Sermons are available in hard copy following the service and posted on this website shortly after.
“Going Against the Tide” by Mark W. Harris
The First Parish of Watertown – March 26, 2017
Opening Words ― from Henry David Thoreau, Walden
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man [or woman] to elevate his [or her] life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
First Reading from Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
I was once reproved by a minister who was driving a poor beast to some meeting-house horse-sheds among the hills of New Hampshire, because I was bending my steps to a mountain-top on the Sabbath, instead of a church, when I would have gone farther than he to hear a true word spoken on that or any day. He declared that I was ‘breaking the Lord’s fourth commandment,’ and proceeded to enumerate, in a sepulchral tone, the disasters which had befallen him whenever he had done any ordinary work on the Sabbath. He really thought that a god was on the watch to trip up those men who followed any secular work on this day, and did not see that it was the evil conscience of the workers that did it. The country is full of this superstition, so that when one enters a village, the church, not only really but from association, is the ugliest looking building in it, because it is the one in which human nature stoops the lowest and is most disgraced. Certainly, such temples as these shall erelong cease to deform the landscape. There are few things more disheartening and disgusting than when you are walking the streets of a strange village on the Sabbath, to hear a preacher shouting like a boatswain in a gale of wind, and thus harshly profaning the quiet atmosphere of the day.
Second Reading – Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 2, 1840
The lake is a mirror in the breast of nature, as if there were nothing to be concealed. All the sins of the wood are washed out in it. . . I love to consider the silent economy and tidiness of nature, how after all the filth of the wood, and the accumulated impurities of the winter have been rinsed herein, this liquid transparency appears in the spring.
I should wither and dry up if it were not for lakes and rivers. I am conscious that my body derives its genesis from their waters, as much as the muskrat or the herbage on their brink. The thought of Walden in the woods yonder makes me supple jointed and limber for the duties of the day. Sometimes I thirst for it. There it lies all the year reflecting the sky –and from its surface there seems to go up a pillar of ether, which bridges over the space between earth and heaven. Water seems a middle element between earth and air. The most fluid in which man can float. Across the surface of every lake there sweeps a hushed music.
Sermon – “Going Against the Tide” – Mark W. Harris
Every time I visit Walden Pond I am reminded that Andrea’s father was responsible for the construction of the parking lot there; paving, swales, fences and plantings. To me it is perfectly reflective of what you would want to achieve with a natural area to both preserve the landscape, and fulfill the requisite recreational need. Of course 99.9 % of the people who go to Walden Pond have to drive to get there. This is not an area that is conducive to foot traffic. As you drive in through the entrance, it doesn’t look like a parking lot because all around you are trees and shrubs in between several areas where cars can be parked. There are pathways back to the road where you can hike down to swim in the muddy pond, or hike around its perimeter, pretending you are walking in the steps of Thoreau.
A parking lot that is made to look natural is ideal. Make it look wild, but also make it possible to pack in the cars that drive there. And on a hot summer day, pack them in, is exactly what they do. This is perfectly reflective, too of the ambivalence we feel about nature, our own, and the natural surroundings we think we want to preserve in their pristine state. It is hard to have it both ways. Many natural areas have been sacrificed to development. This is observed in that famous song of my teenage years, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.
We may recall Mitchell singing, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, or they cut down all the trees and putting them in a tree museum. Think of all the housing developments that have been named for the woods or natural areas that were destroyed in order to build there. You can be sure that Beaver Valley no longer has any gnawing creatures, and Indian Ridge is no longer the home of Native Americans. We want preservation, but we also want to be able to drive to areas where we can recreate. And that parking lot says it all. It looks so natural, and yet it is made to accommodate the behemoths of the factory not the forest.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. I know you are all asking why is he pronouncing the name in a such an odd manner. Most of us learned that the name is pronounced Tha-row, but more recently I have been told that the correct pronunciation is Thour –ough. I don’t want to wrangle over this, but we are talking about an American icon here, who is quoted and misquoted time and again. Simplify! Simplify! March to a different drummer! In wildness is the preservation of the world. That’s wildness, by the way, not wilderness.
So this is an early birthday sermon because he was born in July, but the real reason is a smoldering anger over the besmirching of his reputation in a New Yorker article from about a year and a half ago, called “Pond Scum” by Kathryn Schulz. Yes, our liberal hero of environmentalism and civil disobedience was equated with the green film that grows on the surface of stagnant water. In her reading of the sage of Walden, Schulz concludes that he is a narcissistic, control freak, who only needs himself to thrive in the world. He wanted to be delivered from institutions that inhibited the individual’s integrity of conscience, like government and church. She declares that he thought he knew better ways of determining the truth than anyone. He was a snob. She calls him a compulsive liar, too. I think one problem is that she doesn’t understand how he struggled, just like you and I, with living in society with such lofty principles.
For example, he lamented the excesses of popular newspapers, comparing it to living in a sewer, but he also considered the press indispensable. He thought it was America’s new Bible, and he read them all. He knew he was an exaggerator. His attitude toward the paper is like us with the weather or with our phones. We complain how horrible one is, and how we are addicted to the other, but we revel in our disgust, and enjoy complaining. He wrote about living simply in this little hut on the pond with minimal dietary habits, sometimes living on beans alone, and yet he trudged home frequently for a taste of Mom’s home cooking and to socialize with his sisters, and to do his laundry. Schulz says that Walden Pond was about as far off the grid as Prospect Park, a famous park in Brooklyn.
He was about as self-sufficient as my teenage sons. And then, like any good teenager, he says rebel against societal norms, but then he goes off and embraces them. He was a fanatical individualist, who was self-absorbed, who liked telling people how they could become more saintly in their daily living. Schulz feels Thoreau should be perfectly assured about his life views, and she denigrates his inconsistencies. But I identify with his incessant need to self-reflect on what life demands of him to be a good person. I also expect that our faith will inspire us to consider deeper contemplation while walking, praying or conversing with others.
There are some serious issues that Thoreau exemplifies, which also underscore why he provides special insight for Unitarian Universalists. These are not so much his political activism or environmentalism, but the smugness with which he applies them. The other night at our Love Out Front workshop on antiracism, our facilitators asked us to name something that would keep us from remaining present at the meeting. This was not a distraction at home, but rather what might keep us from being engaged with others, and the responses included things like people who dominate a conversation or get angry and yell. I wrote down “liberal exceptionalism.” This is the presumption that liberals, like us, are the most enlightened people in the room about a particular issue, say, the environment, and society would be much better off if it followed our approach of personal and societal stewardship of earth and all its resources.
With racism, it might be your feeling that you have been there and done that in countless workshops, and you know personally that you could never be prejudiced, but you seem to have neglected all those ways you which you are the recipient of white privilege. And with environmentalism you already drive that Prius and despise gas guzzlers, and you belong to the local group that eschews pesticides, so you must be doing all you can. Unfortunately, as good as you are, there is inequality and police shootings and white supremacy, and there are melting ice caps, rising tides, and extreme weather events. We love Thoreau in that little cabin because he has simplified his own living down to virtually nothing. But it is a ruse because he cannot really fulfill his wilderness ideal alone. He says he could live in a little box on the ground. Yet that sounds coffin like to me, and just as deadly to society.
We know Thoreau as an ardent individualist who lived by the highest principles. Yet it is that supreme integrity that does not allow him to understand how important it is to work with others or even admit to himself how much he struggles with people and life’s injustices. More than a self-possessed genius he is also a member of a community that needs traditions and shared values. We often think of Thoreau, like other Transcendentalists, as someone who eschewed tradition and authority, thinking they could be their own authorities.
