“Still Protesting After All These Years” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 29, 2017
Opening Words from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the Most High:
To face our ideals, to remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession,
To offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes
The worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend:
Faith, Hope, and Love;
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Reading from Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
The eighteenth century Hasidic Jews had more sense, and more belief. One Hasidic slaughterer, whose work required invoking the Lord, bade a tearful farewell to his wife and children every morning before he set out for the slaughterhouse. He felt, every morning, that he would never see any of them again. For every day, as he himself stood with his knife in his hand, the words of his prayer carried him into danger. After he called on God, God might notice and destroy him before he had time to utter the rest, “Have mercy.”
Another Hasid, a rabbi, refused to promise a friend to visit him the next day: “How can you ask me to make such a promise? This evening I must pray and recite ‘Hear O Israel’ When I say these words, my soul goes out to the utmost rim of life . . . Perhaps I shall not die this time either, but how can I now promise to do something at a time after the prayer?
How many of you are Unitarian Universalists? (raise hands). That’s good. If no one raised their hand, I would be afraid I was having one of those anxiety dreams again. In my nightmare it would turn out you are all Orthodox or Catholic, and I am in the wrong place, and can’t find the door. Now, how many of you consider yourselves Christian? (raise hands). Most UUs do not consider themselves Christian. In the 1950s and 60s and 70s it was the religion we left behind or quit after being raised some flavor of Protestant – Baptist, Methodist, Congregational. We got tired of being called sinners, and never really got the Jesus saves stuff, or if you were like me, you rejected the anti-science literal interpretation of the Bible beliefs. This seemed like we were checking our brains at the door. You found Unitarian Universalism a breath of fresh air. Later we began to diversify, as fewer people were raised in any organized religion, and sometimes our newcomers had no religious baggage. They simply wanted an open minded faith, that would give their families a sense of religious values. There were some former Catholics who joined us. I think they helped open us to reconsidering religious language about the divine and acceptance of ritual. Before that if someone lit a candle or said Amen, or even took an offering, certain liberals cried foul. Some of our members were so angry at Christianity, they did not want any vestiges of the faith. Our former minister David Rankin tells the story of giving a sermon on Jesus, and afterwards finding someone in the social hour pounding on a table saying, “We are open minded around here, and we are not going to listen to any of that Christian garbage.“
But if some left Christianity behind, what are we? The other day I was talking to a member of First Parish who told me a story about filling out some kind of application or survey. It asked her what her religion was in very general terms. It had Christian, followed by the choices of Protestant or Catholic. There were some other options, such as Jewish, or Muslim, but no Unitarian Universalist, and so she marked it “Other.” I suppose we are either Christian or not. BUT, regardless of how many would say you are Christian, how many of you would have still marked the survey, “Protestant.” (raise hands, including me) Perhaps that seems odd, but that is exactly the way I feel. I once considered myself UU Christian, so it was no stretch to say Protestant, or be categorized as such. Now, I no longer feel like Christian is the exact designation I want for my faith, but I still consider myself Protestant. Of course the question of whether we are Christian or not is a perennial one for UUs. And that is part of the reason I still use Protestant. A few years ago at Parish Committee I was talking about the mainline churches in Watertown, and I included our church in a larger group of congregations I referred to as Protestant. People looked at me like I was from another planet, as if to say, what are you talking about? They implied, We are other.
So I am here today to try to convince you that we are Protestants, whether we use the terms Christian or not. The occasion for this service is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestantism on October 31st 1517. This is the date assigned to the famous act we recreated this morning: Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Typically, there is no evidence that he actually nailed his demands for change to the door, and historians generally conclude that it never happened. What did happen is that these concerns were sent to the local arch-bishop, who later forwarded it to the Pope. Luther never intended to set off a revolution, but that is exactly what he did. Things snowballed, and led to a complete split of the 1500-year-old church, and then that split led to more and more splits thanks to one of Luther’s central beliefs: the priesthood of all believers. He said the church had made the clergy into a higher class of separate beings who often promoted their own interests. There should be no intercessory, he said, between God and human beings. Furthermore, he also believed in “scripture alone.” In order to understand what was required of us to live a Godly life, all we need to do is read the Bible. This was the true guide of faith, not the church, which was selling indulgences left and right, primarily to lessen the time that you or your loved ones had to spend in Purgatory, the invented half way house to heaven, to cleanse themselves of sin. We might interpret this to mean that people were buying their way into heaven.
