Sermons, Homilies, & Other Words from Rev. Brian Chenowith

Reflecting on the Orlando Massacre

My reading today is a simple one.  It comes to us from the Beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Gospel of Matthew:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here is how I imagined today.  I imagined little slips of paper being folded nicely in each order of service.  I imagined enough pens and pencils to go around.  I imagined soft music playing in the background as people wrote on those slips of paper and put them in a collection plate. 

I imagined the sound of the papers being put in a box.  And I imagined the joy in pulling each piece of paper at random from the box and answering the question one of you had written on it.  Today was to be our first ever Question Box Sunday.

A Sunday where the gathered people are free to ask the minister any question relating to religion and as the questions are pulled at random, with no knowledge of what they may be, the answers serve as the sermon for the day.  It is at once a joyful and somewhat petrifying premise for a end of the church year service.

Today it won’t be happening.  But it will, no doubt, in a couple months, I can assure you of this.  Keep your eyes open for it.  You now have time to think of the most absurd or most thoughtful questions possible.  But today, there is only one question that rests on my heart, and, I pray, it may be resting on your heart as well.  Read the rest of this entry »

Rise and Fall

My reading today comes to us from my Congregationalist colleague, Rev. Lillian Daniel, who serves in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

The young women will dance for joy, and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.”  So says the book of Jeremiah.

In my first year at Bryn Mawr College, one of the five Seven Sisters schools that remains single-sex, I could hardly believe how excited a bunch of jaded, sophisticated, feminist intellectuals got over dancing around a Maypole. But May Day was the highlight of the school year, celebrated the Sunday after classes ended.

The seniors woke the college president outside her home with songs, and then we were off to early class breakfasts and a parade full of medieval pageantry. Women who would never be seen in a dress suddenly appeared in white ones. Thus began an all day party that culminated in each class dancing around the Maypole, weaving the ribbons tighter around the pole as they ducked and weaved, collapsing at the middle, giddy and dizzy, from the circular athletics.

This holiday is associated with Roman, Celtic and Germanic festivals, all of which predate Christianity. When Europe was Christianized, many abandoned the holiday. Unlike some other pagan festivals, May Day did not get a Christian holiday dropped on top of it like a cherry on a sundae.

When my son was in the third grade, he came home as excited as could be with some big news. For a school assembly on dances from around the world, he had been chosen to dance around the Maypole. There on the hot tarmac of an urban public school playground, a diverse group of parents from all over the world watched a rainbow of children dance around the Maypole behind the basketball hoops.

The people on the sidewalk looked on in amusement at the scene. The children forgot all their instructions to skip daintily and merrily and instead tore around like bees in a beehive, laughing and shrieking. But remarkably the ribbons braided themselves beautifully around the pole. An ancient dance from another time wove us together across the ages.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Wabi-Sabi Life

Our reading today comes to us from the poet Elizabeth Carlson, titled, “Imperfection.”

I am falling in love
with my imperfections
The way I never get the sink really clean,
forget to check my oil,
lose my car in parking lots,
miss appointments I have written down,
am just a little late.

I am learning to love
the small bumps on my face
the big bump of my nose,
my hairless scalp,
chipped nail polish,
toes that overlap.
Learning to love
the open-ended mystery
of not knowing why

I am learning to fail
to make lists,
use my time wisely,
read the books I should.

Instead I practice inconsistency,
irrationality, forgetfulness.

Probably I should
hang my clothes neatly in the closet
all the shirts together, then the pants,
send Christmas cards, or better yet
a letter telling of
my perfect family.

But I’d rather waste time
listening to the rain,
or lying underneath my cat
learning to purr.

I used to fill every moment
with something I could
cross off later.

Perfect was
the laundry done and folded
all my papers graded
the whole truth and nothing but

Now the empty mind is what I seek
the formless shape
the strange off center
sometimes fictional
me.

I never cared much for mending broken wings. Sure, I loved to take my dogs for walks, watch the cat chase a toy, observe hamsters endlessly run and run and run to some unknown destination — but I never desired to put satellite collars onto hounds, or any of the other duties of a veterinarian.

