First Parish of Watertown

Sermons

“We Come to Follow Jesus, not Worship Him” By Mark Harris – December 11, 2005

“We Come to Follow Jesus, not Worship Him” By Mark Harris – December 11, 2005

“The Christian Path” or ” We Come to Follow Jesus, Not Worship Him”

by Mark W. Harris

(Third in a series on Religious Expressions of Unitarian Universalism)

“We Come to Follow Jesus . . . ” is attributed to Francis David, the famous Unitarian from Transylvania (present day Romania) who in the 1560’s and 1570’s founded the Unitarian church, and would not give in to pressure to say he would worship Jesus as God, and thus provided the ethical Christian foundations of Unitarianism.

December 11, 2005 – The First Parish of Watertown

Opening Words (Responsive) #653 in hymnal by Dori J. Somers

Reading – “Special Starlight” by Carl Sandburg

The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.
Shall we look up now at stars in Winter
And call them always sweeter friends
Because this story of a Mother and a Child
Never is told with the stars left out?

Is it a Holy Night now when a child issues
Out of the dark and the unknown
Into the starlight?

Down a Winter evening sky
when a woman hovers
between two great doorways
between entry and exit,
between pain to be laughed at
joy to be wept over —
do the silver-white lines
then come from holy stars?
shall the Newcomer, the Newborn,
between soft flannels,
swaddling cloths called Holy?

Shall all wanderers over the earth, all homeless ones,
All against whom doors are shut and words spoken —

Shall these find the earth less strange tonight?
Shall they hear news, a whisper on the night wind?
”A child is born.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
“And they crucified Him . . . they spat upon Him.
And He rose from the dead.”

Shall a quiet dome of stars high over
Make signs and a friendly language
Among all the nations?
Shall they yet gather with no clenched fists at all,
And look into each other’s faces and see eye to eye,
And find ever new testaments of man as a sojourner
And a toiler and a brother of fresh understandings?

Shall there be now always
believers and more believers
of sunset and moonrise,
of moonset and dawn,
of wheeling numbers of stars,
and wheels within wheels?

Shall plain habitations off the well-known roads
Count now for a little more than they used to?

Shall plains ways and people held close to earth
be reckoned among things to be written about?

Shall tumult, grandeur, fanfare, panoply, prepared loud noises
Stand equal to a quiet heart, thoughts, vast dreams
Of men conquering the earth by conquering themselves?
Is there a time for ancient genius of man
To be set for comparison with the latest generations?
Is there a time for stripping to simple, childish questions?

On a holy night we may say:
The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.

Sermon –

As I began to write this sermon on Friday morning, I looked outside the church window, and saw snow falling heavily from the sky. It reminded me of two things. Unitarian Universalism may be largely what it is today due to the influence of its most famous minister, and perhaps the most profound American writer of them of all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a snowy day sometime during the winter of 1838 Emerson sat in his pew at the First Parish of Concord. He was listening to what he perceived as cold, lifeless preaching from a minister who had the symbolically appropriate surname of Frost. When he wrote his Divinity School Address for delivery the following July in the refulgent summer, Emerson remembered that snow storm as real, and the lifeless preacher as merely spectral. Emerson said that he could not tell if this man had lived, breathed, was married, had children or indeed, anything about him. In fact, Emerson was at the center of a rebellion away from what was then called liberal Christianity. He rejected its forms, its traditions, its rituals, and even its history. The sermon or the central religious expression of the Protestant Christian tradition should be life, he said, life in all its passions and pains, breathed through the fire of thought. At the center of Emerson’s thought was that we, each one of us, has the ability to perceive and know divinity directly, and that even Jesus himself, the human God of Christianity, was true to what is in you and me. And the snow was significant because it was an emblem of nature, and it is through our personal experience of the natural world, and not Biblical revelation or tradition, that we come to know eternal truths.
This was powerful stuff in the 19th century, and it caused an avalanche of criticism to fall on those radicals we have come to know as Transcendentalists. But this questioning of fundamental Christians principles was not confined to Concord or Boston. Although it is sometimes hard for us to admit, there are enlightened people beyond the Rte. 128 beltway. There were also men and women in Europe who had come to understand human beings should read the Bible for themselves, and arrive at their own conclusions about what it says. They began to advocate the radical ideas of using your mind in interpreting scriptures, being tolerant and understanding of the many paths to truth, and finally being open to a free search for continuing revelations of truth. This was true of many people in England, where advocating a belief in a human Jesus rather than the Trinity of Christianity was against the law, and was punishable by seizures of property and imprisonment. One person who rebelled against a thoughtless allegiance to a church, and began to advocate for a Christian faith that was centered upon an ethical approach to living was Josiah Wedgwood, that most famous of potters, who became one of the most successful business people in history. Wedgwood was one of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers. The other, Erasmus Darwin was also a religious nonconformist. His radicalism went beyond Wedgwood, when he ridiculed the Unitarian faith by calling it “a featherbed to catch a falling Christian.” This featherbed analogy was the second thing the snow reminded me of. The soft cushion we lay upon as children to makes our snow angels. This was the way Darwin saw Unitarians; soft Christians who leave the old faith behind, to embrace a new faith that mollifies all the harsh doctrines of sin and salvation. So if, Unitarians were falling away from Christianity even then, in what sense do we have a relationship to Christianity today? Perhaps the most common question posed to Unitarian Universalists is, Are you Christian or not?
Although I do not remember the exact context, last year there were two occasions at church meetings here at First Parish, where I innocently referred to our congregation as Protestant. In both those instances I remember our members, who may be present today, responding as though I had misspoken. Clearly to them, the word Protestant evoked images of traditional Christianity, and its worship , beliefs and institutions, and was no longer a word that in any way identified Unitarian Universalists today. I was reminded of how sensitive many of our members feel about their relationship to Christianity. They may have grown up in a Christian church and felt its beliefs were irrational, its traditions authoritarian, and its methods shameful. They may have come to our faith because here you are encouraged to use your mind, discover those traditions which speak to you, and hopefully find understanding fellow travelers who believe in a universal embrace of compassion.
When I used the word “Protestant,” I was speaking as a historian, and was evoking the specific tradition we Unitarian Universalists emerged from. It could be that 60’s hippie in me coming to life again, but when I say Protestant, it does not evoke all those stultifying, guilt inducing, moralisms for me that some may associate with the old time religion of no dancing, no drinking, and certainly no laughing in church. While Martin Luther is hardly a person we would remember as liberal, he started what became a broader “protest” against the widespread corruption of the Catholic church, and produced a revolution in religious thought and practice. In many ways, we religious liberals are an embodiment of his belief in the “priesthood of all believers,” as fully revealed in Emerson’s understanding that we can each know God firsthand. So for me there is something in Protestant Christianity that stands as a protest against any injustice or bigotry that exists in the world. Much of the Unitarian Universalist protestant center can be identified with its continuing protest of Christian tradition and authority. Andrew Hill, the minister in Edinburgh says we are so thoroughly Protestant that we protest the very core of the Christian tradition, and its too frequent reliance upon hypocrisy and hierarchal control. The earliest Unitarians here in America advocated a broad Christian church that was not based on doctrinal conformity, but rather a fellowship that was open to many approaches to faith, and was ultimately grounded, not in conformity, but in freedom. So if we are children of the Christian tradition, we also protesters of that tradition as well. In fact some would say that we are so thoroughly protestant that the vast majority of our members do not consider themselves Christian.
That word protest also says something very relevant about our place in the world. Liberals have long said that our faith must be based, not on a salvation which lies beyond this life, but upon ethical guidelines for living that will result in a world transformed. Our understanding of Christianity was to have an active presence in the world. Universalists went so far as to imply that none of us would be saved, that is receive God’s embracing love, until all of us are saved, saints and sinners alike – a vision for one world. For these liberals you are most Christian, when you are living the words of the old hymn, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and this was in fact the way Unitarians and Universalists came to define their understanding of Christianity. They invoked the words of Jesus – when I was sick, when I was hungry, when I was in prison – you came to me, you cared about me, you fed me. Unitarian Universalists embraced what has been called an ethical Christianity, one grounded in deeds not creeds. While our traditions and our cultural norms may be based in Christianity, and our sense of ethics and involvement in the world grows from Christian morality, we have mostly never been seen as Christian in the context of our beliefs.
This is true of the many ways we define the Christian message. For Christians the Bible has been the sole means of religious revelation, but liberals have come to see that there are many sources of religious inspiration, embodied in scriptures from all the world’s great faiths and other writings. For Christians, Jesus Christ has been the human conduit to the divine so that believing in him, and accepting him as Lord, brings an individual into the Christian fold, but liberals have come to see that there have been many great teachers of religious truths throughout history, and while Jesus embodied a great and genuine spirit of love and forgiveness, that ability, as we have seen in Emerson’s gospel resides in us, too. For Christians, a basic belief in God, or an all powerful spirit that brings purpose to life has been necessary, but liberals have come to understand that truth begins not with divine inspiration, but with human experience, and while some will hear a still small, voice of eternal truth, others will only find meaning in what we create together in our human and earthly communities. But there are those among us who look first to the Bible, and first to Jesus and ultimately to God for inspiration, and they have chosen to identify with the Christian path in our pluralistic Unitarian Universalist faith.
So you see the question cuts both ways. Historically we came out of the Christian tradition, but we have always protested its rituals and beliefs to the point of sometimes finding them bereft of meaning. It is our home, but most of us have never longed to return. Historically we have said the Christian message is about how much we love one another rather than how much we mouthed revealed words or propounded doctrines. A half century ago, the Universalists used to say we are Christian, but more than Christian, and they symbolized that with a larger circle, and in that circle of truth there was an off center cross. That cross symbolized where we began. The Bible, Jesus, the God of justice and understanding informed us. But then we discovered that faith is bigger than any one tradition – truth is found in many cultures, is prophesied by many teachers, and resides in the hearts of all people if they would only turn their hearts toward each other in warm embrace, and journey down a path of trying to understand each other. It could be for many of us that this longing for love and understanding, for building a holier sense of community began with Christianity, but we know now that it requires something broader and deeper, and that is why we have become advocates for Unitarian Universalism.
And yet, as Carl Sandburg implies in his poem “Special Starlight,” this story, this tradition at this time of year asks us all to return to the simplest, and most humble of origins. It is a time for stripping down to simple questions. We come to understand that the wanderers, the homeless ones are us, and that the religious quest is not to proclaim one truth over others, one way of life over others, but to open the doors to those who are shut out, and to speak words of hospitality to those who are shunned. The December issue of Harper’s magazine has a cover story article on “Jesus Without the Miracles” by Erik Reece. Reece covers familiar territory for Unitarian Universalists. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous Bible, where that scissors wielding rationalist third President of the USA took the New Testament and literally cut out all of the miracle stories to give us a purely ethical Jesus. Here was the most perfect model for moral behavior the world had ever witnessed. Jefferson said that Jesus’ basic teaching had been distorted by a dogmatically oriented Christian church, and he advocated for an authentic Christianity as seen through Jesus’ amazing life. Yet Jefferson came to realize that most people who espoused Christianity were really looking for the ticket to eternal life, and were less interested in living such a perfect life. That was too hard. Jesus is trying to convince whoever will listen, to shake off the world’s distractions, and find that kingdom that is present within.
In the article, Reece goes on to look at the Gospel of Thomas, which early Christians tried to repress, and recent writers have rediscovered. Prefiguring Emerson, the Gospel of Thomas says that all of us posses some fragment of the divine light. We don’t have to find it only through the conduit of the Messiah. We, as Emerson later tells us, can find it within ourselves. In that sense the Gospel is present in each of us. It is a kind of radical UU Christianity, that continues to protest how oppressive the message and the institution became and is. Reece reminds us that the Christian church has traditionally taught us about out smallness – they dispense the truth, they dispense salvation through their boy Jesus, but Reece and Emerson helps us realize the true largeness of our nature; the divine beings each of us could be and is. In a way Emerson did the Christians one better, not by denying Jesus’ divinity, but by making us all Jesus’, all saviors, all divine. Some might argue that this is the pure Christianity that Unitarian Universalism has embodied all along. What’s clear is that Unitarian Universalists stand apart from much of Christian tradition, but if we can help Christianity see its protesting, ethical, transforming, universal light then we have played a key role in opening ourselves and our world to becoming more whole and holy people. Even if we are not Christian, may we continue to embrace its radical thinking, protesting, and loving truth, with its vision of who we can become, and what kind of world we can create.

