The Dreams They Dreamed - Stewardship Sunday
This Sunday marks the kick-off of our annual Fund Drive and the launch of our new monthly theme of "Persistence." Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Nathan Rivera reflect on the idea of "Legacy." What does it mean to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and what responsibilities do we have to both those who came before us and those who will come after us?
Reading - Howard Thurman Deep is the Hunger, pp 36-37
I watched him for a long time. He was so busily engaged in his task that he did not notice my approach until he heard my voice. Then he raised himself erect with all the slow dignity of a man who had exhausted the cup of haste to the very dregs. He was an old man – as I discovered before our conversation was over, a full eighty-one years. Further talk between us revealed that he was planting a small grove of pecan trees. The little treelets were not more than two and a half or three feet in height. My curiosity was unbounded.
“Why did you not select larger trees so as to increase the possibility of your living to see them bear at least one cup of nuts?” I asked.
He fixed his eyes directly on my face, with no particular point of focus, but with a gaze that took in the totality of my features. Finally he said, “These small trees are cheaper and I have very little money.”
“So you do not expect to live to see the trees reach sufficient maturity to bear fruit?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “But is that important? All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant, why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone? Besides, the man who plants because he will reap the harvest has no faith in life.”
Years have passed since that sunny afternoon in LaGrange, Georgia, when those words were said. Again and again, the thought has come back to me, “Besides, the man who plants because he will reap the harvest has no faith in life.” The fact is that much of life is made up of reaping where we have not sown and planting where we shall never reap…All of life is a planting and a harvesting. No [one] gathers merely the crop that they themselves have planted. [We eat the fruit from trees planted by others. We must plant trees for others to enjoy the fruit.]
Sermon - "This is Us"
I borrowed the title for my sermon from a phenomenal television show that’s now in its second season on NBC. I’m guessing that many of you are watching it, too, and if you’re not, I highly recommend that you do. Without any spoilers, “This is Us” tells the story of a family with triplets – Randall, Kevin, and Kate – who were born in the 1980’s and who are now facing all the challenges and rewards of adulthood. The show’s writing and acting are award-winning. But beyond the characters with all their very human faults and foibles, what makes “This is Us” so compelling is how the story is told. The show doesn’t just follow these characters in one unbroken line from birth to the present. Rather, it bends and folds time in on itself, moving seamlessly from different points in the past to the present, creating a complex web of relationships among the characters and their experiences. We come to know present-day Kate, who struggles with her weight, through her own eyes as a child and a teenager. We come to know why Randall is the father he is through the eyes of his own parents. We discover, over the course of many episodes, why Kevin is constantly striving to be the center of attention. And, again without any spoilers, because of the way the writers bend time, characters who disappear and we believe we’ll never see again show up in subsequent episodes, alive and kicking and exerting their influence on the story line. I can’t say enough about this show and the way that I’ve come to love these characters and this family. Especially Toby. I love Toby. Do you love Toby, too?
Beyond the honest and unflinching way “This is Us” reflects the daily struggles and triumphs of our living, what intrigues me most about the show is the way that it shows how each character’s personal history and perspective influences who they’ve become. A chance meeting on a bus or in a bar creates consequences unforeseen and unforeseeable. Sins of the parents are revisited in the lives of their children. Hopes, dreams and fears that show up in adulthood find their seed and take root from seemingly mundane childhood encounters. “This is Us” shows us that we all are the products not just of our DNA, but also the outcome of our experiences. We all are the living, breathing embodiment of our personal histories.
The same can be said about certain institutions, I think, including our congregation. UUCDC isn’t just the 270 adult members and 100 or so kids or the 32 – yes, 32- attendees of UU101 that we have today. This community is intimately connected to all those who have come before us. We are the manifestation of the hopes and dreams of our founders and our forebears. We all are the living, breathing embodiment of our collective, shared history.
While it’s impossible to define exactly when the history of any person really begins – is it on the day they’re born, or is it on the day that their parents began to dream of them, or of their grandparents or great grandparents’ dreaming? – it’s similarly impossible to define exactly when the history of this congregation began. We know that back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there were some folks who lived in Delaware County who were attending Unitarian churches in Germantown and Flourtown, and who began dreaming of creating a congregation of their own, here within their own Delco community. We know that meetings were held in November of 1951 to discuss this possibility, and that on January 25, 1952 – almost exactly 66 years ago – this group voted to create the Delaware County Liberal Fellowship, and that Dick Worrell was elected its first president. We know that the first meetings of this new congregation were held in the Llanarch Fire House, but that was short-lived because of the alarms and sirens that would disturb the services. And that within 6 weeks, the founding members had moved its services to Haverford Friends Meeting.
In April 1952, the Unitarian Fellowship of Delaware County was formally chartered, with 24 members, the first new Unitarian congregation in the region to be founded since 1865. Its first budget was adopted shortly thereafter, in the amount of $479.00. Three short years later, the Fellowship purchased Curtis Chapel with a $6,000 mortgage plus another $3,000 in contributions from First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, and the Germantown and Wilmington churches. In many ways, we owe a debt of gratitude for our very existence to the vision held by the members of those churches at that time.
