Why Are We Here?

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Sermon #43 (27th September 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

I’ve got something a little bit different for you in the sermon-y bit this morning. A few weeks ago, as part the requirements of my ministry training, I had to give a short presentation on the history of this congregation. I’m about to give you a very abridged summary of it (in about 6 ½ minutes, I think) and afterwards I’ll tell you why. I think at least a few people here today will be familiar with the story of Essex Church (otherwise known as Kensington Unitarians) but in truth – London being what it is – and given our newly broadened ‘catchment area’ since we’ve been meeting on Zoom – the turnover of people coming to our services is pretty high and it’s likely many of you haven’t heard the story before. I’m going to show some slides of our illustrious forebears and their impressive hair and beard arrangements to keep it lively! But I will also keep it brief.

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Loss and Liberation

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Sermon #42 (26th July 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

You don’t need me to tell you this but: we’re living in strange times, aren’t we? Every life includes some – many – unexpected and often unwanted events. In a way, that is normality, for life to not quite go as we expected, or hoped. But over the last few months many of our lives have been turned upside down.

This time of pandemic we find ourselves in has surely left no life entirely untouched (even if it hasn’t yet hit us close to home). The impact of this virus is being felt in many ways: Many of us have seen our future plans (both short- and long-term) evaporate overnight. Some have lost their lives. Others have lost loved ones. Many have suffered debilitating health problems (and the long-term effects of the virus are not yet fully known). Many have lost jobs and security – whole industries are in suspended animation – with no sense of how long it will last and what will survive on the far side. Some have been stuck at home for months now, shielding, due to underlying health conditions, and have no idea when it will be truly safe for them to emerge. Even for those who do feel able to get out and about (in a socially distanced way) – social lives, love lives, family lives, many of our opportunities to pursue life’s passions – all these things that are central to human flourishing have been interrupted – and our collective wellbeing, our mental and physical health, is suffering.

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Intimacy and Solitude

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Sermon #41 (8th March 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This month at Essex Church we’re considering the theme of ‘Self and Other’. Sarah kicked us off last week by speaking about our ‘Relationship with Self’, and today I’m taking us into territory that’s a bit more outward-looking, thinking about our relationships with others, and the balance between ‘Intimacy and Solitude’.

Some of you probably know that it’s usually me who makes the orders of service each week, and so part of my job is to find a suitable image to fit the topic, which is often more challenging than you might think, given the abstract spiritual and ethical topics we often talk about. We subscribe to an online image library – so that the photographers get properly paid – and I search for topics like ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’ and ‘disappointment’ and ‘heresy’… which aren’t well-represented concepts in the world of stock images on the internet!

But when it came to illustrating this week’s topic… well, that gave me a slightly different problem. You see, if you go to an online image library, and search for pictures of ‘intimacy’… there’s only one sort of intimacy they think you’re looking for. There was a lot of cavorting depicted in those images, lots of youthful flesh, and altogether more bums than I had bargained for…

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Lonely Hearts

Teddy bear with heart sitting on old wood background.

Sermon #40 (8th December 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

A couple of months ago, the members of the London Assembly – that is, the elected body based at City Hall whose job it is to scrutinise the work of the Mayor of London, conduct investigations, and make recommendations in relation to the way our city is run, agreed a motion on what they called ‘London’s Loneliness Epidemic’. They put out a press release as a follow-up which said:

‘More than half of Londoners find that the capital is a lonely place to live, according to new findings …we surveyed Londoners by age, gender and social grade on how loneliness impacts them… This follows the Government’s analysis of the UK [as a whole], which found that people living in cities are more likely to feel lonely than those living in other [regions]. In cities like London, changes in social structures, such as the decline of the number of pubs, as well as the frequency of lifestyle changes (such as moving house) mean loneliness is an issue that’s not specific to older people [as is sometimes assumed]. In fact, our survey found those over 65 are the least likely to say London is a lonely place to live or work. Loneliness is linked to a higher risk of early death, cardiovascular issues, poor mental health, inactivity, smoking, risk-taking behaviour, as well as cognitive decline…
What’s worse: there is an undeniable stigma surrounding loneliness. Research shows that 30% of British people said they would be embarrassed to say they felt lonely, which can be a leading factor in preventing people coming forward and seeking help.’

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How We Spend Our Days

female hands with pen writing on notebook on grass outside

Sermon #39 (24th November 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

I’ve got a confession to make. It’s about something that’s afflicted me all my life. And I guess some of you already suspected. You’ll have seen the signs. I’m sorry to say… I’ve got a bit of a problem with procrastination. [pause]

Or possibly it’s more of a problem with the length my to-do list and the every-growing number of tasks I take on and say ‘yes’ to (without taking account, realistically, of how many hours there are in the day). A lot of these tasks get done just-in-time, I’m sorry to say, while I’m burning the midnight oil, with more deadline-related drama than is probably necessary. I’ve always been this way. And I know last week Sarah spoke about her own relationship to time too: the habit of – hopefully – cramming just-one-more-thing into an already-busy schedule.

So, a while back, in an attempt to break this procrastinate-y habit-of-a-lifetime, I started reading up on strategies for time management and productivity. I signed up for various motivational mailing lists offering hints and tips on how to make the most out of your day and achieve your full potential.

