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“The Unsectarian Sect” Mark W. Harris
January 8, 2017 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – from Edward Schempp
“Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child,
confidence in a continuity that spans all time. It looks not to a perfect
heaven, but toward a good earth. It is respectful of the past, but not
limited to it. It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change. It is
spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.”
Reading from Born Again Unitarian Universalism by the Rev. Forrest Church,
Longtime minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City.
In the book, Church recounts a dinner-party conversation.
Seated between strangers at the party, he is caught off guard when someone asks:
You are a what?
A Unitarian Universalist.”
“Oh, I see,” says the questioner, but obviously doesn’t. He is rescued by the woman on the right.
I’ve never really understood just what it is you Unitarians believe. You are Christians, aren’t you?”
“Not exactly. I mean, we were and some of us still are but most of us are not.”
“You don’t believe in Jesus?”
“Not in an orthodox way, certainly. Many of us value his teachings but few, if any of us, believe that he was resurrected on the third day or that he was God.
“What about immortality?”
“Well, I guess you’d have to say that we’re pretty much divided on that one.”
“But at least you all believe in God?” interrupts the man across the table.
“Not exactly. Many of us do, if each in his or her own way. Others of us do not find the concept of God a useful one.”
“What then do you believe?” the bewildered hostess politely asks.
“Actually, nothing,” you sputter. “Well, not really nothing, more like anything.” You then rush to assure them that you don’t believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected on the third day, you almost never read the Bible, and you certainly agree that religion is the most dangerous force in the world, especially today. To which your friends respond that these are the very reasons they don’t attend church.
A little more than two months ago Jolie and I led a workshop here on multicultural welcome. The basic idea behind the session was to encourage First Parish members to be welcoming to all visitors who pass through our doors. I began the workshop by telling a true story about a visitor to the UU Congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee on February 12, 1960. Jim Pearson walked through the front door, and then he noticed a sign which said, “Everyone Welcome.” As he prepared to enter the church, he approached the greeter, and said in reference to the sign, does that include me? Why do you suppose he asked that question? He wanted to know if, in that time, and in that place, a black man was welcome at that church,. Is a person with a strong foreign accent welcome at this church? Is someone who did not go to college welcome at this church? Is a transgender person welcome at this church? Is a Christian welcome at this church? Do all our visitors feel welcome at this church? This morning we have some evidence that at least four people felt welcome here, at least enough to join the church.
We began that evening by asking the participants how they would define greeting. Every Sunday morning at least two people are assigned the volunteer task of welcoming all those who come to church. The participants variously described their job as welcoming people, making them feel comfortable, orienting them with orders of service and hymnals, answering questions and being friendly and approachable. Eventually I asked the question, Does anyone think of themselves as an ambassador for Unitarian Universalism? Let me be honest, and tell you, I was shocked by the response. People invariably said that they thought their job was to welcome people to our church, or to our community, but it seemingly had nothing to do with Unitarian Universalism. Does that mean that people’s religious identity is with this specific church or the community and not the faith?
Perhaps there are two issues here, and one is clearer than the other. First, Unitarian Universalism has an organizational element. It is a religious movement that is governed by a bureaucracy. It has an administrative headquarters, and regional offices. In fact, the regional office for New England is located in Watertown. How many of you knew that? There is little evidence that most members of churches are especially interested in the political organization, except the ministers and a few rabid adherents. That is to be expected. But there is also a larger world wide faith that is not only has an organizational structure, but also has devoted followers or practitioners of a particular religious orientation. But this becomes complicated immediately. Most Unitarian Universalists would say religious authority lies with the individual, and so these freedom loving folk begin to balk when they words like practitioners or particular orientation. They think of liberal religion as “freedom” to pursue your own truth from whatever source seems spiritually nourishing at a particular time in your religious journey. It is all very personal with few people believing there is a particular path to follow.
All of this makes it complicated for the ministers and active lay followers who are charged with defining what the faith is, and then figuring out how to hand the faith on to those who follow. More often than not we have made jokes about the lack of belief, such as they pray to whom it may concern, or they believe in one God, at most. The message may be that we are not serious about our faith. Jokes or not, it is difficult to capture a religious identity that can be easily disseminated to new followers. Even long term members have difficulty explaining exactly what Unitarian Universalism is. I don’t know if that is the reason that our greeters do not consider themselves ambassadors of our faith, but it doesn’t help. They don’t know how to explain it. Newcomers often like the people they meet and the values they espouse. They feel they belong in this liberal community that is open and welcoming, and so they love the community, but are less clear about the religion.
I would suggest that the community is what it is because of the faith, and grasping that might help all of us feel a deeper kinship to Unitarian Universalism. The great Unitarian leader Henry Whitney Bellows once referred to us as the “Unsectarian Sect.” Our faith has always included people who wanted to be part of an organization that was anti-organizational, and have an identity but not want to claim a sectarian name. Remember the old song, “Don’t fence me in.” Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters once collaborated: “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, Don’t fence me in.” Are we so open and free that no one can figure out where our boundaries lie? Someone once said there is “No sectarianism in God’s work.” Perhaps our freedom leads us closer to a universal spirit of love or God.
I would like to hope that is true, but there may be some pitfalls. There is a new history of nineteenth century America called A Nation Without Borders. A review in the New York Times quotes the poet Charles Olson, “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.” Space can be defined as geography, property, intellectual expression, or even Emersonian nature. While we may think of space as freedom to adopt whatever ideas about faith we wish, it can become a kind of consumerism where everything is valid, and so nothing means anything anymore, or everything is meant to be devoured. Historically this meant that people within the borders of America were conquered, and expansionism and colonialism went hand in glove with American freedom. Listen to a later verse of “Don’t Fence Me In.” “I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences, And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.” So, we must ask if there is an element of the American appetite for conquest, or refusal to accept borders in this liberal theology, and if so, what is the antidote? Do we just lose our senses in trying to absorb so many perspectives?
The temptation, as with the jokes about UUism, is to focus on the negatives, that UUism rejects this belief or that, or that we are always on the defensive trying to explain ourselves, and so we may end up feeling like Forrest Church does in the reading, that we don’t believe in anything, and so we go to church for the community, not the religion. But again I believe the community is created from the religion, and I will spend the rest of the sermon telling you why. Several years ago Andrea told me the story of a former member of this church, who while she was still active, used to refuse to recite the church affirmation that we repeat every Sunday. She said this refusal was based in the truth that we don’t practice the words: “Love is the spirit of this church.” I think part of the reason she said this was the expectation that love meant being nice to everyone no matter how they behaved. In this case, some boundaries had been set restricting the freedom of one particular member. We all define love differently, but perhaps the more pertinent point is that love is an aspiration, and not a fact. Most of us are only able to act loving some of the time. The rest of the time we are difficult, stubborn, unforgiving and judgmental. In other words, we are human. Love is a goal, and not a fact of our existence. We say love is an aspiration, not a fact.
Now we come to William Ellery Channing. Today I have asked you to donate to an effort to restore Channing’s grave at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I do have a local angle, so it feels like we are centered in our community, and we are especially fortunate because our backyard includes this amazing historical, natural and artistic wonder. As someone who teaches aspiring ministers the particulars of our liberal religious history, it is dismaying to visit Mt. Auburn Cemetery only to see the grave of the spiritual founder of our Unitarian faith looking like it is slowly washing away. We need to honor Channing’s memory and the UU tradition by restoring this stone to its original beauty. I hope all those who love our free faith will back this important project. Channing was special because he had an enduring message, delivered with a spiritual depth that not only provides the foundation of our faith, but created a new spirit in America that gave a sense of personal worth and hope to countless people.
