"In You Shall All Families of the Earth be Blessed" Genesis 12:3
When we reach the new year, we often look back at the year we have just experienced. I survey that list of famous people who have died in the last year. They include George McGovern who ran for president; Jack Vaughn who directed the first Peace Corps; and musicians Ravi Shankar , who introduced many of us in the US to the sitar (which we have heard this morning); Dave Brubeck, jazz composer whose music we will hear at the end of the service, and composer Elliott Carter. They include Neil Armstrong, the first man who walked on the Moon; Sally Ride, who let us all know women could be astronauts too; Stephen Covey, who gave us 7 habits for highly effective people; Maurice Sendak the children's writer and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are"; poet Adrienne Rich and they include 17 year-old Trayvon Martin who was shot while walking in a neighborhood. They include the 20 children and 6 women from Newtown, Connecticut. And there are two Unitarian Universalists, Bill Jones and Jack Mendelsohn, who died this last year, who may be known by few, but whose legacy for us is profound. I'll say more about them later.
Their lives left us legacies which have shaped how we live and how those in the future may live. George McGovern made our political process in this country more inclusive. Women's participation in the political party politics, people of color and people of many different incomes and young people's participation were mandated by those "radical party rules" established by his campaign. He lost the presidential campaign drastically, but he shaped the campaign landscape forever.
Under Jack Vaughn's Peace Corps we had a new focus on working WITH people rather than FOR people. Peace Corps volunteers returned from all over the world with a love for people that only peace work can create.
When Neil Armstrong took that "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" we entered the universe in ways only our dreams had traverse before. We thought big and imagined we could do what previously had been out of reach. The idioms of our language-"pie in the sky" "the sky is the limit" were no longer words for the impossible.
And for every child who worried about the monsters under their bed, in their closet or out the window, Maurice Sendak safely led them to where the wild things were and back. Facing fear and discovering more about what you fear were gifts for children and parents alike--gifts that stay with one forever-true legacies.
And words from Adrienne Rich:
"Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you...it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: "I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give...."
Some legacies carried pain. The legacy left us by Trayvon Martin is such a legacy. How could an African American 17 year old boy be shot dead simply for walking down a sidewalk in America? His legacy was to raise the complacency of a nation to say, "no more." It brought us to realize he is not the only child to experience this and we as a people have the potential to change this if only we claim that strength.
The children of Newtown, Connecticut and the women who died trying to protect them painfully changed our world. The outcry from their deaths, may leave a legacy of forever lifting up safety for our children-for all of us. It may lead to more thoughtful gun control and more attention by the nation for mental health services in this country. It also left millions of us valuing our families even more and with a renewed commitment to live each day of our life to its fullest.
Jack Mendelsohn, a renowned Unitarian Universalist minister who died at 93 just last month, wrote the first thing I ever read about Unitarian Universalism. It was about 44 years ago. Wondering what Unitarian Univeralism was I opened his book, Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist, and I read, "The substance of religion is in persons who deeply yearn to know what is good and how it may obtain; it is not merely the claim of personal sacredness, but the binding of oneself to it through respect and sensitivity toward the sacredness of all." And later I read from him, "I want my life to count for something. I want my freedom and my faith to be embodied in works of love and justice." And I thought, this is what I think!
Rev. Bill Jones died in 2012. Some of you may remember him. He led a regional workshop here at River Road in the early 90s on racism and anti-oppression. It was such a big workshop that you rented space at Walt Whitman High School and the path in the back of our woods was cleared so people could walk from River Road to Walt Whitman High School through our woods on that path.
In a workshop I had with him at a different time, I remember how he explained affirmative action. He said, "you don't ask people to run a race with one foot tied behind them." And he stood before us holding up one leg. I remember thinking equal opportunity meant not just being able to enter the challenge but having the opportunity to prepare also. Bill Jones was an African American Unitarian Universalist minister who became a university professor as I understand it because there wasn't a Unitarian congregation that wanted to call an African American minister when he went out looking for a congregation. He was a humanist that thought the Unitarian humanist message was a message that could resonate with African Americans who thought the Christian God they knew had not treated African Americans in a godly manner. And all his life he challenged white Unitarian Universalists to be their better selves--to learn and to change. Anti-oppression work within our faith was shaped in a great part by Bill Jones' influence. And it has forever changed Unitarian Universalism.
