First Parish of Watertown

Sermons

“Measure for Measure” Mark W. Harris – December 11, 2011

“Measure for Measure”  Mark W. Harris

 December 11, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist

 Call to Worship- – from  Luke 6:37-38

 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

 

Readings

 Psalm 39- 4-7

 Lord, let me know my end,

            And what is the measure of my days;

            Let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a few handbreaths,

            And my lifetime is nothing in your sight.

Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

            Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

            They heap up, and do not know who will gather.

 And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?

            My hope is in you.

 

“The Water Jug” by Jane Rzepka

 See also A Wind Swept Over the Waters by John Nichols

 

 

Sermon

 

            My wife and I have been known to disagree.  I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but in fact, it’s true.  This happened when Andrea was trying to write the introduction to our book.  She began with a story that includes Michael Servetus, the first person to question in print the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity.  She called him a cartographer, one who makes maps, while I highlighted in the next chapter of the book his subsequent career as a physician, for which he received some fame due to his findings on the circulation of the blood. Fearing that this would make it appear as though we did not know what we were talking about, I lobbied her to change her chapter. Surprisingly, she was unwilling to do so. With some reluctance, I then changed my wording in my chapter to read, Servetus, cartographer and physician.  While it is not unusual for people to change professions, I did not comprehend the connection between these two seemingly unconnected occupations until I recently attended an exhibit called: “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe” at the Sackler Museum over at Harvard. The exhibit includes lots of prints, map and instruments used to measure things, many of them celestial bodies.  Artists contributed a great deal to scientific investigations in the 16th century. Their work served scientific interests because it was used as a tool for research and the spread of knowledge. While walking through the exhibit, light bulbs began to flash above my head, as many of the prints were maps of the human body and the brain – bones, muscles, tissues were all graphically displayed with drawings showing how to use medical instruments and provide treatment.  Of course if you help make visual how the body works, then you can deduce how this actually happens in flesh and blood –seeing is believing, or better yet, knowing.  From cartographer to doctor made sense.  Andrea was right.  Again!

            It is perhaps not surprising that the birth of modern science and Unitarianism happened about the same time. You can see from our story how a more recent Unitarian, Fannie Farmer, wanted to apply scientific approaches to cooking, wanting much more than a few recipes on index cards. She hoped to explain why things in the kitchen work the way they do, and also wanted to systematize, meaning organize and sanitize everything, and most famously, standardize measurements to produce standardized results. For example, a handful of sugar from me, and a handful from a child produce very different batches of cookies.  For the invention of teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups, I am eternally grateful; because when I cook I measure everything in a very exacting way, following the example of my mother who painstakingly added cold water to her pie dough one measured teaspoon at a time.  My wife is one of those cooks who can just throw things together, but if I make something like pizza then it requires a careful measuring of oil, sugar, salt, yeast, water and flour. So before this sermon becomes a measure for measure comparison with my wife, we will move on.

Humanity has probably been obsessed with measuring things since the beginning of time.  Last week’s sermon based on the book and subsequent movie, Moneyball intimated that we look at, not only how professional athletes are evaluated and judged by a complicated sabermetrics system that goes far beyond mere batting averages, but that an analytic method is also symptomatic of how our whole culture, partly grounded in the power of the dollar, is based on numbers, test results, and data. And so some people purely on the basis on statistics, measure success.  Sometimes we presume you are a good teacher if your students do well on the test. This gets into all kinds of unfair and untestable variables. I promise not to make this a diatribe against MCAS testing again, but our obsession with measurable results has perverted the way many of our professions conduct business.  I often react negatively when I receive one of those standardized print outs after a visit to the doctor.  Every man over fifty now has to take a children’s low dose aspirin daily to prevent the risk of heart attack.  A quick look at my family history shows that heart attacks are unlikely, but that kind of personal data seems secondary because we do much of our prognosticating by numbers. Yet it does not take into account a stomach that might be irritated by the aspirin.  Does the statistical likelihood of something always make it the best option?    

An example of this reliance on numbers occurred recently when my son Asher brought home a form from his school nurse.  The form said that our 5’9” child was obese, and thus we needed to take several subsequent steps to reduce his weight, and get him checked out by a doctor and nutritionist.  There were a couple of problems with this.  First, my son Asher is a tall 13 year old.  In fact he is 6’ 1 1/2” tall, and not 5’ 9.”  Thus if she had measured him correctly, she would not have made the presumption that he is obese.  In fact, all she really needed to do was look at him. Asher is actually kind of slim, and you can see that by simple observation.  So she made all these presumptions, followed by all these demands based purely on false data. Of course, the lesson is we cannot purely measure health or success on numbers alone.

            Numbers and measuring things are all issues that surface at holiday time.  We often let the numbers dictate how we will feel.  Christmas is a time where we count the days.  As a child I remember the local daily paper counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas, calculated to raise anxiety in the last minute spenders.  We also felt childhood anticipation on the calendar that counted up instead of down, the successive Advent doors bringing us closer and closer to the excitement of Christmas Eve.  Then we sang of the twelve days of Christmas, lying in wait for the shout of five gold rings.  Numbers have played a role in the birth story, too, as the family trekked their way to Bethlehem because of a census, and scholars have prognosticated ever since when Jesus was actually born.  The season also invites us on an annual basis to count down until we greet the New Year at midnight on December 31.  As a child I remember that new invention, the television, giving people all over the nation the opportunity to tune in live to Times Square, so that this annual rite became something that could be shared with millions across America.  So we count days, and measure years in the march towards the future.  When we were in England a few year back, my family witnessed a more pedestrian daily rite in Greenwich, the mean time for the planet, whereby a pathetic little red ball slowly ascends a pole toward a weather vane, and then once it reaches the summit, keeps gawkers waiting for a couple of minutes, anticipating its own descent at precisely 1:00 p.m. every day.  This replicates an important event that has taken place daily since the early nineteenth century, giving ships on the Thames a precise time to set their chronometers by.  This clumsy little ritual is a reminder of how important it was to have accurate chronometers the instrument that solved the vexing problem of how to measure longitude, and allow ships to safely sail the seas.

            As you can guess by my cooking methods, I am one who puts great stock in measurements despite my fear of our over dependence upon numbers.  As a child I was continuously impressed by the sheer mammoth size of some dinosaurs, the weight of ten elephants for one such creature, and later when I studied the Civil War in such detail, I was engrossed by battlefield statistics of thousands killed, wounded and missing.  What did such overwhelming losses do to the hearts and souls of a people?  While we know that numbers may be a determining factor in our choice of likely successful baseball players or use test results to grade our teachers, what do numbers do for us?  Sometimes we let the numbers dictate how we feel.  I may be feeling the best I have felt in a long time with good diet and proper exercise, but then I may climb on the old scale, and see no visible results. Then it feels like I have made all this effort and have nothing to show for it.  Why do I bother?  But is it always appropriate to let those numbers dictate how we feel, and do we let the numbers control our lives?

            One thing that the Renaissance artists emphasized in their studies of the world was the importance of direct observation. This would have made a world of difference for the school nurse who judged Asher obese. We want her to take a closer look.  The holiday season with its focuses on counting and measuring invites us to take a closer look, too.  How do you measure what you need to do and spend to have a happy holiday?  How do you measure your life right now?  How do you measure the meaning of your days?

            Many of us have preconceived notions of what we should be doing for Christmas, and those pressures of decorating, or cooking, or especially purchasing gifts can make us feel overwhelmed. There is an expectation that we will spend so much, or give so many gifts.  As a family we have decided to cut back on the number of gifts we give this year, and yet I have found myself saying, will there be anything under the tree?  It will look so bare with fewer gifts.  Yet the reality among the adults in the family is who needs anything?  Why do we succumb to this pressure to let the number or value of gifts determine how good a Christmas we have.  Could we give gifts to those who need them, or allow our gifts to be an expression of our values or ourselves?  Could our gift be more time with a family member we have ignored.  Could our gift be to ourselves to take more time for reading, walking, meditating, building friendships, our spiritual development?  The measure of Christmas might be to ask ourselves at what price do we celebrate Christmas, and what a gift it would be if we let go of those expectations, and not feel guilty if we do.  The numbers remind us that it is very easy to get sucked into the promotions and the commercials of the season about invented obligations to family, or what really makes for a meaningful holiday, and most of us can remind ourselves that it is time and love that makes the difference, and nothing but time and love.

