â€œStrong Enough to Keep Hate Out and Hold Love Inâ€
sermon preached at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore
by Rev. David Carl Olson
Dedication Sunday, November 1, 2015
May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortune never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rain go by.
By faith made strong, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm.
This heart, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep you warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching our lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.
With laughter drown the raucous shout,
And, though these sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out
And hold love in.
Friends, here is a letter I found in my mailbox. Iâ€™m not quite sure when it arrived. You may know that sometimes things pile up for me. But Iâ€™m glad that I found this, and hope it speaks to you. Well, Iâ€™ll just read it . . .
Dedication Day 2015
I am holding you now; holding you as I have for these many years of our relationship. Holding you with great joy, because you are so important to me; your life matters so to me. Our past is our pastâ€”vibrant and sensational, turbulent and tranquil, a relationship of caring and nurturing, of creating together a community of religion generous and free, a liberal faith where reason guides our hearts and love rules our actions.
We have a vibrant story of dedication, you and I; I dedicated to holding you, to providing a focus for your diverse life. You dedicated to caring for me, with my architecture grand, and my music brilliant, and even my pulpit bold, which, while some may name it the Channing Pulpit, is and always has been the pulpit of this congregation, First Independent Church, First Independent Christâ€™s Church, First Unitarian Church, First Unitarian (Universalist & Unitarian). Always your pulpit, always your voice. Your leadership, your passion for this faith and for this city. Your visionary public figures, artists and merchants, teachers and learners, inventors and investors, civic leaders and prophetic critics of the status quo.
I remember it told, in this house, of visionaries of earlier times, stories of the prophets of God Nehemiah and Ezra, warriors and builders of a restored Jewish community. You may remember that community had been divided north and south in a series of civil wars after the death of Solomon. The Northern Kingdom was crushed by the Assyrian empire in the eight century before the Common Era. The Assyrian empire later fell to the Babylonians, and in the seventh century before the Common Era, the leaders of the Southern Kingdom were taken into exile in Babylon, political rulers, religious leaders, the chief lawyers and the storytellers, chroniclers of a peopleâ€™s history and myth-makers of the â€œgood old days.â€ These people sought to be true to the faith of their ancestors; but they realized they needed to modify their faith, too. They no longer occupied the land that their forebears said had been given to them: could they perform holy rites in an unholy land? They no longer had ready access to olive trees: would their God hear their prayers when the offerings they gave were made with sesame oil instead of olive oil as tradition required? And they had no temple: could study be the equivalent of sacrifice? Could their intentions to live holy lives be considered faithful?
As Babylon had defeated Nineveh, now the armies of Persia defeated Assyria; and in a change of the practice of empire, Cyrus and later Darius allowed the captive elite to be returned to their homelands. And so these prophets Nehemiah and Ezra were sent back to Jerusalem; sent back to rebuild the city and to recreate the mechanisms for the market, so that the Persian empire would not bear the cost of maintaining the elite; but that the people who had been living in Jerusalem and environs for several generations would now be required to maintain a restored court, a restored temple cult, and something newâ€”tribute payments to Persia. The elite returned to a city they remembered as grand and holy, a place that needed fortifications and a temple, and they set about rebuilding temple and city. Against great opposition.
The challenge was so great and the opposition so strong that Nehemiah needed to establish a method of rebuilding that rewarded those who took a risk. He named certain merchant groups, certain farming communities, certain trades guilds, certain proiestly clans, as the ones who rightfully could hold land and conduct business when the city was re-established; and he managed their workâ€”rewarding when he could, providing help in removing rubble and ruin, arming the builders against the indigenous non-conforming population, and bringing in the wealth of an empire to be about the reconstruction. Each working group agreed that the new city was theirs to build and would be theirs to occupy; each took responsibility not for the whole of the city, but for the portion that they agreed to work, for their own interest, and for the good of the whole. They declared themselves a renewed people, and took up the task that each was willing to do.