This is why Luther was adamant about his other central belief: faith alone, rather than good works. Salvation depended not upon what you did like buying your way out of sinful acts, but upon responding to God’s love. Good works followed from salvation, rather than doing good works to be saved. But perhaps what was most far reaching, especially for us, was the implication of the priesthood of all believers, that everyone should be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Luther made this possible by translating the Bible into German, and giving the people a tool for finding their faith. The special good fortune was that the printing press had just been invented, and more and more people had access to the word. The implication was that everyone should be able to read and understand the Word on their own terms. This went far beyond what Luther intended, but it opened a pathway to religious freedom that helped give birth to Unitarianism only forty years later in Poland and Transylvania.
So we begin this journey by remembering that Unitarian Universalism is a product of the Protestant Reformation, and was Christian in the beginning. After Luther, there was split after split, with each new faith thinking they had the correct understanding of scripture because Luther had symbolically given each person that authority. This happened 350 times. You still see it with little fundamentalist churches in Maine. A preacher gets a new idea about Jesus. The group fights, and then splits apart. UUs have been known to do this, too. It was once said of Luther, “To oppose was his joy.” But that is the whole history of Protestantism from the top on down. Henry VIII was not about to be told by the Pope that he couldn’t divorce Catherine. Voila! We have the birth of the Anglican Church. He had the authority to be a law unto himself, but that was the implication of Luther’s teaching. And it was not only preachers or king’s getting their way, there were countless others who said this is what the Bible tells me. Puritans left England because they had their own ideas about how to run a church, and then after the initial rebellion there was the matter of Anne Hutchinson who soon realized that the Puritan divines were not going to tell her what to believe or how to behave. In fact, Protestantism came along at a time when Europe was ripe for rebellion, and people fought left and right. Many died. It became more than a way to address grievances in the church, it became a way to undertake social change. It became a way of life, especially for the way it took hold in America. It was the beginnings of individualism, leading all the way to: Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. Obedience went out the window. What’s that little word smack in the middle of Protestantism. It is protest. We did that a generation ago to stop an unjust war. We did it to say that every person should be able to love who they love. We did it to save a choking planet from dying. And maybe we still do it to save democracy from a demagogue. We still call ourselves Protestants because we must be able to protest injustice and inequality.
No one is going to say that Luther would have approved of all this. He was an antisemite, whose views on Judaism were abhorrent, and perhaps had far reaching implications. I have my own reservations about using the word Protestant with respect to my own memories and experiences. I grew up in a very conservative Congregational church that did not appreciate free inquiry or tolerance of others. I don’t know how many times I was called a sinner, but I do know I went away with the notion that I was judged not worthy. Coupled with my family experience, church felt like life was about fulfilling duties, and nothing about joy or happiness or kindness. It was a lot of those stereotype we have about Protestants. They didn’t like dancing or seeing women in pants. You were supposed to be under control at all times and unprovoked expressions of joy were frowned upon. If you were not from the community, then you were not really welcome. In Unitarian churches there is a reputation of formalism, which Emerson referred to as the corpse cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street, where if you visit, no one speaks to you or acknowledges your presence. The danger there is the taking of all life out of religion and making it severe and rigid, and so we do things because it is our duty or we have always done them, but never out of passion. I have this worry here sometimes that we take on committee work as though It were a job. I want you to come to church because you love to sing, or you want to wrestle with important issues, or you want your children to have a grounding in values; not because you should, but because you want to.
While that memory of lack of passion and the deadness of duty gives me pause when it comes to invoking the name of Protestant about myself, there is something about integrity and being true to your beliefs that balance that inclination to be rigid. This is embodied in Henry David Thoreau, whose 200th birthday we have just celebrated. I say this partly because Emerson invoked this word Protestant at Thoreau’s funeral, where Emerson gave the eulogy. It took place at the First Parish of Concord, a church where Thoreau had resigned his membership. Emerson knew that Thoreau was no card carrying Christian. Yet he twice referred to him as a Protestant in this eulogy. He said when Thoreau left college, all of his companions were choosing a profession, eager to begin some lucrative employment, but in Thoreau’s case, he rejected all the accustomed paths at the cost of disappointing friends and family. Reminding me of my own decision to enter the ministry, and disappoint my parents by not taking over their business. Emerson attributes this Protestantism to Thoreau’s incredible sense of integrity and character. He would not betray any truth or friendship for the sake of personal gain. Emerson said: “He was a born protestant.” He refused to give up a more comprehensive calling for a narrow profession.
