“Built in Our Image” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 17, 2016
Call to Worship – “i am a little church” by e.e. cummings (adapted)
i am a little church(no great cathedral) – i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving (finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature – i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to
the merciful One Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of the holy presence (welcoming humbly the light and proudly the darkness).
Reading – from The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski
Sermon – “Built in Our Image”
I have visited a lot of churches. Years ago when we stayed in England Andrea accused me of taking the family to every cathedral and castle on the island, or maybe it was just the castles. In any case, she was tired of all of the visits to historic monoliths with three bored boys in tow. Imagine! Juxtapose boredom with the macabre when we stood on the plaque commemorating the Murder in the Cathedral of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Our boys helped us decide quickly that it was time for some fresh air, as we dashed from the scene. I thought of church visits because I recently made up a list of all the churches where I have preached. What precipitated this current obsession was the occasion of my visit to Montpelier, Vermont two weeks from now. I have never preached in Vermont before and this will complete the New England states for me. I have visited larger religious shrines, too, including Lincoln Cathedral in England, which plays a prominent role in the reading from the book, The Most Beautiful House in the World. One could play the game of what is the most beautiful church in the world, but I am sure we would have different ideas of what kind of aesthetic appeal, personal identification, architectural preference or physical location moved us to make the choice of a particular church. One of my favorites is Underbank Chapel, a modest little stone building outside of Sheffield, England which I love not because of its grandeur or beauty, although its location above a valley lined with rectangular stone walls, countless sheep, and the greenest grass in the world helps, but because long ago a small congregation sang a beautiful introit that spoke of a God that gave them safe shelter from the storms of life in this humble dwelling, and they consequently made a visiting American feel welcomed on a dark cold night in January 1978.
My list also includes the buildings where I have served as minister: Milton, Palmer and Watertown, Massachusetts. I often say I have been lucky to serve in three lovely buildings – one a classic New England meetinghouse on the green, built in 1787, one a stone Gothic building from 1879 with stained glass and lots of dark wood, and this structure built in 1889 as a parish hall where the congregation could hold dances, plays and Sunday school classes, while the congregation worshipped next door. Later this became our meetinghouse, a beautiful, yet humble dwelling more like the church as home concept that became popular in the mid-West during the late 1800’s, where church was domesticated into a seven day a week social center that not only held worship services on Sunday, but had classes, and every kind of social service imaginable to make family and social life more meaningful and fulfilling. I recall, too the first Unitarian church I attended in Petersham, Massachusetts, a country town with its Greek Revival building reminding the viewer of the ancient Greek temples with its granite columns that strain to hold up the entire structure. Those columns standing straight like soldiers with their circular grooves that resemble the tunic the ancient Greek senators wore as they sat in democratic deliberation for the first time, reflecting its horizontal appearance.
There are so many kinds of buildings that Unitarian Universalist congregations worship in from the lovely, yet radically different structures I have described that are particularly dear to my heart, and countless others from Gothic monstrosities that seat 700 and are dark and dreary to modern barn like structures that resemble a Pizza Hut with no architectural distinctiveness. Yet every congregation makes their building their own. Love it or hate it, it becomes the cradle of the dreams for that group and the warmth of the community, the spirit of their worship, and the commitment to work for justice in the world shines forth and is made manifest with each member striving to live an ethical compassionate life, as best as they know how. But make no mistake about it, those congregations despite the wide variety of buildings they call their religious homes, reflect what the people believe about the role religion plays in their lives, and in their vision for remaking the world. For us, this vision begins with the Puritans whom we commonly identify as witch hanging monsters, but were the progenitors of much of what we believe and enact in our worship spaces and services.
