“On Becoming a Liberal”  – Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – March 10, 2013


 Call to Worship – from Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed 


True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes, which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, . . .  to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”

Reading – from When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson




When the great astronomer Galileo was making his first telescope and discovering things like moons orbiting Jupiter, he soon began to realize that he could not freely describe his new scientific discoveries in his correspondence.  This was because he knew the Inquisition in Italy would soon be knocking on his door, and could potentially prosecute him for heresy, and even execute him, as they had done with Giordano Bruno in 1600.  As a result he began to encode all talk of his discoveries in his letters. He had to essentially put the truth into riddles, so only certain people knew what he was talking about. He even sent a letter to Kepler about the phases of Venus that was written in cipher ending with the word Oy!, but there is no evidence that Kepler replied Vey!  While few of us have the experience of having an Inquisition in pursuit of us, many of us do have experiences where we are unwilling or unable to talk about something directly.  There are serious situations of confidentiality, but for most of us it more commonly occurs when we have to say something in front of young children that we don’t want them to hear.  For example, when you, your spouse and your kids drive by an ice cream parlor and you think it might be an opportunity for an excursion, but have to secretly confirm this with your spouse, you may spell out I-C-E C-R-E-A-M.  If you are not paying attention, after a while you come to realize that your children have learned how to read, and know exactly what you are trying to convey in code.  They see through you. Churches historically have sometimes treated the need for money in this way.  How can we talk about the need for money without talking about money?  This has often resulted in the beat around the bush approach.  When I was young, my dentist used to speak to his dental assistant in French, and as an adolescent I figured they were plotting sexual liaisons, but perhaps they were simply saying we’re going to drill this kid’s mouth until he screams.  We just don’t know unless we speak directly and forthrightly.  So today, we will do a little direct drilling and avoid the need for Oy Vey!

The other day, in anticipation of her Minns Lecture on children’s literature and Unitarian Universalism, Andrea asked me what my favorite Beatrix Potter story was when I was a child.  I knew it was about one of the characters that was imprisoned, but then escapes, and recognized the title after I looked online.  My favorite was Squirrel Nutkin.  In the story Squirrel Nutkin, his brother and many cousins sail to Owl Island on little rafts they have made from twigs, using their tails as sails.  When they arrive they offer the resident owl, Old Mr. Brown, a gift, three tasty mice, and ask his permission to do their nut collecting on his island. Nutkin however, is kind of a naughty little squirrel, and dances about cajoling Brown, singing a silly riddle. Old Brown pays no attention at first but permits the squirrels to go about their work. But this continues every day for six days. The squirrels make their offering, like tasty fish or moles, and then receive the wonderful gift of nuts in return.  This will, of course, help them survive the coming winter. Despite the hard work and commitment of the group, Nutkin continues to taunt the owl with a steady barrage of silly riddles.  Old Brown who has shown great patience, finally reaches a breaking point, seizes Nutkin, and tries to skin him alive. Nutkin escapes, but loses his tail in the process. Ever after he always becomes furious whenever anyone asks him a riddle.  What is interesting about the story is that after we hear the riddles, some of the answers are in the descriptions of Nutkin’s actions, while others are not given at all.  For example : Old Mr. B! riddle-me-ree
Flour of England, fruit of Spain,
Met together in a shower of rain;
Put in a bag tied round with a string,
If you tell me this riddle, I’ll give you a ring!  The answer happens to be plum pudding.  But you might never get that by reading the book.  You would have to be in the know.

Let’s consider the implication of this story with respect to your annual pledge or offering to the church.  Nutkin, because he does not give an offering or show respect for Brown ends up without a tail, which in the story is the part of him that gives him the ability to sail across to the island where he will receive the sustenance that will get him through the long hard winter of life.  Now he will never sail again. He shows his impertinence by talking in riddles, when he could have participated like the rest of his family with the straight talk of making an offering and receiving the nourishment he needs.  It is no joke that we need each other, and need spiritual inspiration from the community so we can together build a faith that provides meaning in our lives. Religious communities need straight talk, not only about money, but in discovering transformative ways for people to relate to one another, and so we would come to be truthful with each other and not deceptive, open and not coy, understanding and not judgmental, living with  integrity, and not by appearances  No riddles. Today we are hear to solve the riddle of giving to First Parish.

