“Collector of Moments” by Mark Harris – May 27, 2007

“Collector of Moments” by Mark Harris

First Parish of Watertown – May 27, 2007

(Sermon will be given in a revised version at the ordination of Ron Hersom in Albuquerque, New Mexico on June 10, 2007)

Opening Words from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

Reading – “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign, 
Sails the unshadowed main, 
The venturous bark that flings 
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings 
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings, 
And coral reefs lie bare, 
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl; 
Wrecked is the ship of pearl! 
And every chambered cell, 
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell, 
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell, 
Before thee lies revealed, 
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil 
That spread his lustrous coil; 
Still, as the spiral grew, 
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new, 
Stole with soft steps its shining archway through, 
Built up its idle door, 
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee, 
Child of the wandering sea, 
Cast from her lap, forlorn! 
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born 
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn! 
While on mine ear it rings, 
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, 
As the swift seasons roll! 
Leave thy low-vaulted past! 
Let each new temple, nobler than the last, 
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, 
Till thou at length art free, 
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
Sermon – Collector of Moments

Someone asked me for help this year, and I said yes. I think the other clergy in town either dismissed the plea because the caller was not one of theirs, or they felt they were too busy to bother. But I said yes. It turned out that the caller was about my age, although upon meeting her she seemed much older; worn by life. She clearly had difficulty ambulating. I soon learned that the health department in our community was taking her to court to make her clean up her property. Neighbors had complained about the debris which cluttered her lawn. The inside of her house was just as cluttered as the outside. Piles and piles of papers and books. Boxes and bags made the doors and windows seemingly bulge with artifacts. It turned out that saying yes was not really much help. Sure we could make a small dent in the piles of wood and furniture, windows and rakes, and even the ten or so old bicycles in various stages of rusty disrepair. The trash collectors would take some. But there was so much more that she might need, she said. And the idea of hiring a dumpster to simply clean it up was out of the question. I didn’t gain much satisfaction from speaking with her social worker, or with the town health department who really wanted to evict her. It is not a story that will have a happy ending. The parishioners of ours who helped were merely putting their fingers in a large dike that soon would burst.

The person I was trying to help is a hoarder. Without dwelling on the psychosis of this problem, I want to ask the more basic question of what hoarding represents. It means we keep everything. Some people do put a kind of environmental spin on this problem that these people are saving everything for another use, and therefore are not creating increased trash problems, although it often turns out that their property becomes a kind of dump. Perhaps the more pertinent issue is that hoarders keep everything because they cannot decipher between what is useful or important now or in the near future, and what will never be useful. They cannot discern what to keep, and what to throw away. Some people say yes to everything that passes before their eyes. If the minister says yes to everyone who asks for help, it shows no power of discernment. Does a minister always help because he or she should help? This may have been an instance where my help was no help at all. Its a “New England disease,” the inability to throw anything away. You never know when you might need this bolt, this screw, this door, or that old crib that sits in the basement. So we save everything. The annual church rummage sale is always an interesting exercise in junk management. Someone how we are all able to clean out our basements on an annual basis, year after year. Then it seems even after we have given all that we have collected to the church, we go back and buy up everyone else’s junk so that we have have enough to unload it again next year. Some people think of it as a kind of recycling, but it is also scary to contemplate how much stuff each of us has.

Hoarding is a metaphor for what we each must cope with in our lives today. It reminds us of what kind of society we live in, and how difficult it is for each of us to not to overwhelmed but to be able to lift up what is important and meaningful in our lives, and name it and celebrate it. This is what churches and ministers are called to do. Martin Buber, the great theologian tells the story of some students who were shirking their study of the Talmud by playing checkers, when the rabbi walked in on them. They tried to return to their books, but the rabbi smiled letting them know that they should not be embarrassed. The rabbi also taught that truth should be discerned wherever they find it, and so he asked if they knew the three rules of the game. They thought they knew what they were doing, but were afraid of appearing too bold in front of the rabbi. So the rabbi rehearsed the rules of checkers. “First, one must not make two moves at once. Second, one may move only forward, not backward. And third, when you reach the back row, you may move wherever you like. This is what the Torah teaches, and then he walked out.” At first the students were perplexed, but then they discerned the truth from this teaching. We are always moving all over the place, and we clutter up our lives with schedules and things, but wisdom comes from making one move at a time. We should also be clear about who we are and what we want and never look back with regret or longing for what was or might have been; wisdom comes from moving forward. Finally, we become truly free when we reach the last row, and become servants of others. Wisdom comes in the freedom to pass on all that you have and are so that life and love may continue for those who follow.

