May 12, 2019: “The Meaning of Membership”

Reading: To Be of Use

(by Marge Piercy, Reading 567)

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Sermon: “Work That Is Real”

Rev, Dr Susanne Intriligator, copyright

When I was a brand new UU, some 25 years ago, I happened to open the hymnal to that reading in the back. It was one of the first things I ever read in that book, and it struck me – this is what I am looking for! These words describe the church I want to join!

The poem stuck with me, and sometimes it comes back to me even now, when we are looking for a reading to start a meeting.

This poem feels to me especially apropos of this congregation, not only of how you run but of who you are with each other, at your best : workmates, helpmates, moving in a common rhythm, together, to get the job done, no matter what it is.

I think of you setting up for Coffee hour every week, Putting out the chairs and tables for a potluck, hauling boxes up and down for the Harvest fair, the Alternative fair, the Auction, the Christmas Party. just all of you showing up, over and over again.

One image that leaps to my mind happened the evening of the Installation, at the end of March, 6 weeks ago now. It had been a really long weekend, with several events. The Installation was the second service of that Sunday, and after it we hosted a beautiful reception, with food for 100 people, on real plates with real flatware, you’ll recall. (thank you again Wendy Mastronardi and Cathy Sang). At the end of the reception, I hustled my family to the car, including my 81-year-old mother, who was visiting from Kentucky.

On my way out, I thought I’d check in with the folks down in the kitchen, washing the dishes. To say thank you, again. But when I got down the stairs, I saw them, the usual suspects, you know who they are, dressed in their lovely clothes, standing in a big, deep puddle. It was huge and it looked ankle-deep.

Something had popped in the dishwasher and it had sent water spraying all over the floor. The wet/dry vac was out, and running, loudly, and a few folks were battling valiantly with it, and others were mopping. In a moment I could see it would be hours more, before those dishes got washed.

My heart sank. I wanted to pitch in right then, but my kids and my mom were already in the car waiting, and she was flying out early the next morning. I couldn’t stay. And I couldn’t even say Thank you, because the vacuum was so loud.

But I mumbled a blessing in my mind, and I waved. I remain grateful, even now, to these stalwart folks, the pillars of our church. The folks who, time and time again, in Piercy’s words,


in the task, who move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

When I think of the Meaning of Membership, especially this time of year, I can’t help but think about all the work it involves. Right now, when we’ve all just written and compiled the annual report, which lists so many many accomplishments this year, and we’ve just worked out the budget for next year, based on an excellent pledge drive, I’m just filled with awe by the how-much- much-ness of it all. And filled with exhaustion, for you and me. It’s been quite a year.

In light of that, I’m so glad I thought to out-source this sermon a bit.

I asked some of our honorees, the long-time members we celebrated earlier, about their ideas on the Meaning of Membership, and it really helped to fill

out the picture.

Oh, gosh, so many thoughts! wrote Anne Noonan to me in an email.

The most fundamental things that come to mind are that the church has – and she lists five huge things –

helped me to: raise my children; helped me develop and test out my voice as a writer; kept me sane with large world events such as 9/11 and this current disgrace of a presidency (not Chuck’s!!!); allowed me see that goodness and compassion and fairness and truth are not gone from the world, and; pushed me to examine and admit my role in social inequality, particularly racism and white supremacy

Wow! What a list. Can you believe our church can do all that? But how?

When I dug deeper with Anne, She fleshed out her list with stories, stories about relationships – long, winding, silly, nurturing relationships.

Anne wrote to me about Alice Heald – who newer folks might not know was a member here for a very long time and greeted everyone at the door and was well and widely loved. She died several years ago.

So one day at Shaws, years and years ago, Anne wrote, Alice “insulted” me at about the color of my jacket (“What’s with the Orange Alert?” she said).

I wasn’t insulted at all, says Anne. I actually laughed about it for days.

But few days later I received a card in the mail in which Alice wrote that she was horrified about what she said to me, and would I please forgive her? Of course I did.

That card began two forms of correspondence that lasted for years. First, Alice and I would mail paint swatches or pieces of fabric to one another, any time one of us stumbled into anything that was orange/marigold and hideous. She once sent me threads from a hated garment given to her by some (hated?) relative.

The second thing – She started sending me lovely old-school cards that were half-written in French, as she had taught high-school French for decades. One day when I visited her at Brooksby Retirement Village, I gently said, “Alice, I don’t know any French.”

Well,” she replied, “It’s not for my lack of trying.”

God I loved her! wrote Anne.

Jeanie Harris, celebrating 25 years of membership today, wrote to me:

When we moved here 26 years ago our children were 5 and 2 years old. They were already asking a lot of hard questions about life that we could not always easily answer, and we felt a need for a spiritual home. It did not take long to feel welcomed here and right away I was asked to help out at the Harvest Fair, selling raffle tickets for a ginger bread house. (I think we even won it that year!)

A few years later, however, Jeanie says, our family had some challenges. Dave’s parents both died in 2001 and my father died in 2004 just after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In many small acts of caring, this church helped us get through some very difficult times.

