“Walking Together” by Mark W. Harris
February 2, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Martin Buber
The true community does not arise through people having feelings for [one] another . . . but through, . . . their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Center . . . Living mutual relation includes feelings, but does not originate with them. The community is built up out of living mutual relation, but the builder is the living effective Center . . . Marriage, for instance, will never be given new life except by that out of which true marriage always arises, the revealing by two people of the Thou to one another.
Reading – from An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
“Walking Together” is the title of a book on congregational polity by UU historian Conrad Wright that I helped edit when I worked as Director of Information at UU headquarters many years ago. The direct reference is a passage from scripture that the Puritans frequently quoted, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” It comes from the third chapter of Amos, where the prophet suggests that doom is about to befall Israel at a time of relative prosperity. The two walkers are the people of Israel and God, and the prophet, as all good prophets do, warns the people that they have strayed from their covenant with God, where God provides a wall of protection for the community, while they in turn must act with all righteousness towards God and each other. It is Tit for tat – you be good, and I will take care of you.
The idea of covenant originated with Abraham in the Hebrew scriptures. Seeing themselves as the New Jews coming to the Promised Land, our Puritan ancestors organized all of their churches, including ours, around the concept of the covenant. A covenant was a kind of compact or agreement made with God and each other, but it was really the central organizing principle for everything in their society. We tend to view the Puritans negatively as dour, mean spirited, sin obsessed people who hanged witches and eschewed everything joyful, except their love of work. Yet they were people, just like us, trying to figure out meaning in the world. While not latter day liberals, they bequeathed some amazing gifts to us, including the system we have for governing our churches.
What is especially pertinent for modern day Unitarian Universalists is that covenants were based in relationships and not in creeds or beliefs. For them, there were two covenants, one of works, and one of grace. Works represented their own abilities to live Godly lives. What was missing in the covenant of works was a discovery that we cannot save ourselves alone based on individual merit. This points to their vehicle of salvation, which was the covenant of grace. They were saved by faith. But don’t believe that grace is about believing all the right things. Grace is a realization that I don’t have to beat myself up because of my flaws, as we liberals are sometimes wont to do, but that I can aspire to love, because I am loved, simply by being a child of God. I don’t have to hear I Corinthians echoing in my ears at a wedding – love is patient, kind and never boastful, and think, who is he kidding? No one can love like that. Faith actually acknowledges, no, I can never be that good, but I believe I can be.
Walking together makes me think of my observations of how people walk together and what meaning it imparts. For instance, do you ever noticed how parents walk with their children – some yank on the child’s arm and suspend them in air like little helicopters, as if they are in a hurry, but others walk at the child’s pace and you see them pointing out trees and birds as they go. And then you can watch couples walk together. They may have distance between them, or they may be arguing loudly. But other times you see couples laughing or talking, or holding hands ever so delicately, with fingers barely touching. With an elderly couple, you may realize there is a great bond between them that has grown from years of loving work and attention, and knowledge of surviving great battles and tensions. Sometimes it is a gay or lesbian couple walking together and you think, why only a generation ago this would not have been possible because they would have been ridiculed or persecuted, and now they can live their love anywhere they go. Sometimes you see a group walking together. At the recent Martin Luther King breakfast a group from Mothers for Justice and Equality came into the hall together. Here were women woven together in solidarity around the deeply painful experience of having lived through the murder of a loved one. The crack of a gun for each son or nephew yielded pain and waste, and yet it was clear that they were walking in strength and hope that could change lives. Each of these – parents, couples, community – walking with larger purpose and with love. How do we walk together?
The words walking together almost always seem to appear in these ancient Puritan covenants. Concord’s 1636 covenant says, we will “walk in peace, love, mercy, and equity towards each other, doing to others as we would they should to us.” Even Watertown’s covenant, from 1630, said we will “walk before him (God) without fear, in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives.” What is interesting about the Watertown covenant is that they say they want to walk together without fear. Of course they have just left a country, where power was determined by conquest. They lived in constant fear because there was no acceptance of religious or social difference. You had to believe or else. So they lived in fear, just as victims of domestic abuse do today. Now in the fresh air they wanted to walk without fear. They were not very tolerant, it is true, BUT they laid the groundwork for the idea that power is conveyed by covenant, not conquest. How we relate, how we listen, how we debate, how we ultimately come to decisions. Every relationship presupposes a covenant. What works for me, and what works for you, in our relationship? So there is always a conversation, and always a tension, too. But no matter the result, the covenant calls them back to what Buber called the living Center, or the Source of our existence.
