The Shoemaker’s Widow

A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


1. From Clinton Lee Scott, Parish Parables, 1946, Murray Press, Boston.

Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad. And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that put the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed. And the elder in Israel answered and said unto them, when I have found such a priest I will indeed send him unto you, but you may have to wait long, for the mother of such a one has not yet been born.

  1. From the Rev. Victoria Safford, “All That Is Past Is Prologue,” a sermon delivered in 2001, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, Mahtomedi, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul, MN).

Ours is a saving church, and by that I mean that lives are saved within it. People say that. They use the old vocabulary. They say: “I never knew there could be a congregation that believed as I do.” They say: “I walked out of the church as soon as I was old enough, but until I came here, I had no idea how deeply I was longing for connection, to other people and also to the sacred.” They say, “I was a spiritual shipwreck, and I’m still drifting, but at least, at last, I have a home.” For me, it was astonishing to discover this tradition: I was a young adult flailing around at large out there, and when I accidentally stumbled upon the works of William Ellery Channing one rainy afternoon, a door opened to me. Here was someone in print, someone who wrote in 1819, asking the unspeakable questions I’d been asking, doubting the “truths” that I’d been doubting, clearly defining the moral ideas, the theological ideas that I had harbored all along as crazy. Here was a religion welcoming science and reason, while honoring mystery and wonder. Here was a religion more concerned with deeds than creeds; a church that in its Sunday Schools, apparently, taught children to think and act and feel – to know in their hearts – instead of to recite. I felt not as if my soul were saved, but as if my self were somehow integrated – my integrity restored, as mind and heart and soul were reunited, as if after a long, strange, unnatural parting of the ways.


This is the annual canvass sermon, the sermon in which you are asked to make a financial pledge to our congregation for the coming fiscal year (which, in this church, is the same as the calendar year). So for the sake of those who may be visiting today, I’m going to say, up front, that we do this only once a year, and what you decide to contribute is up to you.

My goal today is to talk about why it makes sense for us to be generous to this church. I’ve been in the Unitarian Universalist ministry for almost 25 years. As a UU minister I’ve been given the privilege, from time to time, to do some work for social justice. In Maine I was on the statewide board of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, a group that worked successfully to pass hate crimes protection legislation; to pass equal rights legislation in the areas of education,

housing, public accommodations and employment; and to work for the freedom to marry for LGBT couples, a victory we finally won in 2012 when Maine became the first state in the nation to pass marriage equality by popular statewide vote.

Why has this work been important to me? It’s about my friends Wayne and C.J, Kay and Diana, and Christi and Margaret. It’s about relatives and church members and friends who are gay or lesbian or transgender. And it’s important because of teens who were gay or perceived to be gay, and committed suicide after being bullied.

Not long ago a gay New Mexico teen committed suicide after being subjected to intense bullying from his classmates. Seventeen-year-old Carlos Vigil posted a heartbreaking note to Twitter, apologizing for being gay, before he decided to take his own life. And in Des Moines, Iowa, Alexander “AJ” Betts Jr. was subjected to intense bullying at his high school because of his sexuality (he came out as gay about a year and a half ago) and his mixed race background. It was the sixth suicide in the same high school in five years. Also in Iowa, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn Jr. took his own life after friends and family say classmates sent him death threats on his cell phone and made him the subject of a Facebook hate group at his high school. San Franscisco reports that in their unified school district, each year one out of every three of their middle and high school students who are gay attempts suicide. For transgender teens that is one in two. Every year.

Anti-gay bullying is a national disgrace. But we still hear national political figures who suggest that being gay is a choice. Marco Rubio says same sex couples should not be allowed to adopt children. Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee think that so-called “conversion therapy” can change people’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. Ted Cruz says being gay is a choice. Ben Carson agrees, and compares it to bestiality.

They still don’t get it. It’s not a choice. No young man wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and says to himself, “I’m not attracted to other guys, but I think I’ll become gay so I can be rejected by my parents, get beat up at school, be condemned by my church, get thrown out of my apartment, and get fired from my job.” No one makes that choice.

Yes, we’ve come a long way. But there is still work to do to so that all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are treated equally and fairly and have equal access to public facilities.

And that is why I’m so proud of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, which has led the way in ordaining people regardless of sexual orientation, has led the way on the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, and has led the way on transgender equality. I’m so glad that we have been standing on the side of love, that we’ve been on the truly moral side of this issue for so many decades. And that’s why I’m proud that this church is an official “Welcoming Congregation,” welcoming everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, so we can tell people like Carlos Vigil and AJ Betts and Kenneth Weishuhn to not give up hope, because their lives are so very valuable.

A caring church ~

Together, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a long history of supporting progressive religious ethics in the public sphere. We were there, fifty years ago, with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama, where two UUs, Rev. Jim Reeb and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, gave their lives for the cause of racial justice.

And here, this congregation has been doing good, maybe doing more than you realize. We participate in the Walk For Hunger. Sunday collections go to the Loaves & Fishes food pantry, and a Pancake Breakfast helps their programs. We are a member congregation of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Our “Sharing Our Plate” programs help support a variety of worthy causes. Members of our congregation are involved with Partakers, who do visits to incarcerated women. We have the Glean Team who get food from supermarkets, food that is still good but would be thrown out

and wasted, and they get it to local food pantries. The Women’s Alliance and Social Action Committee will be sponsoring the Fair Trade Fair, next Sunday, Nov. 22. Also next weekend (Fri – Sat), members of the Senior High Youth Group will again be participating in CityReach where they will spend the night in Boston, learning and working alongside members of the homeless community. And Rev. Greg Schmit of the Congregational Church, Father Terry Kilkoyne of the Roman Catholic Church, and I, are trying to figure out how we might bring a refugee family to the local area and help them get started in our nation of immigrants.

