James Ishmael Ford
9 September 2012
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
I grew up rarely very far from the Pacific Ocean. Even when I couldn’t see it, I always knew where it was. Some atavistic part of my being always oriented toward it, toward that ocean, toward some ancient home from which we came, and to which, somehow, in my bones, in my marrow, in the ocean blood coursing through my body, I know it is to it I will return. Since we’ve come east I’ve discovered that same orientation to the Atlantic. It is the same ocean. There really is only one ocean.
Now we have gathered together, like many streams flowing into a rushing river, that river on its way toward the ocean, toward some dream ocean, an ancient home toward which our hearts are irresistibly drawn. As our ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson asked in his essay “Nature,” “Who looks upon a river… and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” We find many lessons in the contemplation of water. We, you and I are the streams gathering here in this place, itself a river. Our shared origin and our common destiny are great mysteries, a dream ocean, vast, deep, teeming. So, there is something magical in the gathering of waters, something powerful and compelling, a pointing, and an action. Perhaps that is why this gathering at the beginning of our church year is called a communion.
Today, before that great mystery which is the gathering streams, the rushing river, and the ocean itself, I would like to, briefly, briefly, share what I find to be the good news of our liberal religion, and why it truly is a way of life giving waters, an echo, a pointer, a marker on which we can base full lives, nurturing ourselves and our families, and to participate in the healing of this parched and thirsty world.
This tradition we share, to shift the metaphor, with one foot standing in the great western way, the liberal Protestant tradition enriched by the best of the wisdom of Judaism and Christianity and their child humanism, is summarized for us as reason and freedom and tolerance. And, also with another foot leaning out, and with, I believe the weight going in that direction, toward a world perspective, found I think most clearly in the advance of the universalist perspective, growing from a faith that God saves us all, to a faith that all human beings have within themselves and their spiritual traditions what is necessary to the healing of human hearts.
So, to the casual eye we are a Protestant church. But, listen to the word preached, listen to the conversations in coffee hour, and something else becomes, and quickly, startlingly obvious. And what is it? What is our healing message? To what are we pointing, to what are we being beckoned, within our gatherings?
Well, in a sermon at our General Assembly in Phoenix in June, the Reverend John Crestwell proclaimed, “I am a first and seventh principle preacher.” I am a first and seventh principle preacher. I heard those words and I heard my own heart, and my voice and my life. I heard our message, our good news. Dear ones, if you’ve been around a while, you know, but if you are new among us, first, welcome, and second, you come here and you will hear the good news of the first and seventh principles preached, explored, preached again, delved into, sliced and divided, and examined, and preached again. And, I hope, ever more deeply lived.
That blood racing through our bodies is the great ocean itself; is the life giving waters that expresses as each tributary, and as the rushing river. And, there is one thing more. We are about the integration of these two truths as deeply known and explored, and with that as a manifestation of these truths into a way of life.
Ours is an electric, dancing middle way between the two poles of our precious individuality and our intimate connection. But, and this is most important: not by splitting some difference, not being half individual and half communal. Our way is more radical. It calls for two one hundred percent’s. Or, perhaps it is better to say we are called to discover fully the one in the other. We are all about the individual and the fullest expression of that individuality, creative, powerful, even dangerous. And, we are all about our radical inter-relatedness, where no one exists in isolation, we are woven out of each other, we are created by each other, one thing. Just this.
Following the way of these two truths and fully embracing what each means, and how each is dependent upon the other, opens a life that is dynamic, creative, and full of potential. And this is our way.
This is what we find as we come into this old, old Meeting House. This is what we find as we gather together in our religious education programing. This is what we find as we open our mouths and sing. This is what we find in our coffee hour, and our chalice circles, in our committee meetings, in our work to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to find justice in our communities and to heal this world.
This is why we gather. Tranquil streams, rushing rivers.
The great dream home ocean.
All presented by us to each other and to the world.
Welcome, welcome to the good word, welcome to the work, welcome home.