We Gather Together

“We Gather Together” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 7, 2014

I bet many of you have your own version of this story.  I have this friend…Norberts is his name.  He lives in Montreal – always has.  We have known each other since High School, but in college, doing theatre, we became the closest of friends for about 10 years.  But then marriages happened, and I moved away on the first of many peregrinations.

Norb hates phones and email.  He thinks Facebook is evil and that Mark Zuckerberg is the devil incarnate.  It seems odd since he is a technical director for several large university theatres.  But maybe he hates them because he has to use them all day at work.

End result is that we don’t talk much…ok ever…except every other year or so when I get to Montreal or he gets to Edmonton.  Oh, there is the yearly Christmas card and he and his wife did come for my wedding to Teilya.  The thing is, I know that if it’s important, he will be there.  He’s the kind of friend you can count on.  I hope I am the same.

Somehow when we do manage to get together we carve out a long afternoon or evening – an hour won’t do it.  And in that classic statement, we pick up where we left off.  There are no hurt feelings at the revelation of big news that hasn’t been shared – like when his father died… no recriminations for not being in contact.  There is only joy and humour ok, bad jokes from college days retold – there is empathy and advice given and received and welcomed and ignored as most advice is.  There is no freight in our friendship, no baggage.  It’s as if we both long ago agreed that there was no point to having unrealistic expectations.  Rather, let’s enjoy what we have and treasure the connection over any failures to connect. Our friendship is solid and I think safe to predict life long.  I can’t imagine life without Norberts.  I can’t imagine daily life with him.

How people maintain connections fascinates me.  Last week we celebrated the life of Bonnie Kyle.  In the preparation of the service I was struck by how gathered the family was.  Her husband and twin sister were there along with her Mom and her two children and their partners and a couple of assorted friends.  No matter when I visited there over a three week period, there was a crowd at the Kyle condo, piles of food on the table.  During the service we heard how Bonnie wrote notes to the people she cared about a few times a year just because she was thinking of them or saw some little item they might like.  I know I was also the recipient of a few of those over the years.  Keeping connections alive was terribly important for her, and the happiest day of her life was when her twin Cheryl moved back to Edmonton.

It seems that some of us need immediate and intense connections, while others are more content with ties that are strong even as they are seemingly tenuous.  That’s an interesting fact to remember as we celebrate the regathering of the community this September.

“Regathering” or “Ingathering”.  Interesting concepts really.  Once upon a time a lot of Unitarian churches closed for the summer, shut down completely.  Long before I arrived in 1997 this congregation had decided that first, we needed to meet every Sunday, and that the summers provided a perfect opportunity for church members to lead services and share their voices.  But even a decade ago there was a dramatic difference between attendance numbers in summer and after Labour Day.  In fact, for many years, Bonnie Kyle led this ingathering service with a ‘sharing the water’ ritual.

Over the last few years our once lightly attended summer services have been drawing a solid 40 or so people each week.  That means that for a lot of us, this is just another Sunday for coming to church, and not a special gathering of the clan day.

Regardless of whether this is your first time here in a long time or just another Sunday, it is still the start of September.  For many of us it’s a time of getting back to routine.

In our hymnal, Patricia Shutter writes:

You and I and all of us blew about with the winds of summer, following the sun in different ways of freedom and play, finding rest in the cool stillness of the shadows, and moving to the slow heatstruck rhythms which turned the long hours of summer light.

Now it is time for gathering in.  We come together at this time and in this place on the bridge of autumn…

There is something different in September, a different mindset.  No matter your working status or when you take your formal holidays there is something about passing Labour Day that brings us to a different time, a different consciousness.

After a few months of relaxed schedules, of holidays, perhaps, of no school, of less traffic on the roads at rush hour, come September, it all picks up again.  The to do lists grow longer, the commitments grow more numerous, the number of festivals begin to slack off, the days grow shorter and whether as volunteers or workers we get back down to it.

Long ago I studied the traditional culture of the west coast First Nations people, particularly the Kwa’gil people, more popularly known as the Kwakiutl.  They were the ones with the most ornate and fabulous masks.

Their world consisted of two unequal seasons almost exactly the reverse of ours.  The first began in the Spring when the salmon began to run.  It was their work time.  They lived in traditional family clans and fished, gathered, grew, hunted and did all the tasks necessary for continued life in their bountiful land. This was also the season of potlatches, the famed celebrations where people displayed their wealth and honour by giving away fortunes.