A native of Newport, RI, Channing served only one church in his life, what is today the Arlington Street Church in Boston. Once upon a time, his words were included in literature anthologies, but now he is unfortunately considered a literary relic of the past. From the pulpit of his church and in his essays he was the first to call for a national literature, he became an advocate for the abolition of slavery in the later years of his life, he was a peace activist, and a progenitor of Transcendentalism. Emerson referred to him as our bishop, and one sermon called “Likeness to God” affirmed the basic radical belief that humans have the potential to be like God. He said divinity is within us, and we have but to realize it: “The adoration of goodness,–this is religion.” We can encounter the divine in the world through God’s creation. In 1819 he delivered what became the manifesto of the movement, the sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” These were among his contributions to the foundations of our faith.
Can Channing help us cultivate more of a sense of ourselves as holders of a Unitarian Universalist faith? The long standing issue we have with identity is that right from the start, Channing and others were trying to create a different sense of religious identity than one that had been known before. Christianity was grounded in correct belief, and not right action. Liberals didn’t want to define Christian as dogmatic beliefs, but instead advocated a broad Christianity that was to be founded upon how we behave towards one another. As Channing said, the adoration of goodness embodies religion in our ethical actions. This was true for Bellows when he named us the unsectarian sect. He defined Unitarianism as a movement away from dogmatic Christianity to spiritual Christianity. It was not a body of opinions, he said. It is a habit of mind, a principle of conduct.
Part of the reason they did not want to call themselves Unitarians was that it meant defining what was necessary to be part of the faith, or a particular theological correctness. Channing wrote that Christianity had dishonored its founder, and the way many people experienced Christianity. He said it had been dishonored by gross and cherished corruptions. Channing’s faith provided a salve to people who had been wounded by Calvinism and its tenets that each person was totally depraved and there was nothing you could do to redeem yourself in God’s eyes. What happens when you are told over and over again that you are a horrible person? This was the faith I rejected as a young person because it continually reminded me that I would remain sinful until I accepted Jesus as my savior. As a graduate student it was Channing who converted me to Unitarianism with his balm of affirmation in human potential rescuing me from bigoted and irrational beliefs.
I think what happens to members of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that they begin to stumble when questioned about whether UUs believe in God or Jesus or the Bible, and because much of our authority is found with the individual we get tongue tied, and end up saying some do, some don’t, and it all becomes confusing. Think of Channing’s approach to some of these basic questions. Is the Bible the revealed word of God? No, he says, it is a book meant to be read and understood like other books. We have always seen it as a chronicle of people’s struggles to understand truth in the world, and find meaning. Is Jesus God? No, Jesus is someone who understood divine truth because he lived with great integrity. He is true to what is in you and me, Emerson later said. Is there a God? While Channing would have said that God is moral perfection, the idea is that you find God in life the more you strive to achieve personal truth and love. It is not that you already have it, but it is the goal of spiritual fulfillment.
Channing saw how cruel people could be. He lived in the South for a time as a young man, and served as a tutor. He was sickened by the evil of slavery. The potential of the slave to experience moral development was destroyed. The story we have repeated here about Channing was when he was a young man, and he heard a preacher put the fear of God in his heart, convincing him that the world was going to end because God was so angry. But then he saw that his father didn’t seem to even notice that these horrible words had been preached. He went home, lighted up a cigar, and acted like it was nothing. But the young Channing was fearful of a thunder storm that day which seemed to predict the very end of creation. He took words seriously, and did not want to be afraid. He grew up to preach a faith that did not promote fear, but true words of hope about human potential and worth; that people could elevate themselves, and learn to live in love.
What this means is that you as greeters might be worried about telling someone or even understanding for yourself what Unitarian Universalism is, but you already know by your striving to live the truth in love. Many of you may remember my short definition of Unitarian Universalism – “DEED NOT CREEDS.” Your faith journey is a process of living into the truth and not a wordy definition of what is the truth. We are followers of Jesus, not worshippers of Christ. And we might add Buddha, Mohammad, and many others. As a greeter you are a human doorway to Unitarian Universalism, and you reflect the faith by making it a practice to be welcoming to all because you have a faith obligation to see the divine, or see God in that person. Channing was a person who was full of doubt, and constantly questioning his positions. He speaks to us in the 21st century as one who worried, as he told a young colleague that “there was a danger that your mind may be frittered away by endless details, by listening continually to frivolous communication.” This sounds like electronic communication at its worst.
Because we have to live amidst endless details, he said, “the great art of wisdom, is to seize the Universal (the one inner spirit) in the particular.” Channing related this to the slavery crisis, when he said that if you cannot see a brother (or a sister) under a skin darker than your own, then you long for a vision of a Christian, but you cannot have it, because you worship the “Outward.” Unitarian Universalism is embodied in you, and in your striving for a spirit that knows love for all brothers and sisters, based not on the Outward, but on the loving spirit you embody with your life. Earlier this fall I told you the story of being greeted by a woman as I came down from the peak of Mt. Kathadin. She noticed my yellow t-shirt emblematic of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. We UUs have always been reluctant to proclaim our affiliation because it seems so sectarian. But she named our faith by saying thank you for all you do to make the world a welcoming space for all. But it was nothing I did. It was her recognition of our UU faith, and how important it is to let others know such a faith exists. Would you be an ambassador for it? Your calling as a greeter is to greet one another in the spirit of love. You are already ambassadors of Unitarian Universalism, but have only to proclaim it. Channing preached lofty goals for people imbued with faith, but he knew that it is not what we are already, but rather what we might become.
Closing words – from David Bumbaugh –
We are here dedicated to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. We pause in silent witness to that unity.
“What a Friend” by Mark W. Harris
December 11, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist
Opening Words – from Beverly and David Bumbaugh
Our church exists to proclaim the gospel that each human being is infinitely precious, that the meaning of our lives lies hidden in our interactions with each other. We wish to be a church where we encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom, and compassion that we never knew we had.
Reading – from The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Our reading this morning comes from a fictionalized account of the story of King David from the Hebrew Scriptures. The famous story of friendship in the Bible is that between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, but this reading depicts a conversation between Nathan, David’s servant and seer, who becomes his friend and confidant and helps him work through all the pain he has experienced because of his own actions and those of his children.
As I have mentioned in previous sermons, I am not someone who logs into Facebook very much, except when it comes to receiving birthday greetings. Every year when my birthday rolls around countless people seem to wish me a happy birthday. While I can say it is just some quick push of the button, it does make me feel like someone is thinking of me. This week I was motivated to post something and not only be a selfish recipient. I saw that our former First Parish member and student of mine, Morgan McLean had a birthday. I had not communicated with her in some time, and so not only wished her a happy birthday, but also mentioned how her new ministerial settlement in Davis, CA is the site of my old internship church. She wrote back, noting that she needed to learn more church history. I don’t know if this was a reference to reaping more from my well of knowledge, or that I had become so old that I was now part of church history. She concluded by saying Miss You!
I have hundreds of UU colleagues who are Facebook friends, and yet I do not communicate with them regularly, and in fact, barely know most of them. They are not close friends , but even for those who once were, our ability to communicate is impeded by distance.. Ministry is a lonely profession. You might say that is ridiculous because we ministers are around people all the time. Yet many of us have heeded a call that has landed us far away from those who we were once closet to. It also seems we all get tied up in the day to day living of our lives, and time spent with those who were once your dearest friends is limited to an occasional email or a lunch at the annual General Assembly. Those of us who serve a parish devote most of our lives to the parish, which means most time and energy is given over to our calling. The perennial question for ministers is can parishioners be your friends? Even if we spend some social time with parishioners it becomes a complicated question. A minister may really like and communicate well with certain parishioners and enjoy spending time together, but can a minister cross the line between minister and parishioner to reveal intimate details about our lives? At some point you have to become minister to this person, and the idea of a close friendship where you can say anything, and merely be yourself is limited. Moreover, parishioners must be treated equally in a minister’s purview, and thus befriending certain people means, you do not befriend others. Of all people, the minister has to be fair.