When I hear the word Riddler, all I can think of is the actor Frank Gorshin dancing in front of Batman, much like Nutkin danced in front of Old Brown.  To not be direct with you about the need for your pledges would be a crime.  My all time favorite riddle is this one: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening. Answer: a person or humans. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx sat outside of Thebes and asked this riddle of all travelers who passed by. If the traveler failed to solve the riddle, then the Sphinx killed him/her. And if the traveler answered the riddle correctly, then the Sphinx would destroy herself.  Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx destroyed herself.  Morning, noon, and night are metaphors for the times in a person’s life. They are also representative of what an active church needs in terms of its membership.  We need children who we nurture in the faith, who walk or sail partly based on the values we impart to them, partly through the example of the lives we live.  We need adults in the prime of life who will build the mission of the church for our day, and support the institution with their time, energy, skills and money giving it a vital program.  We also need adults who are moving into the twilight of life.  They are the elders to whom we owe a tremendous debt.  We need them to give us the passwords to the future. We will sustain this place in their memories. Perhaps they will want to remember the church in their wills for the indebtedness they feel to the community.

During the past year, I have had a series of conversations with a man who happened to come by this church in 1975. He discovered that the stained glass windows were about to be destroyed as the old Gothic 1842 church building was torn down around them.  He received permission to remove the windows, and did so, storing them in a warehouse for 35 years, until he had a chance conversation with our own Will Twombly.  Whether we will ever see those windows returned to the church, or if we do, if we will restore them, remains a question for another day.  What I remember most in my conversation with him was his descriptions of the people, the members of FPW – sitting in the old pews weeping at the loss of their old church, the place where they were dedicated, or married, or where their mother was buried from. They were taking little artifacts, like you see scattered around the church – a piece of the clock in my office, chairs here and there, pictures and the like.  They are pieces of our past that help us remember our history.  It is a glorious heritage partly reflected in the history and in the income we receive from the endowment.  More pertinent to our discussion today though is the tears of those members who probably believed they were losing their church.  A small remnant was moving to this buildng, and I’ll wager that more than one of them thought it was the beginning of the end.  Well, my friends it was the end of the beginning.  There was a renaissance here because you would not quit.  You knew that a liberal presence needed to be here, a liberal voice needed to be heard in Watertown.  And you made it happen in an exciting growing way – with an amazing music program, a beautiful renovated sanctuary, a commitment to religious education and to ministry, and as you most often say, to a loving, caring community.  You made that commitment in a new liberal vision for the future.  That liberal vision is made up of three components.

Two of those components are probably self-evident.  When I say liberal what does it mean to you?  (Democrat, progressive, humanitarian)  Our first response might be a political liberal.  We think of a liberal as someone who supports programs that take care of all the people, support greater human rights, maybe advocates for peace.  Now, some of that progressive streak is alive in our faith because we support the creation of just and equitable communities.  Many of us are liberals politically, but in fact it would fit the definition of our liberal religion better if we had some conservatives, too.  So what does liberal mean in religion?  For many of us it means choice, or it means freedom or non-creedal.  It means we are open to the future, and open to different understandings of God and faith development.  We want a variety of religious perspectives to be welcome under one umbrella of faith, many lights streaming through one window.  In fact if you were exclusive or narrow in your approach to faith, then you probably should not call yourself liberal in religion.  Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion, in fact the most liberal.

However, if we only have two legs of liberalism, then we probably cannot build a strong institutional liberal faith community. We have the quest for a just society where everyone is equal and taken care of, and we love the free faith that is open to many unfolding truth whencesoever it may come. But we would still be lacking that final leg of the stool that would hold us upright. That final leg is liberal giving.  In her essay “Open Wide Thy Hand,” Marilynne Robinson suggests a relationship between Moses and the origins of American Liberalism.  Some of this comes through the heritage of the Puritans and John Calvin.  What about the use of the word liberal in the Bible?  You can bet your bottom dollar, no pun intended, that liberal in politics and liberal in religion do not appear in the Bible. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Ellery Channing had not yet been born into the human race.  In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15 the laws of what will make for the conduct of a holy people are laid out. In verse 7, people are exhorted that if there is a poor person living among you, in your land, you cannot harden your heart towards him or her, but you must open your hand to them. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give.”  Then it speaks of indentured servants, who when they leave your service, you are to furnish them liberally from your flock.    The use of the word liberal in the Bible is a reflection that you are noble and generous.  In Proverbs 11 it says: “One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.  A liberal man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” Your generosity will come back to you in what you receive. The blessing is upon the person who gives, and the curse on the one who does not.  And it is also according to ability, for in – Deuteronomy 15 – If you cannot pay, then you offer up yourself in labor.  It is not only in cash, but also in what you can do to build up the church. So the question of the day is, do you want to become a liberal in all ways?

