“How Did We Get Here?” by Mark W. Harris
May 18, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Mary Harrington
In the full beauty of the day
We come to this place to savor life’s riches.
In the full light of day
Keenly aware of all the hard edges we face
and struggle to cope with,
May we give ourselves to this hour of consolation and peace.
In the fullness of this company
Let us join together to better endure
the rough strife of our days,
Surrounded by stories of brokenness and courage,
kindness and healing.
Come into this time and place where all of what you bring is
welcome. Where you may lay down your burdens and celebrate all
the good gifts of life.
Reading – from Dakota by Kathleen Norris
Sermon – “How Did We Get Here?” Mark W. Harris
Today my sermon is on the exciting topic of the endowment. The Trustees of First Parish have charged me with inspiring you with the wonders of learning about our First Parish invested funds. Now before you flock for the exits, you may find this is not so boring after all. As we age all of us become more and more concerned about the size of our personal savings. Will we flourish, starve or just squeak by in retirement? Then there is the fun task of estimating how long we will live. So just think of these personal questions writ large, and they might seem intriguing. Second, before you say that endowments are not an appropriate subject for a Sunday morning, I want to tell you that in the 1920’s Jesus was seen not as the radical zealot, or even the milquetoast nice guy, but rather the greatest business man the world has ever known. In a 1925 bestseller, advertising executive, Bruce Barton, called him The Man Nobody Knows. He saw Jesus as the “founder of modern business.” He had tremendous success as an executive.
Think how much business he would have brought in with the PR of the water to wine trick, or raising Lazarus from the dead. . Although Barton didn’t write about it, these disciples were more than fishers of men, they probably speculated in fish futures, too. They appeared poor, but they were probably socking it all away in the Jerusalem stock exchange.
Now that you know that endowments are an exciting and appropriate topic, I want to say more about where our endowments come from. This is the equally exciting topic of the separation of church and state. I know you all want to hear what a coercive and oppressive institution a state church was and still is. Plus you will be happy to learn that First Parish was an arm of this oppressive system for the first two hundred years of its existence. But we’ve changed! Those Puritan ancestors of ours established a state church, whereby you could not start a town until you had gathered a church, called a minister, and moreover created the means for supporting that church and minister. Ministers were not paid out of pledges, but rather out of tax money. Furthermore, there was no dissent from being Puritan. We were called The Church in Watertown for a reason. We were the only shop in town. It’s normally referred to as a monopoly, and unlike the game pieces at Star Market, you could not tell the cashier, I am not playing. Everybody played. Right from the beginning Puritans, fought with Quakers, Baptists, Universalists and others as the dissenters battled for the right to support their own religious institutions. But the real coup for First Parish membership growth came with those townspeople who wanted to have no affiliation. Being a None, or no affiliations was not an option. Not a Baptist or a Methodist, you were a Congregationalist. Turns out those First Parishes thought they had a lot more members than they actually did.
In a few minutes I am going to say more about the three funds that make up the endowment of First Parish – they are the Ministerial Fund, the Perpetuity Fund, and the Helen Robinson Wright Charitable Fund. But first, I want to go back to our basic question of how did we get here. For some this may sound like the means by which you traveled to church – by foot, or car, or bicycle. Each of us comes to First Parish with a different story, not only the basic transportation we used, but moreover the story of our religious heritage – Unitarian Universalist, Catholic, Jewish, or none at all. Many of us came with a positive experience of church, and others perhaps more typically were disgruntled or hurt, and others still have no prior understanding and are seeking some spiritual community that offers freedom, friendship and understanding. Others arrived here with children in tow who they want to provide religious orientation to for dealing with life’s eternal questions and personal challenges. They may seek community for they feel alone and unsupported. They may want to make a difference in the world, ponder life’s mysteries on a spiritual journey, or be with others so that together we can learn to live in love. How we got here is many different stories, but here we weave those stories together in the creation of a religious community.
We also learn once we get here that we are also going some place, and indeed have already been some place, even long before we came. In our case, very long. And so we have a history of many events and traditions, of successes and failures, of life. And we know that something held the community together. They had enough common interests. Perhaps it was fear of monarchy, or love of God, or desire to build a new, more participatory commonwealth or later fear of a rigid belief in creeds or dream to affirm a variety of approaches to faith, or even later against war, or even finally ten years ago when the equal marriage they believed in and fought for became legal in the land of the Puritans. Maybe there was something about freedom to love and freedom to believe that became part of the tradition of this religious community. But their traditions and their interests did not always lead to unity. Sometimes they had differences; and those were listened to at certain times, and others not so much. Sometimes people left angry when they felt their faith in justice, in how those endowments should be invested in anti-oppressive ways, was not listened to. The community was stronger when those differences were heard, and even stronger still when they were allowed to exist, and then found ways, like Kathleen Norris suggests in the reading, for some to protest, and others to offer material support and still others, those opposed, to pray, but still could be together in community, and plan a future. And, things change, at First Parish those endowments are now invested in socially responsible ways.
I am directionally challenged, or easily become lost. When I visit a mall or historic site, and they have those maps that show you the layout of where the various stores or monuments are, there is a large arrow that points to the spot where you are standing marked – “You are here.” Usually I have to orient myself in the exact direction of the arrow to figure out where I am in space, and know which way to go. Our story of the bag of gold represents this dilemma of which way to go. Shakti sees the poor man, and her heart goes out to him to help. Siva knows that physically he could drop a bag of gold for the man to use, but that psychically, the man is not yet ready to receive the gold because he has more immediate needs to fill. In his haste to fill his stomach, he sees the bag of gold as a rock and goes around it. We see that in each and every stumbling block there is a lesson of great value. Sometimes we don’t see the bag of gold that is right in front of us. We may take a person for granted because they are always there. We may forget the gold that is supporting us in our labors. Sometimes we are not ready to see the gold. The teacher who made us work so hard is called mean and harsh, and yet in retrospect we are thankful because they taught us to try harder every day to get better at what we do, or to learn more. We don’t always see the bag of gold, but sometimes when time goes by, or we gain some wisdom in life, or circumstances change, then the bag of gold becomes apparent to us.
An endowment is literally a bag of gold, but there is also a polarity of values with an endowment. It is not a gravy train of money for a church to live off of, it but can be a millstone, too, if it is used to guarantee the present rather than plan for the future. Take that first endowment, the Ministerial Fund. Watertown as a community appropriated lands and estates to create a Ministerial Fund in 1812. This existed to help the town provide permanent support for a minister. Following the separation of church and state in Massachusetts in 1833, two significant events took place in Watertown. In 1836 there was the erection of a new meetinghouse next door where the bank is, because the old meetinghouse on Common Street could no longer be a town wide church. Prior to that, also in 1836, the Parish Records pointed out “many of the inhabitants had withdrawn from the original Religious society and joined themselves to other Parishes.” They said this made it difficult to conduct the business of the original Religious society in public Town meeting, thus necessitating the change. Can you imagine the Baptists voting to buy a new stove for the Unitarians? Let ‘em freeze. It was then resolved by state law that what was now a separate society should legally receive sole and exclusive benefit from the Ministerial Fund. Thus, the annual income from those funds was to be applied to the support of the minister of the Parish, as it once did for the minister of the Town.
This marked a shift of values in Massachusetts. While we would assume that a state church is coercive and oppressive by nature because it forces people to belong and thus defies freedom of religion, and it gives an unfair advantage to one religion over another, there is also an undergirding assumption about the nature of society that the state church and the ministerial funds represent. While Unitarian Universalists today are among to the first to affirm freedom in the expression of faith, the state church acknowledges that we live in a moral universe, and that everyone should learn certain values of character, participate in the community, and offer concern for the greater good that is reflected by creating a moral society. We sometimes associate Unitarianism with individual salvation because freedom of belief is encouraged, but in fact the liberals were concerned that the orthodox based religion on having the exact correct belief about what was true, and that individuals had experiences of saving grace that set them apart from others reflecting their dogmatic beliefs. On the other hand liberals said there should be no tests of faith based in belief, but that there should be the creation of a good society, and that a state church, unencumbered by creed, looking remarkably like a Unitarian church, was the best way to ensure morality and justice and equality.
