“More Ponderings about Our Theological Good News”
A sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, January 9, 2011
At The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
From Michael Krasny’s, Spiritual Envy, An Agnostic’s Quest
I was struck by a memorable line from the British writer Julian Barnes, who said, “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” That statement resonated for me, not so much the part about not believing, but the part about missing. As a boy I was certain God was with me, watching over me, a friend and confidant I could rely on. I knew he was there for me, wherever “there” happened to be. I believed in God even when I got the worst beating of my life from my sixth grade teacher, a cockney Brit who would erupt in rage and haul me into the boy’s bathroom for a flurry of slaps and punches and kicks, and who, on one occasion, thrust my eleven-year-old head into the toilet for a cruel dunk. Because I was a kid who misbehaved, I felt the physical abuse I received was justified and my bad behavior its cause. Which is why I never told anyone, including my parents. But I was intelligent enough to dedicate myself to reforming my behavior so I wouldn’t continue to be taken to the boys’ restroom. I let it be known that I was the new Michael Krasny, a Michael Krasny who had metamorphosed into a good boy.
I became my teacher’s helpmate, staying late after school and assisting him with cleaning the room, putting up and taking down class drawings, and doing anything else he bid me to do. I did these good-boy deeds cheerfully and dependably because I wanted his goodwill and approval. I was determined to make him know I could be good, and thus stave off his violence and see it replaced by a teacher’s affection. It worked until one day after school when I was carrying a bucket of paint for him to another sixth grade classroom. I slipped and helplessly watched as the bucket toppled over and yellow paint flowed down the elementary school corridor like a miniature river. My teacher saw it all while hastening out of the classroom for a cigarette, and he erupted into a rage that led to the most ferocious of all the assaults. I got a beating in the boys’ room, followed by his ordering me to mop up the paint, which I did, suffering in silence, holding in my tears until I had finished and left the school grounds. Lest somebody see my cry, I waited until I got to a small wooded area near my home, where I was certain I could not be seen, and then sobbed convulsively, saying to myself, “I was being good. No one knows. But you do, God. You know.”
From Sarah Silverman’s, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee
In 1976 I was five and cute as a really hairy button. My eldest sister, Susie was twelve. She was fair with very long dark brown hair and big brown sad eyes reflecting a heartbreaking need for love—by any means necessary.
When I was three she would babysit me and say, “If I drink this orange juice I’m gonna turn into a monster!”
I’d cry, “Susie no!” But she drank the juice anyway, went into the closet where the washer-dryer was, put a brown suede ski mask on her head, and came back out, monstrafied.
“RAAAARGH!! The only way I’ll turn back to Susie is if you hug me!!!”
Terrified, I ran in a burst toward the monster, hugging her, eyes clenched.
Susie once pulled a steak knife out of the silverware drawer, turned to me, and mused, “It’s so weird, like, I could kill you right now. Like, I wouldn’t, but I could. I could just take your life…” One way to interpret this is that it foretold her eventual future as a rabbi. At age fourteen, here she was, already pondering the biggest issues of the human condition—life, death, morality, and the choices we must make. An alternate interpretation is that living with me eventually causes one to contemplate murder. But I’m feeling the former explanation is the right one, as it is a scientific certainty that I’m pretty adorable.
You may recall that this sermon is an attempt to prepare a paper I have been assigned to deliver to a collegial group of UU ministers, called the Fraters (“Brothers” – but also now inclusive of Sisters). We are the Fraters of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury where we will meet later this month for the 109th year.
I will be seated at the end of a long center table in the Old Kitchen. When you visit, look on the wall for the brass plaque dedicated to the Fraters. I can tell you a story about a Fraters fracas that erupted about that plaque! There will be a fire in the fireplace; it is often a bit close and smoky; and I will be reading by candlelight. There is an old photo of ancient Fraters adding to the smokiness by puffing on long-stem clay pipes. My fellow Fraters will be seated all around the room against the walls; and by tradition there are pots of crocuses (a half century or so ago, one pranking Frater demonstrated God’s grace by planting crocuses in the snowbank visible through the frosty-paned windows).
