“How Did We Get Here?” by Mark W. Harris
May 18, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Mary Harrington
In the full beauty of the day
We come to this place to savor life’s riches.
In the full light of day
Keenly aware of all the hard edges we face
and struggle to cope with,
May we give ourselves to this hour of consolation and peace.
In the fullness of this company
Let us join together to better endure
the rough strife of our days,
Surrounded by stories of brokenness and courage,
kindness and healing.
Come into this time and place where all of what you bring is
welcome. Where you may lay down your burdens and celebrate all
the good gifts of life.
Reading – from Dakota by Kathleen Norris
Sermon – “How Did We Get Here?” Mark W. Harris
Today my sermon is on the exciting topic of the endowment. The Trustees of First Parish have charged me with inspiring you with the wonders of learning about our First Parish invested funds. Now before you flock for the exits, you may find this is not so boring after all. As we age all of us become more and more concerned about the size of our personal savings. Will we flourish, starve or just squeak by in retirement? Then there is the fun task of estimating how long we will live. So just think of these personal questions writ large, and they might seem intriguing. Second, before you say that endowments are not an appropriate subject for a Sunday morning, I want to tell you that in the 1920’s Jesus was seen not as the radical zealot, or even the milquetoast nice guy, but rather the greatest business man the world has ever known. In a 1925 bestseller, advertising executive, Bruce Barton, called him The Man Nobody Knows. He saw Jesus as the “founder of modern business.” He had tremendous success as an executive.
Think how much business he would have brought in with the PR of the water to wine trick, or raising Lazarus from the dead. . Although Barton didn’t write about it, these disciples were more than fishers of men, they probably speculated in fish futures, too. They appeared poor, but they were probably socking it all away in the Jerusalem stock exchange.
Now that you know that endowments are an exciting and appropriate topic, I want to say more about where our endowments come from. This is the equally exciting topic of the separation of church and state. I know you all want to hear what a coercive and oppressive institution a state church was and still is. Plus you will be happy to learn that First Parish was an arm of this oppressive system for the first two hundred years of its existence. But we’ve changed! Those Puritan ancestors of ours established a state church, whereby you could not start a town until you had gathered a church, called a minister, and moreover created the means for supporting that church and minister. Ministers were not paid out of pledges, but rather out of tax money. Furthermore, there was no dissent from being Puritan. We were called The Church in Watertown for a reason. We were the only shop in town. It’s normally referred to as a monopoly, and unlike the game pieces at Star Market, you could not tell the cashier, I am not playing. Everybody played. Right from the beginning Puritans, fought with Quakers, Baptists, Universalists and others as the dissenters battled for the right to support their own religious institutions. But the real coup for First Parish membership growth came with those townspeople who wanted to have no affiliation. Being a None, or no affiliations was not an option. Not a Baptist or a Methodist, you were a Congregationalist. Turns out those First Parishes thought they had a lot more members than they actually did.
In a few minutes I am going to say more about the three funds that make up the endowment of First Parish – they are the Ministerial Fund, the Perpetuity Fund, and the Helen Robinson Wright Charitable Fund. But first, I want to go back to our basic question of how did we get here. For some this may sound like the means by which you traveled to church – by foot, or car, or bicycle. Each of us comes to First Parish with a different story, not only the basic transportation we used, but moreover the story of our religious heritage – Unitarian Universalist, Catholic, Jewish, or none at all. Many of us came with a positive experience of church, and others perhaps more typically were disgruntled or hurt, and others still have no prior understanding and are seeking some spiritual community that offers freedom, friendship and understanding. Others arrived here with children in tow who they want to provide religious orientation to for dealing with life’s eternal questions and personal challenges. They may seek community for they feel alone and unsupported. They may want to make a difference in the world, ponder life’s mysteries on a spiritual journey, or be with others so that together we can learn to live in love. How we got here is many different stories, but here we weave those stories together in the creation of a religious community.
We also learn once we get here that we are also going some place, and indeed have already been some place, even long before we came. In our case, very long. And so we have a history of many events and traditions, of successes and failures, of life. And we know that something held the community together. They had enough common interests. Perhaps it was fear of monarchy, or love of God, or desire to build a new, more participatory commonwealth or later fear of a rigid belief in creeds or dream to affirm a variety of approaches to faith, or even later against war, or even finally ten years ago when the equal marriage they believed in and fought for became legal in the land of the Puritans. Maybe there was something about freedom to love and freedom to believe that became part of the tradition of this religious community. But their traditions and their interests did not always lead to unity. Sometimes they had differences; and those were listened to at certain times, and others not so much. Sometimes people left angry when they felt their faith in justice, in how those endowments should be invested in anti-oppressive ways, was not listened to. The community was stronger when those differences were heard, and even stronger still when they were allowed to exist, and then found ways, like Kathleen Norris suggests in the reading, for some to protest, and others to offer material support and still others, those opposed, to pray, but still could be together in community, and plan a future. And, things change, at First Parish those endowments are now invested in socially responsible ways.
