“Hitch Your Wagon To A Star”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on April 7, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“What shall I do, singer and first-born, in a
world where the deepest black is grey,
and inspiration is kept in a thermos?
with all this immensity
in a measured world? ”
~Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems
By Sarah Getty
Open the house.
Let the sun roar in and corner
the huddling dust.
Let the March wind tear down cobwebs,
sweep out crayon- and cookie-crumbs,
smells of Vapo-rub and smoke.
In the brisk new daylight
get things straight.
Clean the hall closet. Organize your desk.
Go through your wardrobe, your game-plan, your old loves.
Throw things away.
Remove the victims of winter’s grudge,
littering the yard like a battlefield.
Haul away the big black branch that’s lurked there,
like a beached squid, since January.
Lop off its limbs and stack them.
Rake slimy leaf-rot off the tulip beds.
Let clean heat reach the bulbs.
Root out the old hurts,
the cozy unsuccesses.
Forget that your sister wasn’t at your wedding,
that your father didn’t seem to like you much.
Get rid of the birthday party no one came to
and the men who never asked you out again.
Bundle the demeaning medical procedures
and leave them at the curb.
Pile up the lost job, the student evaluations,
the ideas of what your in-laws should be like.
Burn the time your six-year-old came home from school
and you weren’t there.
Burn the anniversary evening that wasn’t fun.
Burn the bad poems and the rejection slips.
Be ruthless as March.
Be a lion.
Under the clean-limbed trees be fierce and neat.
Hunt out the beasties that fatten in the dark.
Let the sun scour.
Let the wind prowl and pounce.
from Nicole Krauss’s novel, The History of Love:
Early in the story, a protagonist named Leo describes his pleasure going to the movies and sitting up close to the screen. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to watch it up there, blown up. I would say larger than life, but I’ve never understood that expression. What is larger than life? To sit in the front row and look up at a beautiful girl’s face two stories high and have the vibrations of her voice massaging your legs is to be reminded of the size of life. So I sit in the front row. If I leave with a crick in my neck and a fading hard-on it was a good seat. I’m not a dirty old man. I’m a man who wants to be as large as life.”
A man commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a portrait of his wife. When it was completed, Picasso invited the man to his studio where, with a flourish, the painting was unveiled and it was, yes, abstract. The patron was not pleased; his brow furrowed. “Your painting does not look at all like my wife,” he complained. “Hmm,” said Picasso, and he continued, “Well, what does your wife look like?” From his wallet, the man produced a photograph which Picasso then studied. At length, the great painter said, “She’s rather small, isn’t she?”
Much as a wallet-sized photo bears little resemblance to a person, I propose to you that Unitarian Universalist as we now practice it – a faith that espouses the unities and universals of human experience – in actuality bears insufficient resemblance to our irreducible world. In large part and with exceptions, the institutional expressions of Unitarian Universalism have been and remain wallet-sized, insular, parochial, self-involved and rather small. This smallness contrasts with the largeness, nay the immensity, of our aspirations.
Because the UUA alleges that this Bedford congregation and three others from across the country are 2013’s so-called “breakthrough congregations,” Megan and I have been asked to reflect on innovation and tradition, the transient and the permanent and what we are learning about our congregations, our movement and our ministry in these dangerous and uncertain times. Megan and I will deliver a keynote address at a district gathering next weekend in Portsmouth, NH. Then, later in April, we will – along with Carolyn Patierno, our minister in New London, CT, another honored congregation – lead worship for our district annual meeting in Worcester. I hope some of you come to laugh at our jokes and keep us from being attacked by the mob. Speaking to colleagues and other congregations is not my favorite thing to do.
I need also say that no good deed goes unpunished and the price one pays for being named a “breakthrough congregation” is to be asked to do gigs like these. Yes, it is a privilege but, folks, I’m not on the Church Growth Speaking Circuit; I don’t know the secrets of what will work for others. Rather than a professional, I feel like an amateur – a lover of the church, yes, but an experimenter, a hitter-and-misser and, as you shall see a star pupil in the School of Free Association and Stream of Consciousness Preaching.