He once said, “Time is but a stream I go fishing in,” sounding like a man for whom time did not matter. Yet even from a young age a sense of time and history inhabited his very soul. In the fall after he quit teaching school because he refused to apply corporal punishment to the students, he was out walking with his brother “with,” as he said, “their heads full of the past and its remains.” He began to envision the presence of Native Americans, saying, “how often have they stood on this very spot.” And then he began living the part of their leader, and said “there is his arrowhead,” pointing to a nearby rock, but miraculously the rock was an arrowhead. It was later noted about Thoreau that he could almost find arrowheads at will, partly because he was so observant of everything, and partly because he expected to find them. The imagination is so great, that if we feel something, you do not merely seek, but actually find.
This, too, was the way I felt, when I went fishing in the Swift River in my rural town of New Salem 50 miles or so west of Concord. Upstream from me was the natural rock formation that came to be called the Bear’s Den, where an early settler had encountered a large bear among the craggy rocks and waterfalls. This, too was an area where Native American councils had met, and as a devotee of their history, I, too imagined myself conferring on important issues in my homemade loin cloth, and hatchet. Here the water flowed down from the hills of New Hampshire, past the main road down to towns that were eventually swallowed in the Quabbin Reservoir.
The Quabbin which once encompassed four towns that were drowned in the 1920’s to become the reservoir for Boston’s water supply, became what was called an accidental wilderness, a land of trees and water with minimal recreational usage. Quabbin” is a Nipmuc Indian word meaning “meeting of the waters,” and so it was the meeting place of three branches of the Swift River. When I was a boy this wilderness became a place where the wild turkeys and bald eagles were reintroduced after nearly going extinct. This was marvelous to reclaim wilderness from land that was once hewn of trees, and fortunately the impetus to develop it was kept to a minimal. I was struck a few weeks ago when Andrea said that Mt. Kathadin in Maine, that wilderness mountain I climbed last summer, with what she described as minimal planning, and maximum grace (or stupidity), could not be developed. It was too steep to build a road there, so one could not drive to the top as tourists can do on Mt Washington.
Wilderness is a convoluted word. We believe Thoreau gave us our modern commitment to environmentalism and the preservation of wilderness, but he was conflicted about it. Traditionally and Biblically, wilderness was a savage place that was a barren wasteland. Yet we have cultivated a romantic view of wilderness, so that the divine dwells just below the surface. We think this occurs in places where human beings become pure, but for Thoreau, Kathadin was actually too vast and scary. It could not be tamed, and this became troublesome, because the public at large wanted to domesticate the wild, and enjoy its beauty. Celebrating wilderness was a manly thing to do, and also a game for rich people to enjoy, but the myth of celebrating a virgin land neglected the Native Americans who were destroyed so white people could enjoy the illusion that they were seeing and preserving some pristine state. This was wilderness that had actually known the imprint of people’s feet and culture.
In fact there is a white cultural invention of wilderness that has erased the history from which it was born. We want in this respect an illusion that we can escape the imprint of our own feet with some place that we do not touch, when we should be thinking instead of how to manage our touch, and accept our human predilection for thinking we can escape our troubles. This was what truly haunted Thoreau. Human beings need the land to make their living, and to leave their mark. We fool ourselves to think that nature is outside the human in some false pure state. Nature is us, in all our folly and errors. Nature in a pristine state would remove us from the scene, which is exactly what global warming will do. We have been manipulating the natural world since Adam and Eve escaped from the garden. Think about it. If the wild world alone is worth saving, and we alone are the thing that destroys it, then we can kiss ourselves goodbye. The helpful answer is to reflect on how much damage we do together in this common usage of the planet, and instead of congratulating ourselves on our greenness, we would acknowledge our imperfections and keep fighting to preserve our sacred waters. Nature is not going to be untouched by our passage.
Thoreau taught us that nature could be found in the local habitat close to home. We do not need to escape into some mythical wildness, but can encounter nature nearby. Thoreau found it in the woods near Concord, even outside his cabin door. A day was not complete for Thoreau unless he spent four hours of it taking a walk. Years ago when my wife first suggested we walk as many places as possible, I was horrified. Then it became something I loved so that I longed each day for our walk. What if we all walked more, our church and our town, and began to live out Thoreau’s singular elixir for the soul. Gary Snyder once said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.”
Thoreau taught us that we are not separate from nature, but we are part of a living breathing cosmos, no matter where we are. He is called pond scum because he is conflicted about nature, and his critic fails to comprehend this natural human dilemma. He sought purity in and intimacy with the natural world, but it also bit him, and produced carcasses that smell to high heaven. He wondered how we could most cleanly and gracefully depart out of nature, but we can’t. We leave a footprint everywhere, and we must live in our impurities. So we can fantasize about purity, but it is not what the garden provides.
We may prevent our fellow travelers from paving paradise and putting up the parking lot, but we need parking lots somewhere, and why not with trees surrounding them? Thoreau recognized a snake in the garden, which we sometimes in our pure notions of nature neglect to see. Even he, who typically despised organized religion said of humans that “birth and death are offensive and unclean things,” and so much of life offends the moral sense. “It is the odor of sin.” Yet these sins could be washed clean by pure waters. Surely the way we feel when we swim in Walden, or stand naked under the water falls at the Bear’s Den.
Thoreau embodies a new American spirituality. The Thoreau who rejected traditional institutional religion is apparent in the reading where the hypocritical minister profanes the quiet of the day with his shouting preachments. Thoreau’s powers of observation show how Nature reflects infinite variations on certain underlying laws. There is a strong American tradition of connection with nature that stands side by side with the Biblical covenant of establishing a gleaming city on a hill, and a Constitutional covenant of molding a people who believe that all are created equal. This third covenant is that the land itself is holy, and those communities we are part of have a role to play in keeping this land we tread upon as clean as possible. Especially now. Climate change may be the most troubling and important issue we humans have ever faced.
What it means is that we cannot be holy by ourselves, but in fact, need to create deeper connections with nature as communities. We must grow up from individualism to see the need for a social commitment. While we may recycle like mad and convey our dismay to Washington, where is our congregational commitment to act as a community? When will the First Parish Green Sanctuary Committee be reconstituted? A faith commitment is not only about transforming ourselves. You alone cannot make a difference, but together we can.
Can we make a stand as a congregation, or will it only be singular acts? Climate change implicates us all in our comfort and security. Later in his life Thoreau turned from his individualistic focus when he considered the implications of one person hurting another. In 1848 Thoreau went to jail for refusing, as a protest against the Mexican War, to pay his poll tax. When Emerson came to bail him out. He famously said, “Henry, what are you doing in there? Thoreau quietly replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” It turned out that the protest was meaningless, and the war continued. But the implication is that if we sit on another’s shoulders, like those who extend slavery with war, we deepen the injustice. What will we see happening in nature in the coming years. Who will be inside the cell asking us to come in? Will we be able to act in concert?
With the recent birth of a second grandchild, I am more aware that my grandchildren, and all children, will be living in a world where people must understand more and more how interdependent we are and how important it is that we care for the planet we call home. Thoreau’s faith in nature was that it did not side with any particular faith or tradition but transcended them all. He once wrote that he would “rather listen to the chick-a-dee-dees than the D.D.’s any time.” He rejected institutional religion because it was so much blather, finding instead his belief in the forest, in the meadow and in the night. With respect to nature Thoreau believed his soul was at stake. In the coming years, we may need to fully grasp the implications of that belief. We need to hear that hushed music that floats across every lake and down every river, coming from the mountains, down over the falls, through the stream I go fishin’ in, ultimately to the waters we drink. How can we together keep them pure?
Closing Words – from Henry David Thoreau
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.
“Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti
“The World Has Need of You” by Ellen Bass
seems to need us
Rainer Maria Rilke
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.
From “Whole Again” a chapter in Debby Irving’s Waking Up White
I think the moment my mother told me of the Indians’ alcohol-soaked demise was when my soul first cracked, letting in a slip of cognitive dissonance that would be added to over the years. For my entire life a part of me has been reaching toward lost truths, missing details between what I was told and what I felt, information that would still the rumblings in my consciousness. I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.
Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it. As I picked up the notion that race and racism belonged to other people, my mind was trained 180 degrees away from the harsh reality that racism is a problem created by white people and blamed on people of color. The problem is not simply that racism wasn’t discussed. Messages supporting a contradictory story were pushed on me, a story that placed disproportionate value on individualism, intellect, and bravado.
By being taught to buck up and compete in a world of individual players, I learned to silence feelings of vulnerability, curiosity, and compassion. As those parts of me withered, the void filled with assumption and judgment. In the same way my white town presumably protected me from people who could undermine my safety or financial stability, my buck-up attitude presumably protected me from my own vulnerability. Allowing myself to feel anger, grief, or confusion was tantamount to saying I was weak. Admitting vulnerability felt like letting go of my ladder rung and plummeting, landing who knows where.
Ironically, only when I tapped into my own vulnerability did I rediscover my inner strength and start listening to my own voice, the one that for years had been trying to tell me something wasn’t right.
“Remember” by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
in a bar once in Iowa City.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war
dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
SERMON “Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti
I have long been obsessed with cereal. Pretty much every day in middle and high school I would come home from school or sports or play rehearsal and eat an enormous bowl of cereal and watch TV, keeping a sharp lookout to see if my parents were pulling up to the house, at which point I needed to turn it off and pretend I was just about to walk the dog, or that I had been doing homework the whole time. And now, you better believe cereal is at the top of my list of hungry & pregnant snack foods.
Grape Nuts in particular is oddly significant in my family. Personally, I find them delicious. When my older niece was only two or three, she’d wake up my brother-in-law in the morning, grabbing his hand to drag him out of bed saying, “wake up Papa, time for Grape Nuts! Yum yum!” They ran out once and took an emergency trip to the grocery store and bought like ten boxes. The picture of my niece with the all the Grape Nuts piled on her lap in the car seat made it onto their Christmas card that year.
Anyway, I’m just saying, for the record, I have nothing against Grape Nuts.
But I was dismayed to notice a Grape Nuts box in the grocery store once, proudly proclaiming “100% of your whole grains in one serving!”
My initial reaction was to be up on my high horse: who wants to get 100% of anything from a box? Especially a culinary staple like whole grains? I felt suddenly indignant that modern society tries to package a sense of completion and satisfaction as if it’s something we can buy from the store. But really, what’s the big deal. Convenience is convenient, right?
Commercial agriculture and grocery stores have given us a complicated relationship to our food. We demand that our produce be blemish-free and that our nutrition be ready-made. For my part, I know I mutter under my breath any time I’m at Stop & Shop and the lettuce seems a bit wilted, and I skip right over any apples with little gouges or bruises. Why should I buy anything that doesn’t look perfect? And though I’m not shopping for meals for a little one yet, I’m sure in the near future I’ll be exhausted and pressed for time and will have no complaints about an easy, pre-packaged way to ensure I’m feeding my kid all the protein, whole grains, or whatever they need.
The trouble is the demands that grocery store-levels of convenience and perfection place on the earth and on the people who grow our food. It takes a lot of waste, a lot of transport, a lot of packaging, and a lot of back-breaking labor to keep a supermarket stocked with the sparkling array of a Whole Foods. There’s something unnatural about the pretty paradise of Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I shop there sometimes and feel pretty darn fancy while I’m doing it. It’s just more accurate to call it “whole paycheck.”
I may be biased but I think the real whole foods can be found at a place like the very messy and very beautiful community-based farm in Dorchester where I used to work.
The farm is based at a shelter – a place for homeless families with young children to land for a time and look for permanent housing. Working there showed me something I needed to learn, given my rather sheltered middle-class upbringing: even amidst the unbelievable inhumanity of poverty and homelessness, people sure do raise their kids with fierce and awesome love.
The farmland was formerly vacant lots – remnants of an era in Boston’s recent history when many buildings burned, particularly in the panic and disinvestment that accompanied white flight. With more than a decade of care and compost, the farm’s founders remediated the blighted soil, and by the time I worked there, the place was a vibrant and lush garden, buzzing with life. I was very blessed to witness how strength and beauty can grow from hardship, in the case of the people and the plants of ReVision. Even the name of the farm and the shelter – ReVision – is a statement about possibility and process rather than perfection.
One of the many lessons that ReVision Urban Farm taught me was the value of “good enough.” The perfectionist in me wanted my rows to be ledger-straight, my paths entirely weed-free, and my planting and harvesting activities to match the plan to the day. Not surprisingly, my rows were always wobbly, there were always weeds everywhere, and we were always two weeks behind or even more likely, we scrapped the plan mid-summer and just made it work. Empty planting beds? Let’s plant something! Are the beans ready? Let’s pick them! We grew plenty of delicious and healthy fruits and veggies. Very little of it was perfectly executed. I got a lot more comfortable with imperfection, I learned to appreciate the beautiful chaos of the organic garden, its little ecosystems of bugs and soil and roots and fruits, everyone eating each other, and the plants flourishing despite having some holes in their leaves.
Speaking of leaves with holes, just yesterday some members of the Youth Group and the Social Action Committee and I went to make bags of grocery store seconds at the UU Urban Ministry – perfectly edible produce that doesn’t meet the stores’ standards of marketability. The program is called Fair Foods and people come buy these bags for $2 at locations all over the city on different days of the week. I was blown away by all the food that would have been wasted. I deeply enjoyed the camaraderie and playfulness that sprung up among all of us who came together around those bags of food.
Forcing marketable perfection onto the fruits of the earth reminds me of the expectations we put on our bodies and our selves: our culture devalues bodies that have been marked “other” in color, size, gender expression, ability, or in other ways. Advertisements and TV and movies show us that certain bodies are good bodies – white, slender, young, with proper expressions of masculinity or femininity, and rich enough to buy any perfection we may secretly lack.
But of course we know that what the media shows about human beings is hardly a reflection of reality. We are creatures of this earth. We are sometimes disheveled and smelly and we are not uniform. Like the plants at the farm where I used to work, growing strong even with holes in their leaves, our wounds are not defects; rather, they are part of our wholeness, they are badges of our vulnerability and resilience. Our diversity is not due to deviance nor is it for gathering tokens in a collection, it is the truth and wonder of humankind.
I have to come clean about something. I chose two of our hymns today with an ulterior motive: to complain about them. Not to get super preachy or UU or anything, but we have to question many of our hymns, for various reasons. Amazing Grace and Standing on the Side of Love are both gorgeous and meaningful expressions of faith, and it’s also frustrating that they favor certain bodies with certain abilities. I’m talking about the line “I was was blind but now I see.” Do these hymns demand we have seeing bodies, and bodies that can stand? Of course it’s figurative: “Seeing” is a metaphor for understanding, “standing” is a metaphor for showing support. Of course we can sing these songs and still honor our own and one another’s inherent worth and dignity, with all our different sorts of bodies. But we get SO many messages in our daily lives about how there’s something wrong with our bodies: they’re too fat, too wrinkly, too vulnerable. People’s gender expressions are policed, people’s skin color marks them for a criminal. We are tricked into noticing someone’s disability first, and then that they are a person comes second. We get so many messages about which bodies are whole and perfect and which bodies are wrong, that it’d be a relief to get a break from these expectations in church. I’m with Rumi, whose poem we sing, “come, come, whoever you are.” We need all of us here, we need to honor all our different bodies and abilities.
One of our readings came from the last chapter of Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White: the chapter is called “Whole Again.” I participated in a discussion about this book here at church last year along with several others from the congregation. In the section I read today, Irving reflects on the impact of what her mom told her at a very young age about Native Americans and alcoholism – her mom had put it in such a way as to suggest that the disease was inevitable among Native people, the destruction complete, and that it was all their fault:
“I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.”
