(Throughout the service, the following quotes from Paint Branchers were interspersed. They are included here in their entirety, followed by the sermon.)
1: It is important for me to have a place I can go to each week to escape the chaos of the world and share a spiritual boost with others who understand and accept my views on what is important.
2: Paint Branch helps bring centeredness and meaning to the lives of our members and as we grow inwardly we also reach out to others in our community and world with the transforming power love can bring.
3: I think even after all these years, there are so many new beginnings and so much energy going on now that I cant wait to see the future.
4: The world needs to hear what we have to say about love, compassion, justice and inclusiveness; that acceptance is not just tolerance, it is essential to reconciliation and peace.
5: Paint Branch matters to me as a community that nurtures spiritual growth in ourselves and our children and in so doing helps its members contribute their gifts to the world.
6: We need an open community for anyone seeking greater meaning in life to visit and feel free and welcome to search. I need the community of searchers and the openness that I find here.
7: Paint Branch is a place to inquire, think, feel, stretch, contribute, test, be challenged, support, love and learn.
8: Paint Branch provides me with a community of fellow travelers as I go along my journey of answering the great questions of religion and faith. Paint Branch should survive because of this community and its strength of commitment and purpose.
9: I want Paint Branch to survive and thrive another 50 years so I can keep making beautiful music with the choir. Singing in the choir has allowed me to participate in the culture of the church and expand my own horizons in ways I never dreamed of before becoming a member. Plus we have a lot of fun!
10: Paint Branch should be strong for another 50 years because it is important to individuals, families and the community. And the idea of liberal theology, which tends to attract tolerant, open-hearted people, is really necessary.
11: I grew up in this church and I am raising my two children here. Both are tolerant and respectful of others but have their own individual beliefs. Neither they nor I would be that way without the influence of Paint Branch and its Religious Education program.
12: Paint Branch is a place (the only one I have) that challenges me to grow beyond my "isms" and to question my assumptions. It is also a place where I can find like-minded people to spend quality time with, a place to find friends.
13: Paint Branch is an important community of people whose diverse beliefs converge on the most essential matters. The beauty of the building adds to the wonderful spiritual environment provided by stimulating sermons and the comforting presence of others on their religious journeys.
14: I want to maintain a place for my great-grandchildren to be free to worship in our spiritually enriching surroundings and to skip on over to the Memorial Garden and think of me once in a while.
15: My involvement at Paint Branch is part of the legacy of my life, one of the marks I make on the world. The world is a better place for having Paint Branch in it.
Choral Anthem: Wood River by Connie Kaldor
Includes these words as the chorus: Cause the heart is bigger than trouble, and the heart is bigger than doubt, but the heart sometimes needs a little help to figure that out.
I know, from the bottom of my soul, that the heart is bigger than trouble. If I didnt know this before, I learned it early on a cold December day just a few short months ago. On that chilly Tuesday morning, we were awakened by a call that our church was on fire. Jaco rushed over here right away while I stayed at home making and fielding dozens of phone calls while trying to keep up with the news on TV. When, around noon, I was able to make my way over here, I was shocked. Though the fire was out, the smell of smoke was overwhelming. When I was taken to see the damage in our religious education building, I just cried. And then I thought, "Oh boy, are we in trouble now."
It was one of those deep sinking feelings that emerges when things take a turn for the worse. Ive felt that feeling before. Trouble is something familiar to me, as I expect it is familiar to most of us. We cant be human and not experience the vagaries of life. Trouble comes, and with it come hard times and big challenges.
It is no understatement to say that we live in troubling times. The war and the economy are just two problems we have to live with each day. And those are just the National issues. For some of us in this room this morning, trouble looms more personally large. I know some of your struggles. Children who are ill. Parents who are dying. Jobs that are precarious. And now this. Your church home burns. Your children are displaced to a High School up the road on Sunday mornings. Your ministers and RE director have no offices. (I had to put that one in!) And the cost of doing business just went up because our damaged building can no longer hold the renters who help us defray the cost of running our church. Trouble. That we got.
But "the heart is bigger than trouble." I know it is. On December 9, when I stood and looked on in horror at the charred remains of a Religious Education classroom, the first person I saw was board member Tina Van Pelt. Tina came right over and put her arms around me and said, "Its OK. No one was hurt. Well figure out what to do."
