Do you know the story of the tree of sorrows? In a small village in Poland there lived a wise rabbi, much loved by the villagers, who often came to him with their tales of woe. But the rabbi grew tired of their endless complaints, each convinced that their life was the toughest life of all. And so he announced a special event in which each should bring all their sorrows and troubles in a bag with their name on it and tie the bag to a branch of the tree that stood in the centre of the village. ‘All will be allowed to exchange your troubles for someone else’s and go home with someone else’s troubles rather than your own’.
And so they brought their troubles tied in a bag and hung them from the branches of the great tree. Eagerly they looked round for a better bag to take home with them, circling the tree in anticipation of finding an easier life. Yet as they circled round inspecting each bag, a realisation came upon them. And one by one, they quietly chose their own bag of troubles and went off home with them. The rabbi smiled to himself as the villagers decided to stick with their own lot in life. They had at last seen the troubles of others as they truly were and had decided that their own lives were at least familiar to them!
We’re not living in a small village in eastern Europe yet I think being part of a church community allows us to examine each other’s bags both of sorrows – and joys; we get to know one another’s lives a bit and it’s in the sharing of the realities of our own particular version of the human story that we strengthen the web of connectivity that create a community.
However shy or reserved or private we may sometimes feel, we are social creatures and our very existence as a species here on earth is because of our ability to collaborate and cooperate with one another. However aware we are of our own prized individuality yet we know, don’t we, that we can’t do this thing called life on our own. We are reliant on others to make our lives work and it is in community that we do the work of learning how best to relate, one with another. It’s a lifetime’s work, relationship building, community building, particularly perhaps in these post-modern times in which we live. Most of the time I am grateful to live in such a fluid and changing world. It wouldn’t have suited me to live in one village and be part of one family, one tribe, all my life. Would it you? But the statistic that 47% of people in this part of London lives alone, – that figure could be the subject of an essay or an interesting conversation over a cuppa, but what it does tell us is that a lot of people in a modern city are having to come out of their homes in order to find community, in order to find and connect with others. As you well know, that takes effort and intention to organise. If we generally find ourselves eating alone then it’s going to need someone to reach out, to say – shall we meet for coffee, shall we eat together, shall we go to the …. Cinema, art gallery, park. Or send a card or make a phone call. Or any of the other ways we reach out maybe tentatively to touch another human being.
And a church community like ours is just one of the possible social choices we might make. This is a place to get together with others. Everything we do here could be described as community building. We’re strengthening the web that connects us. And it takes effort. I wonder if you’ve noticed our church garden this week. It’s looking so well cared for – and that’s because a little team of people are making an effort. When I first arrived here nearly 11 years ago now, the front garden in particular was a mess and it had a little sign on it that euphemistically described it as a wildlife garden. Creating and maintaining a garden is not a once and for all effort – a garden requires on-going effort. It’s less of an A to B sort of progress than a spiral. And the same can be said for community building. It requires on-going work and attention.
Within our national movement I chair our Interview Panel for potential ministry students. And one of the questions we often ask a candidate is in what ways they have been disappointed by our Unitarian movement. People often feel a call to ministry in the quite early stages of their involvement with a Unitarian community. But it’s only when we have been annoyed, disappointed, infuriated even – that we can start to create a mature relationship – be that with an individual or a church community like ours.
And only when we can then move beyond our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction can we start to go deeper. Because a relationship or a community that focuses only on itself will be limited in its potential. We need to turn outwards and consider ourselves in relationship to the wider world. Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “the root of religion … begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us”. Religion then becomes less about our beliefs and more about our actions. It becomes an inquiry into our particular part in the web of connectedness and asks us to examine our responsibility – our ability to respond. We cannot solve the painful realities of our world but we can do our bit to make this world a little more loving, a little more beautiful, a little more connected and we can achieve more together than we can ever achieve alone.
Here at Essex Church today we’ll hold our AGM, the annual general meeting required by charity law. As we consider the work of the last year and pay attention to our assets financial and human, let’s ask ourselves how best can we use what we have for the greater good of all, how best can we all minister to this complex world in which we live.
Each year in this service we celebrate our Kensington Unitarians members and friends, and speak together a simple statement of commitment:
It is with pleasure and love
that we commit ourselves to this shared ministry.
With caring and open hearts we pledge
to join in making our community an inclusive
and welcoming place for all people of goodwill.
We shall continue to uphold our liberal religious tradition
and to encourage the many spiritual seekers
who meet in our church building.
We trust the power of honest communication,
creativity, and kindness, to heal and hold us always.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 12th June 2015