Legacy is about how people have lived their lives. Legacy is about living, not about dying. One's death just gives us another opportunity to reflect upon ones living. In that Hebrew story in Genesis when God said to Abram, "leave your home and your people and with your family. Take off to unknown parts," He also said , "In you the families of the Earth shall be blessed." I take that as meaning all our lives we can choose to live our lives in ways which bless the families on this earth-which bless all upon this earth.
And I do recognizethat in Genesis Abrah's wife Sarai and his brother Lot and family went with him. Unfortunately most of Sarai, later to be called "Sarah," contributions to this journeying to a new world and a new life were only slightly reported in Genesis. It must have been quite an experience to take off into the unknown with husband and some of his family. And of course they did not then or ever know that their legacy would be the roots of three major religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So often our legacy of blessing the world happens without us every realizing and sometimes never knowing.
I believe each of us can live lives that bless the families of this earth because I have seen those blessings. Your presence in this room and in this congregation has left the legacy of a longing to be in community with other religiously liberal folks. You have left the legacy of creating this community because there was no more room for your children in other religiously liberal communities. You have left the legacy of a religious education program that supports eighth graders when they say as two of our teenagers did in response to the killings in Newtown,
"I wouldn't want to be remembered for how I died, but how I lived."
And... "You will always rely on people more than you can ever hide from them."
You have left legacies of the sense of community around work such as our annual bazaar and our beautiful grounds and a building which reaches up to the sky and out to the woods.
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and our involvement with it is indeed a way of blessing the families of the earth.
Two of our young people, Rosie Cohen and Jamie Harman will be sharing more about the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee during our CC&C forum right after the service.
And as I mentioned earlier in your order of service you will find a donation envelop for the Guest at Your Table program. Boxes may also be picked up in the foyer after the service. I invite you to continue this legacy.
River Road has left legacies of standing up against torture, for marriage equality and immigration reform that holds all people with respect and worth, for peace in the Middle East, fair housing, health care for all, quality childcare for those who need it.
You have left legacies of great music and hours and hours dedicated to the lives of our children and youth, legacies of exploring ideas, controversies and simply of learning. You have left legacies of valuing spiritual stories of your lives and lifting up the wisdom and strength of our elders. You have left the legacy of welcoming children into this world and into this community and dedicating yourselves to them and they families' wellbeing. You have left the legacy of standing on the side of love and affirming the value and the right for marriage. You have left the legacy of holding sacred the lives of those who have died. You have left the legacy of love and caring through your pastoral care. In YOU the families of the Earth have been blessed. I have received those blessings.
You have left legacies of memories which shape how we understand our lives. For me that legacy has included this place and the community in which I was married, in which I was ordained, in which I, no we all, celebrated the birth of my grandchildren, a legacy which included the place and loving community in which we all grieved at the death of my daughter. Your legacy has included loving many of your ministers. And I have received that blessing. Unitarian Universalist Archibald MacLeish, has said it so well, "blow on the coals of the human heart." And indeed we do that often here.
As we approach this new year 2013 we will be creating even more legacies. It will be a marker year for me because at the end of the school year, I will be retiring, yes retiring, from River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Two years ago, before our search for a new senior minister began, I told the search committee that I would retire one year after the new senior minister arrived. I wanted them to know and I wanted the candidates considering River Road to know that too. I will be actively involved in the congregation through June. I will take July as my month of vacation. And on the first of August I will no longer be your minister.
I plan to take a sort of year sabbatical--to rent an apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my grandchildren live and give myself time to figure out who I am when I am no longer serving a congregation. This is my 19th year here at River Road and my 35th year of working for congregations so it may take me a while to figure out who I am in this new time of my life. Don, my husband, turned 75 last September and I just turned 67. We look forward to traveling around to see all those people who keep saying, "Why don't you come see us." I will be spending more time with my mother in South Dakota. And through all of this I will carry the many, many blessings you have given me. You grew me into a minister and let me be a part of your lives. All of that has made me who I am today and it will always be with me.
So for now, I simply want to share the next six months of our lives together in this sacred community, continuing to bless the families of this earth and join you in creating legacies. There will be planned goodbyes as the days go by and feel free to stop by my office for a chat. Know when you see tears in my eyes and hear them in my voice, that they are tears of love for having been graced by this community and all its legacies. For now, let us continue our lives together in this sacred community, continuing to bless the families of this earth and creating legacies.
May it be so.
I invite you now to rise in body or in spirit and sing the song which Jason Shelton taught us just a little over a month ago, "Life Calls Us On." It is on an insert in your order of service.