General Assembly 2003 Event 3130
The Rev. Jane Rzepka led the annual worship service of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). Filled with humor and music, and the preaching of Rzepka, about a hundred and fifty people were in attendance.
CLF is "a church that never worships together as a church except once a year, right here and right now," said the Rev. Brad Greeley. Greeley, the chair of the governing board of CLF, said this as he welcomed well over a hundred people to the annual CLF worship service at General Assembly.
"CLF is both the largest and and smallest congregation," Greeley added. With nearly three thousand members, CLF is the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation. But since CLF serves isolated religious liberals around the world, its members usually worship in small groups, as a family, or even alone.
"We gather as friends, as strangers, as people who have shared our most tender thoughts and stories, and yet never met," said the Rev. Jone Johnson Lewis, the new cyberminister at CLF, leading a responsive reading written by the Rev. Lynn Ungar, an editor for CLF. Many CLF members correspond via email lists. "We know that distance need not divide us." Ungar began the responsive reading by leading the congregation in a round.
Eliza Blanchard, ministerial intern at CLF, read an anecdote from Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, about a beautiful insect who emerged from an egg laid in the wood sixty years before. "Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodeness in the dead dry life of society," Blanchard read, "may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last."
"The Vocal Section" provided country-flavored spirituals for the worship service. Three women's voices, including the Rev. Maddie Sifantus, Suzanne Boucher, and Sally Sweitzer, were acompanied by Wendy Sobel on guitar and Larry Ludecke on piano. Just before the sermon, they sang a spiritual titled "Rapture." The traditional Christian song describes how all will be well at the end of the world.
The Rev. Jane Rzepka began her sermon by describing all the things that would go right if there were to be a rapture, including "being able to make it to all General Assembly workshops you wanted to attend." There was general laughter at this, as several of the most popular speakers were scheduled in the same time slots.
Rzepka pointed out that the original singers of spirituals were "looking forward to the rapture in these songs," looking forward to a time when all troubles would end. "There are tough times that we have to live through," she said. "The singers of the songs we're hearing tonight get that." Rzepka pointed out that while we all want our lives to go well, too often life is not easy.
Rzepka told the story of Samuel Whittemore in Arlington, MA. Whittemore, 80 years old on April 19, 1775, was one of the Minutemen who fought the British regulars when they marched through Arlington on their retreat from the Battle of Concord and Lexington. "He was shot, beaten, bayoneted, and left for dead," said Rzepka. "Dr. Tufts of Medford said it was no use dressing his wounds," and could not possibly survive. As Rzepka pointed out, people all have days when things go horribly wrong, "but at least you're not as badly off as Samuel Whittemore. It just feels that way."
Following a musical interlude by The Vocal Section, Rzepka called the congregation into a spirit of prayer and meditation, quoting another Unitarian Universalist minister. "I do not pray," she read, "but if I did, here is what I would say." Among other things, she said she would pray "to hurt as few persons as possible... to reverse the pestilences of fear, bitterness, envy and hate."
After another song by The Vocal Section, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," Rzepka continued her sermon. "If you are a Unitarian Universalist, that song is quite true. If you're hanging around General Assembly these past couple of days, you couldn't hear nobody pray—at least not in the sense the original singers meant."
The original singers of the old spirituals were people who lived in times of trouble, people who looked forward to a time when all would be better, a time when "we'll understand more, we'll understand why." They referred to that time as the "rapture."
"We're Unitarian Universalists," said Rzepka, "and our salvation is not in the rapture, but historically at least in salvation by character." Historically, said Rzepka, Unitarians and Universalists believed that there is something wonderful inside all persons. "Call it inherent dignity and worth," she said.
"We have in us a little core of goodness and hope," said Rzepka. Like Henry David Thoreau's insect waiting inside a piece of wood for 60 years, there is goodness inside all persons, waiting to find an outlet. "And we Unitarian Universalists don't just wait" for that goodness inside us to come out. "We do what we can [and] therein lies our Unitarian Universalist salvation."
"That hope, that strength, that salvation by character," said Rzepka, "is the religious rapture that we Unitarian Universalists have looked for many generations, and we have found that we have a spirit inside us, and we have bounced back." Then she told the rest of the story of Samuel Whittemore. "He survived that day. More than survived, he recovered and lived to be 98 years old."
"Life, the world, it can all get pretty desperate," she said. "But we believe in the light of life, in that something inside us that can awaken, and shine, and sing all songs of hope. So may it be with us."
After a final song, "This Little Light of Mine," Rzepka read closing words by Universalist minister John Murray: "You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women."
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.