March 10, 2019: “Bless This Home”

READING: “The Moment” (by Margaret Atwood)

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

SERMON: “Bless This Home” (Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator, copyright)

In December of 1941, James Young was 20 years old and working in a shoe factory in a small Pennsylvania town. When he heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2400 people, he hitchhiked to Philadelphia, to sign up to join the Navy.

Outside the recruiting office, the line stretched down the block. Thousands of men had made the same decision on the same fateful day. James waited his turn. During the physical exam, however, the doctor discovered three cavities in James’s mouth, and he was rejected for service.

Disappointed, James walked out the door – only to encounter right there on the sidewalk a recruiter for the Marines. “We are less picky,” he said. A few days later, James Young was a US Marine.

In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack 10 million Americans were drafted to serve in the US military. A further 6 million like James Young enlisted – decided to serve, to risk their own lives to defend their country. And thank God they did.

In a recent essay, New York Times columnist David Brooks compares that time in our history to this current one. Though we are not now facing a global war, he says, we are facing a similar large-scale social crisis, composed of several factors, which is destroying lives and families.

“We don’t have anything as dramatic as Pearl Harbor,” writes Brooks. “but when 47,000 Americans kill themselves every year and 72,000 more die from drug addiction, isn’t that a silent Pearl Harbor?

When the basic norms of decency, civility and truthfulness are under threat, isn’t that a silent Pearl Harbor? Aren’t we all called at moments like these to do something extra?”

What is Brooks talking about – What is this crisis that connects drug addiction and suicide? Brooks uses the phrase “social fragmentation” – when old bonds have broken down and people can’t connect.

We long to be together, but we are apart,” he explains. “We live in a hyper-individualistic culture that pays lip service to community but which actually values success above relationship, ego above care, the market above society, and tribal divisions over common humanity.”

A couple times a week,” Brooks writes, “I give a speech somewhere in the country about social isolation and social fragmentation. Very often a parent comes up to me afterward and says, “My daughter took her life when she was 14.” Or, “My son died of an overdose when he was 20.”

Their eyes flood with tears. . . What can I say to these parents?”

This kind of pain is an epidemic in our society.

And he says, it’s caused by social fragmentation, which he defines as “our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming and strife.”


We are too many of us disconnected, adrift, lonely.

A 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans asked about loneliness. 54 percent of respondents said they sometimes or always feel that no one knows them very well.

Sadly, Younger adults, now in their late teens and 20’s, had loneliness scores much higher than the elderly. Our future is in trouble.
. . . .

Like many teens, Jeff Bailey struggled with depression and low self-esteem. In his late teens he started taking prescription painkillers, and over time that progressed to opiate and heroin addiction.

“Addiction is powerful. He was in love with it,” his father, Jim Bailey, a Quincy paramedic, told the Patriot Ledger.

Jeff made multiple attempts to kick his addiction, but he relapsed each time. Between detox programs, probation and three months of house arrest, he tried to get sober seven times, his dad said.

“I’d get my hopes up every time. You can’t do anything else,” Bailey said. “It was always a heartbreak. It was always devastating.”

Jeff Bailey died of an overdose in 2014. He was 26.
. . . .

Neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman researches the reward system in the brain – it turns out that social connection, spiritual communion, and addictive behaviors all occur in the same place. The Striatum.

Wurzman writes:
The same brain circuit that gives us experiences of profound connectedness also gives us very physical feelings of pain and emotional – even existential – suffering when we don’t have connection to things outside of ourselves. . . .
That pain drives us to bond to whatever we can. Like food, like electronics, and for too too many people – to drugs,” she says. “Opiates are the most vicious hijackers of this system because they can directly produce the brain states that social and spiritual connection are supposed to give us. It’s a biological imperative – it is a neural process that is linked to our drive to do things to survive.

When our society or culture or surroundings don’t help us connect to each other or to our higher purpose, our brains will search substitutes.

Wurzman contends that addiction is less an individual disease than a community disfunction.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, she writes. “Rather, it is authentic connection and a deeply rooted sense of purpose & belonging.