Look: We need not convince you of the present danger. In membership our UU churches may or may not be holding our own but, as a percentage of the total population our market share is in decline. Small churches are getting smaller, often; large churches are getting larger, sometimes. In the general population, we celebrate the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, the so-call NONES (as in “none of the above”) – as if this is somehow good news for Unitarian Universalists: why these NONES are just like us! We seem to brag, “Hey, c’mon over, we’re religiously unaffiliated too!”
For ten years prior to Bedford I served our congregation in Mendon and Uxbridge (down near the Rhode Island line) which, at the time, had nearly 200 members and was one of the largest churches in that district and which today reports 35 members. And if you’d like to build some condos or flip some real estate, today you can buy the Uxbridge church! $116,000!
When I went into the ministry, we were told that serving these New England congregations was a pretty safe proposition: “These churches have been here for nearly 300 years,” people at the UUA told me. “Whatever you do – right or wrong – you’re really very unlikely to kill them off completely!” These days are different: Now I think we have a real opportunity to kill off a whole lot of churches!
Mainline denominations have it worse; I don’t envy Catholics, evangelicals or anybody else…but theological schools and religious institutions are drying up and blowing away. Unitarian Universalism is in jeopardy. Indeed, ALL religious brand names are becoming a thing of the past.
Last fall, I officiated at Jack Mendelsohn’s memorial service and my colleague Jane Rzepka, who grew up a UU, recalled that as a young person she went to the library and saw books titled, Why I Am a Catholic and Why I am a Methodist, and then when she saw Jack’s book titled Why I Am a Unitarian, she said to herself, “This guy thinks my religion is real!” Jane’s heart went pit-a-pat but, alas, fewer and fewer hearts flutter when you say “I am a Whatever.” Increasingly – and I think understandably – people care less about what you call yourself and more about who you are and what you do.
Recently in the New York Times there was an article about a new clothing company with a cult-following among 20-something-year- old women. The company is called Nasty Gal, and though they’ve had to fight to distinguish themselves from some similarly-named internet porn sites, Nasty Gal is the fastest growing retailer in the country and their CEO is an interesting much-tattooed woman named Sophia Amoruso. Amoruso’s business slogan is this: “Only the paranoid survive!” We can stand on the side of love all we want but I favor that we have a healthy does of paranoia as well. My church growth slogan is the same, “Only the paranoid survive!”
We must be mindful of the realities of our times.
So this is the baleful background to our observations. What I want to suggest, however, is that the future of Unitarian Universalism depends on our ability to simultaneously engage past and future, finite and infinite, the transient and the permanent.
When Bedford was first nominated as a breakthrough congregation, I had recently gone off on a preaching jag about steampunk ecclesiology and, go figure, it touched a nerve – particularly among 20 & 30 somethings, but lots of you had steampunk stories, steampunk objects, steampunk clothing. Megan and I went on a fieldtrip to the Steampunk Museum (the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation) which, you know, is located in Steampunk City, otherwise known as Waltham, Massachusetts.
By the time the UU World wrote an article about Bedford, however, their editors somehow decided that steampunk was just too esoteric, too hard-to-explain, too inexplicable and weird. Though the UU World editor did mock up an issue with a steampunk cover, there was not one mention of steampunk in the actual article.
Just briefly, let me try to rectify this horrific omission.
Steampunk is an odd literary and science fiction genre that features objects from the age of steam that are repurposed for the future. It’s a kind of retrofuturism.
Once you start looking for it, you’ll see lots of steampunk in popular culture. When we talked about steampunk ecclesiology, steampunk fans came out of the woodwork. People with retrofuturistic clothing; people who imagined steampowered laptops and cell phones with shiny brass gears and cogs.
The place where you see steampunk regularly is in print ads for expensive watches. There’s a love affair for brass and gears and mechanical wizardry. The movie Hugo was very steampunk: a boy who learns to repair a mechanical man, an automaton.
You’re probably beginning to understand why the UU World decided to omit any mention of steampunk…but bear with me:
My proposition is that a steampunk ethos – a repurposing of the past – is essential to our future.
