Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom preaches at First Parish in Brookline (MA), Unitarian Universalist, on “Transitions,” as he announces his upcoming departure from First Parish at the end of 2015.
It’s a paradox: I love this congregation, and my role as your senior minister, and yet for your sake and mine, it is time for me to move on. I have been overwhelmed this week with the outpouring of love and support from so many of you, thank you, thank you, you will always be a great blessing in my life. We are a very different community then we were when Rev. Martha and I arrived here 11 years ago: a larger, more diverse, stronger, and healthier congregation. I am enormously proud of all that we have accomplished together. Yet on my own spiritual journey I have horizons yet to cross, which you cannot cross for me, and this congregation has its own new horizons to traverse, and I cannot lead you there either. So comes the time to bid a fond farewell.
Many Massachusetts congregations were founded by Puritans in the 17th century, emphasizing purity of religious doctrine. Our community, different from the start, was founded by immigrants and grandchildren of Puritans, in a society reeling from the effects of the Salem witch trial hysteria, and so focused on community from the start. Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewell, who in later life repented of his role in the unjust trials and deaths, moved here with his son and daughter-in-law to be part of this experiment. Shortly after our founding, during a smallpox epidemic in 1721, our congregant, and eventually grandfather and great-grandfather of two American Presidents, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston created smallpox inoculations which forever changed the scourge of that disease. So our physical proximity and connections with the Harvard teaching hospitals are almost as old as the congregation itself.
As you can well imagine, this congregation has experienced many transitions over the years. In the American Revolutionary War we became the rebel outpost closest to Boston, with our congregant John Goddard becoming General George Washington’s secret supply master, stealing British supplies to supply the rebel army, and harassing Brookline Tories until they all fled into Boston. In the American Civil War this congregation’s citizen farmers took up arms to save the union. Following the war, with so much death and destruction, we became one of the most transcendentalist congregations in the world, with three transcendentalist ministers, beginning with Frederick Henry Hedge, leaving us ultimately with this transcendentalist sanctuary.
This congregation experienced many transitions in the 20th century, beginning as a planned community, and the wealthiest town in America based upon property values. As subway lines were built along Beacon and Boylston, connecting us with downtown Boston, Brookline became a bedroom community. And this congregation became a last bastion of Yankee Protestantism, then embraced religious humanism, but each of these transitions was accompanied with difficulty, a sense of loss, as well as much joy for what could be gained. This congregation began the 21st century running substantial deficits, with millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, and far too few people in membership or worship to even hope to ever be financially sustainable again. Yet this is a very determined community, which deeply cherishes its past while remaining open to its future, so I have been delighted to participate in this congregation’s return to being a mid-sized UU congregation, with annual giving four times what it was 15 years ago, and approaching financial sustainability for the first time in many a generation. This is a congregation willing to engage in deep conversations about its future.
Those conversations culminated in adoption of a new congregational mission statement last May: “Called by love, sustained by community, committed to justice. We strive to be a welcoming, diverse and loving congregation that nurtures spiritual growth for individuals and families, celebrates multicultural community, and works together to demand social justice, dismantle racism, and care for our living earth.” I love this new mission statement, which seeks to transcend the boundaries of this congregation’s past, to reach across boundaries of race, class, age and sex, as Yvonne Seon says, “to release the fears that are the boundaries between me and my fellow human beings.” We have always been called by love, but increasingly we have a willingness to have our hearts broken open. We have always been sustained by community, but now are intentionally opening that community to a much more diverse cross section of the local population. We have always been committed to justice, but increasingly we are willing to be allies in this justice work with the marginalized and oppressed: the poor, the homeless, immigrants, and prisoners, not just as recipients of our largess, but as partners in doing the work for a more just society.
As UU Minister Richard Gilbert wrote, “The human race is a vast rainbow, white, black, red, yellow, and brown bursting into view. Yet for all, blood is red, the sky is blue, the earth brown, the night dark. In size and shape we are a varied pattern of tall and short, slim and stout, elegant and plain. Yet for all there are fingers to touch, hearts to break, eyes to cry, ears to hear, mouths to speak… Boundaries divide us, lines drawn to mark our diversity, maps charted to separate the human race from itself. Yet a mother’s grief, a father’s love, a child’s happy cry, a musician’s sound, an artist’s stroke, batter the boundaries and shatter the walls. Strength and weakness, arrogance and humility, confidence and fear, living together in each one, reminding us to share a common humanity. We are all more human than otherwise.” And being human we thrive in community. This profound mystery that is human life, with deep and invisible currents shaping who we are, with this congregation offering what Thomas Moore calls: “creative ways to become people of depth and compassion through embracing mystery.” This is why I often speak of the divine mystery offering us a gateway to transcendence, for it offers each of us an opportunity to develop our own spiritual identity. This is the core which remains through every transition, an intentional faith community which nurtures spiritual growth and human well being.
Of course 300 year old congregations live much longer than individual human beings. I will turn 60 next month, and have loved my diverse callings, as a child of 1960’s, student of 1970’s, a biotech entrepreneur during my late 20’s and 30’s, a venture capitalist in my 30’s and 40’s, and for the last 11 years, as senior minister of this congregation, yet I think I have at least one or two more callings yet to fulfill before I am done. Those of you who know me know that as a transcendentalist I love direct experience of the divine mystery in whatever religious or mystical tradition I can experience it. My work with a South American shaman this summer was one of my most compelling experiences yet. So just after Christmas I will begin my terminal sabbatical by traveling up the Ganges River, from Kolkata to Varanasi, with Harvard Divinity School Comparative Religion and Indian Studies professor Diana Eck. We will explore ancient Hindu temples, Sufi mosques, the impact of the Mogul Empire, the rise of Buddhism, sitting under Gautama’s Bodhi tree, discussing Buddha’s sermons, and perhaps ritual bathing in the Ganges. I expect to be changed by the experience, and that is our shared UU value: the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
Then I may offer to serve the UUA in one or more capacities, or teach either at a divinity school or business school, or if serendipity allows continue to engage the world as a free range mystic. But no longer will I serve here, this doesn’t mean I don’t love you, I know I’ll always love this congregation, but it means I am being called back into my own personal journey. For over a decade we have walked together, each watching over and helping the other along the way, but now the time nears for going our separate ways. I invite you to greet this transition with gratitude. As proud as I am of what we accomplished together over the last decade, I am even more excited for what comes next, for me personally of course, but also for this wonderful congregation. For nearly 300 years, each transition has brought you new opportunities, and I pray it will always be so for this congregation. I love you dearly. Amen and Blessed Be.