“And See Our Chores Done by the Gods Themselves”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on April 28, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the sea-shore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus embraces the assistance of the moon, like a hired band, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron. Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam (!), gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day, and cost us nothing.
~RALPH WALDO EMERSON
“American Civilization,” 1862
My sermon today is the conclusion of one I began two weeks ago. I first preached this to the annual meeting of the Northern New England District of Unitarian Universalists in Potsmouth where Megan was a respondent. And then yesterday, with my colleague Carolyn Patierno from our New London, CT UU congregation, we preached another version to 300 people gathered in Worcester for the Mass Bay and Clara Barton Districts. Yesterday’s version was more like an opera, interspersed with choral anthems and accompanied by a large choir, and featured our venerable 1840’s double-bass. With a semi-steampunk theme of re-purposing things from the past in service to present and future needs, the old bass started out very simply accompanying the old 100th Psalm and, by the end of the service, was more-or-less wailing in Jimi Hendrix fashion…though that is an exaggeration.
We’ll print these sermons up so you can put together their two halves, but the first half was largely devoted to the notion that, if our churches are to survive and be meaningful in the 21st century – and there’s plenty of evidence that churches are NOT meeting this challenge and are deservedly dropping like stones – then we must take risks, be experimental and opportunistic, and be as large in our aspirations as is Unitarian Universalism, a faith that aspires to the unities and universals of human experience.
You may remember that I started with the story of Picasso painting the portrait of a man’s wife. When the painting was finished, the man didn’t like the painting which was abstract and a bit weird, and he complained, “This doesn’t look at all like my wife.” Picasso then said, “Well, what does your wife look like and, from his wallet, the man produced a photo. After studying the photo, Picasso said, “She’s rather small, isn’t she?” Too much of what we do in our churches, I said, is “insular, parochial, self-involved and rather small. This smallness contrasts with the largeness, the immensity of our aspirations.”
Just to transition to this week’s sermon, here is my conclusion from two weeks ago….
Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, I said, “For our faith to thrive, we must hitch our wagons to a star.”
Would that we fix our sights on all that is beyond us, that draws us out of ourselves and into the realms of mystery and wonder.
Yes, we in Bedford have tried disco balls, a coffee backpack (talk to me about this or go to servantevangelism.com for lots of outreach ideas), and yes, there are flying clownfish (two on “bring a friend Sunday”), historic communion silver (we offer communion at least three times a year and when we were in Transylvania, you would not believe how privileged our teenagers felt to hold in their hands the communion silver used by our martyr hero Francis David). Some of our most atheistic humanist members now crave communion, go figure. I dare you to try belly dancers (a little risky!), try God (riskier still!), art and music that cause our spirits to soar…and try, in every and whatsoever way, aligning and aspiring to that which is larger than ourselves. Bring the world in and take the church out of the building.
Indeed in most of New England we are not so much “churches” as we are “parishes”: a parish is a wider place than a church.
If we draw our circles wider, we discover that we ourselves are changed and grown.
Some of you know the transformative experience of partnerships, urban/suburban partnerships, international partnerships. It is even difficult for me to distinguish between our parishioners in Bedford, those at a local VA hospital or a senior continuous care facility, our parishioners in Abasfalva, Transylvania, or those kids and teachers at a school Uganda with whom our RE kids and teachers skype. We have increasing numbers of good – even pledge-paying! – parishioners who have never entered our building and never will.
Partnering is a key. What, after all, is social justice but connecting our lives with others whose realities differ from our own?
We do too much church work and not enough work of the church. Would that we minister to our communities and not merely to our churches. Would that we fix our sights on those stars that draw us out of ourselves.
But, now here’s the other side of this: If we’re to hitch to a star, we’re gonna need a wagon.
Now here’s one more steampunk image: our wagon! Who’s got a wagon anymore? A little red wagon? Come to think of it, I drive a Volkswagen!
Actually, in Bedford for our ingathering a couple years ago we had a Burrito Wagon roll up and sell its wares to the accompaniment of the Hot Tamale Band. But I digress.
We’re gonna need a vehicle, a vessel, a means of transportation to that star; and I hope you’re sticking with me here, folks, ‘cause I’m now gonna propose that what we need is not some interstellar transporter but we need a wagon, something pretty humble and down-to-earth…and that’s where you come in ‘cause what we’ve got is you and me. Human beings. Transient, impermanent, fragile, immanent, things grounded in dirt and dust.
As was said by William Carlos Williams in The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Ain’t that the truth? By the way, some say that’s the greatest post-modern poem of all time – did you know that? – and it’s all about a wheelbarrow, a wagon upon which so much depends!