Irving is describing something that threatens our inherent wholeness: the damaging conceit that some of us are worthy and others are not. What’s at stake is our sacred interconnection with one another, our ability to respect the interdependent web of existence. Irving says her “soul cracked” when she was taught to believe that there is something inherently inferior about Native Americans. Stories like this, stories about hierarchies, about inferiority and superiority, separate us not only from one another but also from our own humanity.
You may have heard of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term for humanity that has been translated to mean “I am because you are.” Here is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s explanation of this word:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Debby Irving also reflects that once she began to recognize her own vulnerability, she began to recover her sense of wholeness. Believing in superiority, whether consciously or subconsciously, means believing that some of us have got it all together, are always in control, can show no weakness. But that’s a lie. Part of being human is being vulnerable. Bikini ads are airbrushed. Immortality and omnipotence is for the gods. We can’t be whole if we pretend we are perfect.
Our wholeness lies not in some illusion of flawlessness and self-sufficiency, but rather in our interconnections and in our own bruised and healing selves. On the farm, I had to let go of the idea that I had everything under control and that everything would turn out just so. I put my face right up to the plants to try to understand what they needed, I worked hard to cultivate a healthy and vital landscape, but much of it was out of my hands. Every part of that farm was dependent on every other part of that farm. Shade, drainage, pests, compost, even the people that coaxed the plants from the soil… all of this was best understood as a network of interlocking pieces, stronger parts and struggling parts, that all somehow led to a cute kid biting into a carrot she had just pulled from the earth, and smiling wide to taste the sudden gritty sweetness, orange flecks decorating her teeth.
“The World Has Need of You” as the title of the poem from our opening words put it. The poem says, “It’s hard to be human. We know too much and too little.” Indeed, the world needs us just as we are – equal parts broken and strong, equal parts wise and foolish, always in process and wholly reliant on one another.
This is the wholeness that suits us best. Not something we can get from a box or that tantalizes us in a commercial, but just being comfortable with our regular, rumpled selves, our hands dirty from digging or from helping a friend.
I’ll end by returning to these lines from Joy Harjo’s poem:
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV by Rainer Maria Rilke
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins beside you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
“Up and Down the Mountain”
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
March 12, 2017
A found poem by Dalton Wright, from one page of text in
“Alone on a Mountaintop” by Jack Kerouac
What strange thoughts come to you
when you realize…
I realized I didn’t have to hide myself.
Seeing, hearing, smelling,
Touching, tasting, thinking
To perceive at all.
Is ultimately silly.
The mountain meadowside in the moonlight
You’re already there
You’re already there
To stay in Nirvana bliss
God’s Universal Mind
Silence itself is the sound of diamonds
That graveyard silence
Like the silence of an infant’s smile
Reading from On Trails, by Robert Moor
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau made a failed bid to climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in the state of Maine. His guide was an old Indian man named Louis Neptune, who advised Thoreau to leave a bottle of rum on top of the mountain to appease the mountain spirit. On their climb, Thoreau and his companions followed moose trails and scrambled cross-country. In one harrowing instance, while crawling
over the flattened tops of the black spruce trees that had grown up between the mountain’s massive boulders, Thoreau looked down to find that below him, in the crevices, lay the sleeping forms of bears.
The party became lost in fog and never made the summit. But on his descent, Thoreau suddenly realized he had stumbled upon a wholly wild place. He found the land savage, awful, and unspeakably beautiful. He wrote:
This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the untamed globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor woodland, nor wasteland…Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific…rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!
How… had a human being—indeed, a whole generation of human beings—become so abstracted from the land ..as to warrant such an epiphany? Solid earth, actual world? The answer stretches back. ..through agriculture and literacy and urbanization and technology; and through monotheism, which vanquished the animist spirits and erased their earthly shrines… Euro-Americans had been working for millennia to forget what an unpeopled planet looked like. To see it afresh came as a shock.
…Katahdin …gained a reputation as the antithesis to peaks like New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, where… “large flocks streamed up the mountains like a transplanted tea party.” But the mountain resisted all attempts to tame it. During the height of the summit house craze of the 1850s, Maine politicians, envious of the commercial successes of their neighbor, chartered a road to be built over Katahdin, but the steepness of the terrain meant the project was soon abandoned. …While trail-builders on Mount Washington were rearranging boulders to construct paths so smooth they reportedly could be walked blindfolded, the paths on Katahdin remained… “but the roughest of cuts through the north woods.”
The longer Katahdin resisted attempts to tame it, the more it attracted “pilgrims” who enjoyed its wild character—and who, moreover, would fight to keep it that way. In 1920, an eccentric millionaire named Percival Baxter climbed Katahdin via the vertiginous Knife’s Edge route. Greatly impressed, he vowed to ensure that the land would remain “forever wild…. simple and natural nearly as it was when only the Indians and the animals roamed at will through these areas.”
…in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation,…born when we began cleaving the world into the binary categories of wild and tame, natural and cultivated. … Perhaps the most succinct definition of the wilderness is simply: the not-self. There, in the one place we have not re-molded in our own image, a very deep and ancient form of wisdom can be found. Wilderness is a brazenly naked land, where a person, in mingled fear and awe, verging on nonsense, can cry out for Contact!
Sermon Up and Down the Mountain
A Penobscot story begins with a young Native American girl gathering blueberries on Mount Katahdin. Because she was lonely, she wished for a husband, and then, seeing the great mountain in all its glory, with the red sunlight on the top, she added, “I wish Katahdin were a man, and would marry me!” She went up the mountain, picking her blueberries, and singing to herself, and was not seen again for three years.
When the girl reappeared, she had with her a beautiful baby, whose eyebrows were made of stone. The spirit of the Mountain had indeed taken the lonely girl as his bride, but after a time she wished to see her own people. The Mountain, wanting only peace and goodness for her, sent his bride back down.
The baby boy had strange and wondrous gifts. The wise men among the Penobscot said he was born to be a mighty magician. All he had to do was point a finger at a moose, and it would drop dead; when out in a canoe, if he pointed to a flock of wild ducks, the water would at once be covered with the floating game for the people to gather in. Through this gift, the mother and child and all the tribe had plenty of food, and never a worry.
So this was the truth, and a mystery, too – that Katahdin had wedded this girl, and created a child who would build up his nation, and make of the Wabanaki a mighty race. But before the girl went back down the mountain, the great spirit of the Mountain told her that she must not allow the people to inquire about the boy’s father. He said, “truly, they will all know it by seeing him anyway; it is an impertinence on their part to ask; do not let them grieve you in this way.” So she made it known that she would not be questioned. She did not talk about the spirit of the mountain, or the life it gave her.
Then one day, knowing people were speculating about her, she said to herself in frustration, “Katahdin was right. These people are not worthy of my son, and he shall not serve them and lead them to victory any longer. These are not people who will make a great nation.” When someone teased her one time too many, she finally spoke out, and compared the people to mud-wasps who stung the fingers of those who plucked them out of the water, and said they were likely to kill themselves with their stupid mistakes.
“Why are you troubling me to tell you what you are already know? Can’t you see who was the father of my boy? Look at his eyebrows! Don’t you know Katahdin by them? — Well, you will be sorry you ever inquired. From this day on, you will feed yourselves. Find your own venison. This child will do no more for you.”
Then she stood up, made her way into the woods and up the mountain, and was never seen on the earth again.
Last summer, as June turned into July, my husband and two of my sons drove to Baxter State Forest, in order to hike to the top of Mount Katahdin. They had romantic notions of conquering high peaks, balancing along the knife’s edge, and – in the case of the 64 year old, completing an item on the list of things to accomplish before succumbing to old age; in the case of the 17 year old, proving his independence while lounging by sun-dappled stone pools above the clouds. The 19 year old was just going in order to go. A third teenager – a friend of our boys – accompanied them.
