In 1881 a fire destroyed a cotton mill located very near this meeting house. Several people spent the night on the roof of the church extinguishing burning embers that threatened to set the church ablaze. One of those, Samuel Morehouse, was, we might add, the temporary minister, a recent theology school raduate here to offer pulpit supply between settled ministries. It is what one might call trial by fire in interim work.
This incident came to mind as I was sitting up here during the Candlelight Service eying the candles in the windows and wondering whether I might have to make a leap for them. I hoped that your former minister, Harold Babcock, felt the relief of having passed to someone else the worry about whether she would finally be the minister to burn the church down. The ever conscientious Harold, by the way, in years past sometimes returned to the church late on Christmas Eve to put the extinguished handheld candles outside – just in case. And in an example of the wonderful way that ministry continues, some of our ushers this year insisted on bagging the candles and taking them into the cold, wet night.
Can you imagine, though, the call those people felt in 1881? The knocks on the door, the community alarms, the dawning realization of danger, and then the inner commitment to do everything possible to keep this house safe. They surely knew history was calling them to keep this community of faith, evolved from the Puritan vision of the "city on the hill" to a Unitarian congregation of free conscience and reason, alive and well in the heart of this Newburyport community.
Interim periods can be like that. Following a major conflict, dwindling membership, or rudderless years, people hear the alarm and seek to save the house. Here, midway through this first year of your interim period, we can rejoice that such is not the case for First Religious Society. You are a congregation that has grown and thrived in recent years, a congregation of activity and involvement, an optimistic congregation of uncommon good spirit. After I had been here only a few weeks, two things in particular stood out. First is the love with which you speak of FRS. Your regard for each other and the common life was compelling and moving. "I love this church!," you said, or, "It's a great congregation. I'm so happy to have found it." Second, was the deep affection and respect in which you hold the past two ministers, with fifty years of excellent service between them. "Harold and Burt," you say, "were the real deal." In short, I found every interim's dream: a stable congregation of people who have regard for each other, respect ministry, and experience joy in their community. [I hope our new members hear me: you have found a good thing here.],
I expected, too, intense grief for your former minister and difficulty adapting to change, as is often true following long ministries. When the first opening service, Christmas service, or child dedication, is conducted by someone new, it is a shock to the system, is it not? Even there, you and your minister had done so well at saying farewell with appreciation for one another that your grief has not assumed the troubling displaced expressions it can. As a congregation --- leaders, members, staff – give yourselves the credit you deserve for so far doing your best to open your minds and hearts to the future. You heard the call to make your way through transition with hope and confidence, and you are meeting it.
Still, although no fire rages, we must take account of what happens outside our doors and ask to what that calls you in the future. Religion that does not minister to people living in their times and address people's real fears and struggles becomes irrelevant. And in this month, where our worship theme is prophecy, or truth telling with an eye to the future, the truth about "organized religion" is concerning. Last year I reported to the Board of Trustees in the NYC congregation I served on research that suggests whereas we used to try to convince church shoppers they wanted to choose our congregation, now the task is to get someone who looks in our direction to see that there might be something desirable about any religious community. As soon as I stopped speaking, one of the Trustees, himself about 35 years old, married with a young child, and as committed as they come, turned to me and said, "That's exactly right! We've brought several couples to church with us over the past few years, and they thought it was fine, but they wondered if they even needed a spiritual community."
In truth, participation and membership in mainstream religions have declined markedly in the past many years, and in particular, the number of children in religious education programs has dropped significantly, while Millenials, those in the 18-34 year range, have the lowest participation in organized religion, by far, of any generation. Last week, an article in the Portland, Maine Herald relayed the story of the writer who found himself the only person besides the priest attending a Sunday afternoon service at an Episcopal church, the kind of story that flickers like ghosts through the news too often. And in New York City, the number of religious buildings sold by dying congregations to developers has become so significant that I wasn't surprised, during my time there, to take calls from realtors aggressively ready to relieve us of our property. (Try to get a Manhattan agent to hear that your congregation has no intention of selling and every intention of continuing to use it.)
