“Walking Together” by Andrea Greenwood – May 3, 2009
May 3, 2009 – The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words — from Miguel Servetus, 1532
…Love disperses itself very widely. Faith is with respect to God, love is with respect to God and to our neighbor…. Loving is something more difficult than believing. Love easily endures difficult things; it puts up with everything and makes everything, such as poverty, death, and other things, easier…. Because love is more lasting; love is a natural symbol of the future kingdom, in which there will be nothing but love…. Faith begins; love completes. Most wicked people believed in Christ, but no wicked person loved Christ. So great is love’s perfecting quality. The gateway to Christ’s kingdom is faith, and love is its completion, and the path between the two is entirely love. The final goal is enduring love…. There is nothing that makes us more like God than love because God is love….. Loving, not believing, is a property of divine nature.Therefore, one always comes to the conclusion that love is sublime and excellent, and that love is more like God.
Reading from Revelation, Peggy Payne
On Sunday, he is sitting in on the Contemporary Issues Church School class. The circle of chairs is angled inhis direction. These chairs always feel too small for him. His knees stick up. The back hits him at the wrong place.
“The question I keep coming back to is, who’s to decide whether the other guy is in the wrong.” Honey Robinson, wrapped up in one of the shawls she weaves. The tips of her fingers stay the color of some vegetable dye, like somebody whose been eating blueberries.
“But when it’s obvious. Clearcut. Say a murderer.” Bernie. Things have always been clear for him. “How are you supposed to deal wiht a murderer in your own family?”
“Assuming they’ve killed somebody outside the family?” Ed Fitzgerald. Everybody laughs. Ed holds for the laugh, a genial smile on his face. he rocks back in his chair. “Seriously,” Ed says. “When you are talking about how to deal with a sinner in your own midst, among the people you love, the issue isn’t the big stuff, because like Bernie says, that’s clear cut. It’s the smaller stuff. I mean, like how do you deal with your kid who goes off to work for a nuclear power plant when you think that’s how we are going to get blown off the earth?”
“Or if your good buddy tells you how he’s ripping off the IRS for megabucks a year.”…..
“The Scripture is fairly straightforward in some ways,” Honey says. “We’ve all grown up with the idea that you get the mote out of your own eye before you bother with the speck in someone else’s.”
“Maybe it isn’t a speck.”
“You should love them.” Maria Durden, who brings love into every discussion and has the worst marriage in the congregation.
“That’s all very well, but it doesn’t tell you if you should keep paying your kid’s tuition after he’s got himself in trouble, or if you should blow the whistle on your buddy, or see him less often. That answers no practical questions at all.”
“If you love them, you’ll know how to handle it.”
Ed rolls his eyes. Burt is sitting over in the corner, not saying a word.
“If it somebody you don’t love, you don’t have a problem.” Bernie says. “Then it’s somebody else’s problem. What we’re talking about is how do you handle it when the people in your life, the people you love, take off in the wrong direction. I for one think you ought to say how you feel about it and then go on as much as you can with everything the same. I wouldn’t throw one of my kids out of my house because they got in trouble.”…..
“You wouldn’t throw one of yours out, Bernie, because you have two pretty little girls that are too young and sweet for you to even imagine it. Yet. You wait.” Stu Edwards, in his resonant radio-announcer voice. Stu has four teenagers. “They don’t stay the way they are at five years old. Mine aren’t even the same people.”
“It all comes back to which of us is qualified to judge,” Honey says.
“I am,” Stu says, hitting the center of his chest with both hands. “They’re my kids.”
Swain clears his throat. He can’t stand any more of this. All the eyes are turned toward him. “So am I,” he says.
“What do you mean?” Honey is looking at him. They all are.
“John 8:31. ‘If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth.’” nobody says anything. Swain says, “I’m saying that as a disciple of God, I know the truth.”
….Nobody in the room moves.
“Come on, Swain,” Stu finally says, breaking the silence. “It’s one thing if you’re talking about your kids. But what you’re saying — anybody could say that they’re God’s disciple and then set themselves up as the judge of everybody.”
“There is that risk,” Swain says, and stops again….
“That’s one hell of a risk,” Stu says.