Finding friends in the parish, though, is not fair for anyone. This question of friendship arose because we were speaking at a meeting recently of why people may stop coming to our church. The general response seems to be that while most people find the church to be a warm, welcoming place at first, those who leave in a year or two do so because they did not make a personal connection. I have had many people tell me this after they had already left, and I tracked them down to ask why. While the preaching may be stimulating, the music awesome, and the RE supportive and helpful, these features will not seal the deal on a faith commitment unless something happens personally that is supportive, social, fun, enlightening, and maybe even life changing. Some may feel that they already have enough friends, or they come to be reassured by the presence and company of their old friends, or they may even say that this is not their community of friends, but that they only come here for services. I can’t demand that you change your patterns of why you come to church or why you stay, but I do want to suggest that making new friends will bring experiences, growth, support and maybe even challenge that you would not know otherwise. And a reminder that many of those people who walk through our doors are looking to find a friend.
Every personal encounter is not ripe soil for cultivating a friendship. Over Thanksgiving many of us were paranoid that there were going to be ugly conversations with family or friends who happened to be supporters of the political opposition. But here at First Parish the odds of you finding someone here who shares your political, social and religious values is quite high. Religiously, we begin with certain values. In the fundamentalist church of my childhood we used to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry.
Everything to God in prayer!”
While no one is likely to take up that song in our UU church, the idea of modeling friendship is important. We may not have a religious deity to share our griefs with, or a source of solace to bring our reflections to for relief, but we are a source of connection in what we can offer to each other. The other day my son was saying you would think that in a church everyone would get along. Most of us know that is not the case. Some say their most difficult encounters occur in such a community. We know that personalities clash, that even if we don’t believe in that sin I sang about as a child, we understand people are flawed in their expressions and often judge others or react to personal challenges with anger. Friendships are broken, even as they are created. Friendships can also encourage us to reflect on our behavior, seek forgiveness, and become more compassionate towards others.
Friendship is one of the key examples that is made of Jesus’ ministry. The other night I had a dream where I was with a group of people, and we were arguing about whether or not we would follow the Didache. What is that, you might ask? Only a historian would dream about the Didache which was an early Christian manual that outlined the organization of the church, taking it from an itinerant ministry to an actual institution. How do we make a church for everybody? For us it may mean making space for people both metaphorically and literally. Jesus had defined what a true friend was. It is ultimately found in laying down your life for another. While that may seem extreme, the implication is what are we willing to risk or sacrifice to be part of a community. Many of our UU congregations are reflecting on this very question as we approach the next four years. If there is a Muslim registry, for instance, would you be willing to register as a Muslim? Would you be willing to stand up for the life of another? Jesus says he calls his disciples friends because everything he learned from God he shared with them. He didn’t hold anything back. This would be true if we stood up with an ally, and said I am not going to let you be hurt, or judged by others. Jesus does this when he touches and heals the unclean, or the leper.
For many of us this reminds us of a time not long ago when the AIDS epidemic was in our midst. Many people, including President Reagan, made jokes about the gay lifestyle and the onset of AIDS. A general perception in some of the culture was gay men were being punished for their sins – the wages of sin is death. A recent book portrays the courage of the gay community not to be destroyed by such rhetoric, but to find inner strength to carry on with perseverance and patience until better health care and medicines could be found, and, of course, more general acceptance. One of my most engaging students I have ever taught, a young man named Mark, who was a member here when he was a Tufts student in the 1970’s, eventually succumbed to AIDS. I tried to keep in touch with him over the years, and realize I could have made more allies as I tried to do then by raising money and sponsoring healing services and giving care.
This is the first sign of friendship in the church. Are we willing to show compassion for each other? The classic example of a person who is caught up in a series of afflictions in the scriptures is Job. In Chapter 2, Job’s three friends hear of all the “evil that had come upon him,” and so they respond by coming “to condole with him and comfort him.” Fourteen chapters later he refers to them as “miserable comforters are you all.” What happened? The pastoral care team showed up, but they certainly were not very well trained. Maimonides, a Medieval scholar, said that Job’s friends represent three different positions concerning divine providence that we may hear from our friends. The first position of Eliphaz is that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this kind of punishment. This is the classic affirmation that “it’s your fault.” I might say “my heart went crazy because I climbed Mt. Kathadin this summer. I overdid it. As a friend you might be the opposite of Eliphaz, and say, it’s not your fault.
The second position is expressed by his friend Bildad. This is the idea that you are being tested, and will receive a greater reward if you hang in there. We sometimes translate this to mean that this suffering is good for you, and you will be a better person for having endured this. Finally, there is Zophar, whose position is most like ours, not punishment, or great reward, but simply that these terrible things are arbitrary, and sometimes we are just darn unlucky. In those circumstances the friend might say I am here for you, let me listen, or maybe eventually you might come to the realization to enjoy what you have been given, even if much is taken away.
In my first church in Palmer, I knew George, an army veteran of Vietnam, who had trouble finding work, and felt his service was not recognized. He often said that he felt he was being tested, and that God would never give him more than he could handle. I worried that his anger would boil over, and the test he felt would come to an end. My happiest time with him was when we recognized his military service one Sunday. He did not feel so alone or shunned. His reward was not a great job, or even getting out of his trailer, but that someone heard him and honored his life. He stayed and found friends.
Muhammad Ali once said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” But making friends does not come naturally for many of us. Perhaps we are incorrigible introverts who fear new situations and new people, and so social hour feels like running the gauntlet. It is hard to make friends in a church because attendance does not mean automatic friendship. The person sitting next to you may be friendly, but it does not mean they are your friend. And it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with the church, if you don’t make a friend. You don’t make friends merely by showing up. It takes time to make friends. It also takes effort. Do you go to small group ministry, or potlucks or sing in the choir? Do you put yourself out there to be part of situations that will help you build friendships? I know I am an introvert, too. I don’t like people either, but if you want to be with wonderful, friendly people, then you have to be one of those wonderful people. Put yourself in a place where you can speak, or sing or be heard or give back in some way. Go to things. You are not going to find friends at church, but rather you must make friends at church. You have all those same values to share. You have that desire to grow. You have met these people. Now all it takes is the willingness to risk making friends.
I find I must keep at it. Making friends was not something I learned in school. My parents were not good models. They both worked all the time, and no one ever came to our house. As a boy I learned that to be a friend was to be part of a group or gang. We traveled in packs and played ball, or shot each other in war over and over again. Later we hung out, which is fun with friends, but friendship is more than hanging out, although not a bad idea to get a start at church. Friendships are people to be with and keep you company. But what of this issue of intimacy? Friendship progressed with me when I shared time with a colleague who was also a Dad, and lived nearby. And even though our situations and circumstances changed, we remained friends until he was removed from ministerial fellowship for conduct unbecoming, and perhaps because he was embarrassed by his actions, or didn’t trust our friendship, we mostly fell out of touch, and when I saw him again it was not the same. It is hard for men to share their intimate feelings perhaps because of upbringing or enculturation. Working on maintaining friendships is something I still struggle with. As I wrote this sermon I took time to send an email to a friend who I didn’t get a chance to connect with at a recent conference. I miss him. Just as Morgan said, she missed me. Taking time to call or email, I have learned after all these years that my friends are not just there to be found, but I must be making and remaking those friendships, or I lose my connections to others, and lose my connection to a greater, more meaningful life.
