The First Parish in Bedford, MA, Unitarian Universalist
15 March 2020
[NOTES: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the church building was closed on March 13, 2020. This is the first worship service that was conducted virtually on the Zoom platform.
In our 2019 church auction, our staff offered “a sermon on the topic of your choice.” Dave Trigg was the winning bid and his choice is the title of this sermon. The topic’s a bit narrow, but we’ll do our best!]
Rev. John Gibbons:
My part in this service is to reflect on the question “Where Are We Going?” To which it is sometimes asked, “And why are we in this handbasket?”
(Can we add a laugh-track to this service? I know that woulda brought the house down or at least gotten some groans.)
There are many ways that the world does seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, especially in these disjointed days.
And so Dave asked us to preach on “Cosmology, Geology, Anthropology, Science, Discovery and Faith.”
I find myself musing on panic, panacea, pandemonium, and this pandemic – all from the Greek god Pan, god of woodlands and known to cause terror.
There’s a fable by James Thurber and it’s titled The Shore and the Sea.
A single excited lemming started the exodus, crying, “Fire!” and running toward the sea. He may have seen the sunrise through the trees, or waked from a fiery nightmare, or struck his head against a stone, producing stars. Whatever it was, he ran and ran, and as he ran he was joined by others, a mother lemming and her young, a nightwatch lemming on his way home to bed, and assorted revelers and early risers.
“The world is coming to an end!” they shouted, and as the hurrying hundreds turned into thousands, the reasons for their headlong flight increased by leaps and bounds and hops and skips and jumps.
“The devil has come in a red chariot!” cried an elderly male. “The sun is his torch! The world is on fire!”
“It’s a pleasure jaunt,” squeaked an elderly female.
“A what?” she was asked.
“A treasure hunt!” cried a wild-eyed male who had been up all night. “Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.”
“It’s a bear!” shouted his daughter. “Go it!” And there were those among the fleeing thousands who shouted “Goats!” and “Ghosts!” until there were almost as many different alarms as there were fugitives.
One male lemming who had lived alone for many years refused to be drawn into the stampede that swept past his cave like a flood. He saw no flames in the forest, and no devil, or bear, or goat, or ghost. He had long ago decided, since he was a serious scholar, that the caves of ocean bear no gems, but only soggy glub and great gobs of mucky gump. And so he watched the other lemmings leap into the sea and disappear beneath the waves, some crying “We are saved!” and some crying “We are lost!”
The scholarly lemming shook his head sorrowfully, tore up what he had written through the years about his species, and started his studies all over again.
MORAL: All (people) should strive before they die to learn what they are running from, and to, and why.
Cosmology, Geology, Anthropology, and Science discover more and more about where we come from and what we are.
But where are we going? Truthfully, we don’t know; we have absolutely no idea. We are like Abraham, described in chapter 11, verse 8 of the Book of Hebrews (take out your Bibles) where it is said…and this is my most favorite Bible quote…“And Abraham went out, knowing not whither he was going.”
So do we all, my friends.
And yet as discoveries in cosmology, geology, anthropology, and science expand our island of knowledge, so too expands our beautiful blue island’s shoreline of mystery.
As wrote the late astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, “Facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination.”
We live in a time when we need all the facts we can get. We also need imagination: to imagine hope, and love, and kindness. May we refuse to be drawn into any stampede.
Where do we come from?
We come from a worldview of an extractive economy in which resources, people, and power are exploited and advanced by militarism.
What are we? We are made of stardust, blessed with imagination.
So it’s really not enough to say we have no clue as to where we’re going. What matters is where do we want to go, where do we hope to go, and in what may we have faith?
I say we can and must move to a regenerative economy with a worldview of caring and sacredness, in which our resources, people and power foster values of regeneration, cooperation, and deep democracy.
Yesterday I saw a Facebook posting by our former parishioner Libby Hanna who said in this pandemic people will cope in many different ways. Some will panic, some will hoard, some will hide.
Libby said, “This whole coronavirus thing will eventually be behind us and one thing we really will remember is how we treated each other during this time. Please be kind and loving in your words and gestures, even if what you are hearing makes you nuts. It won’t cost you anything or expose you to extra risk to be gentle, and it might make someone else’s day a little easier. Thanks for your attention.”
I too say thank you for your attention.
Cosmology, geology, anthropology, science and discovery remind us of realities larger than ourselves. They take us to the shoreline of mystery and possibility.
“Choose something like a star,” said Robert Frost:
“It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.”
May we have faith in our imaginations that we may choose the pole stars of hope, and love, and kindness. May our hearts and minds be staid and may we, before we die, strive to know what we are running from, and to, and why.