Last year we Fraters delivered curmudgeonly papers on a theme of what’s wrong with most everything (Unitarian Universalism, the UUA, theological schools, the country) and so this year we’ve been told to address the good news and what’s right with us and the world.
Regrettably, the Prior (he’s the rotating muckety-muck Frater who determines the annual theme, sets the rules and adjudicates our disputes) assigned me the topic of what’s good about our theology.
I have heard it advised, and indeed I have sometimes advised our student ministers, that one does not interestingly preach on topics one knows something about but rather it is much more revelatory to preach on topics one knows little or nothing about. Much as I have been advised to listen for the sound of stuff hitting the fan and hear it as applause, I now take it as a high compliment when you, my hearers, later say one to another, “That Gibbons has no idea what he’s talking about!”
That was what was said a few Sundays ago when I first addressed this topic – no one has ever accused me of being a theologian – and I aspire to no less today.
In the smallest of nutshells, what I said previously is that our theology is about the unities and universals of human experience. It’s good news, I think, that we don’t much care what you believe; what matters is who you are and what you do and what sort of relationship you have with yourself and with one another and with this bruised and beautiful world.
The big finish to that sermon, you may recall, were the words of poet Mary Oliver, “When it’s over,” she says, “I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” “What’s right about our theology,” I said, “is that it begins and ends in awe and wonder.”
Well, that’s a hard act to follow and so what I want to do today is to add some second thoughts, a few asterisks, underlinings and illustrations so that I can put these two sermons together in a paper that will not embarrass me too much with the Fraters.
Oh, what I didn’t tell you is that when I finish delivering my paper, I then will have to sit quietly while one after another, each of the surrounding Fraters will respond with their opinionated commentaries. The sound of my paper hitting the fan.
I think that part of the reason I’ve so far been fritterin’ away my time up here is that… I really don’t care all that much about our theology or anybody else’s.
Upon reading a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the mathematician Charles Babbage wrote the poet, saying:
In your otherwise beautiful poem one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born
If this were true the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem should read:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born
Strictly speaking the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
Theology, it seems to me, is much more poetry than mathematical science, so who am I to begrudge another’s taste in poesy?
The prophetic preacher William Sloane Coffin, Jr. did take theology seriously but whenever he preached in UU churches he invariably began by making the smart-aleck remark, the back-handed insult, that he could never understand how UU’s could have such a thick social ethic with such a thin theology!
Like any self-respecting Unitarian Universalist I resembled his remark; indeed he had a point. We generally are much more interested in ethics and matters this worldly, including awe, mystery and wonder than we are in any speculative theology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Like tomato and tomahto, I say there are many theological pronouncements and I thoroughly enjoy the presence under this roof of humanists and Christians, Jews and Buddhists and Rastafarians and Republicans and zombies, Tea Partiers, too, I suppose, though there is much for which they ought repent.
I am usually amused when orthodoxies, including mine and our own, are challenged. In last week’s newspapers, for example, there was a great story about a dispute among professional psychologists about whether or not ESP really exists. Some respected journal has published a paper by a scholar purporting to prove that some people can indeed intuit and sense future events.
The particulars of this research were also pretty funny as test participants were shown two curtains on a computer screen which, when opened, would reveal either a photograph or nothing. It was determined that the participants could indeed predict which would be revealed, and their predictions were especially good when the revealed photographs were erotic photographs! This was on the front page of the New York Times!
And the Times goes on to say that there is now a controversy (or a con-TRO-versy, as the Brits would say) between the proponents of the so-called “null hypothesis” and those who prefer something called “Bayesian analysis,” neither of which – you will be relieved to know – will I describe further.
It all sounded to me like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” style theology with its own scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo.
It’s fun to see the psychologists rumble, but to me it doesn’t matter much.