The problem with Curtis Chapel was that it didn’t have any space for Sunday school for the children. And so, as our history states, “armed with shovels, wheelbarrows and cases of beer,” members of the congregation excavated underneath the Chapel to create six basement classrooms. It was almost 60 years ago to the day that the Fellowship called Herb Vetter, its first minister, and just two months later some members of the Delco church helped to start Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon. Did you know that Main Line might never have been born, had members of this congregation not had the vision to spread the good news of Unitarianism farther and wider across eastern Pennsylvania?
The search for a suitable permanent home for what would become UUCDC continued through the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. An attractive piece of land was found and purchased, but then the Blue Route was laid out, cutting off access to the land before a building could be built. In 1963 the Unitarian Society of Delaware County purchased the land here on Rose Tree Road, and on December 14, 1966 our first permanent home was dedicated. The late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s were tumultuous times, not just in the larger culture but here at UUCDC as well. Our members were activists in social justice causes, going so far as to put up $5,000 of church resources to support a bail bond program for Chester residents who had been arrested and could not make bail themselves. A program supporting Haitian refugees and “HOP”, or “Helping Older People,” were formed. The “Lib-Lib” group, a social group for singles in the church, was in full swing at that time, and from what I hear it was a pretty “swinging” group. There are reports that UUCDC was banned from a certain State park in Delaware after one particularly rowdy church camping trip. During the oil embargo of 1979, many members rode bicycles to church, and Betty Winberg and her daughter Amy rode horses.
In that same year, 1979, members of this church founded the Rose Tree Day School as a community outreach project, ensuring that children with special needs in the community would be provided with educational opportunities. It was during the late ‘70’s and the following decade that the church took on an identity as a place for the performing arts, with a vibrant Gilbert and Sullivan group known as “Thespis, Inc.,” a “Readers Theater,” and several concert series. Twenty years after the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists, in 1981, we changed our name to become the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County and, it being such a mouthful, we quickly began to use the acronym “UUCDC.” It was in 1987 that a plan to expand the church building was developed, and then rejected, by the congregation, and two years later a long-range planning team was established that eventually led to the construction of the building we’re sitting in right now. This space was dedicated in September of 1999, after the congregation spent its prior winter worshipping in Fellowship Hall with no heat in the building.
In 2001 the Small Group Ministry program, what is now “Soul Matters”, was begun, and on April 21, 2002, after years of focused efforts, we voted to become a “Welcoming Congregation” to members of the lgbtq community. Our commitment to our lgbtq members and friends was tested and re-affirmed after our Rainbow Flag was stolen in the fall of 2006. We dedicated the steel rainbow flag sculpture, crafted by a member of this congregation, in April 2007. The past 10 years we’ve either continued or started social justice programs that include our support of four students a year from Chester attending college through the NAACP Scholarship Program, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, now called “Family Promise,” the Hunger Task Force, which provides monthly meals to the shelter on 69th Street, Adopt-a-Family, and the Media Food Bank, just to name a few. We’ve also become active in organizations seeking to tackle the systemic causes of injustice, including First Suburbs, UUPLAN and FUSE. And now we’re engaged in looking at how we might expand and improve our facilities, to better serve our members, our children and the wider community.
Who could have imagined that, from the humble beginnings in 1952, that we would become a congregation with ten times the members and 1,000 times the annual budget? Well, I’m guessing that those 24 souls who decided to start this congregation did. They imagined it. They dreamed the dream of a thriving, progressive faith community in Delaware County. And now, we are the holders of that dream, the embodiment of that dream, the livers of that dream. There’s a line in one of our hymns that’s sung at many ceremonial occasions like the ordination of new ministers, “Rank by Rank,”, that contains the line “What they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.” That’s what we’re doing here, really. Making others’ dreams a reality. Because our dreams are an extension of their dreams. Our hopes are an extension of their hopes. We drink from wells we did not dig. We build on foundations we did not lay. We are our grandfathers dreaming and we are our grandmothers’ prayers.
Now, it being “Super Sunday,” here’s the football metaphor that I promised earlier. How successful would Nick Foles be, or even Tom Brady – the greatest quarterback of all time – or any running back on either team be, if it weren’t for the offensive line? It’s the guys up front who are making way for the ones carrying the ball. We are all the beneficiaries of the guards, the tackles, the center, and all those who were blockers ahead of us. Others made the way for us. We would not be here today were it not for them.
And we sitting here today are not just the embodiment of our history, either. We are the creators of the history of the future. Let me say that again: We are the creators of the history of the future. In the wonderful world of Disney, at the Walt Disney Company, they call them “Imagineers.” I like that term. We are the Imagineers for those who will come after us. And so, like the man that Howard Thurman encountered who was planting pecan seedlings, who knew that he would never consume the fruits of his labors, we are the sowers of our congregation’s seeds, the planter of the trees that will provide shade and nourishment for those who come after us. We are links in a chain that began long before we were here and that will, if we make it so, continue long after we are gone. What dreams, I ask, shall we dream, that others might fulfill? What hopes shall we hope, that future generations might seek, as the hymn says, to seal as true?
We are the accumulated history of all those who have gone before us. We are the stewards of a legacy of love, of courage, of commitment, of hope, of faith. What they dreamed be ours to do. And we are called to be dreamers, too. We are called by future generations, by the children we see running rampant throughout the building on Sunday mornings and by untold numbers of children yet to be born, to create and sustain a vision of what might be, of what we might yet become. This is our sacred duty, a duty that, in part, we live into through our financial support of this church. This is who we were. This is who we are. And this is who we are called to be. This is us.
This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.