One of the great Biblical examples of friendship is found between King David and Saul’s son Jonathan, who stands by David even as Saul pursues David to kill him. David’s life is fictionalized in a recent novel by Geraldine Brooks. While the Bible depicts a deep friendship marked by a covenant which stated “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” This implication of a sexual relation between them is played out in Brooks’ novel, The Secret Chord, where she writes about “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule.” In the book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, writes about the intimacy of friendship in nineteenth century America in the example of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin says that in the absence of parents and siblings, men turned to one another for support sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that these relationships had qualities of passionate romances. Lincoln became very depressed, and apparently said in addition to avoiding being idle that business and conversation of friends gave the mind a rest from that intensity of thought that makes it threadbare. Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, that “my desire to befriend you is everlasting.” We often say that passionate and affectionate male relationships were more accepted then, and perhaps that is true, but nevertheless this kind of intimacy provides an example for those of us who aspire to deeper friendships where intimate thoughts can be shared. For many of us, our ability to forge relationships with others is limited by our own efforts, but we can realize deeper and more lasting friendships.
We also see an evolution of friendship with the example of Nathan and David that we heard in today’s reading. Their friendship has evolved, with Nathan serving as his seer and friend from early days when Nathan was spared by the young warrior David. David is a flawed man who Nathan helps work through the deep pains of his life, and his successes and failures as parent, only to come see them to fruition in the advent of Solomon. Nathan is no longer his servant, but his close and intimate friend who allows him to find meaning in life by listening and affirming what is good, but not denying what is painful. Some years ago I worked on a book called Walking Together, which was a collection of articles on Congregational polity, which I still use in my teaching. That phrase is found in the book of Amos. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Friendships develop as people come to agree on reasons to be together, and it is only as good or as close as those individuals choose to make it. A friend is one whom you can be yourself with and never fear that he or she will judge you, but can still challenge you. A friend is someone that you can confide in with complete trust. A friend is someone you respect and that respects you, not based upon worthiness but based upon a likeness of mind.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling has Hermione say,
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
May we all find kindred souls who will be our friends, encouraging us to be brave, and reminding us to be careful. We need each other out there.
Closing Words – excerpt from “Where We Belong, A Duet by Maya Angelou
In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I searched the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.
. . .
Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I’ve never been so strong,
Now I’m where I belong.
Kneeling in the Snow
The First Parish of Watertown
December 4, 2016
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from “Ma Rainey,” by Sterling Brown
They come to hear Ma Rainey from the little river settlements,
From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps;
They stumble in the hall, just a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin’,
Cheerin’ like roarin’ water, like wind in river swamps.
And some jokers keeps their laughs a-goin’ in the crowded aisles,
And some folks sits there waiting with their aches and miseries,
Till Ma comes out….
O Ma Rainey,
Sing your song;
Now you’s back
Where you belong,
Get way inside us,
Keep us strong. . . .
O Ma Rainey,
Little and low
Sing us ’bout the hard luck
Round our door;
Sing us ’bout the lonesome road
We must go
Time for All Ages A Zen Koan
The Master summoned the Student one Autumn day as the winds began to chill the fields near the school.
The Master said, ‘I offer you the gift of patience. You may receive this gift at this moment or you may receive it later.’
The Student replied, ‘I would like this gift now, Master.’
The Master lowered his eyes and said, quietly, ‘You are dismissed.’
A week later, the Student encountered the Master and said, ‘Master, I am confused.’
The Master said, ‘You may choose again,’ and the Student said, ‘I will receive this gift, then, later.’
The Master, once more, lowered his eyes and said, ‘You are dismissed.’
Time passed, and the snow covered the fields and the streams near the school froze in their beds, and the dry air crackled when the Master summoned the Student.
The Master gazed upon the Student and the Student said, ‘Master, I would decline this gift.’
The Master smiled at the student, looking directly into his eyes, and said, ‘You are dismissed.’
Reading from Mary Rose O’Reilly, The Barn at the End of the World
One day last winter, on a date sacred on various religious calendars, “I went for a walk among bare oaks and birch. Nothing much was going on. Scarlet sumac had passed and the bees were dead. The pond had slicked overnight into that shiny and deceptive glaze of delusion, first ice. It made me conjure a vision of myself skimming backward on one bladed foot, the other extended; the arms become wings. Minnesota girls know that this is not a difficult maneuver if one is limber and practices even a little after school before the boys claim the rink for hockey. I think I can still do it – one thinks many foolish things when winter’s bright sun skips over the entrancing first freeze.
A flock of sparrows reels through the air looking more like a flying net than seventy conscious birds, a black veil thrown on the wind. When one sparrow dodges, the whole net swerves, dips: one mind. Am I part of anything like that?
Maybe not. The last few years of my life have been characterized by stripping away, and this solitude is one of the surprises of middle age, especially if one’s youth has been rich in love and friendship and children. … So the soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly – or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.
It’s an ugly woods, I was saying to myself, padding along a trail where other walkers had broken ground before me. And then I found an extraordinary bouquet. Someone had bound an offering of dry seed pods, yew, lyme grass, red berries, and brown fern and laid it on the path: “nothing special,” as Buddhists say, meaning “everything.” Gathered to formality, each dry stalk proclaimed a slant, an attitude, infinite shades of neutral.
All contemplative acts, silences, poems, honor the world this way. Brought together by the eye of love, a milkweed pod, a twig, allow us to see how things have been all along. A feast of being.”
Sermon Kneeling in the Snow
When you go out into the world, what do you look at? Where do you turn your eye? To the streets – a current-day Whitman, perhaps, noting the people – the woman in her fleece pajamas with her tiny leashed dog, which could almost be mistaken for one of her slippers; the kind man whose glasses glint hello as he walks to the library each day; the woman with amazing calf muscles, who commutes on the type of bike I didn’t think they made any more; no gears, no special tires. She usually has a bag or two slung over the upright handlebars, and she never looks tired. Maybe you notice the physical environment – the house on the corner of Fayette and Church streets, half-torn down and with mattresses blocking the doorways; the old stones of a foundation tumbled about; the pink roses that, incredibly, were still in bloom last week in front of Mila Deluca-Pedersen’s house; the random spot where the workers stopped edging the curb with granite and switched over the asphalt; the banners hanging in Watertown Square, the historic figures who shaped our story gazing back at you, and permeating the landscape.
Or maybe you look down. You watch your step, literally. Careful of where your feet land, the places you wander into. Sometimes it is a way of tuning in to your own thoughts; just blocking out the world around you. And sometimes it is what the world demands of you; a way of being on alert; keeping safe.
It could be – and probably is, if I am realistic – that you look at your device. Texts. I can’t get over how many people walk and drive while staring at their screens. Although, I must say, I LOVED watching all the people hunting Pokemon this summer. It was fun, and hopeful – exciting. All these people who are so often hidden emerged, and were in turn searching for something I couldn’t see.
Perhaps you turn your eye heaven-wards – to the hills, for strength; the clouds, promising change; the sun and its warmth; the stars, for a glimmer of hope.
Last month I was sitting in a meeting room at a Minneapolis hotel stuck between an airport and a wildlife refuge that is part of the National Park Service, thinking about love. How can you measure it? What does it look like? I was at a talk about the survival of the Universalist side of our religious identity; which, for those of you who are not quite as passionate about history as the folks in my house, is the part of our religion that is associated with love. Our denomination is 55 years old, formed by a merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the stereotype is that we live in a perpetual tug of war between the bookish rational Unitarian types, a bit stiff and probably with the means to be comfortable if we believed in such a state; and the agrarian family centered Universalists who are plenty warm even though there is no hell fire burning below.