            This is where the reading by my friend Jane Rzepka can be a worthy guide. It is important that we not let these fabricated rules and ideas about what we need to do be the measure of our holiday celebrations.  We are the measure.  And when it feels like we are contemplating the jug the boy presented to Jane with no willingness to bargain, then we need to do exactly what Jane did, and walk away.  We all need to weigh again, or measure again, what it is we are doing with the way we intend to celebrate.  This applies not only to the measurement of the holiday season, but also the measurement we make of our lives, which is something the end of the year or even a birthday often calls up in us. When Caroline Dall, one of the leading feminists of the nineteenth century, turned sixteen she reported in her diary how her conscience trembled in contemplation “for wasted opportunities, slighted talents, and ungrateful murmurings.”  While we might not be so Puritan like in our self-examination of our shortcomings, we all tend to ask ourselves about vexing problems and issues, wondering if we should weigh the problem again.  As Jane suggests, if are we hanging on to the baby clothes, maybe we need to weigh again what we keep, and clean house.  Am I too old to go back to school?  I may think so, but weigh it again, and perhaps decide that you are never too old to study and grow into doing what you love.  Can’t paint?  Weigh that self-judgment, or that fear again, and find that artistic center.   Perhaps Fannie Farmer is the perfect example of how we should not measure an illness or a disease as a bellwether of possibility.  In Farmer’s case, she had this paralytic stroke that forced her to stay home, and she had limited use of her body.  Her weighing of this condition was not that she was useless or that her limp must hold her back.  She measured her illness differently, and asked instead, now that my body is like this, what can I do?  This led her to cooking, and ultimately to methods that involved nutrition, sanitation, child development, and even proper diet for the sick and elderly.  She created the science of running a home.  What if she measured herself useless?

            In the case of Fannie Farmer she literally showed what the author of the gospel of Luke wrote, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” If we don’t measure ourselves by our highest ideal, then we won’t end up measuring much of a result.  As I said last week, we need to look, not prejudge, nor presume.  We need to look at how broad and deep a measurement we can take. 

            A measure is many things.  In Biblical terms, a measure is actually a given measurement, as in weights and measures, and you get more in a measure like a bushel by pressing down, just like we press down on leaves to fill the bags.  It is good to put in as much as you can.  The implication is that when we give, more will be given back.  While that may not be our experience, we do know that if we don’t measure out a new possibility for ourselves for the condition we have, like Fannie Farmer, then the little we have will be lost.  It is sort of the like the diminished muscle tone I was feeling in my body.  I felt like I need to make a choice of going to the Y or losing my body strength.  The idea is that you establish a “character.”  If you are generous, people will be generous to you when you need it.

            So measure in the Biblical sense is an amount, and it is also the development of a giving character that is not always counting the cost.  It is also the measure of our days.  We worry about spending and getting on the holidays, and the Psalmist says, surely for nothing you are in turmoil.  We worry about success and money, and the Psalmist says it is all mere shadow, and you are grasping at mere breath.  How do you measure your days?   None of us knows how long we will live.  We can guess at genes and family history. We can eat right and lift weights.  We often want a number to measure our days, but numbers do not give a measure of quality or even of the time we have.   If I become sick tomorrow, will I grieve the time I fear I am going to lose? Will we regret the short time we have, or use it to its best advantage?  Would I count the days down in dread? Would I hope that I could change things?  Sometimes we measure Christmas by how much we are able to get done.  What if we measured our days by enjoying the time we have together.  What if we measured every hour as valuable?  What if instead of wishing that out loved ones loved us more, that we see the love and care that is offered to us now? What if we are so anxious to see or do or buy the next thing that we fail to see what life is offering us right now? What if instead of planning the next thing, or waiting for something to be over, we simply enjoy the experience?  We never want to measure our lives by what we did not do. We need to measure the health in our bodies by what we have right now, and not worry about what tomorrow brings. When we measure that life is short (my Biblical three score is gone), and life is beautiful (seeing a red sky at night, a visual delight) and that people need each other (measure the look of someone wanting to be noticed by you), then the greatest measurement we can make is to glean meaning from every single day.  Measure the gift that you are and what you can offer to others, and then, what more is there to measure?  Let us not miss what life offers each day.  As Psalm 90 offers the wisdom not to let our days slip away, but “to count our days rightly, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

 

Closing Words – from Edward Ericson

 

If we fill our lives with things, and more things

If we feel that we must fill every moment that we have with activity,

If we feel we can only follow loud voices and bright lights,

 

When will we have time to make the long, slow journey across the burning desert, as did the wise men?

Or sit and watch the stars, as did the shepherds?

Or brood over the coming of a child, as did Mary?

For each of us, there is a desert to cross, a star to discover and follow, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

May we make room for the gift of Christmas, and bring love into our hearts.

 

 

 

 

“Missed Perceptions” by Mark W. Harris – December 4, 2011

“Missed Perceptions”     by Mark W. Harris

 

December 4, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship – from Mark W. Harris

 

This is the season of darkness, bringing a longing for the lost light.

We await the return of the sun, starting its long climb once more to fill the earth with life.

We want the warmth and light of the fire, to fend off the darkness we see so early in the day. The dark brings images to our minds of distress and evil, the unknown, with things we cannot see, and we are frightened of.  Despite these fears, may we also come to embrace the beauty in darkness.  Bring us winter season a sense of freedom from the glare of too much light.  Let us learn to welcome a soft, embracing darkness, a friend that envelops us with calm and quiet, with no distractions, but only a place of rest and renewal, of possibilities and dreams.  May we be at home in the darkness of the season, in a place where our souls may rest from growth and frenzy. Now in the darkness of our souls, may we be soothed and comforted once again, that we each might know once more a sense of serenity and peace.

 

First Reading – from Slouching Towards Kalamazoo by Peter de Vries

 Second Reading – from Moneyball by Michael Lewis

 

 Sermon

 

            We each have our own perceptions of reality.  Through experiences, relationships, and various modes of learning, we gain a sense of how things have or should happen, Because we all live in our own unique worlds, we may not share realities with each other.  We may each see things differently, and our perceptions then overlap and interact. Those perceptions may be strikingly different, and may clash, but moreover, they may be entirely inaccurate. We are always in a process of creating reality together, based on individual perceptions. So it’s important that they be as truthful as possible. There was an egregious case of misperception this week when a first grader in Boston was accused of sexual harassment  for kicking another boy in the groin during a fight. For one thing it appears the boy was acting in self-defense after he was choked while trying to retrieve some stolen gloves. Second, it was an action taken in a fight, and had no relationship to sexual harassment, which is about patterns of abuse, and which the first grader probably had no concept of anyway. While it may be a good thing that schools are vigilant about bullying and violence, they ought to pay attention to what actually happens before applying labels that give the perception that an act occurred, but had no basis in reality.

There were also some misperceptions in the hiring of the new Red Sox manager this week. We were told it was a mutual decision among management, but it hardly seemed so when the team president swooped in, identified his personal choice, and he is the one who was hired. Other kinds of misperceptions in baseball may tell us even more about life.  A few weeks ago I saw the movie “Moneyball,” based on the book of the same title by Michael Lewis.  Moneyball begins with the premise that the business of major league baseball is an unfair game.  Some teams, like our beloved Sox, have all the money, and others, like the Oakland A’s do not.   How do they compensate and try to win on this uneven playing field? Enter a new general manager, and his nerdy assistant from Yale who begin to use statistical analysis in their search for talented, but inexpensive players.  To find these players, they must nurture a new way of perceiving talent.   The old way of finding talent is mostly fueled by visual perception.  They took the players with the right tools and the great bodies.  This is kind of like the stereotypical perceptions that two members of my immediate family often receive.  My wife is tall for a woman, and so people say, “oh you must have played basketball.”  Then the karate sensei sees my six foot five, two hundred and forty pound son, and says, “Oh, you should play football.”  Needless to say, these perceptions are not very perceptive.

            The Oakland A’s management wanted to turn the game on its head, get outside the box that dominated traditional thinking, and prove that manly and muscular homerun hitters who we usually perceive as the producers of the requisite number of runs winning games with blasts from their bats, may not actually produce as much as players with large derrieres who get on base by much less exciting means, such as taking a walk.  As the movie and book progress, the team implements the new strategy, but never fully explain it to a befuddled manager who operates from the old school of great body means great player.  There are a couple of important learnings that come from this story; one of which I will explore more next week.  This is that statistics or numbers cannot measure everything, no matter how they are broken down and analyzed.  There is timing and chemistry and chance and injury and who knows what else.  After all, despite this religion of sabermetrics, the A’s have actually never won anything. 

            The other message in this story has to do with how we perceive others, and how that prejudices the judgments we make all the time.  In the movie, the General Manager follows this newfound faith based on his own experience of being the naturally skilled and great-bodied player who failed as a major leaguer.  Enter Chad Bradford.  Like the awkwardly shaped hitters who walk a lot, Bradford was a pitcher who under the traditional perception of who makes a good pitcher would have been ignored, laughed at, or even scorned.  One look informed by the traditional perception of whom and what makes a good pitcher would have earmarked him for failure.  His motion is unusual and awkward.  Lewis tells us that Bradford wants to pitch like a normal pitcher.  Bradford has his own submarine style, but the new faith teaches that the effects of the style are all that matter, not the appearance or the presumptive necessary techniques.  Pitchers need to get outs, and the style, manner or appearance of how they get those outs does not matter. And then, there is the intangible quality of imagination, or perhaps a feel or intuitive knowledge of how to get those outs.  Under normal circumstances, to look at Bradford, no one would have given him a chance. But he loved the game, adapted with each new challenge, and knew he had to use deception and guile.  His ball didn’t have movement, but he did.  What if we adapt our perceptions, and make room for the possible before we rush to judgment that it won’t work? 

