“In the Beginning: George” – Mark W. Harris
October 26, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Walking Toward Morning” by Victoria Safford (adapted)
Every morning we go out blinking into the glare of our freedom, into the wilderness of work and the world, making maps as we go, looking for signs that we’re on the right path. And on some good days we walk right out of our oppressions, those things that press us down from the outside, or (as often) from the inside; we shake off the shackles of fear, prejudice, timidity, closed mindedness, selfishness, self-righteousness, and claim our freedom outright, terrifying as it is – our freedom to be human and humane.
Every morning, every day, we leave our houses, and we decide what we’ll take with us, what we’ll carry: how much integrity, how much truth-telling, how much compassion, how much arrogance, how much anger, how much humor, how much willingness to change and to be changed, to grow and to be grown. How much faith and hope, how much love and gratitude – you pack these with your lunch and medications, your phone and your papers. Every day, we gather what we think we’ll need, pick up what we love and all that we so far believe, put on our history, shoulder our experience and memory, take inventory of our blessings, and we start walking toward morning.
In 1846 Margaret Fuller, the great Transcendentalist writer, published an essay called “The Liberty Bell.” It is based on a German legend concerning knights who took a vow of service to the oppressed in every part of their country. They were so faithful to this vow; they were offered supernatural assistance from on high, that they might multiply their good deeds. In their chapel they hung a bell, and on it were emblazoned the chronicles of their acts of self-denial and purity that imitated Jesus, but also showed their compassion for their fellow creatures. It is said that the sound of the bell itself, was so beautiful and solemn, it was a prayer unto itself. The story goes that if there was an instance of hate or violence that was about to be perpetrated in the land, the member of the order who was closest to the violation would hear that bell in the air, and would be compelled to go there despite the cost to life and limb to prevent this injustice. Fuller said worshippers must ring the sacred bell, and at its sound demand action to avert evils that shame the imagination – slavery in her time – racism, economic injustice, environmental disaster in our own.
Medieval legends of knights who do good reminds me of St. George and the Dragon. Not far from our cottage in Owls Head, Maine is the town of St. George, which sits on the river of the same name that was named by English explorers in the early 1600’s. In the center of town there is a funky statue of St. George slaying the dragon. In the famous story, the beast was preventing villagers from the getting to the water supply, and as a result, maidens were sacrificed to appease this incarnation of the devil himself. George of course slays the dragon and rescues the maiden. A reference to St. George was made by the famous Puritan cleric Cotton Mather when he wrote his ecclesiastical history of New England in 1702. He said, “There was one George who was indeed among the first Saints of New England! And that excellent Man of our Land was Mr. George Philips.”
George Philips is the first among the pantheon of ministers whose names are etched in the plaques on our walls, and you may wonder why Mather considered him a saint. He did not slay any dragons, and thankfully did not by Puritan standards exemplify orthodoxy by hanging any witches, but in fact did things that even we in the 21st century might consider saintly, or at least fundamental to how we envision religious communities should be organized and governed. I am always struck when things endure over time, believing that there must be something of fundamental value that would cause this people, or this institution to remain central to a community. We are far removed in time from the congregation that George Philips served in Boxted, England that he left in the Great Puritan Migration. Yet the building in Boxted where his voice echoed off stone walls, where he dreamed of a new life of religious freedom, where he celebrated life’s passages with families in grief and joy still stands, even as we worship in our eighth building. It is St. Peter’s Church, completed sometime before 1130, and where Philips served as vicar from 1615-1630.
Following his graduation from Cambridge, Philips was settled in Boxted in Essex, a hotbed of Puritan radicalism. Among his parishioners was John Maidstone, a nephew of John Winthrop’s by marriage. Maidstone recommended Philips for passage to America, as he told the future governor that Phillips was highly resolved to go after harassment from the church hierarchy. Once aboard the Arbella, Winthrop reported that they kept a fast aboard the ship, and Phillips led them in exercises, and I don’t mean push ups, giving, Winthrop reported, “very good content to all the company, as he doth in all his exercises, so as we have much cause to bless God for him.”
George left England with his wife and two children, Samuel and Elizabeth. His wife barely survived the voyage, and died soon after their arrival in Salem. She was buried near the Lady Arbella Johnson, for whom the flagship of the fleet was named, another victim of the hardship of the voyage. It is significant that he was honored to be chosen the minister on board the Arbella. He helped gather the Watertown church on July 30, 1630, with his own official starting date of September 1. He was paid with bushels of food and 50 salted fish along with 30 acres of land. Just a few weeks ago, Andrea and I parked in Mt. Auburn Cemetery and went walking on Brattle Street. We turned down Elmwood Street, and both of us saw for the first time James Russell Lowell’s estate, called Elmwood. It is interesting to stroll among these historic houses on Brattle, and I have since learned that Phillips’ first house, where he took his grief and made a home with Samuel and Elizabeth, was built near Elmwood, in what was then Watertown, as was much of the countryside. Soon a second wife, Elizabeth, would join him in 1631, and seven more children, too. He stayed fourteen years in the ministry, dying in 1644, at the age of about 51.