So our first endowment fund came from the town, and was created with the idea of fostering a moral universe. The congregation itself created the second endowment fund in 1919. This was the Permanent General Expense fund, which was to be funded by voluntary contributions and by bequests from individuals. This was a permanent investment fund to ensure the perpetuity or permanence of the church. While the first fund suggested support for leadership of the institution, this second one implied ongoing support of the church. I am not sure why this was done at this time. Was it the distress of World War I, or the ongoing influenza epidemic that made life seem insecure and unstable. Perhaps this congregation was saying we want to create a more permanent stamp on our religious values. Ten years later in 1929, Trustees for the Perpetuity Fund were first named with the funds transferred by the Treasurer from the regular accounts of the church, six months before the crash. This second fund was created to sustain the church, and ensure the future. Trinitarians these days that are squeamish about saying Father, Son and Holy Ghost, often refer to the Trinity as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. One could name our endowments in the same fashion. The first reflects why we were created as a religious community in the first place, to give meaning and structure to community life. The second was to sustain that vision in an institutional form. Finally the third endowment points us toward what will redeem us as a people.
I want to say a word about endowments before I get to that third fund. Years ago when this congregation was much smaller than it is now, a large proportion of the annual budget came from the endowments, and members pledged very little to the support of the support. In the last generation we have substantially increased annual giving to maintain the living church, while making steps to ensure the longtime survival and growth of the endowment funds, which still provide a fair income to our annual budget. I know by experience that congregations that either rely on their endowments or spend down their endowments are good candidates for extinction. The living life of the congregation, or its health in the present, must come from the living members. Depending upon historic funds or dead members who gave to the institution in the past means there is probably not much excitement in the congregation today. Just as a congregation must balance between the differences of opinion in its membership, and not expect everyone to be the same, so there are marked polarities between the traditions of the past, and the need to adapt to the present, so that together we can face the future.
Most any congregation that you participate in will have certain traditions. It may be couched in different ways, but sooner or later someone will say or imply, this is the way we do things around here. Sometimes this seems like entrenched traditions that cannot be changed come hell or high water. We always have a church fair. We must have a late Christmas Eve service. We cannot give up our historic church building.
Being a historian no one is more cognizant of upholding tradition than me. I believe in carrying forward our long heritage of hope and faith that has dignified and upheld
the human venture over many centuries.
Yet sometimes the universe tilts and we need to accept change. People are not coming to the fair anymore, or showing up at the late service. Their needs and wants have changed. We are too small to support two buildings. For our faith to survive and prosper we must adapt, and change in order to grow. Now we have two services on Christmas Eve, a service auction, and a building we love that is our home. But it all can change again. What matters is that the community gathers together for worship and rites of passage, that we rejoice together at social events, and finally that we reflect upon serious issues of injustice.
This brings us to that third endowment, the Wright Fund, which is not used at all for the ongoing life of the church, or even to ensure its future. In a way it harkens back to the first endowment, which came from the town. The Wright fund, as most of you know, is a charitable fund, which came from one particular member. She gave her house, which was eventually sold to establish this fund to help people in need that suffer from poverty or hunger or cold. The ministerial fund implies that everyone should strive to be better people, but the Wright Fund says that we have an obligation to each other. Ministry is really about the quality of relationships between us, and invites us to take care of each other especially when we are hurting in some way. The religious impulse is about standing up for human dignity and showing compassion to others. The Wright fund says you have an obligation to notice each other’s humanness by being humane. This is the fund that redeems us. So the three endowments offer the creating, the sustaining, and the redeeming. They are the basis for how we can make the divine come alive in Watertown.
Endowments are something we often believe that churches depend upon when they cannot support themselves. That’s a bad way to think about them. While we celebrate our history and our traditions, we may offer up the way we do things around here. It is our task to tell new members where we have come from. And so today on the timeline, I want you to record what stories you know. It is up to you to be the conveyors of our faith traditions to those who walk through our doors. That history of memory and hope becomes ours to live, and we must support it through our annual gifts. Once it was taxes, and later it was the sale of pews, and now it is our pledges. We are the present
We speak and live the highest and best we know,
but we also live with the knowledge that it is
never as deep, or as wide
or a high as we wish. We prepare the way for those who follow. And that is what endowments are for. We give forward so that we what we love will be here for others. The heating system is like that. Most of us will only know its benefits for a short time, but we create a lasting system to carry our religious home forward into the days we will not see. Our trustees have recently instituted a program for planned giving, and the brochure we have available today, and the dinner tonight are meant to inform you about the whys and wherefores of planned giving. We want you to think about giving not to the living church, but to the future church that you will never know, but will be handed on to your children, and the other children who follow because we believe this community and this faith are so worthy and so beautiful and loving they should last, even another 384 more years worth. We want to know that some day there will still be a faith community where there is a meeting of hearts that will summon all to their better selves, because they are united in faith
as their wounds begin healing and their muscles grow strong for the task of building the church of tomorrow.
Romero Prayer – credited to Archbishop Oscar Romero, adapted.
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the realm of justice and peace always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one-day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Closing Words – from the Talmud
You are not expected to complete the task.
Neither are you permitted to lay it down.
The Family Story
The First Parish of Watertown
May 4, 2014
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from Days and Nights in Calcutta Clark Blaise
Family, family, family. In India all is finally family. If we in the West suffer from the nausea of disconnectedness and alienation; the Indian suffers the oppression of kinship. If our concept of the hero implies isolation, risk, and silent bravery, the Indian concept of the hero is tied up with social duty, and solicitousness. We naturally link maturity with independence and self creation, and consider a break with family “an inevitable part of growing up.” But in India you can be a hero by taking care of your family; by embracing them as your destiny, and your identity.
Reading from Pioneer Girl, by Bich Minh Nguyen (Bic Min Ngoo eey en)
Although this book is a novel, it is also a bit of a biography of Rose Wilder, whose mother wrote the Little House on the Prairie books. The author is a Vietnamese American who grew up obsessed with these books, and is now a professor of American literature at the University of San Francisco.
Now it is May, the month of my father’s birthday, and I am packing up again. Whatever will fit in my car. The rest to sell, give away, leave on the curb.
Whenever the Ingalls family moved, Ma took extra care with her china shepherdess figurine and a decorative wooden bracket that Pa had carved for her. That these were objects of design, for pleasure rather than utility, has always stayed with me. And so I take particular care of the gold pin that I have, in some sense, inherited from Rose… I take my computer full of notes and pages, my writing, whatever that will turn out to be. I retain, always, in the back of my mind, the twinges and fringes of guilt about my family – more unfinished pages. Maybe it is my chronic, lifetime, second generation problem. Looking forward and looking back, trying to locate the just-right space in between. Always translating, and often getting the words wrong. Trying to figure out the clearest line of narrative, only to find more knots, more clouds. So far I have spent almost half my life thinking about American literature, and the landscape has seemed one of incredible, enduring, relentless longing. Everyone is always leaving each other, chasing down the next seeming opportunity. Where does it stop? Does it? I want to believe it all leads to something grander than the imagination, grander than the end-stop of the Pacific.
