“The Public Parish”  by Mark W Harris


September 25, 2011 –  First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship – from Thomas Merton

Celebration is not noise.  It is not a spinning head. It is the creation of a common identity, a common consciousness. Celebration is everybody making joy. . . Celebration is when we let joy make itself out of our love.  . . .  Celebration is crazy; the craziness of not having submitted even though “they,” “the others” the ones who make life impossible, seem to have all the power.  Celebration is the beginning of confidence, therefore of power . . . They with their gold have turned our lives into rubble . . . But we with our love will set our lives on fire and turn the rubble back into gold.  This time the gold will have real worth. It will be the infinite value of human identity flaming up in a heart that is confident in love.


            Last spring my friend and colleague, Ken Sawyer in Wayland preached a sermon on what he believed was the most beautiful word in the English language.  It is an intriguing exercise. What would you choose as your most beautiful word?  It might be the word that holds the deepest meaning for us, and in fact, the five winners on an internet survey were mother, passion, smile, love and eternity. We might also think of those words that have the most beautiful sound, and then, serendipitous, would be one of my candidates. Ken’s answer to the question was public.  He went on to say, “I want things to be public, as much as possible.”  He told me he was inspired to preach on this theme after reading my book, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History.  He said he wanted to sing the praises of the notion of public, such as in library, versus the idea of private, as in the Boston Atheneum, a private library for members only which revoked the membership of Lydia Maria Child, after she published an abolitionist work, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833. Child was the sister of my predecessor in this pulpit, Convers Francis, and her story is in my book.

            I want you to reflect on that word public for a moment.  If I were to say the word, public, what noun would it modify?  (ANSWERS) What do you associate it with?  Perhaps you went to public school or you ride to work on public transportation, you used a public restroom, or you walked in the public garden, or maybe you ran for public office, or were a public employee or even took to the public square to demand your freedom.  Public is about everybody, access for all, equality and freedom, which might also be among the candidates for most beautiful word in the English language.

            And then there is public pool.  I never swam in a public pool until I was an adult. When I was in elementary school my parents built an in ground pool, almost at the same time as the Beverly Hillbillies was a smash hit on television. My parents identified with the rags to riches hicks in that show, and enjoyed their own cee-ment pond.  I loved our cee-ment pond, too.  It is where I learned to swim.  But it was also apparent to me that it set us apart from all of my classmates in public school.  The pool was a symbol of my parent’s economic success, but it was also a place where we could limit the guest list.  We did not have to mingle with the great unwashed masses. There were many family conflicts over the right to go to the nearby lake where all my friends were hanging out.  Why would I ever choose to swim in that filthy little body of water?  My overly protective mother wanted to keep me from the bad influences she imagined existing at the lake – rowdiness, liquor, drugs and girls – but it was all those intriguing experiences that would help me engage with life, such as meeting new people, learning to make good choices, and being responsible, that were missing from my life. I loved that pool.  I loved that privilege, but I also hated it because it kept me from enlarging my experience of the world. 

            This past week my youngest son turned thirteen.  This is a challenge for me as a parent, as I see my mother in me – anxious and over protective.  Like my mother I am an introvert, and so despite the desire to experience the world, there is the conflicting fear of the madness of crowds.  The real me prefers to stand in the corner, and being out in public is a challenge.  With my newly minted teenager I equate public and puberty, and reluctantly try to let him go, that he might experience the world. But I secretly wish he would just stay home with me and never change.

            The distinction between public and private was also brought home to me this summer in the most basic way.  Here in the city we take public water and sewer for granted, although we sometimes gripe over what it costs. But the state of Maine in some locales is not too far removed from outhouses.  I could have used one when our septic tank pump broke in July.  While the well was fine and gave us plenty of water, there was nowhere to put the waste water – flushing and draining were out of the question.  I’ll let your imaginations see the problem of three gigantic boys filling hollow legs with groceries while also  remaining unshowered.  We survived our little plumbing crisis, but when it broke again briefly in August, I was ready to start digging with a backhoe to hook us up to a town system only a mile or so away.  Private can also mean all the responsibility is yours alone.

            Public services make our lives easier and enrich us, yet there can be tragic consequences when those systems break down, or do not receive the scrutiny they deserve.  We see that in our reading today from A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr.  It is the true story of two corporations who pollute the water in Woburn causing several incidences of leukemia, and the subsequent deaths of children. It was Riley’s very own hometown, and he could not see that his company could have ruined the town’s wells and caused such a health disaster.  He thought lots of people get leukemia, and many people drink this water, and the cause is unrelated.  After all, this was his town, and he enjoyed a good living from this company. It did not occur to him that the company could behave this way, or that anyone needed to be defending and protecting the public water supply.  We hear that phrase now in conjunction with anti-terrorism, but the villain in Woburn was corporate capitalism.

            I think many of us seek a religious community because we are tired of the political rhetoric that has completely polarized people and parties. We are tired of the growing economic inequality where the rich have secured larger and larger shares of the bounty, and the poor increase in numbers, and the middle class swim faster and faster merely to tread water and stay afloat. We are tried of the culture wars where minorities are stigmatized or persecuted selectively, where education has become big business, and science and faith do battle over issues that should have been resolved a century ago.  Everybody is mad these days, and there is seemingly no collective spirit bringing us together. Instead, we have those seeking public office from both parties who have to wrap themselves in a flag and end very speech with God Bless America. 

