By James Zipadelli
Delivered to UNMC congregation Sunday, August, 26, 2018
First, thank you for joining me this morning. I am delighted that Pastor Gatton has asked me to speak with you today.
I would like to take a moment beginning this sermon to remember our dear friend, former pastor at Universalist National Memorial Church, the late Rev. Dr. Jim Morgan, who passed away on June 2nd. Rev. Morgan served as Interim Pastor on two occasions, and it was during his second stint here that I became acquainted with him. Although he was a Methodist-trained minister, we were delighted that a man of his caliber and skill was chosen to lead our church. When he retired, I was lucky enough to call on him for spiritual guidance. For Rev. Morgan, retiring meant that he could spend more time doing what he wanted to do, like sailing, and snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, at the age of 90 years old. When he invited me to go I declined and said that I couldn’t just go and take a month off of work. Rev. Morgan went anyway.
The last time that I went to visit Rev. Morgan before he passed away, I must admit that it was a bit of a shock seeing him lying in his bed since he had been active all his life. I told him that I had done enough asking over the years, and that it was my turn to listen to him. During our time together, he had one ask of me. Would you be present with me for a few minutes? He asked. So I did. We both sat in silence. After a few minutes, Rev. Morgan turned his head toward me, and said, “It’s all right, James; it’s all right.” He looked out the window, and I heard the birds chirping.
That my path crossed with him, in that moment, is something I will always treasure. What could we learn from him?
You see, friends, we often look at life in the abstract – for example, we like to say that we’re “going down the path of life.” But the truth is that the path of our lives isn’t straight. It’s meandering, like a rolling stream. Sometimes we get stuck, sometimes there are dead ends; and sometimes the decisions we make work out, or don’t work out. Sometimes we need to go down a side road instead, and to a different place than we thought we were going. The same is true with having a relationship with God. Although our paths may be different, I believe that God is still there when we come around the bend. However, if you are someone who is skeptical of God, or perhaps doesn’t believe in God at all, that’s OK. No matter where you are in life, please know that you are welcome here also.
Matthew, Chapter 3, tells us,
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
Here’s a question: Is it Jesus’ responsibility to prepare a path straight towards God, or is it our responsibility to create a path straight towards God? Let’s ponder that for a moment.
Finding your own path also means finding those who have created paths for you, or helped you find the right path through guidance. If you think about it, that’s what guidance is: sending you in a particular direction. Rev. Morgan certainly did that for many of us. He did for me. And that’s also what we do for each other. We pursue our paths, but in the right direction.
Helping others find their own path is an awesome yet exciting possibility and responsibility. We see how important it is in our lives. But we also saw recently when that responsibility was abused. An 18-month investigation by a grand jury in the state of Pennsylvania found that Catholic priests forced young children to deny their own path and dignity and instead succumb to an immoral priestly path of abuse. Here as in Matthew the call for a straight path to God was denied. Where the children, I am sure, sought advice and comfort, they instead were led down a path that was crooked and evil. This horrible experience has affected victims in untold ways.
This report has left me, personally, pained and numb.
We must do all we can to affirm the right path, which is why we are here, but also recognize that this scandal tarnishes good priests who are trying to do God’s work. And we need to apply our faith, not conveniently hide behind it.
The Gospel of John tells us, “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will knowmy Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
The Gospel of James warns about boasting about ‘tomorrow.’ Chapter 4 tells us:
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
I don’t interpret this passage literally, but it does help me pause and reflect that, but for a couple of lucky breaks and some good friends, my tomorrow may have turned out much differently. I was 24 when the recession hit; a newly minted graduate of Emerson College, with a master’s degree in journalism, and over $80,000 in student loan debt. Instead of staying in Boston, as I could have done, I decided to move back home to Connecticut because I had been hired as a paraprofessional at my former high school. At the time, I was just grateful to have a job, since I knew that many of my friends did not. Then Bear Stearns went under, the economy tanked, and 3 months later I was out of a job. It took 18 months of frustration, rejection, several hundred job applications, flights to and from Washington DC, finally moving here, and relying on people who would become dear friends of mine for me to turn my life around. For this I have thanks and gratitude. And, because of moving here I was able to cross paths with this wonderful church and faith community.
The thing that being a paraprofessional reinforced for me was to be compassionate with people who are vulnerable. So often, being compassionate with vulnerable populations, whether it’s the elderly, the poor, the homeless, and individuals with disabilities, is in short supply which is why so many fall through the cracks. That’s why the volunteers at Food for All and what Leland Place are doing, soon to be the Conway Center, are so important. A little compassion goes a long way for people who are trying to find their way in society. I’d like to thank all the volunteers here especially Dave Skidmore and Marsha Silverberg for their leadership.
I would like to ask the congregation to be present for a moment, as Rev. Morgan asked of me. Think of a person, or there may be more than one, who impacted you in your life. It could be a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or friend. Maybe this person saw that you were straying from a path, and your responsibilities, and stepped in just in time. Maybe this person helped raise you. Maybe they had a kind word at a time when you really didn’t realize what you were capable of. And because of their efforts, you were polished up to a proud shine.
I want you to visualize that person in your life who was very special. If you had a chance, what would you say to them? Maybe they passed away before you got the chance – but maybe your life is still being impacted by that person, or those people. Or maybe you became distant for a period of time, and now you want them to know how important they are to you. Think about how wonderful it would be for that person, or those people, to know what an impact they made on your life.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Life is busy happening while we are making other plans.” Is that true for you?
Think of the employment that you currently have. Is this what you really want to do with your life? If it is, that’s great. If not, are you there because the money is good? Do you fear the unknown? I’m not suggesting you should just quit tomorrow without a plan in place because everything costs money. But what will you do to get to where you want to be? And who can help you get there? Are you willing to change direction?
If there’s one thing Rev. Morgan taught me, it’s that he lived his best life, and followed his path to God. That’s my prayer for you today, that you too are able to live your best life, and find your path to God. Thank you for listening.