… I will load up my car. Like millions before me, I will try a new town, no doubt moving again in a year or two, on the lookout for work and the next better place to be. I will gather my belongings. I will worry about what I’ve forgotten. I will never feel ready, but I will start driving because I have to, toward the prairies, and the hoped for landscape that always lies just beyond, to the west.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame, once wrote “Home is the nicest word there is.” I found myself thinking that on Monday night – the sentence just popped full-grown into my head, like a visit from Athena. I was at the library, along with Johanna and Roger Erickson and a few dozen other folks, watching the film Philomena. If you haven’t seen this, I recommend it, although the story is almost unbearably painful. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t had a chance to see it, but I will tell you that Philomena has spent almost fifty years looking for a child taken from her, and though she wanted him to have had a good life, she also worried that he might not have missed her; longed for her the way she longed for him. So it is both heart breaking and an enormous relief when she learns that her son always wanted to go home. As good as his life was, he just wanted to go home – to the place he was once with her.
It is such an evocative word, home. We are not talking about our literal houses, the places where we dwell. We are talking about something far deeper and less materialistic, and yet it is dependent on a concrete place, too. Really what we seem to mean are the feelings aroused by a certain time and setting; the geography of our memories. It almost always sounds like we are trying to recover something. Often the people who paint compelling portraits of home are the ones who have spent a long, long time wandering in the wilderness; or people who never had a chance to completely settle in. Think Odysseus, trying to get back to Ithaca and Penelope. Think Martin Luther King echoing Moses: I have been to the mountain top, and seen the promised land, and though I may not get there with you, we as a people will. We will get home.
Originally what I planned to talk about this week was not quite “home,” but family. Last month, on a tour of Orchard House with a group from church, a simple statement the guide made about Louisa May Alcott struck me. It wasn’t new information, but I heard it a new way – she said that Alcott herself had gone off to help during the Civil war, but of course she couldn’t write that in her book, so she made a story in which her father did. Somehow, I suddenly grasped how Louisa’s identity was unacceptable – possibly to her self; or to her family; not to mention to the book buying public, and what that cost her. And in addition to minimizing her own strength, she had to make her father far more heroic than he was. In real life, the Alcotts wandered from home to home and never quite had any security. Bronson Alcott was not good at keeping jobs or at practical details. And yet many Americans grow up with some idea of the Alcotts as an ideal family – an idea they get from the way the daughter wrote. Little Women, even if you have never read it or seen the movie, is a kind of signifier.
So is Little House on the Prairie. Bre – a mid-western girl – told me that her mom used to do up her hair in Laura-like braids, and that many folks thought she looked like Melissa Gilbert – the tv version of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bich Nguyen’s book, Pioneer Girl, is extremely moving, because the power of this national mythology and the history of westward expansion gets reinforced even as it is blown apart. The physical frontier masks an emotional one between parent and child; an abyss that gets bridged by the stories we tell as a culture and as families. In Nguyen’s case, we have Americans whose families have emigrated from Asia. Reaching the west coast, looking out at the Pacific, seems different when the land hidden beyond the horizon is not unexplored territory. It is, or was once, your homeland; the place that haunts you, that shaped your parents; that they left but which will not leave them. It is what makes it so hard to feel like you belong anywhere. The book made me think again about that sense of dislocation that so many people feel, to one degree or another, and where it comes from.
Many scholars, including Nguyen, now know that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not exactly write the Little House on the Prairie books. Her daughter Rose, who was a professional journalist, suggested the arc of the series, outlined each book, and edited them. The overall story, like Louisa May Alcott’s books sixty years earlier, leaves the impression of happy families with strong parents who succeed in this open country; overcome adversity, have adventures, make sacrifices, and stand for something almost mythologically deep about what it means to be American. They are prototype families, comprised of people who fit in to the culture and understand each other. But what the evidence is now showing us is that this vision is not one that gets handed down from parent to child. It really is more of a gift from the daughters to their parents; a rewriting of history that redeems painful or tragic experiences, and it immortalized a culture that rejected the identity of these girls. The fiercely strong women make literary heroes of fathers who struggled until the end. Failure and loss get folded into something a bit more transcendent.
I haven’t decided how I feel about this. It made me think of a time back in the early 1980s, when the idea of church as family was popular, and our minister surprised me by criticizing the notion. Family, she questioned? As in Cain and Abel? Or Cordelia and King Lear? What about Lizzie Borden? Her point was that we, as a community, are much better than many families, and that our religious identity is not based on relationships, it is based on principles. I agree with her, but not easily. Not wholeheartedly.
This community is, in many ways, my identity. I like to say I have been here for four decades, because I was still in my 20s when I was first called, and now I am in my 50s. And now I am reestablishing myself in some way; serving in an official capacity after many years out to take care of children. This is my last sermon here for the year, and I am assessing. Who am I in this community? The relationship between a minister and a congregation is complex. Am I filling in once a month, as an extension of Mark, or am I here on my own, relating directly to you? And how, precisely, do those differ? I am working it out still.
As opening words, we heard from a Canadian man who married a woman from Calcutta, and he learned this fundamental distinction between the East and West. East Asians do not believe in individualism the way North Americans do. People are shaped by each other; are identified by their families. No one expects to feel whole on his or her own, and in fact we become whole by weaving strong connections with our parents, and the myths they live by. But in the west, we are supposed to leave home. We are supposed to become distinctly our selves; triumph over things, fulfill ourselves, and our destiny. So when we talk about church as family, we have to start there – aware that not only do families differ, but our notions of what they are don’t always match up. There are huge cultural gaps, and then there are simply different experiences that lead to different default modes, different values, different tolerances. That is why we are, in fact, joined by choice, by comment assent to certain principles. But I think that is where the idea of church as family is strengthened – in the paradox of being joined while having wildly opposing notions. Cain and Abel were brothers for a reason; they help us wrestle with how to live – to settle, or to wander. King Lear and his three daughters help us explore the nature of suffering and jealousy and the fear of losing power. It isn’t that we are like a family because a family is perfect; it is because that is how we learn; by loving people who are us and not us at the same time.
The third of the Little House books, written in 1935, begins like this:
A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again….Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now….Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid. He liked to see the little fawns and their mothers looking at him from the shadowy woods, and the fat, lazy bears eating berries in the wild berry patches.
One of the things that happens in that paragraph, written during a terrible year of drought and in the depths of the Depression, is that loss is transformed into something more complicated. It is covered up by an understanding of how another person feels. “They never saw that little house again” is a painful little sentence; wistful. Laura does not think there are too many people, but she loves someone who does. And so she learns to see the doe and the fawn, and the bear, eating berries in a patch on sunlight. She looks through her father’s eyes.
I think that is what happens in a family, and that is what we mean with the word “home” – our identities get formed as they are mixed up a bit. We become practiced in shifting perspective. The idea of living in harmony with wildness becomes valued, even by someone who might prefer human company. We share in the making of each other. In his essay The House Beautiful, the Unitarian minister William Channing Gannett wrote that it is really light that turns a house into a home, but that true light comes from within and is expressed through our eyes and smiles and little habits that are like caresses. This kind of illumination warms the whole world, by putting us outside ourselves. Radiance is felt, he says, like a “low pervading music that we cannot hear. It is cheer, it is peace, it is trust, it is delight – it is all these things. It is love-light.” This is what causes the glow around the word “home.”
Of course not everyone has happy memories of home, and the word may not conjure anything good at all. There are hurts that never do mend, and some dreams dashed like so much broken pottery. But I think that is part of the allure – that home is such a mixture of pain and longing and idealism. Even if we have never experienced it, we know what we mean and what we are pining for when we want to go home. We want comfort, acceptance, understanding. We want belonging. And we want to just be. We don’t want to have to make a new place less strange and foreign.