Does that phrase sound familiar to you?

“authentic connection and a deeply rooted sense of purpose & belonging.”

Isn’t that exactly what we do here, every week and every day?

Authentic connection. Do we have that here – what do you think?

Deeply rooted sense of purpose. Do we have that here?

Belonging. – Well, what do you think? Do you belong here? Raise your hand if you do.

The bad news is that our culture is broken. But the good news is that we are already experts in how to fix it.

What we are doing, right here, right now, gathering together – united in connection to each other and to a higher purpose – we are fighting cultural trends, pushing back at hyper-individualism, re-wiring our brains, and helping to protect ourselves and our kids from debilitating loneliness and social isolation.

Seeing friends in Coffee Hour, lighting candles of Joy and Concern, volunteering in RE, going to Covenant Group – all of it builds community and fights social fragmentation.

David Brooks, the Times columnist, would call us Weavers – people who are working every day to re-weave the social fabric, to build connection and hope. Brooks is traveling the country now, studying Weavers and connecting them together, hoping to weave the weavers into a unified, more visible coalition, so they can work together.

In every town he visits, Brooks finds Weavers – 25 or 100 of them. “Weavers share an ethos that puts relationship over self. . . Whether they live in red or blue America, they often use the same terms and embody the same values – deep hospitality, showing up for people and keep showing up,” he says. “This is a movement that doesn’t know it’s a movement.”

So that’s good news. We are not alone. We are part of this larger national counter-cultural movement, a growing trend toward re-balancing our hyper-individualistic society, tipping the scale back toward values like community, mutuality, comradeship, and purpose.

And here’s even more good news – unlike some other Weavers, we don’t have to start from scratch to build a community center. We already have an institution, open to all, devoted to promoting connection, purpose, belonging. You’re sitting in it right now. Our ancestors already did all that building work. Thank you!

This is why our church is so important. Because, in this time of social crisis, when our broken world needs us most, our church stands up against this hyper-individualism, against fragmentation.

Because our church stands between us and loneliness, between us and addiction

Because our church provides a space for authentic connection

Because it provides a deeply rooted sense of purpose.

Because you belong here.

How much is that worth to you?
. . . .

Yes, Today is Giving Sunday, when we talk once again about why church matters. And we talk about the pledge drive. Because that matters too.

Unlike other churches, like, say, the Catholic church, we are completely self-funded here. This church exists because its members pay for it, plain and simple. Year to year to year, YOU reconstitute this place, you make it up from nothing to something with the money you give. So yes, we have to talk about it.

But . .. there’s a stigma in New England, about talking about money. Did you know that? Do you feel that?

According to Lizzie Post (of the Emily Post etiquette dynasty), the ranking of topics from easiest to most difficult to talk about is: weather, entertainment, food, hobbies, sports, politics, religion, and relationships/sex. And then money. Dead last.

To put it another way, a different study revealed that people were seven times more likely to talk with a stranger about sex, affairs, and their medical consequences than to discuss their salaries. Seven times!

Well, as it turns out, I’m not from New England. I don’t have that taboo, or at least I don’t feel it so strongly.

And I don’t think it’s healthy – how can we learn to support the institutions we hold dear, like this church, if we don’t get honest with each other about what that takes? If we don’t take openly and honestly about what is our fair share, yours and mine?
. . . .

The Reverend Amanda Aikman writes, “Institution is not a thrilling word. What it means to me is freedom. The freedom not to have to keep re-inventing ourselves, but, rather, to be a part of something that has power, history, continuity, and a sustaining beauty larger than what we can by ourselves create.”

This week the Stewardship committee will send out to every person or family in our community detailed information about next year’s budget, what we are planning and what we are hoping.

Right now, we are talking about two different plans for next year. The first, called the “breakeven budget”, represents a 7% increase from this current year. Under the breakeven budget, we’ll be able to pay the bills, fund our programs as is, and give the staff modest raises of 1-2%, which is a bit less than the 3% cost-of-living bumps that UUA recommends.