That childhood passion was lost on me. I flirted, as a child, with the desire to be a grand doctor, lawyer, judge, superhero, and, I kid you not, a health inspector. But ultimately, my desires for what I wanted to be “when I grew up” rested on what I like to identify as the call of the limitless and the uttermost. And for me, as a child, I felt the call of the infinite in two vocations. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding One Moment

[With apologies for the several updates — I hadn’t published the previous three sermons by accident.]

Our reading today comes to us from Christine Organ, from her essay titled. “Taking a Modern-Day Sabbath.”

By unplugging for one day each week, my modern-day, personal Sabbath seeks to balance the utility of technology with a little patience and remind myself that life unfolds on a timetable that is not always within my control. By removing the distractions one day each week, I am slowly learning to become comfortable with my own discomfort in order to gain a certain depth of self-awareness and figure out how to work through, not around, problems.

With a mantra of “turning off to tune in,” the modern Sabbath almost feels like capturing time in a bottle. Time is a funny thing, you know. On some days, it seems to slog along, and then, in the blink of an eye, a month or a year or a decade has passed and we are reeling from the loss of our Earthly time. By separating one day from the frenzied blur of the remaining six, by disconnecting from the frenetic pace of technology to reconnect with the sacredly simple, the modern-day Sabbath allows us to slow time and savor its goodness. Because nestled into that little nugget of slowed time is a heady calm and a mild exhilaration in the stillness and the quiet and the waiting.

Just over a month ago, I was in Boston for a minister’s seminar. It was good to be in that city again, to be surrounded by a world where primordial America is blended with the modern rush and bustle of commerce.

While the seminar itself was described as a retreat, it was one of the more exhausting weeks of my life in the past months. Unitarian Universalists have this terrible habit of having retreats that are all about work, checking off lists, and squeezing every ounce of opportunity out of a moment. Maybe it’s not just Unitarians, but people and institutions in general these days. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Is The Prophet The World Needs Today?

NOTE: This was a multi-generational service that utilized several images during the sermon.  Most of the images were illustrating how UUCL kids answered the question:  “Who is the prophet the world needs today?”  Many of the images cannot be posted as they include the children themselves.

Our reading today comes to us from the Gospel of Mark.

…very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Who is the prophet the world needs today? That’s quite a question for us to be asking here in this room on this day. Often this day is reserved for the celebration of Easter — the celebration of an ancient story about a man from Nazareth who preached a message of radical love and acceptance and a message of freedom and justice for the Israelites.

This message resounded throughout all of Israel — throughout all of the ancient world and now throughout all of the world today. It is something for us to gather here today and to remember the life of one man and the life of all his followers and the life of the community and the message that he created that spread throughout our world.

As Unitarian Universalists we come from the tradition of Jesus —though often walking into our churches today it may not even look like we come from the that tradition these days. Our symbols are different, our scriptures are broader and wider, our ideas of religion are far different than what they would have been if we were still a Christian religion. Read the rest of this entry »

A Hint of Loveliness

Our reading today comes to us from the poet William Wordsworth, titled, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

You never know what you’re going to get when you buy a house — especially for the first time. And all throughout searching for a home you find that you are so glad you are not required to buy the first one the realtor shows you. And the next one. And the one after that. When you buy a home, you get very good at saying no or contorting your face in a way that the realtor automatically knows you want nothing to do with the home you are looking at.

I was disappointed to learn that buying a house was nothing like the tv show “House Hunters” — but also relieved to see that sitting down and figuring out exactly what you want with your impossible must have lists is as close as you would ever get to that show. If you don’t watch that show already — don’t. Hours will fly by. And now you know what I do on my days off. Read the rest of this entry »

Tough As Nails

Our reading today is from poet Naomi Replansky, titled, Housing Shortage:

I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one.
But see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living.
You stumble over it daily.
And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.
Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

The stories always begin the same way. A female minister will have just delivered a sermon she thought knocked it out of the park. She’ll describe the worship service as weaving community – as if she is some sort of existential basket-weaver, reaching vulnerable and meaningful places in the life of the congregation, and spot on.

In addition to the sermon being great, the music was spot on, the prayer was stellar, the readings were relatable, and the pulse of the community was in synch. It was, you could say, a transcendent moment for minister and congregation. These are the moments ministers live for. And while we experience them without everything being perfect, we aim for them above all else.

Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, our first of six identified sources of faith, I can almost guarantee you a minister wrote that. So when a female minister begins her story with much of what I described, I almost always know how it’s going to end.

As the worship service ended and she made her way to the back of the church to stand in the greeting line, not one, but perhaps two or three or more people, walked up to her, thanked her, and proceeded to comment not on the service, but on her shoes. Or her hair. Or the color of her clothing. Or her earring and jewelry choices.

Suddenly that transcendent moment became nothing more than a ministerial runway, with the minister suddenly finding a new item added to her job description: Fashion model. I do not share this very vague story with you to make any of you guilty, I’m not talking about this community, and this is not to say it’s Unitarian Universalists that exclusively do this, female clergy friends across the denominational spectrum have shared such stories. Read the rest of this entry »

The Other Wholehearted Armory: Honesty About Sexuality

Our reading today is titled “Vulnerability” by the poet David Whyte from his collection called “Consolations.”

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice , vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity. 

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is one of the privileges and the prime conceits of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

The teachers would walk apprehensively into the classroom, often feigning a smile here and there, or sometimes with an energy that was so clearly disingenuous and manufactured. 

They would carry the heavy textbooks, visual aids, and other materials with them in and out of the classroom — it was school policy to lock up the materials so no one would steal them or deface them when class wasn’t in session.  With the fake smiles or fake enthusiasm, the students would shift uncomfortably and try not to engage — but once instruction began there were bursts of laughter. 

I never did figure out if the laughter was because of how uncomfortable the teachers were or if because the content was presented in such a clinical and, as a result, amusing way.  Year after year, starting in Middle School, it was nearly the same content, the same awkwardness, the same discomfort from the teachers, the same crossed arms from the students, the same message over and over.  We are, of course, talking about sexual education in school. Read the rest of this entry »

Wholeheartedly Unitarian

Our reading comes to us today from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay titled, “Character.

Persons with character are as easy to spot as if they were a different color. Self-trust and the perception that virtue is enough is the essence of character. It is the natural tendency to defy falseness and wrong. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, despises pettiness, and is scornful of being scorned. Character persists when the mood has passed in which the decision to act was made. Character displays undaunted boldness and a fortitude that does not wear down or out.

When the soul is not master of one’s reactions to the world, then that soul is everyone’s dupe. The person of character is not for sale. He does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. He does not need plenty; he can lose with grace. Character is persistent. The person of character makes a choice based on honorable considerations and sticks with it and, no matter what, does not weakly try to reconcile itself with the world.

Most outstanding of all is the good humor and hilarity of the person of character. The great will not condescend to take anything seriously. The heroic soul is not common nor can the common be heroic. The person of character always does what he is afraid to do. Greatness ignores the opinions of others.

Spending a year living in Concord, Massachusetts was an interesting endeavor.  I lived right in the heart of the town center, just off of the old Cambridge turnpike, my neighbors were the Unitarian parish and the Wright Tavern — the tavern where the minutemen had drinks while waiting for the redcoats to show up and where John Hancock and the provincial congress first met. 

To say the place was charming and overwhelming, humbling and with a picturesque postcard perfection — it cannot capture the feeling of living in the yankee capital of northeast.  To walk the same paths as so many august names — John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and so many others — to walk where they walked, to be in the same buildings they were in, to eat chowder where they also had chowder, it is an American history geeks dream come true.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let This Be Our Testimony

Our reading today comes to us from a traditional Inuit wisdom teaching, translated by Edward Field, titled “Magic Words.”

In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal
could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen—
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this:
That’s the way it was.

My life before ministry was working in a library. It was a work that I enjoyed. It had a balance of order and mess, depth and lightheartedness — and it attracted many different types of people, both patrons of the library and employees. It was, looking back, like its own type of ministry.

The sermons were in the books, the congregation had plenty of visitors, people pledged money by way of taxes and fines — except there really was no choice in that one, and the clergy were the dispensers of books, the librarians and clerks. I loved the work. Perhaps one day long from now I will retire to it.

I worked with a rather diverse set of people — but what was interesting to me is that many of them were Unitarians. They went to the church I grew up in, they were mostly quiet about it, but it was wonderful to learn of their existence throughout the years. Every now and then, though, we would get someone on the staff that was of a fundamentalist opinion.
Read the rest of this entry »