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All In

Phil Stern
Jan 15 2017


Many of my best memories in life are connected with Old South Church. My family and I have been attending for over 25 years, and I’ve been a member for about 19, so I’ve had quite some time to make those connections. One of my first memories as a visitor is of Reverend Crawford shaking my hand with his extremely large grasp and saying, “It’s great to see you again, Phil.” The memories are all connected to you, my brothers and sisters. Many involve my children: Edra, Claire, and David Chandler nurturing my toddlers in the Blue and Green rooms; conducting the chime choir when Emma and Benjamin were in grade school; playing Christmas Carols on the piano during the pageant with Kate Nintcheu, Amy Budka, Pam Roberts, and Tricia Hazeltine. Some are directly related to music: playing the oboe for a premiere of a piece by Erik Gustafson or singing in the Schola Cantorum (and occasionally the choir) with my wife, Susan, under Prince Harry’s leadership. I cherish those related to the committees on which I’ve served: reading a sermon by Quinn Caldwell on “liminal spaces” while on the Associate Minister Search Committee; traveling with Mark Schuppert, Emily and Rodney Click, and the Trustees to New York for the auction of the Bay Psalm Book; planning and attending church retreats in the warm fellowship of the Christian Formation Committee led by Maren Batalden; or negotiating the repair of the MBTA-caused crack with Paul Kuenstner and so many others. Finally, some memories fit in their own special category: ringing the bell on the rare occasions when David Vogan isn’t here; joining in the prayer chain led by Ruth Purtilo for the Vision discernment; and receiving a Boston Marathon runner’s scarf chosen by Diane Gaucher and Marilyn Adams.

It’s clear that I’m deeply connected to you, but it wasn’t always that way. Twenty five years ago, it was simply that after years of being focused on career and self, I felt a need for a spiritual home. When Susan and I had our first child, we wanted her to be brought up in the church. But still we didn’t join because we felt like we were just visitors renting apartments in the Back Bay and South End. Finally, when we moved to Newton, my then five year-old said, “you’ve changed everything else, Daddy, can’t we still go to MY church?” That sealed the deal. Looking back, it’s not really a coincidence that I joined the year my dad died: Old South became my home when I needed it most.

Reverend Taylor has used the metaphor of the Old South community being on a well outfitted sailing vessel with an exemplary crew, and, may I say, captain. Over the years while on that journey, I’ve come to see Old South as much more important to me than just the place where I come for community and worship. I want to be “all in” for Old South – for two fundamental reasons. First, I know that I need this community because you bring out my better self that would otherwise be dominated by my less spiritual nature. Second, I know that the world needs Old South. More on that in a bit.

My general nature is not “spiritual.” I tend to make decisions on a very practical basis. I weigh costs and benefits. For much of my day, I negotiate – always looking for win-win solutions, but certainly looking to protect my company’s interests. But as much as this is my nature, I don’t like where that leaves me. It’s satisfying intellectually, but not emotionally. I’m a big believer in the “body has many parts” view of the Christian community. I have certain skills based on my God-given gifts, education, and experience. Those enable me to lead meetings, examine financial statements, build spreadsheets and make logical arguments. But they don’t make me the best caregiver. I listen for facts and figures pretty well, but, alas, although I try, I don’t listen terribly well for feelings and emotions. That’s one of the reasons that I need you.

In today’s story, John the Baptist is able to see that there is something greater than himself – someone whose words and deeds are worthy of following. For me, the Old South congregation is my John the Baptist – pointing out the path that Jesus Christ set for us. Many of you have served as light on that path for me. I’ve watched as you’ve given your gifts of love and laughter, your gifts of doing mercy and loving justice, and your gifts of listening and caring. You’ve shown me when I was wrong – I was one of those folks who resisted Reverend Crawford’s New Century Hymnal. It’s clear to me now that this book was visionary – its inclusive language ensures both women and men that they are equal in God’s eye. I’ve also been truly inspired by Old South’s way of making decisions – led by prayerful discernment. When I’ve given my time to participate in and help build this community, you’ve challenged my thinking, expanded my perspective, and kept me grounded. Our covenant as a church community keeps me from falling away – it satisfies both the analytical and spiritual sides of my being.

Ok, but why does the world need Old South? This particular institution is sorely needed to help fill a void that has opened between two very powerful forces. On the one hand, we have increasingly fundamentalist religious groups who cling to their beliefs so tightly that they must exclude others. On the other hand, we have an increasingly secular world scoffing at religious belief, particularly when they see it creating such division and even hatred.

To maintain their relevance, many sects of religion are turning away from science. They are afraid to even listen to, much less accept, the objective truths emanating from scientific inquiry; and consequently they villainize any who endorse concepts which they find existentially threatening. In the face of unrelenting change in their jobs, communities and familiar technologies, these groups refuse to accept any change in their beliefs. As they reject any and all adaptation, they must become even more fundamental, not listening for God’s “still-speaking voice.” Instead of looking to find common ground, leaders of these groups find power in generating fear of the “other.” And this fear, as has been true for millennia, is easily manipulated by politicians. In this type of religious belief, non-literal interpretations and those who don’t fit in must be excluded and excoriated.

On the other side of the void, the secular world sees this type of religion as misguided and increasingly dangerous. And unfortunately, the secular world hears almost exclusively about this absolutist, no-questioners-or-dissenters-tolerated type of religion. Seriously … unfortunately it’s no exaggeration to say that 99% of the news about religion is about how a fundamentalist belief generated some enduring hatred, prompted an individual to violence, or led to some exclusionary behavior. I’ve heard people in this church say that in this largely secular environment, it was easier to come out as gay than to come out as Christian. Ok – I don’t think that means that it has become easy to affirm ones homosexuality – rather it’s an indication that many people associate Christianity with a Muslim-hating, anti-gay, angry, prosperity-gospel-preaching and potentially violent mindset.

So, there’s a big void, and that’s where the world requires Old South to be. Old South’s open and affirming congregation presents a radical welcome in this world of exclusion. But we’re not just making it up as we go along – we’re still deeply grounded in the Bible. We stick to scripture, but don’t count on hearing the same old interpretation you’ve heard a hundred times before. We’re a tremendous confluence of the sense of the eternal and a unique ability to adapt. We are constantly listening to hear God’s still-speaking voice, and for an organization that is nearly 350 years old, we actually change pretty rapidly. While some of you are part of families that have been here for generations, young families are constantly coming and going. We’ve had very few senior ministers and have been blessed with the most amazing people in that role, but we’ve also had so many other wonderful assistant and associate ministers who are constantly shaping who we are. You, my brothers and sisters in faith, are working in so many parts of our community on matters of justice and mercy that you project God’s light throughout the Boston area and indeed beyond, out into the whole world! So, as I see it, and I hope you do as well, the world really needs Old South, its 7-days-a-week Open Door, its openness to change grounded in an abiding Christian faith in a loving God, and its deep connection to the spirit living within each and every one of us.

So, Susan and I have pledged to Old South for many years. And we’ve increased our pledge every year for the last 10 years. While this has been challenging since our compensation hasn’t increased – and we’ve had kids in college – during that time, what we’re doing here is simply too important not to contribute to it.

For those of you here today who haven’t yet found a way to connect with the Old South community, and for those of you who haven’t been able to pledge, I’ve been there. In fact, I was there for at least seven years before joining in the covenant. And you need to know – it’s ok – you are welcome no matter where you are on your journey. But when you’re ready to join this crew on this holy vessel, we’re ready to take up oars with you, right by your side.