“Janus, God of Thresholds: Looking Back, Looking Forward”

“Janus, God of Thresholds: Looking Back, Looking Forward”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, January 12, 2020
At The First Parish in Bedford


Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:

“The threshold is the place of expectation.”

                              —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“We stand in life at midnight;
we are always at the threshold of a new dawn.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

 Opening Words

“There are threshold moments in each of our lives.  Moments when the past that lies behind us seems present and real.  Moments when the future that lies ahead of us seems apparent and hopeful.  Such special threshold moments when past and future meet in a vivid awareness of Now are rare and holy.  Times such as these remind us that our time together comes to us as a precious gift, a gift that comes with choices and responsibilities for how it is to be used.  We recognize the importance of these choices in our lives.  And we celebrate them!  And when out of all the universe people meet and choose to share their gift of time, it is a special occasion for celebration.  This is a special threshold moment, here and now, which we are gathered to witness and to honor.”


From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 6:10-18 (KJV):

10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.

11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;

15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;

16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.

17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:

18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.



So…I’ve been to church EVERY Sunday since October 1st.  A show of hands from those who can say the same?

Churches I have visited: Little Rock, AK; Tucson then Flagstaff, AZ; Los Alamos then Farmington, NM (those UU’s have a total of 20 members); Tulsa, OK (3 services on Sunday morning and we got a taste of all 3 (traditional, contemporary, and humanist…2230 members, the largest in the UUA); then back home in mid-November…Hope Central UCC in JP (Christ the King Sunday, including communion); 7:30am services at St. Anne’s Episcopal in Arlington (also with communion) – that was a morning double-header with FP Lexington; then the Paulist Center in Boston; then Follen UU in E. Lexington; FP Concord; Arlington Street Church; All Souls UU in NYC; Christmas Eve at UU Rockport; and (2 Sundays ago), FP Malden.  I’ve got the cancelled checks to prove it!  Sue and I got to sit together, for a change.  Hello back there!  There were some very good church experiences, some OK, and some indifferent…but there’s no place like home.

Dearly beloved, as I said last Sunday, thank you for this gift of time away.  I have – and I’m sure many of you have – a kind of radar that scans your landscape 24 hours a day.  It was a gift to turn off my church radar and not lie in bed at dawn with a sense of impending doom or duty or michigas.  Thank you to all our staff and leaders and volunteers and you for showing up here.  It’s so hard to believe, but so many great things happened here without me!

There’s an old story about a minister who went to the train station early every morning just to watch the trains and then went home.  “Why do you do this?” someone finally asked.  The minister replied, “I just love to watch things move without me having to push them!”

I loved watching Thanksgiving and Christmas just roll down the track!  Thank you, thank you, thank you, and thank you for letting me come back.  “I am because you are” is the African concept of ubuntu: we exist only as we are in relation with one another.  As long as I am your minister, I am because you are; I will be with you and for you to the utmost of my energies, and now and in the future we will be more together than we could possibly be apart.

People ask, “What did you do?”  And I won’t condemn you to a travelogue of home movies but just so everyone knows and I don’t have to repeat this a hundred times:

Setting out on October 1st on what would be an 8,000-mile road trip, we first visited family in Rochester, NY and Columbus, OH.  Then, on one beautiful day in Kentucky we visited the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, the monastery of Thomas Merton, and the Makers Mark Distillery.  A trifecta, holy trinity!  Also in Kentucky is Mammoth Cave – which is, by the way, a really big cave (412 miles long, at least).  In Memphis we visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.  In Arkansas, we recommend the Clinton Presidential Library.  In Las Cruces, New Mexico we hiked in the Organ Mountains and Sonoran desert.

Sue’s and my destination was Patagonia, Arizona (south of Tucson) where our son Eric and his husband George live. Hippies and cowboys.  Eric and George are not cowboys.  We hiked and talked and savored one another’s company.

Patagonia is known for its biodiversity…more than 200 species of hummingbirds, for example.  And biodiversity is threatened by the border wall, which we also visited when we walked into Mexico, and saw the memorials to those immigrants killed by the border patrol or who died in the desert.  No More Deaths – No Más Muertes – is a ministry of the UU Church in Tucson, and it was while we were there that one of their members was acquitted for the crime of leaving water as humanitarian aid.

You’ve heard me say that, in these dangerous days, I believe we must put ourselves in the way of trouble (“Get in good trouble,” counsels John Lewis).  But to be able to do so, we must also (as was said by the author Cheryl Strayed) “put ourselves in the way of beauty.”  I think that’s a balance we try to strike here in this church, but for the last three months I’ve erred on the side of beauty: hiking, breathing deeply, savoring.  Remember it was E.B. White who said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Getting in the way of beauty has been good for my health and I recommend it.  But I hope to be getting in more trouble again soon, as well!

