The following is my sermon “To Know and to Be Known” delivered at First Church in Boston on September 15th, 2013.
Listen to sermon on the First Church Boston website.
To Know and To Be Known
Rev. Amy Freedman
First Church in Boston
September 15, 2013
I am honored to stand before you today. I am particularly grateful to Joyce and the Standing Committee for hiring me as your Consulting Minister. For a long time, I’ve held the aspiration to be part of a ministry team. So, I am delighted to be working with your talented Senior Minister, the Rev. Stephen Kendrick. As you can imagine, although this is my first Sunday preaching here, this is not my first day on the job. I have been attending some meetings. It has been a pleasure getting to know your staff. I am impressed by the skills of Catherine Bradfield and Zach Dunn as well as their team who I am still meeting. Plus, what a gift to get to know not one but two Ministerial Interns this year– Schuyler and David. Together our ideas and energies are amplified—we are off to a good start.
Like the pilgrim in this morning’s story, my arrival here follows a long journey. I carry with me the same longings for Peace, Love, and Joy. Although unlike the pilgrim, my spirit is not weary. Perhaps it is because I stopped at some of those storehouses along the way.
I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who was ordained to our ministry in 1999. I served as the Senior Minister of Channing Memorial Church in Newport, Rhode Island for 10 years and before that as an Interim Minister of the UU Society of Martha’s Vineyard. Often when sharing about my positions in Newport and Martha’s Vineyard, people inquire if I am a sailor. Even though I do not own a boat or know how to sail, it was no accident that I served in those places. The ocean nourishes my spirit. For me, walking along the shore reawakens my sense of reverence and gratitude for life itself.
I took a break from full-time Parish Ministry to care for my daughter, Liza who is now almost five. For the first year of her life, I was working long hours as the Senior Minister of a mid-sized congregation with a part-time staff. Several people told me that childhood passes quickly and to savor it as much as possible. I took that advice to heart.
As you can imagine after serving a religious community for ten years, my life had become entwined in the lives of many people. I never thought I would become one of those adults who said to kids, “Wow! How did YOU get so BIG?! I remember when you were just a little bitty!” But it actually happened, over a decade I was able to witness children grow up, people age and die, couples fall in love and relationships fall a part. I left in the middle of many stories to which I will never know the ending. Even so, we were intentional in our goodbyes by addressing unresolved issues as much as possible and taking time to let one another know how much we cared.
This stole that I am wearing with quilted hands was one of the gifts that I was given on my final Sunday at Channing Memorial Church. I will never forget the little boy who rushed up to me following the service and matched his hand up to this one saying, “Remember this is MY hand!” Indeed, over the course of a lifetime so many people’s fingerprints are pressed into our hearts.
Over the past three years, my primary role has been as a mother and domestic Goddess. My husband Peter is a Childrens’ Television Producer and church consultant. It was a joy to move back to my family home in Cambridge and to explore the Boston area again. Liza and I could often be found dancing and singing around the house as well as taking trips to our local library. As she grew older and began to attend preschool, I started making the circuit as a guest speaker and consulting with congregations.
Most significantly, I returned to Martha’s Vineyard last year to help the congregation during a time of ministerial transition. During that time, people shared with me and with one another past hurts, fears, and dreams for their religious community. It made me realize that as much as I enjoy dropping in as a Guest Minister to preach or teach, engaging with a congregation over time is even more rewarding.
After that experience, I said to myself, “If only I could find a part-time Consulting ministry like that closer to home.” As I wrote in the newsletter, dreams really do come true. I am enjoying joining the stream of commuters on the Red Line from Harvard Square to downtown Boston. This week as I walked along Beacon Street I found myself humming the Cheers theme song. If any of you know the words, please join me… “Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. You wanna go where people know their troubles are all the same. You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”
We at the First Church in Boston are in the same neighborhood as the Bull and Finch Pub that inspired the hit TV show Cheers. In case any of you are not familiar with it or your memory is hazy, the setting is a Boston tavern where the staff and regulars knew each other’s stories, struggles, dreams, and character flaws intimately. The theme song and the show captured something not only about the city of Boston but something universal, each one of us needs a place like that, a place where we are warmly welcomed. A place where everyone knows our name and where we are appreciated not despite of our unique quirks but because of them. A place where there is always room for us to join in the conversation.
Today, there are many factors leading to an increased sense of isolation. Some of us have long workdays and then business constantly breaks into our “free-time” through mobile devices. Some of us are unemployed or under-employed. Many people live far away from their extended family. Now it is even possible to do errands without ever talking to another person with ATM’s, self-checkout or even ordering online.
We are hardwired for Connection. Brene Brown writes, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” 
No doubt, some of you have heard of Brene Brown, she is a research professor at the University of Houston in the Graduate College of Social Work. She is the best-selling author of “Daring Greatly- How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”. She has recently been hired as a contributor to O Magazine where I first learned of her. Brown has long been a researcher on the subject of Shame. However, it was her 2010 TED talk “The power of vulnerability” that went viral.
