“Celebrating the Incomplete” by Mark Harris
November 30, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Thanks for These” (excerpt) by Richard S. Gilbert
For familiar voices in family rites,
For the faces of friends in laughter and tears,
For the tender human arms that hold me;
For the flashes of memories that linger,
For the mysterious moments that beckon,
For the particularity of this instant;
For the silence of moon-lit nights,
For the sound of rain on my roof,
Of wind in dry leaves,
Of waves caressing the shore;
For the softness of summer breezes,
For the crispness of autumn air,
For dark shadows on white snow,
For the resurrection of spring,
For the faithful turning of the seasons;
For angular, leafless trees,
For gentle hills rolling in the distance,
For meandering streams seeking an unseen sea;
For cornstalks at stiff attention,
And brittle plants bristling past their prime,
For unharvested gardens returning plants to enrich the soil;
For the sight of familiar faces,
The sound of our spoken names,
The welcoming embrace of outstretched arms;
For the ritual of friendship,
Reminding us we matter;
Thanks be for these.
from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten – Robert Fulghum
A Sunday afternoon it was, some days before Christmas. With rain, with wind, with cold. Winters-gloom. Things-to-do list was long and growing like an unresistant mold. Temper: Short. Bio-index: negative. Horoscope reading suggested caution. And the Sunday paper suggested dollars, death, and destruction as the day’s litany. O tidings of comfort and joy, fa la la la la.
This holy hour of Lordsdaybliss was jarred by a pounding at the door. Now what? Deep-sigh. Opening it, resigned to accept whatever bad news lies in wait, I am nonplussed. A rather small person in a cheap Santa Claus mask, carrying a large brown paper bag outthrust: “TRICK OR TREAT!” Santa Mask shouts. What? “TRICK OR TREAT!” Santa Mask hoots again. Tongue-tied, I stare at this apparition. He shakes the bag at me, and dumbly I fish out my wallet and find a dollar to drop into the bag. The mask lifts, and it is an Asian kid with a ten-dollar grin taking up most of his face. “Wanta hear some carolling?” he asks, in singsong English.
I know him now. He belongs to a family settled into the neighbourhood by the Quakers last year. Boat people. Vietnamese, I believe. Refugees. He stopped by at Halloween with his sisters and brothers, and I filled their bags. Hong Duc is his name – he’s maybe eight. At Halloween he looked like a Wise Man, with a bathrobe on and a dishtowel around his head.
“Wanta hear some carolling?”
I nod, envisioning an octet of urchin refugees hiding in the bushes ready to join their leader in uplifted song. “Sure, where’s the choir?”
“I’m it,” says he. And he launched forth with an up-tempo chorus of “Jingle Bells,” at full lung power. This was followed by an equally enthusiastic rendering of what I swear sounded like “Hark, the Hairy Angels Sing.” And finally, a soft-voiced, reverential singing of “Silent Night.” Head back, eyes closed, from the bottom of his heart he poured out the last strains of “Sleep in heavenly peace” into the gathering night.
Wet-eyed, dumbstruck by his performance, I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my wallet and dropped that into the paper bag. In return, he produced half a candy cane from his pocket and passed it solemnly to me. Flashing the ten-dollar grin, he turned and ran from the porch, shouted “GOD BLESS YOU,” and “TRICK OR TREAT” and was gone.
Who was that masked kid? Hong Duc, the one-man choir, delivering Christmas door to door.
I confess that I’m usually a little confused about Christmas. It never has made a lot of sense to me. It’s unreal. Ever since I got the word about Santa Claus, I’ve been a closet cynic at heart. Singing about riding in a one-horse open sleigh is ludicrous. I’ve never seen one, much less ridden in one. Never roasted chestnuts by an open fire. Wouldn’t know how to if I had one, and I hear they’re no big deal anyway. Wandering Wise Men raise my suspicions, and shepherds who spend their lives hanging about with sheep are a little strange. Never seen an angel, either, and my experience with virgins is really limited. The appearance of a newborn king doesn’t interest me; I’d just as soon settle for some other president. Babies and reindeer stink. I’ve been around them both, and I know. The little town of Bethlehem is a pit, according to those who have been there.
