“(Not) Famous (Not) Last Words”

“(Not) Famous (Not) Last Words”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, September 29, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

We don’t make promises, but we are good at trying very hard. These are our values in this work:

  • We honor people’s dignity and choices in a system that denies dignity and choice.
  • We expect messiness, confusion, and discomfort, and we also choose courage and trust.
  • We judge the system, not people.
  • We fight for one another as family, because we are.

from the website of BIJAN/Beyond,
the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network


Opening Words

Writing about business management, someone named Jim Cathcart has developed “the acorn principle.”

He says, “A lot of managers look at that little acorn that they see inside somebody, and they say, ‘Acorn, I think you have potential.  I think with a little training, and a little hard work, you could be a giant redwood.’  Then this misled manager says, “Acorn, here’s what I’m going to do for you.  I’m going to work with you to help develop your redwood skills.  Here’s a tape I want you to listen to called The Power of Positive Redwood Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Tree.  Here’s a book on the history of some of the great redwoods of all time.  Learn from their example.  I’d also like you to start networking with redwoods.  Just take a redwood to lunch, find out what they’re like, and ask them their secrets.  I also want you to say a daily affirmation I’ve written for you.  It says, ‘I am a redwood great and tall.  My mighty branches shelter all.  I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me.’”

(And this is from a sermon I once preached…)

How many of us have been told – by parents, by teachers, by Those in Authority, “Oh no, you can’t possibly be that; you’re this.”  Boys and girls alike held hostage to absurd stereotypes and expectations.  “Everybody in our family goes to college.  Nobody in our family doesn’t want to get married!  What do you mean, you’re a gay cowboy, transgender person-of-color humanist but still rather traditionally liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist polyamorous Republican minister?


So, yes, I will be on sabbatical October, November, and December.  Sue says the car will leave our driveway early on Tuesday morning, and she hopes I will be in it.

We’ll be taking a long road trip, first to see our son Eric and his husband George outside of Tucson, Arizona in the town of Patagonia, population 913.  Patagonia is composed of hippies and cowboys and artists.  Eric and George are neither cowboys nor artists.  (Though the last time I was there I visited the Cowboy Church (for real).  I sauntered up and said, “Let me know if you fellas need any help from some big city east coast liberals?”  They suggested I try to rope some calves.  I did not.

Anyway we’ll follow our noses for a few weeks, at least, visit friends, and hike.  Artist Cheryl Strayed once said, “There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it.’ …’Put yourself in the way of beauty,” she said.  I hope to put myself in the way of beauty.

And I am thankful for the opportunity and know that each and every one of you deserves a sabbatical too.  It is not unheard of for parishioners to take a sabbatical from this church…and, we hope, come back revived!

When we return from our road-trip, I plan to practice another great spiritual discipline called decluttering, getting rid of stuff, putting myself, not in the way of beauty, but in the way of accumulated clutter

And then I’ll be back on December 31st at 11:59pm and, out in that narthex, I hope to join some of you in pulling the bell-rope to welcome 2020.

I know that we as a congregation face uncertainties (just as we do personally).  My being away may cause some of you to rejoice while others’ anxieties are raised.  All of us like to know what’s going on and be in control!  A fundamental spiritual fact is that we don’t and we can’t!

There is one church issue you’ll face in my absence that I want to be sure you know about.  Deb, you know, is our interim Director of Religious Education and she will finish in June.  The Board has been looking at future staffing patterns, in consultation with the RE Committee, the Committee on Ministry, and our staff. The Board is close to recommending that we have a full-time Minister for Faith Formation as well as a new ¾ time Assistant Director of Religious Education.  The minister will continue to do some preaching and pastoral care, but will focus on faith formation for all ages. The Assistant will focus on curriculum selection and deployment, teacher training and support, and administration of our RE program serving children and youth, infant through high school.

Currently understaffed, we believe this will strengthen our program for all.  Moreover, it is possible that Annie can be considered as an inside candidate to be Minister of Faith Formation, thus giving staff continuity as we face changes over the next few years.  This is not a done deal, though Annie is very open to this possibility; it has my enthusiastic support; and you will have opportunity for input as soon as today at noon and again Wednesday at 7pm.

Now I return to reflecting about what it’s like to face the uncertainties of the future.

At rites of passage, at child dedications, marriages, coming-of-age, and memorial services too, the basic message is…Who knows what will happen next?

A few minutes ago, I said that it takes a village to raise a child and that Kristina and Chris, Rebecca and Thom are not to be trusted to raise their kids alone.  How can they be?  How many times, faced with a quandary, did Sue and I tell our son Eric “we’re doing the best we can.  We’ve never done this before!”

At weddings, I often say, “Love can be like the wind and weather: sometimes it’s hot, sometimes its sticky, sometimes there is cold and calamity; sometimes it’s perfect.  We shall do more, I say, than drift with these uneven currents of affectionate feeling.”

And then, invariably, I tell every couple, “You have absolutely no idea what you’re getting into.”   Nor do you, Chris and Kristina, Thom and Rebecca.

Nor, really, do any of us.

Some of you have heard me tell this story, but on the morning of our Ingathering 3 weeks ago, I was carrying a big heavy-plywood jenga box outside, walking the path by the memorial garden, from that door to the sidewalk.  As I stepped onto the sidewalk I was hit by a careening speeding bicycle.  He couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see him, and he was two feet from me when I stepped in his way. He fell but was mostly unhurt. He hit the wooden box I was carrying, which left me black-and-blue but mostly unhurt.  He and I could have been killed.  Really.  That would have been a bad start to the church year.  Look both ways when you cross the street.