            The perceptions we live by are in many ways the truths, or even the stereotypes that govern our lives.  These perceptions may be driven by the appearance of our surroundings.  Young people, at least when I was growing up, were often told never go into a bar that does not have windows which you can see out of.  The perception is that this is a place where bad things occur inside, and no one can see in to help or protect you.  These perceptions may be made up of the larger truths that emerge from the culture we live in.  In baseball’s culture for instance, they defied the culture that taught that a pitcher could only receive major league consideration if his delivery matched what was perceived as the proper style or motion. How often have we all heard in our jobs, or in home repair projects – “it must be done this way.” A prominent perception from more than a century and a half ago was that woman should not be allowed to preach in any church.  It was widely believed that women’s voices were not strong enough, that they were too emotional and thus could not engage in rational discourse and decision making, and they need to set examples of being wives and mothers.  Olympia Brown and others like her challenged this perception by showing that no cultural, social or ecclesiastical power had the right to hinder her in her calling to serve.  These perceptions seem antiquated to us now, especially since more than half our ministers are women, but it is not yet a universal perception. It was my privilege this fall to preach from Olympia Brown’s pulpit in Racine, Wisconsin, and meet a woman who is now in her nineties, who once knew Brown, although her chief memory was not pleasant, being coerced to curtsy to her, as if she were the Queen.  My perception that the experience should have been magical was hardly based in her reality. 

            Our perceptions are the products of who we have become over the course of our lives.  But when we underscore that the world needs to be this particular way, then we are rejecting or ignoring others ways to perceive the world.  We may fail to give a new idea or a person a chance because it or they seem unorthodox or awkward. While we cannot determine or be responsible for how others perceive the world, we can choose to respond to those perceptions with openness to new or other possibilities.  We achieve a certain freedom when we stop believing that the world needs to be a certain way.  How can we address the misperceptions we live by?

            Here in our Unitarian Universalist church a common perception is that Unitarian Universalists are not spiritual.  We are the rational, perfectly in control faith that denies any experience that exceeds what we experience as the natural world.  Some people assume we do not have experiences of God, or supernatural events, and anyone who admits to such a weird thing does not really belong here.  Is that true?  I know people who feel embarrassed to share that kind of religious experience in UU churches, because their perception is that we don’t accept that kind of experience.  Many of us perceive that a good education means we are immune from problems like addiction, but that is hardly the case.  We have been so focused on personal salvation by education, do we tend to perceive that an educated person is a moral person?

What is it we mean by spiritual? Is it that we want more emotion expressed – like love or affection, because our perception is that that is spiritual, and we are too often misperceived as Emerson once said, as corpse cold. Yet we have people who cry every time they set foot in the church.  Plus who is to say that feeding the hungry, or helping a child, or taking a meditative walk are not all spiritual things.  I have a historian friend who describe her study of UU history as a spiritual practice, and yet more often than not we would label that rational or intellectual. We may perceive the person or community in a certain way, but we may be dead wrong.  When I attended seminary in Berkeley, I was afraid to admit to my classmates that I was passionately devoted to baseball.  My perception was that they would think that was too mainstream and establishment.  And so when I went to see those Oakland A’s, I never invited any of them, or told them what I was doing. My perception of how they would judge me, thus led me to hide my own true self. So perhaps the first way to let our misperceptions go is to not let them prevent us from being honest with ourselves and others.

            The first thing to remember, then, is don’t let false perceptions limit what we can do or even determine our action or lack thereof when they have no basis in reality. In the novel Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Peter deVries describes the phenomenon of the words becoming truth even if there is no evidence of a reality being there. Speaking of an identity crisis may help precipitate one.  I may not have perceived that I was burned out, but I learned the word, and someone implied it, so perhaps we allow it to be perceived as truth, even though it may not be so  The underachieving teenager Anthony says his mother might have avoided a mid-life crises she experienced if she had never heard the word.  Be careful what you perceive as truth. Look at our ecological crisis. Most climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.  Yet contrary to this fact, a study shows that 2/3 of Americans, as may be obvious by the rhetoric of Republican candidates, believe that scientists actually disagree about this.  The people  said scientists don’t agree, when they actually do. They claimed the scientists either disagree or are not sure, or just don’t know enough.  And what does this misperception lead to?  Well, naturally the people are less likely to support programs to reduce global warming.  What this does is help undermine certainty about the need to act, and makes us wonder if we can ever deal with the problem. Maybe it is the power of the media to create confusion about the truth. They can often give the perception that a few clouds is the next blizzard of ’78 or that a shooting in one school makes all of them deadly and dangerous.  Misperception like this can make us want to give up.  Here is where the spirit of Chad Bradford can inspire us.  He was determined to find a way to pitch, and would not let his unorthodox style or his own personal idiosyncrasies deter him.  Those of us who get overly anxious about how others will perceive us, or judge us, often struggle in interviews, and hope that others will see through the impression of great bodies or smooth presentation and not undervalue us, but see through to the qualities of past performance or hidden potential, and give us a chance to show our loveable and talented selves.

            A second thing to remember is to notice who you are talking to.   In a former church where I served I remember a wealthy parishioner coming into the office one day to talk about her trials of getting ready for a big ski vacation in Colorado.  She went on and on about the difficult hours of preparation and packing the bags for her big family.  As she shared this plan with our barely surviving middle class church administrator who worked two jobs, I knew the rage would fly as soon as the vacationer left.  Our perception of what is normal, or what is an everyday expense is often not the experience of every other person in our community.  Some of our UU churches have given up the water communion because they felt like it was a competition to see who had the grandest, most expensive vacation.  I had this experience myself recently when a woman was telling me about driving down to Long Island for regional running meets so she could showcase her daughter for college coaches in the competition to get noticed.  I felt like her daughter was being groomed to be a racehorse.  Why did she think I would encourage this show of competitive thirst for success in children?  We need to be sensitive to the person on the receiving end of what we perceive to be so important, especially when it comes to showcasing our money, or our children because it is easy to make others feel bad.

            The third thing to remember is to give everybody a chance.   As you know there are lots of misperceptions about immigration. These perceptions are usually widely divergent.  One view is that we need to send all these illegals back, and the other is that they are entirely beneficial, and do all the jobs we refuse to do.  As Damien Cave said in the New York Times, facts don’t seem to affect these perceptions.  While each side spews their perception of truth, no one addresses the actual system of immigration, and so there is no good process to separate out those who should be shown a way to stay, and others who should leave by virtue of criminal records.  The perception might be that they are defying a system in place where there are readily available visas, but people as we know, wait years and years, even decades.  The lack of a fair system really gives very little chance to follow a clear pathway to becoming citizens, especially those who are unskilled or come from what is perceived as an unfavorable location. 

            In our own lives we want people to perceive us with fresh eyes.  When the Buddha was a young boy his family tried to protect him from seeing the pain and sorrow that exists in the world, and so his perception of the world was the idyllic surroundings of the royal castle.  Enlightenment came for him after he left that castle to see what the world really was like.  For one thing he saw that there were many perceptions of the world, and people’s different experiences of it, and together they had to co-create a more loving and just place.  How we would do that is not be governed by misleading perceptions, and then to remember that we all have our own gospel of perceptions, and we as co-creators of a world need to open ourselves to the experience of others.  We do that by giving them a chance.  Historically Unitarian educators, following a belief in human potential and innate worth, said give a chance to those who are often perceived as worthless or uneducable.  Samuel Gridley Howe, the first Director of what is now Perkins School for the Blind helped Laura Bridgman become the first person to learn to communicate even though she was deaf and blind.  He believed we must open our minds and truly perceive that everyone should be given an opportunity to learn in their own way.  This, too was at the heart of Jesus’ message. As we begin to celebrate the season of his birth, we remember how people were confused about how to see him, and he asked, Who do you say that I am?  The perceptions of his enemies were things such as misfit, country bumpkin, and troublemaker.  What he was doing was challenging people to change the way they see and act in the world, and it was threatening. His radical invitation to let the stranger, or the rejected, or the ones who we perceived as worthless to sit down at the welcome table and enjoy dinner with him troubled those who followed the cultural and religious perception of what was acceptable.  Can we challenge those perceptions of truth we live by,  and open our hearts to how others see things, too?  

Closing Words – from Dom Helder Camara

Come Lord!

Do not smile and say

you are already with us.

Millions do not know you

and to us who do,

what is the difference?

What is the point

of your presence

if our lives do not alter?

Changes our lives, shatter

our complacency.

Make your word

flesh of our flesh,

blood of our blood

and our life’s purpose.

Take away the quietness

of a clear conscience.

Press us uncomfortably.

For only thus

that other peace is made,

Your peace.