Some of you have heard about this trip, from people who actually went. This is a story from behind the stage, by one who did not go, yet whose heart made the journey. Now, these guys didn’t read up on the park, and the rules for toileting or how to hang your food in bags away from your tent so the bears wouldn’t visit in the night. They didn’t realize the road in to the park was more like a rutted path in the wilderness; that it would take almost two hours to drive the 20 miles from the edge of the park to the base camp.
I bought them trail maps, and read how much water was necessary, and packed that up for them, too. I encouraged them to do a bit more research, but my son found all this superfluous. When David showed up so they could all head out, he had no back pack or sleeping bag at all, because Asher – who had reassured us that David would have everything– Asher had neglected to explain how long a trip this was; that camping was part of the deal. They left amidst a discussion of extra chargers for their phones, blissfully unaware of the lack of cell towers in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, my third son and I drove to our cottage in mid-coast Maine, where we would meet up with the climbers on the third day. Levi and I puttered about the beach, bumped into our neighbor, Jim, and explained where the rest of the gang was.
And Jim began telling me about being lost on the mountain.
In July of 1939, a twelve year old boy was climbing Katahdin with his father and two brothers when a sudden storm came up, and covered the top of the peak in a fog so dense Donn Fendler lost sight of not only his companions, but the trail. Just as he reached the summit, the mist closed in and shut off the view of anything below the peak. The clouds settled in; then a storm followed. First it was lashing rain, then snow and ice, and the soaked little boy ended up completely and totally lost. After a few days, the search and rescue mission became one in which the authorities hoped to recover a body. Fendler’s last footprints were found at the edge of a precipice that fell 400 feet.
All of America was united in praying for this boy. His mother was receiving thousands of Western Union telegrams; Boy Scouts across New England joined with the Maine paper mill workers and the New York State Police bloodhounds to look for him. And nine days later, he emerged — naked and battered and delirious, having lost 30% of his body weight, with hundreds of black fly bites and missing a few toes. He had walked through 48 miles of extreme wilderness with no supplies at all. He had even lost his pants and shoes. He had survived on berries and faith.
Now, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jim telling me all this. It was interesting to learn of his passion for collecting all information related to this story and the tension this has created in his marriage; the scrapbooks Jim has created about the story and its aftermath; the times he had gone to meet him at public appearances across the state of Maine. But I was increasingly thinking about my own husband and sons, and wondering if I would ever see them again. It seemed a bit insensitive of my neighbor to be dwelling on this story of being lost on Katahdin while my men were in fact on Katahdin, even if it Jim’s story did end with the miraculous.
I periodically reminded myself that if something terrible had befallen my husband and children, the chaplain for the Maine State Wardens would call me, and I actually know her. For some reason, this seemed vaguely comforting. I had not gone on this trip mainly out of fear. There are times and places when I cannot cope with my son’s free spirit and lack of limits. This was one of them. I knew I would be absolutely terrified to see him dancing along the boulders. I would rather be useless from a distance.
I thought about the Penobscot tale; of the little girl picking blueberries and curing her loneliness by falling in love with the fire-tipped peak of Katahdin; and disappearing into a cloud on the summit, to emerge with a son; his brow made of bits of chiseled stone, like Moses on Sinai, receiving the law for his people. How we do make our way to these heights? Even though I am afraid of my son’s wildness, I understand that spirit, and feel it too – this desire to be elemental, somehow – to be strong and natural and in tune; to feel free and yet also connected to the powers that keep creation humming along. As a kid, I loved collecting periwinkles at low tide and steaming them; learning that we could chip lichen off the rocks and eat it; that following the birds was the best way to find good raspberry patches.
I have never forgotten a book I read in third grade, called My Side of the Mountain, which I suppose is a fantasy, but I certainly did not read it that way. It seemed to me a revelation; teaching me how to be holy, and closer to heaven. It made living purely seem both desirable and possible. A boy named Sam goes off to find land that had belonged to his great grandfather, and the disinterested adults say things like, every boy should have a good adventure, clearly expecting an insignificant foray followed by a return to the overcrowded New York City apartment; the seven siblings and the noise and the cars and buses and people everywhere.
But armed with $40, flint and steel, an axe and some string, Sam makes his way to the Catskills; the mountain of his tribe. He burns out the interior of a rotted out tree to create a home; learns how to fish, draws maps so he can get oriented. He climbs higher and higher, tracking a falcon to her nest, then scales a cliff and snatches a fledgling for his own. The bird becomes his friend, and his piece of wildness, too. He trains the falcon, but feels her flight in his own bones, just as the light of the sky becomes his own vision.
Curiously, I am reading the adult version of this right now – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which after sitting on my list for a long while, my husband bought for me. It has this same intense intimacy; grappling with our human place in creation; examining predatory behavior and the idea of tameness; the impulse to both be an authentic self – alone before the powers of the universe, and yet also deeply connected to family, and traditions, and something beyond, in the sky. Macdonald’s book, though, is true. She really does train hawks – and like Sam, connecting to his family and its past, Macdonald’s relationship with her hawk is a way of exploring her identity, and mourning the loss of her father.
She writes, “the hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away… she was my refuge.” Although they look at first like stories of running away, retreating; these are actually about finding the experiences that will teach us what we need to know, connecting us to that which makes us fully human. They are followers of Moses on Sinai, Thoreau on that Katahdin trip, making contact with… what? Something that is not just an idea; our own creation. What will guide us? What is revealed to us from on high that will show us how to live down here? We live both vertically and horizontally; we reach for communion with the spirits above our heads and with those who walk beside us. And when those who once accompanied us disappear, how do we keep walking? And how do we find them again?
It is easy, in stories like this one, to think that the tale is about self-sufficiency. But the bigger part of the story is about living in harmony with a spirit we do not know how to talk about, that evaporates when put into words – yet which rules us somehow – the stone eyebrows of Katahdin’s son, whose finger could stop a moose in its tracks; or the laws cut into Moses’ stone tablets by God’s finger inside a vast cloud on a mountaintop; the way the hawk’s gorgeous flight into the heavens is predicated on death. I was a little girl when my grandfather died, and I think of my grandmother – they had just moved to Maine that month. A little while later, she went on a trip to Japan, and it was transformative.
She absolutely fell in love with this culture of simplicity and rigidity; of nothing unnecessary and everything essential. In that country symbolized by Mount Fuji; the hill that could erupt into fire and smoke, she learned how to be alone, but she did so by being part of the routines that everyone followed. Maybe the lesson is about finding yourself, and feeling competent; knowing that you are a survivor. Even death won’t get you. You may be changed, even unrecognizable – but you will not really ever be gone.
When Donn Fendler emerged after being lost on the mountain, his rescue was a balm to the nation. His survival let others see things in themselves that they hadn’t thought about, or dared to believe in. And for him, those nine days shaped the course of his life. He credited his survival to his faith, and his determination to see his father and brothers and mother – so the story of being lost was really more about hope, perseverance, and love. Fendler’s father had a business making clerical vestments and church supplies, and I love how that exterior work is such a complement to the inner transformation; of finding the holy and witnessing the laws of creation. Fendler returned to Katahdin every summer for the rest of his life, which ended this past October, and at his request, his ashes were brought to the top of Katahdin, and scattered to the wind.
My men obviously did return from Katahdin, essentially unscathed but definitely humbled; with an appreciation for the scale of this world, and our radical dependence on grace to survive. They did it. The weather cooperated. But they had travelled too lightly – left the water in the car rather than carry the weight – and had to be given drink by passing strangers, and food from fellow climbers. And they were impressed by the realization that – as hard as it was to reach the summit, the descent was far more brutal. Back to earth, changed and yet with nothing changed. In a letter about his climb, Thoreau said he felt as if he had been translated while up there, but it is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if we ever do.
One summer, copying Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment in living intentionally, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State. One night he woke up in terror, and saw a huge black shadow in the window “Then I saw that it had a star above it, and realized that this was the 8000 foot Mt Hozomeen looking into my window from miles away… — I .. went outside and gasped to see black mountain shapes gianting all around, and not only that but the billowing of the northern lights shifting behind the clouds. — It was a little too much for a city boy — the fear had me hiding..