Her talk is “one of the most viewed on TED.com, with more than five million hits and translation available in 38 languages”! So, Brene Brown certainly touched on a subject that is universal and relevant today.
Connection is what gives life meaning. We long to connect with other people and yet we often avoid it. It seems that we master “vulnerability-avoidance skills” in Middle School and stay stuck there. For good reason, we all carry with us memories of rejection, loneliness, and betrayal. Since moving to Cambridge, I have been in many gatherings with other adults where people seem to have forgotten the simple act of “getting to know one another”- an outstretched hand, looking someone in the eye, introducing yourself, and asking a simple question to open a conversation. More often than not, people appreciate someone else taking that first step to connect.
Interestingly, it was a radio broadcast like the one on WERS that brought my family into a Unitarian Universalist church. My dad listened to the Rev. Ed Frost on WCRB on his way to the Y and was intrigued to learn more. My father often would tell the story of that first Sunday, when he was approached in the Parish Hall by a tall man who said “I’m Doc Brackett. What’s your racket?”
My mother remembers friendly ladies of the church sweeping my three year old self off to Sunday School. The sermons and the music brought us there but it was the people, the community who shaped our lives. My home church taught me about hospitality, leadership, and service.
So, now I have an invitation for you. You are invited to Evensong, which I am offering through out the church year on second Tuesdays each month. Like the Anglican service of the same name, Evensong will be held in the evening but that is where the similarities end. I was first introduced to this program at the when I was an Intern. My mentor, the Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway developed Evensong as a way for people to build community by sharing their beliefs and experiences around religious questions. You are welcome to join the whole series or drop into one or two sessions. More information can be found on the First Church website.
Unitarian Universalists often talk about life as a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Evensong encourages us to stop and consider “What do I hold true right now?” Some of you may be thinking, “Oh no, that’s very nice but I am not going to share about my personal beliefs.” I want you to know that Evensong is structured with specific questions to consider in advance that bring theology back to your own life experience. For example, in one session on Religious and Spiritual Experiences, a juicy Pagan woman and a serious Atheist gentleman found that they both shared a passionate connection to the natural world, especially hiking in the woods. It was only the words that they used to define their experience that were different. The stories they shared created mutual understanding.
One session focuses on “the church- what is possible together?” The preparation sheet includes the following questions: What would a true church/ a real community be like? When, where, how have you glimpsed this church possible/ community possible?
For many of the Evensong participants in one particular congregation, it was a new idea to have church used as synonymous with “true community.” The sad reality was that most participants had not found true community in a church. Some participants shared childhood memories of witnessed hypocrisy- vivid examples of adults not practicing what they preached. Many could not get past the ways that religion is often used as a vehicle of oppression and exclusion. Some people spoke of the welcome relief they felt in finding a Unitarian Universalist congregation that shared their deeply held values, but that unfortunately they had not found a real bond with the other members. Sure, they were friendly with several people but they did not feel a part of a supportive community network. The examples of where such a real community had been experienced included: the workplace with a team approach, Summer Camps, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a Hospice Support Group.
During the sharing time, I was touched by the words of one of the Evensong participants who spoke honestly of her pain. Tears rolled down the face of this middle-aged woman as she realized that her longing for community had never been fulfilled. The participants on either side of her quietly took her hands as she spoke. They were not fixing her problem or denying her pain by saying “There, there” but truly listening, understanding the longing, and connecting in silence. That Evensong circle, a group of relative strangers and acquaintances, became a true community. They were able to honor the unique perspectives of each individual while finding unity, and a deepened sense of belonging and connection.
I believe that church can be synonymous with real community because my life has been touched by the experience. My hope is that many of you here at First Church have experienced real community through being a part of this congregation. Sometimes the feeling arrives in worship while blending our voices in song, entering into prayer or inspiring moments. Some of you may already be a part of a group like Meditation, Non-Violent Communication, or Learning Community. Sometimes we feel the bond of fellowship in working side-by-side for Habitat for Humanity, Gun Violence Prevention, or even committee work. Many of you have formed your own circles of friendship over the years.
My sincere wish for you is that you have many places where you can relax and be known for your true self: circles of friends, support groups, and more. As a parent, I long for my daughter to have the same nourishing environment that both my husband Peter and I were blessed with growing up in this religious tradition. As a minister, my prayer is that we will disarm our hearts practicing vulnerability and compassion until this world is a Home of Love.
I will close with a passage from “Evensong” by Barbara Hamilton-Holway:
Now you are ready—
As ready as you are going to be.
Neither you nor the world can wait for your fears to subside.
You need no more preparation.
You need no longer be on the outside observing.
The world awaits not your timid hesitation,
Not your clever critique,
Not your tidy observations.
The world invites your participation—
1. p. 14, Brene Brown, (2012) Daring Greatly, NY: Gotham Books
2. p. 8, Brene Brown, (2012) Daring Greatly, NY: Gotham Books.