Closing Words – from Edward Ericson
We stand with eyes toward the east,
Awaiting the rising of the star,
And pray that love shall become flesh,
and dwell among us;
And that compassion shall be born
in human hearts.

We celebrate the discovery of fact
in the garment of legend.

Let every cradle be visited by the three
good kings of Faith, Hope and Love.

Then Christmas is with us always,
and every birth is the birth of god among us,
And every child is the Christ child,
And every song is the song of angels.

To celebrate Christmas is to attest
the power of love to remake humankind,
May we be renewed in the love which can save the world.

“Religious Naturalism” By Mark Harris – Nov. 27, 2005

“Religious Naturalism” By Mark Harris – Nov. 27, 2005

“Religious Naturalism” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 27, 2005

Opening Words – from William Ellery Channing

The heavens, the earth, the plant, the human frame, now that they are explored by science, speak of God as they never did before. Handwriting is brought out where former ages saw but a blank. Our nature is perpetually developing new senses for the perception and enjoyment of God. The human race, as it advances does not leave religion behind it, as it leaves the shelter of caves and forests; does not outgrow faith, does not see it fading like the mist before its rising intelligence. On the contrary, religion opens before the improved mind in new grandeur. The soul in proportion as it enlarges its faculties and refines its affections, possesses and discerns within itself a more and more glorious type of the divinity — learns spirituality in its own spiritual powers, and offers a profounder and more inward worship.