“So what exactly are you saying? Anybody who sees themselves as a disciple — however you decide that — then they can call the shots on the rest of us? Some mad-dictator type, some Khaddafy –”
“What I’m saying is that whatever hold on truth we have comes from our personal direct immediate knowledge of God. Obviously, I’m not going to stone anybody or send anybody to jail. I’m just saying that I have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. I don’t have to ask anybody.”
I have always had a little bit of trouble with time. I don’t mean this in the sense of planning, or orderliness. I mean that when I step out the door and walk down the street, I am likely to see things that perhaps were there once, but are no more. Or perhaps, more accurately, I remove from the landscape things that are here now but were not a century ago. I walk down Marshall Street and see only the old Queen Anne houses, with their yards intact — my eye skips right over mid-20th century intruders polka-dotting the landscape. I notice the old trees, and wonder if they were planted when the street was developed, or predate even that. The name: “Mount Auburn Street” is poetry to me; I hear it or just say it silently, and can see our first garden cemetery being laid out; the field of landscape architecture beginning; Romantic poetry being written from Cambridge boys to Watertown girls. I don’t think I live in the past, though; it is just that the past is alive for me. Today is layered on so many yesterdays; some not even my own. So when I read an email from Marianne Collins about what she was hoping I would address in this sermon, I immediately pictured Emerson, Orestes Brownson, and Ellery Channing, walking in the way my boys do. They seem to find a kind natural symmetry that eludes them everywhere else, and they roam and pace about the yard engaged in very intense conversations of which I understand nothing, except how much it is them, forming and being formed.
To be honest, I couldn’t remember the names of these men in 19th century Concord. It was incredibly frustrating: I could see them walking, hands locked behind backs, grey coats, taking turns listening and debating. I could tell you one was a Channing, a nephew of the famous one, a poet. He wasn’t a very good poet, but he was a great friend, and seemed to draw the best out of others. It was his idea to go live in a hut in the woods, and he did it himself in Illinois; then suggested to Thoreau that he go do this at Walden. I could tell you another one had amazing social ideals, and was one of the people who helped start Brook Farm, which was a utopian community. I knew that he was a Universalist minister before he was a Unitarian, and that he ended up becoming a Catholic. But their names…. Well, I had to paint the picture for Mark, tell him the odd details. He knew their names. Which is lucky, and a relief, but still makes me feel bad; as if little bits of the past are fading from the light, and there will come a day when it isn’t just the names that are gone, but the picture, too.
Marianne described two friends who live on her block. She said she isn’t all that close with them; they just tend to go for walks together. And they are also all in the same book group. One friend, Nancy is very Christian and really believes that it is only possible to enter heaven if you have accepted Jesus as both the Christ and as your personal saviour. But Nancy’s very best friend in the whole world is the other walker, Caren. And Caren is Jewish. Nancy is very upset that Caren will not be joining her in heaven. From the way Marianne described this relationship, the thing that is troubling Nancy is not so much about beliefs, but about living in heaven without her best friend. So she isn’t trying to save Caren’s soul so much, although she is concerned about her afterlife. Really, the bigger issue is more like loneliness, or perhaps the nagging beginnings of an understanding that heaven can’t really be heaven if your best friend isn’t allowed in.
When I first read Marianne’s email, I thought the question was about heaven and the afterlife. Where do we go when we die? Who gets to go? But the real question had to do with a faith and a belief system that contradicts — or at least complicates– experience. Nancy has been taught to believe that there is a heaven, and the entrance is guarded, so that only Christians are allowed. She is a perfectly good and kind person, and if she were in charge, she would never exclude Caren from heaven. In fact, she really wants Caren to be with her. But the only choices she has are to give up her own place in heaven, which she doesn’t want to do; or try to convert her friend, which she also doesn’t want to do — it would in essence be telling someone she likes and respects for who she is that she is fundamentally flawed, which she doesn’t believe. Another option would be to give up her belief system, but I am not sure Nancy sees that as an option. So, they are walking together. They read the same books, they live on the same block, they are engaged in each others lives in enriching ways; but there is an invisible, powerful division among them that would separate them forever.
