“Mechanical Me” by Mark W. Harris – October 25, 2009

“Mechanical Me” by Mark W. Harris

October 25, 2009 –First Parish of Watertown, MA

Call to Worship – from Edward Hays (adapted)

O sacred season of autumn, be my teacher,
For I wish to learn the virtue of contentment.
As I gaze upon your full colored beauty,
Help me to rest in your amber riches.

You are the season of retirement,
Of full barns and harvested fields.
The cycle of growth has ceased,
And the busy work of giving life
Is now completed.
I sense in you no regrets; you’ve lived a full life.

I live in a society that is ever restless.
Always eager for more mountains to climb,
Seeking happiness through more and more possessions. . .
I am seldom at peace with what I have.
Teach me to take stock of what I have given and received,
May I know that it is enough,
That my striving can cease in the abundance of the world’s gifts.
May I know the contentment that allows my energy to come to full flower, that I use both what is close at hand, and less taxing on the resources of earth.

As you, O Autumn, take pleasure in your great bounty,
Let me also take delight in the abundance of the simple things in life, and find contentment in this autumn day.

Reading – “Masks” by Lynn Ungar

What will you wear for Halloween?
The trees are changing faces, and the
Rough chins of chestnut burrs
grimace and break to show their
sleek brown centers. The hills
have lost their mask of green and grain,
settled into a firmer geometry
of uncolored line and curve.

Which face will you say is true –
the luminous trees or the branches underneath?
The green husks of walnuts, the shell within,
or the nut curled intimately inside,
sheltered like a brain within its casing?

Be careful with what you know,
with what you think you see.
Moment by moment faces shift,
masks uplift and fall again, repainted
to a different scene. It means
the cynics say, there is no truth,
no constant to give order to the great equation

Meanwhile, the trees, leaf by leaf,
Are telling stories inevitably true:
Green. Gold. Vermillion. Brown.
The lace of veins remaining
as each cell returns to soil.


Andrea’s father used to refer to himself as a car. That could lead to some major role confusion. In any case, he used to refer to the shower as the car wash, where he would be cleansed of all the grease and grime that accumulated on his body from being on the road. Then he talked about the hospital as the body shop where he would go in order to be repaired when he broke down.. When he went to the doctor for a checkup, yes, you guessed it, it became a tune up for his body, the machine. I have known other men who used this same metaphor. Some of the ones I have known would eat and drink whatever they wanted, avoid exercise and sleep, and expect they would stay healthy forever, and if they did become sick, the assumption was the doctor could repair this machine they inhabited. Few of them took care of the gift they had been given very well. Rather than a temple, they treated their body more like a engine that could be worked ceaselessly until it broke down, and then they assumed any malfunction or broken part could be fixed.

Now we are used to hip replacements and mechanical hearts and the like. After I had my ankle repaired in the wake of being hit by the ocean wave many years ago, Andrea used to refer to it as my bionic ankle. This has been a recurring theme in the movies and literature. Those of us who were fans of Star Wars were relieved and grateful that Darth Vader still contained an inch of humanity in his otherwise mechanical body, and was able to feel his love for his son Luke, and destroy the evil emperor. Recently my boys wanted us to take them to see the movie “9,” which it turns out is a grim little picture about nine robots created from the soul of a scientist, who had helped create the ultimate destructive device that had brought on Armageddon. These 9 are the remnants of human compassion that remains on earth. Many of you have probably seen “Wall-E,” a wonderful film about a little robot who collects garbage in a waste covered earth that looks like Armageddon as a result of mass consumerism. Wall-E falls in love with another robot named Eve, and eventually brings a little green back to a world that has been completely standardized and mechanized, as we see people with serious physical neglect of their bodies; there is no muscle left, and they plainly suffer from terrible bone loss. Wall-E follows Eve into outer space on an adventure that transforms the future.

Most of us who are in this sanctuary today know that we have to transform the future, too. Our Green Sanctuary program has the intent of educating us about the dangers of global warming, but also leading us into news ways of living in harmony with the earth. It is not always easy to change our ways of doing things in our daily lives. Years ago I used paper towels for every conceivable household chore, always dried my clothes in a dryer, and left on every light in the house. I grew up in a house where the thermostat was always set at 72 degrees. Slowly I began to use rags for cleanups, turn out lights in my house, and bought a clothes line for the parsonage. But it is easy to fall back into old ways. Gathering a wet wash, carrying it outside and hanging it requires perseverance and commitment. I remember my mother trying to cope with frozen sheets in winter. We need to remind ourselves constantly that the use of less fossil fuels and less electricity will help reduce our carbon footprint, and ensure a future for our children. It is a big task. There are things we can change about the ways we consume, and the ways we live.