Sermon –

Dinosaurs have long been a passion of mine. My favorite book as a child was called The Enormous Egg. It is the story of a boy who discovers an oversized egg, which eventually hatches. Defying all evolutionary odds, the baby hatchling is a Triceratops. Of course no egg from an extinct species could just be hanging around to mess up our understanding of how species are born, evolve over time and eventually die out. Many children, especially boys are fascinated by dinosaurs. Whether this fascination emanates from the gargantuan size of some of them, or the fancy names, or the simple astonishment that creatures such as these once walked the earth, I don’t know. I loved the idea of digging up fossils and discovering something that old. There were lots of astounding statistics associated with them , too. Many of you also know that dinosaurs played a key role in my rejection of the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood and its assertion in BIblical creation as a scientific explanation for the origins of earth and the development of life. At that time I felt like I was being forced to choose science or religion. As I saw it then, one offered fascinating explorations of the wonders of life, and the other offered closed minded fairy tales.
I still read news articles on dinosaurs when I see them, and am quite fascinated with all the theories of how some dinosaurs managed to survive and evolve into our present day birds. Dinosaurs are not my topic today, but their evolution into birds is relevant to a controversy that has divided people in our country ever since the time of Charles Darwin. You would have thought that the Scopes Monkey trial might have resolved it. Clarence Darrow fought in that Tennessee court room so that the teacher might tell his students about natural selection. Today school boards are still fighting in court rooms over the teaching of evolution in our schools. The scientific creationists of a few years ago have reemerged in the guise of Intelligent Design or ID. They wants us to believe there are holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. And into these holes – which are gaps in the scientific data – they want to place the designer, or God, but they can’t say the word, and so they imply it, or maybe whisper “God did it.” If someone posits that Intelligent Design is not science, but religion, the IDers say, you have a closed mind. Liberals are supposed to present all sides of an argument, so people can make informed decisions. They say we should be open to all schools of thought, just as President Bush echoed, when he weighed in on the subject last summer.
The problem is there is nothing informed about Intelligent Design. Over the past few months I have saved a large pile of magazine articles and newspaper editorials on this subject. The controversy has generated much discussion, but I can see no reason on God’s green earth to teach Intelligent Design in a science classroom. It is simply not science. Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid “religious” viewpoint on the origins of life. Even if we may not agree, we can understand that many people want to believe or are moved to testify that there is a divine power at work in creation. Some like deists say that God created a system of natural laws and left this universe to evolve on its own. Those who are involved in intelligent design may even believe in parts of evolution, but say certain gaps in knowledge lead them to believe in an outside creative force which is not part and parcel of the randomness of natural selection. There is something more than an accident. They say a divine power must be directing things. Religion exists to offer an explanation as to why we are here, such as this is the way God wants it. God created light from dark. God saw it was good. We are created in a divine image. There is no scientific proof for any of these religious statements about what human life or the universe means. This is why the divine intelligence portrayed in the book of Genesis belongs in a religion class, and not Biology 101.
Unitarian Universalists have seemingly always been quick to affirm the scientific point of view. As you saw with Channing’s words that began this service, we have long felt that scientific explorations will open us to greater depths in our religious knowledge. In the late 19th century the Universalist Marion Shutter said that with science, validated truths replaced invented truths and evidence superseded dogma and superstition. In searching for a partnership between religion and science, Shutter said that religion had gained much from science. First, there was a quickened sense of truth, the right method of discovery. Second, there was the value of evidence rather than unsubstantiated claims. Finally, science taught religion about using methods of reasoning. That partnership has continued ever since. The problem is that religion has usually lost to the wonders of science – the space ship cosmonaut does not see God in space and the suffering person does not need a devil’s exorcism but a diagnosis of mental illness. Any number of whys have disappeared under scientific examination. Unitarian Universalism is an unusual religion because we want more scientific knowledge yielding more amazing truths about how things happen, but sometimes along the way we have been overly concerned with the endless pursuit of truth, and have lost our ability to remember the whys of religion under the weight of the hows of science.
The problem for those 19th century liberals is that they learned in the 20th century that science did not give them all the answers. Science could not tell them what was good, or what was God, but could only provide verifiable data. While understanding nature and the reasons how things happen is profoundly important, it gives no insight into moral choices, emotional support, or even the ultimate mystery behind creation. Too often the liberal response to poetic or theological understandings of the mystery behind life have been attempts to ridicule those who believe in a creator, and so we have applauded satire like the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), who created the universe. FSM is the six month old religion, created in response to the Kansas board of education’s attempt to place ID in the curriculum. While ID is not science, and should not be taught as such, the pasta whose appendage dabbles in human affairs reflects the kind of ridicule we have sometimes seen from literal rationalists who reject any religious beliefs, and this can also be a weakness in the humanist perspective within Unitarian Universalism. We have placed ourselves at the center of the universe with everything revolving around us and our needs. While we should be quick to reject religion when it is portrayed as science, we shouldn’t use our scientific evidence and rationalism to portray religious beliefs as inane or stupid. Sometimes our science has informed our religion so completely, we have ended up fearing and despising those who espouse religious beliefs. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” This is why the Unitarian Universalist spiritual path called religious naturalism may be a worthy choice for those who find some limits in the humanist perspective, especially when it overly extols our own virtues at the expense of the rest of the creation we are part of.
In a text book battle in Pennsylvania, it appeared a local school board was going to implement a mandate that students be informed that evolution was only a theory and cannot be construed as fact, and that ID is an alternative explanation for the origins of life that differs from Darwin. Most of us would argue that this is a scientific absurdity. Science does not work in absolute proofs, and in fact, evolution is much more than a theory that might or might not be true. Evolution is the very foundation of modern biology and medicine, and there is absolutely no evidence that disproves it in any way. It is about as close to fact as you can get. Naturally we would argue that ID as an alternative theory should not be classified with scientific explanations. But what do we do with religious explanations? Liberals typically say any subject can be taught in school except religion, and we would not only not want a creation story taught in science, we would also want to keep it out of all the curriculum. This is why you end up with history text books of Puritans coming to America, but there are no apparent religious reasons for doing so. This wasn’t a fishing expedition. As the historian Martin Marty puts out, we cannot understand a speech of Lincoln’s or a play of Shakespeare’s unless we know religion.
The fundamentalists are upset at how secular the schools are, and the more they talk about it, the more rigid liberals become about not teaching religion. So the vast majority of the schools in America teach nothing about religion. The religious right may want the Bible creation to be told, but what if we had a religion class, not a science class, but a religion class where the students learned many creation stories. They would then understand a little more about history and culture, and why human beings are the way they are. If you teach the Cherokee creation story or what it means to be a Hindu, you are not likely to be converted to that viewpoint , but you are likely to be broadened in your perspective. So Intelligent Design surely does not belong in science, but why not in social science? When we are tone deaf to religious discussions, we let the religious right take the high ground. I believe we should advocate for teaching religion in the schools.
Part of this discussion about teaching religion is to recognize its important place in life. The role of religion is to bind us together as one. Religious Naturalism like humanism , finds its sources of meaning within the natural world, but rather than emphasizing humans to the detriment of other creatures, religious naturalism sees us especially as emergent from , and hence part of nature. Charles Darwin said that “animals, our fellow brethren . . may partake of our origin in one common ancestor — we may all be netted together.” The emphasis in religious naturalism is how we are connected to all of life and must learn to see our place among other animals and life forms rather than over them. Kenneth Miller, who is a believer in what he calls, Darwin’s God says, Our species, homo sapiens, has not triumphed in the evolutionary struggle any more than has a squirrel, a dandelion, or a mosquito. We are all here, now, and that’s what matters. We have all followed different pathways to find ourselves in the present. We are all winners in the game of natural selection. Current winners, we should be careful to say.”
At the UU General Assembly this year, I heard Ursula Goodenough speak about religious naturalism. Through her work as a biologist she has come to deeply feel a natural connection with all of life, as expressed in today’s reading. She writes, “ We share a common ancestor; . . We share genes; . . We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.” As a historian I always feel a profound sense of connection when I am in a forest and have a chance to count the rings from a felled tree, whether the Muir Woods of redwoods outside San Francisco or the Pisgah Forest in North Carolina, where we were last summer. Exhibits in those places both show giant old trees which have succumbed to age, and in the rings of those trees dates of history are marked – decades, even centuries back in time. I always imagine these ancients trees literally seeing the historical events that have transpired in their time. They are witnesses to it all, part and parcel of life. One also gains this sense of connection to passage and continuity by watching the popular film, The March of the Penguins, even Jay Leno has joked how Penguins will march 70 miles to mate with other penguins. What is remarkable is to see their perseverance to maintain their species – back and forth from the sea to mate, eat, give birth, protect, eat, huddle together to survive. Think of the incredible awareness in their very being, of what their genes are calling them to do. What is calling to them?
Evolution or our connectedness with everything, Goodenough implies can help gives us a religious understanding of creation that does not need to be anthropomorphized into the seven day creator with the long beard. What does it mean to be religious? Surely even the penguins give us some clue here. They seemingly do not have relationship in a conscious way as we do, but it is quite remarkable to see them huddle against the coldest temperatures on earth, to know their mates, their children, to see their great pain at times of loss. What kind of comfort do they need? As Charles Wesley once wrote in a hymn – “hide me, till the storm of life is past, . . . leave me not alone.” Critics of Darwinism have often called his science a vehicle for atheism and materialism, but in fact Darwin was a deeply religious man. Much of what the Penguins do is explainable, and we find it in the science of how. The workings of life are not mysterious at all. Yet seeing what these penguins do also moves us all to ask why?
The question of why gives us religious formulations. Many people, including me, would love to have an answer to the whys of the universe. Intelligent Designs proponents would have some God directing it all like a stage manager from beyond, but I am not sure this gives us much sense of mystery or freedom. This says the universe has to correspond to my needs, and if it doesn’t I am going to feel sorry for myself. It seems to me that the religious naturalist must feel some kind of acceptance for the whys of the universe. We simply do not know, and all of our explanations will not offer any scientific proof, but only reveal natural religious longings. It is truly a mystery beyond mystery that we need to celebrate and accept. As the Tao te Ching tells us: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.” If there be a deity, there are only clouds before it, and we cannot see. It is a mystery of why these laws or why is there anything at all? Some want to name the mystery God, and others do not. Those who do must feel humble before what they never will know. Those who do not must feel humble before what they never will know. And even if it is designed, it is not designed at our whim. The world we have inherited is not one that is predictable. It is built on freedom, and not manipulation. It is built on trial and error, and not control. Whether it is the great mystery or the great God, it is a creation built upon evolution. Evolution makes us the creatures we are – “free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.” That freedom for believers might bring them closer to God, and that freedom might bring others closer to each other, and to the earth that has brought us forth. And perhaps they are the same thing. And perhaps they are the same thing, each touching the creative energy within every form of life – every object, every animal, every human. Every human finding those great things that bind us together – freedom, freedom to love, freedom to build community, freedom to be thankful for the life we have now.