May it be so…and amen!
Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken:
“What are we?”
Last week, which seems like a million years ago, I was in a room physically with some of you, playing a silly yet serious game in our Deepening in UU class. I was offering people multiple choice questions about the nature of life, the universe and everything, and then others in their group would try to guess what option they had chosen.
One of the questions forced people to decide whether we are (A) generally selfish, but can learn to love; (B) generally neutral and shaped by social situations; or (C) generally good, but sometimes harm others because they were hurt. My options were, of course too specifically worded. They were discussion prompts, not nuanced enough to express someone’s actual theology. But it did indeed get discussion going.
One person said that we are really just waves in the ocean. When a wave crests and is done, it is still the ocean, isn’t it? Others had different takes, on what it means to be selfish and is that inherently bad and do people only hurt people because they are hurt?
But really I think all the options are true.
We are all selfish, afraid, stuck in our fear and anxiety, all of us greedy, wanting to snatch that last bag of bread, that last roll of toilet paper off the shelves, before someone takes it away from us. We evolved to get our needs met, how else would we survive?
We are all neutral, shaped by circumstance. We act one way at work, one at home, one with our best friends. We act one way when it’s business as usual and another when there’s a global pandemic. We are what is happening more than we have constant personalities. Neuroscience teaches us this.
We are all good, all amazingly able to act for the greater good, cancel what is precious to us, offer hospitality to someone who needs it, go grab the supplies for others, pass on what we have trusting in abundance, check in on each other. We are all a wave in the ocean of love, rising, cresting, returning to the source. To the stardust. To the earth.
And this is our faith. That even when we know for a fact that options A, B and C are all true, we lean toward C. Faith is a choice. It is a choice to look reality directly in the face, take in the data and opt for meaning. We are the meaning makers. And this more than anything may be the thing that makes us human. Making meaning. Having faith. Choosing love.
“Where do we come from?”
When our daughter Abby was about three, we watched quite a bit of Sesame Street – maybe you passed time doing that too? She loved Elmo, the sweet, red Muppet who has always been about four years old.
The Tex Mex rock band Los Lobos was one of many music groups to perform on Sesame Street, and they did a bit on the show that Abby just loved, with Elmo dancing away to this sort of mysterious song. It was called “Elmo and the Lavender Moon.” We would dance too, watching Elmo as he sat on the tree looking up at a crescent moon, and then as he imagined himself sitting on the moon, looking down at the earth. (Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzY07lCqyQI – :48-1:19)
Later, when Abby was about 10, we took a trip to Grand Manan Island, a magical place off the coast of Nova Scotia. We managed to camp at the Hole in the Wall campground, where we pitched a tent literally on the edge of a cliff overhanging the Bay of Fundy. Sitting out at night in a carved chair on the edge of the cliff, with no light pollution, Abby looked up at the sky, the first night we were there, gasped in wonder and said those words: “Star light, star bright – first star I see tonight…I wish I may, I wish I might…never forget what I see tonight.” We were all stunned by the beauty and wonder of it all. I remember we sat in silence, looking at the moon and stars and hearing only the sound of the surf crashing against the rocks one hundred feet below us, and the call of the whales, for a long time.
We heard, a few minutes ago, about the Big Bang theory that suggests that the universe was created 13.8 billion years ago… and we’ve also heard about an Apache legend, one of a number of First Nations tales, that also tells us about the creation of the universe and the earth. The Bible offers us its own telling of the creation of heaven and earth, where “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters [and] God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
Whether based in science or in mythology these stories try to answer the endless questions: where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? The painter Paul Gaugin, raised and schooled in Roman Catholicism, was moved to explore three fundamental questions: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?”, “How does humanity proceed?” From this, in 1897 or -98, came his famous painting. And although we often wish for finite answers to such questions, sometimes the only answer is the unknown: “mystery…mystery…life is a riddle and a mystery.”
One of the reasons for faith communities to exist, I would offer, is so that together, we can ask those questions and try to understand the many answers, or the additional questions that return to us.
How did we get here, and what does the cosmos have to offer us in this time that has followed since Copernicus and Galileo made discoveries of the universe that Earth is part of? In these uncertain days of worldwide pandemic perhaps your mind has wandered – as mine has – to ask again about whether Mars could support life, and whether we can all just go there instead, if things here really go badly.
Understanding the world of stardust and starlight requires of us equal portions of trust, imagination, and the willingness to believe in what we may not fully understand. Whether we are guided in that exploration by the holy – who some call God – or by reason, will be decided by each of us as individuals. “Where do we come from?” That is the enduring question that we continue to explore, each day of our existence.