            Where is the notion of public good in this rhetoric?  All of these candidates for public office, Democrat and Republican seem to be able to say, is no more taxes. We only care that we get to keep what is ours.  Has everyone forgotten what Vincent Harding echoes in our first reading today.  “Taxes support the well being of the whole”  We need people who will lead this conversation on the need for taxes to support our public services, employees and institutions.  As candidate Elizabeth Warren has said, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.  Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you.  But I want to be clear.  You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . part of the social contract is you take a hunk of [ those riches ] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”   

            While we might agree that we need to find ways to affirm the public good, would we say the same about the notion of a public church?   A church for all indicates a state religion, which is exactly what the founders of the country, those who wanted to promote the common good, tried to exclude in the constitution.  State law superseded federal law in the days of the early republic, and so the tradition of having a state church here in Massachusetts continued until 1833.  As the parish church for the town, we were that public church. Under the Puritans there was no dissent, but increasingly there was pressure to allow minority religions, including Universalists to organize.  While any state church results in a degree of coercion and discrimination, it also affirms the idea that common religious values need to be part of the culture. This meant promoting services, such as education for all.

            What was also good about the state church is that everybody went to church together.  There was still a sense of community before disestablishment.  While freedom for other religious groups to organize was a good thing, church life became even more exclusive afterwards.  Harvard College’s Memorial Church was founded so the elite would not have to mingle with the riff raff. Church could offer us protection from a world of differences.

            My confession for the day is that, especially since I published my book on class, I spend my time alone searching myself up on the web.  This is how I learned that my colleague in Bedford, John Gibbons preached on my book. John called his sermon: “Would You Go to Heaven with a Prostitute?”  This is a line from a question I raise in the book about uinversalist theology. Clearly my intent in asking this is not about getting to heaven with an escort, but rather about the structure of heaven itself – the shared space. Salvation historically had been based in the notion of who could live the most spotless life in the eyes of God.  The best were saved, sometimes interpreted to mean those who had achieved the most financial and social success.  Universalists believed our purpose was to become more loving, and that indeed God’s love would enfold us all, prostitutes as well.  It was a classless heaven. This was a lesson the Universalists eventually imparted to their Unitarian siblings.  We developed a theology that calls us to live out a faith that is truly welcoming to all, but the question remained, how do we achieve that heaven on earth?

            In these difficult times we look to the church as a place of refuge.  We think here I can get away from the world, and bring all my troubles to lay on the altar of quiet support and understanding. Here also we sometimes refer to the community as a family, or as a place we  can have intimate connections with others, and find spiritual nourishment through sharing of feelings.  Yet there is something limiting about this.  While we all need people with whom we share values, and who care for us, what challenges us the most is new experiences with new people. It is like my son leaving home to experience life out in the public arena of town and school.  We do not want pubic intimacy. We want shared purpose and meaning.  But we sometimes give up, because our culture is so divided and competitive and angry.  It becomes easier to be personal. Parker Palmer and others have suggested that our culture idealizes intimacy, and leads us to withdraw from the public life.  What happens is that we end up caring for our own, but we lose all concept of a larger beloved community. We don’t learn to live in the company of strangers. Our family is people like us, and we end up not growing spiritually because we are only sharing among ourselves, and fail to offer hospitality to the stranger.

            Like me, you may avoid situations where you are a stranger. You want to be in the company of someone who is like you.  Who wants to interact with people we don’t like, or who are different from us?  Being afraid of the stranger, the alien, the terrorist, we withdraw into our little community, and say here we can find intimacy.  But the church has to be more than that.  We are proud that our church has many people who are active in public life in the community, but the church itself needs to have more of a public role, so that people know what our Unitarian Universalist values are in the wider community context, just like when the vandal burned our rainbow flag and the town council stepped in and affirmed same sex love relationships in a proclamation.  We must have a public ministry that reaches beyond these four walls, and communicates what we stand for as a church. We have to find ways to create encounters that will take us across the boundaries of our differences to create beloved community.

            A few years ago, Carol Layne, a student of mine, wrote a paper on expanding our concept of church.  She recalled that popular Canadian film, Strangers in Good Company,  in which some women who were on a bus tour were forced to get to know each other after their bus breaks down.  They were an odd company, but in their differences they created a public good, able to share their differences through conflict while remaining true to themselves. Last year Andrea and I heard an amazingly inspirational story on television.  It is one that reminds us of the need for us to expand our boundaries, and not be afraid of engaging the company of strangers who may visit us here, who may live in our community, who may call us to reengage with the idea of going public.  We heard the story of  Ronald McNair, who was one of the astronauts killed more than 25 years ago when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  As a child McNair wanted to study science. But first, he needed to get his hands on some advanced books. And that was a problem. When he was 9 years old, Ron decided to take a mile walk from his home down to the library. The library was public, but not for black folks in 1959. When he walked in there, all the white folks were staring at him  and saying, ‘Who is this Negro?’ He politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. The librarian was indignant, ‘This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to check out these books.’ She said, ‘Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’ But he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, ‘I’ll wait.’ ” The librarian called the police — and McNair’s mother, Pearl.  Fortunately the policeman convinced the librarian to give the boy the books, and he did not end up in jail.  He continued to reach beyond barriers of exclusion and  became an astronaut. After his tragic death, the South Carolina library of his segregated childhood was named after him. McNair helped transform our public life by succeeding in his own dream, and even in death, his vision lives on, in the library. Segregationists believed that even heaven was segregated, so that we would not be contaminated by anyone not like us.  Our faith says it would not be heaven if it were not open to all. Our faith calls us to go out into the public byways and highways, and make real the dream of universalism, of sharing heaven with a prostitute, of sharing earth with strangers, for as the book of Hebrews counseled the early Christians – “Let love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  

Closing words –  from Frederick Buechner

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.. . .Where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet, we hear a further call.