Closing Words – from Elizabeth Rogers – Through the earth I am aware

I am a part of the earth,
I am a part of the solid, unshakable,
Immutable rock
Of the mountain;
A part of the stark, rainwashed slabs of slate,
A part of the walls of wet and weathering gritstone,
A part of the crumbling granite of shining boulders.
I am part of what makes
The green rounded hill
With its splendors of laughing yellow gorse.

Through the earth I am aware
of what I am:
All that is firmly fixed and endures forever,
All that is shifting imperceptibly,
Being gently folded and unfolded,
All that holds the possibility
Of shattering violence of eruption;
All that is contained in
Is, and Was, and Shall Be.

For such awareness, coming from the earth,
I give my thanks today
For the earth, and my part in it.

“Believing the Best” – September 18, 2005Mark W. Harris

“Believing the Best” – September 18, 2005
Mark W. Harris

Opening Words – from Harry Scholefield

There is no beginning or end to what we have started, And to what we can do
together.
This morning we awoke — The sun was streaming through the window of our
lives.
The time is now. The days are bright, But they will darken. And the earth is
gleaming in
space, spinning. On the coming cold and dreary days we need All the love we
can give to keep our lives bright, And to spread glad warmth, From the
wellsprings of our being, inward to ourselves, And outward to each other.
Each day is that important. No day is more significant than any other; than
the yesterday or the tomorrow day. Now is the time we are. In the coming
year let us do good things for one another.

Chalice – from David A. Johnson

When evil darkens our world, Give us light.
When despair numbs our souls, Give us hope.
When we falter and fear, Surround us with beauty.
When nothing seems sure, Give us trust.
When we lose our way, Be Thou our light and guide.

Sermon

More than 150 years ago, a young woman named Dorothea Dix decided to
teach a Bible class at the East Cambridge Jail. In this class of 20 women
they sang hymns, and Dix told them the story of Mary Magdalene. While she
was trying to reach out to these women, she heard some strange wailing
voices emanating from other places in the prison. She decided to look
around, but first asked the jail keeper what those sounds were. He laughed
and said, “Oh those are the mad ones, you just can’t keep them quiet.” Mad
people, of course referred to the mentally ill, and Dix wondered, why they
were in jail. ”Only the poor ones,” the keeper said, “nobody else wants
them, so we lock them up here.” Dix toured the prison, and saw incredible
conditions of filth and chains or cages confining these people with few
clothes on their backs and no warmth in the cells. They didn’t need a
stove, Dix was told, they might burn themselves, and besides they didn’t
know the difference between hot and cold. This experience of seeing helpless
and forgotten victims motivated a frail teacher to become the greatest
advocate for the mentally ill the world has ever known. Traveling up and
down the eastern seaboard, Dix helped establish places of nurturance and
care for those whom society had ignored and left to die. A close friend of
the Unitarian leader, William Ellery Channing, Dix was living out her
liberal religious principles that had taught her to believe in the worth of
every person, that all people deserve every chance in the world to be
educated to the best of their abilities and nurtured with shelter, food and
human care. While it may seem naive to us today, Dix said, “All they need
is love.”

Dix’s story came to mind when I heard the comments of Barbara Bush after
she saw the hurricane victims housed at the Astrodome in Houston. While I
don’t have the exact words, the implication was that these poor people
really had it good now, even better than they had ever known, because they
had shelter and food. She seemingly forget that they were displaced and
homeless, and had lost everything. Dix’ response to the jail was let’s show
these victims the most compassion we can, and help them get on their feet.
The more recent hurricane response by the former first lady seemingly
emanates from a point of view which believes these people had never done
anything or had anything anyway, so this temporary relief is probably as
good as it gets. They should be grateful for the little they receive. By
now we are all familiar with the horrors of the hurricane, the slowness and
ineptness of the response, the seeming callousness of those in power, and
the public relations cover-up that has followed. In my newsletter column,
I implied that government response was slow because most of those who seemed
to be abandoned without food or water were poor people of color. These
people mattered less because no wants them in the first place. While this
may be debatable, I think we can say it is true that all of us do not share
the same views about human nature. Nor do we respond to people who are
undergoing adverse situations or conditions in the same way. Some of us look
at others, those who have not had the same material or educational
advantages we had, and we say they didn’t get the right nurturance or the
right opportunities, and it is not necessarily their fault that things did
not work out. Perhaps they need more help or understanding. Others of us
look at others with a more suspicious eye, we may say that this person got
in trouble because they didn’t follow the rules, not because they didn’t
know any better. We may say if they had taken advantage of what was given
to them, they would have succeeded, but they didn’t work hard, or were lazy
or made bad choices, and therefore their failures are really their own
fault.

Some of us believe the best about people. Like Dix, we share that
everybody deserves to be nurtured and loved, and people would be better if
they were just loved and listened to a little more. Some of us believe the
worst about people. We think humans tend to be cruel and selfish, and so
they need to be disciplined and trained and even shackled so that they
follow the rules and maintain order. They can be loved and nurtured as
well, but this comes more often as a reward for following the rules. The
fundamental question is what do we expect of other people?

Our expectations of others was apparent in some of the news accounts in
the aftermath of the hurricane. For example there was widespread reporting
of massive looting by people in New Orleans. But how much looting really
occurred? Was there really mass mayhem and violence? Sociologist says that
after a natural disaster like that, there is usually very little looting.
They also tells us that we tend to make crowds more malevolent than they
really are. And in the midst of such a catastrophic disaster we need to
distinguish between a desperate mother in search of diapers and formula, or
a old man who hasn’t eaten in days and is parched from lack of water, from
someone else who runs amok. Even so, the reports of what one journalist
called Hobbesian violence were apparently simply not true. Was the problem
that the government and the reporters both believed or expected that there
would be a great deal of wanton destruction? Did they expect more problems
because the people were poor or people of color? Expectations have a great
deal to do with how we might respond to situations such as these. So the
reporters expected violence, and then reported it, even though it did not
happen to the degree they expected. Was there some blaming of the victims by
speculating that we couldn’t go in and help because it was reported to be
too dangerous? These expectations also play a role in not only what you
fear going in to a disaster, but also in terms of your plan for responding.
Those who believe the worst about people will be more concerned about
restoring order than they will be about getting food to people. Those who
believe the worst will want a curfew to keep people confined, but those who
believe the best might say let the people be free to move around so they can
help others in their hour of need. We could say that those who expected the
worst from people got what they expected, even if the reality was not true.
Do we get what we expect? And which do you choose worst or best?