Likewise, we may or may not believe in God and we may, like Michael Krasny, not believe in God but miss him (or her or it).
And then again, like Groucho Marx said, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
For example, on the other hand (and just you wait, before I’m done there’s gonna be a third hand to my perspective), there are a lot of news stories which are not at all amusing but are theologically and ethically complex.
For example, the controversy about the Massachusetts Parole Board, the people who gave parole to the violent offender who then murdered a Woburn police officer. In retrospect, of course, he should not have been paroled. However, I have sat before that Board with a capital offender who, I believe, should be paroled – not only for his sake but because it’s a waste of our tax money for him to remain imprisoned. The inmate I know has been denied parole and my impression of the Board was not good: they seemed prejudiced and just plain misinformed.
And yet how heavy must weigh their responsibility; how necessary it is that sentences be moderated by discretion but how uncertain and risk-fraught is the outcome.
Does mercy season justice?
There were other theologically-challenging news stories last week:
“It’s death on a wide scale, biblical-type stuff,” the Washington Post reported: “Millions of spot fish died in the Chesapeake Bay; red-winged blackbirds tumbled from the skies by the thousands in Arkansas and Kentucky over the holidays (they called it ‘aflockalypse now’) and tens of thousands of pogies, drum fish, crab and shrimp went belly up last fall in a Louisiana bayou.”
I am reminded of the story of the babies found floating downriver and many people marshaled resources to grab and save as many as possible. But then someone asked, “Uh, what’s going on up-river? Who is putting those babies in the river?” Saving life is a theological imperative but, so too is going to the source, treating not just the symptoms but changing the system. Our theology calls us to charity and also to justice.
When I’m writing a sermon, I’m a bit like a truck full of hammers and everything I see looks like a nail.
There was even a story in the local paper about the dentist in Bedford who took down his sign to refurbish it, but when he replaced it he was cited for not conforming to the sign by-law. Apparently, you can repair and refurbish any old sign in place but once you’ve taken it down, if you put it back up it now has to conform to the current by-law. The dentist appealed to the Selectmen who were sympathetic but understandably constrained by the law. It’s not exactly the story of Job but when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, the letter and the spirit of the law, that too is a theological dilemma.
What’s good about our theology is that it’s not about speculative ideas or beliefs; it’s about daily dilemmas and life and people.
Sharon McDonald, you know is a beloved children’s librarian. With appropriate immodesty, she recently told me this story: “Last week a little friend came into the Children’s Room and I overheard him ask his Gramma, “Can we go upstairs?”
Gramma replied “No. Upstairs is just the same as downstairs.”
“Oh,” acquiesced young Ethan. “Upstairs is the same as downstairs but with no Sharon.”
Our theology is not just about loving (or disagreeing with or wrassling with) anonymous people or sterile humanity; our theology is about persons: the difference between upstairs and downstairs is…Sharon.
If our theology’s any good, it’s because it is entirely about what Sarah Silverman’s knife-wielding rabbi-to-be sister was pondering: “the human condition – life, death, morality, and the choices we must make.”
When I read the stories of the Carlisle cops and that, too, of Paul Celucci’s diagnosis with ALS, these too seemed tragically, sadly, theological. Very very human stories.
Now here comes my third hand. There were also news stories in the last week that were neither amusing nor complex but blatantly simply theological.
It was reported, “The increasing radicalization of Pakistani society was today laid bare when mainstream religious organizations applauded the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, earlier this week and his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.” Salmaan Taseer was a primary advocate of religious toleration and an opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Last week in Egypt, there was a deadly terrorist attack by Islamist militants against Egypt’s Christian minority. A suicide bomber killed 21 Copts and injured nearly 100 at a New Year’s Eve mass in the port city of Alexandria.
And much closer to home, on the front page of the Globe was the so-called Christian pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts, Scott Lively, who has helped to promote the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda that now threatens to execute some of the gay and lesbian UU’s I met there in November.