A saving church ~

Rev. Victoria Safford, of the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Minnesota, says that our church is a saving church – that lives are literally saved by the congregations of our Unitarian Universalist movement! I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I know that we have changed lives.

Actor and director Christopher Reeve, best know for his role as Superman, who was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident in 1995, found religious community in a Unitarian Universalist Church during the last several years of his life.

In his book, Nothing Is Impossible, Reeve told how being a Unitarian Universalist changed his life. He wrote, “what I liked about Unitarian Universalism is that you are not presumed guilty when you walk in the door. You don’t have to confess your sins to a priest and be told that ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers will make you square with God for at least another week.” He continued, “God isn’t a warrior or a terrifying father figure who will embrace you in his arms but take you out to the woodshed in an instant if you misbehave. This church doesn’t demand a percentage of your income in order to belong. This God understands that many of us don’t know where He lives or even how to spell His name. He knows that it isn’t easy for us to love ourselves, our families, or even our neighbors, let alone the rest of humanity. Instead He asks us just to do our best, trusting our innate ability to discern the truth.” That’s how Christopher Reeve understood being a Unitarian Universalist. And that’s why we’re here.

We are a church that transforms and even saves lives. We are a church that is unafraid to take principled and sometimes unpopular moral stands. We teach ethical living and personal character. And we do it in an atmosphere that honors your reason and your questions.

And this is why – if you are able – I hope you will decide to support our church with a generous pledge. What “generous” means, of course, depends on your own individual circumstances. But this is a congregation worth supporting! I know of another congregation in this area, not in our denomination, that sets an annual fee for membership, and it’s quite steep, far above our average pledge. We don’t do that. Your contribution is voluntary, and it is what you decide you can afford.

Everyone’s gift or talent is important ~

You probably already know that this time is different than previous times because you are entering into the search process. That costs money: funds are needed to pay for committee retreats for the Search Committee, to host potential candidates for interview purposes, and eventually to bring the final candidate here for a candidating week. The Unitarian Universalist Association says we should expect to have expenses of 10% in addition to our usual budget. And we will also be looking for a new Director of Faith Formation. So I’m not asking for myself. This will not affect my salary. We’re talking about your future. This is your church, your search process.

I know that some of us have greater means than others. To meet our additional expenses, the Stewardship Team has asked for a contribution of 10% more than you did last year, and some of you have already done that. Of course, there are some who can do better than that, so please do so if you can. Thank you! And some can’t do that much. Small gifts can also be generous gifts. If you can only do a little, don’t think your gift is too small. Everyone’s gift or talent is important.

Everyone here has a role; and that finally brings me to the story of the shoemakers’ window, a window in Chartres Cathedral. Maybe because of my profession, I’m always looking at church

buildings. They’re often the most interesting buildings in any community. And I’m especially fascinated by the beauty of Europe’s cathedrals. Mickey and I have visited some of the great ones: St. Paul’s in London; Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England; Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy; and Notre-Dame in Paris. But I’ve not had the privilege of visiting the cathedral in Chartres, France.

The story of the shoemakers’ window comes from Rev. Dr. Patrick O’Neill, who serves the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklin, New York. He says that each window in Chartres Cathedral is impossibly beautiful and intricate, and the windows tell stories – stories from scripture, or stories from the lives of saints, or from the history of Christendom. In a pre-literate society the statuary and stained glass windows of the churches and cathedrals were called “the poor man’s Bible,” because they educated the people about the church and their faith.

At the bottom of one of these great windows there is a small frame that shows a cobbler, a shoemaker huddled over his worktable. “This is the shoemaker’s window,” the tour guide explained to Rev. O’Neill. “It was installed in 1201, and is considered one of the most beautiful of all. It was a gift from the shoemakers of every village in France, who each contributed whatever they could, even the smallest coins, to commission this work of art for God’s house.”

Royalty and the nobles of France, of course, contributed to the building of Chartres Cathedral, but this particular window was a gift from shoemakers. Another window was given by butchers, and another by village water-carriers. Vine-growers, tanners, masons, furriers, drapers, weavers, blacksmiths, millers, apothecaries, coopers, carpenters and cartwrights all gave windows. “These windows, many of them,” said the guide, “were given one mosaic at a time, piece by piece, coin by coin, by people who wanted to contribute something beautiful to last the ages.”

Rev. O’Neill tells us that these windows were mostly the gifts of common people, not the nobles who could make large gifts or leave big endowments. “When we talk about supporting our churches, in this way we are the same: any congregation from the largest cathedral to the smallest and plainest chapel, is always the gift of those common people who love it and who work for it and who support it as they are able.”

We are not as old as the cathedrals of Europe, and our building is not old, but by American standards we are an old congregation. As the First Church in Harvard, now known as the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, we are in our fifth meeting house on this same spot on the Town Common, and have been here since 1733. We want this congregation to still be here in another 200 and 300 years.

We make this place holy by our presence and our presents. We are not perfect, none of us are, and no institution is perfect, either. But this is a church that is worth supporting. Together we form a religious community that stands against superstition and fear; that stands for reason and faith, for character and ethical living; for justice and social progress; a place where children can come and learn that religion is for joy, for comfort, for gratitude and love, and not for fear. It is a church for believers and skeptics, and for people of every race, creed, color, financial situation, family configuration, gender identity, or sexual orientation; a place more concerned about how you treat your neighbor than the dogmas you might believe in. We are a church community that knows how to grieve and how to laugh. This is why we attend and join our church, and why we support it.