 

 

“Blessing the Curse” by Mark W. Harris – November 27, 2011

“Blessing the Curse”  by Mark W. Harris

 November 27, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship – from Gordon McKeeman

 For simple things that are not simple at all;

For miracles of the common way –

Sunrise – Sunset

Seedtime – Harvest

Hope – Joy – Ecstasy;

For grace that turns

Our intention into deeds,

Our compassion into helpfulness,

Our pain into mercy;

For providence that

Sustains and supports our needs;

We lift our hearts in thankfulness,

And pray only to be more aware

And thus

More alive.

 

Reading – from Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus

 

Sermon

 “Blessing the Curse”  by Mark W. Harris  

 

            Can you bless a curse?  Who would ever want to be thankful for those things that bring us pain or remorse.  And yet if we review our lives we probably can recall many instances when things occurred that we wished had not, but then over time, and in retrospect, we find that it was for the best that this seeming curse occurred.  Sometimes the things that happened to us that seemed liked curses at one time turn out to be blessings in the end.  When the Biblical hero Job loses just about everything, his friends tell him to curse God, but as you may remember, he refuses.  He trusts that some greater meaning will arise from all these losses. 

            Does blessing the curse mean I should be thankful for all the losses my team suffered, or that I was rejected at the college I really wanted to go to, or that my first marriage did not work out, and I was divorced, or that the job of my dreams was open, and they never even granted me an interview, or I was happy to be engulfed by a giant wave, and swept out to sea?  These don’t exactly sound like things that should have brought eternal gratitude, but we may come to bless, not merely accept, many of those things that we would not have wanted to happen.

            Thanksgiving is the annual time when we usually reflect on those things in our lives for which we are truly grateful.  Traditionally we remember it as a harvest festival, and we express our gratitude that we are nourished each day by the fruits of the earth, and also remember our responsibility to care for the earth so that its plenty may always be available to us.  We also remember our national traditions, that people seeking religious freedom came to these shores, suffered and persevered, and then gave thanks that they survived disease and hunger and despair, and had the will and the vision to create a new life for themselves and their children.  Finally, each of us remembers family traditions, personal memories of joyful blessings when the family was together to savor and celebrate a bountiful feast.  One of our Watertown luminaries, Lydia Maria Child, who we remember for the song, Over the River, celebrated Thanksgiving with more than 30 family acquaintances in Medford when she was growing up there with her family, including her brother, Convers Francis, our former minister.  She recalls these celebrations as the one happy time in her otherwise miserable childhood.  So, the holiday arrives, and we recall personal memories, the traditions that inform our lives, and the celebrations that make us happy, even if only for a day.

            Yet each of these Thanksgiving memories may have a curse attached to it.  What if we recall a miserable childhood like Lydia Maria Child?  Is one big dinner a year enough to redeem an otherwise lonely or loveless life?  Do we really want to give thanks for such an occasion, when we actually feeling like cursing the family members who either ignore us or treat us poorly, just as Child could not be grateful for a mother who was worn out and ill, or a father who ignored her, or couldn’t deal with her independent spirit.  But perhaps the fact that she was ignored, and left to her own devices helped foment that independent spirit. Sometimes what we thought was the perfect job or relationship turns out to be less than attractive.  Even as we ponder our national symbol of pilgrims struggling to find religious freedom, or reflect on that bounty we have, curses jump out there as well.  When we hold up the Pilgrims, we are also reminded of the Native Americans and how they suffered at the hands of the pioneers.  Longfellow’s depiction of a mild mannered Miles Standish hardly jives with the mercenary who exterminated the natives.  Then the bounty also reminds us that others are hungry, and we have a responsibility to see that they are cared for.  Each blessing we acknowledge reminds us of larger cultural or societal tragedies.

            This week the Globe had an article about how many students were seeking early admission to Harvard.  I have a fair amount of loyalty to my own alma mater, Bates College.  Bates and Harvard had a connection through the life of Peter Gomes, the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church and author who died this past year. Gomes once gave a sermon on making choices. He told how he was rejected by his first choice of school, Bowdoin College.  At the time he was crushed, and thought he would never get over it, or achieve all that he hoped for in life.  Most of us realize in retrospect that whatever we want to achieve in life is usually accomplished through hard work and personal vision, and not the reputation of a school.  Gomes said that at the time, it did not matter what his second choice was, because, as he said, “it wasn’t my first choice, and they didn’t choose me.” Years later Gomes was asked to speak at a special anniversary celebration at Bowdoin.  When the president of Bowdoin introduced Gomes by saying it was his first visit to the school, Gomes had to correct him.  “On my first visit, you chose not to accept me. . . But your choice enabled me to make my choice, which was to go to Bates, where I was so well educated that I am now able to speak to you today.  His curse became his blessing.  Just this year, Bates decided to name its college chapel, the Gomes Memorial Chapel.

            My experience was similar to that of Gomes, and I ended up at Bates as well. Now many years later I am grateful that I did, for I found the most dedicated teachers imaginable in a challenging and stimulating dialogue of learning.  Can we make our apparent curses into opportunities for blessings? Gomes took his rejection, and said, “Your choice enabled me to make my choice.”  Who knows if Bowdoin would have been a blessing or a curse for Gomes, but his set back enabled him to make a choice that was truly a blessing on his life. He can say it was a good thing I was rejected because I never would have known this other experience I came to love.

            This reminds me of a story from India that I have told you before.  Long ago there was a king that ruled the land.  He had an assistant who was known for his wisdom, but he had a strange habit that annoyed the king.  Whatever happened, he would always respond by saying, “that is good.”  For instance, one day the king was out hunting, and his horse was startled by a snake.  The king was thrown from the horse, and suffered a severe injury to his toe, which had to be amputated.  As the assistant examined the damage, he remarked, “That is good.”  The king was outraged, that he would say something like that. How insensitive, the king thought, and the assistant was fired immediately.  But of course, the now former asssitant responded with the seeming nonsensical, “that is good.”  The king returned home minus his toe.  Some weeks later, he went on another hunting excursion.  This time he became separated form the rest of his entourage.  A local, violent tribe who were known to sacrifice their prisoners captured the king.  He was tied up and taken back to their village.    Soon they began to prepare him for the sacrifice by washing him and decorating him.  There was much music and dancing in celebration.  The king was terrorized, and nearly fainted when the chief priest approached him with a long, sharp knife.  But when the priest examined him for the sacrifice, he noticed he was defective.  He saw the missing toe, and remarked, “this one is no good. He has been cut.”  They could not sacrifice an imperfect being, and so they cut the ropes and let him go.    Once he was back at his palace, he called for his old assistant to return to his job.  When he appeared the king said, “you were right.  It was good that I lost my toe, but tell me why did you say, that is good when I fired you from your job?”  “There is always some good to come out of things your highness.  If I had been with you the day you were captured, they would have sacrificed me, because my body has no missing fingers or toes. I would have been next in line.”  “You’re right,” said the king, “that is good.  And so is your wisdom.”  And so the king brought him back to advise him.  And it was good.  My father had a similar experience to this. His curse was that he was born with a tumor in his left arm that made his fingers shorter.  It was enough of a disability to give him the draft classification of 4F when it came time to serve in the war.  His service on local civilian defense teams may have saved his life.

            While UUs would be loathe saying that there is some higher good that God has planned, we do know from our own experiences that even in the midst of tragedy some good is found.  People rally around those they love.  They help out.  They build deeper connections.  Some good is found in the nature of our response to these seeming curses.  We could say that what I really wanted in life was taken away from me, and what has happened is horrible and will destroy me.  Or we can take that rejection or curse, and use it as the building block for a blessing.  We can make the best of any circumstances we find ourselves in.  Each of us is limited in the number of options we have, and that is what gives us the freedom to make the choice of a blessing.  Look at Andre DuBus from our reading.  He had been physically disabled by a terrible car accident, but he makes his daily crippling a sculpture of the truth that we both receive and lose, and that we must try to achieve gratitude, with whatever remains after the losses.   Even those in prison can exercise their freedom by deciding how they will respond to the imprisonment.  It was said of Nelson Mandela that during all the years of imprisonment in South Africa for conscience’s sake, he was the only free person in the country.  As Peter Gomes realized, our blessings in life come not from the reputation of a college, or the name brand of a product, but from our willingness to act on what options have been given to us. We can make that school we didn’t want into the one that gives us the best education we could possibly have, maybe even by the power of our own effort and attitude.  Even if life frequently presents us with losses or failures that seem like curses, there is the simple power each of us has to bless or curse the life around us.

            There are many things within our normal routines of life to which we can give either a blessing or a curse.  To give your blessing to something means that you support it or look with favor upon it.  This is easy to do when you are in favor of a plan or a person’s behavior, but less so when you do not smile upon what is going on. We all know this power in our personal lives. There are choices children make with their lives, such as whether to go to college or not.  What if they decide to open a restaurant rather than be a minister? Can a parent give the blessing to the child, if the child does not do exactly as the parent hoped or wished for?  I knew several people who entered seminary to live out the acceptable way they could attain their father’s blessing, Most ended up regretting that decision.  It is difficult to watch children make choices of job or partner that we may disapprove of, as we always want it to be what we perceive as the right decision.  But is it up to us to decide which is right, and can we bless one that does not fulfill our expectation?  The test is for the feminist to love the girl who wants dolls, and the academic to love the child who would rather play, and not study.  The list goes on and on.  Can we bless a child who does not want to play ball, but prefers music?  Can we bless a partner who wants to go back to school or change jobs, and can we bless a partner when the vows of the marriage forces us to deal with for worse, rather than for better.