What inspired this topic today cuts at the heart of my faith because it emanated from the denominational forms that our student minister has to fill out to prove his worthiness to the UUA ministerial fellowship committee. It is a lot of little boxes that need to be filled in. He needed an outlined plan to predict how he would spend every hour of the week, what he would do in those hours, and the resources he would use to learn all that he needed to learn so that he could then check off the little box that he was now an accomplished minister. It made ministry, that profession that in theory should be built upon relationships between people, and how they together can create a more humane, loving world where people take care of each other, into a defined set of knowable facts that the student could glean from the minister and congregation, his informational resources. It was all very bureaucratized and standardized, while at the same time the denomination was calling for multicultural diversity and more spiritual disciplines, things that you would think would make us reach out to others more. I felt there was a disconnect between making a minister proving his worth by fulfilling a systematic arrangement of defined knowledge with the desire for spiritual depth. The systemic void was that the exacting standards and forms lacked any heart. It was the mechanical minister come to life.

The mechanical me was right out of the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Woodman. You may remember from the movie, that he was a former human who the wicked witch had cast a spell upon, and made into a machine. He was the juxtaposition to the scarecrow who needed a brain. The tin man needed a heart. He also needed constant oiling in order to keep his parts in working order. His friends had to take care of him or he would rust. One of the best parts of the film for me is when he is saying goodbye to Dorothy, and she says, Oh, don’t cry! You’ll rust so dreadfully. Here’s your oil can. He responds: “Now I know I’ve got a heart, ’cause it’s breaking.” His breaking heart, of course, comes from the love he feels for Dorothy, not from any mechanical clock that counts the ticking in his chest.

My concern that came from those ministerial forms is that current obsession with the mechanization of truth with measured results leaves us with no heart, or actual relationships become secondary. You may remember that in the movement known as the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin envisioned a God who was like a machine. In fact, he was a clock maker who set the world in motion, and then left it to run on its own. Thinking of life as mechanical has been a theme throughout our history, but it has also been a target of our fears. Historian Jill Lepore makes this relevant in a recent issue of the New Yorker, where she writes about scientific management, which became another name for efficiency in the last century. She says it started as a way to improve the ways in which we work, but it has somehow become a way of life for us. If we have everything organized and standardized and placed into the boxes of correct information, then everything will function like clock work, and we will see results. We must see results. In our time starved culture, Lepore suggests that many of us have made ourselves into these managed machines. We manage our children’s lives with schedules, and we give them standardized tests to prove that they meet the correct educational standards. We are perfectly scheduled to multitask and waste no motions in proving our effectiveness as efficient human beings. The sad thing about all this efficiency is in that the last two decades of the 20th century we added a whole extra month’s time of work. We are exhausted from our competitiveness. We are exhausted from our over scheduled, over worked lives. We are the machine whose relationships suffer, and we end up feeling like we have no heart.

Exhaust might be the word that characterizes this dilemma. We are exhausted because in the rhythms of life we give ourselves no chance to rest from our labors. Going back to hanging out clothes to dry might help with this process because we would not always throw them into the efficient little machine, but would green up our laundry, and perhaps even enlist a child or spouse to help us, and have a conversation in the midst of it all. The standard forms assume that there is this private little cachet of knowledge, and if Duffy meets all those standards then he will become just the right kind of minister. Yet congregations vary, needs vary, people are multicultural, and will be increasingly so. So wouldn’t we want less boxes, and more relationships to fit the variety of needs we have? Our Unitarian Universalist faith is built on the belief that trying to convey one universal truth that can be applied to everyone is erroneous. This is why the exclusive nature of Christianity was left behind with other dogmas, so that we could see that true faith emanates from how we treat one another, and what kind of loving communities we create in our midst.

Truth, as Parker Palmer says, is what happens between us, and not merely from what I convey to you. It is a conversation. We must be alarmed that all of the machines operated by us have polluted the world. It is exhaust that causes ecological dread. We need new applications of machines to help us save the world from ecological disaster, but we also have to be cautious that we are not literally buying into a green consumerism. We also need to remember that we are not machines that need to be driven harder and faster so that we are exhausted. We have not been ecological with ourselves. I cannot convey to Duffy the truth about ministry so he can check it off in the box. Ministry and church are not results driven. He will find the truth about his ministry and ours in dialogue with, in what kind of person he is in relationship with others. Our climate initiative is not meant for you to prove how green you are in competition with others. We all must do the best we can, not in isolation, but in a dialogue of support and helpfulness. How can we together make a difference? Now is the time for us to take time to walk more, hang out clothes more, garden more, and come back to heal the earth. Now is also the time to walk more, hang out clothes more, and garden more with each other that we might heal ourselves.

Closing Words – from Wendell Berry
Within the circles of our lives
We dance the circle of the years,
the circle of the seasons
within the circles of the years,
the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles of our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.

Again, again we come and go,
changed, changing. Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy. The circles turn,
each giving into each, into all.
Only music keeps us here,

Each by all the others held.
In the hold of hands and eyes
We turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.

And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone
into the darker circles of return.