“Mom Said So”  by Mark W. Harris

 May 8, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

Call to Worship  – from A. Powell Davies

Here we are – all of us – all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny, living our lives between the briefness of the daylight and the dark. Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!

Responsive Reading 

Mother’s Day Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe #573

The First Mother’s Day proclaimed in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe 
was a passionate demand for disarmament and peace.

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,

And each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar but of God.

Reading –  from Circling My Mother: A Memoir by Mary Gordon

Sermon –  “Mom Said So”   Mark W. Harris

            Where do you derive your authority? What gives you the knowledge, the nerve, the hutzpah to say what you believe and mean it?  You might say it is what you have learned from your life experiences, from your education, or from your religion.  Traditionally, Unitarians and Universalists drew their authority from scriptures, which as Protestant Christians was seen as the word of God.   But we expanded our life truths beyond religious scriptures to such things as our understanding of the natural world.  So how do we come to say, I know this to be true.  Some fundamentalists might say God said it, and I believe it.  While most of us have learned some wisdom from a variety of scriptures, we also quote reliable news sources like NPR or trusted friends and college professors whom we know to be learned and respected.  Despite the fact that teenagers, three of whom I happen to live with 24/7, tend to not take their parents as authorities on anything except the old fashioned and outdated, and seemingly quote their friends as the ultimate authority on all things under the sun from movies to music to nuclear power plants, we sometimes forget that for most of us, our first and most enduring source of authority was our mother.

            I know that even though I went through those rebellious years myself, Mom was the supreme authority on what was true about the world, and how I should move through it.  She was the moral lightning rod. If Mom said so, it must be true.  I think many of  us still carry that sense of personal wisdom and trust and relational understanding that came from our mothers, even if some of those truisms turned out to be not so true.  This came up the other day when we were eating soup at home, and Andrea responded to my having a bay leaf on my soup spoon with the words, “Don’t worry, it is not going to poison you. “  And so it is my entire life I have unswervingly believed, based on Mom’s good authority, that I could not eat a bay leaf. As a child I pictured myself gagging and swooning.  It was an effective warning with someone like me, like hearing the word of God.   I suppose this is true of many other adages that we might refer to as old wives tales.  Sure there were things like breaking a mirror causing seven years bad luck that were only half believed, but there were others, some of which seemed to be ways to encourage good nutrition, and so we had mantras like an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and eating carrots improves your eyesight.  Thinking of Bugs Bunny chomping down, I would say back to her, I’m no bunny.  Plus I got the glasses anyway.  So how much we could trust these sayings as truth began to fade,  Still, whenever I eat a watermelon, even to this day, I try to avoid the seeds, remembering mom saying that if I  ate one, a watermelon would grow inside of me. 

            Of course Mom’s influence was much deeper than these little phrases that seemingly stick in our minds forever.  Mom was our sounding board for decision making in moral dilemmas.  She was the authority on maintaining personal cleanliness and manners, so she would coach us in how to chew so that we didn’t sound like a starving snorting pig.  She was the one who sat down with us and helped with homework, or had ideas for projects so that we could expand our minds and find the sources of our own authority.  She was the one who told us that we had a responsibility to work hard and do well, but also to help others so that each and every person had a fair chance to succeed at whatever they wanted to do.  She was the one who inspired us and helped us dream about a better tomorrow.  Some Moms fulfilled these roles better than others, and sometimes it was both our parents guiding us to help see and understand what authorities would guide our lives. In their fuel oil business I saw both my parents teach what it meant to help others when they gave oil to families with no money who were cold.

            Our parents also had their own sources of authority for understanding the meaning of life and moving through the world.  Two of these were depicted in our reading today from Mary Gordon’s memoir, Circling My Mother.  These two, the boss and the priest, may seem anachronistic with how we view them today. As Gordon says, we may imagine the boss as greedy or ineffectual, but Gordon’s mother sees her boss as being a partner for he truly sees her worth in the world.   Yet his office décor certainly exhibits traditional characteristics of authority, with that picture of a judging prig who is displeased with individual efforts and says “that work simply is unacceptable, do it again.” Yet Gordon’s mother is pleased with the personal autonomy, respect and money she is given, unusual in her day.  She also adores priests, which is again generally not a symbol of authority that garners much respect in our day.  Even if we grew up respecting the office, most of us have become embittered or angered by lies, cover-ups and disturbing behavior seen in the revelations of hundreds of pedophiles undermining the Catholic church, and any moral authority it once had.  She read the priest’s sermons, and finds in them an assertion of the ultimate authority of the church on what is true. “Catholicism gives an answer to every question that burns in the souls of men.”  Now there’s an authority you don’t have to doubt or question, since it provides answers to everything.  But Gordon is left to wonder, “Father, could you tell me exactly how this is done?”

