Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator
Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church
September 16, 2018
“Where Your Destiny Awaits”
Lisel Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1997.
This poem, based on a true story, is called “Monet Refuses the Operation.”
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
SERMON “Where Your Destiny Awaits” Rev. Intriligator (copyright)
There’s an old story about a person who went to get their eyes checked at the doctor. At the end, the optician said, “Sorry, but you need glasses.”
The patient said, “But I’m wearing glasses.”
“Oh,” said the optician. “Then I need glasses.”
It’s silly but I like it because it has a little nuance. In some ways we regard vision as an observable truth, something that can be measured by science. But really those measurers are human too — they only see a part of the whole and sometimes not very well either.
And that’s just the literal concept of Vision. We can also explore the concept metaphorically, as in posing the question: What is our vision for ourselves and our world?
And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing over the next couple weeks, because “Vision” is our Worship Theme for month of September.
Wait a minute, you may be thinking, especially if you haven’t read this month’s Lightbearer, you will definitely be thinking, what do you mean, Susanne, when you “Vision is our Worship Theme”?
Well, yes. So most of you will remember that last year, MUUC embarked a daring experiment, to spend the whole year exploring diversity via themes that cut across Worship, RE and covenant groups. For 4-6 weeks at a time, the whole church looked at topics like age-ism, able-ism, class-ism, racism, and gender. Overall, at the annual meeting, folks reported that they enjoyed diving deeply into the topics, that going forward they – meaning you – wanted two action steps: one, preserve the all-church participatory themed approach and two, move from exploration into social justice action.
Church leadership heard your feedback and spent some hours this summer discussing how we can move forward on both fronts. Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking more about the second one, social justice action, so stay tuned for that. This week, I’m focusing on whole-church themes.
While yes, they were deeply engaging and educational, many of you reported that creating worship and RE on the diversity themes was a LOT of work, more than we can sustain for the long haul. So last spring, your staff (meaning Katie and Tara) had a great idea. What if we could preserve the all-church approach, with themes cutting across worship, RE, and covenant groups, but we didn’t have to research and create all the content ourselves? What if there were a way to coordinate and share theme-based resources across UU congregations?
Turns out there is. Hallelujah. It’s called Soul Matters Sharing Circle, a 10-year-old collaborative effort across of hundreds of UU churches. Via email and online groups, a team of UU religious professionals collects and distributes resources on spiritual themes, such as Mystery, Hope, Creativity, and Resistance, so that folks like Tara and Katie and Muncie and I can more easily create worship, RE, and covenant group programs that are all aligned together. And when planning gets easier, it can be done earlier and thereby involve more participation by more church members.
So this month, we as individuals, families, members of covenant groups, and worshippers in a church community, will try out this new system by by exploring the Soul Matters theme of Vision. We will be asking ourselves What does it mean to be a people of Vision?
A big question. It needs a whole month.
In 1962, Claire Booth Luce, one of the first women ever elected to Congress, went to visit President Kennedy. At the time, he was mired in controversy, trying to push several brand new agendas both domestically and internationally. Luce challenged him to slow down and focus. “A great man,” she told him, “is a sentence.”
As in, she said – Lincoln preserved the union and freed the slaves.
What is your sentence, Mr. President? How can you boil down all your plans into a powerful one-sentence legacy?
In my Lightbearer column this month, which if you missed it, you can find of the church website, under the Events tab in the horizontal menu, I explain all about the Soul Matters themes and I I invite you to start thinking about Vision by partaking in this month’s spiritual exercise, which is drawn from the Soul Matters packet for covenant groups.
What’s a spiritual exercise, you ask?
Another good question!
The idea is that you take some time to yourself, once a month – totally optional of course – to contemplate the worship theme, I mean to really dig into it, work with it, and see what it means for your life. Soul Matters sends out new exercise ideas every month, and I’ll share them with you in my column/blog. And if you choose to do them, you can share what you learn with me, or with your covenant group, or your spouse, or your journal. Or not. That’s totally up to you.
(As an aside, this year’s covenant groups are now forming, so if you’d like to be part of a group of 8-10 church friends who meet monthly, confidentially, in order to explore spiritual themes, make real connections and grow as people, please see Muncie at his covenant groups table in Coffee Hour or email him or me at your convenience.)
So, for example, this month’s spiritual exercise challenges you to explore Vision by writing a vision statement. But’s not what your used to, that old corporate vision statement, or group mission statement. Which, as you know, can mean a lot of discussion and committee word-smithing.
No, this Vision statement is your personal vision statement, your one-sentence legacy. When it’s all said and done, what do you want them to say about you?
Oprah Winfrey’s one sentence vision statement might surprise you. It doesn’t have anything to do with TV, or a magazine, or a media empire. It’s deeper than that.
Her goal? Quote. “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” I’d say she certainly has accomplished that goal, and yet she keeps going. Her vision drives her on.