In our disconnected lives in a disconnected world, people crave the roots, connections and continuities of history and tradition.
(Hanna Papanek is one who has told me that, of all my sermons, the one she liked least was the steampunk sermon; and I’m not quite ready to associate the Holocaust with steampunk, but there is a quality of memory to steampunk…remembering the past in order to live more authentically in the present.)
There’s a lot to what we do here that is old-fashioned – and that’s good. But what is old can be repurposed and made meaningful for the future. Sitting and listening to sermons: how steampunk! Singing churchy songs: how steampunk! The double-bass from the 1840’s and that pipe organ: So steampunk! Vestments: Steampunk! This room, this building we’re in right now: Spectacularly steampunk!
Here we are immersed in these ancient classical forms and structures and activities that, if we are to survive, need be recast in service to our future.
My friend Carolyn Patierno’s church in New London is not so ancient: its building is a former car dealership. She tells the story about the mayor speaking at her installation and saying brightly, “I bought my first car here!”
Our Bedford meetinghouse, however, was built in 1816, successor to the original built in 1729. In 1815 a hurricane blew through New England and took down a lot of trees. The evangelicals of the Great Awakening pronounced the devastation to be God’s judgment on liberal theology. The good people in Bedford, however, interpreted all the trees on the ground to be God’s desire for a new meetinghouse to be built, using the ample fresh lumber as well as the used timbers taken from the original meetinghouse and repurposed to build something new.
“Steampunk ecclesiology and retrofuturism! That, I say, is a valid ticket to our future. We’ve inherited the church from the age of steam – or in Carolyn’s case from the golden age of the automobile – and we’ve retrofitted them to be not just contemporary but futuristic, edgy, youthful, hopeful and zesty.
25 Beacon Street: Hallowed and beloved. Old. Fusty. Repurposeable for the future? Not really. Not steampunk.
24 Farnsworth: Old. A warehouse, I think. Innovative now, they say. Steampunk? Maybe!
We must continually be reinventing ourselves and we must use every new and adventuresome gear, lever, widget and whirligig!
But, you wisely ask, how ya gonna do that?
Jesus decried putting new wine in old bottles and recommended putting new wine in new bottles, but I also think it works to put old wine in new bottles; but for godsake put the wine in somebody’s glass so they can drink it.
Recently I’ve gotten good mileage out of NYT columnist David Brooks, who lately quoted George Santayana’s observation that Americans don’t solve their problems; they leave them behind. Talking about government, he says, “The issue is not size but sclerosis…. The crucial point is whether (we spend) on the present or future . The task today is to reform institutions and rearrange (them) so we look like a young nation and not a comfort-seeking, declining one.”
I say unto you our task today is to reform our church and rearrange everything so we look like a young church and not a comfort-seeking, declining one.
In another recent column titled “How Movements Recover,” Brooks talks about the crisis of the church in the 4th century when “two rival reform movements arose to restore the integrity of Catholicism.” One was the Donatists who wanted to purify the church, create a community of committed believers, separate from impurity, and build a sturdy ark for those who wanted to be Christian.
Brooks says that the Donatist tendency to close ranks and return to first principles is seen “whenever a movement faces a crisis.”
The other rival movement, however, was that of the Augustinians, embraced by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wanted “the church to go on offense and swallow the world…swallowing impurities as well as purities….Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions….rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery.” The tendency in crisis, Brooks says, is Donatist, but the more successful strategy is “to exploit a moment of weakness by making yourself even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure, counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault.”
That’s what I’d like us to do: make ourselves even more vulnerable, by striking outward into complexity, swallowing the pure and impure and counterattacking crisis with an evangelical assault!
But, you wisely ask again, how ya gonna do that?
My answer is that we do this by experimenting like mad, trying all sorts of stuff, being entrepreneurial and opportunistic…while at the same time staying true to larger purposes.
We accomplish this by embracing the permanent and the transient, the universal and the particular, and hitching our wagon to a star.
Now here’s one more steampunk image: our wagon! Who’s got a wagon anymore? A little red wagon? A beach wagon or a station wagon? Maybe you could buy a wagon at Carolyn’s car dealership!! Come to think of it, I drive a Volks Vagon!
