“Paying It Forward” by Mark W Harris
April 24, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – “The Possible Lives” by Ted Kooser
There were once so many I might choose among,
like a warehouse of coats and shoes, and all my size.
Walking the streets I imagined myself in every house,
happy with whichever woman might be living there.
How might it be to be at home among the odours
of a hundred different lives, opening the curtains
each morning to a different view? Now I know
that this life I have is the only one I have ever had
or will ever be given, a cord of braided dreams
that I follow, hand over hand, into the distance.
Reading – “A Miracle in Baghdad.”
It was midday when an elderly traveler entered the Jewish quarter of Baghdad. The marketplace was empty, but. he saw a grand building and determined that it must be the synagogue. He entered its courtyard and sat down to rest and have lunch. He soon became aware of a commotion from within the sanctuary. He looked inside, and saw hundreds of Jews fervently chanting Psalms amidst tears and sobs.
“What has happened?” he asked of the first Jew whose attention he could grasp. The man said the Sultan had decreed that the Jewish people of Baghdad must produce a leader who could perform miracles as Moses had done. If they would not produce such a miracle-maker, the Jews would be expelled from Baghdad.
The wise traveler approached yet more Jews, until he had finally pieced together the entire story: The Sultan’s chief advisor, Mustafa’s mission was to destroy the Jews, or at least to have them banished from Baghdad. He had convinced the Sultan that the Jews were not only infidels for denying the prophet Mohammed, but that they were thieves and liars as well. At first the Sultan was hesitant to believe Mustafa; however, the Sultan was told about what had happened when the Jews left Egypt and what Moses did to Pharaoh. He began to worry that perhaps one of the Jewish leaders of Baghdad would attack him with plagues. Therefore, he issued a decree that the Jews had to produce a leader like Moses, or leave Baghdad immediately.
The wise, elderly traveler sat in contemplation for several moments, and then approached one of the rabbis at the front of the synagogue and whispered in his ear. Soon all the leaders of the community were talking quietly, and then suddenly there was a loud clap on the lectern, and one of them spoke. “This man who is visiting our town says that he has a plan. He will travel to the Sultan immediately to try and save us. If he is successful, we will rejoice. However, if he fails, he will tell the Sultan that he acted alone.”
The man headed for the palace, pounded on the entrance gate, and said, “I am a Jew who can do miracles, and I demand to see the Sultan immediately.” Before long, he found himself face to face with the ruler of Baghdad. “So,” said the Sultan, “You claim you can do miracles like Moses. What can you do?”
Dozens of people, from the baker and the court jester to the royal guards and advisors, stared at the old man with the white beard and piercing eyes. “If you would be so kind,” said he, “I will perform a miracle akin to those which Moses himself did. Before your very eyes, I will cut off a man’s head with a sword, and then put him back together and make him live!”
The Sultan smiled nervously and glanced around, not knowing what to think or make of the situation. Perhaps the fellow was completely crazy. Or perhaps he was telling the truth. After all, he seemed extremely confident, and spoke with such conviction. What if he was telling the truth? If he doubted him, then who knows what kind of wrath would be unleashed on the Sultan and his kingdom.
He continued, “There is but one condition. The man whose head I cut off must be truly wise. In fact, he must be the wisest man in the realm. If not, his head will not properly reattach.”
Intrigued, the Sultan decided he must see for himself if the Jew was telling the truth. He looked around the room until his eyes fell on Mustafa, his chief advisor and the wisest man in the kingdom. Before the Sultan said a word, Mustafa cried out, “No, he is lying! He is an impostor! He can’t really cut someone’s head off and reattach it.” “That might be true,” said the Sultan, “but what if he is telling the truth and we don’t accommodate him? Surely you don’t want to put the whole kingdom at risk! Afer all, were you not the one who had advised me to expel the Jews, lest we be put in danger?”
“Bring the sword immediately,” cried the Sultan. “Mustafa has volunteered!” With that, Mustafa began to tremble and yelled out, “No, I admit it. I was both wrong and very foolish. The Jewish people do not have extraordinary powers!” Mustafa ran out of the palace, never to be seen again. The Sultan annulled the decree, thanked the Jew for coming, and said that the Jews were welcome to live in Baghdad as long as they desired.