The most enduring example of this occurs with the only extant Puritan meetinghouse in America, the Old Ship Church in Hingham, MA. The exterior of this Puritan meetinghouse, like many, was a square structure with a four-sided hip roof rising to a central cupola. What especially interests me though are the interiors of Puritan meetinghouses where the pulpit was on a side wall with benches and later box pews gathered all around it, sort of like the center of town with each family dwelling near by. The Puritan meetinghouse succeeded an Anglican Church pattern of architecture, which was mostly a continuation of a Roman Catholic arrangement. There the altar is the focal point of the church situated at the front, with a pulpit off to the side, while the baptismal font is near the door, to symbolize the entry into the Christian faith. There is also lots of symbolic statuary and stained glass and painting to represent God, Jesus and Mary, all of which the Puritans considered idolatry. So do we. America was the one place where Puritans were able to create meetinghouses that reflected their views of how society should be structured. Being among the most purely Protestant, the pulpit was the focal point of the building, for it was from here that the preacher delivered the word of God, as interpreted through the Bible. The minister was called up from the people, and not separated from them in any way, like a priest with an apostolic emblem. There was no altar, but for practical reasons a communion table and a bowl for baptism sat below the pulpit. Worship was pure, and the only accoutrements were purely functional items like the tankards we bring out of the museum at Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Puritan meetinghouse, is that it was precisely that – a meetinghouse. It was not a church, but instead a purely functional building where worship services happened to occur, but also town meetings and public gatherings as well. Of course in Puritans times there was no dissent from their congregational forms and faith, and so the building was intended for the entire town. It was their town hall, where disputes were settled, minister’s salaries were apportioned from all taxpayers, and although the rich were seated nearest to the pulpit (a place some might wish to avoid), all the community was seated together in one common arrangement that invited participation from the floor. It was not democracy unless you were a male landowner, but nevertheless, each congregation rejected hierarchy and being told how to worship. Instead they created their own covenant, elected their own ministers and officers, and voted on the rules that would govern them and who would be considered members. They came to America seeking religious freedom, and while they were not so great at granting this freedom to others, they did replicate that freedom for themselves. Each congregation, religiously speaking, stood on it own, and while it consulted with others for advice, it maintained an independence, so even when Watertown Puritan Richard Brown said that the Catholic faith was a legitimate faith, he could not be excommunicated from membership even though the leaders in Boston recommended that course of action. The Watertown congregation has a long history of refusing to be told what to do. It is probably prudent that I say no more than that.
What made this expression of faith possible in both architecture and polity was an unspoken agreement about theology, and so they were able to focus on the structure of their faith arrangements in a polity or government that drew on a New Testament understanding that God intended small cells of believers to be religious authorities unto themselves. They could know a direct experience of God because the spirit dwelt in their hearts as a community of believers, and was not disseminated through a hierarchy of authorities. This resulted in their meetinghouses and their services being a reflection of this independence from authority. There was no stained glass to prevent them from seeing the real living world through the windows of their buildings, and God was to be experienced directly in life without mediator or veil. This is why this building of ours reminds me of a Puritan meetinghouse. While the pulpit may be the center of worship for the dissemination of the word, the people are gathered around reflecting congregational participation and empowerment. It is pure religion from the heart that must be lived directly through the faith of each person finding his or her own centers of religious power and meaning.
The moveable pulpit and chairs are certainly more flexible than any Puritan would have wanted them to be, but it is remarkable to me how many vestiges of their expressions of faith remain even if the content has been dissipated. This means that we have both continuity with the past in terms of simplicity of faith and functional needs, but that theology has become largely superfluous. When Emerson said the sun shines also today, he provided religious permission to obliterate the past dependence upon Christian miracles and traditions, and devote ourselves to speaking directly to the power of the spirit as we could discern it through our own hearts. Eventually most Unitarian and Universalist congregations would embrace this approach which was the ultimate affirmation of Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and became a faith of all believers no matter which traditions you preferred, as long as you loved God, and thy neighbor as thyself, and even God eventually stood on quicksand.
I have suggested that Puritan meetinghouses were a reflection of their ideas, and that much of that ethos remains present in our faith today. We could each ask the same question of our own homes. Are they a reflection of us, and our deepest values? Do the furnishings embrace our bodies to comfort and cradle? Is it warm and inviting to everyone? What kinds of art or decorations hang on the walls? Do lots of books reflect our values about knowledge and learning? Does a well furnished kitchen show how you value cooking, or a beautiful dining room reflect how much you love to welcome guests to your home? We like a couch in our kitchen where we can be near the symbolic hearth of our home, and relax together. We say it is just like a café, and we serve up omelets and bagels, wine and cheese and everything in between. The art we hang usually has some kind of personal significance – houses that Andrea loves, or places we love like a map of Rockland, Maine, and textures and textiles, too, like weavings and paper art. I like to gaze upon them all. Do we look on our surroundings and see? And what makes for beauty in a dwelling place? Is it lots of memorabilia and photos that we love, or is it simplicity with few baubles and trinkets, and mostly those that serve a functional purpose? I am reminded of that lovely Marge Piercy reading in our hymnal (#567) To Be of Use. She speaks of Hopi vases that we collect and put in museums, but what is enduring about them is how they were used by a people to hold corn. They were a reflection of a culture and its work and family and love, and not museum pieces that hold monetary value. Were they well loved by use?