            Life asks each of us what will we do with the gifts that are given to us.  When we suffer some kind of curse, some loss or failure, can we use our gifts to find a blessing in what we have?  Can we use our freedom to bless our intelligence, our perseverance, our warmth of heart, and use those gifts to create a blessing out of our lives.  The misfortunes we suffer reveal the loyalty of our friends.  The problems we encounter awaken our imagination and call forth renewed efforts form us. The conflicts we are embroiled in, help us discover our ability to be forthright and state what we want, and may heal a relationship with the use of honesty and forgiveness.  Even our defeats help us acknowledge that we are not perfect, and that our imperfections make us more human and more loveable to others.  And finally, while the passing years remind us of our mortality, and the loss of strength, the fleeting time also reminds us how precious life is, and that its blessings must be seen and felt each day.  And so we give a rousing blessing for all those things that we would not have wanted to happen, all those curses, for they are the very stuff of how we have grown and discovered and lived.  We come to know that the blessing, which is our life, is made up of the curses we have learned from and overcome and built upon in the journey we are on.  And this might make each of us a little more gentle with each other – when a church does something we don’t approve of, or a child take a different college or career path than the one we might have chosen, or someone we love is going through a difficult time, then we might remember that all of us encounter so many curses in life – rejections, failures, difficulties, that the power we have to give a blessing to another is especially welcome.  In the Bible, Jacob has to wrestle with the angel, and ends up injuring his leg in order to receive a blessing.  The blessing comes from the pain of surviving the ordeal. So may Thanksgiving remind each of us that we have the power within us to bless the world, and the world needs us to do so again and again.  No matter what has befallen us, we can shape our response, we can realize our freedom, and affirm the beauty in each of us, and in the world, and say, it is blessed.

 

Closing Word – from Rebecca Parker – “Choose to Bless the World”

Your gifts-whatever you discover them to be-

Can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,

The strength of the hands,

The reaches of the heart,

The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,

 

Waiting

 

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,

Bind up wounds,

Welcome the stranger,

Praise what is sacred,

Do the work of justice

Or offer love.

 

Any of these can draw down the prison door,

Hoard bread,

Abandon the poor,

Obscure what is holy,

Comply with injustice

Or withhold love.

 

You must answer this question:

What will you do with your gifts?

 

Choose to bless the world.

 

The choice to bless the world

Can take you into solitude

To search for the sources

Of power and grace;

Native wisdom, healing and liberation.

 

More, the choice will draw you into community,

The endeavor shared,

The heritage passed on,

The companionship of struggle,

The importance of keeping faith,

The life of ritual and praise,

The comfort of human friendship,

The company of earth,

Its chorus of life

Welcoming you.

 

None of us alone can save the world.

Together-that is another possibility,

Waiting.

 

 

 

“Flames of Truth” by Mark W. Harris – November 6, 2011

Sermon – “Flames of Truth”  by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 6, 2011

Call to Worship

In this season of falling leaves, when all the bright greens of summer turn crimson, honey and bittersweet, and float down to rest on the hardening earth, we remember all those forebears who have gone before; we recall the heroes of our faith who by cross or stake,  jail or protest march, or everyday work and travail  have been present to the life of the spirit in all their suffering, in all their human courage and integrity, in all the love that binds them forever to us, part of the eternal process that brings them and us out of nothing. We are blessed by their souls; those who live and die for human good. May we remember those lives who have borne witness to truth, healed and blessed the world, and may the testimony of our consciences help us claim a sacred way of living, granting peace to those who have gone before, expressing our gratitude for life, and inspiring us to live generously with and for others, making life more glorious for those who follow.

 

Readings –  from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

       from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

 

Calvin Meets Servetus

 

Narrator: 

Michael Servetus is 500 years old this year.  That’s old.  Born in Spain in 1511,  Michael grew up thinking he would be a lawyer like his father, but two thing happened that changed his mind.  First, he read the Bible, and he discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was a human being who taught us how to live by loving others, and was not the lifeless God of the creeds, who people worshipped.   Later Michael saw the Pope crown the king of Spain, and he was horrified by how the people carried the Pope through the streets, fell at his feet and bowed down to him as if he was  some kind of God.  Michael decided to publish a book pointing out the errors in the doctrine of the Trinity.  It was the first Unitarian book, and it was a best seller, but it got him in trouble.  Both the Catholic church and the Protestant reformers came after him.  He spent more than twenty years on the run.  He even escaped from jail once.  Living under an assumed name, he became a doctor and did some important work on the circulation of the blood.  Finally, he was thrown in jail in Geneva, Switzerland, and that’s where we meet him.  

 

(Servetus is in jail cell, and Calvin enters)

Calvin:  Servetus, do you know me?

Servetus: Yes, right well, though we have both aged since we first laid eyes upon one another.  I was in the crowd at church, listening to you preach, when they seized me.  Do you always cry of victory over beaten foes?

Calvin: When they are foes of God and the people of this city, then I have served the Almighty well.

(S):  You think that God is always on your side, and agrees with whatever you see fit.  I am sure that is a comfort.  I wish I was so sure of myself.  I  worry that I would confuse God with my own brain.

© Do not scoff at me.  Many years ago you wrote a book of heresy and lies, and now you have written yet another.   You incite the people to rebel.

(S)  I never saw that you gave any answers to my questions when we had a chance to debate.  Now you put me behind bars, and chain my hands and feet.  What kind of argument is that?  Why not use your brain? 

©  Fool! You are so stubborn.  I would have you yield.  My arguments matter little beside the Truth that is revealed in holy scripture (holds the Bible up).  I offer you peace, not a sword, but you must recant your heresy.  You must believe that Jesus is the perfect son, the eternal God.

(S) A thousand times no.  I have read those scriptures, too, and studied them from my youth.  I said it was an error then, and that I still believe.  There is no Trinity, you make a three headed God, when I find only one.  This is a fiction the church made up and foistered on the people.

© All the wise theologians from the beginning bear witness to this Truth.  You speak blasphemy.  You are surely mad.  You love yourself and what you say.

(S)  Others join me in this folly, and some day there will be more. Look around, our numbers will grow. We place our trust in God, and the use of reason. I must follow the truth that I see with mine own eyes.

© So your heart is hardened.  I will not waste my time on you any more. I have tried to make this city, these people, pure, and undefiled, and yet you would poison them with your heresy.  (Calvin leaves)

(Calvin outside the cell) 

That devil cannot be free again, even if he would confess his sin.  I must preach the word of righteousness and truth. I will stand upon a watch tower to guard against wolves and robbers.  This man Servetus – he is the wolf who would eat the sheep.  He is the robber who would steal their souls.   

 

(Servetus)  –  Recant?  Take back the truth?  I would never lie when my heart knows the honest truth.   The world will judge who was right and who was wrong, but nonetheless, I know that each and every soul deserves a fair hearing in the court of human discourse

 

Narrator: After Servetus died, Calvin’s treatment of him outraged people all over Europe.  This marked the beginning of the idea of religious tolerance, that people with different ideas about God can live together and respect each other’s views without wanting to deny, persecute, jail or even kill those who think differently from one another.  Today we remember Michael Servetus, as the first Unitarian, who taught us to question and doubt, to use our minds when we read and study religious books, and to respect and listen to one another’s ideas and opinions.  His ideas spread all over Europe, and help start the Unitarian church in Poland and Transylvania. 

 

 

 

 

 Sermon –  “Flames of Truth”  by Mark W. Harris

 

  I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition, and so, as Kathlenn Norris notes in our reading, it has always been more difficult for me to feel religious trust.  We sang the old hymn Trust and Obey, but I felt more of the obey than the trust. I had one of those Monster Gods inflicted upon me.  It wasn’t so much my parents doing.  I think they hardly noticed that the preacher told us how sinful we all were, and that we needed Jesus to save us from the devil, and his accursed temptations.    My mother smiled sweetly, and my father ranted at how long and boring the sermons were.  I endured, and took what the preacher was saying very seriously.   When I recited the seemingly innocuous bedtime prayer that ends, “and if  I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul will take,”  I was frightened by it, and sweated through the night thinking what might happen if I did die before morning.  After I survived childhood, I needed some faith I could count on besides rebellion or rejection of that childhood religion that was still percolating in me through my anger and lack of trust.  Even as I began to try to reason it all out, and found some foundation of individual worth and freedom from constraint in personal and intellectual explorations, it was simply not enough.  I needed someone or something to be there for me.