The man returned to the synagogue to share the good news. Immediately, there was unbelievable rejoicing, and a banquet was held in honor of the miracle. Then quietly and quickly, the old man slipped out and left the town before anyone could even get his name. Some people say that he was Elijah the Prophet. Some say he was a great mystic. Yet others believe that he was just a Jew who simply cared about others as much as he did about himself.
Sermon – “Paying it Forward”
Do you believe in ghosts? For many of us this question falls into the category of beliefs that test the boundaries of reason. Some of us would say there is no such thing as a spirit world, and others would say that it is plausible, because things do indeed go bump in the night, and a few more would say, maybe. We might also say, show me the evidence; and so we have tried to communicate with spirits through séances and ouija boards, or else taken pictures or felt a cold breeze in a room. I think whether we believe in ghosts or not we associate the idea with something that is scary. Ghosts that inhabit the natural world seem to be those who have unresolved issues. Perhaps they committed a murder, and they are hanging around in order to have the living souls forgive them, or maybe the ghost is the victim, and they seek some kind of reconciliation or justice with the perpetrators named or even the deed symbolically purged by the descendants. One of the scariest moments of my life was when I was about 10 or 11, and my brother and his high school friends were trying to communicate one rainy Saturday night with a friend who had died in a car accident. After they were instructed by the ouija board to go to the local cemetery, they invited me to go along. Once we were there we looked for a particular grave. As we staggered in the dark towards the inner reaches of the hilly, headstone strewn site, we suddenly saw this apparition rising above one particular stone. I cannot to this day tell you if the grave had a statue of Mary that was shrouded in rain soaked fog, or if there was an actual ghost rising from the grave. All I know is that my heart leaped into my throat, and simultaneously we all raced for the car, and drove away quicker than you can say “ghostbusters.”
Today marks the 386th annual meeting of the First Parish of Watertown. That is time enough to accumulate many ghosts from the past. I told you a few weeks ago about when my boys bolted from Canterbury Cathedral, as the guide described the murder of Thomas a Becket. But even if churches are not the scenes of gruesome events, they were once the preferred burial site for loved ones because it literally located their bodies closer to the house of God, and perhaps gave quicker access to that spiritual world beyond. This is our eighth meetinghouse since 1630, and there is no looming graveyard nearby. Yet there are memories of those who have gone before. In this space, I can look out on the congregation and see kindly Harold Bejcek in his suit ready with a welcoming smile for all. I can see cantankerous old Marguerite Jones holding forth on a throne chair instructing her minions to plant their marigolds in a measured circle on the front lawn, near where I scattered her ashes a few years ago. Each one loved, our own Martha and Mary now gone, and even Patty, our cigarette smoking pianist, who made many a man quake in his shoes.
Every church has its ghosts, whether you believe they are still present literally or not. They are all a part of the story that makes the First Parish what it is today. In the opening words Ted Kooser writes about his own life, but it made me think of our lives as a community of souls when he calls up the image of the cord of braided dreams that I follow, hand over hand, into the distance. How do we keep the rope braided together, and prevent it from unraveling? Over the years, despite the changing demographics, and the changed landscape, there have been enough dedicated and committed people who said, we must pay it forward. I have been given so much, I must give back to those I will not even know, because what we have here in shared love and community service deserves to last.
How have we been able to last this long? Anyone who pays attention to church life in America knows it has always been a changing landscape, and today it is even more volatile. Because of my son Levi’s move, I have been getting to know the city of Lowell a little bit, It was once the center of Universalist church activity. In 1840 Abel Thomas minister of the First Universalist Church started the Lowell Offering a monthly periodical featuring poetry and fiction by female textile workers. The Offering had hundreds of subscribers and supporters from throughout the Northeast. It didn’t last, and neither did our liberal faith. In the 1980’s I preached to the last remnant of UUs in Lowell, five people meeting in a living room in a house. Now the fourth largest city in Massachusetts does not have a UU church. Some would say the demographics changed, or we were not evangelical enough, or perhaps it was the wrong combination of people. Churches do come and go as the world around them changes, and now church watchers are panicked that many people no longer seem interested in organized religion. What is the future of the church? How will it change? What will the selling of Andover’s Newton’s campus mean for you, as you consider in future years whether you will have interns working here? Will you remain committed to this community? What will help ensure it has a future?