I know I grew up expecting the worst. Even though my family, at least on
my father’s side, had risen from the depths of depression era poverty to
economic success, I felt as though the influences on my life were telling me
to believe the worst. Church was a powerful factor for me, and there the
overriding interpretation of Christianity was that humans were sinners who
were naturally inclined to make sinful choices, and mostly in good Calvinist
fashion, there was nothing we could do to change that sinful nature except
throw our evil selves on the mercy of Jesus. So I had God telling me that I
could expect the worst from myself, unless I followed the straight and
narrow path of doing exactly as I was told. Obedience led to love. My
parents reinforced this expectation. Boys would avoid books and learning in
favor of sports, so it was expected that parents would need to force us to
do our homework. Boys only wanted sex, so it was dangerous for boys to be
left in the same room with girls unless chaperoned or shackled. This was
reinforced socially as well. I vividly remember one vacation where we had
rented a cottage sight unseen, and it turned out that many of the families
nearby were African American. My parents in all their misinformed and
paranoid anxiety had the expectation that all these strangers were going to
come attack us during the night. We had a sleepless few hours witnessing
jumpy adults who reacted to every outside noise with horror, before we
packed the car near dawn and headed home. Strangers are out to get you was
the expectation I had. My mother talked about deadbeats who wouldn’t pay
their bills, but I ended up feeling that most people should be seen as
deadbeats who couldn’t be trusted with information about me, or didn’t
deserve nurture and care from me. So I expected wives to cheat, car dealers
to lie, and banks to steal, and oh, people to try to take everything I had.

I have spent the rest of my life trying to undo the ethos of expecting
the worst from others. My own life and mind have always been a battleground
of best vs. worst. Philosophically, those of you who have heard my story of
becoming Unitarian Universalist know that it lifted a great burden from me
to learn about our liberal faith, that like Dorothea Dix, I longed to expect
great things of people, the best in fact, and with that, a belief every
person is capable of responding to others with nurturance and care. So in
graduate school I embraced a faith that believed in human potential and
goodness. I felt affirmed by this faith in human abilities, and declared
that this was my one true religion. I believed in this liberal approach so
much I wanted to live it out as a minister who imparts the faith to others.
Yet being born again Unitarian Universalist in my mind was different from
actually believing the best about others.

Several times during the last year I have had debates with Andrea about
whether believing the best of others is a naive, and ultimately painful and
disappointing way to go through life. Note that Andrea was raised Unitarian
Universalist. We have been involved in a couple of situations where we
expected an honest and open exchange of information which would lead to open
communication, and yet we did not receive what we expected to from others
who we would label professionals. Certain people did not communicate at
all, said they would do something and then did not, or manipulated a process
so that what was offered was summarily not offered without prior warning.
People lied, were incompetent or were duplicitous in their actions. Sounds
like an emergency relief agency. I sometimes refer to myself as a Calvinist
Unitarian, meaning one who has never quite come to trust others. My rearing
has left the scar that giving information to others means that those people
will ultimately use that information against me. Those of you who heard my
struggles with leaving a scooter unprotected at a playground know of this
quandary about human nature. I did not trust enough to leave the scooter
for fear someone would steal it. Time and again in my adult life I have
forced myself to believe the best even though my inclination is to believe
the worst. My faith and my training as a minister tells me to help those
who want a meal or have other kinds of emergency needs, but my “expect the
worst” heritage tells me most of them are lying. So I still struggle with
my expectations. On the other hand, what happens to us when we have been
reared to believe the best, and trust in the best intentions of others?
What happens if in giving our trust and goodwill to others they turn on us,
and hurt us? How many times can we go back to the well, and lower our bucket
of trust, and have it come up empty or full of stones rather than filled
with fresh, refreshing waters of communication, understanding and care.

No one want to be naive about human nature. No one wants to be fooled or
deceived by others. Even though I have seen others deceive me and those I
love, I find my heart longing to fully embrace the faith that calls me to
believe the best about others. In his book Moral Politics, George Lakoff
tells us that there are two models of ideal family life which set the
priorities for distinct moral systems. One of these is the Strict Father
Family. While there is love and nurturance in this model, it never outweighs
authority. Children learn self-discipline, self-reliance and respect for
authority. If people are left to their own devices, they will only satisfy
their own desires. You obey the rules and act in an upright manner. The
other model for morality is the Nurturant Parent model. Here morality is
not following rules with a consequence of punishment for misbehavior, but
feeling empathy for others. With this model we gain a sense of what it is
like to be in the other persons shoes. What children need to learn first in
this model is to feel empathy for others rather than successfully following
the rules. There is open, two way communication between parent and child.
Above all nurturance of others takes priority over self-interest. Lakoff
believes these two ways of understanding morality and family life dominate
our political life as well. These modalities also are reflected in two
approaches to Christianity or
faith. In one, humans are morally weak, and need saving by the strong
father. In the other Jesus is an ethical model who can teach us how to be
empathetic to others. In one there are rewards and punishments for self. In
the other there is a the greater reward of helping others becoming more
nurturing and creating a more interdependent world. Lakoff concludes that
we must unite liberals, who mostly represent this nurturing model, and
remake the world. It is that important! This is so our children grow up to
nurture others, believing the best, rather than fearing others as one, like
me, who has struggled with believing the worst knows all too well.

This summer the sixth volume in the Harry Potter series was issued with
all the usual hoopla that accompanies such events. We were in Maine at the
time, and devotedly visited the local bookstore to consume chocolate spiders
and other such magical treats as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
appeared. Early on, Dumbledore, the head of Hogwarts School of witchcraft
and wizardry tells Harry’s guardians that Harry is about to come of age.
Harry does come of age with more blood letting and bone breaking with each
succeeding volume. We had read a review of the increasing violence in this
installment of the series, and were concerned about Levi’s reading the new
book. But after he read the entire book in two days, it turned out, he loved
it. Evangelicals have often voiced concerns about the Harry Potter series
because they fear it promotes evil. These censors have the wayward view that
the series promotes sorcery and satanism, when all it ever seemed to promote
to me was a good adventure and plenty of fantasy. Not bad things for any
child who will hope will be a good reader. Harry Potter and his headmaster
Dumbledore do confront a very sinister world. And perhaps if our liberal
faith has had a flaw over the years, it is that we have not appreciated how
sinister others can be. This is especially true if we are holding out for
our belief in the best about others.

With a realization that it can be a sinister world out there where things
often go awry, We need to ask how can we best respond spiritually to the
challenges that confront us. Throughout the Harry Potter series there has
been some question as to whether Professor Severus Snape, head of Slytherin
House is aligned with good or evil forces. Harry tends to think he is loyal
to Voldemort, but Dumbledore believes he is innocent, and rewards him in
this latest book with the position he has always desired, teacher of Defense
against the Dark Arts. Early on in the book, we hear Snape wonder if
Dumbledore’s belief about the goodness of people will be his downfall. He
says his greatest weakness is that “ he has to believe the best of people.”
His belief brings out love and trust in others. Is that a mistake? Which
will turn the world in the long run toward just and peaceful communities –
believing the best or the worst? Did it help the people of New Orleans to
lock them up to restore order, or would it have been better to allow them to
help one another by offering food and water? If this world is to go on in
all its beauty and its glory, we can choose to exploit or control one
another or help, care, and listen to one another. Which is more likely to
give us a better life for all? If we believe the worst, we become the worst:
negative, lonely and afraid. We can never love another with a full heart of
trust and understanding. I struggle with believing the best, but my faith
demands I keep on trying. For believing the best means I help fulfill those
expectations. I become more positive, loving and open to others. I am not
alone anymore. I know in my heart it is the way of the world that will
build that love, create community, and nurture children who in turn can care
about others and their world.