I once read an essay about habitats and homes in Scientific American, and the author used the example of homesick children to make his point distinguishing between them. They know the difference between home and not-home even while in their own habitat, because they suffer the difference. If you send a homesick child for a sleepover with friends, a familiar neighborhood will suddenly seem alien. But, he said, “there will be no rejoicing when the child gets back home, because home is as usual. That is the point. Home is always so familiar that you don’t have to notice it. It is everywhere else that takes noticing.”
Grief and devastating loss takes away our ability to be at home. Jennifer and Matt Hubbard, whose daughter Catherine was one of the children murdered in Sandy Hook, talked about how the struggle to write a daughter’s obituary. Jennifer assumed it would happen the other way around – that Catherine would write about her as a mother and grandmother. Thinking about who her daughter was, she typed the notice for the newspaper, and said in lieu of flowers, send donations to the Animal Shelter. It was an impulse, not researched, and they looked up the address on a cell phone. About two weeks later, Matt Hubbard drove out to tell the folks there about their memorial, and called his wife, saying, “There is nothing here. It is just someone’s house.” Jennifer called the number in the phone book, and the woman who answered explained. “We’re animal rescue volunteers. We don’t have a building or any place like that. We just go and help.” But it turned out that in the wake of Catherine’s death, these two women had received about a quarter of a million dollars. They decided to use the money to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place of healing for animals and people; a peaceful place with paths to walk and opportunities to care for injured animals. Jennifer Hubbard suddenly was able to feel at home again, like her daughter was somewhere.
In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote, “Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true and we could live in them?” Maybe we can, right here. The word “home” implies a sense of permanence and stability that is not really true of our physical lives, but it can be true religiously. This is the church; the nest perpetually being remade and woven with bits from here and there. We are always growing, adapting, incorporating new people and saying goodbye to others. It is the habitat that allows us to be at home in a wider context, to glimpse the world in a new way for just a moment – to notice before our vision shuts once more, and comfort reigns, and it is not new any more. Once, centuries ago, home might have been found solely in the flames of a bonfire that ate away at the edges of the dark, and so we light our candles, and their light carries us someplace else. The sun shines through the windows, but we are really illuminated by one another, and our own capacity for imagination. We listen to stories, think about our parents and our children, our partners, sisters and brothers, our animals and the world that we love; and we are home, in our castles in the air, perched above everything that shifts and crashes and carries us forward.
Closing Words from The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These are the last words of The Long Winter, one of the books in the Little House series. The chapter is called Christmas in May, and everyone is gathered, learning a new song together.
“And as they sang, the fear and suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.”
So may it be.
“Feeling the Truth” by Mark W. Harris
April 20, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship: Easter is Paradox by Richard S. Gilbert
Easter is paradox;
It is the leap over the chasm
between life and death,
Between victory and defeat.
Between joy and sorrow
Easter holds together the reality of crucifixion,
And the myth of resurrection.
The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
Those who lose their lives for others
will be saved.
Those who save their lives for self
will be lost.
Love is real only when we give it away.
Love hoarded melts inevitably as spring snow.
“In the midst of winter
(We) find in (ourselves) an invincible summer.”
Sermon: “Feeling the Truth”
When I was growing up Easter was a big deal in my family. We always went out and purchased new clothes – sport coats and ties for me and my brothers, and especially new dress shoes, which is what I remember the best because they always seemed to pinch and hurt my feet, and I couldn’t wait to get them off. Candy helped assuage the pain. We also prepared a big dinner, which included ham and raisin, sauce. God knows the symbolic meaning of raisin sauce, but I have hated baked ham ever since. I loved the hot cross buns my father made every year, because I could lick off the frosting cross. That was the true transubstantiation of Jesus’ body; none of this dry wafer stuff. It was a big production getting ready for church with a mad rush to get six people out the door with every hair combed, tight shoe tied, and tooth brushed.
One year when I was about ten years old there was an unfortunate confluence of events. You may remember that until recently daylight saving time was usually observed a little later in the spring. So it must have been a Sunday in April, much like today when the hour time change of “spring ahead” was on the same day as Easter. Here we were some half century ago with the Harris family faithfully dressed for Easter Sunday, but surprise, surprise, we had forgotten to change our clocks. Our 11:00 a. m turned out to be high noon, and as we arrived at the white clapboard Congregational church, the parishioners were streaming out the door, resurrected once again, and were now saying goodbye to the round face pastor, and heading for their cars so that they could go eat that luscious ham. I know my parents were embarrassed, mortified even, but still somewhat assured that we had at least made the effort. We sheepishly headed home.
Although I did not grow up a Unitarian Universalist, this story somehow captures the dilemma UUs are confronted with on Easter. We are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Somehow our timing is a little bit off. We celebrate Easter, and yet we don’t believe in it. We like Jesus, but we don’t want him saving us from our sins. Sometimes we don’t even go that far. This year I heard a funny story about a colleague who was a guest preacher in Lexington on Easter, when the minister was on sabbatical. He conducted the entire service, and did not mention Easter once. I asked a parishioner there, “Didn’t you think that was a little odd?” And he said, “Kind of.” Sometimes we just avoid the subject and celebrate spring. This year that seems to work, as the coming of spring has been so reluctant, we may need a miraculous resurrection to make it happen.
This morning we heard a slight retelling of Beatrix Potter’s, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. What seems like a cute little story to us today certainly has its macabre side. Just back of Peter Rabbit’s story was the remembrance of his poor father, who was captured by Mr. McGregor and then eaten in a stew. Regardless of the Oedipal material, there is this painful backdrop for the little critter to consider, perhaps as an incentive to make all children who hear the story behave and stay out of other’s gardens. That’s works for me, but it also reminds us of what hell life can be. This little bunny’s dad was killed and eaten, and now we find him sitting depressed at home, while having also lost his clothes. We see some further adventures with a cat and those smelly onions that cause even more anxiety, panic attacks and fear, but in the meantime, he just wants things to return to normal. And so they do in the end, despite his terrible loss. Mr. McGregor also learns that some things in life just must go unexplained.
This weekend many people are being reminded of a traumatic trial. I don’t mean just the Good Friday experience of Jesus 2,000 years ago. No, I mean the terrible experience of the marathon bombing, the subsequent lockdown and the manhunt here. The recent show of support for the firefighters who were killed brought back some of this same feeling of reflection on issues of public safety, trauma and the power of community solidarity. Yet it is a mixture of feelings. Even though I missed the lockdown, I know when I hear a helicopter overhead it symbolizes law enforcement searching for somebody who has frightened the public with an attack. We all have a bit of an edge, and perhaps lingering grief over losses that we have never healed from. I am bothered when those who have suffered massive injuries sometimes seem to be put on public display to satisfy some hunger for meaning. I think some have been strong, but for others it means a lifetime of pain and suffering. How do they get back to normal? And then others seem to capitalize on the suffering by having the maimed write a book so the promoter can make a buck. News becomes sensationalized and filled with feeling rather than fact to create a sense of solidarity, but it only approximates or even subverts the truth.
Fifty years ago this year, there was a sensational murder in New York City. Kitty Genovese was attacked raped and killed outside her apartment building. What could have been just another crime became a cause celebre. Subsequently the New York Times reported 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens had seen and heard this murder, and did nothing. Over a half-hour of gruesome attack, it was said; no one tried to call or help. It was implied that everyone in our neighborhoods are callous, and no one cares about other people. For some it confirmed our feelings about mean-spirited New Yorkers. Yet for others it became a motivation for public action, and the beginning of the 911 calling system, which was instituted in 1968. Most worrisome of all was what we have come to call the bystander effect. This is the phenomenon where a group fails to help someone who is in distress or trouble. We describe how firefighters run into the fire, but this is the reverse; the people who see trouble and run away. This reminds me of those in the trial of Jesus, who could have easily said “free Jesus,” the one who had clearly been tortured, and was in distress. Yet instead they turned on Jesus, and said “free Barabbas.” So it becomes easy to condemn the crowd in the telling of these stories. Yet are people so cruel?
