Brock Leach, a graduating Modified Residency Program student, delivered this homily at the final vespers of January 2011.
Good evening. Many of us participating in the service tonight– Michelle, Dennis, Lisa, and I—are only too aware that this will be our last vesper service as Meadville Lombard MRP students. It’s bittersweet. But we also recognize that this is a poignant moment for everyone gathered here– the last January vespers of this year, perhaps the last January vespers ever in this space– at this particular intersection of history and place. So as we gather in that liminal space between our deeply rooted past and our exciting, frightening, unknown future, I’d like to open with these centering words from Rev. Bill Murray…
These are the days that have been given to us;
Let us rejoice and be glad in them.
These are the days of our lives;
Let us live them well in love and service;
These are the days of mystery and wonder:
Let us cherish and celebrate them in gratitude together.
These are the days that have been given to us:
Let us make them stories worth telling to those who come after us.
— William R. Murray
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m standing right in the middle of very busy intersection right about now. I’m not talking about my course work– I’m talking about this one, this intersection right here at 57th and Woodlawn. It feels familiar and beloved, but it also feels unnerving, exciting, dangerous, a little unpredictable. I think I know where I’m going– I just gotta get across this intersection. I’m not 100% sure I’ll make it safely to the other side, but I see people here I love and trust. I have faith that together we’ll see each other through.
That physical intersection right out there has deep personal meaning for me. This is the very place where I found Unitarian Universalism 30 years ago when my wife and I were students at the U. of C. business school. Walking through this intersection every day we noticed the provocative sermon titles on that wayside pulpit out there, and thought ‘now that’s an interesting church’! We never went in. It was only a few years later in Dallas, Texas when we had our first child and needed a church that we looked up “Unitarian” in the yellow pages… and the rest is history.
And who could have imagined then that both of our kids would choose to go to the U. of C. and walk through this same intersection every day, or that I’d be standing here right now as a seminarian. . . lo these many years and fewer hairs later. In a way I can’t explain, it all feels like it just was meant to be.
But this intersection has even deeper meaning for me, because it represents that dynamic space where great ideas meet and mingle; where theology collides with praxis, where we all return every January like weirdly disoriented migratory fowl to nurture and sustain one another on the path to ministry.
For eighty years this intersection has been witness to the ferocious winds off the lake, and even more ferocious winds of the spirit. Gales of reason and scholarship have conjured up some outrageous heresies right here at this intersection. I don’t want to name names, but some of the leading heretics are among us right now. It has been the meeting place of some of the greatest minds and hearts in our modern religious history—from the process thinkers and pragmatists to the humanists and scholars of liberal theology, to leading proponents of religious naturalism and post-modern ethics. A disproportionate share of our denominational leaders have walked through this intersection. More important still, it’s been the intellectual and spiritual crossroads to some 400 alumni who have led and served our faith with distinction.
More than any other I can think of, this particular intersection has been that unnerving, exciting, dangerous space where our past is joined to our future and Unitarian Universalism is recreated anew.
Like Dennis, I love the buildings, particularly that quirky neo-gothic building across the street for all it says about us. Its age and solidity speak to all the history and depth of our tradition. It’s designed to look larger and grander than it actually is, perfectly suited to a faith with influence larger than its numbers. And just like Unitarian Universalism as a whole, it’s clear that art and thoughtful craftsmanship triumphed over anything practical in its design. Where else can you avail yourself of modern plumbing and still know what it’s like to pee outdoors in the winter?
I’ll be among the many who will grieve the loss of our buildings. But deep down I know it’s really the human institution I love, and my real fear is that all this change… in program and facility and governance and allegiances—despite all best intentions—will somehow cause us to lose this vital intersection of intellect and spirit.
Will Meadville be enriched and empowered by proximity to other progressive religions? Will it be enlivened by a multi-campus presence and a cutting edge program that throws open the doors of the seminary– physically and spiritually? Or will its unique role as the center of Unitarian Universalist theology and thought gradually decline and ebb away?
Personally, I’m willing to bet the institution will emerge much stronger, but there’s no sure way to know. We can only be aware that we’re standing at an especially promising and precarious moment when anything is possible.
As Unitarian Universalists, that’s exactly where we’re called to stand. Not only does our progressive religion embrace change and growth as the very essence of life, but our faith in human agency calls us to intentionally stand right there in the middle of that intersection– in that liminal space between the past and future, present to all the creative possibilities of the moment and acting on those possibilities to create our future together.
And as ministers, we’re especially called to that role. This vocation we’ve chosen requires us to plant ourselves right along side people in that uncomfortable, uncertain space between crisis and healing, life and death, self-satisfaction and inconvenient truth. It asks us to be companions to one another in the transition– present for the possibility of unspeakable loss as well as the possibility for creating a whole new beginning.
For me, it’s the fact that all of you have answered the call to be present for those possibilities that gives me courage and fills me with hope. This year, meeting all my new partners in ministry was very exciting. But every year when I’m back here and meet all the talented, passionate, loving people who make up this school my faith is renewed. In every succeeding year I find my colleagues more determined to break down all the barriers that separate us from one another, more committed to building stronger alliances and more authentic relationships, more present to all the possibilities for restoring health and wholeness in the world around us.
You all renew my faith that we will safely see each other through this moment and many others to follow. You give me hope that in another eighty years from now Meadville Lombard will still be the vital intellectual and spiritual intersection of a larger and more vibrant Unitarian Universalism.
I feel blessed to have you all as colleagues. I’m so grateful that we are standing together in the intersection. I look forward to walking by your side in all the years ahead.