I am directionally challenged, or easily become lost. When I visit a mall or historic site, and they have those maps that show you the layout of where the various stores or monuments are, there is a large arrow that points to the spot where you are standing marked – “You are here.” Usually I have to orient myself in the exact direction of the arrow to figure out where I am in space, and know which way to go. Our story of the bag of gold represents this dilemma of which way to go. Shakti sees the poor man, and her heart goes out to him to help. Siva knows that physically he could drop a bag of gold for the man to use, but that psychically, the man is not yet ready to receive the gold because he has more immediate needs to fill. In his haste to fill his stomach, he sees the bag of gold as a rock and goes around it. We see that in each and every stumbling block there is a lesson of great value. Sometimes we don’t see the bag of gold that is right in front of us. We may take a person for granted because they are always there. We may forget the gold that is supporting us in our labors. Sometimes we are not ready to see the gold. The teacher who made us work so hard is called mean and harsh, and yet in retrospect we are thankful because they taught us to try harder every day to get better at what we do, or to learn more. We don’t always see the bag of gold, but sometimes when time goes by, or we gain some wisdom in life, or circumstances change, then the bag of gold becomes apparent to us.
An endowment is literally a bag of gold, but there is also a polarity of values with an endowment. It is not a gravy train of money for a church to live off of, it but can be a millstone, too, if it is used to guarantee the present rather than plan for the future. Take that first endowment, the Ministerial Fund. Watertown as a community appropriated lands and estates to create a Ministerial Fund in 1812. This existed to help the town provide permanent support for a minister. Following the separation of church and state in Massachusetts in 1833, two significant events took place in Watertown. In 1836 there was the erection of a new meetinghouse next door where the bank is, because the old meetinghouse on Common Street could no longer be a town wide church. Prior to that, also in 1836, the Parish Records pointed out “many of the inhabitants had withdrawn from the original Religious society and joined themselves to other Parishes.” They said this made it difficult to conduct the business of the original Religious society in public Town meeting, thus necessitating the change. Can you imagine the Baptists voting to buy a new stove for the Unitarians? Let ‘em freeze. It was then resolved by state law that what was now a separate society should legally receive sole and exclusive benefit from the Ministerial Fund. Thus, the annual income from those funds was to be applied to the support of the minister of the Parish, as it once did for the minister of the Town.
This marked a shift of values in Massachusetts. While we would assume that a state church is coercive and oppressive by nature because it forces people to belong and thus defies freedom of religion, and it gives an unfair advantage to one religion over another, there is also an undergirding assumption about the nature of society that the state church and the ministerial funds represent. While Unitarian Universalists today are among to the first to affirm freedom in the expression of faith, the state church acknowledges that we live in a moral universe, and that everyone should learn certain values of character, participate in the community, and offer concern for the greater good that is reflected by creating a moral society. We sometimes associate Unitarianism with individual salvation because freedom of belief is encouraged, but in fact the liberals were concerned that the orthodox based religion on having the exact correct belief about what was true, and that individuals had experiences of saving grace that set them apart from others reflecting their dogmatic beliefs. On the other hand liberals said there should be no tests of faith based in belief, but that there should be the creation of a good society, and that a state church, unencumbered by creed, looking remarkably like a Unitarian church, was the best way to ensure morality and justice and equality.
So our first endowment fund came from the town, and was created with the idea of fostering a moral universe. The congregation itself created the second endowment fund in 1919. This was the Permanent General Expense fund, which was to be funded by voluntary contributions and by bequests from individuals. This was a permanent investment fund to ensure the perpetuity or permanence of the church. While the first fund suggested support for leadership of the institution, this second one implied ongoing support of the church. I am not sure why this was done at this time. Was it the distress of World War I, or the ongoing influenza epidemic that made life seem insecure and unstable. Perhaps this congregation was saying we want to create a more permanent stamp on our religious values. Ten years later in 1929, Trustees for the Perpetuity Fund were first named with the funds transferred by the Treasurer from the regular accounts of the church, six months before the crash. This second fund was created to sustain the church, and ensure the future. Trinitarians these days that are squeamish about saying Father, Son and Holy Ghost, often refer to the Trinity as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. One could name our endowments in the same fashion. The first reflects why we were created as a religious community in the first place, to give meaning and structure to community life. The second was to sustain that vision in an institutional form. Finally the third endowment points us toward what will redeem us as a people.