The Genovese case returns to public consciousness this year because of the anniversary, but also because people remain fascinated by it. Perhaps the public wants to burden itself with the question, did we witness this crucifixion and do nothing? Do we think of ourselves as bad Samaritans? Are we people who don’t want to get involved? These are questions about human nature that the Genovese case raises. The public perception carried by these reports was that humans were uncaring. Yet the perception was wrong. She screamed when she was attacked, and someone yelled at the attacker to leave her alone, and he ran away. Did 38 people just watch? The killer returned and attacked her again. While there was one well-publicized individual who said he did not want to get involved, he did not represent the vast majority of people. There were others who called the police, because an ambulance soon came to the scene, and further, she did not die alone and forsaken. A neighbor held her in her arms trying to comfort her. One other person was too terrified to do anything. So there were a variety of responses with some coming forward to help, while others did not. The reporting startled the public into believing something about their very nature as people. The message is you people are so bad, I must force you to confront your evil, to make you be good. Yet the reporters failed to pay attention to what actually happened, and used their ideological beliefs or emotional response to promote falsehood.
Part of this story shows that we should be careful of those who would manipulate our feelings with story, because the stories they perpetrate may only be based in myth or feeling. Think of how many lynchings took place in the South because it was reported that a black man had raped a white woman. Public explanations of violence, often untrue then set off more violence. How many people blame every Muslim in the Middle East because two young Chechnyan men set off the marathon bombs? We extrapolate a truth based on our feelings about something, and yet do we rationally examine those feelings or accept the story that fits our preconception of truth?
I was talking to a colleague recently about an evaluation of his ministry. He has not been evaluated in the past, and his present congregation is using an anonymous survey that allows individuals to say whatever they please without accountability. While it might be one thing to say, “I don’t like his sermons,“ what especially disturbed him was the comment, “Bill’s absence from coffee hour has been noted.” Well, in fact Bill has never missed a coffee hour. The comment wrecks havoc with public perception because it perpetrates a complete lie, so that people might ask, is he at coffee hour? Is this true?
Yet this person may feel this is true because she feels like he is not paying enough attention to her. And yet her need to have someone pay attention to her may be endless. It reminded me of my experience when I moved here from Milton, and parishioners there pursued the perception that I was not present because I lived here, but in fact, I tried so hard to over compensate, I was there all the time, more than I ever sat in the office before. But it didn’t matter because they had an agenda to create a widespread myth that I was not present. Their feeling of abandonment worked, even though there was little rational truth behind it. Our truths about whether we have been listened to or cared for or not may be baseless, but once we have uttered them, others start believing.
Now you might say that the rational faith of a UU would make it so they would never be susceptible to such feeling, but in fact most of us base our beliefs in feeling whether we think we do or not. It surfaces in statements like “Bill’s not at coffee hour,” or “Mark’s not here.” But the Kitty Genovese story reminds us how important it is to try to know the truth. The perpetrated lie was that people are mean and uncaring, but the truth was that a lot of people wanted to help and some did. We know we are not perfect, but to accept that we don’t care means we let projected feelings about ourselves and others keep us all from the truth. As a Christian growing up, adults told me that Jesus would save me from my sins, or in other words, I would need to be cleansed of the badness in me. That was not based on anything about my behavior but was assumed to be true of my very nature, and that I would have to become something very different to be saved. Yet today I would argue that the central truth about the Easter resurrection is an affirmation of my Unitarian Universalist faith. I am not saved from my sins, but rather I am saved because of my sins.
Now your initial reaction might be that this is a ridiculous notion. I am no sinner, so I don’t need to be saved from them or because of them. But if you don’t think human beings are sinners, or whatever word you want to use to describe selfish behavior, then you have not read a newspaper lately and you live in a rabbit hole. We all are quite capable of making the biggest messes in the world. It is not just those terrible Republicans, or everybody but me and my friends. My selfishness, or my drunkenness, or my anger, or my self righteousness have caused a lot of pain to others, but any and all of those acts have never been the final word, or deed. I still have another chance. I still have a chance to say I am sorry, or I love you, or reach out to a person in pain, or live a daily-resurrected faith as a struggling human being trying to make amends or be better. Yet I don’t need to be anything different than who I am because it is the struggling ones who are trying each day to live with integrity. Messiness is precisely what will save me. But the saving continues to occur because it is a process of working with my struggles, and overcoming them, not saying either Jesus will save me from them, OR worse, I never had any in the first place. If you are not trying to be transformed into a more whole person, then you will never understand the Easter message.
We Unitarian Universalists often reject the idea of resurrection because it sounds like a literal raising of a body from the dead, and we define that as irrational. The rest of the culture seems to want to take this irrational belief and make it rational. As a result we have movies that tell us “Heaven is Real,” and we hear amazing stories of boys who go there and come back in after death experiences. We have phone calls from heaven, and life after life. Characters die over and over again, and look at different alternatives for their life. And so like so many things heaven has become a business. As a writer in the Times recently said, “Once the realm of religion, eternal life has now metastasized into a billion dollar industry.” This is all about feeling. And of course, we all have our fears of death, and these ideas give us comfort. It helps with anxiety to believe there is an afterlife, and a big part of the resurrection story today is to assuage that anxiety. But most Jews like Jesus were not particularly concerned about this felt need to live forever.
In Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, he tells him that he has come into the world to tell the truth, but Pilate does not seem to know what he means by this, and when he asks Jesus, what is truth, Jesus disengages. The obvious question might be how does a person come to know what is religious truth. Jesus never asked anyone to know him by feeling, but rather by examples of lived faith. The stories of the resurrection vary, but mostly he does not get up like Lazarus and walk around in ordinary ways. At times he is like a ghost, and even doubting Thomas is implored to touch him in order to prove that there is something real and corporeal about him. This is no rational truth here but rather a tremendous mystery that we cannot comprehend. Later in the Christian scriptures Peter says there are nine qualities a person can possess, and when you have these things then you know Jesus. These are things like goodness, kindness, love and compassion that you can cultivate in yourself. So the idea is that you embrace the resurrected Jesus by how you live your life, and you start right now in this moment by showing compassion, humility and forgiveness towards others.
There is a paradox here in that we cannot rationally understand immortality, or even know if it is possible, but we can embrace it in each moment by becoming like Jesus so that we embody the resurrected man. When you embrace that kind of life you will know peace and tranquility. He does not need to save you from your sins, because you are saved in your sins in being like him, just as he accepted everyone for who they are, offering forgiveness from feelings of shame or unworthiness. Maybe that is how the resurrected Jesus, those who are victims of murder like Kitty Genovese, or the victims of terrorist bombs and others are recalled. Our purpose is to bear witness for the dead, to immortalize their lives in ours, and through this impulse make them immortal. When we speak for the dead their lives live again in us, and we embrace the human longing for immortality both now and forever.
In one of the Downton Abbey episodes this year, the head butler Carson said, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is. “ That makes life sound like a simple collection of what you experience, but I think that acquisition is about becoming those qualities of human transformation that each of us can embrace as our lives unfold, so that each new day, becomes a resurrection day of growing our souls in more beautiful and loving ways. That is the resurrection faith I embrace. I suppose it seems based more in reason than feeling. The difference is that I feel passionate about that bearing of witness for others. I feel passionate about making life more just for all, and I feel passionate about becoming a more loving person. Kierkegaard once said I never become a Christian – I am always in the process of becoming. I hope you too, in your search for integrity and love are always in the process of becoming. It may not be specifically Christian, but I hope it is an unending search for religious truth because whether you identify as Christian, Buddhist or atheist that search for an ever more compassionate you means the resurrected Jesus still lives, in you.
