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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 5, 2000

 

Sometimes, as I am just starting to write my Sunday sermon-- as I am sitting before the (almost) blank computer screen-- getting ready to put those first few 'words of wisdom' down, and get things going-- the only thing that stares back at me from the screen is the title of this week's opus: It is supposed to be the summation of everything, the pithiest of the pithy, as it were-- that one kernel of just a few words that sort of encapsulates all that I am about to spew forth.

Sometimes, as I peer out at that title, at those few words, I must say that I'm mighty impressed. "Yes," I say to myself (or anyone nearby who happens to be listening). "Yes, that is what I want to talk about. Yes, this is a subject of Great Import, which I am so privileged to be able to share with these people I care about..." Sometimes I think the title is just right; it says it all.

(Now of course, there have been those times when the title has been the high point of the sermon... Or when the rest of the sermon didn't quite connect with the title. But of those times, perhaps, the less said the better...)

Sometimes, as I've said, the title is just right, and says it all.

Then, there are those other times: When, in the haste to get something-- anything-- in the bulletin, or in the newsletter, I have committed to a title which doesn't quite do it... which doesn't quite say what I want it to say... There are those times when I peer forth at the computer screen, and stare at the title on top of the otherwise blank slate, and I say to myself, "What a crummy title. Whatever could have possessed you to come up with that?"

This morning's title, I'm afraid, falls into that latter category. Why, on earth, would I want to talk about old dogs on this first Sunday back before you, after a six months' absence. And who is supposed to be the "old dog" of whom I speak? Me? You? I may not be Adonis, but I'm not an "old dog" either. Neither are you.

I am not going to talk this morning about teaching dogs or cats or me or you (or anyone else for that matter) any new tricks or old tricks or tricks of any sort. That's not what I want to talk about... not on this first Sunday back among you after a six months absence.

Rather, I want to resume our conversation, if not exactly where we left off six months ago, then at least pretty near. You see, I have always seen the relationship between minister and congregation (in worship in particular, but in all aspects of church life, really) as a sort of continuing conversation.

One thing that several of you have said to me over the past few days is that, while you enjoyed many of the special services and guest ministers we assembled to fill in over the past six months, you missed having me in the pulpit every Sunday. I'm not egotistical ]to believe that this is because of any special wisdom that I may possess, or any special skills I might have as a preacher.

It's kind of the same for ministers, too, you know (or at least, for this minister): It's always enjoyable to visit different churches, to be a guest preacher before a different congregation. I've enjoyed doing it on various occasions during my (almost) 20 years in the ministry.

But I'll tell you something: It's not the same as preaching in one's own church. It's not the same as facing one's own people-- one's friends, people that one has come to know and cherish-- and love. People who have made you laugh at times-- and who have driven you to distraction at other times. People whose particular burdens you know, whose particular challenges you've shared. People who know you, too-- who know that you don't have it all together all the time-- who know that you are an oh-so-imperfect, oh-so-fallible human being, just like they are-- and who know that it is in our imperfections that we are bound to one another-- who choose to come together to hear what you have to say, anyway.

Nothing compares to being back again with friends after being away for a while.

Some of you have said that you missed me. Please know that I have missed all of you, too.

I've missed you more deeply than I realized when I was my "own man" on Sunday mornings, and didn't have to get up at 4 AM to finish the sermon... and didn't have to go out three nights in a row to various meetings or programs.... who didn't have to cut short a particular project I was working on in order to go down the hill to the church and set up for that evening's class.

No, you gave me a very precious gift, indeed, my friends: you gave me the gift of time (and that is perhaps the most precious gift that can be given is in this mad-dash world of ours). And I am grateful for the opportunity which this congregation provided for me to delve just a little more deeply into matters which I consider very important. I am most grateful, perhaps, because I know how hard all of you have worked throughout your lives-- and how hard you still work. I know fully that few (if any) of you have been given the opportunity in your jobs for a sabbatical-- for time away to rest and re-create, and try to get a glimpse of the bigger picture, time to try new things. And I know how hard you work to keep this church going, many of you (and how much harder some of you had to work because I was gone for a while). It is kind of ironic that ministers get sabbaticals, but congregations don't. (I sure as heck hope you don't all decide to take one, now that I'm back.)

In all honesty, part of the reason I'm happy to be back among you again is so that I can take up from you again my part of the burden of running this church-- and so that we can work together to find new and creative ways to ease your burdens, and to share them, and to get the work of the church done more fairly and equitably. We are living in a new age, and that means, perhaps, finding new-- creative-- joyful ways of doing the work of the church and getting more and more of us involved. Perhaps this old dog which is our church {such an inelegant metaphor!} does need to learn a new trick or two!

This is, I think, one of our priorities as we reassume our ministry together.

Another priority is to revitalize our times of worship. I've come back from sabbatical more focused on the absolutely critical importance of worship to the life of the church. Those churches that pay attention to their times of worship together-- which take the time for worship, which make room for the Spirit, which make worship a priority, which aren't afraid to experiment-- those are the churches that grow and prosper, I am convinced.

To me, as a minister , that means I am going to try to speak less from my head and more from my heart-- less as just another loud shouting voice of society and more as an echo of the still, small voice in our souls-- less to impress you with my erudition and more to stir up the inklings of the spirit inside of you-- less about books I've read and more about sunsets I've watched.

(It occurs to me that these are pledges I make about every year or so. The difference this time is that I expect you to hold me to them! I also feel more rested and focused and committed to holding myself to them this time around, too.)

I also want to give all of you more of a chance to speak-- to actively participate-- in the worship experience. As I just said, genuine worship is an active conversation between minister and congregation. It's a conversation. It's not a monologue, where the minister speaks all the time and the congregation merely listens; where the minister performs, and the congregation passively consumes that which is presented. Other people might be able to deliver your pizza to you, but not your spirituality.