But in the morning I was overjoyed to see a clear blue sky and down below, …the clouds making a marshmallow cover for all the world … while I abided in warm sunshine among hundreds of miles of snow-white peaks. … That night I just lay on the mountain meadow side in the moonlight, head to grass, and heard the silent recognition of my temporary woes.
— Yes, so to try to attain to Nirvana when you’re already there,
to attain to the top of a mountain when you’re already there…..
I decided that when I would go back to the world down there I’d try to keep my mind clear in the midst of murky human ideas smoking like factories on the horizon,… I could walk forward, blessing the mountain, and thanking it for the lesson…”
Closing Words from a letter of H.D. Thoreau’s
I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep. ….I find that I go up it when I am light-footed and earnest. It ever smokes like an altar with its sacrifice. I am not aware that a single villager frequents it or knows of it. I keep this mountain to ride instead of a horse.
“Rest Stop” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 26, 2017
Opening Words – “Another Way” by Jan Richardson
You have looked
at so many doors
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.
choose the door
to the inside.
Travel the most ancient way of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.
but the one
you make yourself.
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.
Speak this blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.
Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
as doors deeper in.
Pray for protection.
Ask for the guidance you need.
for the gifts that come
let them go.
Do not expect
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you
but by the star
that blazes inside you
where you are
and you are welcome
Reading – On Generosity
On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbours goods
because there is not enough to go around
and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come giving bread in the wilderness
you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles
you come giving futures to the shut down
you come giving easter joy to the dead
you come – fleshed in Jesus.
and we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbours who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,
without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness….
all things Easter new…..
all around us, toward us and
all things Easter new.
― Walter Brueggemann
Last week Jolie suggested that we all take a breath. I agree. In these trying times all of us need to stop, take a breath, and find sources of nourishment and replenishment, so that we might be re-energized to protest, resist or just try to make some sense of nonsensical policies or rhetoric. Today I am going to take that a step further, and suggest that we all take several breaths, and in fact that we take an extended rest from our labors, even go to sleep. Yes, take a nap. I know that’s hard to do during one of my scintillating sermons, but I believe you can do it. Do you remember Washington Irving’s story “Rip van Winkle?” Maybe we can fantasize what it would be like to sleep through the current administration. They say that Rip slept for more than twenty years, and we only need four; don’t even think about eight.
After he sleeps Van Winkle awakens to a world transformed. He doesn’t know anyone in his village, his son has grown up, and his wife has died. From a Puritan work ethic perspective, many of us would probably condemn him for being lazy and worthless. He enjoys hanging out by himself in the woods or carousing with his friends at the inn. Kids love him because he gives them lots of time and tells them stories or repairs their toys. And guess what? He avoids hard work. His laziness, and his loafing mean this laggard upsets his wife, and she begins to nag him. But can you blame her? Their home and farm have fallen into disarray. Nevertheless, he tries to avoid the nagging, wanders off, and we all know what happens next. He drinks some Dutch gin with some guys who are playing nine-pins. Pretty soon he ended up with twenty years of snoring. But this is not some morality tale. After he wakes up, he doesn’t regret what has happened. His grown daughter takes him in, and he continues to be lazy. Maybe he is just a good reminder that we need to rest from our labors.
My name is Mark and I am a workaholic. My wife called me that last week, and she is right. I complain that I am always at work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am addicted to being productive. Ministers may have a public reputation for not doing real work, that is they sit around and read books all day. But in fact it is a profession that lends itself to working all the time because we are available, and on call 24/7, and even if we are reading books all day that is usually in the service of the next project, sermon, or paper we are going to present. I sometimes joke with Andrea about my Kindle Fire, calling it the best Christmas present ever. Unfortunately, it is the best Christmas present ever because it has email and the internet on it, and I can therefore work anywhere and anytime. My family members might be having a conversation, but I can just as easily be found with my nose in the kindle. And I am not reading some mystery novel for pure pleasure.
Instead I am reading your email, some social action update, or Googling the minutiae of Congregational polity. Here I am contemplating retirement, and I can’t even rest for five minutes. Andrea says she will be fine at our cottage, but what about me? This is the guy who has to go to town every day. And what about you? Can you put down the phone? Can you resist being connected? In a recent book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Pang writes, “rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
This topic made me think of places in our lives where there are designated rest stops. The people who designed our roads first began to notice the need for rest stops on highways in the late 1920’s. A county engineer in Michigan saw a family one day pulled over to the side of the road trying to eat a picnic on an old tree stump. He wondered what if the road had periodic stopping places that were park like, beautiful or scenic places, where travelers could refresh themselves? After World War II rest areas proliferated in every state, especially as the interstate highway system developed. Who among us does not have some wretched but enduring memory of crawling into a rest area for an emergency bathroom stop, a collection of brochures about all the wondrous sites in the panhandle of North Texas, or the sumptuous cuisine under the golden arches of McDonalds or Popeye’s crispy chicken.
Now that your mouths are watering, come along with me and pull over on mile 25 of the Maine turnpike in Kennbunk, or older folks may picture Howard Johnson’s orange roof, featuring 28 flavors of ice cream inside, or if you are headed cross country in the 1970’s a Stuckey’s suddenly appeared every few miles marked by a teal blue roof and the delicious Pecan logs for sale inside. While the food was disgusting and the kitsch junky, who can forget the physical and mental need for a rest after you have driven nearly 500 miles from Kansas City to Colorado Springs or past 300 miles of cornfields in Iowa so you have been hypnotized by endless green stalks? Rest your eyes. Rest your legs. You can stop singing now to keep yourself awake. Have a muddy cup of coffee and an Almond Joy, and stretch. Today I need a rest before I even start a trip, and after fifty miles the legs stiffen. All the more reason to reflect on the need for rest.
Rest and the need for it, is the culmination of the Biblical creation story from Genesis. God works hard for six days, and the seventh day, God rests. The story reminds us why Saturday became the Sabbath. God did not need to finish up on the seventh day. You can say God was efficient, and it is harder for us to get our work done. All the more reason to carve out a time for rest. Taking time for a Sabbath is the fourth commandment, the transition precept from those that are about God, and those that are about human relationships, perhaps indicating that what sustains us, and our relationship with the holy is how well we remember to observe Sabbath in our lives.
That Commandment says: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath.” Why have a day when we don’t work? For one it reminds us to feel a sense of reverence for the creation, that life is holy, and thus we put ourselves in right relationship with life. Jewish tradition would teach us that it is a reminder that God exists. Second, it reminds us of times when we have, like Moses and his people, been freed from slavery and endless trials and trauma, and we must therefore promote and preserve the well-being of our bodies. Take care of yourself, or you will end up tired and worn out. Why do we fail to take of our bodies? Why do we refuse to free ourselves from the slavery of being productive? At night I fall asleep in front of the television because I can’t convince myself to go to bed when I am tired, but only when it is the right time, and thus the clock is my master.
The idea for this sermon came to me when I heard my colleague John Gibbons in Bedford preach at a UU Minister’s meeting. John spoke in the wake of the Presidential election about a book by Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann called Sabbath as Resistance. In that book, the author writes, “The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.” You may recall the story from Matthew where Jesus says you cannot have both God and mammon, meaning wealth or material goods.
In John’s sermon the idea of Sabbath as resistance was clearly a response to the election of Donald Trump. Celebrating Sabbath in this sanctuary means that this is a time and place where the tyrant has no authority or power. So by coming to church we are resisting the values and beliefs that govern a world that is defined by production and consumption of commodities. You are removing yourself from the rat race of anxiety that tells you to always get ahead or always be buying the next thing. Celebrating Sabbath with each other is a different way of living and being in the world.