Closing Words (responsive)
“i thank You God for most this amazing day” by e.e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
April 13, 2014
“Lest the Stones Cry Out”
by Tracy Johnson
Call to Worship : from A Space Between by Stephen Schick
Now is never
captured in words
or shot still in pictures.
Now is never visited
or in memories.
Now is never dreamed of
or longed for.
Now is a timeless awareness,
a space between what
has been and what will be,
a lens in the beam of our being
where light can become peace.
There is a holy light in my back yard. Perhaps you’ve seen it too. It originates at the edge of dark, rain-filled clouds and clear blue sky. It casts a crystalline clarity across the spectrum of color that exists in grass – and leaves, blossoms on trees and sprouting shrubs, cardinals’ and starlings’ wings – colors that burst forth – so intense that you don’t even see the object, but rather see as the artist sees; pieces of color – connected -to create a scene. Not quite the phenomenon that my daughter refers to as “God-light” – where the streaming, distant rain falls from clouds toward the earth in even rays, but a cast like that of a certain brilliance which causes you to pause – to ponder questions about the sacredness of our existence.
This experience of the holy and these words came to me one afternoon as I was preparing the grill for dinner! So suddenly and intensely it occurred – and I knew immediately that I needed to write it down – capture it, so that I would always have it – so that I might someday share it. A moment of grace – a gift from the universe.
What is this thing that I experienced? Certainly we feel it, as I did from my back porch, that sense of wonder at the world around us – how marvelously put together it is. We can’t help but stand in awe sometimes. It may be the sound of the ocean for some of us and the rustle of fallen leaves beneath our feet for others. Maybe we find it in a beautifully crafted poem or in the words of our children. Surely we can all recall an experience of it. A time when we witnessed some part of the natural order “crying out” as it were, rendering praise by its very existence for the gift of life; of being.
Reverence is the word for what I felt, what you have felt in the face of something so awesome that it is hard to find the words for – a sense of something larger than humanity, accompanied by awe. It is a capacity, really, to feel, to emote. And it is directed toward something that reminds us of our limitations as human beings. This awe we experience renders us mostly inarticulate; coming over us and leaving us at a loss to say what it is about; evading our vocabulary. Suddenly we are dwarfed by what we have confronted because it doesn’t fit neatly into a set of beliefs. We are called into silence; into waiting for further disclosure.
There are certainly scientific reasons for the light I saw and we can deny our emotions and chalk it all up to science and reason, but I am not possessed of a totally scientific mind or understanding. And beyond the science, when we are graced to witness something that we can’t control or change, that sometimes even experts can’t fully explain, that we didn’t create, there is a sense of transcendence. Beyond the science is the holy; a purity if you will, and it calls forth reverence.
Our reading this morning from the book of Luke recounts Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem and today is the day for the Christian celebration of this event, but I didn’t choose our words because of that. It is actually the last line of the reading that spoke to me so vividly. Where the people are all excited and extolling Jesus’ entry on the scene and the Pharisee’s are upset because all this excitement with all these people is likely to evolve into a riotous affair, and they suggest that he might quiet things down a bit. But he says that even if these folks were silenced, the stones themselves would cry out. To me this is a metaphor for something that desperately needs to be expressed; that if we as human beings didn’t shout about it, something inanimate like rocks would do it for us. It simply has to happen, one way or another.
This is the way it is with reverence. There is that moment of silent witness to the grace that we receive and then we must respond. It may be found in the words we speak as we attempt to recount what we have felt, but it is in our actions as well. It comes from a place of deep respect, a place of oneness with the mystery that is our life; our world. It is present when we listen deeply to one another here and beyond these walls in our community. We are acting out of reverence in these moments and we speak volumes in these silent acts about our respect for human life. Humanities professor Paul Woodruff says that reverence is expressed whenever we have moral choices to make and that it shows up in our respect for others and our world. It is in what he calls a “language of behavior.” Words are lovely tools to represent our thoughts, but you know the old saying, it is our actions that speak louder.
It saddens me to say that there appears to be no shortage of irreverence to which we are exposed these days. It fills the airwaves, pops up – unexpectedly – on our Facebook pages; it is shouted across playgrounds and from the bleachers at little league games. We see it tossed out of car windows, piling up on the roadside and floating on the surface of once pristine waters. Irreverence: the diminishing of life. I find that the irreverent word is often more easily spoken; passing through the lips just seconds before the signal comes, beckoning us to hold back. It happens to all of us. It seems we need a language of reverence simply to bring balance to what we hear and see; to lift up what has been made low. Choosing reverence takes practice; mindfulness. We are amazing creatures to be sure, but we are human, lest we forget, and the possibilities are limitless for us to fail humanity as well as to make good. Reverence requires us to be grounded in the things which we covenant to affirm; that which is inherent in all persons, the quality of our relationships, our goals for community and our connections to all that is – to carry those affirmations with us as we enter into our days.
Woodruff posits a connection to this virtue called reverence, as he puts it, to a capacity for awe, which is easy to see; to respect, which seems to follow as a response; and finally to shame, which was a little harder for me to grasp until the other day. I was at the local fish market and I asked the man behind the counter for some swordfish. I watched him as he placed the piece I had pointed to on the scale, printed out the label and wrapped it up, handing it over with a smile. Did I want anything else? No, I said, this is fine. Thanks. As I walked away I glanced down at my dinner and noticed that the label said flounder. And not only that. Flounder is about five dollars less per pound, which meant I had gotten quite a deal! But there was this inner conversation brewing about whether I should bring it back and tell him or not. Woodruff suggests that shame occurs when we are exposed in our own minds to shortcomings in relation to the ideals toward which we stand in awe. No one would have been the wiser if I just checked out and went home – no one but me. And I couldn’t do it because I hold this ideal about honesty and respect. I share this by way of example, of course – I’ve not always been so virtuous in my actions and I am sure you have similar stories. Was this reverence? I may not have said so a month ago, but now I believe it was. When we privately make the moral choice out of a sense of awe and respect for the human experience, no fanfare about it, we are acting out of reverence. It arises out of a very personal space and is made public in such subtle ways. But without it, where would we be? Would we lose our humility? Without some sense of our limitations as a reminder, what would we become? There is a humanist belief going back to the ancient Greeks, in the necessity of reverence as a foundation for society; that it is required for groups of human beings to stand by one another. Without reverence for humanity it is easy to do violence; we see it every day. A case can be made for the strong correlation between a lack of reverence and the level of violence we encounter historically, in our family and community lives, and in how we treat our environment.
I have seen this scenario played out in the lives of young, incarcerated men, whose stories became – increasingly violent – over the years that I worked in their presence. The environments in which they were raised lacked a sense of reverence for life and, most painfully, for themselves as individuals of value and worth. I am not talking here about their homes so much, as many came up with the dedicated help of single moms or grandparents who did their very best to shield these young men from the poverty of place to which they had been relegated by the economic disparity in our towns and cities. The result, though, was a repetition of the irreverence that they had experienced with such – damaging – results in their lives and in the lives of their victims.
It was Augustine who recounted our proclivity toward the miraculous – when he took stock of the things we wonder at: the heights of mountains, huge waves of the sea, broad flowing rivers, the courses of the stars. He proclaims his own wonder, though, at our tendency to ignore the marvel that we are as human beings. We have come a long way since the days of Augustine and as Unitarian Universalists we have developed what I would call a “healthy awe” for the life that we live in all of its manifestations: physical; spiritual; or emotional. We see it reflected in our principles. Unlike so many of those young men I was privileged to know, we have something to stand on that reminds us to be self-reverent as well. It is not because we are part of some exclusive club, or that we have some advantage ours alone, or because of privilege, although these things may ring true for some of us and we do the world a disservice when we forget that truth. It is instead about empowerment, affirmation and a sense of universal inclusivity. Because when we experience these things in our humanity, we know ourselves to be acceptable; we understand our worth and that of others; our capacity for reverence is taken up a notch and we respond differently.