In the book of Amos, the question is asked “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” This is one of those sentences that gets pulled out of the Bible to prove that being religious means we are supposed to conform to the same truth; that there is in fact one truth, which is eternal. When we talk doctrine, it might make sense: There is no salvation outside of the church. But when you start thinking about life, and people you have known, and when you have suffered enough loss, heaven does not seem like a reward for the right beliefs so much as a consolation for all that we endure; a place for everyone and everything, not based on right or wrong or achievements or anything. It seems like heaven should promote unity, not division.
I think it is important to say that I am fundamentally ill-equipped to really grapple with these issues, because I grew up Unitarian Universalist, and therefore am bred in the bone with an idea that salvation is indeed universal — otherwise, what’s the point? On a certain level, even though I have had that sensation of crumbling to dust when the beliefs I have absorbed about the world prove to be untrue, I genuinely do not get what all the afterlife fuss is about. “Saved from what?” is how my mother puts it. I remember walking home from school with some kids when I was about twelve, and one kid did something and another responded “You’re going to go to H E double hockey sticks.” I was a bit slow, not because I couldn’t spell, but because I couldn’t understand hell as a physical place you could go to. I thought it was just a swear. So when I got home I asked my mother about this, and she said, “Oh, yeah, some people believe that if you do something bad you get punished for it after you die, but we don’t believe that.” I guess I wasn’t a very complex kid, because that was enough for me. But I do know now that even among the Universalists, there were people who worried that if you took away the threat of hell, no one would behave. And so very quickly you can see that there are lots of different things going on: what drives behavior, how do we control it, what happens to people who are taught to fear eternal damnation? Every religion is founded on the premise that the way they look at it is right — so is there a separate heaven for each religion? Our answer — heaven is right there, in the walking together — probably seems like sidestepping.
Bruce Southworth, who is the minister at the Community Church of New York and was my supervisor when I was a student, wrote a newsletter column once about walking in Manhattan and having a big fat book come flying out a window. He went over to where it landed in the street and picked it up, discovering it was called Orthodoxy. Bruce thought this was great! “Someone literally threw orthodoxy out the window,” he marvelled. Of course, this speaks to us. It is affirming, and funny, and a great visualization of ideas which are usually not so much fun to slog through. But no one throws anything out the window because things are going well. The turmoil that led up to pitching that volume was probably pretty ugly — and perhaps mirrors some of what goes on for Nancy as she walks with her friends, and her belief system — rewarding in so many ways — is being contradicted by her experience. How do you hold on to your beliefs without losing a friend who doesn’t share them? How do you hold on to a friend whose existence makes you doubt your beliefs? Is anyone worth giving up your theology for? What happens to people who choose a friend over their God? I have always been a humanist rather than a theist, so this sounds easy to me — at first. It very quickly gets complicated, because haven’t we all had the experience of believing in someone and then finding out that perhaps we should not have? Hopefully not as dramatic as the young woman whose fiancee has apparently been victimizing people he met on the internet, but… there are times when orthodoxy has its appeal. We are relieved of the burden of deciding. Believing in people; letting love guide us does not always go smoothly. In fact, it never does: Not in romance, or between parents and children, or siblings, or friends. It ALWAYS gets messy and it ALWAYS involves pain.
And yet that is what we believe in. We believe in encounters that transform us because of love. Once there were three men who, like Marianne and Nancy and Caren, were in the same book club, and also of different faiths. Michael, George, and Francis — or Miguel, Giorgio and Ferencz — had very different backgrounds, spoke different languages, practiced different professions. Like us, they lived in an era when technology completely changed how information spread. For us it is the digital age and globalization; for them it was the printing press, and the establishment of trans-Atlantic trade routes. Their book club was centered permanently on one book — the Bible; but now it could be studied outside of monasteries and in several languages, and in an atmosphere much larger than a local church. Miguel Servetus noticed that there was no Trinity in the Bible, and he wrote about this and advocated for unitarian understandings of God. Since he was a Spanish Catholic priest, this was a problem. He went to Geneva, where the Protestant reformation was underway, and this could have worked out for him, but Servetus also decided that he could not believe in predestination, so he offended Calvin, too. Things ended the way they did in the 16th century: at the stake, in flames. Giorgio was in Geneva, too — fleeing Italy because he had read the Bible carefully and could not find any evidence of a trinity in there, and he decided to leave the Catholic church. Although Miguel’s book had been banned and most copies were destroyed, Giorgio Biandrata managed to have a copy. A doctor, he traveled in high circles, eventually becoming the court physician in Poland, and in Transylvania. He lent his copy of Servetus’ book to a Hungarian Protestant minister, Francis David, and also persuaded the king to have David appointed court preacher. David read the book, talked with the doctor, and converted the king, and both Unitarianism and freedom of conscience were born.