More than a month ago I wrote a newsletter column about a worship service that was loudly interrupted several times. In that column, I wrote, “Let us remember our purpose as a community is to provide a welcoming and safe space for the whole community to worship together, which cannot happen when we allow people . . . to disrupt the hour. It is not safe, and it is not respectful to the needs of those who come to church for religious purposes.” Tomorrow night a new committee, chaired by Tracy, will convene to discuss behavior at church, and hopefully formulate guidelines, so that we all feel both safe and welcomed. After I wrote that column, a friend of mine who receives the newsletter, was curious about what happened. After I told him the details, and how we hoped to set guidelines for behavior, he was surprised. “I never thought Unitarians would do that,” he said, “I thought it was an anything goes kind of religion.” My friend was brought up Catholic, and remarked, “that kind of disruption would never happen in a Catholic church.” I guess he was implying they keep people under control, and Unitarians don’t. He is no longer a practicing Catholic, and considering the kinds of things that have happened there, the point of comparison may seem irrelevant.
It is interesting to me that our church which was so strict in its behavioral guidelines in its origins, would be viewed today as a place where there are no guidelines except freedom to do what you please. Yet is it has been governed by the same system of congregational polity during four centuries of development. Setting guidelines and boundaries are areas where there can be great discomfort for some UUs, because doing so may feel restrictive and limiting in a church that holds freedom so central. Yet we have learned that setting limits is sometimes necessary. When I was minister in Milton, a parishioner kept interrupting services because he was angry that we had stopped using the Lord’s Prayer, and were, he said, no longer Christian. We had destroyed his church. It did not matter to him that most people no longer wanted to use that prayer every week. Eventually his anger spilled over into coffee hour, where he physically attacked a woman, whose feminism, he said, had taken over the church. I had to use my old football tackling skills to restrain him, and then we called in the chief of police for a conversation. Subsequently, he was banned from coming to the church. He was disruptive. People did not feel safe. And we could not control him. He did not keep covenant with us, even though we had given him ample time to be heard. Can two walk together except they be agreed? In his case, we did not agree, and could not walk together.
After two hundred years the congregational church in Massachusetts split down the middle. That split mostly occurred because, the Calvinists argued that if two could not agree, then they could not walk together. But the Unitarians said otherwise. No one had ever heard of such a concept in religion before. Advocates of liberal religion said you could walk together, and not agree. It was a gift we gave to the world. In fact the Unitarians in Massachusetts wanted the congregational church to continue as a broad church, but their orthodox brethren would not allow it. They kicked us out. The Unitarians argued that theological diversity was not only to be tolerated, but it was to be embraced as a good thing. We will show a broader sympathy, not bound by creed or by an absolute truth, but how you treat one another. Are you respectful? For the first time, a church said that difference was good, even something to be desired. They knew they would not always agree, but they did agree to respect one another in community. Freedom of belief became central, but it also helped cultivate a culture where conformity to anything – creeds, beliefs, rules of behavior, even the authority of ministerial and lay leaders – was viewed with suspicion. Yet as the Unitarians determined that freedom would be the cornerstone of the church, they discovered that even freedom needed boundaries. What would we tolerate before spinning out of control? No group can include everything and everyone, or serve the needs of all.
They found that setting boundaries to a free faith was not easy. Emerson said forget miracles and live without tradition, and the walls of Christian revelation fell. Boundaries kept moving because a free faith means we are open to new truths. Does it mean that two can walk together and not agree on anything except freedom? Yes, in some ways we have shown this with our openness to new truths and diversity of opinion, but in other ways, No.
I said no, because freedom is the means and not the end. If freedom were the end, then we would allow people to behave any way they wanted in church. People could yell about Lord’s prayers, and interrupt like small children, and we would not ask for any correction or apply any standards. But in fact, our freedom is used to build a beloved community where we walk together, not alone, in freedom. UU minister Terry Sweetser tells us that the word freedom comes from an ancient Norse root verb that means to becoming loving. Freedom is not properly a state of being then, but more accurately a choice for becoming. So in our religion, freedom is about becoming, never about being.