The sermon today, while not exactly an auction sermon, is the result of a request by the Trustees of First Parish who asked that I share some thoughts on the history of our endowments, and the planned giving that made them possible. The Trustees of a church such as ours are often thought of as the pillars or the deeply committed, who are often long term members who assume the moral and fiscal responsibility to see that our endowment is managed well, so that it is invested both wisely and socially responsibly, and that it gives guaranteed future financial protection. Our endowment is made up of three separate funds, one of which has its origins with the foundation of the parish in 1630.
Sometimes it is hard for us to grasp that First Parish was part of a congregational state church longer than it has been an independent, voluntary entity. From 1630 to 1833, we were the Watertown incarnation of what has been called America’s first establishment. Here church and state were wedded in a system, whereby each landowner was required to pay taxes for the minister’s salary, and the upkeep of the church. Landowners did not always like to pay taxes to support clergy especially if their theology or politics were repugnant to that voter. In 1650, at a meeting at Deacon Childs’ house, Watertown’s assessors voted: “Whereas some men neglect to pay their due to the Ministry – and damage thereby cometh to the Towne – It is ordered – that all those that doe not pay their due to the ministry at the Deacons demand – their names shall be returned to the Towne – and the Town to give warrant to the Constable to destraine (or seize their goods) for it – and to being (bring) it in to the Towne’s use – so that the ministry may be discharged . . “ Even if there were reprobates, my predecessors received their salary.
Historically the minister was the minister for the entire town, and the people were legally required to support this system. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that we think of colonial clergy as privileged and powerful leaders who forced a strict moral code upon the people. This was not a free or voluntary system. A minister and the church leaders enjoyed the official power of the state, and could use government sanction to force people to support the state religion. Roger Williams once said in opposition, “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Any system such as this becomes a system of coercion and oppression. Fortunately the Universalists kept telling the Unitarian Congregationalists that they were wrong, and eventually they got the message.
The second way of looking at this system is that it is good for a community to have a sense of religious purpose. As a community we should care about each other, support those in need, lend sympathy to those who suffer, and give economic sustenance to those who are hungry and homeless. The idea was that we need ethical guidelines for living together so we will not be overcome by selfishness and greed. Behind this idea was the belief that a representative of religious faith should impart moral values to the community. That person was a minister. Typically towns set aside lands to support the ministry. Here in Watertown a trust was set up in 1812. Then the legislature passed an act in 1829 setting up a corporation of Trustees, and finally in 1836 after church and state were separated, the legislature declared that the new parish was “the successor of said first or original Religious society of said Town, and therefore had the right to the Ministerial Fund. The purpose of the fund, pure and simple, was to pay the minister’s salary.
This first endowment then is a reminder that we are the inheritors of a certain privilege and power within the community. We can feel grateful for this privilege, but we should also be mindful that privilege can bring arrogance. This first endowment also reminds us that we have a mission of responsibility to our community. We must call the people of Watertown to build the beloved community wherever hate or prejudice or injustice exists. The Ministerial Fund was a means of paying forward this ethical commitment of the parish.
If the Ministerial Fund represents part of our mission to the community, then the Perpetuity Fund is an embodiment of our mission to our church ancestors. In 1919 this congregation decided that not only did they need to uphold moral and ethical leadership in the town, but that they had to ensure that this mission to both the town and their parish would last forever – in perpetuity. This community where people seek to worship God, love and care for one another, and create a vision for an ethical world must be given some kind of permanent vision. We have to always be here; a home for future religious liberals. And so a century after the first indenture of trust, a second indenture of trust was passed in 1929, when The Permanent General Expenses Fund was created from prior bequests and special contributions, including the collection from Old Home Sunday, something we have not held in decades.