There is a zen like possibility here – head and heart; urban and rural; elite and just plain folk – but the fear has been that the merger was not equal; that the Universalist name was tacked on, their resources absorbed, but their message of inspiring love rather than dispensing truth was not taken seriously. The worry is that the love has been lost.
This presentation in the hotel, examining the centrality of love in our faith today, was a very 21st century affair. Thousands of pages of required reading for current ministerial student were scanned, in order to quantify how much love there was among the Unitarians, and the Universalists; and then, after merger, did the amount of love go up, or down?
But wait! I wanted to interrupt. What is love? How do you know? I for one have been fooled by it, and I know plenty of you have been, too. And what kind of love do you mean? Protective, nurturing, responsible; like a parent to a child; or something more like adoration, and blind faith? How do you reconcile counting words with embodying a feeling? And what about who or what the love is being ascribed to? The idea of a loving God can actually be less inclusive than simply caring for one another. Isn’t it more to the point to just get on with offering our hands and hearts to one another; to see the needs and hear the sighs, and know they are our own? What I really wanted to know was why one side has to win. Why can’t we be who we are, both/and, whole?
I found myself thinking back to an observation I made about ten years ago, wondering why I had never noticed earlier. The branches on evergreen trees point down. They start higher on the trunk, and then aim slightly towards the earth; that lovely tapered shape of our Christmas trees; but on deciduous trees – the ones that lose their leaves – the main branches reach up, like arms grasping for the sun. There are practical reasons for this, involving shedding snow so branches don’t break, and letting light in so leaves can grow – but I was thinking about love; and directionality. What flows down, to us from the heavens above; and what is sent aloft, soaring towards the light? And I was thinking about Jesus, born low in the stable among the animals, and reaching up to become part of the royal house; and Guatama, born a prince in the hills of India, seeking a way in to the valley of ordinary life, of suffering and loss.
Meanwhile, I was in such an odd landscape – perhaps for the simple reason that it was foreign to me. I had never been in Minnesota before, and I agreed to go for a silly reason. I wanted to see the Mississippi River. Years ago I learned in a song that the river started there, in the land of a thousand lakes, and that you could cross it in five steps, even though by the time it rolled south the water was impossibly wide; a separation so vast we are still unmoored by it. But in Minneapolis, the airport and all its ring roads didn’t really end before we were surrounded by what seemed like miles of military graves; a quarter million white stones lined up like so many squared shoulders behind black iron fencing; then, the broad boulevard and a cluster of long-term parking garages, and alongside them, hotels. Ours was in the back, one block off the main road, and if we had turned right instead of left, we would have been in the wildlife refuge instead. It didn’t look like much – a long, low visitor’s building was all you could see; but from the 8th floor of the hotel, that building became a gateway to small rolling hills in various shades of yellow and green, and then a winding blue ribbon of river. Nesting sites for herons, egrets and bald eagles lined up along the runways for the giant metal birds that carried us in and out of this place that had once been the western frontier. What does love look like? Where does it look to?
Mary Rose O’Reilly, in a book different from the one used in today’s reading, said that as a child she had “fallen into a geography of light;” looking to the sky for direction. She thought it was because her father had been a pilot; that her whole family was attuned to what was happening in the sky, and that it took her some time to look around her instead; to see the ground; or even to look inside herself as well as outside. In her words, I heard Thoreau: Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.
That line comes from a chapter of Walden called “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau is kneeling in the snow, boring holes in the ice and calculating the volume of the pond, which is also a way of measuring himself. He writes of the impossibility of getting a level read; and he is talking about the uneven surface of the ice, but also of our ethical selves. “We are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part,” avoid the depths, stand off “on a harborless coast, and converse only with themselves” he says. He wants to go wide and deep; to count every hidden cove and secret inlet, and to find the true bottom of the pond, to see if its lows correspond to the peaks of the hills nearby. The frozen pond, its surface mottled with shallow puddles, becomes a kind of looking glass. He writes, “I saw a double shadow of myself, one standing on the head of the other, one on the ice, the other on the trees or hillside.”
How are we to look at this world? I have had to practice this week. Originally my mind was partly on Standing Rock, the Lakota reservation where the water supply is threatened by an oil pipeline. The Army Corps or Engineers has said that as of tomorrow, the water protectors at Standing Rock must leave, or risk arrest. The state of North Dakota announced that taking supplies to the protestors can get you fined to the tune of $1000 for each infraction. Today is the Interfaith Day of Prayer at Standing Rock, and I believe it is helping. On Friday, over two thousand veterans decided to head to Standing Rock, arriving today and staying for at least three days.
All week, instead of writing, I have been watching the world around me, having trouble looking; having trouble turning away; waiting. Thinking of our story this morning, I wonder — Did I receive my gift of patience when I should have rejected it? I do not need to recount it all – the fires, the tornadoes; the fists, sticks, knives and guns from Columbus to Aleppo; the Merrimack River flowing by. Where do we turn our eyes, so that we see ourselves whole, and in context?
This is the time of year when nature grows quiet, uses less energy, sinks into dormancy. It is the season of unseen change; of life that looks like death, and we learn to submit to it; to trust the outcome. So often we represent winter as an old man, tilting against the wind and sleet, but the picture is not really one of age. This is about endurance – how long can we go on with how little. Maybe it is also about learning we do not need so much after all. So much of what we thought necessary was delusion. Now we relinquish our desires and our schedules and burrow down, reduce to the elemental, knowing that there is so much that is hidden – in the world, and in ourselves. The depths are not always visible; the ghosts of previous lives still inhabit our places and we do not always know where we are; what lies beyond the thin edges; what will emerge in a new season. Our capacity for reverence deepens as we linger on days that are far too short for any of us to believe we have time. At noon the shadows are already long and slanting; the sun gives way to the moon long before supper. But a single light is enough to call us home.
Years ago, when Toni Morrison wrote the novel Beloved, she was awarded the Melcher prize, which comes from the Unitarian Universalist Association. It goes each year to the book judged to make the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. In her speech accepting the award, at First Parish in Cambridge, Morrison asked herself why she had written this book, which tells the story of a ghost – the spirit of a baby murdered by her mother, an escaped slave facing recapture. Morrison said “ Well, it has become a little bit more clear to me, a year after Beloved, what perhaps, in very personal terms, the book has substituted for.
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to. But I didn’t know that before or while I wrote it. I can see now what I was doing on the last page. I was finishing the story, transfiguring and disseminating the haunting with which the book begins. Yes, I was doing that; but I was also doing something more. I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.
In response to that speech, the Bench by the Side of the Road project began. It took twenty years, but in 2008 the first of Morrison’s museum in the streets – a bench – was placed, at Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. This island – home to a National Park housing Fort Moultrie, with Fort Sumter hugging the shore nearby, in Charleston– was the entry point for approximately 40% of the West Africans enslaved in this country. The picture of the ceremony moves me – three hundred people, mostly dressed in white, walking out on the water. Of course it is not the exact pier that slave ships docked on, but it is the same place, the same ocean. The people are all under yellow umbrellas, like they are carrying their own suns.