Most of us would agree that a wedding is a major event in the life of a person. It is a ceremony that symbolizes a lifetime commitment to another person. I recently had the wonderful experience of conducting a wedding for a 25 year old woman whom I dedicated as an infant 24 years ago. Even more significant is that I also conducted the wedding for her parents, and welcomed them as members into the first church I served. The parents had not seen me since I left town. I was moved, especially by the husband’s response because it was clear that upon hearing my voice he was reliving that initial commitment he had made so long ago. Although the hair was whiter and the waist wider, I felt like I was able to give them the gift of meaning and renewal by reliving the moment that had launched them on what turned out to be a long, loving, but, like any marriage, not easy journey. After the rehearsal dinner, the big guy who had been in the welding business all these years turned to me, and said, “give me a hug.” Contrast this, if you will with what weddings have often come to represent. Newsweek magazine recently reported that weddings are no longer meaningful events, but instead are shopping extravaganzas. The meaning is found in the purchase of disconnected items all to make for a more opulent event, but none of the individual purchases add up to any unified significance. The article concluded that the ordeal of buying and planning was so demanding that the effort alone must make it mean something.

What this means in today’s culture is that we, like the hoarders, have a hard time discerning where meaning is to be found. One solution is to make the narration of the everyday meaningful. This was portrayed in Jim Carrey’s movie The Truman Show where Truman is unaware that his entire life is a hugely popular 24-hour-a-day TV series. In this real-time documentary, every moment of Truman’s existence is captured by concealed cameras and telecast to a giant global audience. This is like the narration of the details of our lives over the phone, or their depiction on YouTube. Perhaps we feel like if we narrate everything there will be something of meaning in there, but of course, it simply becomes harder to discern. The other solution is to make everything important and everyone champions. I noticed this when my older son was growing up and he received a trophy simply for participating in soccer and baseball year after year while I remembered never receiving a trophy in my entire athletic career. While it is important to affirm our children, one wonders if they will lose the capacity to make judgments about what is important and worthy of making note of. The other day my neighbor was going to see his granddaughter in a school musical rendition of the Three Little Pigs. He filmed it, and then after filming it he made five copies for every member of the family. The next thing would be selling copies to every single parent. Perhaps this was a singularly important event in first grade, but it made we wonder if there is a tendency among us to make a trophy moment out of everything, because we are unable to pick out where meaning really lies. Yet if we are always champions and every drawing our child makes is another Picasso in the making then we have failed to discern the significance or beauty or achievement of anybody or anything.

More than a century and half ago Unitarians and Universalists began to have grave moral concerns about slavery. Most of our congregations today occasionally give voice to the words of one of our abolitionist forebears, James Russell Lowell in the hymn that has been revised to say, “Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Now I am not suggesting that DVDs of the Three Little Pigs is a mortal sin, but I am saying that churches and ministers play a role in society in helpful us all to discern the true from the false, good religion from bad religion, and cultural influences that are are going to heal or destroy our hearts and souls. It has become popular these days, perhaps in response to a fear of fundamentalism, to see religion being bashed in popular books. One would believe that everything evil in the world emanates from religion and its dogmatic truths. While we Unitarian Universalists have occasionally been guilty of religion bashing, we should also acknowledge that we will always need religion. This is precisely because it is that part of life where we try to make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live. If there is meaning to be discovered, it must be found in religious explorations. Thus if people are hoarding, if people are narrating, if people are filming without editing, making moral choices without discernment or critical faculty, then there is a gigantic hole for us to fill. This is the challenge of the church and its ministry. We are called to celebrate in story and worship, in symbolic rites and ceremony, life’s important events and thus, its fundamental meaning.