The statistics are not good, but gloom and doom prophecy without hope calls us only to despair. The exciting thing is that we know quite a bit about congregations that survive and thrive in 2016. They have dynamic, innovative worship. "Worship must make people laugh and cry and leave them changed, " say the authors of Liberating Hope. They also minister to people beyond the walls of the church, through work in the community or even livestreaming their services. With intentionality, they reach out to younger people in ways that speak to them—dinner church, café crawls, active use of social media. But one thing above all is true, and it is the one I want you to hear today and throughout this interim. The congregations that thrive now are the ones that have a clear sense of what they are called to; they are centered on mission and focused outside themselves.
If the word "mission" bothers you, then replace it with "purpose". Think back to the first generations of this congregation. They knew without doubt what their purpose was: to be in relationship to a difficult God who demanded much of them and to offer spiritual shelter to people with hard lives who lived constantly on the edge: women with a high likelihood of dying in childbirth, parents whose children could be carried away by an everyday virus, sailors who could be lost at sea, people who must have wondered if there is a better world.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us with just as much spiritual longing to address because we, too live in times when people wonder if there is a better world, only it is one to be created in the here and now . And Millenials have helped me understand this. Because what surfaces over and over again, in the literature and also for me in serving that NY congregation with a very active young adult population, is that they crave authenticity. "In the fast paced world of iPads, Twitter, video conferencing and Facebook," say Piazza and Trimble, "young people find themselves craving authentic spiritual communities where they are known by name and nurtured in their own exploration of faith and spirituality. I think it's true of the rest of us as well. Think how many things we identify everyday as inauthentic. Fake news. Virtual friendships. Talking points. Rigged systems. Elected officials sold for a price. False hurtful narratives about people of marginalized identities. What if our purpose were in part to provide authentic communities where the truth is told, where people confront problems from addiction to financial struggle to child raising to end of life dilemmas openly and where people speak and listen to each other? Communities where we admit the privileges to which we are born and learn even to relinquish them? Communities where diversity is intentionally welcomed?
And also communities that seek to build a better world out there. We live in troubled and troubling times, my friends, and we may in the next few years see loss of profoundly important progress in the social order. We cannot turn our backs on that; we cannot distract ourselves with distaste for the political if it means abandoning our core values. Real suffering of real people in the real world matters, and it is to a vision of a fairer world that Unitarian Universalists have always been summoned, often with urgency.
Howard Thurman wrote, "There are two questions that we have to ask ourselves. The first is 'Where am I going?' and the second is 'Who will go with me?' If you ever get these questions in the wrong order, you are in trouble." Thurman was speaking during the Civil Rights movement, but it applies to congregational life as well. Know where you are being called, and you will speak to those who need and want to make the journey.
It is not my role, as an interim minister, to take you very far down the path of a new vision that I cannot, in the end, travel with you and that another minister would inherit. Your vision and that as yet unknown minister's vision will meet to create your future. It is our task during this time to discern the general direction and to become aware of the world in which your future church will make its way. We open our ears and listen for the knock on the door, the calls in the town square, the possibilities to which this congregation is being called by our times.
Each past generation of this congregation had its own reasons for building and rebuilding, for dousing the flames and saving the house, for moving with purpose toward a future that was, of course, constantly changing. So, too, do you.
Hang in. This congregation will be ready when the time comes. And for now, we will prepare, and because we too live in our time, we will take to the roof or the streets or the halls of the legislature, wherever we are called.
Copyright 2017 Susan Milnor
Atkinson, Minnie. A History of the First Religious Society, 1933, reprinted in White, Anne, Cavanaugh, Lindsay H. , Fisher, Marise, Skibbee, Patricia Lang, ed., A History of the First Religious Society, Vol1: 1725-1933, The Unitarian Historical Society, 2001.
Piazza, Michael S and Trimble, Cameron B. Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2011.