Singing about things that I’ve never seen or done or wanted, dreaming of a white Christmas I’ve never known. Christmas isn’t very real. And yet, and yet… I’m too old to believe in it, and too young to give up on it. Too cynical to get into it, and too needy to stay out of it.
Trick or treat! After I shut the door came near hysteria – laughter and tears and that funny feeling you get when you know that once again Christmas has come to you. Right down the chimney of my midwinter hovel comes Santa Hong Duc. His is confused about the details, like me, but he is very clear about the spirit of the season. It’s an excuse to let go and celebrate – to throw yourself into Holiday with all you have, wherever you are. “I’m it,” says he. Where’s Christmas? I ask myself. I’m it, comes the echo. I’m it. Head back, eyes closed, voice raised in whatever song I can muster the courage to sing.
God, it is said, once sent a child upon a starry night, that the world might know hope and joy. I am not sure that I quite believe that, or that I believe in all the baggage heaped upon that story during two thousand years. But I am sure that I believe in Hong Duc, the one-man Christmas choir, shouting “trick or treat!” door to door. I don’t know who or what sent him. But I know I am tricked through the whimsical mischief of fate into joining the choir that sings of joy and hope. Through a child, I have been treated to Christmas.
Many of you know that Andrea and I own a cottage in the small coastal town of Owls Head, Maine. The other night at the service auction, the virtues of the property were being called out in order to entice a potential bidder. We heard things like: “ocean front, two kayaks, rocky beach, three bedrooms, and Andrea added, “It has heat now.” In the meantime I muttered under my breath, “as long as you don’t run out of water.” This was not meant to scare off potential bidders, but was a family joke because we actually had an inept plumber this fall who turned off the water for the winter, before Andrea made her last visit there in October to oversee the installation of the stove that will provide that heretofore mentioned heat. So you can have heat, but the bathroom is outside behind the nearest tree. In fact, water is an issue, as we are not sure if the old well is sufficient for full time occupancy. This cottage has been a work in progress for the ten years we have owned it. Some of this progress has been impeded by incompetent contractors. In one case the front deck became unattached to the house leaving Andrea floating in air. And speaking of bathrooms, the most recent disaster was a bathroom project by a contractor who installed a toilet without a ring that leaked all over the dining room table below, an off centered mirror that made you look at yourself in an angular way, and a shower head that was filled with sawdust. This contractor was the man, Andrea said, “who ruined her life.” Despite these setbacks, we are making progress on transforming a cottage built by a Baptist minister and his volunteer parishioners (with no one with Paul Nelson’s skills among them). We have slowly refurbished and repaired this 40 year old domicile which was originally built on top of a hovel made from box crates, into a year round home with cedar shingles, new windows, an insulated roof, a bamboo floor, and now, even heat. And yet it remains unfinished.
If you have ever driven around the back roads in Maine, far from the Bush compound in Kennebunk or the L.L. Bean showroom in Freeport, you will see that many of the houses are unfinished. Over the years we have noticed time and again that houses which were built recently, almost never have front steps installed. The people enter through a side door or a garage, but on the front of the house, there is a door, with a drop off of two or three feet to the ground, sometimes with a cement block for access, and sometimes with nothing but air. Andrea and I used to speculate that this was a way to avoid paying real estate taxes on a finished house, thinking an unfinished dwelling would not be assessed the full rate. I suppose an unfinished house, not only saves on taxes, but also allows you to plan on a building project that can take years to complete, and thus not cost you a large sum all at once. The home owner can do it themselves in stages.
My wife has had a long standing fascination with houses. I suppose that is because she comes from a family of contractors; one of whom managed the access project here at First Parish. He is the same brother who rescued us from our bathroom disaster this summer. Andrea and I often spend time walking around looking at houses, sometimes speculating what it would be like to live there, or what we would have done differently. So if you have a building project like a kitchen or a living room, we would be happy to peer in your window, and offer free advice. It is fun looking at houses that are unfinished or are a project in process because they remind us that there are other or more possibilities in life, and that things can change, and even if they change for the worse, like our crooked leaking bathroom, we can usually right what is wrong, even if our life is temporarily ruined.