The question of religious inheritance is a big one for many Unitarian Universalists, for up until recently few have been raised in the faith.  We are mostly adult converts, from either that monster God inheritance, or increasingly no inheritance, a mostly secular upbringing.  Yet we all construct some new foundation of faith out of whatever inheritance we have.  When we experience love or learning or friendship or creativity or beauty then we feel more acclimated to the world that some of us felt was always ready to bite us.  We start to build a mature faith, not one dependent on not breaking God’s or the church’s petty rules, but more on the acts of love we perform, and a life of integrity and conviction that those acts grow from.  Kathleen Norris says that Emily Dickinson once wrote that she could be Eve, the mother of all.  We never read in scripture that Eve died.  Could she live on?  Did she live when our mothers or some caregiver came to our bedside when we cried out in the night in pain?  Was she there?   Didn’t that hand of love brush away the terror we felt?  Maybe we all have a sweet moment of memory of a hand on our forehead, of a gentle word, or a cold cloth wiping the sweating brow, holding us close.  In what little moments does Eve still live?  She is there in the memory of comfort and care.  She put the world together for us, and perhaps it seemed as though she stayed all night, even as we fell to sleep.  She gave up her sleep to stay by our side.  She chose this life of parenthood, but then fulfilled it, by being the world builder, the world holder.

When we choose to become part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation we adopt or embrace an inherited faith.  It becomes ours. You learned this morning in our skit that our liberal faith began during a time when there was widespread opportunity to study and interpret the Bible with honesty and integrity.  This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus.  As a young man he read the texts, and concluded that Jesus was not God. He believed that loving, acts of compassion were more important than believing. His anti-Trinitarian works encouraged others to examine the texts for themselves leading to the institutional foundations of our movement in Poland and Transylvania.  Printing presses spread the word.  But the word could also be burned by those who said it corrupted susceptible hearts.  Of 1,000 copies of Servetus’ book, The Restitution of Christianity, that were printed, only three survive.  One of the burned ones was strapped to his leg when he lost his life at the stake, “Flames of Truth”.  That was something we did not share with the children this morning. We may forget how hard the struggle for freedom of inquiry once was, and still remains.  We may also forget that the origins of our faith are in those Biblical texts, and what kind of influence they have on our own hearts.

It is difficult for us today to get our minds around the large scale burning of books and people.   We often think about it in the context of who is doing the burning, and how evil they are.  Yet for Calvin, this heresy was a violation of the word of God, the absolute truth that would bring about salvation.  Heresies were also a threat to the preservation of the community.  On the other hand, Servetus gave what we sometimes refer to as the ultimate sacrifice, he gave his life to uphold what he perceived as truth.  We can see his sacrifice as an act that paved the way for freedom of conscience as a civil right in modern society.  In a way it is a communal gift to us, in building the foundation of our faith as UUs, and to the  larger world.  It is sometimes said that the public reaction to the sacrifice of his life led to a widespread calling for religious toleration.   Perhaps Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state are children of Servetus, and all of us, UUs and others, the inheritors of this sacrifice of faith.

Yet we are a little squeamish about those who give up their life for a greater cause or religious truth.  Just this week, a friend of the young man from Sudbury who is accused of terrorism, revealed details of their conversations.  He said how they spoke about dying for their faith, using the cryptic phrase, “Let’s go donate blood.”   This idea of their blood becoming the sacrificial fuel of suicide bombers smacks of pure fanaticism to most of us.  While we guard against thinking of all Muslims as fanatics, the idea of this sacrifice still makes us uncomfortable.   We may think of David Koresh burning up with others in a Texas compound, or the Kool-aid suicide of Jonestown that represent Christian fanaticism, but where do we draw the line?  While many people of my generations protested Vietnam in the conventional manner of protests and sit-ins, we all recall Buddhist monks who self-immolated in the early 1960’s.  There is a political tradition, seen most recently in Tunisia, where it is said the suicide of one man led to the toppling of the autocratic ruler.

While we would never condone suicide, we certainly have instances where deaths like this are seen as historical sacrifices, part of a larger struggle for freedom or even peace. Perhaps a critical distinction is the meaning of the act.  With Calvin and the city of Geneva choosing to execute Servetus, or a Muslim carrying out jihad, it is done to preserve a community or a faith in its absolutism.  It is a narrow or restricted definition of what is allowed in a community, or what is defined as acceptable dogma.  Belief is more important than right action. 

In our own US history there is the story of John Brown, told in a new book by Tony Horwitz called Midnight Rising.  Years ago on one of my Civil War pilgrimages, I visited Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  I remember it as a sleepy place at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenendoah  rivers. Imagining Brown’s raid was difficult for me.  At the time of the assault on the armory in 1859, even abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called it an insane act, but yet it helped precipitate the Civil War, which once and for all brought an end to the evil sin of slavery.   Brown had inherited a faith in ardent abolitionism, and used violence more than  once to bear witness against   the slave powers. His arrest, trial and death by hanging made him a martyr to the cause of freedom.  At the time Louisa May Alcott said his “Dying, made death divine.”   Horwitz even speculates that Brown sacrificed himself to the cause on purpose, believing his death would bring about the end of slavery that much sooner.  While certainly not purposeful, we know that the assault by white racists on UU minister James Reeb in 1965, which resulted in his death helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.   What means does it take to achieve freedom?  What we would do in repressive conditions?  How far would we go or what means would we use? What would we sacrifice for truth, for faith, for freedom?   Quoting Langston Hughes, Horwitz writes that Harpers Ferry is alive with ghosts today.   Do we see them around us?  What do these ghosts urge us to do with our lives?   Whose sacrifices do we recall, and what methods do we employ to build a world of peace and plenty for all?    

When I worked at UU headquarters I had many contacts with a woman who was the daughter of a Transylvanian Untarian minister, Dr. Judit Gellerd, or Zizi, as she preferred to be called. She told the story of her father’s ministry.   During the time of the Communist control of Romania under Ceausescu, ministers were restricted in that they could not speak out on social issues, or expand their church mission in any way, shape or form.  One quarter of them spent time in prison.  There were hundreds of recent Unitarian martyrs.  Martyrs not because they were radicals in any religious or social way, but because the simple freedom of access to school, expansion of church programs and free speech were denied.  Each found certain limits that he could tolerate, and when he reached the breaking point where his integrity or his faith were violated, he said in turn, I can take no more. Zizi tells how her father was harassed, imprisoned, released, tortured, re-educated, imprisoned again.  Finally, he could not take the continued abuse, and he committed suicide.    In a remembrance of him, she quotes Elie Wiesel  “Last night I saw my father in a dream.”    She, too, met her father in a dream after he had died, and she found her faith shattered.  In the dream they walked into their church. She asked him if he would ever leave her again, and he said ” “No, never!” She says this felt like she received his blessing, and it gave her a renewed focus in life.  This dream reassurance gave her  new meaning and responsibility for life: “to become a martyr myself,”  she said, not in the sense of giving up her life, but in the “sense of witness.”  “I honor my father’s memory in abiding commitment to his words of his last sermon the day before he died: “God does not expect from you to save the world, your mandate is limited to one single human being, which could be just yourself.  God never expects more from us than we are capable of doing.  Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights.  But these tiny flickering flames, the simple gestures of loving hearts will add up and will eventually save the world.  Salvation is not something we have to wait for, but we should do something about it.  Because we can.  And because we can, therefore we must.”

When the past meets the present, we can be inspired to live the meaning of our faith.  This dream event in Judit Gellerd’s life fuses past and present.  There is the presence of the historic church as her inheritance, the legacy of her father’s life of witness to truth, and the challenge of living with renewed hope and meaning before her.  At one point in history, some might have interpreted this dream to mean that God was speaking to her, or that the spirit of life was giving direction to her heart. Whether we are born in this faith or adopt it as our own, forebears such as Servetus link us all with a continuing struggle, and a chance to discover within ourselves resources of courage to witness to the principle of liberty of conscience, and a lived faith of service to others. 

When we reject an inherited faith, we struggle to build a new faith from the ashes of the old. In the Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about how she has always struggled with meaninglessness.  She says it was geology that gave her a sense of world without end, in the midst of shifting plates and disappearing islands.  This confirmed both science and traditional church liturgy in the sense of ongoing life, but not of a God who personally keeps his eye upon the sparrow or me or you.  Instead, she came to build little fragments of meaning in her domestic life against the backdrop of uncertainty.  The little personal, worldly and orderly structure of love and care that came from her life as wife and mother gave meaning in the context of the indifference of the physical world.  She would bear witness to truth in her domestic patterns of the little world she inhabited, and perhaps like Judit Gellerd, the domesticity of an intimate connection saved her, leading to a connection with other loving hearts who together might save this weary world.

It is perhaps not so far fetched to see a parallel between the martyred Unitarian founder Servetus, and each one of us in our domestic trials.  Each soul who takes on this faith knows that they are challenged to live not by belief, but by love for others in action. Servetus gave his life so that he might unite with others in the freedom to speak openly without free of reprisal.  Judit’s Gellerd father knew that same trial, and it might come to us as well.  We know in our hearts the sacrifice of those who have gone before.  We each may bring to mind a parent who worked from morning to night that we might fulfill a dream of going to college that he or she never had.  They would do anything that we might live and have a better life than they.  We each may bring to mind someone who sat by our bed and nursed us  back to health. There are many sacrifices we could name in our domestic rounds of work, care or play when some parent, mentor, teacher or friend gave us time, gave us material aid, sacrificed something from their life to help us grow, mature, succeed, or merely carry on.

