“A Faith for Troubled Times” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – March 6, 2016

Call to Worship – from Marta I. Valentin

We come together to honor the universal community of seekers to which we all belong.

We gather together today to share from our deepest place of safety that we might nurture ourselves by celebrating one another.

We call into our presence this hour our ancestors whose love, labor and commitment made it possible for us to be here now.

Let us call one another to the table of abundance that we may feed on those fruits that sustain us and ever ask us to grow.

Let us open to this moment with hearts that have no borders.


Reading – from The Religion of Democracy by Amy Kittelstrom



This winter I have been teaching a course at Harvard Divinity School. We were originally scheduled to meet in Divinity Hall, the site of one of the seminal events in Unitarian Univeralist history, the delivery of the Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838. Yet my joy of being in this location was short lived, as my students found it inconvenient. We moved the class to Rockefeller Hall, a newer building that I was unfamiliar with. The day of my first class there I arrived unusually early as I was planning a power point presentation, not exactly my strong suit. Before setting up for class, I decided to use the bathroom, and walked down the hall to the facilities. For some reason I got it in my brain that since this was a liberal seminary the bathrooms might be gender neutral. In fact, when I reached the end of the corridor I saw a sign, which said restroom, and presumed it welcomed everyone. I entered the swinging door, and upon seeing stalls, had this feeling confirmed in my mind. I used the facility, and then exited the stall to find two women washing their hands at the sink. They didn’t act as though I was violating their space, so everything seemed copasetic. I went back to class. Later, about five minutes before I began class, I thought it might be a good idea to use the bathroom one last time. I proceeded down the corridor. Yet this time I was somewhat taken aback when I noticed there was a symbol of a female figure above where it said restroom. I was instantly mortified, and sheepishly walked further down the corridor to find a second restroom with the symbolic male figure next to the door. What did those two women think I was doing? Why didn’t they say anything? Did they think I was some kind of predator? The good news is that the two women had not screamed at me to get out of the women’s bathroom, and neither one of them was taking my class. If one had been a student of mine, I might never have lived down a reputation for wandering into the wrong restroom.

What an idiot, I thought. What was I thinking? Yet this is not a sermon on how people do stupid things. Just this week the governor of South Dakota vetoed a discriminatory bill that would have prevented transgender students from accessing restrooms and single-sex facilities that correspond to their gender identity. He decided that compassion and equality would dictate state policy, not hate. He said we are not going to target transgender young people and make them feel more isolated and harassed than they already do. We may think that gender-neutral public restrooms only matter to transgender people because they feel the stress of constantly using the “wrong” bathroom all the time, as I did this once. It briefly gave me the sense of what it is like to be in another’s shoes. What is most telling of all is my expectation that we should all have equal access to gender neutral bathrooms, just as we believe the trans community should have the same privileges I do. It was in my head, and in my heart that no one should be isolated or harassed or persecuted or hated for being who they are. My faith had helped teach me that everyone should be able to go into a public building and feel comfortable that there will be a place for them to sit, a floor for them to gain access to, and a bathroom they can use. Equal access to a bathroom may seem trivial to you, but what if it was a problem all the time? What if the women screamed at me? What if it meant sitting at the back of the bus, as it was for Rosa Parks, or trying to access a public building with no elevator? Do you remember that here? Who are we leaving out in jobs, housing, education or access to church?

This morning we have heard some amazing music from our choir. Being a musical low brow the Lord Nelson Mass meant very little to me, except for the Lord Nelson part. I know next to nothing about Haydn, but I have learned that he composed this piece when the world around him was in utter chaos, and there was great danger that Austria would fall to Napoleon’s forces. Vienna itself was threatened in 1798, even as he finished the mass that summer. This was reflected in the Mass’ official title, which translates as the “Mass for Troubled Times.” What Haydn didn’t know at the time was that on August 1, Admiral Nelson’s British forces had defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile. After this, the Mass slowly acquired a nickname in honor of Nelson’s victory. Only seven years later he won his greatest victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Yet the glory of that victory was bittersweet for the British, as a sharpshooter fatally wounded Nelson during the battle.

