The Time Is Now—But Why?

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
March 12, 2017
Earlier generations of First Religious Society knew something about celebrating. On the second Sunday of October in 1801 the original meeting house of this congregation, in Market Square, had been demolished. Now it was time to dedicate the new building on Pleasant Street. According to Miss Sarah Ann Emery, people radiated anticipation, and the streets of Newburyport buzzed with energy. At the appointed moment, a procession of officials, led by vocalists and instrumentalists, made its way through the streets from the original site to the new home. Soon music started up and Junior Pastor Rev. John Andrews held forth in a display of "rational and real religion." 
 
It should not surprise us that a concert would follow the service in this music-loving congregation, but I was caught off guard by the "excellent toasts drunk at a dinner given to attending clergymen." Leave it to the ministers to find the ale. 
 
That congregation also knew something about raising money. In order to pay for the new building, they sold the pews for amounts between $100-165 dollars. Given the degree of comfort of these very upright seats, the people must have believed in FRS mightily because all but four sold. (I'm afraid if we tried to sell the pews today, we would see a mass exodus from the congregation.) 
 
Yes, I love the way those souls, on the verge of evolving from their fatalistic Calvinist roots to their Unitarian future, dared to proceed through the town with music and confidence. But I also love their boldness and commitment. When that first meeting house had been thoroughly used and outgrown, they decided, the time is now, and built this one, providing a home for  liberal religion in this town for over 200 years more. They knew their purpose, and they lived it
 
Here we are, eight short years from the 300th anniversary of the congregation, eight years from your fourth century being a center of faith and reason in Newburyport. As a minister graced to spend this time with you, I hope that you will enter that century with daring and the determination to make it three more centuries. It's easy to say that because I believe so deeply that you can do it. In twenty years of active ministry, I have only served one other congregation as capable of making things happen, of saying, "Why not?," and figuring out how to do it. You know how to keep a covenant, how to sustain and nurture ministry, how to inspire your children and youth, how to be part of your local community rather than retreat behind a wall of defensiveness. You know how to proceed and process. 
 
The time is now to think about that future. And you are well aware of the most important reason. Seldom has our world needed people to commit to the most worthy and lasting values more than it does right now. The grief and angst so many have felt over these last months results from our perception that institutions that used to stand for doing what was good have been lost to the pursuit of wealth and power. More than ever, our world needs communities that exist to embody good because if it's true, as Universalists believed, that that God is good, it's just as true, as Unitarians intimated, that good is God. Were the decision-makers in this country to treat each other with as much respect and love their communities for the purpose of embodying good as much you or our kids do, we would feel much more hopeful. 
 
The time is also now to support your community with heart and soul and with resources because you are in a transition. The worst thing a congregation can do is sit back and say, "I'll wait to see what the new minister is like before I volunteer, or become a member, or make a pledge." Congregations bold enough to keep moving forward during an interim period will soar when they get a new settled minister because they believe in themselves and their mission. Our purpose in this stewardship drive is to make a first, important step to empower you and your as yet unknown minister into position to pursue your dreams by providing more adequate staffing now. I have served a mid- sized congregation that grew to be large, another large congregation, smaller congregations, and I know from living it that sufficient staffing is critical to growth, whether in ministry, programs, or service. 
 
You have added important positions, and for the past few years you have done something excellent in paying your staff at the UUA Fair Compensation Guidelines. You have embodied good by doing what is just. But we are a nearly 400 member congregation – over 390 now – where the minister is the only full time staff member. Most of our positions are half time. I tell you on my honor that your staff is the hardest working I've ever been part of. I am restless person, and I sometimes wander the office suite hoping for a social word, always to find them meeting with someone, talking on the phone, or hunkered over their computers. They won't goof off with me! 
 
We need to begin by making the business administrator position full time because with our historic facility, our high level of activity, and our complex finances, it's a full time job. And it's a difficult one in which simply to stop after twenty hours because bills must be paid, a building managed, legal requirements met. Consider that our sister congregation in Bedford, MA, which is slightly smaller than we are but which has attracted national attention with its cutting edge ministries, has a full time business administrator, a part time business administrator, and two ministers. As a result they have extended their ministries to each other and into the community to 3000 people. 
 
Your leadership is asking you to stretch in your giving this year. Not a person among your leaders expects you to give what you do not have. I have never thought less of any congregants because their resources are scarce; we treasure you for what you are. But we also know that our average giving here is less than the Unitarian Universalist average and less than the other congregations our size in New England. That is why we are asking of ourselves to consider that the time is now to become the exciting, flagship congregation we can be. You see too often, we give at a level we won't feel. Then some say give until it hurts. But I believe in giving until it feels good – until we know it means something to us.
 
Ministers get visions. As I move through this building in less inhabited hours, I often "see" scenes from the history of this congregation Visions of the future come too. I see you installing a vibrant new minister and gathering your forces for as yet unimagined ventures. I see you setting out in this community, perhaps with a ministry to retired people in Newburyport, to diverse populations in neighboring towns, and to places around the world, to live your values. Think of our own nineteen -year -old Tess Broll, whose words in the canvass brochure tell some of her story of living in Berlin for several months. She found Berlin to be a wonderful city incredibly accepting of the greatest diversity she has ever seen. Wanting to represent the best of our country the day after the election, Tess joined a project to create art celebrating acceptance on the Berlin Wall. She did that, she said in an interview with John Mercer, because of what she learned in this congregation, especially on the trip to Pine Ridge. 
 
I even see a procession. The Parish Hall has been renovated to create a better learning space for Young Church and to offer a meeting place to community groups trying nurture the good. And now it is time to celebrate. 
 
A line of people leaves the front door of this congregation carrying banners and ribbons of peace, with perhaps a marching jazz band. It travels around the block up State Street and back into the front door of the Parish Hall, where one of your ministers holds forth with "real and rational religion" on making the world more compassionate, just, and whole. It is a day for the history books. 
 
Of course, what really unfolds in your future will be something beyond my imagining, which is as it should be. But it will be good. And the people then will be saying, as we always must, "The time is now.