here to this place of hope, and we kindle this flame.  A story of binding the broken, comforting the world. Heaing the brokenness – with a promise of blessing. A story of light, that we carry into all the places of darkness. A story of hope and heart, into all the highways and byways, into our homes and into our lives.

We stoke this story with our lives, Making sure it doesn’t ever go out. And we pass it on.

May it be so, and amen.

[1] The sermon title is taken from the reading we used in the service, written by Rev. Victoria Safford, and printed in the book, A People So Bold.  There are references to the reading itself throughout the sermon – the “self-indulgent whining” and the “muttering miserable, unrepeatable things,” and “stoke this story with our lives and making sure it doesn’t go out, and passing it on” are all critical references to this beautiful story we were so grateful to have as a reference point in our service.

[2] This story can be found in many places. In writing this sermon, I consulted with these versions: http://www.murraygrove.org/pottermurray.html;http://www.uucdc.org/sermons/2012/10/21/how-are-you-saved; andhttp://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/creatinghome/session12/sessionplan/stories/60161.shtml

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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