Next to find me was Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris. Hamil is a big man, a caring man, a Christian man. Weve known him for years since he is "our" reporter at the Post [covering religion in Prince George's County]. Hamil took me into a bear hug and told me to pray. I did. He did, too, though in language I would not choose. But his big heart, just like Tinas, comforted me. And at that moment I knew it was going to be OK.
Today we are here to celebrate the many gifts we get and the many ways we give to this church. Already you have heard some of your voices speaking about the meaning of this church in your lives. Clearly, it matters that we are here, that this church be strong, that we carry on for at least another 50 years. You have said so and I believe you. Now more than ever we have the golden opportunity to look trouble in the face and say, "Yes, this is hard. But our hearts are big enough to make it through."
Since the day of the fire three months ago, we have seen not only the extent of our trouble but also the enormous amount of love that was generated by this event. The night of the fire, as people gathered in this room to grieve together, we were joined by leaders from our movement who came to be with us in our time of struggle. We got cards and phone calls from all over the country. Dozens of churches took up special collections for us, contributing far more than any of us could have expected. Money is still trickling in, even this long after it happened, helping us to ensure that this years budget doesnt go into the red.
And among the people of this church, the fire produced amazing energy. In the midst of a busy holiday season, your board members met every week to work and plan and work some more. Others emerged to help keep our program strong. The staff did all it could to keep a feeling of normalcy while supporting the dozens of volunteers who came out to help in whatever way they could. It was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary experience. You showed each other and me how much heart you have. And it is that heart I honor today.
As I look out at you this morning, I feel my heart fill with wonder. Look around. Look into the face of the person sitting next to you. Look beyond that face for another one, and another, and another. See who we are, here, now. We are people of all ages. We are parents and we are children. We are long time Unitarian Universalists and brand new converts to this faith. We believe in God and we are humanists. We come from many different cultural and religious backgrounds. We are government workers, scientists, artists, carpenters, social workers, teachers and students. We have varied sexual identities, and we are married, partnered, single and live in large or small families.
We are all this, and much, much more. For here in this room is one of the most creative and loving groups of people I have ever known. We are far more together than any of us can be alone. And together is how we are going to face our troubles. For together, our heart is even stronger and bigger than any one of us.
I recently heard a story that speaks to this. Its a familiar tale, but worth repeating. A father is dying and his many family members gather round him. He has deep concerns that after his death they will bicker and fight and break apart from each other. So, he gives each of them a stick. "You are like this stick," he says to them. And then he asks them each to break their stick, which they easily do. Then he gives them each another stick but invites them to tie all the sticks together in a bundle. He hands the bundle to his eldest child. "Try to break the sticks now," he says. But the child could not. None of them could. "Stay together my beloved ones," the dying father said, "and you will be strong."
In the face of trouble, we need to stay together, we need all our hearts in harmony to build a strong church. We need our hearts, our hands, our resources and our ideas. We need each other. A church has no reason for being unless it is to make sense out of this world we live intogether. A church of one is meaningless. Together, we build a church. Together we face our troubles. Together we make meaning and hope in difficult times.
For our faith is all about having hope, even in the midst of struggle and loss. As Universalists, we come from a long line of people who believed that God (by whatever name you choose) is not in the punishment business and thus suffering and destruction are not Gods will. Sometimes bad things just happen. They are not punishment for what weve done wrong.
And as Unitarians, we come from a long line of people who had enormous faith in the human spirit to rise above difficult odds to make of themselves better people and of this world a better place. And so we can rise above our trouble and do the good work of re-building our church.
We are Unitarian Universalists who have chosen Paint Branch as our church home. I think we come here not to be told that trouble will go away if we just believe correctly, but rather we come to be with other souls who really know that the heartthat love and justice and hopecan stand up to trouble any day. We need a church that allows us to be who we really are, not who others tell us to be. We need a place in this troubled world to come together and hear a message of hope and to live that hope in our every day lives.
We need this place and so we will care for it. We all know what we must do. If each of us gives deeply from our heart, what we give will be enough.
When I stood out in the cold and looked at the smoldering remains at what was once a childrens classroom, I thought for a moment that the worst possible thing that could happen to our church had happened. But I was wrong. For just like in nature, the fire that swept through our building has cleared the way for new and good things to grow. Yes, we have to plant and water and tend the new growth. But I know, from the bottom of my heart, that what we have here is worth the trouble and that our hearts, together, are big enough to face it with courage and hope. Amen.
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