In our reading Marilynne Robinson reflects on Calvin and the Geneva Bible. Calvin says that in Isaiah 32 the writer calls for a nonexclusive generosity. “The nigarde shall no more be called liberal.”  I would guess the word niggardly is not used much anymore because we might think it has racist origins.  But in fact it is older than the term Negro, which means black in Spanish. It is Scandinavian in origin, and of course means miserly.  It is the opposite of liberal, as Isaiah points out.  Calvin is trying to create a culture of generosity, and the Puritans realized this in appropriating the message of the Hebrew scripture about liberality in giving. Liberal givers create the greatest religious communities. However, he says, that if we think that a liberal do gooder advances him or herself and becomes great and gets God’s reward, we are mistaken. It is not a feeble flame of one time giving, a flickering flaming chalice if you will, but rather it is an eternal flame. Nor is it a giving to advance the self.  It is a giving to keep the beloved community afloat and sailing.  Squirrel Nutkin lost his ability to be a vital part of creating the community because he wouldn’t speak straight, and he wouldn’t make an offering. You must keep giving. In straight talk we need you to be liberal in giving to uphold the community of faith going forward. We are called not to momentary giving but to a lifetime of generosity.  It is the whole course of our life.  Despite its origin in Calvin, it fits our liberal scheme of religious salvation, too.  We are forever giving; because our goal is that our entire span of life is a growing journeying into faith, and not a sudden, instant salvation of swallowing a single truth. Our whole life should be a generous devotion to that which is holy and true.

The liberal stereotype of Calvin, Robinson says, is that the agonized person gives out of guilt. But the goal should be joy in the creation of the beloved community. We have seen that the word liberal means different things in different contexts. I admit I am a liberal on two counts, and suggest that the third count, liberal as a synonym for generous, would be a worthy goal of life for all of us. Our UU Service committee has launched a recent campaign to protect the right of restaurant workers.  Many of my reflections on generosity occur after a restaurant meal.  I, perhaps like you, ask, how much am I going to tip?  There is a justice approach which says they don’t receive much pay or have benefits.  There is a religious approach that all these different workers and cultures reflect the oneness I believe under girds our world.  And there is an honest appraisal of myself, how generous am I going to be?  Is it a minimal amount? Is it a strict percentage, or is it a reflection of all I have received from this experience – the labor, the love, the company I have kept.  Now I have a son who is in the restaurant business, so the devotion runs even deeper.  No one should exceed his or her means. And giving should reflect the gifts we receive or the loyalty we feel, but ultimately giving is about love.  None of us believe in the judgment seat that Calvin spoke of, and yet each of us must reflect upon the worth of our lives, and more particularly where we assign worth in our lives, as reflected through the uses of our money. When I was growing up, the King James Version of the Bible translated love as charity.  So the famous passage from I Corinthians said “Charity is  kind. . . I am nothing without charity.” Giving to someone in need or giving to an institution that needs your support is love.  Think of it that way.  Show your love for First Parish when you pledge today. I think historically the idea was that God bestows the gift of life.  What will you give back to enable our religious work to be done in the world?  The idea was you would give to serve God’s work in the world – helping the needy, not serving false Gods, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick,  teaching the young, fighting for justice, building a beloved community. “Open thy hand wide” in charity, and in love that there would be a community of memory and hope for ourselves and our posterity.


 Closing Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson “Compensation.” 
You must pay at last your own debt. If you are wise you will dread a prosperity, which only loads you with more. Benefit is the end of nature. But for every benefit, which you receive, a tax is levied. He is great who confers the most benefits. He is base — and that is the one base thing in the universe – to receive favors and render none. In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.  Beware of too much good staying in your hand. It will fast corrupt and worm worms. Pay it away quickly in some sort.




Mindful of these joys and sorrows, and that every joy is multiplied and every sorrow diminished when we share them with one another, let us join hearts in meditation.


Each day is full

Full of many measures of living,

Living in community with others

Others who tell us stories, who make us smile, and make us laugh,

Laugh until we cry,

Cry in frustration, cry in loneliness, cry together about life’s pain,

Pain that we cannot say all that we wish,

Wish that we could say more,

More about how much we care,

Care about each other, and this community, this world, and want each and all to know relief from their pain and some measure of joy,

Joy at the morning light and the evening stars,

Stars that stretch beyond our seeing and knowing,

Knowing that together in this vast universe home, there is comfort in being together in this moment, we are alright, now and here,

Here together in longing for connection,

Connection to each other now,

Now making each day full.