Ministers and churches are products of their cultures, but by their very being they are called to help people make choices within that culture so that their lives becomes a deeper celebration of all that is sacred. When our friends from England were visiting here, they used to complain all the time about the number of choices in the supermarkets. They were overwhelmed with the 18 different kinds of everything from tomato sauce to toothpaste. Once limited by what was available we all know that we can eat food from everywhere at any time. As is true of every other product on the market we can have what we want when we want it. Now many of us are asking about the moral implications of this. In her new book Barbara Kingsolver describes how her family tried eating only local and fresh produce for a year. What moral choices do we make? What about plastic bags that seemingly reproduce in the thousands? It may be wonderful to have strawberries in January, but what are the environmental costs? Are we killing ourselves and our planet to have everything all the time? What if we had to wait to pick them off the bushes in July as we do every summer in Maine? Think too of the religious implications if we have this one moment in time with those delicious red berries, then it became a kind of transcendent moment when we can celebrate that amazing taste. We sit with our berries, and we savor them. The church and its ministry is calling us to serve the source of life itself, and so we make deeply reflective, morally challenging decisions about food and cars and other possessions because we want to heal our planet, and ourselves and we want to be able to pay attention to what makes us feel good and healthy and free of encumbrances that heretofore have made it exceedingly hard to find meaning at all.

The Chambered Nautilus by Unitarian poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of the great nature poems of the nineteenth century. The mollusk as it develops and learns from life spirals into a larger and larger shell. Holmes writes, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,  As the swift seasons roll!  Leave thy low-vaulted past!  Let each new temple, nobler than the last,  Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,  Till thou at length art free. . . “ The sea creature’s development is a metaphor for our soul. The church marks those moments of spiral or of significance in each of our lives, and it is up to the ministry to call forth the meaning of those moments in each child dedication, coming of age, marriage, and memorial. If the culture urges us to hoard moments by rushing on to whatever is next, or hoard things by buying the latest or the best, the ministry of the church must be present, gently reminding the soul to take time to remember this moment, live deeply into this moment, experience its full joy or grief, and then perhaps ritualize its significance with a ceremony of recognition. The ministry must be collectors of moments, and observers and celebrators of all of life’s significant spirals, thus marking our days with the meaning found in our relationships with each other in community. We not only pay attention to those moments, but we must be able to transition through them, even if we are made frail or wrecked, like the nautilus. The nautilus closes off its old chambers, and spirals again. We become larger selves, as we learn to grow to become more closely aligned with that life force which calls us to move forward into greater loving, becoming more aware of the sacredness of all life.

Finally, there must be a vision of who we yet hope to be. In the checker game if we manage to play so that we are making one move at a time, and we are moving forward, how do we achieve freedom? Holmes’ poem is frequently used for memorial services as a metaphor for growing a soul, or expanding our horizons until we enter the freedom of the afterlife, where any good ghost hunter would say we are free to move just about anywhere. Most of us who play checkers love that final stage of the game because we get to say to our opponents, “king me.” They then have to place another checker on top of the one who has reached the other side, signifying that this piece is now different, somehow transformed to move everywhere. Today we will close with the words of Wendell Berry, who in “The Larger Circle” reminds us as the living generation that we must collect the meaning of the past, find what is most vital in it, and hand on the meaning we have found to those who follow. Our hands are joined in the larger circle of life and community, and we must collect its meaning in the experiences we have with each other. It is difficult to construct that new spiral of meaning as we move toward freedom, but as the church and its ministry we must listen intently for those moments of the joy of togetherness, of the pain of separation, and collect them for expression – here is the love we hold in this moment together. It is only a tiny fragment of all the love the universe possess, but we remind people that the universe was created from it, and we each have it, and together we can hand that spark, that fragment on to another. And that is enough.

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers, whose hands are joined in a dance.
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no one hears it
Except in fragments.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.