Now I have heard that the choir has focused more on Lord Nelson’s private life, perhaps including the fact that when he heard the Mass he was with his mistress rather than his wife. And I must admit I know more about his after life; that is the monuments devoted to him. His flagship at Trafalgar and perhaps the most famous ship in English history, the HMS Victory sits in Portsmouth harbor, and I have seen it there. Furthermore after his death his body was brought back to England, where his state funeral took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the magnificent Christopher Wren building built in the wake of the Great Fire of the 17th century. I have climbed to its top, whispered across the whispering gallery, and seen Lord Nelson’s Tomb. Interestingly enough the marble sarcophagus was built for Cardinal Wolsey in 1524. If you have read or seen the miniseries Wolf Hall, you know that Wolsey fell out of favor with Henry VIII, and the king confiscated the tomb. No peace in life or death. After Nelson died, the frugal Brtis said, we can finally use this thing, and they pulled it out of storage. So it wasn’t really his mass, and it wasn’t really his grave. It goes to show that we assign meaning to the great events of our lives when we realize in retrospect what we have immense gratitude for. Sometimes we can adopt what is there at hand waiting to be used, and other times we acknowledge how our lives have been transformed by the sacrifice of others. Nelson came to be recognized as one of Britain’s great heroes, and the significance of his victory resulted in his famous signal being regularly quoted as a mantra for the nation, “England expects that every man (or woman) will do his (or her) duty”

Today marks the beginning of our annual pledge drive for First Parish. Thinking of the Mass and Lord Nelson, I know of no better transition than to say. In these troubled times in which we live, where demagogues threaten to control our political systems, we must echo Nelson’s signal, First Parish expects that every person will do their duty in the coming year. So what does equal access to a bathroom, and a great naval victory by a one armed admiral have to do with our annual pledge drive?   It is about our vision for transforming our world, and how your support for that vision is vitally important. In her sermon last week Jolie mentioned a UU online funding mechanism called Faithify. This week I met with some clergy and employees of Mt. Auburn Cemetery to strategize how we would restore the monument there for William Ellery Channing, the most pivotal figure in the development of Unitarianism in America. Channing’s marble gravestone is deteriorating and needs help, and this is where Faithify would come into play. Channing’s place in our history will remind you of what a marvelous faith we have, not only because it means freedom of choice for you, and is non dogmatic, and affirms all those good liberal causes, but also because it is a faith that changed America; bringing people out of the shadows of hatred and sin and the fires of damnation while leavening the loaf of freedom and democracy that was rising in the land.

When the Mass for Troubled Times was written in 1798, a new faith was emerging here in America. Two years before Trafalgar, Channing was called to serve what is today the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and he wrought a spiritual revolution which led to a Romantic period of reform and change in America, so that two liberal religious movements were formed, a peace movement began, the first of its kind in the country, and ultimately a movement for the abolition of slavery. In his heart this movement for religious freedom began when he was a small boy, around 1789 when our nation was first being formed. Young William went to church one day with his father. His mother, who was ill, stayed home. He heard a long sermon that morning. There was no Sunday school in those days, and sermons lasted about an hour or more. He was only half listening, but suddenly the minister, a Calvinist Congregationalist said something about the world coming to an end. This perked his ears up, and he listened more attentively. He proceeded to become more shocked with each word. The preacher said that the world was going to end with a great fire, and most everyone would burn and suffer in that fire. William felt a little bit of relief when the minister said that not everyone would burn in that fire; a few would be saved. And their reward? They could watch the others burn. William didn’t think he wanted to burn or watch others burn. Then when you would think it could not get worse. It did. The minister said this great fire could happen at any time. It could come that very afternoon. After this, William could think about nothing else. Everyone and everything he loved might have this terrible thing happen to them.

Finally the service was over. As they exited the church, his father stopped to greet the minister. He said good morning, and then simply added, “Sound doctrine.” Was that all he could say? Maybe it was too painful to talk about. Then as they walked home, William thought perhaps his father would have something to say. But, no, he simply started whistling.   At first he wondered how his father could be so cheery, and then he thought he was being brave. When they got home, everything seemed normal. But then after dinner William noticed that storm clouds were beginning to roll in. Then the thunder began to rumble, William thought, “oh no, is the end coming today?” A terrible thunderstorm struck, and poor William stood paralyzed in the middle of the living room. His father, who had been reading, noticed how frightened his son looked, and called him over. There had been plenty of storms before, why was he so scared now? He crawled into his father lap, and began to cry. He sobbed and sobbed. Then it began to become quiet outside, and the storm subsided and passed. He looked out the window, and saw the clouds were breaking up and the sun was shining. Then he saw a rainbow. He knew then he had nothing to fear. That day young William Ellery Channing learned that he never wanted religion to make him afraid of God or what was to come again. He wanted his religion to teach him courage, a belief that people could find love in the world, and consequently behave compassionately towards each other. He wanted to tell people that there was an innate goodness in them, not an evil nature. He believed people could create a better world working together in community. In his heart, his Unitarian faith was born that day.

