March 2010 is the month that we will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the gathering of this congregation, the founding of this church. It will be a big affair, with historical presentations, re-enactments, re-tellings and remembrances. Two hundred twenty five years is a long time, reaching back to the days before the U. S. Constitution was written, and to when Worcester was a small town. We can see the whole history of the United States through the lens of Worcester and its Second Parish.
On the other hand, I can imagine that some of you are wondering, “What’s the big deal? So, the church is old. Does that really matter?”
One could argue that what really matters is whether the worship service of today meets the needs of today. One could argue that what really matters is whether the religious education of today excites a sense of wonder and reverence in the children of today. Add to those questions: the quality of the music, the ability of the minister to be interesting for 20 uninterrupted and consecutive minutes at a time, the tidiness of the bathrooms and the snacks plentiful, tasty and reasonably nutritious and you can see that a church has a lot on its plate. And most of those things are neither helped nor hurt by a 225 year history.
But a church is not a store, nor is it a theatre. It does not serve up an experience for a price.
A congregation is a community within the larger community; it is a historical community that stretches back through time and into the future. And I think that every community is, at heart, working through one central issue. And for the First Unitarian Church, the Second Parish of Worcester, I believe that issue has been always this: How should well-educated, sophisticated, and generally prosperous people conduct their religious lives in the changing circumstances of a small city forty miles west of a much larger one?
The beginning of this church was an effort of a well-educated, often Boston connected, sophisticated group of Worcester people to create their own space, a church defined by “liberal preaching”. By “liberal preaching” they meant preaching which affirmed the human capacity to do good and contribute to progress. They wanted space to be themselves. They called for a second parish in Worcester, and they eventually created one.
From a church of their own, the people of this church were a part of a larger group that built Worcester into a wonderful and thriving city, with strong businesses, and churches, and clubs. Their goal was that Worcester’s institutions would be better than, or at least as good as, any city in the country. And for many of them, the First Unitarian Church was their spiritual home. The religion they practiced here urged them to keep their thoughts and hearts fixed on the highest things, to choose toward the good in every circumstance, and to trust in a benevolent God who oversaw their efforts.
They were not radicals or reformers; they were builders and leaders. The purpose of a sermon at First Unitarian was not to encourage the listeners to rebel against the powers that be, but to urge those with power to use it responsibly and wisely and to understand the religious and spiritual dimension of daily life.
There have been many changes in Worcester since then, and the people of First Unitarian are no longer the movers and shakers of Worcester. Still though, we live in the tension between our spiritual needs, our social power, and our place in the Worcester community. We are still working on the same questions our founders did.
There will be many stories told over the next month of celebration. Some will be stories of great moments in the history of our country. Others will tell of moments when looking back, we might wish we had chosen a different way. After all, First Unitarian Church is a struggling and imperfect institution. But we continue.
At the beginning of every year, we sing “Rank by Rank, again We Stand” (#358). The hymn takes us right into the midst of history, standing with those who have come before us in this church and congregation, and whose questions we still are working on. The last verse, I think, ought sum to up the spirit of this month.
“Though the path be hard and long, still we strive in expectation; join we now their ageless song, one with them in aspiration. One in name, in honor one, guard we well the crown they won; what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.”
What they dreamed was that the church they created would with honesty, and humility, bring people to worship God, the creating, sustaining transforming power, and to serve their neighbors. It is still ours to do.