At the time, the plan was for ten benches to be placed in spots significant in African American history, to help us acknowledge our past, and to remember more fully. But at least eleven benches have been placed by our road sides – and two of them are close by. One is at Walden Pond, and another at Caesar Robbins house, the home of a former slave that was moved to site near the Old North Bridge. Robbins home used to be on Brister’s Hill, overlooking Walden. There is a kind of poetic irony; a bench for those who were granted no rest; a small spot to stop and gaze out on a vast history. It is the nothing special that is everything, a feast of being. Toni Morrison liked the simplicity and accessibility. She said it was welcoming, open. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”
Research shows that our eyes turn different directions, based upon whether we are imagining – constructing an image – or remembering. When we recall smells of pine and cinnamon; the experience of cold pinching our noses or the warm embrace that stops us from shivering, our eyes turn one way; and when we are imagining what it might feel like to be truly free, or to live in peace, they turn another. Maybe if we look straight ahead, we can find the balance between what we aspire to and what we feel ourselves to be; to knit the halves of ourselves together. Maybe we can sit together, and close our eyes; brought to our knees by the knowledge that we are here, together, part of this day; that every faint footstep leading up to this place matters and is honored in our shared silence. The horizon is as wide as the sky, and we are tethered to a world of meaning, even when darkness falls, because we are sitting here, together.
Closing Words– Andrew Wyeth
I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
“If Only . . . “by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – November 27, 2016
Opening Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
Reading – from On My Own by Diane Rehm
Life is filled with “might have beans” or “what if’s.” As soon as I began thinking about this sermon examples kept popping up. I recently saw the Woody Allen movie “Café Society” at the library. It is the story of Bobby Dorfman, a young New Yorker who goes to Hollywood to find a job with his rich and famous uncle Phil, who is an agent to the movie stars. Bobby falls in love with his uncle’s secretary, Veronica or Vonnie and they enjoy time together, but it turns out that Vonnie is also having an affair with uncle Phil, who is a married man. Vonnie ends up loving both men, but finally Phil decides to abandon his wife, and Vonnie agrees to marry him. Disappointed and forlorn, Bobby returns to New York, and makes it big in the nightclub business. He marries another woman named Veronica, and life is fine until the original Vonnie pays him a visit with his uncle. Bobby and Vonnie both feel the spark of romance all over again, and agonizingly ask themselves, what if they had chosen each other in the first place? This unrequited love has been smoldering for years. The movie leaves us with the question unanswered, will they abandon their respective spouses and act on the love that still burns in their hearts? Or will they always ask themselves, what if I had chosen differently? Or finally, what if they stay with their spouses, and accept their decision as something to be thankful for. The movie ends, and we never know.
The same day I saw the movie, we returned the church silver to the Museum of Fine Arts. It seemed like perfect timing to stay and see the William Merritt Chase exhibit, which has been on my must see list. I thought this was a fabulous show, especially the pastels. One painting I recognized in the show was a portrait Chase did of the famous American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (think “Whistler’s Mother”). It seems that Chase met Whistler when Chase stopped in London on his way to Spain in 1885. He had admired Whistler for a long time, and wanted to introduce himself. But he extended his stay when Whistler encouraged Chase to remain in London so that they could paint portraits of each other. This was a bad idea. Chase despised the experience. He said Whistler proved to be a veritable tyrant, painting for hours on end so that the posing Chase had limbs that ached and his head throbbed. Whistler would continually scream, “Don’t move!” Finally, it seems that Whistler may have destroyed his portrait of Chase, possibly because of his response to Chase’s portrait of him. Chase created an elongated Whistler using drab colors. He believed his portrait honored Whistler, but it backfired. Whistler was deeply offended, and called the painting a “monstrous lampoon,” and furthermore never spoke to Chase again. I think we would call him a difficult person. Do you suppose Chase might have asked himself, what if I had said no to the idea of painting each other, and just continued with my original plan to relax in Spain? Poor Chase may have wondered for years how things could have turned out differently – what if I altered my style? OR perhaps he said to himself I am glad I learned what he was truly like. Good riddance. He thought it was a good portrait. I thought so, too.
These cultural experiences represent two typical ways we ask ourselves, what if . . . or if only . . We may have lives of endless speculation. Some of us may go back to childhood memories and ponder what if our family lives had not been a civil war much of the time. Or perhaps we are more up to date and ask what if we had worked harder on this last election to ensure the victory of our chosen candidate, and now we fear for the future. We may despair over our lack of action, and regret that it might have been otherwise. In our lives we have all wondered about that partner or lover who we rejected or rejected us, and then we concocted scenarios about what life might have been if we stayed with them. Maybe we even tried to meet up with them again years later, or at least thought about them. Maybe we feel we made a mistake with the choice we made, but now it is too late.
There are so many decisions in life where we ask this, including having a child, or taking a job, or moving away. And even long after we made the decision that resulted in today’s status quo, we wonder – what if I took that church, or moved to Minnesota? Those are the big what if decisions we sometimes reflect back upon, but there are also daily decisions, which may seem insignificant, but like Chase, they may end a relationship forever, just because we did not live up to someone’s expectations, or they were just too difficult to bear. How often, like Chase, might we say to ourselves, if only I had continued on my way, and not stopped and changed my plans, or if only I had responded differently. We might have stayed friends. He might not have gotten so upset. Perhaps I could reach out to him. And then there are all those little daily reminders that there are so many things that could have been different –driving home a different way, being in a particular place at a certain time. Time . . . everything is timing.
There is a new book called Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. I have always been fascinated by time travel, since I first encountered it with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Can we change history? Can we change our history? Some have speculated that time travel books are our new dystopias. We dream of switching lives to different eras in time, so we occupy Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones. I think some of those reenactors must wish they lived at a different time.. Other writers see time travel as a quest for immortality. This is not merely about our own finite lives, but more particularly the life of the planet. In years to come we may use up all the planet’s resources, but we think that in this future world we will travel from planet to planet after we have consumed all that is useable in the old one. Or perhaps we can indeed time travel and go to the past so that we can teach the inhabitants of earth to preserve their resources, and thus prevent ecological disaster. Time travel became a new genre of literature more than a century ago, almost a new kind of science. It was not only a challenge to invent some kind of machine to travel in, like a “Back to the Future” DeLorean time machine, but it was a challenge to see if we could alter history so that the disasters human created could somehow be avoided.
There is an interesting bit of time travel that is created in the musical “Hamilton.” Who makes up this cast that depicts the founders of our country like Washington, Burr and Hamilton? In the lived history of the past they were the old dead white men who are often much maligned these days in their stone cold, marble mantles, but they are the ones who occupied that historical moment. Yet the cast would have us reinvent history, and give a place to a much more diverse group. For women, people of color, the poor and oppressed, this diversity of today’s past takes the historical separation that they feel in this formative part of our nation’s history, and suddenly gives them a central place in it. In 1800 they were locked out of the room where this happened, so as much as we say the founders called for freedom, they also denied basic rights to others. What this change of history does is make the founders people who fought for everyone, not just the privileged few. So instead of maligning them as odious, we transform them in the new history into a diverse patchwork of the America we are today.
Hamilton reminds us that history always belongs, not to the winners, as we often presume, but to the writers. Today we often hear of former icons such as Jefferson reviled for racism and slave holding, even to the point of neglecting his contributions to our national values of freedom and equality. Complete rejection of the past, may destroy the very foundation we build upon, so there is something appealing about taking the vision of a nation built upon diversity and immigrants, and making it come alive in our very founding to reflect the country we dream of living in to today. We can be culturally accurate even as we blur what is “historically” accurate, so we can all see ourselves reflected in the story. It becomes my story, too. We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some don’t necessarily think is their own. We can ask again, what if . . the founders were so diverse?
Those who feel left out of our nation’s past would probably like to travel back in time to be able to literally change this history. They want to be part of it. Rosalind Williams, who donated our flowers this morning, and is an MIT professor recently reviewed Glieck’s book on Time Travel in the Washington Post. She says time travel reflects one of humanity’s deepest longings. It comes from an awareness that every moment passes, and that we are transient creatures in a transient world. Every day we are haunted by losses – the things we might have done differently, but also the people we have lost to the past. And so when I conduct a memorial service I reflect on all that this person loved and lived for when they were alive, and people evoke memories of what it was to be with this person day in and day out. They time travel, if you will, back to the days when the person was full of life. And perhaps our imagination about literal heavens are the dreams we hold to time travel into the future to be reunited with the ones we loved. We don’t want to lose what we love, and so we imagine how we might regain it.