Sedona is all about beauty.  One of you recommended Kitt Peak Astronomical Observatory, which is awesome.  And Page, Arizona: Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge, the astonishing Antelope Slot Canyons, Monument Valley, Marble Canyon, Navajo National Monument, Aztec Ruins, Chaco Canyon, Taos Pueblo, the futuristic sustainable Earthship architecture.  In Taos, we sought out the grave of Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper (though a friend then texted me, saying “Don’t linger: he was a Republican!”).

So many of the places we visited were and are sacred to Native peoples, some continuously occupied for thousands of years.  Our patina of New England idealism must never blind us to the original sin of genocide and racism, nor to the persistence, despite everything, of those whom our forbears failed to annihilate.

And there were fabulous museums: Georgia O’Keefe in Santa Fe; Woody Guthrie in Tulsa; Crystal Bridges in, of all places, Bentonville, Arkansas, one of the finest art museums in the world (thanks to Walton/Walmart money). And the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri,

And then there was Hannibal, Missouri (and the fence that Tom Sawyer got his friends to whitewash) and Springfield, Illinois, Land of Lincoln, and Annie’s hometown of Normal, Illinois.  Outside of Chicago, we visited the 80-year-old woman who is the girlfriend of the convicted murderer I visit here in prison (you may recall that he went AWOL from prison, made his way to Chicago where under an alias he became a famous poet and, uh, the chair of the Board of the Unitarian Church where I grew up!).  His girlfriend is – just by the way – the daughter of the greatest of UU theologians, James Luther Adams. Go figure.  We visited my parents’ graves in Sandwich, Illinois, my father’s favorite coffee shop in Elmhurst, and the farm in Aurora where my mother grew up.

You’ve heard me talk of that farm before: My grandparents Irv and Olive Johnson worked it from something like 1900 until 1937 when, for lack of $150 they lost it.  On the night before the bank foreclosed, they tried to get Franklin Roosevelt on the telephone, without success.  Irv put his fist through a window.  In its heyday his plow was worked by two horses, Nip and Tuck.  Irv found lots of arrowheads in the fields.  His favored farm breakfast was fresh eggs and a shot of gin.  On July 5, 1935, my parents were married in the living room at the farm.  Standing in front of the fireplace altar, my father wore striped boxer shorts, visible to all through his white pants.  And so, in November, amidst the profusion of suburban developments, it took Sue and me forever just to find the farm and when we did it was mostly empty, run down, and nearly abandoned.  I peered through the dingy front windows and imagined my parents, my father’s boxers, the telephone call, my grandfather’s fist.

Cultural changes I have observed:  Since I last traveled cross-country, there are more casinos everywhere!  There are fewer adult superstores (the internet has put a dent in that business).  The usual roadside attractions selling jerky, peanut brickle, and fireworks have now been augmented by stun guns and knives, CBD and vaping products!  There are food deserts and an obscene proliferation of Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Stores.  There are billboards for personal injury lawyers, for religion (“Are you going to heaven or hell?  There is Evidence for God!”)  “Prevent Opioid Deaths with Narcan”  And pro-gun Burma Shave style signs:  “Crooks Are Many/Cops Are Few/Crooks Carry Guns/Why Can’t You?” And “If You Don’t Like This Country, Leave!”  This country also has a heck of a lot of caves and caverns – now with patriotic light shows!  And something new in every hamlet: Escape rooms!  “How are you?” I ask a local.  The response, “Blessed, thank you.”  And “Have a blessed day.”  West of the Mississippi, biscuits and gravy.  Not east.

Having been on the road for nearly six weeks and not having killed one another, I figured it was time for Sue and me to come home.  She would’ve kept going.  One of our last stops was the well-preserved Oneida Community in New York, one of the most successful 19th century communes.  It was sex-positive in a somewhat progressive but still patriarchal and twisted way.  They practiced weird birth control. You can google and read about it.  Children were raised in common.  They made money by making silver (Oneida ware) and animal traps.  I now own a 150-year-old Oneida mousetrap!

On the road, we listened to audio books: Albert Brooks dystopian novel 2030 (Los Angeles is sold to the Chinese…young people revolt against “the olds” for taking up too many resources.  Sorta like a weaponized OK Boomer!).  We listened to 19 hours of Wendell Berry’s wonderful That Distant Land  Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.

And podcasts: Throughline and Invisibilia.

Back home I’ve read the late great essayist, novelist, and poet Brian Doyle.  I’ve read Dave Packer’s memoir, Finding Joy: A Life Explored.  Oh, the luxury of reading a book.  Like Jimmy Durante said, “I’ll never forget the day I read a book!”  How many of you have never heard of Jimmy Durante?

And there’s so much still to do at home but I have now decluttered my closet.  I came to the conclusion that I do not need 105 t-shirts, but they will make a fine quilt.  I swept my bookshelves and took 15 grocery bags of books to the Friends of the Library (even the erotica).  Enough stuff!