            Gordon’s memoir reminds us that there once was a day when people automatically paid deference to symbols of authority or trusted those in positions of power.  We believed the mother, or the priest or the President was telling the truth 

simply because they said so.  This has to do with what my colleague Mike Schuler, has called positional authority.  You may remember the incident in 1981 when President Reagan was shot.  Al Haig, was then second in the line of command, and famously blurted out at a press conference,  “I am in charge.”  We laughed at the time, but it was representational of the authority that we vest in people by virtue of their position within an organization or family.  We have always given people power according to their rank – kings and lords had it, and we gave it to doctors and professors.  I sometimes laugh when certain students insist on calling me Professor Harris or here at church we might say Rev. Harris as a way to signify that those with these titles deserve some kind of deference or respect.  Some of these traditional lines of authority have been superseded by a more personal approach.  I can see this in my own career. 

            Growing up in an era where many of these parameters for authority were rejected because of doubt and mistrust and a longing for individual freedom, I always asked parishioners to refer to me as Mark.  Now I see a trend where clergy use the first name, but want the title reinstated. So I would be known as Rev. Mark.  This may partly be a reaction to the need for some kind of authority to be exerted if an institution or family is going to be operated in an effective manner.  We have all witnessed the reassertion of authority in many religious movements all over the world, and while we may believe the church is losing authority in America,  the success of certain fundamentalist or evangelical groups belies that trend.  Authority will be exerted, and if we leave a vacuum, then it will be filled, perhaps by a demagogue, who wants to control everything. Positional authority is even exerted in a unit such as a family.  How many of us have heard the child complain about the arbitrary authority imposed on them by a parent when they are told to go to bed?  “Why?” they say,  “I’m not tired”  And then the parent may well respond, “because I said so.  I make the rules.” For some, this may become more negotiable, especially as the child becomes older. Children are often given more say these days, but a problem arises if there is a vacuum of authority, because the child can easily fill it.     

            Traditional positional authority has deteriorated for all kinds of reasons – the spread of democracy, corruption in office, and the growth of individual knowledge and freedom. A second kind of authority that is sometimes invoked is not so much position as convention. We see this quite a bit these days in the way political groups like the Tea Party worship the U. S. Constitution.  Even though they often confuse the Declaration for the Constitution, and don’t actually know what either says, they believe in this kind of overarching authority that can and does supersede the personal.  For instance, we have corrupt priests, but the sacrament, the wafer and wine, are still thought to bring salvation.  Even though we have corrupt politicians, we have an ethos of freedom and democracy that many believe will hold the nefarious in check. There can be tensions between competing kinds of authority.  We have seen that most readily in Unitarian Universalism with science and religion.  Traditionally, people have held up sacred scriptures as having ultimate authority as final and true, but science holds no final truth, and is a continuing exploration and testing of truths.  How do we balance these two authorities has been a question liberal religion has explored since its founding days.

             A third kind of authority is found in the personal.  One sees this in some of the mania around the royal wedding.  Charles, despite his royal position, has never won the hearts and minds of the people.  His son, whether by virtue of his own personality, being the son of Diana, or by marrying Kate, a commoner who charmed some by virtue of her position of being one of us, does have the personal authority.  I had lunch with a friend who related this personal authority back to the Queen.  If you saw the movie, The King’s Speech, you know that it was Elizabeth, as a little girl who stood on that balcony before the people with her family as her father assumed the throne. She was the child of that perilous era, when a nation survived the blitz of London, and the ensuing war or what Churchill called, England’s finest hour, and provides a personal connection to that time.  What kind of personal authority do any of us gain by the way we live our lives or conduct the office?  Sometimes a figure like the Dalai Lama, holds a degree of authority by virtue of his inherited position, but we know he has more authority than the mere position because he is a charismatic, loving and peaceful soul who attracts our admiration and praise.  We are all drawn to certain kinds of individuals who win us over with their charisma, their knowledge, their integrity, or their infectious enthusiasm for what they want to do.