What we know in congregational polity is that it is up to us. We are the church. We want to welcome everyone by hearing his or her point of view. The people have a say in the election of leaders, in the management of property, and in determining standards for membership. But to be welcomed into a community, you must also accept the boundaries of that community. Freedom is also about learning limits and being a responsible partner in accepting the decisions of the larger community. One’s person’s freedom to interrupt or walk in a disorderly manner is another person’s offense. Do you want to drive some people away by being welcoming to someone else who behaves in an offensive way? Some of these boundaries mean everyone is not going to feel welcomed here. And we would not want them to, because then it would be a compromise of our faith and principles. Do you think someone who believes in the infallibility of the Pope belongs here? What about someone who believes homosexuality is a violation of the laws of nature? Why even most Republicans feel unwelcome here these days. Even as we strive to welcome in, we are also walling someone else out.
So how much freedom can we tolerate before we lose our sense of direction? If we need to make a decision about our building, that is a congregational responsibility. We think we have a right to keep questioning, and those charged with leading feel a responsibility to deal with those questions. But if all the power goes to those who keep questioning, they can question forever, and nothing will ever get done or decided. There will be an emotional toll, and all motivation for working together and finding a common consensus will be lost. At some point we must put our trust in those we have charged to lead us, because if we don’t, eventually the leaders will be exhausted, and will simply give up. Challenges make us creative and engaged. Too many challenges wear us out, and we lose sight of our larger vision.
So how can we use out freedom to become trusting and loving? Frequently in our churches we say it is all about the community. This is where we can be together, and take care of each other. Yet Buber reminds us in the call to worship that true community does not simply arise from people having feelings for one another. While we do need that, it must have a firmer basis in a living Center. Then he uses the metaphor of marriage. In marriage we sometimes say there is my marriage, and your marriage, and there is our marriage. We each come to a relationship with our own feelings, but together we make a marriage, which is greater than each of the individuals. There is a holier union that transcends our individual flaws and inabilities to love and forgive. There is an “our” or “we” that implores us to love, even when we feel we cannot. The church is like that, too. That is what calls us back to the community of love when the minister constantly preaches insipid sermons, someone insults us or snubs us, or we don’t get our own way. We say, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and you stay loyal because you love and trust what the larger whole of church means. There are limits to this love and trust, and sometimes it does not work. But more often than not, you come back, because you have faith in the beloved community, after you are given a chance to question and disagree, and even after you lose. This love for the larger church allows you to move beyond your personal issues and differences, and helps it restore peace.
One thing we often forget about Puritan theology is love. We remember sin and depravity, but we fail to recall divine love. While you can argue we don’t have that, you are forgetting the “we” of the congregation (the oneness based in memory, tradition and care) – not your opinion about God, not your opinion about what your child needs from the church school, not your opinion about the heating system, but the “we” of the church as a community. The Puritans said above all that sin, they were bound together in one bundle of love, and they were obliged in that bundle to always call themselves back to that that one stronger bond that held them together, and made them a church. You have committed yourself to a way of love. While the life you have is solitary, and you’re free to develop your own theology, you lose the solitary as a church member because, you have chosen to live in the plural. You are part of “we” or one of us. And if you want to be one of us: You will be respectful. You will listen. You will challenge, but ultimately you will trust and love. You pledge yourself to something larger than yourself. Walking together means how we are going to be with one another, and ultimately it is not theology or belief that count, it is conduct.
Conduct should be important for us, too, because it shows how loving and trusting we truly are. If am truly loving I will tell you what hurts me, and what is acceptable to me, and pray that you would do the same. And we will determine community standards for how we will be with each other. Our reading amused me when the Desert Fathers could not get into a fight. Sometimes we are so open to walking together, we don’t fight either, but walking together always has limits. Walking together is meant to bring us out of ourselves so we bear witness to the larger love we aspire to. We get to practice that oneness here. And hopefully we take it into the world. So if you are in a restaurant, you focus on the wait staff as human beings, and put yourself in his/her place. My son Levi now sometimes stands behind the cash register at Tedeschi’s. If some stranger goes in there, I hope they would remember he is someone’s son. He has a home, and he has things he enjoys doing, and people he loves. Waking together is truly seeing the other, or Buber’s Thou in each other, every day of our lives, but we get to practice it here first. We want to hear you and welcome you, affirm our differences and learn from you . But we also want you to hear and welcome me, and together we will determine what kind of walking we will do, because when we do covenant together, we can move forward, make decisions about our future, and ultimately live in a bundle of love.
Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.”