I think that the lay-lead services this congregation had this summer can be a wonderful harbinger of the a mazing discoveries in worship that are possible in the interaction between a reenergized ministry and a fully-empower congregation! That's another of the priorities of this finally-refocused ministerial mind of mine: to get busy working with a reformed working group on worship and spirituality to explore the grand possibilities of our worship together.

Another vision I have is of an energized ministry to families, to young adults, and to youth-- not only to those in our church, but in our larger community as well. I will admit here that what I have is more an inkling that we should and could be doing more, rather than any concrete plans. But it seems to me that one of the most important questions that religious communities need to ask themselves is "How can we help families get through these difficult times? How can we help to form a bridge between generations so that we can work together toward building a better world?" Like I said, I've got more of an itch here than a blueprint. But if you feel that itch, too-- that this is something we can do to help-- then we can't just talk about it. We need to come together and explore the possibilities.

And we need to let our light shine in the community of ours! We aren't any better than any other religious community. We are hardly a gifted elite, a chosen people, without whose enlightenment society will perish. But we are unique. Nobody else in our community does religion quite the way we do. And no other Unitarian Universalist congregation does UUism quite the way we here in Stoughton do-- with our particular blend of old and new, tradition and innovation.

We have gifts to offer our communities. Only if we offer them can we receive back the blessings which our communities offer to us.

Is it hard to come back to work, someone asked me. Yeah, I said, but not as hard as I thought it would be. It's always hard to change gears-- to adjust to the next season life thrusts before us. But with each hour I spend with all of you, it gets easier and easier. And as much as I liked having Sundays off, and not having to face the pressure of having something halfway intelligent (maybe) to say every week, I know, more than ever, that you have to get on with life; that some of us (at least) need the roles we play to help define why we are here; that every solitary pilgrim (or at least this one) yearns for a community with whom to share the search.

Sometimes, as I reemerge from this sabbatical, I feel like Rip van Winkle finally waking up, to see that the world has changed-- all of our children have grown so much older-- and that you really can't step into the same river twice. Because the current of life just keeps flowing and flowing...

Sometimes, I feel like I'm starting a whole new ministry (without the inconvenience of having to learn a bunch of new names, or settle into a new community, or-- ugh!-- unload yet another moving van). Just like all new ministers, I come before you bursting with ideas-- and visions-- and plans... which may (or may not) echo and resonate with your ideas for this church we share.

Of course, the important thing is to keep the conversation going. To share our ideas honestly and eagerly-- not to shy from disagreements-- to ask each other to clarify what we mean-- to keep talking, conversing, working together, join hearts and hands in building this home for our spirits, this community of friends. It's been a good conversation we've had together so far-- now we have to keep it going, and deepen it.

And I know, more clearly than ever, that there is nowhere I would rather be, this Sunday morning, than here among all of you.

It was, in many ways, an unremarkable sabbatical: I traveled no farther than New York City (and that was way back in May, to a rally in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal). But we got finally to visit Lowell and Quincy and Pawtucket and Worcester-- places we'd been meaning to get to and explore-- but, you know, when your Sundays aren't your own, it's hard. And Pawtucket isn't Prague and Lowell isn't Venice. But they all have stories-- so many stories-- to tell.

I didn't get to interview Vaclav Havel or meet the Pope.

But I got to hear Carlos Santana play his guitar at Great Woods. (That's probably as close to the voice of God as we hear in this world.) I got to march through Roxbury and Dorchester with 5000 or 7000 or 8000 or 10,000 kindred spirits who, on the evening of the first presidential debate at UMass Boston, were there to demand that our democracy become a much clearer and more genuine reflection of our forebears' dream. (For that one evening, I was young again, and I have never felt more hopeful about the future of our nation.)

And I got to read-- a lot-- a lot by and about Vaclav Havel. Sometimes, his words would move me to tears, and I'd remember why I was undertaking this project, to share the life story of this oh-so-human hero. At other times, Havel started to seem like a houseguest who had stayed way too long-- and I sick of the very mention of his name. But then, I'd read something he wrote about the relationship of spirituality and politics, and the power of the powerless, and the possibilities lying in wait in history for all of us-- if we dare be true to the best that is within us-- and I'd come to greet him once again (this man I've met only one, for about fifteen seconds) as a kindred spirit and a friend (of whom I am still-- far as I know-- "the only American biographer).

If I didn't finish all I intended to do... if I am still mired in newsclippings from 1991 which should have been digested and disposed of long ago.. if not a single word of the The Responsibility of Hope has been set to paper, and if my deadline has been pushed from January to July of 2002... if my study of the Czech language ran aground somewhere in early June, perhaps to be rescued sometime soon, perhaps not (learning Czech is by far the most difficult intellectual pursuit I have ever faced [except maybe calculus, which I dropped out of after two weeks in the 12th grade]; I don't know why, maybe I'm just too old to do these things, maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks-- but not a new language; I'll start crying if I have to talk about that damned language any more...)...

If I didn't finish all that I intended to during the past six months-- what of it? Get used to it: We don't get it "all done" in these lives of ours. Very seldom, anyway.

I know I come back to you from this sabbatical a better man-- more confident in who I am as human being-- more confident of my skills in ministry-- more eager to get on with the work (and the play!) that is before us.

Another thing I did during this sabbatical was read more poetry (I wrote some, too, which-- rest assured-- you'll be hearing from time to time). And of all the poets, no one speaks to my soul like Walt Whitman does, for a whole bunch of reasons. May this be our song, for the rest of our days together:

Comerados,
I give you my hand,
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law,
Will you give me yourselves,
will you come travel with me,
will we stick by each other
for as long as we may?

It's good to see you all again.


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