Our third and final endowment grows naturally from the prior two. The Wright Charitable Fund that was our designated offering today, came as a result of the sale of the family home of long time church member Helen Robinson Wright, and the income provides funds that are not used for regular church expenses, but instead are used to support individuals in economic need, and community agencies that serve those people. In a charitable trust, the beneficiary is society. I suppose one could say that this means that the endowments come full circle from community to church members, and back to the community again, reiterating the necessity of creating a greater good for the world. The Wright Fund furthers the sense of mission to the community provided by the Ministerial Fund, for this mission for those in need is to somehow work for economic justice, and social equality, to relieve pain, and in some way redeem and reconcile the pain caused by the privilege we have held.
An endowment is a gift from the past, that we are privileged to use for our benefit in keeping our mission alive and thriving. Planned giving to that endowment means gifts that will allow this mission to continue forever. Today we are in the middle of Passover, when the Jews, who had been enslaved in Egypt received a gift of freedom from God. Every year Jews and others reenact that gift, and we pray would learn to never enslave or hurt others. Part of this lesson is imparted in the story “A Miracle in Baghdad.”
This story helps elucidate a very interesting aspect of the Passover observance. Every holiday is marked by mitzvahs, which are charitable or beneficial acts. The hero of this story is a stranger who pays it forward by saving his fellow Jews, but then asks nothing in return. He actualized that which we all know to be true, that each of us is complete only when we do all that we can to ensure that every single human being is being taken care of as well. This is why the Passover haggadah begins with an invitation, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” Our table is complete only when it is open to others! We’ve seen the ability here to simply ‘pay it forward’: I help you, somebody else will help me.
Some time ago Charmian Proskauer sent me a link to a column on endowments by Harvard’s president Drew Faust. Faust refers to endowments as “Vigorous Immortality.” While we are hardly Harvard in terms of endowment size, the analogy from university to church is apt. Endowments tell the stories of people’s relationships with the church through time. “What mattered most to these people? What did they see as essential and want to see preserved? Where did they believe their generosity could do the most good?” The promise of endowments is that they connect us to predecessors who believed in the ideals and purposes of the church, who sought to extend its good work for all time. Endowments enable our successors to meet and shape the age that is waiting before them.
Learning to pay it forward can add a tremendous sense of meaning and dignity to our lives. It feels good to give to others, whether we get back something or not. Every Friday on my way back from Harvard, I ride the 71 bus. I always feel rejuvinated when just after Amherst Road, the litany of streets named for small colleges follows with Bates Road East. It brings back many fond memories of my college experience at Bates, but especially the inspiration I received from my advisor, a man named Ernest Muller. He shines strongest in my heart. Muller was a student of the great Richard Hofstadter, and had been teaching at Bates for decades when I arrived. My passion for history was reignited over and over again by this man who affirmed and confirmed my life’s passion for teaching history. His gifts included interest in his students, respect and time for every query and a love and excitement for his subject matter,. He is deceased now, and there is no payback for me to give to him. I drank at the fountain of his skill and knowledge. Now all I can do is pay it forward by conveying my love for the subject matter I teach to others. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote: “One can never pay in gratitude: one can only pay ‘in kind’ somewhere else in life.”
Yesterday, I gave a tour of Mt. Auburn Cemetery to a Coming of Age class from Westport, CT. Once upon a time cemeteries were fearful places, filled with ghosts that haunted the minds of Puritans. Our Transcendentalist ancestors helped create garden cemeteries where even as the dead were buried there, a lush garden of life, birds and parkway paths represented life being made fresh again from the ghosts of the past. Vigorous immortality is paying it forward by bringing life from death. So may we give ourselves to others from what we have been given. May we give our time. May we give our passion. May we give ourselves to what we learned to love. Down the road someone we do not even know will feel eternal and immortal gratitude. Pay it forward.
Closing Words – from Compensation by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“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.”
Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.”