But how does one come by that if not through teaching or religion? The point is that it is a capacity which makes possible other ways of being. We all begin capable of it; where it goes from there does depend on culture and learning. So what are we to do?
If you are near my age or older you will recall the line from a now famous film that states, “Plastics” indicating that, “They are the way of the future.” Recently here we showed the movie, “Bag It” about the horrible, awesome truth of that statement! Plastic is everywhere, poisoning us and our environment needlessly; it has reached epidemic proportions according to the narrator. And since that viewing I have been going to the grocery store with my canvas totes in hand, trying not to individually bag my vegetables before taking them to the register – which is really hard with things like green beans! When they say, “Paper or plastic?” I say, “Here, I brought my own.” I have made a conscious effort not to pick up a bottled water at the cafeteria. And I never microwave leftovers in plastic. Honestly folks, this is hard! It takes thought and strength to swim against the current. But we teach by example, creating a culture change, one plastic bag at a time.
We are teaching reverence and this is just one instance of it. Where else do you see it? Practice it? When do you have the feeling that if you didn’t say or do something to call attention to what you have witnessed or felt, that there would be a shout from the ground on which you stand? There is a void that is apparent when reverence is left unexpressed. We can fill it with respect; offering dignity and inclusivity across the societal divides of class and race, bringing healing and hope to individuals and to our world.
What begins as an internalized experience, manifests itself in words and actions, becomes externalized, evident. Inherent in this language of reverence is a piece of the healing and wholeness so lacking in our world today. We can tip the scales toward a more reverential existence for all of humanity when we include a language of reverence in our day to day interactions, holding as sacred our common bond with all of creation.
Lest the stones cry out.
Reverence – meditation for April 13, 2014 by Mark Harris
This morning a yellow crocus beckoned me to awake from sleepy eyes.
That crocus and all its purple and white siblings wanted to be seen,
wanted me to notice.
It didn’t say a word, but I heard it just the same.
It said celebrate the dancing, green shoots of spring,
It said shout, praise the earth once again,
and so I shall.
I could close my eyes,
or look away.
I could walk straight ahead with head down, one foot in front of the other, not seeing that life had returned once again to implore us,
nay demand from us that we observe its beauty,
not to be ignored, or stepped upon,
no that’s irreverence, that’s blasphemy, that’s not life at all.
Let me take a moment.
Let me open all the windows of my being.
Let me hear you grow.
Let me listen to the panting lust of your stamen.
Let me with wide eyes be stunned by color,
and let me embrace those upraised arms, that longing for life,
let it be mine, too.
O You, little cup of life,
Let me drink from your little edges,
you only have a brief time to remind me to love the earth with all my heart, inspire me,
let me live again.
Rich and Storied
April 6, 2014
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
‘Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Story Samson and Delilah ( Judges 16 )
Samson, who eventually ruled Israel for 20 years, was born at a time when the Israelites were in trouble with their God. They had escaped Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and Moses had even received the commandments, but the people were misbehaving again, and so God put the Philistines in charge of them. This was a pretty nasty thing to do, since the Philistines were the Israelites number one enemy. But – not to worry – Samson came to save his people. Even before he was born, his destiny was to free Israel from the Philistines. His mother received a message from an angel, telling her that she was going to have a special child, and that she should eat right and drink only water until the baby came; and then she should do two things: One, never, ever cut his hair; and two, never eat grapes, or anything that comes from them. No raisins, no grape juice, no wine. If she followed those rules, and taught him to also, his life would be dedicated to God, and Samson would be unbelievably strong.
And he was! Samson actually killed a lion with his bare hands, without even trying! He could fight a thousand men on his own, and win. It made the Philistines crazy! They could not understand his powers.
One day, Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived in a valley ruled by Philistines. The rulers went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength. We will give you bags and bags of silver if you can.”
So Delilah simply asked Samson if anything could weaken him, and he told her “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
So the rulers of the Philistines brought Delilah seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them, and she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame.
Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.” Twice more this happened –Samson told her that if he were tied with brand new ropes, he would be weak; that if the braids on his head were woven on a loom, he would be trapped. But this was not true, as Delilah discovered when her loom was reduced to twigs.
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.
So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been dedicated to God since before I was born. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”
Delilah sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, and they returned with the silver in their hands, and hid. Delilah sang Samson to sleep like a child, then called the men to shave off the seven braids of his hair. And his strength left him.
She called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.
Then the Philistines seized him, and shackled him, and took him down to a prison in Gaza, where they set him to grinding grain. But the hair on his head began to grow again, and so he did not stay in prison for too awfully long.
Reading “Power” from The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power. ”
Reading David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent out the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. One evening he got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.” Then David sent messengers to get her, and he slept with her, and then sent her back home. Soon she sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent for Uriah, and when Uriah came, David asked him how the war was going, and then said, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left, but he did not go to his house. Instead he slept at the entrance to the palace, with all the servants.
Informed of this, David asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents,and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”
Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
So Joab did as he was told, and Uriah died, along with some others. Joab wrote David a full account of the battle, and sent a messenger to Jerusalem to give the report.
When Bathsheba heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. But after the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.
As a kid, I occasionally watched a stop motion show called Davey and Goliath, which came on right before or right after Gumby – that green, bendy guy whose head was cut on an angle, and who had a best friend named Pokey – a red donkey. Davey and Goliath were a similarly odd pair – a boy and his dog, and the dog was almost like a Mr Rogers presence – wise, calm, with a very slow and deliberate voice. Only we viewers and Davey could hear Goliath talk – the other characters on the show couldn’t hear him. Although it was meant as a reassuring program, my cousin once told me that it freaked her out, because in the opening music she detected a chant with the words “God is everywhere, God is everywhere.” It made her afraid to go to the bathroom.
One consequence of this show was a familiarity with the term David and Goliath without knowing the original story, which is from the Hebrew Bible, and is also told in the Koran (Surat 2:246-251). Goliath in that story is not a dog, and he is definitely not David’s friend. He is the champion warrior in the Philistine army – the deadliest enemies of Israel. He has better armor, better weapons, better everything – David has a slingshot and five stones. Guess who wins? A rock to the forehead, Goliath goes down, David cuts off his head, and carries the trophy back to Jerusalem. The enemy is vanquished and David is a hero. The rest is history. The boy who would be King.
The David and Goliath story is used as a cultural reference whenever we are talking about winning against the odds. Malcolm Gladwell twists it a little further in his recent book, saying that our problems are not problems – they are gifts that make us creative and determined. Difficulties are desirable, says Gladwell, and will make you a success, and the world more beautiful. This may or may not be true, but I am not sure it has much of anything to do with the story of defeating Goliath, which is really setting up David’s role as king of Israel. He fights the giant to impress Saul – the first king of the Israelites; the one who has united the tribes, and who really is a king by divine right. David’s plan both succeeds and backfires, because Saul is impressed to the point of jealousy. He chases David up hills, and through valleys. They remain bitter enemies, even though they are on the same side. But then Saul is in the grips of a depression so severe he can barely function. He is alive, yet abandoned by every hint of life. It is utter desolation, probably at least partially because of the way David manipulates things and manages to turn everything his way. Guess who cures Saul? David comes with his harp, and soothes the old king’s mind with music. Oh, and through it all, David has a best friend and soulmate – who is none other than Saul’s son, Jonathan.