We are saying to each other, and proclaiming as a community that we will not allow our lives to be defined in the way that the predominant culture defines them. This Sabbath as resistance reminds us of the Black Church and its role in the civil rights movement. The black church was one place where African Americans had power and control. As a community they were able to define the parameters of life and relationships. There was no tyrant. There was no system of Jim Crow. They were not second class citizens. With authority they turned the world upside down, at least within their own world. This gave them power to build upon strength and thus resist the world that oppressed them.
They needed a place where there was no tyrant, and church was that place. This was part of an argument I made to members of the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast Committee after thy decided not to have a religious invocation this year. Where do you think Dr. King derived his inspiration? When you remove the invocation from the breakfast, you delete the source of power behind this movement to change America, and you homogenize it. The holy spirit gave that movement power not the generic idea of being nice to each other. Sabbath is resistance.
Resistance as an understanding of Sabbath is clear to most of us. We create our own powerful vision for how the world should be right here. On the one hand we resist the tyrant and unjust proclamations about undocumented immigrants or denying choices in bathroom use for Transgender individuals. We create a welcoming place for all people, exactly what a church can be. We can also understand Sabbath as alternative. Alternative asks us to create an idea of economy that stands in opposition to the one that already consumes some degree of time that could be devoted to Sabbath.
Reflecting upon an alternative culture and economy means how much we allow ourselves to be subject to advertising and the consumption of life depriving goods when we could devote more time and energy to life enhancing relationships, and find rest and renewal in being together as a community, and as a family that nurtures the spirit of reverence and awe in the creation. Those who are my age or older remember a time when Blue Laws made it so no stores were open on Sundays. After church when I was growing up, we would drive to the next town to the one store that was open and buy the Sunday paper, and if I was lucky, perhaps a pack of baseball cards for me. Sunday was a time for leisure, for a nice dinner with the family, games, a walk, a drive around the countryside.
No amount of wailing is going to bring back Sunday as a place that is not dominated by economy. The stores are open, and shopping dominates our leisure activities. And if not shopping then Patriots in pads become our religion – and so we wear funny, colorful costumes, cheer loudly, and demand the opponents blood. Many might say, I like football. I like shopping. But are you getting any rest? Are you reflecting on deeper things of the spirit? Do you have an alternative to work? Once we thought that work allowed us time to rest, and it was rest that gave us meaning. Now, where is the balance? How do we save ourselves from communications overload? When are we going to put down the phone?
The ostensible purpose of today’s service was to introduce the annual pledge drive to support the budget of the church. One can see in Jesus’ proclamation why church’s have traditionally feared talking about money. Making money often hurts others and destroys lives, and yet we all need it to survive, including the church. We are conflicted. We protest the fossil fuel economy. We weep for the water protectors in North Dakota, and yet we drive and fly everywhere. But too much of an obsession with money and the purchase of commodities means the life of the deeper spirit dries up and dies. Church remains one place in our lives where Sabbath is still held up for the holy influence it could still have upon us.
Church reminds us to resist the tyrant. Church reminds us to create an alternative economic altar where our relationship with our neighbors is more important than being better than him or her. I suspect most of you are here because you want to nurture those values of respect and understanding, rest and care and renewal, and you reject the values from ancient times that made slaves in Egypt because of constant toil where people existed to be used. There was no rest and no renewal. We only flogged ourselves each day to work harder and do more. Sabbath means that life needs a rest stop. We have driven ourselves far enough. Today I invite you to make a new map of your life that includes some rest stops.
We have a human need for Sabbath, because while work gives us the means to live, it is rest that gives meaning to life. On Friday my polity class at Harvard was considering whether UUs have sacraments or not; special rituals where the holy enters our days. One part of worship they believed revealed this was child dedication services where the community celebrates the wonder of life and its development in one person. They said that in this act we affirm the inherent grace of every person. Grace means that there is nothing you have to do be worthy – not work, or grades, or appearance, or purchasing power. You are already blessed, and always will be. I realized why tears come to my eyes when I dedicate a child. It is verification by the community of the beauty and value of each person without having to prove that to anybody. Without Sabbath, weekly moments of rest, we forget the beauty and reverence we are given by life. With Sabbath, we affirm it.
Today I ask you to support your church this year because it is one place in your life that says, think about taking care of yourself, of taking care of each other. Think about being generous with what money you have. This is a culture as our reading proclaimed that makes us fear that we are going to run out of money, or run out of things, but celebrating the Sabbath teaches us that we have what we need. It is a culture of gratitude for what we have. It is a culture of plenty where we know we have enough, and want to live in deeper relationship to others and to a vision that enhances life.
Finally, it is a culture that acknowledges that what we have grows deeper and more powerful when we share it with each other. Supporting this community means you recognize the abundance you have, and the blessings you have, and when you share those with this community it teaches you and your family to resist tyranny, resist injustice, and to envision an alternative order of society where you are not buying all the time or worshipping false gods. It teaches you how much you need a place of sanctuary from the world’s fear and anxiety, a place of sanctuary where you can rest and reflect and not work all the time. Support the place of sanctuary in your life, this place of welcome and safety, where you and your children can feel the power of the spirit, and the power of freedom to be you. Here we are accepted as we are even as we’re challenged toward whom we can become. Walter Brueggemann writes in “On the Sabbath” :
You do not have to do more.
You do not have to sell more.
You do not have to control more.
You do not have to know more.
You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
You do not have to score more.
Sabbath is rest, and it is a way of spiritual formation against acquisitiveness and competition and for compassion, justice and solidarity.
Closing Words – from Mark Harris
Charmian Proskauer suggested a theme for this year’s pledge drive “A Place for All of Us”
And I wrote this in response:
May this be a welcoming place – where people from many backgrounds and beliefs feel respected and affirmed.
May this be a learning place – where children and adults can grow their souls with open minds and hearts.
May this be an empowering place – where all members and friends learn and act in a world where we speak out when human rights are denied.
May this be a loving place – where everyone feels supported and cared for in a friendly and nurturing religious home.
This place for all of us grows stronger and more vital when you pledge your support of time, money and service
“What About Binitarians and Other Questions of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti –
February 19, 2017
The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith (excerpt) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud
that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
“Holy Ghost” by June Robertson Beisch
The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.
A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,
but it didn’t look like reality.
The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.
Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost
Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,
but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home ?
From House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker
“The people of Le Chambon, a small village in France, harbored hundreds of Jewish children during World War II. Years later, when they were visited by one of the children – now a grown man – who had been sheltered there, he found himself asking why that village had sheltered Jewish children when so many others had not. He found his answer in observing their simple worship practices. Le Chambon was a Huegenot, Protestant village. A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simple the shape that heir souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.”
SERMON “A Question of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti
I remembered something about singing yesterday. Talking with my sister about my sermon topic for today, she mentioned a skill we both learned as kids in the church choir – how to hold a really long note. In order to do this, we have to take turns breathing. This is what we are tasked with from time to time, and especially right now. We have to spell each other so everyone gets a turn to take a breath.
Over the last few months, I have read and agonized and talked about, I have marched and protested about, I have written and preached about the alarming political situation we are in. I know you all have done some of the things on that list as well. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve come up against total despair more than once. I feel short-tempered and irritable all the time, and I’m not sure whether to blame it on pregnancy or the rise of fascism around the globe. I feel fearful for our future and I don’t have the answers.
A friend who works in public health at the state level told me about the immediate impact of a draft executive order that was leaked a few weeks ago, on the use of public benefits by documented immigrants – people who are here with papers. No actions have actually been taken, just the threat of action, and still, in large numbers, new mothers are suddenly afraid to sign up to receive the benefits they need, because they are afraid this will make them subject to deportation. This is about food for pregnant women and nursing mothers, food for young children.
There is so much to resist. Travel bans on refugees and others coming from Muslim nations, the specter of dismantling the EPA, threats of mass deportations… I will not list it all right now. There is so much to resist, it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to do. But this is not a sermon about taking specific actions, not today.