Perhaps by now you have heard enough about the details of Phillips’ life, and wonder what makes this idea of covenant so significant to us. Cotton Mather later wrote that Phillips was better acquainted with the True (that is congregational] Church Discipline, than most of the ministers who came with him into the country.” Why did the Puritans believe in this distinct form of congregational government? Basically, they said it was proscribed in the Bible, and nowhere in the book of Acts or in the letters of Paul could they find any reason to justify a hierarchal system of bishops, or cardinals or popes. Congregations to Puritans were supposed to be reflections of primitive Christian churches, which were small cells of independent believers. This may be confounding to your impression of a free thinking Unitarian Universalist congregation which seems so open and tolerant compared to our Puritan ancestors, but you have to remember that the Puritans mostly agreed on theology, and therefore God, salvation, and sin were not part of this organizational equation, and so their basis for existence became the covenantal relationships, and not a prescribed creed. Coincidently this fits perfectly with the development of our church, as we know it today.
There are particular experiences that Phillips had here in Watertown that helped define us as a congregation since 1630 down to the present. How did the Puritans answer the question of what makes a collection of individuals into a church? They defined a church as a “company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification one of another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.” The Watertown covenant was signed by forty initial settlers (men only), but was probably written by Philips who, speaking for all, acknowledges their gratitude to God, for helping them escape “out of the pollutions of the world,” and consequently they “promise and enter into a sure covenant with the Lord our God . . . forsaking all evil ways . . .to do him faithful service . . . in all matters concerning our reformation. and in the carriage of ourselves among ourselves and toward one another.” This is the edited version of what you will find on the wall to the left when you exit the sanctuary door on your way to the conference room. But the general idea sounds similar to other covenants – we walk together respectfully, we worship together reverently, under the watchful eye of God, or today we might say in response to the larger whole or oneness we celebrate as a unified religious body.
There are stories that helped define this way of being in covenant. Richard Brown was a leading elder in our church in the 1630’s. He already had a reputation as a separatist because he had ferried heretics across the Thames in London to help them escape from the authorities. Brown ran into trouble when he declared that the Church of Rome was a true church. This was a blasphemous thing for a Puritan to say, because while acknowledging that the church was corrupt, he also was saying that it was a legitimate faith. Some of Phillips ideas were published in a pamphlet after his death, and not surprisingly, he sounded like his heretical parishioner. He argued that all churches are true churches even though they are corrupted with error and sinful practices, but only Christ, can come and unchurch them. No church, he said, could be a mother church unto others, but all are sister churches. So he was saying that no church exists above this local assembly. Every church, Philips believed, was “competent to act alone.”
This local autonomy became crucial to the idea of the church and its covenant. We alone have the authority to determine our covenant – it is both empowering and daunting, because it means it’s all on us. Together we must be Fuller’s Order of Liberators who will ring the bell, and while we can act in concert with other congregations, they can’t tell us what to do. While we learn that there is some measure of power in local authority, we can also see that that power can only be realized if we each have a voice, and are heard. In the case of Richard Brown a delegation from Boston came to Watertown to investigate what he was saying about true churches, ostensibly to punish him. In the discussion of whether the Boston church could render a decision on what to do with elder Brown, the Watertown church said you can sit with us and offer advice as a neighboring congregation, but you are not in any way going to render a decision. So when the court said Brown should be dismissed as an elder because he was in error, the church said you have no authority over us. Eventually Brown was dismissed but it was done for behavioral reasons, not doctrinal reasons. It was not a matter of judging him for saying the wrong or incorrect thing, but the offensive manner in which he said it. His “violent spirit” towards other people was considered unchristian.
So the church that was built upon covenant or upon the quality of the relationships among it members, agreed to love and help its members, as long as they acted with an understanding spirit . It listened to others views, but it was not going to tolerate unchristian behavior in the presentation of those views. The members could differ, but they couldn’t be mean. But who was ready to subscribe and continue to follow the covenant? The final aspect of Philip’s true congregationalism was the voting power of the people to determine the ministerial direction, and the makeup of the membership. The calling of a minister for a congregation, Philips said, was not “the bishops ordination,” but the calling that occurs when the people “implicitly chuse him.” The democratic voice is first heard. This also implied not only to a minister who was called up from among the people, but also anyone who was deemed eligible to be a member. Are you fit to enter this covenant? In Puritan times this was based on a judgment of whether or not you had had a saving experience. But for us the idea is whether or not you are willing to take responsibility to contribute to the whole.