Richard Branson, the brilliant business mogul, has a similarly surprisingly simple sentence. Branson’s aim is “To have fun in my journey through life and learn from my mistakes.”
Again, not about money or power, possessions or appearance. Their visions are about their values, about how they wish to live.
“Vision is like passion,” writes UU minister Suzelle Lynch. “it surges up from our roots, from the core of our being. Vision is a force within us based in the principles by which we know we must guide our lives. Our vision rises up from the values we hold dear – it’s the calling which we cannot ignore, it is the most powerful motivating moral force within us.” endquote
Well, now, that’s worth contemplating, isn’t it? Your calling, your vision, your singular gift. What is it?
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Those are the words of today’s Offertory anthem, written by Natasha Bedingfield.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
I love it. I also love the poem I chose for a reading today, the poem by Lisel Mueller, because it explores idea of vision on so many different levels. And it’s based on a true story – the artist Claude Monet did in fact refuse an operation to correct his cataracts. The treatment was new then, and two of his artist friends had recently undergone unsuccessful attempts. He had good reason to fear. There was a lot at stake.
As he aged, Monet’s eyes grew worse and he actually lost his sense of color. At one point, he had to place giant labels on the paint tubes and he painted just by the names of colors, not what they looked like. Then later, after a successful temporary treatment, Monet’s sight improved, and he surveyed all his recent work. He hated it, and he began to destroy his canvases.
Thankfully his friends stopped him. Ironically, it was this work, from late in his life, when his brush strokes grew wide and his colors murkier, that inspired the next great leap in art history. 30 years after he painted them, young artists from New York discovered these works and from them they created the next movement, called Abstract Expressionism.
Monet couldn’t have known what part he was play later, in retrospect, in the larger history of art. Because vision, of course, is all in how you look at it.
Not all of us can have the talent of Natasha Bedingfield, or the genius of the poet Lisel Mueller, or the once-in-a-generation gift of Monet. Not all of us can invent new gadgets or play on the field at Fenway Park. Or can we?
There’s a famous story about bricklayers, perhaps you’ve heard it, that allegedly dates all the way back to the famous British architect Christopher Wren, the designer of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. When the cathedral was being built in 1666, 350 years ago, Wren went out, incognito, to check on the work. He spoke to three bricklayers.
“What are you doing there, friend?” Wren asked the first one.
“I’m laying bricks,” said the man, rolling his eyes, giving whatever gesture signified the 17th century version of “Duh!”.
“What are you doing there, friend?” Wren asked the second one.
“I’m building a wall, sir,” he said, and went back to his work.
“What are you doing there, friend?” Wren asked the third.
“Well, sir, I’m building a cathedral. This Mr. Christopher Wren has some grand design somewhere, on paper. But I’m the one actually making it happen!”
Three guys, same job. Three different perspectives on it.
Which do you think is the most satisfied with his work? Yes, of course, it’s the third guy. In fact, lots of recent research shows us that, more than money or status, humans are motivated by a sense of purpose. If you want to increase performance, don’t offer a money reward, offer people a chance at autonomy, mastery, or better yet, purpose.
Because humans around the world want to do good, they want to improve life for those around them and everyone, and they take pride in work that shows their good intent, their deep purpose.
And that goes for you, too.
Whether you are painting a masterpiece, writing some new code, or standing in the kitchen at 6 a.m. again, making the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you are doing it from your values, from your deep purpose, you are not just making school lunches, you are practicing the art of love, you are fueling the minds of children, you are, like the RE teachers we dedicated this morning, growing the next generation of leaders.
Bricks or sandwiches or letters to the editor, you are building a cathedral indeed. It’s all in how you look at it.
Like Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson, you can write a sentence that sums up your purpose in life, based on your deep values. I invite you this month to listen for that sentence, listen deeply within, let it bubble up and out.
Maybe your sentence, like theirs, like mine, is surprisingly simple. Maybe it recalls those words of bell hooks we used in this morning’s teacher dedication. How will I love these people today? How can I practice compassion right now and in every moment? Maybe your sentence is just about becoming the most loving person you can be.
How would centering your life around that vision transform you? How would it transform this church, if everyone here followed a purpose something like that, if all of us were living every day from our deep values, our unique and divinely inspired vision?
What if this were a house of purpose, where all of us lived up to our potential and reached out to the world from the depth of our souls?
A cathedral indeed.
I leave you with these words from the Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue, who died in his sleep in 2008 at the age of 53.
“It takes us so long to see where we are. It takes us even longer to see who we are. This is why the greatest gift you could ever dream is a gift that you can only receive from one person. And that person is you yourself. . . Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns. Now you realize how precious your time here is. You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self . . . You want your work to become an expression of your gift. You want your relationship to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells. You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits.” endquote
Come now, let us go forward into our lives, to let that wild God within call to us. Let us see where our destiny awaits.