This time of year when the leaves fall is a time to remember those who have sacrificed, who have given us meaning, who have gone before.. These are days of remembrance.  Look at us. We often do not speak publicly of the deaths of those who have preceded us. Yet we are the harvest of the lives of others. Their work and sacrifice made us who we are. Some were names in history who gives us our faith of freedom.  Others were our parents,  loved ones or teachers;  each contributed to our growth with some sacrifice.  In our daily lives they lost sleep, worked hard, missed a vacation,  gave life in so many ways.  All the saints of our lives come shining through. For those we did not know, perhaps we read their works or learned about their faith through story , and were inspired.  For those in daily struggles, perhaps we felt their love or saw their devotion.  What was the legacy they bequeathed to us – tolerance, hard work, being faithful unto death

Sometimes it is difficult to look back. People seemed to have died in vain, or were victims of terrible violence and inequality.  For many of us it may mean we feel sorrow because the loved ones who gave us so much are no longer part of our lives, and as the holidays approach, we notice their absence even more.  So it is hard to remember in different ways, but it helps us understand ourselves, and it helps us see what pathway we might trod following their example, their courage and fortitude.  Barbara Farrell shared with me a brief story of a woman who writes about how we often have a conspiracy of silence about death.  We don’t talk about it.  She says that in the nineteenth century people always wore ribbons or medallions or clothes or some identifying mark that told others that you were in mourning.  People could understand that you were grieving when they saw them.  Now we have to tell a grief counselor when we are sad, rather than simply express that grief to others.  May this be a place where you can express your grief, that we might learn of the person who has gone before.  It may be a heavy weight upon your heart, but it is a weight that gives way to the possibility of renewed love in the days to come.  When we remember what has been, we begin to see who we are, and know we have the capacity to make a difference.   And in time we will pass that gift of ourselves on to those who follow

 

Closing words – form Michael Servetus

 

Faith is with respect to God, love is with respect to God and to our neighbor. . . Loving is more difficult than believing.  Love bears all difficulties, endures all things, and renders easy all things, including poverty and death. . . Because love is more lasting; love is a natural symbol of the future kingdom . . . Faith begins; love completes.  Most wicked people believed in Christ, but no wicked person loved Christ. . . There is nothng that makes us more like God than love because God is love . . . Loving, not believing, is a property of divine nature.”

 

“The Internet is My Religion” by Mark W. Harris – October 30, 2011

“The Internet is My Religion”  by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown –  October 30, 2011

  

*Call to Worship –  from Ayn Rand  –  Margaret Weis, ministerial intern

 

“Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes . . . which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.” – Ch. II, The Utopia of Greed, Atlas Shrugged

 

Readings

 excerpts from Walden by Henry David Thoreau

                   

Thoreau –  Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

 

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

 

“Unitarian Universalism and the Web” from Tim Berners- Lee

 When you look at the way Unitarians feel society works, and the way a lot of the Internet and the Web works, it might be fun to draw some comparisons. Let’s take this all with a pinch of salt. People, after all, are people, and machines are machines. Unitarians do not have a peer respect for machines! But let’s do it as an exercise.

Decentralization

“We have no kings or presidents. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”

There is very little structure. There is the idea that society can run without a hierarchical bureaucratic government being involved at every step, if only we can hit on the right set of rules for peer-peer interaction. So where design of the Internet and the Web is a search for set of rules which will allow computers to work together in harmony, so our spiritual and social quest is for a set of rules which allow people to work together in harmony.

Tolerance

I don’t know who formulated the principle of tolerance in Internet circles first as “Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you expect”. I have heard Vint Cerf quote it. It is a guiding rule in internet protocol design. Always say “http:”in lower case, but in practice understand “HTTP:” too.

Unitarian Universalism is famous for its tolerance. UU people don’t generally go around trying to convert other people. They respect those who believe in some sort of a God different from theirs (if they use the term). Recently I heard a UU remark

“I have always been an argumentative type – always tending to play devils advocate and skeptical of everything. I was quite expecting to be thrown out of this church like I’ve been thrown out of everywhere else. I was staggered to be accepted. I was even more surprised to find that in fact, the place was full of people just as argumentative as me!”

UUs perhaps share the view that “If there is one thing I can’t stand – it’s intolerance!”. They fight racism and inequality. They get really upset when people are killed and tortured because they don’t belief in the One True God or the One True Anything.

UUs actually believe in love. But that doesn’t seem to bear analogy with computers!

Truth

A lot of people ask me whether I am disappointed that the Web has taken on such a lot of commercial material, rather than being a pure academic space. In fact, I know it could not be universal if it did not allow any form of communication. It must be able to represent any thought, any datum, any idea, that one might have. So in this way the Web and the UU concept of faith are similar in that both serve as a place for thought, and the importance of the quest for truth, but without labeling any one true solution. The quest for the truth is always accompanied by skepticism of anyone claiming to have found it.

Hope

The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the UUs. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to UU philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. UUism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.

 

 

Sermon – “The Internet is My Religion”  by Mark W. Harris

 

            When I was visiting Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, we drove by a Baptist Church.  It had the old familiar fundamentalist beckoning call on a sign out front– “Honk, if you love Jesus.”  You may recall the UU bumper sticker response to that invitation from some years ago  – “Honk if you’re not sure.”  Popular jargon has to change with the times, so this Baptist church had an updated sign – “Honk, if you love Jesus; Text, if you want to meet him.”

            So I guess I’ll never meet Jesus, as I have never, and perhaps never will send a text.  My teenage boys have unlimited texting on their cell phones, but alas, I don’t have one of those either, and when I borrow my son Dana’s to go on trips, I barely know how to use it.  I probably have a reputation in this congregation as a bit of a technological idiot, or even Luddite; one who hates technology and wants it all to disappear so that we can go back to communicating by smoke signals, but that is not accurate at all.  In fact, I love technology.  I would take email as a preferred way to communicate any day.  I often use the internet now to help research a sermon.  You heard my confession a few weeks ago that I sometimes google myself.  I am even on Facebook, but I mostly have no idea how to use it.  I couldn’t even wish our First Parish member Johanna Swift Hart a happy birthday recently even though I tried, and the picture on my Facebook page was posted by someone else because I didn’t know how to do it.  Yet I think communicating like this is vitally important, and that we as a church need to take our website seriously.  It is simply amazing what you can see, hear, or learn over the internet.  You can listen to an old favorite song, find a newspaper from 1870, or order virtually anything imaginable.  But you already know that.  Sometimes I struggle with technology. I admit I can have a brief mental breakdown trying to use it, like when I am asked to create yet one more password, but once someone (namely my wife) shows me how to push all the right buttons to choose the virtual bicycle tour I want to take at the Y, then I am off to inhabit what is truly an incredible world.  I love it.

            So is this thing I love my new religion?  Not exactly.  The title for today comes from a You Tube video of a speech by Jim Gilliam called “The Internet is My Religion.”  Last fall, Kyle Morton bought me at the annual service auction, and when any parishioner pays for a personal sermon, they can have their topic of choice.  In his speech Gilliam talks about the importance of faith in his life.  As a young person he was a born again Christian, who worked in a library.  Then he contracted cancer.  Next his mother was diagnosed with cancer.  He survived, but she did not.  This shattered his faith in God.  Eventually his cancer came back, and he needed bone marrow surgery.  After this he became a movie producer, working on a film about Iraq.  He found that through his promotion of the movie he could be connected with others, especially activists who used the internet to help change attitudes about the war.  This helped renew his faith in people, and how they could be connected with and influence each other.

            But then Gilliam became sick again. He needed a lung transplant, and found the surgeons unhelpful at first.  He began to blog.  He connected with a lot of people who were enormously supportive of him, and soon they were all fighting electronically to get him on the surgeon’s list for the transplant.  The long and the short of it is that he made it to the list, had the surgery, and lives today because he has someone’s else lungs.  He owes his life, he says, to countless people he will never meet who fought for him and supported him because they emailed, and connected with each other, and with the people who could help him.  Gilliam got religion again as a result of this experience.  It is not the God of his childhood, but rather a kind of internet God, for Gilliam says that God is what happens when humanity is connected.  Part of his realization of connectedness is that we owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet.  He may see this partly as internet friends who supported him and fought for him, but it has implications for every second of every day, for every one of us, even if we give a moment out of a day to express our gratitude for all those who grow our food, plow our roads, or defend our lands. Furthermore, Gilliam would have us remember that we are all creators who contribute to each other’s lives and the world, and together we create a new world, we are the creator, we are God. 

