In Search of Higher Ground
20 Sep 2015 Rev Dr Patrick T. O’Neill preaching. In Search of Higher Ground. After all, how complicated can it be, this unique human invention called a church? Rent a tent, call for a picnic, gather the troops – you’re in business! Just like a circus! Ever wonder why such a quaint place is here, and why so many people have cared about this Chapel, loved this place, needed this place since 1692, over the 300 years?
“In Search of Higher Ground”
A Sermon Delivered at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in London
by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill
September 20, 2015
As all schoolchildren, teachers, and church ministers come to know, the annual cycle of the year does not begin in January and end in December. The school year and the church year both properly begin in September, following the more natural rhythms of Nature itself. The relative relaxations and leisurely demands of summer are finally and undeniably past us, and we return from our summertime gambols to resume our rightful places now in the classrooms and pews where we belong.
And so it begins again. A new church year, our 324th consecutive year as a chapel. On this Ingathering Sunday, we officially resume again the grand experiment in Free Religious community called Unitarianism. Ours is a tradition traceable back to the earliest days of 16th century Europe, when such beliefs as ours – in radical human freedom, in the unrestricted search for truth not bound by doctrine, in the equality of free worship as it flows from the human heart in many cultures and traditions, where no person has ever been excommunicated for the boldness of their thought or the courage of their dissent – such beliefs as we take to be a given in this chapel today were once labeled as heresy and a threat to tradition.
On this Ingathering Sunday, we call ourselves to resume again our annual attempt to create for ourselves the church of the Free Mind and the Open Heart, a chapel where the glowing coals of Spirit, Service, and Celebration continue to warm and to shine for the newcomer as for the longtime friend.
Mindful ever of those wonderful souls who precede us in these pews and in this pulpit – mindful ever and grateful for the visionary values and gifts which first called this Beloved Community together in 1692, and which have held it fast over the centuries – mindful ever and aware of the Principles and Purposes that lend power and focus to our Liberal Faith – on this Ingathering Sunday we make bold to proclaim again that “Love is the doctrine of this church, that the quest of Truth is its sacrament, and that Service is its prayer.”
An apt verse from May Sarton’s poetry has been running through my brain all week:
“Return to the most human, nothing less
will nourish the torn spirit, the bewildered heart,
the angry mind: and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish, speak of love.
Return to the deep sources, nothing less
Will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
To carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
And still that ancient necessary pain preserve.”
We are back in this venerable house, partly hoping that what has been true for us here in the past might still be true for us this new September. We are back, in part, because it is here in this house, amidst this extraordinary company of ordinary people that we have sometimes caught fleeting glimpses of our ideals, momentary outlines of our best selves.
We’ve come back to these familiar pews, to this venerable pulpit, to this circle of friends and neighbors, to the customs and traditions of our liberal Unitarian faith, to the style of worship that has given expression to so much that is dear to us over the years. On this holy ground, in this sacred space where we have named our babies and memorialized our dead, this chapel where we have chosen our ministers, where so many times we have worshipped together and mourned together and wondered and worried together over matters great and small. This house of prayer, this house of music, this house of worship, this house of God, this haven for heretics (yes, that too).
We know what this chapel has been for us in years past, and we are back, many of us, in part because we need to reserve such sacred space in our lives. We need to know we are part of a company of like spirits; at our best, capable of a surprising charity; unafraid of community; open to the challenges of a redeeming justice and a rare compassion in this imperfect world.
It is not a blind or unquestioned faith that reassembles us here. Reinhold Niebuhr might well have had us skeptical Unitarian Universalists in mind when we wrote,
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by Hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate content of history; therefore, we must be saved by Faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by Love.
The difference, it is important to remember, between a museum and a living church is that a church is not solely a community of memory. A church is also and simultaneously a community of Hope for every person who walks through the front door of a Sunday morning, called here by something already inside themselves; by something in need of connection, perhaps, or something in need of healing; or something in need of naming, or something in need of affirmation and inspiration and celebration.
The challenge of life – be it the life of a community or the life of an individual – is always the coupling of change and continuity as a creative process of growth. And so it will be with our chapel in our 324th year, which begins today. You have many exciting prospects to consider in our chapel life in the year ahead. “So much is in the bud,” as Denise Levertov wrote. You will be doing some things a little bit differently this year. Their will new friends and new staff, indeed a new minister in your midst, who bring you their unique talents and personalities and perspectives. There are plans to be made and decisions to hammer out, dreams to dream, life to be lived. In this regard, no doubt our 324th year will require the same efforts as every other.
There are many ways to say what it is we hope to find in church, I suppose. In terms not too theological, I trust, we might say that we come to chapel hoping to uncover something of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in our lives. Those were Plato’s terms for what is most important for human beings. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The only thing that ever limits the potential of a living church is its own lack of faith – faith in who they are, faith in who they can be, faith in what they can do as a community, faith in their own mission as a church. There are no limits on the potential of people who believe in what they’re doing. That is true of individuals and it is true for a congregation, as well.
And so I welcome you back to chapel, you long-time members and old hands, and I welcome you who are newcomers, too. I welcome you who are here for the first time, you who have been looking for a spiritual home but weren’t sure if there really was a church for you anywhere. I welcome you who have been searching for a community where affinity of spirit, not conformity of belief, is what defines us. I welcome you to a tradition where great thoughts, good works, and open hearts are valued, where spiritual life for children is education and not indoctrination. I welcome you to this Unitarian chapel.
I like what A. Powell Davies, a great British Unitarian preacher, once said about why he why he came to church. “I come to church – and would whether I was a preacher or not – because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world, unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. This happens to me in church…..where we are brought together on higher ground, where we all share the same yearning, the same need of assurance and faith and hope.“
How did Larkin’s poem phrase it? “A serious house on serious earth … In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies…” (see, “Church Going” by Philip Larkin.) Indeed.