Some of this is a matter of personal integrity. I am in the process of reading a new book in manuscript form. It is the story of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the South during the civil rights era. In Nashville, students from Vanderbilt were meeting at a newly formed fellowship in the early 1950’s. It turned out that there was verbal agreement between the members of the executive committee of the church that if a “Negro” should wish to become a member, or worship with them, he would be informed his (or her) presence was not wanted. Some of this racism was founded upon the customs and traditions of segregated churches in a segregated society, but it also was founded upon fear of others attacking the church or its membership if they included people of color among the congregation. The by laws, or what we might consider the equivalent of a covenant indicated that membership was open to everyone and that one of the purposes of the congregation was to affirm “brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed.” So there was a chasm between espoused values and lived values. The leaders claimed that they had not agreed to excluding “Negroes,” but did say that “Negro” members would inhibit growth, “You can break laws,” they said, “but you can’t violate customs without paying the penalty.” The covenant of the church called them to live up to a vision of brotherhood (we might add sisterhood, too), and we know some who had the courage to do this, and others who did not. The call is to live in love despite what we may have learned from families or communities or societies that are racist, classist or sexist. We don’t merely help one another and accept one another for who we are, but we also challenge each other to shake off the shackles, Victoria Safford says, of fear, prejudice and timidity. We reject the veneer of society and reclaim our souls.
Carl Scovel says the church is not the building, but it is the gathering of its people. He then goes on to remind us of the story of David, where he is going to build up the temple to glorify God, and God reminds David that the real glory is in the lineage of the people who carry on the word, who continue to live out the covenant, who agree to be together in all the less than perfect ways that humans are together. Our deepest values are not necessarily reflected in the buildings we raise, but in the behavior of the people who populate them. I grew up in a little congregational church that sits on a country road in the town of New Salem. The building was erected in 1807. It was a Christian congregation that I was driven from mostly because of its fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures. What I liked best about it was the warm acceptance of the people. They were a motley crew of rich and poor, saints and sinners, alcoholics and adulterers, mill workers and mothers. Sometimes in churches I have seen people judged for the friends they love, or the clothes they wear. That was not the case here. People were loved for who they were, but moreover for whom they were struggling to be. The powerful thing about being there, which is why I came to love church, was that it exemplified a community life that was full of rough rocks grinding together until they are made smooth. Covenant allows for the imperfection that is human nature. It assumes failure, like trying to achieve brotherhood and sisterhood and falling short, but unlike a contract which demands tit for tat, a covenant remains in place, even if we can’t live up to it. Our affirmation says love is the spirit of this church, and we should help one another. We don’t always do that, or we only love people we like. We know as a consequence we are not always fully responsive to our covenant. But it still demands that we begin again in love.
The covenant in New Salem broke down for me because although I could be less than perfect as a person, what I believed had to be perfect, a gospel truth. In a sense my faith was broken and confused. I had doubts. I had questions, and they couldn’t support me in that journey, When I think of living in covenant today in a Unitarian Universalist community, I usually do not worry about perfect beliefs. But I sometimes ask myself, are we following that covenant to live together in love, and to help one another emotionally and spiritually, because so many of us assume we are the helpers, who care for others, and we don’t recognize our own imperfection. Liberals need to remember the challenge of the covenant to be accountable to each other, so that love and help works both ways, so that we are both givers and receivers. Love your neighbor as yourself recognizes that the covenant calls us to extend our heart even to those we don’t like very much, but it also says extend your love to yourself, so you also see the anger and fear and sadness in yourself, and you love yourself even when you have caused pain, and rather than neglecting that hurt you caused, you go back to the covenant and try again. Is there a bell of liberation ringing for us that we need to hear? The earliest idea of covenant was that it was a binding document of love and care, but it was also a spiritual challenge that we return to when we fall short, that “puts us in mind of our mutual duty” to help each other, to listen respectfully to each other, to give everyone a voice, and finally to remember our mutual call of responsibility to the larger whole that is embodied in the word God or in all our fellow creatures and this great green earth. Covenant in community places demands upon us. What are the demands of love, and do we have the courage to continue to listen to the bell that would take us on a journey down a deeper more challenging path of the soul?
Closing Words –
(Covenant from Brattleboro, VT)
We build our church on a foundation of love and covenant with one another.
To freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength,
To accept responsibility for our individual acts and promote justice and peace,
To celebrate the joys of discovery, embracing the fullest measure of our humanity,
To communicate with kindness and support,
To serve with compassion and commitment,
To openly share our laughter and tears and,
To show reverence for the divine in all that it is.