My own family home growing up was always a work in progress. My parents bought a run down farm house in 1954 in a little country town called New Salem, Massachusetts, which shockingly was the subject of the real estate section of the Globe last Sunday. We had a dirt cellar, and 18th century walls which you could literally see through to the outside, and thus feel the cold air blow in. We ran out of water one winter, when the well went dry, and had to chop holes in the ice. My bedroom was built out of an unheated attic space, as part of a renovation of every room that meant construction projects that seemed to be ongoing at all times. There were always new possibilities of where bathrooms and bedrooms would go, and even a game room, what today we might call a man cave. My parents wanted a country home because I think it symbolized success to them. From working class struggles, they wanted to create a new life that gave their family the best of modern conveniences, and an attractive living space. Yet it seemed like there was always more to do. Sometimes money was tight, and sometimes there wasn’t time to do it ourselves, including my dad sanding floors, and even me, filling cracks and painting. Some rooms remained unfinished. Then when friends came to visit, we would sheepishly show them what would have to wait for now before our family palace was completed.
Perhaps a completed house would seem sterile and dull. Yet every time a septic tank blows apart in Maine I long for one of those condos with the perfectly functioning amenities, granite countertops and all the newest appliances and gadgets. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything breaking down. There would be no leaky roofs or pealing paint. Over the years we have owned property in Maine, I have been anxious about sagging roofs and empty wells. All these leaks and holes and gusty winds are not what we had in mind for the course of our lives, but they reflect more what actually has happened to us than any finished walls or ceiling ever could. Life is always a work in progress. As soon as we think things are settled, a nail pops up from the floor, or the wind blows the rain through a new leak. The gutter is leaking again. It also reminds us that nothing we build with our hands will last; everything is transient. This is so true of our bodies as well. What is leaking or falling off now? What can we do to hold ourselves together? Our bodies, too are a work in progress, and the older we get, the more care it needs to fix what stops working. Of course many of these new condo units we see around town look pretty spiffy, but what about the homes that people cannot keep up? Time, neglect, money, and other priorities all keep us from finishing our houses, but then we move on anyway. Cellar holes reminds us of this inevitable change. Where I grew up, the run down farm we lived on was a survivor. It was built to last for a while, but when we walked through the woods nearby we found many former houses that had been torn down, fallen down or burned down only leaving the foundation that once held the walls that someone called home. The 90th Psalm reminds us how it all passes on: “Teach us how short our time is; Let us know it in the depths of our souls. Show us that all things are transient, As insubstantial as dreams, And that after heaven and earth Have vanished, there is only you.
The transience of our bodies and the homes we build to house our bodies shows that for as long as we live we must always be conjuring up a new vision of the perfect, or that vision of God, that the Psalmist refers to as you. This longing for the new is embodied in practical plans for our houses. Andrea is constantly drawing up new plans for our house in Maine. Will we have an air lock entrance on the rear with solar panels? What about a hot tub? How about an elevator to the beach when I get old? Sometimes I will spy little drawings with squares, and lines for doors and windows. She is at it again. Visioning. Imagining the beautiful. This is about seeing something different from the sameness that is there. The reading from Robert Fulghum tells us that it is pretty easy to become jaded to the world. We may not see new possibilities, but only the falling down house that plagues us with endless anxiety of imagined or real leaks. For him, it is the humbug of Christmas that will soon approach for us as well. Who cares for Black Friday when shopping represents consumerism run amok, and there is nothing we need anyway. How do we prepare ourselves to be open to surprise; to get ready for something new? Fulghum is reluctant to open the door, and what he gets is as ridiculous as the idea of a baby as God; a Santa mask yelling trick or treat. Yet it awakes him from cynicism, and implores him to join the choir of hope and joy. We can’t give up now. We have only begun to build our house.
One of the cardinal principles of Unitarian Universalism is the phrase you heard in our opening hymn today – “Revelation is not sealed.” This is a unique statement of faith because it means, contrary to what all the western religions teach, that we must be open to new truths. For Christianity, Jesus is the savior; the revelation of God’s love has appeared with him, and thus also ends with him. In Islam Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, and the Qu-ran is the word of God, signed, sealed and delivered. There is nothing more to be said about truth, other than what is found in these revelations. In contrast we say that some component of truth is found in many teachings, but there is still more to be revealed in new teachings or in finding new ways to understand old teachings, but fundamentally we must be open to the future, and we create it through living and planning for the new; imagining a world built on justice and love. It is why we keep planning, even as we know our life is transient. Together we construct the holy house in new and deeper ways.