And just before Christmas, we spent several days in New York City.  We went to theatre: To Kill a Mockingbird (Privileged white lawyer Atticus Finch coming down off his porch to enter the racial fray remains a powerful metaphor for what white America still needs to do: come down off the porch!)  We also experienced a performance by our good friend Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir.  They send their greetings:  Earthalujah!

I haven’t told you that our church has a couple of floor-standing candelabras that are flopsy, flimsy and inadequate, such that last month I commissioned a blacksmith to make new ones.  I hope we’ll see the new ones here later this spring.

One warm day in November I rode my bike on my usual route through Carlisle and Concord and stopped, as usual, in front of the First Parish in Concord.  There I noticed that their “Black Lives Matter” banner had been defaced by stickers from a group called Patriotic Front, a neo-Nazi white supremacist nationalist hate group.  Neo-Nazis??? Whaaat? In Concord, Massachuesetts??? It’s absolutely unbelievable and yet indicative of the dire state of our nation.

And there was one more museum in New York: The Tenement Museum, an immigration museum that made as indelible an impression as any museum has ever left upon me.  On the Lower East side, these are tenements built in the 19th century that have seen successions of refugees, migrants, and immigrants.  One apartment we visited was occupied in the 50’s by Jewish Holocaust refugees and some of its rooms replicate their lives exactly.  Under 50 coats of paint, there’s a mezuzah on its front door. In the 60’s, the same apartment was occupied by Puerto Rican migrants and other rooms reflect their lives.  Under 25 coats of paint, there’s a cross next to the mezuzah. And then in the 70’s there came a family of Chinese immigrants.  Peering in those rooms, like peering into that now-abandoned Illinois farmhouse, reminded me of the sacrifices made, the hardships endured, and the legacy of hope and determination that we now inherit.

At the Tenement Museum, it occurred to me that some day I hope there will be a plaque outside the room we used to call 201 but which we now call Maria’s apartment, a plaque to honor the sacrifice, the hardship, the hope, and the determination exhibited by Maria and her family, by this congregation and by so many others.  We thank Maria for the opportunity to live our faith.  We pray for a miracle and we fight as if our lives depend on it.  Which they do.

Now about this fight.  Last Sunday night nearly 40 of Maria’s family members young and old gathered with our Sanctuary Committee in our Common Room to lament and to honor Maria’s more than 2 years with us in sanctuary.  It was so poignant.  On behalf of their family, Maria’s brother presented us with two gifts, this mug depicting two hiking boots with a Bible between them, inscribed “Caminando en fé,” walking in faith.  That is what we’re doing here: walking in faith.

And, yes, let’s put our boots on.  And so here’s a Bible.  But we Unitarian Universalists don’t have just one book.  And so – what the heck – lets add the words of our forbears represented by John Buehrens’ book, “Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice.”  And let’s add still one more, a blank book so you and I, too, can write our own fresh new gospel of love.   Caminando en fé.  (John placed a pair of hiking boots on the pulpit, placed a Bible between them, then added the book about the Transcendentalists, as well as a blank book.)

And last Sunday Maria’s brother also gave us this fine item, “The Full Armor of God.”  (John then held aloft the gift, a 16-inch statuette.)  Representing the words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have learned that this concept is Sunday School 101 for some of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters.  This is not a typical Unitarian Universalist icon…but it should be!

Beloved, we are in a fight, and as John Buehrens said last week we hope it is a nonviolent struggle, but we are in a fight for the soul of this nation, for the values of humanity, for the survival of all sentient beings, and we are in a fight for the earth itself.

As was said in Ephesians, we must defend against the devil, against powers and principalities, against spiritual wickedness in high places.  (You know those words used to be unfamiliar to me, Beloved, but their meaning to me now could not be clearer!) Moreover, we need be armored that we may stand and withstand, our loins girt about with truth, having the breastplate of righteousness, our feet shod by the gospel of peace, taking the shield of faith (wherewith we shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked)!  Are you with me, Beloved?  And we shall take the helmet of universal salvation, and the sword of the spirit.  Spirit of life, come unto me!

Standing here at this threshold in this liminal time, we all look back in gratitude.  For preserving us unto this present moment, for every experience and every person living and dead, remembered and forgotten: thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now, we look forward, not in fear and apprehension but in hope and expectation.  Despite everything, there is so much for us to do, for us to be, and there is so much and there are so many for us to love.

Beloved, I do love you very much.

Closing Words

 “There are threshold moments in each of our lives.  Moments when the past that lies behind us seems present and real.  Moments when the future that lies ahead of us seems apparent and hopeful.  Such special threshold moments when past and future meet in a vivid awareness of Now are rare and holy.  Times such as these remind us that our time together comes to us as a precious gift, a gift that comes with choices and responsibilities for how it is to be used.  We recognize the importance of these choices in our lives.  And we celebrate them!  And when out of all the universe people meet and choose to share their gift of time, it is a special occasion for celebration.  This is a special threshold moment, here and now, which we are gathered to witness and to honor.”