In Amy Kittelstrom’s book, The Religion of Democracy, she names William Ellery Channing as one of seven people who helped establish the American moral tradition. She writes that religion and democracy have worked together as universal ideals in our culture. They became guides to moral action and the social practice of treating one another as equals who deserve to be free. I think the reading from her book speaks to us today. It shows how Channing was ready to condemn the young woman for her lack of feeling, but then thought better of it. While we usually shy away from the word sin in liberalism, Kittelstrom rightfully points out that we identify it in social terms. It is not lack of feeling that we see as the sin, but lack of moral action, and holding ourselves above others. This is that holier than thou attitude when there is really no action to show the holiness we purport to have. There is no proof in the pudding. Love of self, as St. Augustine once learned is not enough to make you happy. We need to serve. We need to belong to something greater than ourselves. This is a call to justice. This is a call to do our religious duty. This is a call to notice that that bathroom ought to be gender neutral, and then everyone will feel welcome.   My faith led me to see the need to treat everyone as equals. It is a start. It is what our faith calls us to do. This is a faith that must be lived in the world, in action, not in our heads or our feelings, but in soiled and aching hands.

Last week, our FPW member Paul Montesino sent out an item called “Ten Duties of a Wise Ruler.”  It is from the Pali Canon, a standard collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. The first virtue is dana, which means generosity or giving. A ruler needs generosity because it is what opens the heart of a human being. It says reflect on the act of giving without expecting anything in return. When we give something we like to someone else that opens the heart. Humanity is at its best when it gives what it loves or what it wants to others. This fits me to a T, because I am always giving Andrea the books I want to read. More seriously, it needs to fit our faith, because we need to share our faith with others. We should believe in this free faith so deeply that we would want to give it to others. I am tired of hearing about all the storm clouds that are going to make us burn in flames. I want us to stand on the side of love, on the side of freedom and democracy and equality. So when it comes to the time for you to support the church that stands for all those things you cherish, then you must do your duty. Give generously for what you believe in.

This week I was doing some research for our social action committee. Someone suggested that the term charitable offering sounds too much like charity, like the old fashioned alms for the poor. In the future we are going to call these designated offerings. In my research I found some remarks to a church newcomer who had just moved to a community: “It’s a great place,” Michael told us, “but watch out for the Unitarian Universalists! They sit on all the town committees. They spend too much!” I thought of our own community. It is often said if we go to an event in Watertown, members of First Parish will be present in numbers all out of proportion to the size of the church. We often say all the usual suspects were there. The religious vision that we want to create is a community that reaches out to give everyone a place; a home where they feel welcome.  On one of those websites I visited I saw someone call the church the last, best and most improbable hope for humanity. What has always distinguished our liberal faith is not merely that we are non-dogmatic, but that we are about moral action in the world. We dream of building the moral community. It is not about feeling good about ourselves. It is about making a difference in the world to actually build that moral community. That is what we believe about our church school. It is building character and shaping lives.  It is forming children into people who make the world a better place. We need your financial support to make this community stronger. There are too many people drawing lines, threating to build walls, keeping people out. Our Unitarian Universlaist faith wants to bring people into a wider circle of faith.

Some years ago Edwin Markham, who was once a well-known poet, wrote a brief poem called “Ouwitted.” He outwitted the preacher who said you will burn. He outwitted the politician who said stay out, stay away. He outwitted them all by saying draw the circle wider. We need this religion of democracy and freedom. You need to share it. You need to support it. It is the faith for troubled times because it is a welcoming faith, and it is an inclusive faith. It is a loving faith. Markham grew up in California, the youngest of 10 children with a single mother, who was abandoned by her husband. He had little education, and his mother worried that book learning would lead him into sin. Instead he kept learning, and eventually became an active Universalist. That little poem still applies to us today, as we together take spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.


He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him in!


Closing Words – from Robert Doss, When Giving Thanks Comes Hard

When giving thanks comes hard for you,

And things are grim,

and hope runs thin,


Despair’s a door to pass on through,

and not a home for living in.

When thanksgiving fills your cup,

And those you love are all about,

Look at your blessings, count them up,

and give back something to the world


Go in peace.

Go for peace.

For all who see God,

May God go with you.

For all who embrace life,

May life return your affection.

For all who seek a right path,

May a way be found…

And the courage to take it

Step by step.