Glieck concludes that all time travel is really a longing for immortality, a way to elude death. There can often be many assorted what if’s as a loved one nears the end of life. We make medical decisions and then question ourselves that we could have done more. The idea to preach on this topic surfaced for me last month when I attended the memorial service for the wife of a colleague. He and I were part of a UU historical meeting here in Watertown in July when he told us his wife’s cancer had gone into remission, and that he was expecting life to return to normal for her, and him. It was not to be so, and we heard the surprising news this fall that she had died.
Thus I was struck at the memorial service when the minister reminded us to remember what was, not what might have been. I could hear echoes of what if we had treated her sooner, or what if we had tried this, but they had responded in all the ways that she found conformed to her values, and how she wanted to live her life. We can all endlessly ask ourselves what might have been, and feel terrible, or we can let go of those things which are now out of our control, or perhaps were never in our control, and accept them. In the end it is best to celebrate what we have. We remember what was with grief and loss, but also in celebration for all the happiness and joy it brought us. Diane Rehm in our reading asks, what if her husband had lived to see her win the humanities medal, and speculates how happy he would have been, but it was not to be.
We have said that the idea of time travel emanates from our longing to connect to those loved ones we have lost. We go to the past to be with them again as they are gone from our lives. We go to the future to be reunited with them again, so we can know the joy and love we once knew yet again. Yet in reality we know we are captured in time, and so while we can look back or forward to a dream state or another time or place, we also know that this is the only time we will know. Time negates possibility because it erases the life we might have had. We mostly do not get a second chance. We choose one partner. We choose one career. We know those lives can change, as they have for me. Yet there are things that are not in our control, and once we make a choice we cannot go back. Life does not have a do over. Time erases the life we might have had. It erases what if. . . because what if has become what is . . . especially as the years pass by. So even as less is in our control as the years pass, how we respond to life’s circumstances is always in our control.
So as we celebrate the leftovers of thanksgiving, we can make the choice to feel gratitude for the life we have, rather than feel regret for the choices we made, or anger for what happened to us. Rather than saying life would be better if this didn’t happen to me, we say this is what happened to me, and I can respond to these circumstances by loving the life that I have. Rather than saying what if I had chosen that career, or that partner, we might ask: What if I greeted each day with gratitude for all that I am, and all that I have, rather than feel regret for what I have failed at or are missing? What if I greeted each day with the courage to try new things rather than fear that if I do something it won’t work out. What if I greet each day with hope that something good will happen to me rather than I am going to be victimized or will lose out. What if I greet each day with the belief that I will be given the chance to try something new rather than the belief that life holds no new possibilities.
It is okay to grieve for the life you won’t be able to live, but then we must let go of what if and accept what is no longer in our control. Then, what if we greet the day in celebration of what you have been able to live – the people you have met, the art and culture you have seen and heard, the food you have eaten, the places you have been, the books you have read, the care others have shown for you, and still do. There are so many what ifs in life that pass you by, or that you failed to choose or see, but yet there has always been so much to be thankful for; the joy you have felt in the morning, and the peace you have felt at night, and all the laughs and learning and even the trials that challenged you and helped you grow in between. Each day you can shout, what if or if only I had . . .. or, you can shout it has all been so amazing, and I am so thankful for it. Live for the good each day.
Closing Words – from Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
“And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.”
November 13, 2016
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 9, 2016
Our constitutional democracy enshrines ….the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, and we must defend them….
So, let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear: Making our economy work for everyone, protecting our country and our planet, and breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.
We … say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone, for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people and people with disabilities, for everyone.
So, now our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we see, and I know you will.
I hope you will hear this. I have spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks, sometimes really painful ones…. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts, but fighting for what’s right is worth it. …
Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.
I still believe as deeply as I ever have that if we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strength in our convictions, and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.
We are stronger together, and we will go forward together.
Scripture tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”
So, my friends, let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose heart. For, there are more seasons to come, and there is more work to do.
Reading Mending Wall, by Robert Frost
Frost was the very first poet to take part in a presidential inauguration. Because Kennedy closed so many campaign speeches with Frost’s line, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” the president invited the poet to speak. Frost was 88 years old, and the winter sun made so much glare he couldn’t read. Lyndon Johnson got up and took off his hat, tried to hold it to make a shadow on the page, but Frost gave up, and recited an old poem he knew by heart instead.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair Where they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each. And some are loaves and some so nearly balls We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’ We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him, But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather He said it for himself. I see him there Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
SERMON: “Broken Fences”
Perhaps you noticed on Wednesday that both Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton – leaders who believe in diversity and inclusion – quoted from the New Testament in their speeches acknowledging the painful defeat to a man who represents a party that believes itself to uphold Christian values. Oddly, perhaps, this made me feel better. It was reassuring to know that each had a source of strength and comfort to turn to; and it helped me, too, because I know those parables, and I know those lines. They are speaking a language I understand.
I have never qualified as a Christian myself. I was born a UU, and I do not accept the idea of an exclusive faith; of one right way. But I thought, in listening to these gracious and righteous remarks, they are showing us something here. They are demonstrating faith for us, and in a language that many, many people will be able to hear. About three quarters of our country identifies as Christian. After this election, in which nearly half the people who voted rejected the core principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith, we are left deeply shaken. It is hard not to see this vote as legitimizing hate and rage, and even enshrining it as Christian. But in listening to Clinton and Kaine, I was reminded, the angry people do not own the Bible. And, by extension, they do not own our story.
Earlier this fall, for reasons completely unrelated to politics and church, I was doing some research on resilience, and I learned that the most important predictor of health and the ability to cope with stress is to develop an “intergenerational identity.” That is, we all carry bits and pieces of others within us – and that the narrative we create about ourselves can change, depending upon who we look back to, or ahead to. Children are not missiles launched into the future, and great grandparents are not relics left in a time capsule. History is not linear or circular. It is push and pull, up and down, back and forth; yesterday and today. We need stories about who we are that move backward and forward in time; that capture our hopes and dreams, even when those dreams were not realized by the one who first envisioned a new way. This research was medical, and based on individual families, but I thought: Doesn’t that sound like church? And isn’t that what I was responding to when Kaine and Clinton used a sentence or two from the Bible? When I saw that Leonard Cohen had died – our rabbinical Zen priest – I had these swirling pieces of my own past: the band here, at this church, playing Hallelujah, talking with Judy Kamm about how much Cohen meant to her, and thinking about baffled kings and broken hallelujahs; about David and Israel.
Maybe this collection of books is not our primary religious inspiration, but knowing the language of the Bible and the stories it tells, which are foundational to Muslims, Jews and Christians – might offer us a chance to engage with the population we are sharing the world with. This is most certainly a time when our faith is needed – not just for ourselves; our personal healing and struggle to accept the country we inhabit – but for all of the people; for those who now have legitimate fears based on their racial, religious, or sexual identity. Who we are in the wake of this election is the same as we have ever been, but perhaps with more work to do at a time when we might have thought we could rest.