            We also know that personal authority can be dangerous.  We can all think of demagogues who only want to accrue power and influence for themselves.  Preachers have often won the heart and minds of followers by playing on their fears and needs by promising love and healing and salvation for their broken souls.  Their smooth voice and manner becomes a balm to a spiritual need. Are there personal authorities you follow?  Is there a guru or philosopher or political leader whose manner or lifestyle makes him or her an authority for you? Do you swear by the writings of Bill McKibbin because his assessment of the environmental problems and potential solutions seem accurate.  We could all ponder those individuals who possess personal authority for us, and demand some of our allegiance.

            I would like to spend the final few minutes thinking about some of the kinds of authority that might be relevant for us, especially in the context of our congregational life.  Authority is not typically a subject that Unitarian Universalists embrace with glee. Historically, ministers have not been given much positional authority.  Under congregational polity, ministers, while professionally trained, are often given no greater voice or power than anyone in the congregation.  We are grounded in a democratic structure where we elect our officers and make our own decisions, not by virtue of any one position, but by hearing the opinions and concerns of all the people.  This is underscored by the second type of authority, convention, because it appears we have none.  Scripture is taken as a worthy source of spiritual inspiration and knowledge, but it is hardly held up as an infallible, or even a sacred text any more than other source of knowledge or truth.  In belief we are non creedal, and so the closest thing we may have to a convention to follow is the affirmation we recite every Sunday.. It may be a method of how we relate to one another, but it is hardly reflective of a normative belief for everyone.  Nor would we want it to be.

            So if we have no one who demands much positional authority, and no normative convention, does that leave only the personal form of authority?  With personal we normally think of one person who exerts some kind of leadership quality that inspires us to give him/her authority over the institution.  I think this sometimes happens in our congregations when we have a particularly charismatic minister, or even a strong lay leader who by virtue of time, energy, commitment and dedication  may exert a certain degree of authority.  What we never want to do though is turn a congregation into someone’s own narcissistic project.  If liberals are afraid to exert authority for fear of hierarchal or manipulative control, and yet know that authority must be enacted in order for the institutional to function well, then what do we do?  I would suggest that we must depend upon personal authority, but that it must be a personal authority that is dispersed to everyone, including the minister.  We exert this kind of authority by the power inherent in the quality of our relationships.

            What was it that gave our moms the kind of authority they had in our lives?  Certainly with all of our parents there is a necessary amount of positional authority, but what is perhaps central to the authority is the personal relationship. I trusted her because she supported me in all things, but she also called me to be my best self.  Sometimes a parent may use a more authoritarian model, and use personal power to try to mold the child into being what they desire.  One of the great gifts of my own mother was that she encouraged me to develop the things in my life that I loved.  She had no expectations that I had to be a certain way  or do a certain thing, except that I be a good person.  I want to underscore this in terms of the kind of authority we UUs often talk about.  Typically we would say that the final authority in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is the individual seeker. You must use your life experience, your knowledge, your relationships, your understanding of religious traditions to draw your own conclusions about what is valid religious authority.   In that context we encourage our members to respect one another and listen to one another at all times.  But I fear we do not gain a balanced understanding of religious authority if we simply stop and say you are the authority in freedom to explore whatever path you wish, and we will support you in that.  My mom gave me the freedom, too, but she also inspired me with her life. And, most of all, she encouraged me to be a good person.  

One way positional, conventional and personal authority break down is when they violate our trust.  We lose faith when those institutions or people we believe in lie, cheat or steal from us. This is why the depth and quality of personal relationships are so important to Unitarian Universalists in their understanding of authority.  The authority is not merely the individual seeker in freedom, but the individual in community being called to be their best self. What does that mean in practice? I think it means we try our hardest to engage each other in the decisions we consider making, and have conversations where members give input.  It means we try to know each other, and make opportunities to hear the longings we all have to make life more meaningful.  It means we care for each other, and respond when we know there is a need.  It means we develop a vision for the kind of world we want to contribute to, and we share that concern for justice with others.   One thing to consider about the seriousness of religious authority is how much it demands of you as a person. The Ten Commandments, for instance, have endured because they demand something of the individual believer.  My mother taught me about something called conscience, which in every act, and in every situation I am in, she said, consider what is the right thing – Do you tell the truth? Do you speak to the child who needs guidance? Are you there for others?   And your authority is that network of relationships, that trust that is possible when we call each other to be our best selves.  As Emerson once said, “Trust men (and women), and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”



Closing Words


“Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.