This is a sermon about taking turns breathing, about getting our breath back when the wind has been knocked out of us. How can we continue to come together to learn what is needed of us and what to do? How can we sustain the long note of resistance? For starters, we have to remember to breathe. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit. So if this is a sermon about remembering to breathe, this is also a sermon about remembering the Spirit.
That word for breath and spirit is ruah. The ruah is the instrument of creation and also the fuel of prophecy. When the Lord breathes into the nostrils of the man he has formed from the “dust of the ground,” Adam comes to life. When Moses shares just the tiniest sigh of his own portion of the Spirit with seventy elders, they fall into a prophetic fit all around Moses’ tent. Just a little huff of the ruah from the Lord turns the ancients into prophets and kings, and raises the dry bones from the dead in Ezekiel’s valley.
We find the Spirit in the New Testament as well; in Greek, the word for wind and spirit is the same. In the book of Acts, the Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost: they begin to talk in tongues and they receive the divine commission to spread the faith as the early Christian church.
These are ancient accounts of Spirit, compiled before a doctrine of the Christian Trinity was set in stone. What are the three parts of the Trinity? The Father, or perhaps in less patriarchal terms, the Creator; The Son – that’s Jesus; and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. I don’t totally understand why, when historical Unitarians questioned Trinitarian Christian doctrine by proclaiming that Jesus is not divine, they collapsed the Spirit and Creator into a single Unity. The Trinity went right from 3 to 1. What happened to 2? Who cares?
The problem is that many of us UU’s skip over the concept of the Holy Spirit. The image of a kingly, all-powerful bearded guy with a robe still dominates our mental models of what God might be like, even for those of us who are more humanist or atheistic. When we say we don’t believe in God, we may be thinking that we don’t believe in an omnipotent sovereign who created all of this and who remains aloof from it.
This idea of a great king or judge in the sky overshadows the idea of Spirit, a holy force that moves through our world and shares its power with humankind.
This is not a matter of mere abstract theological pondering. Even for a humanist like me, to understand, to feel, to know something of Spirit is vital to my sense of myself, my place in the human family, my place in the cosmos. As a UU humanist, I interpret Holy Spirit to include the human spirit. Spirit distinguishes me as “sitting-up mud,” as the tracts of Vonnegut’s Bokononists put it. It’s how I know I am alive, how I feel part of something greater than myself, it’s what compels me to care and fuels me to keep going even when things are tough.
I met an oncologist in the bone marrow transplant unit where I was a chaplain last summer. He had two little figurines clipped to his stethoscope: a toy mouse and an angel. He explained that he wore the mouse to honor all the mice that had given their lives for cancer research, and he wore an angel because he has come to believe that it takes “something more” for his patients to get through serious illness. When he told me this, we were standing next to a woman lying in her hospital bed. She had been there for weeks, in the relative isolation that the treatment for this type of cancer requires. She teared up and nodded emphatically, “that’s the truth.” “Something more.” What is that?
Going around the hospital and knocking on doors, I would say to patients, “most people are here to check on your body, I’m here to check on your spirits.” That usually cracked a smile, and was a way of gently suggesting that, regardless of anyone’s faith tradition or observance, a chat with the chaplain could be useful. I wanted people to know that I believe all of us have spiritual needs: questions about how our lives knit into the whole and what it all means, including our fears about illness. We all have something ineffable in us, something “more” worth paying attention to, something that helps us know we are not just regular mud.
I had to attend to my own spirit with unwavering discipline while I was an intern chaplain. Otherwise I would be utterly empty, I would have nothing to offer patients and families if I neglected the things that replenished my spirits. I would pause in the hospital chapel between visits to breathe, write, or cry. After a shift, I would sit on my back porch and watched the sparrows scold the squirrels in the crisscrossing branches behind my house. I would sing a lot, too. The Hamilton soundtrack mostly, mostly in my kitchen at the top of my lungs. But also UU hymns, especially How Can I Keep from Singing? I would also often sing “Spirit of Life,” a hymn we hear here every week right after Joys & Sorrows, but rarely sing together. Last summer, I found that I really needed to invoke the Spirit of Life. I needed to, as the hymn goes, “Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion.” What’s different now? Why not nourish my spirits now?
Perhaps it seems disconnected from reality to attend to our spirits given the urgency of the moment, given the attacks on our communities and eviscerations of our flawed but persistent attempts at democracy. But the story of Le Chambon from our reading this morning suggests that spiritual practice was precisely what equipped these villagers to do what was right during World War II. This town of barely 5,000 Protestants in France provided shelter and food for more than 5,000 Jews under Nazi occupation.
The man that Rebecca Parker & John Buehrens refer to in their retelling, the Jewish man who was born there and who went back to ask the people of Le Chambon why they had helped so many of his people, was named Pierre Sauvage. He made a documentary of his visit in the late 1980s called The Weapons of the Spirit. Bill Moyers interviewed Pierre Sauvage about the film shortly after its release. In the interview, Moyers is concerned about the film’s title, saying, If the spirit can be used as a weapon, it was insufficient to prevent the darkness, the ruin, the devastation, the horror and the evil that fell upon Europe in what you say is, or was, a “Christian” culture.
Moyers asks, “Isn’t there a danger in suggesting that the spirit can withstand the onslaught of human nature?”
I think on balance there’s a greater danger in not believing it, in believing that somehow the spirit does not have the power to transcend everything. You know, even when it comes specifically to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust… there was that concern that paying attention to the rescuers might somehow take the edge off the experience… I think that is simply not the case. I think that we need to know that it was possible for people to care. If we pass along a legacy that does not include the righteous, does not include the rescuers, then we’re giving humanity an alibi. One doesn’t even have to aspire to do better, because it isn’t possible.
Parker and Buehrens write about the spiritual practices that Sauvage also identified as the reason the people of Le Chambon acted so bravely, yet at the same time so simply human in harboring Jews under Nazi occupation. What made it possible for them to care? Here, again, is how Parker and Buehrens put it,
A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simply the shape that their souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.
When our spiritual practices are strong, our capacity to channel the goodness and the power of Spirit is strong. Whether we’re facing cancer or fascism or both, authentic spiritual practices are not frivolous, a mere luxury. They help us prepare our souls for courage and resistance.
In the poem we heard this morning, the worship service is stifling and meaningless until a pigeon flies low overhead, “like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost.” The sanctuary is then infused with holy power. And the poem reads, “You can survive anything if you know / that someone is looking out for you.” We need spiritual practices, we need worship services that help us feel the Spirit swooping right over our heads, touching us with the possibility of goodness, assuring us that we are not alone, that someone is looking out for us, saving us from despair.
Who do we feel is looking out for us? In our worship service here, it could be that we are looking out for each other. It could be that God, the Spirit, is looking out for us, moving through us. It could be that all of us are looking out for our neighbors beyond these church walls. When our spirits are full, we’ll have the power to do right by one another.
It’s going to take “something more” to get through all this. Here in church, we can greet one another with all the love in our hearts. We can light candles, meditate, and pray,
We can laugh or cry with one another, we can sing like we really mean it. Whether here in church, or out marching in the streets, weathering sickness or injustice, we must remember to breathe, to take turns breathing, because life’s song is long, and there are some difficult parts. We must attend to the practices that truly lift our spirits, the practices that infuse us with the spirit of life, so that, one breath at a time, we are strengthened to do this simple and human thing of looking out for one another.
“Unison Benediction” by May Sarton
Return to the most human,
nothing less will nourish the torn spirit,
the bewildered heart,
the angry mind:
and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish,
speak of love.
Return, return to the deep sources,
nothing less will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
to carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
and still that ancient necessary pain preserve.
Return to the most human,
nothing less will teach the angry spirit,
the bewildered heart;
the torn mind,
to accept the whole of its duress,
and pierced with anguish…
at last, act for love.
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