All this is to say that the Biblical portrait of King David is confusing. Which is weird, because he is the central figure in the story. He is the king against whom everyone is measured. God described him as “a man after my own heart,” — a little concerning given how David summoned women and disposed of their husbands. What is he supposed to stand for? Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is what got me wondering. The verses carry us from David playing for Saul, to David on the roof spying Bathsheba, to Samson and Delilah, then there’s a holy dove, and then a blaze of light in every word, although the verses change at times. Apparently Cohen originally had 83 verses to the song, and couldn’t get it just right, but once he paid for recording time he became highly efficient, and edited as he sang. I want to know what he left out – but what he gave us is compelling. For me it is both the music itself and the story being alluded to that are irresistible.
When I was in theological school, in the 1980s, there was general acknowledgement that the Bible was no longer the binding agent it once was, but not much clarity on what might replace it. One major topic was defining a repository of literature that we could draw upon with a reasonable expectation of familiarity. Some of us needed stories – not just principles – as part of our shared identity. We never resolved this issue. Many people were satisfied with the abstract ideals, and with the freedom to choose our own sources of wisdom. We used the term, “Loose leaf Bible,” meaning we built our own individual notebooks, adding and subtracting texts from all over. Respect for diversity and openness to new encounters cancelled out the possibility of a defined canon, or a shared story. The idea that old-fashioned Bible stories were critically important did not get too far. If a professor said they were a common language in our culture and we needed to know them, we mostly thought the culture was wrong and needed to change.
But then Leonard Cohen sings about this baffled king, or Dave Matthews writes a song in which he begs a bartender to fill his glass with the same wine he gave Jesus, the kind that set him free after three days down in the ground, and I grow curious. I am pretty sure there are no bartenders in the New Testament, just like there were no kitchen chairs fourteen centuries ago, when Samson was protecting Israel. But somehow these songs blend our lives into old, old stories, and I want to understand why they seem to be saying something that speaks to me. There is hope, too, that all the things that divide us can be bridged, that we do share something essential. Faith never comes from just resisting the culture. We have to transform it, in our own lives. And we can’t do that without, in some way, taking part in the stories.
The thing is, so many of the stories repeated in traditional religion are told as if they mean a specific thing. Even today, if you do a little quick research on King David, you will learn that Bathsheba tempted him; that because of her, David had to kill a man. Delilah, too, is blamed for Samson’s downfall. The critics say he loved her, but she betrayed him, and worse yet, she did it for money! And this is what makes having shared stories so problematic. It gets easy to lose interest when you read about Saul giving David first one daughter, then another; then taking her back and giving her to someone else. Women get used, and then blamed for everything, and the men are not exactly admirable. None of it feels relevant, let alone religious.
But the stories don’t read the way they are talked about at all; at least not to me. Samson does not come off as someone who is being lied to. He just seems stupid. He was sleeping with the enemy, and she kept asking him the secret to his power. How much more of a clue did he need? When I read the story this morning I left out a line, in which the Philistines gouge out his eyes. It didn’t seem like a good ending. But in terms of literature, it is symbolic – this man was blind in his behavior, and then he was literally blinded. And I think its pretty clear from the text that Bathsheba was stolen from her home by a peeping Tom who had the entire army at his disposal; that she had no real power to control what happened to her. David had her husband killed, and then made her marry him. The text does not blame her, it blames him, saying the Lord was displeased with David, and sent a prophet to say so. Nathan says “The Lord made you king in place of Saul, and gave you everything, but you have been wicked, and it is you who killed Uriah, even though it was done with other men’s swords. You did it to take his wife, and now, because of what you have done, everyone will suffer.”
So then my question becomes, what does it mean to have David as a central figure in western religions? He is a major prophet in Islam, partially because his defeat of Goliath is heroic, but mostly because the Psalms are understood as direct revelations from Allah. Christians emphasize the part about a humble non-royal boy from Bethlehem who only has a slingshot and a few stones to his name. He becomes proof that Jesus – that baby born out back amid the animals — was sent to rule – and indeed, Jesus is descended from David. But obviously that isn’t what the story meant to the Jews who wrote it and kept it in their sacred book. Why would the most important king be the one who displeased the Lord and caused everyone to suffer? David was powerful; that much is clear. He gathered the disparate settlements of Judah into a nation, took command of vast territories, and made Jerusalem into a religious center. But that doesn’t really explain why he, out of all the kings, is the one that God calls “a man after my own heart.” Why not Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived?
The fact is that David’s achievements for himself and for Israel meant that he sacrificed pretty much every value that we think decent. He may have been devoted to God in a single-minded way, but he was not a nice guy, and I am not saying that based only on how he acquired Bathsheba, or based on today’s standards. He behaved a lot like some of the political leaders we are horrified by; marching in with mercenaries and displacing ethnic groups, removing the ark of the covenant from its sanctuary and installing it near his palace. The people, in a kind of “Occupy Jerusalem” movement led by David’s own son Absalom, did actually try to get rid of him; but David had spies and double agents and a professional, paid army. The rebellion ended with Absalom hanging lifeless from a tree, and David restored to the throne. He cried for his son, said he wished it had been him instead, but it seems safe to say he only felt that way after the deed was done. He could not stop being King.
Maybe that is what Leonard Cohen was saying in his song. He can’t stop being himself, even when he does things he doesn’t like; even when it makes him lonely. What I see in David is a person who was a conqueror – but only of things outside himself. He could slay giants, and men; he could take wives; he could move settlements and capture nations. He could write songs to soothe men nearly mad with the price of leadership. But he never did seem able to control himself. He could overpower, outwit, and tranquilize others, but he, personally, was on a huge rollercoaster ride, and he could not get off. And he knew it. He knew that despite his strength and position, he was also powerless. Captivity is not necessarily external; not about being tied with ropes or chains. It can be about what drives you; what you let rule you. The throne can make you a prisoner, if you buy into the propaganda that got you there. This is the figure that mirrored God; the man whose heart God recognized and understood.
Clergy and scholars have written thousands of volumes on David over the centuries, and Leonard Cohen wrote 83 verses to his song, so clearly we are not going to exhaust the subject today. That really isn’t our goal, is it? We want to embody this sense of a minor fall followed by a major lift; of hope that is not sentimental; that acknowledges our genuine, even if failed, attempts to love and connect and do right. We all want to feel that, don’t we – the notion of our stumbles being smaller than the things that pull us forward? Otherwise we are forsaken; journeying but never making any progress. We don’t need perfection. We just need to recognize that we are made weak by the same things that give us the power to continue; that make us who we are.
The story of David is only part of Leonard Cohen’s song, anyway. Maybe its actually about the word hallelujah, repeated over and over until it becomes an incantation. It draws us in, casts a spell – all the while telling us that hallelujah is broken. In Christianity, hallelujah is a common word, and it is simply praise for God. It is an interjection; a one word expression used frequently. But in Judaism, which is Cohen’s tradition, it is a different story. The word appears in only one section of the Hebrew Bible: the Psalms. Even there, it is rare – only fifteen psalms use this word, and it is a direction, giving instruction to the congregation. In Hebrew, hallelujah is a plural verb. It says, everybody, join in, and sing this part. It tells you to be active, to participate, and it creates a communal expression. It tells you that even though you may be in a barren place and feel alone, you are in that place with others. They are sitting right next to you, broken and holy, together. The word might be shattered as it dragged from our lips, but as it breaks open, the light blazes, and the music….. well, the music heals, and lifts us up.
So may it be.
Closing Words from Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich
First the air is blue
and then it is bluer
and then green
and then black…..
the sea is another story…. you breathe differently down here.
the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
This is the place. And I am here,
Circling, with you.