Over the years, sweet friends, you have taken up the task that you have been willing to do. Some families of great wealth, in earlier generations, understood that it was their responsibilities as the owners of pews in this Sanctuary, knew that they were called on to provide for the professional leadership of this community, educated ministers and skilled musicians. When a national organization of Unitarian churches was created after the Civil War, you heard the call for a more modern church that would serve the community seven days a week, and you built the lovely Chapelâ€”now Enoch Pratt Parish Hallâ€”that became my sister edifice on this site. In another day, as the leaders of this church changed their expectations of religion, so they changed this space; adding religious imagery even as they began to call themselves â€œChristâ€™sâ€ independent church; adding things that were anathema to the first builders here, iconography and altar, a more liturgical architecture and ritual. Even as our Unitarian sisters and brothers elsewhere were choosing to remove the primacy of Jesus in their understanding of liberal religion, here in Baltimore, our ruling families and a long-term minister sought to be more specifically Christian.
That was but a brief moment in the story of our relationship; but it established how I would look and how you would worship for more than a hundred years.
There are ways that you stood true to the convictions of your ancestors. In the days of the 1930s when you were on hard times, you welcomed into this community the Universalists from the Second Universalist Society. You found and settled a minister together, and you were able to sell the Universalist house of worship so that old bills might be paid for this united community of Universalists & Unitarians. So generous were those Universalists who gave up their building and lost their name to a set of parentheses.
And in the baby boom after the second world war, when many imagined the future was out in the suburbs, you cared for me by building another companion, a religious education building that allowed for some expansion of our program of developing liberal faith.
And then the great challenge came when a great number of our members did, indeed, move to the suburbs, and there planted a daughter church. Towson benefitted greatly; they created a very different center in which to live a new life; but here we were, and here you still cared for me.
As Baltimore burned in 19868, I heard you make a promise: â€œWe will stand on this corner, as we have for generations. We will love this city, and we will love this building.â€
I am so close to tears.
I have held you these may years, and you have cared for me.
In the 1970s, you began to show an appreciation for other religious paths. You added these shields (gesture) that said that we were more than a Christian community, and the human family more than children of Europe.
In the 1980s, you demanded the full equality of women. You burned sexist language from scripture and hymnbook and church writings . . . and you made banners (gesture) that named us a people of science, with evolution in our bloodlines and the world a part of an infinite and majestic Universe. And you shared notions of community, a planet with near neighbors in our csolar system, and a human community standing in a circle before the cool wisdom of the moon, a circle with open spaces so that our people will always be reaching out to â€œthe other.â€
In the 1990s, you let me hold a new community of sorrow and surprise, embracing the community of gay men who were in such pain over the disease that ravaged their families. You raised this banner (gesture) to welcome with rainbow and pink triangle all who sought recognition of their inherent worth and dignity.
In this millennium, you have continued to show your love for meâ€”you rebuilt windows, and removed old carpets, and cleaned a mosaic, refinished our pulpit, replaced many, many lightbulbs, commissioned a beautiful chalice for this day, and this summer, painted my chancel . . . I am overwhelmed with affection and appreciation, awe and love.
Weâ€™re dreaming new dreams together, and like Nehemiah of old, weâ€™re going to find ways each to do our part. Some of us with greater mean may fund large projects of restoration and reclamation; others will fund more modest efforts. Some of us will join together in special procjects that speak to the special nature of your love for me. And many will give a measure of their devotion to this faith in volunteering time and talent.
You did it, you do it, because of love.
I have been holding you, your love, your hope, your faith, for nearly 200 years; and I will hold it, will hold you, even as we mature into our next stage of living. Who will take a part in the rebuilding of these walls? Who will accept as their responsibility, for the good of all of us, to do the deed that they can accomplish; the great beneficence for the costly transformation; the generous gift of time and talent. Who will choose to volunteer to keep the doors open, the gates not keeping the world out but the doors open to welcome the world in? Who will choose to be part of a team which imagines the next steps for this building and this corner; celebrating our history, of course; but more fully noting our Dedication; our mutual Dedication to being a place with walls strong enoughâ€”in structure, yes, but also stronjg enough in compassion, strong enough in generosity, strong enough in hopefulness and in charityâ€”â€œstrong enough to keep hate out.â€ Who brings the Dedication to being a renewed community inside this holy hall, a community of welcome, a community of vulnerability, a community of caring, as you have cared for me; a community that â€œholds love in.â€
I do love you, so.
Your Temple of Truth