On Thursday morning, as he was brushing his teeth before school, my 18 year old asked, “Is it possible for people to appropriate UU culture?” This was a surprising question, and it seemed to me there was an agenda behind this, such as someone thinking we are not a legitimate religion. There was not time for much thought if he was going to be on time, so I quickly said, Yes, most of the American institutions that were put into place in the late 19th century, such as free public schools and libraries were Unitarian culture that spread to the broader society, and the idea that all people – every color and gender – were equal and should have the same rights was a Universalist principle. Of course, after he was out the door, I realized this is a wrong answer – no one appropriated these things. We WANTED those parts of our identity to spread. Our religious forebears worked very hard to make sure that the blessings enjoyed by some were extended to all. Our mission now is the same – to spread our message of equality, inclusion, fairness and continuing spiritual growth. We want, as our capital campaign reminds us, to open doors – to let people in, and to get our saving message out. And now, in the wake of this election, this is more important than ever.
Donald Trump ran most of his campaign on the rallying cry of a wall – an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” he called it. To quote him, “a wall is better than fencing and it’s much more powerful.” This made me think of an essay that had charmed me years ago, in which Sherman Alexie talked about acquiring superpowers at the age of three, when he began to understand the purpose of fences. A novelist, poet, and film-maker, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, but was left out of many tribal ceremonies because of severe disabilities that stemmed from hydrocephaly – water on the brain made his head huge and caused seizures, and other kids were merciless. An outsider among the outsiders, the boy decided to love books.
“The words themselves were mostly foreign,” he wrote, “but I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph… It was a fence that held words. The words inside worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me, and I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs; of collections of things that went together held in by fences.”
The reservation was a small paragraph within the United State; fencing in the Indians; but within that enclosure, his house was a paragraph distinct from the houses to the north and south, and inside the house, more paragraphs – each person in the family, linked by genetics and shared experiences, but separate, too. Using this logic, he said, “I can see my family: an essay of seven paragraphs: mother, father, older brother, deceased sister, my younger twin sisters, and our adopted little brother.”
I loved the visuals created by the idea of a paragraph as the ground we inhabit, divided up, demarcated, parceled out. It is the Word made flesh; a text made into a geography, and it can seem pastoral — sheep and split rails, or old stone walls with the woods reclaiming them; apple and pine greeting each other, like Frost and his neighbor. There is actually a lot of research on the role of fences in creating peace. Boundaries can make us feel safer and grant autonomy — they are not necessarily negative. However, when there is conflict, the presence of physical barriers always exacerbates the issues. Who decides on the boundary? Who says which people belong on which side? The idea of being fenced in on a reservation is ugly, and the larger purpose of Alexie’s essay is to show how he used books to construct his escape.
Fences suggest a kind of liminal space, where our edges meet, and brush up against each other, and our discomfort with that contact. Think of all the chain link in our neighborhoods, and the way Trump drew support by reassuring people that a wall would protect us; keep us like Eden before the fall, with the evil on the other side. We could resist being changed by voting for change. Never mind that the story of Eden begins with Adam and Eve being told that they were supposed to inhabit the whole earth, not the garden. They were afraid, and wanted to stay put in a place that never changed, and God is the force that moved them out, into the world and all its adventures. Paradise, Biblically speaking, is not any one couple’s small corner. It is all of creation. Even for those behind walls, there are transactions across borders. We are all in this world together.
August Wilson’s play Fences depicts 1950s Pittsburgh, and the lines drawn between those who inhabit a shared space. The barrier in Wilson’s play is between black and white, and father and son, and expectations and ideals. The father in this story keeps telling his son that liking people has nothing to do with anything; that what counts is duty and responsibility. Wilson writes, “Mr. Rand don’t give me money come payday because he likes me. He gives me because he OWES me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! … liking you wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you. You understand what I’m saying?”
This seems to be our task now; to make sure that we do right, and that those in power do, too. Certain things are owed, regardless of anyone’s feelings.
Talk about a nearly 2000 mile long wall around the southern United States, whether it is a literal wall or a political construct, made me think about Jericho. The ancient walled city is the oldest continually occupied place on this planet. Instead of being on the far side of the desert sands of Yuma and the Rio Grande, Jericho lies across the River Jordan – in the land of milk and honey that Israel believed was their destiny; promised to Abraham centuries ago, and finally within sight, after all those wilderness years. From Jericho, you can see Mount Nebo, where Moses died while looking to the land he was allowed to glimpse, but never reach. This city — behind stone walls that were fourteen feet wide, and a dozen feet high, at which point a brick wall began, and rose another 36 feet, but cut in on a steep angle and then connected to another, taller stone wall — was the first obstacle to reaching the Promised Land, after emerging from captivity and then wandering across the desert. So perhaps Trump had some Biblical inspiration. But what happens to Jericho?
The Israelites don’t really even have to fight. There is no tunneling under or launching over. There is no long siege that prevents food from getting in. Instead, Joshua leads his people in a silent march around the walls, once a day for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they circle the city seven times, and on the final circuit, they shout and blow their horns. The walls come tumbling down, collapsing at the sound of the trumpets. God describes Jericho as his city, a place where everyone is devoted – and therefore tells Joshua not to take anything, and not to hurt the people; in fact, not even to move in. And the Israelites do not. They take nothing from the Canaanites. The wall coming down is the whole story. And if you have been to Jewish weddings, perhaps you’ve seen the ritual of the bride circling the groom seven times before the vows take place. It is a dismantling of the walls built around our hearts, so we can build a new life together. It is intense; a forced awareness of the barriers that we can have between us, and their dismantling. The point is not to be protected with walls and force, but with love. The point is to learn how to be in the world, to not be locked in. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
Even at the time of this story, Jericho was an ancient city; more than six thousand years old. Later, it became a winter resort for the wealthy; in Jesus’ time, Herod had a palace there. Because the city was very low, it stayed warmer than the surrounding area; but it was expensive. Many people who could not afford to live there would visit Jericho – for trade, and as a welcome respite from the harsh weather higher in the Jordan valley. The walled city exists on a strategic crossroad – between Jerusalem and Galilee, and also on the path to Mecca. The road itself is a boundary between tribes; Judah on one side, and Benjamin on the other – and the Jericho road is where a famous story about neighbors takes place. A traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed and beaten, and left by the side of the road. A priest going by does not stop to help, and neither does a Levite – a member of the priestly tribe. Both are afraid of what might happen to them if they stop. Maybe this injured man is faking it. Maybe the robbers are lying in wait, and will get them, too. So, even though these men are leaders, the embodiment of the revered religious institutions, and should care for the injured man, they continue their journeys instead. Then a man from Samaria – a distrusted foreign territory, hostile to Jews – comes along. He sees the victim, tends to his wounds, and carries him to a place of safety, and pays for his lodging, promising to come back and settle the tab on his return trip. This is the Jericho Road; a place to contemplate what separates us, and why. The person who was kind and helpful and put himself at risk was the one no one expected anything of; and the priest hurried away without even stopping.
The message of this story cuts both way. We want the parable to be about the undocumented immigrants, and how they are not a threat; but maybe we also need to learn to see that some of the people who we are afraid of; the people who have recently come into power can also surprise us. I do not want to be naïve. I am not counting on good will and open-mindedness. I think we will need to work very hard to get what is owed to the people, and the land. But I am aware that I am on the Jericho Road, and that everyone else is, too. The wall came down long ago, but the dangers remain, because they come from us. I always get a little squeamish when I hear people talk about fighting – fighting for what’s right, fighting for a cause. I want it to be less violent and messy. But I think the best we can do is fight from a place of love. Fight for justice and what is right, not against people, not out of fear.
Years and years ago, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin held a public conversation they called “A Rap on Race.” They talked for seven and a half hours, and one of the things Baldwin said that I think about today is this: “I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.”
All of us are responsible for the future, and that means we have to understand where we are coming from. Our collective past is a driving force, and we need to harness it constructively.
We are each other’s only hope.
Let us walk quietly around these barriers that look insurmountable, day after day, and then blow our trumpets, and build a new way.
Closing Words Simone Weil
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us. Every separation is a link.