Jeanie’s husband David Bliss writes : Our commitment to this church probably began when we signed the book, though we had little idea then as to what it would entail, that it would become such a central part of our lives.

It unfolded bit by bit, David says,

in coffee hour and in the sanctuary
speaking our covenant together weekly
in committee meetings and the at annual spring cleanup
being in conversation with men at the retreat
attending a gay pride rally at the statehouse with our girls and Jen Strong
painting a railing with Alistair
planting bulbs with Mary
building a home for a family in Juarez, Mexico with 20 teenagers from church
watching our girls mature into young women with ideas all their own
receiving care and comfort from other members and giving back care to others.

The Meaning of Membership – love and care, jokes and hard work and commitment, all wrapped up together in memory.

Marge Piercy writes:

Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
the pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I love those lines. The first ones make me think of this building, how we tend to think of it as beautiful and sacred. And it is. Yes.

But also, like the vases and the pitcher, it was made to be used.

Margaret Grometstein was already a little girl at the time this building was built, in the 1930s. When she became a member in 1969, there were probably folks here then who still remembered the construction of it. Real people, just like Margaret, built this church, with their pennies and their ideas, just a couple generations ago.

And they meant it to be used. Used to serve our community, our kids, our values, our faith and our future.

I’m proud of all the ways we are using the building – and all the ways we are now working to expand its use. For example, this year the board voted to continue providing free rental space to MORE, Melrose Organizes for Real Equality, a community group that aligns with our values. We also offer Josh S. weekly meditation group to the whole community, as well Green Sanctuary’s film nights and discussions.

And now, this spring some new proposals for space use have come our way. Along with the Anti-Racism team, Garin B. has started a group called Melrose Friends of METCO, and they meet here monthly.

New member Stella S. has come forward with a plan to offer adult continuing education classes here; pending the board’s approval, we’ll try a pilot program here over the summer.

And in addition, you may have heard about the probable expansion of the Montessori school, scheduled for this fall. As a preschool, they’ve been the church’s chief tenant for something like 40 years, and now they want to use three additional rooms in our lower level to offer new elementary-age classes next year.

So, to facilitate this, in the coming weeks, we’ll all need to pitch in yet again, to empty those rooms and re-arrange the basement some, so we can fit all our programs into spaces appropriate for their needs.

It will take work, I’m sure, and maybe a little squabbling, but we will get there – to a better, more functional, more profitable use of our space. And that, I believe, does honor to our forebears, who built this place and entrusted us with its care.

“I choose you this day to love & confide in, to hold on to & to reach out from. “

You may have noticed that gorgeous offertory song the choir sung today, I choose you, is one you might hear at a wedding. it’s become popular at those lately.

Tara and I weren’t sure about putting it in this service. But upon reflection, we decided that yes, there is overlap there in themes, similarity, a “synergy,” if you will.

Our new members today make a commitment, to us and to one another. They declare this place to be their spiritual home and these people – us – to be their church. It is a big deal.

For each of them – well, one for each family joining today – we have a set of welcome gifts, from the Fellowship Committee and the whole church. We have the church cookbook, made by all of you, along with A Chosen Faith, a solid intro to UUism. And, to top it off, we give you a flaming chalice, for your home use. I made them, well sort of. I started with this, a plain glass dessert dish, and then, to make them unique individuals like all our new members, I marble-painted them. You have your choice of colors, or clear, if you wish.

We can’t say what the future holds, it unfolds bit by bit, as David wrote in his remarks, but there is a good chance that one or two of today’s new members, might be back up here, 25 years from now, sharing their stories, or even back in 50 years, getting their own plaque and a flood of gratitude for their service.

The future unfolds, the meaning of membership unfolds, differently for each of us, as we get to know one another, as we pitch in and set up tables or carry boxes.

As we reach out, in silliness and in sincerity.

As we let ourselves be known and cared for.

And, let’s be real, there will be disappointment along the way. As a human being I am bound to disappoint you. Maybe even make you angry or hurt or sad. These folks too.

Church life is not easy. Decision-making by committee is rough and time- consuming and sometimes, yes, mind-numbing. Conflict is inevitable, especially when you’re dealing with humans.

But it’s also enriching, if you can sit with it, with the right attitude. Because that’s how we learn.

I hope you’ll grow to trust me, to be able to let me know when I’ve hurt you or made you angry. I hope you’ll help me learn how not to do it again.

And I hope you’ll help one another.

So please, all of you, remember this day, all the joy that’s a part of this Welcoming each other, of celebrating each other, both long-time members and new. You will need this memory, this joy, in days and years to come. To remind you of all that’s good here, in all of us, of all that’s good and real and remains.

Like drops of water, all of us and all of who we are, come together this day. Drops in the bucket, banding together, growing stronger in faith and in hope, until we pour out into the world, a mighty stream of love and good works.

Welcome, one and all, to the bucket, to the stream and the mighty river.

Welcome to community and connection and love that can last a lifetime.

Welcome . . . to work that is real.