Meditation
The man at the car dealers said everything’s gone wrong today,
if anything could fail, it did,
Every day is like this – running rough shod over me, running red lights,
running scared.
But it’s not true . . .
Even if you believe it so.
The sun came up and the world turned.
And the grocer gave me my money back.
Not out to cheat, they made a mistake.
It happens.
Today the world brings joy.
There was a smile, a welcome.
Nobody wanted anything.
They were just present for another’s presence.
And so it is that leaves are green, then golden, then green again.
It’s not so bad. Green will come.
Together we make it happen.
I hear you planning in the night . .
With the tears you shed for others, wounds heal.
With the smiles you give for no reason whatsoever, hearts turn to gladness.
With the handshakes you offer even out of being polite, we join as one . .
To make this world of ours a more beautiful, more welcoming home for all..
The best world possible.

Closing Words by Sheenagh Pugh, ”Sometimes”

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years muscadel
faces down frost, green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
Sometimes one aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest one; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

“Delayed Gratitude” – May 22, 2005

“Delayed Gratitude” – May 22, 2005

Opening Words – ”Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton


There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry, “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks.
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The joy that isn¹t shared, I¹ve heard,
dies young.

Sermon

When I was little my parents and sometimes my sister would call me
“Markey Maypo.” This was only because coincidentally there was a
television commercial for this cereal called Maypo, which featured a cartoon
character named Markey. I only vaguely remember it, but it seems this
Markey did not readily take to eating Maypo. In fact, he met the spoonful
of oatmeal like gruel with clenched teeth and frozen lips. His parents had
to pretend that the spoonful of cereal was an airplane, and Markey¹s mouth
was the hangar. They would dance the spoon before him with such tantalizing
enticements as, “its loaded with delicious, its maple flavored, its . . . .”
.but before they could say Maypo, he would snap his jaw shut. All the
airplane sounds in the world could not bring him to eat, which shows this
Markey was not like the real life Mark, who to this day, will eat most
anything. Perhaps I am remembering for sermonic effect, but it seems to me
after many failed attempts, the parents left him alone, and then he took a
spoonful of Maypo down his gullet, and belatedly discovered that he actually
liked what he was heretofore rejecting. This response reminds me of the
more recent television commercial where the little boy, Mikey eats the
cereal and his sibling responds, “He likes it.” It is a surprise to
discover we like something belatedly, after we have rejected it, been
cajoled into trying it, and then finally succumb. Think of Dr. Seuss¹ Green
Eggs and Ham. We may feel sorry that we did not try it sooner, or that we
were so difficult and now seek forgiveness from those we were so obstinate
with, but the important thing is that we finally made the discovery. We
realized, this is good.
The crucial thing is not to be weighed down with regret that it took so long
to realize what we were missing, or how good the seemingly bad thing really
turns out to be. What we need to realize is delayed gratitude.
Delayed gratitude is often something that happens with children. When my
boys were small I often tried my own version of the airplane and the hanger
feeding trick. In my case the spoon became one of Thomas the Tank Engine¹s
friends, and the boy¹s mouths became the roundhouse. While I tried to chug,
chug vegetables into their mouths, they kept swinging the roundhouse doors
shut. I don¹t know if they have come to a realization of gratitude yet, but
I expect it any day . . . or year now. I am sure when they realize how much
they like broccoli or peas, I will hear words of gratitude It is true that
children and adults often don¹t want to try something that is new or they
are unsure of, or worst of all, is actually good for you. They expect the
event will be boring or the food will taste bad, but when it is over, they
often come out saying, “that wasn¹t so bad,” or “I liked it.” What they
expect to be miserable turns out to be good.
How do you convince someone that what you want to undertake will be a
good thing in the end? When it involves changing lifestyles, or spending
money it becomes even more difficult. Many years ago Andrea¹s Aunt
developed a scheme whereby she wanted to buy some property in Maine, two
doors down from Andrea¹s grandmother¹s home. The larger scheme was to
develop the property and eventually build a house on the site, a beautiful
home on the ocean. Andrea¹s Aunt was determined to do this, but found that
her husband was a less than willing participant. In fact, I am told he
thought it was all kind of harebrained, and refused to assist in any
material or physical way. Yet Andrea¹s Aunt persisted. She cleared much of
the land herself, and did much of the planning and building herself. Slowly
the house began to take shape. As her dream was brought into fruition by
the sweat of her brow summer after summer, and the wild scheme to build an
ocean front home began to be actualized in all its splendor, her husband¹s
attitude began to change. Slowly but surely this outlandish plan became
something quite positive. What was hers that he scoffed at, became his as
well. Soon it was “our” beautiful house that all “our” friends should come
see and stay at. She was no longer crazy, but rather, an ingenious planner
of great foresight who provided the opportunity for many years of family
gatherings and wonderful memories. Now he is grateful that he has this
home, but whether he expressed his gratitude to her is unknown to me. But
his support for what became an amazing project was delayed and belatedly and
grudgingly given, only to be swept up in the end with complete affirmation.
The perfect example of delayed gratitude in religious scriptures is
probably the story of Joseph. We learn in Genesis that Joseph¹s brothers
are jealous of him partly because of preferential treatment by their father,
including the gift of that infamous many colored coat. So the brothers sell
Joseph into slavery, and he is shipped off to Egypt. The next thing we know
Joseph has proven himself a very successful slave, and eventually ends up as
governor. He is especially revered for his ability to interpret dreams.
Wouldn¹t you know it but his brothers end up starving and need some grain.
They come to Joseph to rescue them from the famine, but do not recognize
him. We could characterize this story as one where the perpetrators have
deep regrets about the choices they have made. They feel immense guilt, and
ask in Chapter 44, “how can we clear ourselves?” Joseph soon makes himself
known to them, but begs them not to be distressed, or to be angry with
themselves. He says it has all worked out for the best. Joseph says that
God has sent him there before them to preserve life.
The goal is to preserve life despite what trials and tribulations have
brought them to this point. Now they must go on. Joseph feels what¹s done
is done, and the brothers clearly feel some degree of remorse. The best
solution is for all to celebrate with delayed gratitude. And so Joseph
embraces his brother Benjamin, and sends the brothers back with wagons to
bring Jacob down into Egypt. It is enough to know that Joseph lives, and
life will continue with new opportunities for love.
Delayed gratitude has much to do with how we feel about our decisions to
trod certain paths and not others. Some of the major life decisions I am
most familiar with revolve around marriage and divorce, children and
step-children. When parents become divorced it is hard for a child not to
feel that their world has been shattered, and thereafter will shift forever
in new and unforeseen directions. Yet even the children often realize in
retrospect how much they have suffered under parents who have fought
bitterly or have differences that cannot be resolved. Then when a
remarriage occurs there is the strong likelihood that the child will resent
the new parent, and sometimes will reject any overtures to develop a new
relationship. We see the child is very unhappy with that which has unfolded,
but that may change when the child sees how much of a confidante or
supporter the new person can be in their lives. We discover a deep felt
gratitude for this new relationship that we once thought was the worst thing
that ever happened to us. So many times this is true in life, something we
thought would be horrible or at least less than desirable turns out to be
exactly what we needed. The person we plan to hate is most helpful to us.
The job we lost turns us in a new direction. The extra burden we didn¹t
want to take on becomes the newest passion in our lives.
It is hard to comprehend we will ever feel gratitude when we are going
through something. We may feel like nothing will ever be the same or as
good again once a life change has enfolded us. We feel nostalgia as a common
expression of wishful thinking about the past. In his poem, “Nostalgia,”
Billy Collins reminds us that everything about the past appears better
because it is a dance we are familiar with or seems good in retrospect. We
want to return to that idyllic moment we remember when the job was going
well or the family was getting along, but some of that may be false memory
recall. Often we feel like we are in a holding pattern, or in the delayed
stage of life, before any possibility of gratitude even exists. In his book
A Box of Matches, Nicholson Baker, writes about a fire he had set up with
paper so he could strike it with a match when he woke up, but some old coals
ignited it, and burned it down during the night. Start building, he says,
recalling the words of Alex Trebek in Jeopardy. This is when in playing the
game you have bet everything and lost, or you do not turn out to be as smart
as you thought you were, and now you have nothing, and it seems like
everyone else is in the thousands. That is when Trebek turns to you and
says, “Start building.”
It is hard to feel any sense of gratitude, delayed or not, when things
seem to hit bottom – divorce, sold into slavery, lost all your Jeopardy
money. Yet this is the time to start building- make new friends, discover
your talents, take it as a first step in a new journey rather than the dead
end of the old. The ancient story of Job is the classic hero who seems to
have no chance to feel gratitude because everything is taken from him. This
story is retold in the play, J.B. by Archibald MacLeish. Like Job, J.B.
finds that all his work, all his tasks, all his family have been
obliterated. Bildad reminds us that no one said life is fair. People who
are innocent, who live right and true, may suffer. God is simply the march
of history, and has o time for innocent individuals. Justice is found in
the flow of history, and not in individual lives. Job¹s suffering is not
for a reason, it is simply paying for bad luck with a few licks, as MacLeish
says. In the end there is no justice for J.B., only love. He says God does
not love, only “is” The wonder is that humans love, and have that chance
again. Finally, J.B. meets up with Sarah, who has left him, but now
returns. Now together, she says there is the opportunity to “blow on the
coal of the heart.” We choose to love life in spite of life¹s pain. Our
love is the answer to the injustice of the universe.
Delayed gratitude asks us to take the long view of life. When we are
undergoing some great pain it is hard to feel gratitude. Our life feels
threatened – something has not worked out, there is illness, a gross
injustice, and we suffer. Gratitude in the midst of injustice reminds me of
the one year celebration of the legalization of same sex marriage in our
state. Here we had thousands of loving couples who have given their hearts
to each other, and yet couldn¹t have and hold the other in any sanctioned,
enduring way. Think how long this gratitude has been delayed with the only
hope for justice, the enduring love of these couples. And for me this has
been about the remarkable stories within the story – 20, 30 , 35, 40 years
together enduring injustice, prejudice and pain of rejection, and now at
least in this time and place, love has broken through and said let us have
gratitude for this opportunity for love that we are given in the midst of
all this injustice and pain. In Hebrew the word for gratitude is hoda¹ah –
the same as the word for confession. We offer thanks, we offer gratitude in
the midst of confessing how much we need one another, how dependent we are
upon each other, how we often make choices we regret, are foolish, misguided
or have events forced upon us by unjust circumstances. We don¹t want to
have to make this painful choice, but we do. It leads us down a new path.
Some day we will look back and say, this is the choice I felt I had to make
at the time with the resources I had. May we say we made that choice with
all the love we could find in our hearts. It was a choice we made for
ourselves, for our children, for our integrity, for what we felt passionate
about. My life is what it is now because of the choices I made. When
Czeslaw Milosz turned 90, like our own Mary Schlivek, he wrote “Late
Ripeness,” where he shows us how the heart finds gratitude for all past
lives we have lived and lost, ready to be “described better than before”
because they have opened the door on the possibility of love today.