How do we make a house beautiful? William Channing Gannett, a leading Unitarian minister in the late 19th century wrote about creating The House Beautiful, working in collaboration with the famous architect Frank Floyd Wright. The term spawned a magazine, but it also reflected what both Gannett and Wright wanted to express religiously. Gannett said he wanted the home to be a domestication of the infinite. Gannett begins by referring to a spiritual home, by which St. Paul meant a place where our souls can dwell forever. Gannett was less concerned with the afterlife, but with our homes here on earth. Here we can create dwellings that house the infinite as reflections of eternal values. We are creating the house beautiful with our love and care for one another. In the ideal house, the family protects the person, and the strife of the world is shut out, while love is held in. We nurture the body and shelter the spirit. Does the house reflect an inner beauty? Do we see that in the design or symmetry found in the rooms? Are we filled with gratitude that we have such a dwelling to call our own? Gannett wants us to consider when we look in mute witness to our dwelling to remember “we live in a building of God, a house not made with hands.”
This leads us to Gannett’s partner in the concept of The House Beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright. All houses whether they be homes for living or worshipping are made with hands. While literally true, it is also true that all buildings, at least in Wright’s view can reflect some deeper religious unity present and alive in the universe. Wright was part of a large Unitarian family who had migrated to America from Wales. Suspicious of any institutional religion that got in the way of an individual’s search for truth, they developed their own family motto, “Truth Against the World.” As a person, Wright was egotistical and narcissistic, so we might suspect that his truth was not to be challenged by established authorities, religious or architectural. We all know that respecting authority is not a Unitarian strength. Trusting the self over the institution or tradition dates back centuries, but its foundation in Unitarianism comes with Emerson. This is a profound trust for the individual, and the democratic voice of the people over traditions. The Puritans obliterated Anglicanism, and the Transcendentalists were accused of destroying Christianity.
Wright created two famous Unitarian churches, one of which, Unity Temple, adorns the cover of the book Andrea and I wrote about Unitarian Universalism. Two summers ago we went to visit what is perhaps his most famous house Fallingwater, near Pittsburgh. There is a great beauty to this building, but Wright’s buildings often have structural problems, so water literally falls through Fallingwater. We may think a great architect shouldn’t design a work that leaks. While that seems logical, it is also true that Wright was less concerned with tight buildings than he was with serving a larger religious ideal with his architecture. For him it is not the building that needs to survive, but the ideal. Some see his architecture as a celebration of nature, reflecting the prairie, as they similarly see Emerson or Thoreau’s idea of nature as intrinsically beautiful. But that simply is not true in either case. A tree is not beautiful because it is a tree; it is beautiful because it ia connected to a greater whole, a larger spiritual unity present in the creation.
Wright’s uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones had worked closely with Gannett and a group of women clergy known as the Iowa Sisterhood in the “church as home” movement. They rejected the large, grandiose buildings that seemed authoritarian to them, believing that a simple home like structure reflected their liberal religious faith. They wanted their building to reflect the non traditional, democratic, freedom loving, individual search for truth that they longed to see embodied in their lives. When Wright was designing Unity Temple, he opposed the idea of a conventional spire pointing towards heaven because it represented an aspiration to heavenly salvation. He said, you don’t build or design that way because it does not reflect liberal religion. He then told the building committee a story. There was a holy man, who longed to see God, and he climbed up to the top of the highest mountain, and when he reached the highest point, he called out to God. Then he heard a voice call out, “Get down. Go back.” This was not God’s way of saying, there is nobody home. Instead, the holy man then realized that God was not at the top, but that he would find God down in the valley where the people were; there he could look upon God’s living countenance. We must build temples he said that are not in the sky, and are not filled with sentiment, but with sense. The new church was to be a modern meetinghouse, and a “good-time place.”
The committee was stymied, because they only knew what a church was supposed to look like. So they asked Wright, who can design such a place as you describe? And, of course Wright said, I can. Wright was using the words of his uncle Jenk; words that once begun a sermon of his, “ Go back to the plains and tell the dwellers on the plains that the Temple of True Knowledge is in their midst; any one may enter it who chooses; the gates are not even closed.” In the heart of our life and work and daily effort is the ideal church. The theology had come a long way from Puritanism, but the ideal was still the same. Make a building that reflects the every day faith you live, in the plain, with the people. The great building is not necessarily the grand, enduring cathedral, it may be found with what you don’t see, and it may not last, but what’s important is whether it is continually being built with the spirit of the people on the plain.
Closing Words – from Kathleen McTigue
Into this home we bring our hunger for awakening,
We bring compassionate hearts,
And a will toward justice.
Into this house we bring the courage to walk on,
After hard losses.
Into this house we bring our joy, and gratitude for ordinary blessings.
By our gathering we bless this place.
In its shelter we know ourselves blessed.