My point is this: Pay attention – not just to what is large and beyond us – but to what is small and immanent.
Jack Mendelsohn used to describe our ministry as “a wide place,” by which he meant that IF our members feel heard and cared for by one another and by their ministers, THEN our congregations will grant great wide latitude to prophetic engagements beyond the boundaries of the church.
Aim for the stars, but start with a sturdy wagon. Paint your wagon if you like.
Our movement is going nowhere if we do not welcome the stranger, take meals to the hungry, look after the sick, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked. Our churches, our ministers and our laypeople can be so good at this.
We need pay attention to people and few details are too small.
I once knew a minister who arrived in church to find that the flowers in front of the pulpit were dead. She, however, did not consider removing dead flowers to be part of her job description and figured that was for others to do. I’m not sure if those dead flowers were ever removed; but that minister’s tenure in the parish was short…though she flowered in other aspects of the ministry.
The day that I observed Megan walking the side aisle of our sanctuary and noticing some dead flies in the windowsill, whereupon she swept them up with her hand and disposed of them…that was the day I knew Megan was headed for parish success!
I can also tell you about my most recent ministerial effort to improve life at the First Parish in Bedford involves placing small stickers of houseflies inside the mens’ urinals. I don’t need to go into detail about this project right now but you can ask me or another man about it later. Our restrooms are much cleaner and men leave them laughing.
Ray Kroc’s success with McDonald’s it is said was due in part to his years as a travelling salesman and his appreciation of clean restrooms. Many of our churches do not well withstand such scrutiny.
And so I can also tell you about my most recent ministerial effort to improve life at the First Parish in Bedford involves placing small stickers of flies – houseflies – inside the men’s urinals. Our restrooms are cleaner and men leave them laughing. I don’t need to go into detail about this fly-sticker project right now but you can ask me or another man about it later.
And you’ll be so glad you came today because, just as small lagniappes – small gifts to you for coming here today – I have some complimentary stick-on-the-ceiling-glow-in-the-dark STARS… and that’s not all folks! – some stick-on-the-urinal FLIES for you to take home to inspire and improve the quality of your life!
Women may find some creative use for them too, I suppose.
(I told the people in Portsmouth that one of the benefits of having me as a keynote speaker is that people go home and say, “You know, Irma, after hearing that guy our own minister doesn’t seem so bad. At least ours doesn’t fritter away talking about urinal flies.”)
Nonetheless do I say: let us hitch our wagons to stars; but there is nowhere too humble to begin.
We begin where we find ourselves, knowing that we and our creations are among the transient things. Nonetheless, we risk and aspire to purposes and wonders greater than ourselves.
And, having perplexed you beyond belief by my disquisition on urinal flies, let me double-down and share now the wisdom of… NJ governor Chris Christie. He said something recently that rings relevant and true.
Chris Christie says that the job of a public servant is to build trust with one’s constituents: to do all the humble down-to-earth paying-attention-to-people kinds of things that people want in the present. To build up a good-sized bank account of trust. And then: to risk that trust, to spend down that account, to bet on the future and to aspire to purposes as yet unseen.
The rhythm of leadership is to build up and spend down; ever and always start with and return to people, but ever and always strive and stretch for purposes that exceed our grasp. Build up and spend down.
We are called to hitch our wagons to stars, such that we shall see our chores done by the gods themselves.
This is where my comments full circle and Picasso-esque and even I’ve grown tired of my own voice.
In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. (Transformation) rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is (he says) how newness enters the world.”
That’s my hope for our immense faith: that our transformation be cultivated by unexpected combinations, mongrelization (not the absolutism of the Pure), mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that. Thus and thereby, we pray, may newness enter our world. Newness enters our world when we get our hands dirty.
This is the genius, I think, of our religious tradition: we are not satisfied with a hand-me-down, trickle-down faith. Revelation is not sealed. We revere the past but trust the dawning future more. We are always seeking ways for newness to our enter our world, but our own lives – don’t we all need something fresh and new and different, and hopeful and zesty. Ours is not a faith of sloppy seconds but of having new, original, first-hand experiences of transformation and possibility, you-ain’t seen nothing yet, and you can call that God, or what-you-will.
Religion, of course, is conservative and, yes, we meet here to conserve our values. And, yet, the flame of our tradition leaps higher when we ask of ourselves, How may we be agents of newness entering the world?
Knowing that our faith is irreducible to any neat wallet-sized reality-token, I long for a Unitarian Universalism that is as large as life.
May we be agents of newness entering our world.
And if we but hitch our wagons to stars, we shall see our chores done by the gods themselves.