But then came the winter season – the season of the dance.  The family clans would break up and members would move into the houses of the different dance clans.  There they would learn the sacred dances associated with each clan, they would practice, carve and clean and paint and perfect their costumes and ornate masks and then perform for other clans the dances only they were allowed to do.  Winter was sacred time when there was little daily work. It was  spirit world with a different feel, a different pace.

In a way it’s a little like the way we treat summer.  That’s our time to do things differently, to live at a alternate pace, even those of us who work all summer long, there is still a different feel.  Perhaps that’s just my perception, but I don’t think I am alone.

For people in Canadian society today, we are at the turning of the year, entering the seasons of work and study and just a little bit more seriousness.  And in this church we begin a new year

Here we have gathered, gathered side by side; 

circle of kinship, come and step inside!

May all who seek here find a kindly word; 

may all who speak here feel they have been heard.

Sing now together this, our heart’s own song.

Indeed there is a kind of kinship in this place.  Whether in conversation or shared worship, in adult programs or chalice circles, in the sharing of work or the sharing of music, or the sharing of food, we grow this sense of kinship.

And whether it’s in joys and concerns or quiet conversation we do have the chance to speak our stories and ‘find a kindly word’.  Sometimes that is exactly what we need to pull us through.

Here we have gathered, called to celebrate 

days of our lifetime, matters small and great:

we of all ages, women, children, men, 

infants and sages, sharing what we can.

Sing now together this, our heart’s own song.

More than anything, this is what we do in the Unitarian Church.  We celebrate.  Sometimes we deliberate on the burning questions of the day or the lingering questions of life, death and meaning.  Yet even that is a celebration- a celebration that we exist, that we live and love and feel and think, that we matter, that we can make change, that we have a stake in the world and how it runs and that we can make it just a little bit better with our efforts, our compassion and our liberal religious values. Those are qualities and concepts we need to treat as special, to denote as worth keeping – an ancient definition of the word worship. That is what we celebrate each Sunday.

Life has its battles, sorrows and regret:

but in the shadows, let us not forget:

we who now gather know each other’s pain; 

kindness can heal us, as we give we gain, 

Sing now in friendship, this our heart’s own song.

This summer we lost two long time members of the congregation, Mike Beraha and Bonnie Kyle.  Mike died, in his time after a long, full life.  Bonnie, I think all will agree, died much too soon.  People in this community were hurt by those deaths, some more than others.  In both cases church folks stepped up and supported the families and friends as they grieved, arranged food and drink for the celebrations, volunteered to help organize or support the memorials services.  There is a recognition in these acts of our common humanity and in the knowledge that our beloved community has been changed by these deaths.

We know each other’s pain; kindness can heal us, as we give we gain.

Sing now in friendship, this our heart’s own song.

You see this is what this religious community is all about.  It’s not how many Sundays you attend or what the topic is any given week.  It’s not about how much you do or share in the life of this church.  It’s about understanding that this community is always here, summer and winter.  Wherever you go, there is knowledge that you will be welcome here.  Oh, sure, sometimes we will screw up the welcome or fail to notice that you have been gone a while.  It’s an body of humans, a naturally imperfect species.  But this community has a good heart and the door is always open.

It’s a little like me and my friend Norberts.  Whether it’s the absence of a single week or a single summer or many summers, you can walk in, sit down and pick up where you left off.  There will be smiling faces and welcome words…though if your absence has been a little long, you might get asked if you are new here 🙂  Don’t be insulted, but welcome the inquiry.

Let me close with this prayer from colleague Judy Quarles

Sprit of live and love:

In this season of beginning

Some of us are hurried and harried.

Some of us feel sorrowful and afraid.

Some of us are not yet ready to step forward into the future.

May we minister to one another with wisdom,

Meeting our friends with open ears, open eyes, open hearts.

In this season of beginning

Some of us are celebrating triumphs and joys.

Some of us feel whole and happy.

Some of us are eager and excited, curious to see 

what happens next.

 

Let each of us, as we are able, take part in one another’s happiness and enthusiasm.

 

Quiet spirit of life and love,

Bring us the grace to share wholly and faithfully in the lives of our friends and loved ones.

Amen