In the book of John, there is a well known passage that is frequently recited at funeral services, especially for those who are traditionally Christian. It is: “In my father’s house are many mansions,” or what the Revised Standard Version translates as many dwelling places. The house is a reference in these services for believers in the afterlife, so there is assurance to the bereaved that people of assorted beliefs and stations in life will dwell there. This passage was especially popular among Universalists because it seems to indicate that God’s world has room for everybody. Not long after this passage, comes another passage in John, where Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life, and so those who are exclusive in their understanding of Christianity, sometimes forgot the universalist message of the house metaphor. As his end was near, Jesus was trying to reassure his disciples that he was still there for them, but moreover for us, as his life and message always points towards inclusion; think again of how his culture hated Samaritans, and yet he tells a story where the despised one is good. The message is still we need to deal with people of other cultures and religious traditions.
The house metaphor is relevant in the context of a documentary we showed here last year called The House I Live in.” This house was a reference to a prison cell, a place where huge numbers of young black men live as a result of the war on drugs that has ruined countless lives with prison sentences all out of proportion to the crime, and has not succeeded in lowering the use of drugs in society. What it has done, Michelle Alexander tells us, is create a new form of systemic discrimination, a new Jim Crow. Much has been written in the past few months about the inequities of the criminal justice system for black Americans. While this sermon asks is us to be open to new surprises, we might also ask who is in line for good surprises, and what can we do to ensure more equal distribution of possibility for everyone, and not just the privileged few. As we celebrate a culture of innovation, who receives the fruits of good surprises in life, and who has no chance at all?
The original idea for this sermon came from a blog written by a colleague of mine, Mary Harrington who died a couple of years ago. She had ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and died much too young. Near the end of her life, she wrote a posting called “Loose Ends” In that blog, she wrote about how she had set goals for herself in life to be a certain kind of wife, mother, or minister. She says once in a while she got something just right. You know, we say the right thing or help someone in just the perfect way, but then the day or week passes, and we, being human, have an argument because we said the wrong thing or we do something wrong, or find ourselves smacked in the teeth because of some twisting winds in this free for all we call life. Nothing gets pinned down for very long. The season changes, or circumstances differ, or people want something more. There is no perfect response that stays with us. And so we keep trying to improve our houses, because we are longing to find a place of peace that we call home, and some days it feels right, but tomorrow a leak will develop, and we have to plan some more or build something new, or try another way. Even as we near the end of our days on earth, we will leave loose ends, she says. Sure we can mend our ways, express our love, offer forgiveness to some of those we love, but time and relationships change, and we cannot fix it all because we never have time to complete it. Yet if the house we have built continues to open its doors to new streams of love, it will be enough. We will carry that love with us, and the incomplete in our lives is that building block for a world made new that we will never see. If we give our love, and we stand up for justice, then our loose end is a rope that will tie a knot with a future where hearts will remain open, and justice will prevail. May we always keep building that house of hope and love.
Closing Words – “Straight Talk from Fox” by Mary Oliver
Listen says fox it is music to run
over the hills to lick
dew from the leaves to nose along
the edges of the ponds to smell the fat
ducks in their bright feathers but
far out, safe in their rafts of
sleep. It is like
music to visit the orchard, to find
the vole sucking the sweet of the apple, or the
rabbit with his fast-beating heart. Death itself
is a music. Nobody has ever come close to
writing it down, awake or in a dream. It cannot
be told. It is flesh and bones
changing shape and with good cause, mercy
is a little child beside such an invention. It is
music to wander the black back roads
outside of town no one awake or wondering
if anything miraculous is ever going to
happen, totally dumb to the fact of every
moment’s miracle. Don’t think I haven’t
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of the grass,
instead of the stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den. What I am, and I know it, is
responsible, joyful, thankful. I would not
give my life for a thousand of yours.