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Staying Put

Sketch tree with roots. Ecology, environment. Nature

Sermon #38 (29th September 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Our theme of the month, for September, has been ‘Moving On and Staying Put’. The last few Sundays have mostly been given over to considering the joys of movement – considering what we can learn from travelling, or going on pilgrimage, and wilfully wandering following the way of the open road – and reflecting on times in our lives when we have voluntarily upped sticks, walked away, left the familiar behind, and sought a change of scene. Jeannene spoke a few weeks ago about those times when people move on – or are moved on – against their will. Those whose freedom to choose is constrained by economic and political factors. And today we’re going to briefly consider the virtues of ‘Staying Put’: making a positive choice not to move – to stay in one place and put down roots – in one home, or community, or job – instead of actively seeking novelty, change, or as Alix Klingenberg put it, another PLOT TWIST! – something that seems increasingly counter-cultural in a society which (shaped by the demands of global capitalism) discourages us at every turn from developing lasting ties.

I don’t know about you, but the last few years have brought a few more changes and plot twists than I bargained for, at both a political and a personal level. It’s been an unsettling time. And in times like these I particularly value those things which are constant, reliable, and stable in life.

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Dream Boldly

man flying with balloon lights at sunset,illustration painting

Sermon #37 (4th August 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Once again it falls to me to introduce our new ministry theme for the month of August: For the next few Sundays we’re going to focus on the topic of ‘Hopes and Dreams’. When Sarah, Jeannene and I sat down to plan our service titles a while back, I immediately thought of a well-known quotation – one that’s often, wrongly, attributed to Goethe – in fact it’s by a Scottish mountaineer called W.H. Murray (and I’ve included an extended version of it on the back of your hymnsheet today). It’s just the last few short lines that came to mind though, in connection with this topic of ‘Hopes and Dreams’, as they’re rather memorable and stirring words. Murray says: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now!’

In truth I didn’t remember the exact quotation until I went to look it up. In my mind, I had somehow just stored the essence of it, and it was distilled to this: ‘Dream boldly! And then get on with it.’ Not nearly so poetic but I still think it’s a fairly accurate representation of the sentiment…

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Powers of Ten

Detailed Earth. Central Europe on a moonlit night

Sermon #36 (7th July 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

If I had my way, I wouldn’t be giving a sermon this morning. Not even a mini-sermon like this. What I really would have preferred to do instead – were it not for insurmountable technical issues – was to show you a rather special little film. It’s nine minutes long and forty two years old. I’ve borrowed the title of that film for today’s service: ‘Powers of Ten’. Who’s seen it?

This film was directed by Charles and Ray Eames, a couple most famous for their work in furniture design and architecture, and it exists in two versions. They had a first go in 1968 and then produced the definitive version in 1977, which has the full and unwieldy title: ‘Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero’. The title is nearly as long as the film! Seeing as I can’t just screen it for you today – though it is on YouTube – I’ve brought a book and a flick-book of the film for you to look at, and I’ll read you a brief description of the film from the Eames’ own office.

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Covenanting in Community

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Sermon #34 (12th May 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

One of the best things about being in community – especially a community like this one – is, as Sarah’s already said, the opportunity it gives you to meet and get to know people who aren’t like yourself and who you might not ever get to mingle with in other settings. Here, people of different generations, different socio-economic groups, different backgrounds, can become friends, hear each other’s stories, and learn from one another’s varied perspectives. We Unitarians often speak with pride of celebrating diversity and being enriched by it.

However… as well as being a source of delight, differences can sometimes be… difficult. When we first chance across a community like this one, there can be a temptation to idealise it, and imagine that everybody’s chosen to be here ‘cos they think in much the same way as we do – with broadly similar theology, politics, ethical values, manners even – but that’s not quite true. We can’t take it for granted that we’re all pulling in exactly the same direction on every single issue. So when we bump up against people who see the world in a different way than we do – whose life experiences have given them a different outlook, temperament, or habits of behaviour – well, that can sometimes cause a bit of friction. We might rub each other up the wrong way.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

Directions Choice Change Change Decision Making Concept

Sermon #33 (6th January 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Here we are then: it’s the start of a new year. An opportunity to re-focus. And it’s also the start of a new monthly ministry theme at Essex Church. Throughout January we’re going to focus on the topic of ‘Choices and Decisions’. And this morning I’m going to offer just a few thoughts on one possible way that we might approach our everyday decision-making; for, after all, our days and lives are filled with countless small choices and decisions (and perhaps a few of these choices and decisions turn out not to be quite so small, in the end).

On the front of your order of service today is a quote from Kent Nerburn. He says: ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ Now, depending on what mood you’re in, that quote might strike you in one of several different ways. Like (excitedly): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ That might sound, to you, like a wonderful gift – life is an adventure of infinite opportunity! We can – at least in part – invent ourselves through our own choices, through our own volition. On the other hand… (in a downtrodden voice): ‘Life is an endless creative experience and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.’ …this notion might instead strike you as rather weighty, and burdensome. Rather tiring! There’s a certain pressure that comes with the thought that every choice we make will end up having a bearing (even if only a tiny one) on who we will become – a bearing on our very self.

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