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. Remember that? But I digress.
We hitch our wagon to a star. That’s an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson, you know. Here’s the full quote from American Civilization, written in 1862::
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.
I say, Let us hitch our wagons to a star and see our chores done by the gods themselves.
That’s the trick, as was said by Tennessee Williams, “The great magic trick of human existence is to snatch the eternal from the desperately fleeting.”
For me a powerful representation of this star-hitching magic was the work of Ken Patton who revolutionized Universalism at the Charles Street Meeting House. Universalist Church of America general superintendent (a steampunk title if ever there was one) Robert Cummins once said that “A circumscribed universalism is unthinkable” and yet by 1940’s the Universalists were so circumscribed that, although their headquarters were at16 Beacon Street, there was not a single Universalist church left in Boston.
You know if you want a really depressing read, take a look at Peter Richardson’s book The Boston Religion in which he catalogues the 75 Unitarian churches that used to be in Boston and their steady march to oblivion such that today there are now four. One of Peter’s most delicious observations of their decline involved the fact that most of these 75 churches had no signs. No signs. “All our members know where they go to church. Why should we contaminate the architecture with signs???”
Before I wonder where their heads could possibly have been, I’d venture that most of our churches had no signs until 70 or 80 years ago.
Again, however, I digress from the inspiring and useful vision of Ken Patton at Charles Street. Remember that he took a fusty Universalism and made it into a religion for one world. When he was given the Distinguished Service Award by the UUA in 1986 he spent much of his speaking time justifiably berating the UUA for taking so long in recognizing him. Ken Patton was a crusty impossible man; he liked humanity much more than people; and he was also a genius. The interior and the exterior of the Charles Street Meetingouse looked a lot like ours…because both followed the designed of the federalist architect Asher Benjamin.
And so Ken Patton filled Charles Street with art from the world’s religions, the chancel featured a library of global scriptures, he moved the pews so they faced one another and, in the chancel archway, he got up on a ladder and with day-glo colors, he painted the Andromeda Galaxy for all to see: the furthest thing in our universe visible to the human eye, the light from which is the oldest light ever to enter a human eye. And then, at the other end of the sanctuary, he installed a small model of the atom. Now the atom may not now be the smallest thing that human eyes can see. We now know about photons and other stuff but the atom is pretty darn small, and so…
What you have is a sanctuary that resonates between macrocosm and microcosm, the infinite and the finite. And with the pews facing the center, he put an image of the earth on the floor, holy ground, right where your feet could touch it.
So that’s the cosmic image I want before us today: we exist in a dynamic cosmos, feet on the ground, poised in a universe that resonates between Andromeda and the atom, the infinite and the finite, the permanent and the transient.
As so many of us sang so recently:
O day of light and gladness, of prophecy and song, what thoughts within us waken, what hallowed mem’ries throng! The soul’s horizon widens, past, present, future blend, and rises on our vision the life that hath no end.
And so I say: For our faith to thrive, we must hitch our wagons to a star.
Would that we strive to fix our sights on all that is beyond us, that draws us out of ourselves and into the realms of mystery and wonder and wow.
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!) and try, in every and whatsoever way, aligning and aspiring to that which is larger than ourselves.
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.
There used to be a Whole Earth Catalogue quiz about knowing what aquifer you’re on; where your water comes from and your sewage goes to. In New England especially we’ve grown fatally accustomed to thinking of each of our little hamlets as atomistic, independent, ETOB: “every tub on its own bottom,” self-reliance.
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 students and teachers in Uganda with whom our kids and teacher skyped this morning .
Try partnering, as UUSC now implores us, with the servers in local restaurants, the ones who earn $2.13 an hour (a number unchanged for 20-some years) and who typically have no sick days but who handle our food, well or sick?
What, after all, is social justice work but connecting our lives with others whose realities differ from our own?
Our is a religious movement, we’re travelers on an audacious starry journey.
But, now here’s the other side of this: If we’re to hitch to a star, we’re gonna need a wagon.