            Giliam’s experience and the speech that reflects that experience have much to offer.  Does that mean the internet itself is a religion?  Probably not in the sense of being an organized religious movement, but if we take the literal meaning of religion, as that which binds us together, or that which reconnects us to life and what makes it meaningful, then he has found God or religion, not in a traditional divinity that acts upon the world, but in a kind of humanism, latent in each of us, where we can embody divinity in our lives, when we connect with each other. 

Yet there are potential  dangers in all these technological wonders. In Walden, Thoreau fears the coming of the railroad, and ponders whether we would ride on it, or it on us. We must remember that  with the internet and other electronic devices,  we make the choice of who is riding whom.  They are amazing tools, useful machines to learn, communicate and connect with, but they are just that – tools – the medium is not the message, but the medium does make a profound message possible.

            Like any exciting device, the internet is seemingly always there to offer more opportunities for exploration. But explorations for what and with whom?  Not long ago I heard a story about a high school girl who gave a commencement address called “Look Up.”  She wanted every person to pay attention to their surroundings. She said, “Too often human beings are being ignored  because people are trying to connect.  This week I met with my ministerial study group.  Many of us are old friends who only see each other twice a year. During check in, we share how things are going in our lives.  This year one of us became upset because instead of paying attention, several members had their phones on or their computers open, and they were either checking messages, or trying to manage details of work.  If the machine determines how much time we give to others, and how present we are to each other, then it hardly fulfills Jim Gilliam’s vision of divinity.  God dies in the details of our work, our brain’s propensity to be diverted, and its inability to multitask.  We are most religious when we focus on one thing at a time, and are not caught in the midst of insufferable, unending clicks.  Now there is some evidence that the brain is being transformed into a continual state of distraction. When Thoreau was on his deathbed, and someone asked him to comment on the other side, Thoreau wisely responded, “one world at a time.” If we want the internet to be our world, then we must use it in its own time and space, and most especially not in the presence of others, so they don’t’ have to say, “Look up.”

            The machine can easily dictate our use of time, and be addictive.  I notice this in the summertime at the ocean’s edge.  Even in the midst of vacation, the availability of a computer to log in to so that I can check email is compelling.  But it also can divert and distracts us from playing a game or talking with a loved one as evening dusk rolls in, or taking a walk on the rocky shore to skim stones across the water or look for sea glass.  Using a smart phone may result in more frequent communication exchanges than actual conversations with human beings. While Siri’s voice may be pleasant, if we take a lot of time coming up with new questions for our little devices, then you have to wonder if these machines that are suppose to serve our needs have become our relationship substitutes, and thus serve to induce loneliness and isolation, or as my son Levi said, “it is a little strange to let a machine manage your life.”.

            So the challenge is always how do we strive to maintain the connections that the web invites so that we don’t become machine like, or substitute something virtual for the real.  We have faith that people connected can create a new world.  Sometimes we forget how recently the internet has come into our lives.  The internet was not introduced until 1991, and most of us have only been connected for a decade or so.  Contrary to rumor, it was not Al Gore who invented the internet, but rather a Unitarian Universalist named Tim Berners-Lee, who was raised in the Church of England, and now resides in nearby Lexington. In 1992, there were 26 websites.  By 1995, there were 19,000. The internet, as is obvious by these statistics alone is a phenomenal communications revolution that is occurring in our lifetimes.  It is as important historically as the printing press and Gutenberg’s famous Bible.  We often draw parallels between the ability to print thousands of Bibles in the language of the people, and the extension of literacy, where many could read and understand and interpret the texts for themselves.  It helped foster the Protestant Reformation, as the priesthood of all people became the words for all with literacy leading towards democacry and modernity.

            There must be something in Unitarian DNA that makes us want to communicate with one another.  While we may extol the personal and individualistic journey of Thoreau, and the love of nature in Emerson, the major communication devices of modernity, including the telegraph, the telephone and the internet have all been created by UU’s with UU energy, initiative and drive.  The enduring value of our faith, beginning with congregational polity, is that everyone should have a voice, or a vote in what we do, that we are stronger in community than we are as individuals.  The power of what modern communication devices are enabling is seen through the revolutionary spirit that is giving rise to the people’s demand to be heard. The internet allows a vast number of people to be heard.  Just as many people could support Jim Gilliam in his fight for a lung, so community based political activity, can be a powerful connective force in the spread of democracy.  The web is designed to run without hierarchy and bureaucracy intervening at every step, and so its emphasis on giving voice to the people, and giving everyone a chance to be part of that voice means a faith that is open to all, wants to hear from all, imposes a minimally invasive structure of power and ritual and truth, and wants its power, ritual and truths to come from the lived experiences of the people.  We are the perfect internet religion.

            Tim Berners-Lee also points to the emphasis on tolerance in our liberal faith. For us that often means that different perspectives on truth are valued equally.  I know I experienced tolerance in my teaching by merely conducting a class online for ten years.  In a online classroom where everyone can have a voice merely by posting their own opinion, and no one can judge based on race, sex, age or class because that may be unknown to us, we can became purely tolerant to whatever the person has to say.  This became true for me when I met the woman I always considered my best student ever.  One day at General Assembly a few years ago, I saw her familiar name on the standard name tag, but she was my stereotype of a Southern belle, with a drawl, a flowing dress, and a wide brim hat.  I scoffed at myself thinking what prejudicial judgments I might have made, which would have prevented her from being the most insightful voice in my class.  The internet can give people of all ages and conditions the opportunity to have power and credibility, something a competitive, judgmental culture often does not provide.

            So the Web is a creative force in giving everyone a voice and can potentially provide a fuller, richer process for learning or creating a new community..  It is an open way to communicate – building bridges of shared truth irrespective of barriers such as geography, or class or ability.  Together it enables the cross fertilization of ideas leading to potentially richer solutions to problems.   Its truth, as Berners Lee suggests is that there is no one truth, that applies to all, but that in that open quest we must make a place for many perspectives. I recently spoke to a friend who had tears in his eyes describing how computers and the internet had saved his grandson.  The boy who had Aspergers Syndrome suffered with the worst social skills imaginable, could not get a job, and sat in his room all day without friends or even the ability to interact with anyone.  Recently, the young man found a position working on programming,  has a shared apartment, a steady job, and a community where he is thriving and welcomed.  He once laid on his bed and stared at the screen all day.  He still stares at a computer, but now he stares for a purpose, and with compatriots. The truth, as Unitarian Samuel Gridley Howe stated long ago is that everyone deserves a chance to be educated and employed to their fullest ability.  There is no truth but the truth of connection bringing meaningful work and relationships into our lives.  This young man now has that truth.

            Does this approach bring hope?   All faiths can corrupt, be perverted and even destroy human lives.  The internet can distract and addict. We can ride the machine or it can ride us.   The internet does not change our faith as Unitarian Universalists, but as you can see by the foregoing, in many ways it is a methodology that reflects much of what most of us find meaningful within the pathway we call  liberal religion – democracy, individual creativity, tolerance, hope and the unending search for truth.  What is profoundly changed for all of us is the way we do church.  Many churches have already begun to address this.  For preachers, it is the question of how we will communicate the faith in the future.  Ever since those days of Bible meeting printing press, we have been a religion of the word with texts and printed sermons.  Now religion is moving to the explication of story through images.  It could mean that all living churches in the future will live stream their services, or will use images much more in worship.  When my colleague in Rockland, ME reads a children’s book now it is one he purchased electronically and it is projected on a screen. Today I have preached my sermon from a laptop.  The text gives way to image. The Bible allowed more access for more people.  We are in the midst of another revolution, and we must get on board, as clergy and as churches.  Last year I gave a chapel at the UUA in Boston.  The service was live streamed throughout the country.  When it came time for the joys and sorrows,  I heard a man express a concern from his home in Iowa asking that we light a candle for his son who was going in for surgery.  So our hearts must reach further out to those who would be part of our compassionate community no matter where they live.  Because I am older it is easier to feel like a has been, or that a new day is rising.  But I must tell you I find the internet and its role in the future of religion very exciting. 

  In many ways the faith that is built on web based experiences is perfect for us. For centuries there have been far too many Unitarians, without knowing it. We can now be evangelical with the push of a key. Traditional ways of understanding God and truth are released to a greater freedom on the web, and for those who are looking for a faith where God is seen as that connecting force between people, or who find Jesus to be a teacher of love and compassion not a God, or a Bible that is a worthy book to study but not the absolute truth forever and ever, they will find us, but we must stay relevant with the tools we use to express the faith.  Finally, it will all come down to relationships between us all.  While the web seems remote and anonymous and impersonal, it is built to connect us with each other.  Our theology has always expressed a belief that an underlying oneness connects each of us with all humanity, and all are worthy and equal participants, capable of expressing that creative force when we live in love with each other.  The internet brings that force out in each of us as its honors each person by giving them a voice, and we can share all kinds of resources.   We all have something to give to create an amazingly diverse community that can offer its members a new, interconnected faith and church.

 

Closing Words – from Jim Gilliam

 

“God is what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. [E]ach one of us is a creator but, together, we are THE creator.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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