The opening words this morning were from Servetus’ book; the one that Biandrata managed to get hold of and bring to Francis David. He says love is more important than faith, because it encompasses more; it includes not only God, but your neighbor as well; and wouldn’t God be the biggest thing possible? Servetus also said that it is easier to believe in something than it is to love. Love changes us, whereas beliefs keep us the same. For Servetus, faith was alive and opened us to encounters that take root in us and help us become more than we are. We have long held up the sentence of Francis David “We need not think alike to love alike.” It is a statement about walking together; it is what Amos was saying when he spoke to the people in Judah. Listen; we are descended from the same people; we were once slaves in Egypt, and we have been free for five hundred years now; this should be the promised land; this could be heaven. But instead the tribes are scattered and striving for riches. We need to walk together so that we can be who we have always been, and who we are intended to be.
For us, for Unitarian Universalists, walking together is exactly what we agree to do. And I don’t mean we agree to disagree and keep moving from there; I mean we believe in walking together with others; in learning from them; being changed by our travels together. It is a positive statement, and I would argue a profoundly more faithful one than any creed, because it is a covenenant to grow without controlling what that looks like, or might mean. I remember a workshop I attended at one of my son’s schools last year in which a psychologist was talking about human potential and how one person really could change another, and he thought this was a marvelous and radical new discovery: we are not self-contained beings, but people who become who we are because of who and what we are exposed to. A woman who was there, who also happened to be a psychologist, just looked at him like she wanted to scratch her head and say “huh?” But she didn’t. She finally just said, “Well, I believe in that, too. I think we all do. It’s called education.” The fact that we are all in this life together and always will be is taken for granted. We do not have union as a goal. We do not become each other. But we cannot become ourselves without people who walk through our days with us.
Even though I love this statement, I can also see it as part of why there are people who do not see us as a real religion. It does look like education. It does look secular. I can see how believing in process and being open makes us too open, so that we become a revolving door — as someone once said, a place to go while you get comfortable with not going to church. And I do feel like I should be able to tell you something more; to answer Marianne’s question more specifically. She asked why doesn’t Nancy believe that it is up to her to decide who gets to go to heaven? And my answer is that some people who are orthodox remain so, and others become liberal. There are also people raised in the openness of Unitarian Universalism who embrace orthodoxy. In many ways, the answer to Marianne’s question is why we exist as a denomination. We are a place to go after encountering people who make it so you can no longer believe what you have been taught — but you want to believe more, not less than you did before. We exist in the struggle between offering comfort in your time of need and what comforts over time and space and experience. We are not here to shrink ourselves to fit inside a closed system; but we are not centered on rejecting beliefs. We are centered on love, and where it leads. Perhaps that sounds sentimental, but it is not. All of the beauty and joy we associate with love has plenty of anguish to go with it. It is how we grow. And sometimes we grow through loss.
When I watch my boys pacing and talking, I often think how different each of them would be were it not for the others. Any one of them alone would have more attention from me; and less time stuck waiting while someone else has a lesson or a class or a game. The cabinets would be stocked only with the right kind of peanut butter; the preferred kind of cereal; the favorite kind of bread. But the complexity makes it richer. We are built on the layers; on the wholeness of it all; that funny pacing they do through the yard where they simply curve in and come round again without planning it is beautiful in the way they are each part of something that would not exist without the others.
I believe that we are united in our desire to be one, whether we are liberal or orthodox; Jewish or Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or pagan. We just have different ways of trying to build that one beloved community. We start in different places; have different fears and losses. But as Servetus said so long ago, what faith begins, love completes. Love gives us both God and our neighbor. And so we walk together, and see where we all might go.
Closing Words from Stanley Kunitz poem The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon….
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?…
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
“Live in the layers, not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.