This is also where I put yesterday’s news about the murders and mayhem in Arizona. The shooter is quoted as saying, “If you call me a terrorist, that’s an ad hominem argument.” His actions, however, were not Latinate ad hominem; in plain English they were murderous of people with names and lives and meaning.
Pima County sheriff Dupnik said, “The anger, the hatred the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately, Arizona has become the capitol. We have become the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry.”
What’s good about our theology is that, fundamentally, it’s inclusive, tolerant and always more invested in the common good – the unities and universals -than in any partial, parochial, territorial, dogmatic, creedal, tribal, ethnic, I’ve-got-the-truth-and-you-don’t self-ish judgments.
You remember Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater? The fellow who, unprepared, was asked to baptize some babies and wonders what to say…
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: ‘Goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.’”
A very good thing about our theology is that it tries to be kind for all the world is kin.
Somewhere I found an old 19th century evangelical Christian tract that denounces Universalism, “Reasons for Not Embracing the Doctrine of Universal Salvation.”
“The greater part of the community who are believers in divine revelation, and persons of industrious and virtuous habits, though not professedly pious, will reject the doctrine, and avoid the preaching that attempts to propagate it. But
If there are in the community any deists who have opposed Christianity until their opposition has become unpopular, these when the trumpet of Universalism is blown, will be among the first professed converts to the faith, that, being screened from odium by the name of Christian, they may still aim their poisoned shafts against the cause of evangelical truth.
The profane swearers in a town or city, together with those who are accustomed to neglect public worship, and violate the Sabbath by business or amusements, will become diligent in their attendance upon the worship which is conducted by preachers of universal salvation.
If there are any persons in the community who are unfaithful in the conjugal relation, and who are accustomed to drink “stolen waters” as sweeter than their own, these are usually much pleased to hear that there is no hell and that “adulterers” shall inherit the kingdom of God.”…
I have noticed also, that intemperate persons are generally very ready to attend when the doctrine of universal salvation is preached near them, and hear with much satisfaction that the path of the drunkard leads as directly to heaven as the path of the just.
Another portion of the audience of a Universalist preacher is commonly made up of young men and boys of loose habits. Those “whose feet,” according to the Bible, “go down to death, and whose steps take hold on hell,” delight to hear it proved that the Bible lies, and that “fornicators” shall “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Those persons who have been awakened to a sense of their guilt and danger, and have as often relapsed into a stupid or irreligious state, and who are always annoyed and irritated by the doctrines of grace, are much inclined to seek rest under the preaching of Universalists, and there get their consciences quieted by hearing that there is no day of judgment, and no punishment for the wicked.”
Well, all you deists, you bearers of unpopular opinions, you profane swearers, you who neglect public worship, you who are unfaithful, adulterous, intemperate, ye of loose habits and fornicators, you who sometimes live with a sense of guilt and danger and stupidity, the irreligious, annoyed and irritated – does that about cover all of you? – what’s good about our theology is that none of us, no one else, and no one anywhere is banished from grace and possibility.
What’s good about our theology is that it is thin; it leaves room for a cornucopia of beliefs and speculations and isms and body types but keeps at the center human experience and awe and wonder and persons and life.
What’s good about our theology is that it can be complicated and cognizant of human dilemmas.
What’s good about our theology is that it champions charity and justice.
What’s good about our theology is that it can also be simple and kind, for all the world is kin.
And what’s good about our theology is that it arouses and quiets our consciences, affirms grace, and causes us to savor the human condition – life, death, morality, and the choices we must make.
For, as Sarah Silverman said of her sister, we are all in need of love, by whatever means necessary. Grace and possibility are ours. And as she said of herself, I say of all of you: You really are quite adorable.
A pastor asked a little boy if he said his prayers every night. ‘Yes, sir.’ the boy replied.
‘And, do you always say them in the morning, too?’ the pastor asked… ‘No sir,’ the boy replied. ‘I ain’t scared in the daytime.’
Say your prayers, as you wish. May you not be too scared day or night. May it be so.