What was that larger calling? “The art of living well.” Thoreau sometimes defied the opinions of others, but it was not to be mean, but rather “he was more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief.” So I see a Protestant in this sense to be a person who is true, true to his or her self, true to his or her values, true to a higher law of love. Further on in the eulogy, Emerson again says he was a protestant “á l’outrance,” which means “to the utmost.” This included lots of renunciations, so it doubles back to some of that rigid purity I referred to, but it primarily means that he wished to live and meet his companions on the simplest terms – with nothing fake or contrived about him. As Emerson quoted him, “they make their pride in making their dinner cost much; I make my pride in making my dinner cost little.” Is the Yankee cheap or is the Yankee frugal? I suppose it depends. I do know we sometimes stereotype a Yankee Protestant as someone who works all the time, but Emerson said of Thoreau that he sometimes “seemed the only man of leisure in town,” and was “always ready for any excursion that promised well.” Let it be said that a Protestant can let go, and have fun. Lastly, this integrity led Thoreau to the true spirit of Protestantism, to protest, not just daily falsehoods, but larger societal injustices, and so, he finally protested war and slavery recognizing the ultimate exploitations of people.
There were several aspects of Thoreau that resonate with Protestant. He seemed a law unto himself. He lived a pure and holy life, but especially with someone who we often depict as rejecting religion for nature, it is instructive to remember that religion was at the heart of his very being. Emerson said, “He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind nothing great was ever accomplished.” My religious journey began with memorizing Bible verses long ago. That sounds like adhering to those rigid, obedient rote formulas, but it was one of the few things I enjoyed about the religious tone of that church. Now perhaps it was the little gifts I received for the work of memorizing, but I enjoyed the discipline, and as I said in my meditation, a couple weeks ago, those old passages bring me comfort still, in times of distress. What is interesting about those traditions in my old church is that they are echoed still in my liberal church today. The order of service we use, the very forms, often called a hymn sandwich, are all very Protestant, centering on using words to inspire and give meaning to life.
So we retain the priesthood of all believers making each member of the congregation equally important. We retain the protest of demanding change if something is not just or right. We retain the forms, and we retain the ethos of striving to be true to self, and aching to live simply,
While all those are reasons to still call UUs Protestants, there is still something more. Without religion, Thoreau said, nothing great is ever accomplished. This is what disturbed Luther most of all. The Catholic church had lost religion. Its time was spent on giving priests power and privilege. Its ethos was accumulation of land and buildings and money thinking this greed would pay for their heavenly salvation. Luther stood up and said no. Famously, “Here I stand, I can go no further.” When Luther was a young priest the church had seven sacraments, but he reduced that to two – baptism and communion. The Catholic church had begun to define taking the sacrament as the fulfilment of Jesus’ saving act, but Luther said “Sacraments are not fulfilled when they are taken, but when they are being believed.” You don’t do something hoping it will make you holy, you believe first, and then you are empowered to do holy things. Too often we do things out of duty forgetting that there must be a religious motivation, a faith, that empowers you to act.
Martin Luther was born on St. Martin’s Eve in 1483. St. Martin was the patron saint of drink and merriment, and the day was similar in many ways to our Thanksgiving, a harvest festival. Luther grew up to be someone who appreciated merriment. Typically cows and oxen which had produced dairy products, meat and labor in the summer had to be slaughtered in the fall, as they could not be kept alive on the scant supply of hay that was available during the winter, along with meager rations. The festival marked the time before the people would be confined for the winter. Annie Dillard speaks of the ancient slaughterhouse, and that same fear of living through the day, or surviving the winter, in the context of the great powers of being we typically ignore in our daily lives. He realized how fragile we are; humans who often forget we are inches or moments from tragedy or turmoil, and yet rarely fall on our knees and give thanks for all we are given, and all we are. I suspect that 33 years after he was born when Luther started this reformation revolution, he saw the great power of love being ignored, being desacralized. We see hurricanes, fires and storms and wonder and worry, too, about the great powers of being. We know illness and pain and fear. What will console us? Perhaps the greatest gift of Luther’s revolt was that he tried to make religion religious again. It had become corrupt, greedy, and lacking in spirit and integrity. We must begin again to understand that we depend upon love and trust to survive and flourish, and not our money and accumulations. Luther once said: “Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever, which is far more excellent than being kings, for as priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.” May we understand our faith in that way: seeing the deeper truth we all experience through difficult events that have broken our hearts and yet we find strength to go on; speaking our fears of growing old and confronting illness and pain and yet we find hope in tomorrow; sharing amazing expressions of compassion for others, and deep love for the beauty and goodness of the earth, and we know peace and joy. Seeing, speaking, sharing with each other – to learn to teach one another divine things. That is the spirit of Protestantism.
Closing words – from Martin Luther
I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great Pope, self.