In addition, we’re also presenting you with a second plan, the “aspirational budget”. This one represents a bigger increase, so it would allow us to fully fund all the programs you asked for. The aspirational budget includes stuff like funds to update the website, to host a speaker series on climate change, to support our refugee family, to expand our RE program, and to give staff fair benefits and raises. All that stuff costs money, of course. You know that.

Many of the people in this room are already among our most generous donors. You’ve been supporting this congregation for many years, through thick and thin, and we owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you.

Others here, can’t give as much – they are on fixed incomes or face some difficulties. And of course we understand that too, and we are grateful that you contribute as and when you can. Thank you.

My message today is for those other folks, the third group, the ones who can give more but just haven’t really thought about it. Today is an invitation to think.

What could our church be, with just a little bit more money? How could we be healthier and stronger?

As you may have noticed, there’s a lot of good energy flowing in our church now. The Anti-Racism team has hosted two big successful events in the last couple months, the Immigration Team has connected to us a family of 5 who need our help – in fact you can meet them at Game Night this coming Saturday. Our RE program is running gangbusters! Did you hear about the trip to a mosque yesterday? Our middle schoolers represented us so well.

And of course there are the social events, the quilters, Green Sanctuary, the retreats. So much is happening now, we are having to schedule events on top of other events. In this time of social fragmentation, it’s a blessing that so many of us want to do so much together. It’s a good problem to have!

And just a little more money would help so much. It could get the wheels turning for Anti-Racism, get our Immigration ministry up and running, get the website more inviting, get the sanctuary painted, get two different OWL programs going, and keep our excellent staff feeling happy and appreciated.

Why is this important? Because the healthier we are as an institution, the more attractive we are to newcomers. That means more people invited in, more people connected to our life-giving message, more people and more young people weaved into our life-saving community.

That also means more pledges out into the future, so that this church might be here for our children and their children, so that liberal values might endure in Melrose, in Massachusetts, in the US. What we stand for matters. And standing up for it, right here and for the long run, matters.

We are on the brink of becoming a truly dynamic and influential church. And that matters.

How much is that worth to you?

I’ll tell you what it’s worth to me. $3,000. Really. My husband and I had a long talk. We looked at the various charities we support and what they mean to us. Church, we agreed, is different from a charity. Church is our community. It is our values. We are proud to be UUs, and proud to be part of this place. We want it to grow, to be vital, to be full of life and energy and hope.

$3,000. That’s a lot of money for us, especially since the first of our three kids starts college next year, and we don’t yet know where or how much it’ll be. But we want to pledge substantially. Until we can feel it. Until it feels good. Because We Believe, whole-heartedly, in what we are doing here.

Authentic connection. Deeply rooted sense of purpose. Belonging. Yes.

The moment when, after many years
of hard work you stand in the centre of your room,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You never found us.
It was always
the other way round.

Last week I sat down with our congregation’s most generous family. I asked them why they give as they do. (They’re not rich by the way. I’ve seen their house, it’s not that different from anyone else’s.) This couples gives as much as they can, however, because they believe generosity in itself improves their lives.

“We make conscious choices to invest in supporting the church,” they told me, “rather than investing in other material things. This, this church, is the lifestyle that we choose to have. It reflects our own spiritual journeys and it recognizes great gifts and bounty that we have and want to share because doing so, and giving to our church, feeds us spiritually and communally.”

These people are Weavers extraordinaire. They put others first, they build community by building up this local institution, this beacon of hope and values in a troubled world. They invest not in things or in themselves but what we can share together – authentic connection, purpose, a sense of belonging.

May all of us be so blessed
with the spirit of generosity,
May all of us give until it feels good.
May our church grow and nurture many more
generous souls
so that we may all part of something
that has power, history, continuity, and a sustaining beauty
larger than what we can
by ourselves
May we all give,
Until the blessings of generosity surround and abound and astound.

So may it be and Amen.


James young story source: Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau

David Brooks’s piece on Weavers in the New York Times

drug overdose rates

“How Social Isolation Is Killing Us”

Rising rates of suicide

Weavers’ relationalist manifesto

CIGNA loneliness survey

Rachel Wurzman quotes

Jeff Bailey story