I want to say a word about endowments before I get to that third fund. Years ago when this congregation was much smaller than it is now, a large proportion of the annual budget came from the endowments, and members pledged very little to the support of the support. In the last generation we have substantially increased annual giving to maintain the living church, while making steps to ensure the longtime survival and growth of the endowment funds, which still provide a fair income to our annual budget. I know by experience that congregations that either rely on their endowments or spend down their endowments are good candidates for extinction. The living life of the congregation, or its health in the present, must come from the living members. Depending upon historic funds or dead members who gave to the institution in the past means there is probably not much excitement in the congregation today. Just as a congregation must balance between the differences of opinion in its membership, and not expect everyone to be the same, so there are marked polarities between the traditions of the past, and the need to adapt to the present, so that together we can face the future.
Most any congregation that you participate in will have certain traditions. It may be couched in different ways, but sooner or later someone will say or imply, this is the way we do things around here. Sometimes this seems like entrenched traditions that cannot be changed come hell or high water. We always have a church fair. We must have a late Christmas Eve service. We cannot give up our historic church building.
Being a historian no one is more cognizant of upholding tradition than me. I believe in carrying forward our long heritage of hope and faith that has dignified and upheld the human venture over many centuries. Yet sometimes the universe tilts and we need to accept change. People are not coming to the fair anymore, or showing up at the late service. Their needs and wants have changed. We are too small to support two buildings. For our faith to survive and prosper we must adapt, and change in order to grow. Now we have two services on Christmas Eve, a service auction, and a building we love that is our home. But it all can change again. What matters is that the community gathers together for worship and rites of passage, that we rejoice together at social events, and finally that we reflect upon serious issues of injustice.
This brings us to that third endowment, the Wright Fund, which is not used at all for the ongoing life of the church, or even to ensure its future. In a way it harkens back to the first endowment, which came from the town. The Wright fund, as most of you know, is a charitable fund, which came from one particular member. She gave her house, which was eventually sold to establish this fund to help people in need that suffer from poverty or hunger or cold. The ministerial fund implies that everyone should strive to be better people, but the Wright Fund says that we have an obligation to each other. Ministry is really about the quality of relationships between us, and invites us to take care of each other especially when we are hurting in some way. The religious impulse is about standing up for human dignity and showing compassion to others. The Wright fund says you have an obligation to notice each other’s humanness by being humane. This is the fund that redeems us. So the three endowments offer the creating, the sustaining, and the redeeming. They are the basis for how we can make the divine come alive in Watertown.
Endowments are something we often believe that churches depend upon when they cannot support themselves. That’s a bad way to think about them. While we celebrate our history and our traditions, we may offer up the way we do things around here. It is our task to tell new members where we have come from. And so today on the timeline, I want you to record what stories you know. It is up to you to be the conveyors of our faith traditions to those who walk through our doors. That history of memory and hope becomes ours to live, and we must support it through our annual gifts. Once it was taxes, and later it was the sale of pews, and now it is our pledges. We are the present
We speak and live the highest and best we know, but we also live with the knowledge that it is never as deep, or as wide or a high as we wish. We prepare the way for those who follow. And that is what endowments are for. We give forward so that we what we love will be here for others. The heating system is like that. Most of us will only know its benefits for a short time, but we create a lasting system to carry our religious home forward into the days we will not see. Our trustees have recently instituted a program for planned giving, and the brochure we have available today, and the dinner tonight are meant to inform you about the whys and wherefores of planned giving. We want you to think about giving not to the living church, but to the future church that you will never know, but will be handed on to your children, and the other children who follow because we believe this community and this faith are so worthy and so beautiful and loving they should last, even another 384 more years worth. We want to know that some day there will still be a faith community where there is a meeting of hearts that will summon all to their better selves, because they are united in faith as their wounds begin healing and their muscles grow strong for the task of building the church of tomorrow.
Romero Prayer – credited to Archbishop Oscar Romero, adapted.
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the realm of justice and peace always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one-day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Closing Words – from the Talmud
You are not expected to complete the task.
Neither are you permitted to lay it down.