Not soon, as late as the approach
of my ninetieth year,

I felt a door opening in me
and I entered

the clarity of each morning.

One after another my former
lives were departing,

like ships, together with
their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens,
the bays of seas

assigned to my brush came closer,

ready now to be described better
than they were before.

Delayed gratitude asks us to rejoice in those choices, for good or ill, for
regrets we now let go and for wonders that were uncovered. Now we must
confess our gratitude for the choices that we made, and live into the future
knowing that while we live, the choice to love is still before us.

Closing words- ”The Healing Time” by Pesha Gertler
Finally on the way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
holy.

“How to Be Happy” – April 24, 2005

“How to Be Happy” – April 24, 2005

Opening Words – from Gilead By Marilynne Robinson

I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. . . It has
something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when
you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you
can¹t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness
of it. But this is truest of a face of an infant. I consider that to be one
kind of vision, as mystical as any.

Sermon

How would you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.

These words begin the children¹s poem, “The Swing” by Robert Louis
Stevenson. I remember my father reciting some of this classic poetry to me
more than I remember favorite children¹s stories. The words of Kipling and
Stevenson and Longfellow that my Dad probably heard as a boy, echo in my
memory, but now are mostly forgotten with the present generation of
children. It could be that Longfellow¹s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”
helped introduce me to a love for history. Stevenson¹s swing is one poem I
have continued to recite to my son Asher during the times when we have been
at the park together, and he has climbed onto the chain held, leg propelled
wonder ride known as the swing. What could make us more blissfully happy as
children than those carefree moments when we were swinging through life,
rhythmically moving back and forth.
Even if those moments of swinging were happy carefree ones, few of us
remember completely blissful childhoods. I see children today struggle with
their inability to read, or to perform in sports. The pressure to do well
or be perfect, or reflect exactly what our parents want all play a role in
making childhood less than pure happy bliss. Sometimes we adults fail to
understand or forget what we went through, as we mutter under our breaths
that we survived the stigmas of ridicule and failure at competition, and the
pressure to perform that made life challenging and anxiety driven for us,
too. So why can¹t these kids buck up? Of course childhood was never
completely happy for any of us. The memory many of us have is probably
mixed. We had fun hitting a baseball, but we may also remember the
indignity of striking out. We were told how great our art work was, but
also eventually learned that we had no real talent.
While the loving adult tried to tell us that it is the playing of the game
or the act of drawing itself that produces the happiness, we were never
completely reassured, or free enough to believe it. And yet sometimes we
could just swing, away from the pressures of competing and judging eyes.
If only we could swing all day. That sounds like a formula for
happiness. But it is a fantasy. As happy as it makes us feel, it is a
solitary act, and it can rain, and after a while even constant swinging
makes us dizzy. We learn in life that you cannot be blissful all the time.
Yet many of us grow up thinking there is a formula for happiness, as my
sermon title, “How to Be Happy” implies. On the day of a child dedication,
our thoughts also turn to our wishes and hopes for this child, and naturally
we say, may you have a happy life. But what does that mean? Each of us
probably thought that some combination of good education, a long term
relationship, meaningful work, and perhaps children would bring us happiness
as adults. Perhaps some of us would throw in where we would live, owning
property or lots of friends as elements in our formula of creating
happiness. The point is many of us develop this precise formula of what
will bring us happiness. If we have a firm idea of what it takes for us to
be happy, then we will never be happy until we have filled the necessary
blanks on our happiness chart. Those who grew up thinking they could never
be happy unless they had children may be miserable if they discover as
adults that they are not likely to have them. In some instances some of us
get more than what we wished for! The point is none of us can create a
preconceived notion of what will bring happiness, and then be happy or not
based on whether we have filled in the blanks.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that if we are committed to
one idea of happiness, then we are going to get caught. The person who does
this may end up unhappy their whole life. If we don¹t have a long term
relationship with the particular person we thought would fulfill us, we may
never be able to find another relationship that we feel is as good. We may
pine for the relationship that never was, or that was suppose to make us
happy, but for whatever reason, did not do so. And there are many
circumstances that may derail our happiness formula, and end the
relationship. So the first step in having a plan for a happy life, is to
not have a plan or detailed formula of what you are convinced will give you
happy life. There are many ways to be happy, but a formula may catch you
both ways in a life of unhappiness. If you simply must fulfill all the
happiness requirements, you may find that you are not able to, due to time,
circumstance, or other events of life. Then you are stuck. On the other
hand, you might fill all your happiness categories, and still find yourself
unhappy. Then you are stuck. The plan for happiness must be broad and open
and welcoming of life.
The idea of having a plan for creating a happy life makes us ponder what
would be the basic conditions of happiness for us. Both liberal religion and
the ethos of American culture have emphasized happiness as central to their
focus and purpose. When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence he
outlined the purpose of our existence as life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. Here he substituted happiness for John Locke¹s third element in
this trinity which was property. Even prior to this the liberal preacher
Jonathan Mayhew said that the purpose of government is the happiness of its
citizens – a happy enjoyment of life, liberty and property. America was
seen as a special land where it was expected people could attain happiness.
This was a reflection of the idea of endless opportunity. Yet there was
always a tension between acquisition and striving for more, and the pure
enjoyment of life and its gifts. Hawthorne equated happiness to the
butterfly. When it is pursued it always seems to dart out of our reach, but
when we sit quiet it may alight upon us. Was happiness found in individual
gain, or in social amelioration? Was it found in transcending the world or
in material gain?
There was also this tension in religious faith. Here liberal religion
made the clear choice between the joy that is found in anticipating a life
in heaven or in obeying the will of God, versus a savoring of the wonders of
this world. Liberals declared we must do all we can to make this world more
beautiful and more just for all. Universalists very clearly declared that
God was not trying to magnify God¹s own glory, but rather desired the
happiness of human creatures. God wants everybody to be happy. The
religious question was how to achieve this happiness. Last week I suggested
that the tiredness we may feel is equated with sameness, and that new
adventures that excite us may lessen our feelings of exhaustion. I did not
mean that change alone will make you happy. In fact most of us will not
make radical changes in the place we live or in what we do for work. The
question is how we make the life we already have into a happy one. What do
we do with what swings before us in our lives. In his second stanza about
the swing, Stevenson writes: Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside –

How do we respond to the countryside of life that opens before us? If a
preconceived plan will not bring happiness, neither will change from our
present state of unhappiness. Far too often we come to believe that
happiness will follow from changing our present circumstances. We believe
our unhappiness is caused by the present job or the present partner, and
everything will become better once we get rid of the fountain of our
unhappiness. Benjamin Whichcote once wrote: “It is impossible for a man to
be made happy by putting him in a happy place, unless he be first in a happy
state.” It is commonly held that we are miserable because we live in a
particular place. but a more attractive city like San Francisco, or a more
romantic city such as Paris will reinvigorate us. The key to happiness then
is changing something outside of ourselves, and this is coupled with the
belief that changing the outward circumstances will change the internal
unhappiness. This path to happiness does not require any effort on our part
other than changing our surroundings. In the first instance of the correct
notions that cause happiness we believe we are unhappy because the right
things – job or relationship – have not happened to us. In the second
instance, we believe that different surroundings – new job or relationships
– will make us happy. It is always about something outside of us. William
Blake once wrote, “Perhaps the happiest people are those who are not, or
hardly ever, concerned about themselves. “
We commonly suppose that those who have difficult lives will be unhappy.
We think that I was jilted in a relationship, or I lost a loved one, or I
have a serious illness, and therefore, the result of this difficult
circumstance is that what small amount of happiness I had attained is now
lost because of this misery. Yet unhappiness has nothing to do with
difficult circumstances. People have often wondered how can someone with MS
have a sunny disposition? While there may not be any scientific basis for a
positive outlook being typical of people who suffer from MS, it does not
necessarily follow from a serious illness that the person is going to be
miserable all the time. While we all have different coping mechanisms, we
also can make life choices as to how we allocate our attention in the face
of major life challenges. The person with MS, for example, faces a serious
physical disability, but this does not mean they cannot enjoy books, art,
friends, good food, and other wonderful gifts that life brings us. It all
comes down to what you want to focus on in the circumstances you have been
given. Even for those with a severe disability or illness, we find aspects
of our life that bring happiness, help us understand others, or understand
human existence in deeper ways than we ever thought possible. If we suffer
a loss we can allocate all of our emotional energy and focus on how
miserable we are, or how we cannot go on alone, or how the world has
victimized us, or we can find, even over time, that we have received some
enormous gifts of life and love in the context of the life we have.
Stevenson leaves us with the third verse of the Swing:
“Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown –
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down.”

Life send us up in the air, swinging through circumstances of joy and
sorrow, up and down, until we find the happiness we can attain in the gifts
we have received. How can we find the greatest degree of happiness? The
Universalists said that in God¹s desire to see you happy, you are already
saved. Their message is we must become aware of the blessings of living
that are already ours. Happiness is not found in seeking more, or in
saying, if only I had this … but in letting Hawthorne¹s butterfly alight
on what goodness is yours, and claiming the happiness you have. Clearly
letting go of those outward circumstances – those notions, those people that
were suppose to give us happiness, in our plan, or in our changes, but did
not, will help us look to where we can find happiness within, but most
especially in the wonders and joys we have been given in spite of our trials
of sorrow and pain. The act we have performed this morning helps reminds us
of this. It is reiterated in the reading from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Traditional theology has sometimes besmirched the beauty and happiness
that life could embrace by condemning our fellow travelers with such notions
as original sin, and then inventing schemes like baptism to wash them clean.
By this method they can choose the worthiness of some over others, and offer
true happiness in an after life to those chosen ones, while condemning the
rest of the race, who only want to enjoy the sweetness of life through its
bounty, its beauty, and its gifts of love. Gilead reminds us that a baptism
is not that traditional effort to make others unhappy with their
unworthiness, but rather is the opportunity each one of us has to confer a
blessing on another person. The minister who narrates the long letter to
his son in Gilead, John Ames. says that baptism does not enhance sacredness,
but acknowledges it. No church makes the lives in this creation any more
sacred than any other. We believe lives are all sacred equally. Happiness
then lies in acknowledging sacredness. I suspect we could call this
reverence.
Today we hold the life of this child before you. We say, have a happy
life. Some of us may think of degrees or high paying jobs, or being blessed
with children. It is good to have meaningful work, enhancing the life of
our minds, and being able to love others, but ultimately his happiness or
yours or mine will probably not be determined by external criteria – how
well we have filled out our chart of notions, or if we change our
circumstances. No, it will be on whether he loves the world. I mean all the
world. He will be happy if he finds joy in laughing with others, and in
creating a picture, or in singing, or writing, or speaking words of
compassion. He will be happy if the world is beautiful to him, and there is
a magical, unfathomable source of energy that seems to give it a common life
of eternal power that we see in a sparkling set of baby eyes, a smile, a
river¹s raging springtime torrent, a little crocus that fights the cold to
live. He will be happy if he knows that life is a joy, and it is up to us to
confer that joy and blessing on each other in as many moments of existence
as we can. It is a magical joy that Marcos is here. And a magical joy that
you are here. Happiness is finding joy in living.

How would you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.

Closing Words – ”Happiness” by Mary Oliver

In the afternoon I watched
the she-bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness —
honey, that the bees store
in the trees¹ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods. And then
she found it! The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees — honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly–
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings —
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover —
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.

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