Last week I was approached by one of our healthy spry older parishioners (she is, I will say, superannuated, more than a centenarian; but you can’t guess who it is because we’ve got several such centenarians).  She wished me well on my sabbatical, but then, a bit wistfully, she said, “We may never see each other again.”  She’s right, of course.  I may get thrown from my horse at the Cowboy Church.

But it’s not just the superannuated. Last summer there was an obituary that went viral.  Perhaps you saw it?  It was for 5 year old Garrett Matthias who died of a rare cancer.  He wrote some of his own obituary.   “Funerals are sad,” he said. “I want five bouncy houses (because I’m 5), Batman and snow cones.”  He said he wanted “to be burned” and “made into a tree so I can live in it when I’m a gorilla.”  And after he died? “I am going to be a gorilla and throw poo at Daddy!”  He was “forever a prankster” who teased the doctors and nurses with whoopee cushions and clothespins he would sneak onto their clothes, his obituary said.

And when someone told him, “See ya later, alligator,” he would catch them off guard with “See ya later, suckas!”

Part of his obituary was called “The things I love the most”:  “Playing with my sister, my blue bunny, thrash metal, Legos, my day care friends, Batman and when they put me to sleep before they access my port.”

He was known around the hospital as “Garrett Underpants” because he hated wearing pants or shorts, One day, he said he would be a professional boxer, and his name would be “The Great Garrett Underpants.”

What I’m trying to say is that all of us, old and young, live amidst constant uncertainty. In religious community, the response to uncertainty is, I suggest, faith and covenant. Turn to your Bibles where in Hebrews chapter11, verse 1, it is said, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

And then there’s covenant.  You’ve been hearing us talk a lot about covenant because I think covenanting is our way forward as a congregation.  Ours is not a dogmatic church or a creedal church; our is a covenantal church, ours is a covenantal community.  We do not promise salvation nor do we threaten damnation.  So much in our consumerist capitalist culture is rule-based or contractual or quid pro quo: You do this and I’ll do that…and if you don’t you face the consequences.  I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.  This is the art of the deal (you give me dirt on Joe Biden and I’ll give you some missiles, just for example).

The alternative to the art of the deal is the arc of the covenant.“Do you take this person to be your partner…for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better/for worse, in sorrow and in joy/to love and to cherish? I do.”

“Love is the spirit of this church.”  These are aspirational; we don’t always live up to them; but we try hard.

“In the spirit of our faith which says ‘love never fails,” we promise never to close our hearts against you.”

Sometimes I say that covenants are a kind of promise and I’ve even said that human beings are the promise making, promise breaking, promise re-making species.  But I do appreciate the way that BEYOND states its values, which I printed at the top of your order of service.  “We do not make promises but we try very hard.”  Making promises, I suppose, can lead to a certain finger-point when things don’t go well.  “You broke your promise!”  When we speak of covenants, by contrast, we can be in covenant, we can be out of covenant, and we can move back into covenant.  This, again, is our aspiration.

The organization BEYOND (The Boston Immigration Accompaniment Network), of course, provides bond money and other services to immigrants, so their values are specific to their mission, but I suggest that we read them together and consider how they might even apply to us as a congregation.

  • We honor people’s dignity and choices in a system that denies dignity and choice.
  • We expect messiness, confusion, and discomfort, and we also choose courage and trust. (Let’s read that just once               more cause it’s so true for BEYOND and for us.)
  • We judge the system, not people.
  • We fight for one another as family, because we are.

What I suggest is that each of you in any sort of small group or committee or task force or even as a group of friendsspend some time at your next meeting, if you have not already done so, contemplating the kind of promises, values, and covenants you would make among yourselves.

Hey, even our Senior Youth Group – which in the past had resisted covenant-making as a kind of top-down fascist Rule Making, last weekend developed a covenant for themselves:

  1. Members will attend SYG as often as they can and are expected to get along with others in the group
  2. There shall be no cliques within the group that make others feel unwelcome
  3. We will be making sure to consider food and snack options for everyone in the group
  4. Together, we will choose and undertake frequent “out of the building” activities (less planning and lecturing, more doing.)
  5. We will have fun together and create closer connections.

Remember, this sermon is about me being away for three months, and then – sometime later – being away for longer than that, and then – as for all of us – being away, well, indefinitely.

And the point of this sermon is that all of us can face uncertainty by renewing our faith and our covenants.

A long time ago, my mentor in ministry gave me a little book titled The Cloud of Unknowing and it is an anonymously written 14th century Middle English text of Christian mysticism and spiritual guide.

Here are two excerpts:

When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. […] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after (that which you love).

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. (Was the Senior Youth Group studying the Cloud of unknowing?  Sounds awfully similar!) On account of pride (the Cloud of Unknowing continues), knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds.  Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

And finally, you have heard me tell this story before – about unknowing and spiritual searching:

It is the magical realist story of the Zen master whom the king commissioned to paint a painting.  Again and again, the king would ask, “Is it complete?” and the master would say, “Wait a little more, wait a little more.”

Years passed and the king said, “It is taking too much time. Is not the painting ready yet?”

The master said, “The painting is ready, but I am watching you — you are not ready. The painting was ready long ago, but that is not the point. Unless YOU are ready, to whom will I show it?”

Then it is said that the king became ready and the painter said, “Okay, the time has come.”

They entered the room — nobody else was allowed in the room. The painting was really wonderful. It was difficult to say that it was a painting — it looked real. The painter had done a painting of hills, valleys, and they looked almost three-dimensional, as if they existed. And by the hills there was a small path going somewhere inside.

Now comes the most difficult part of the story. The king asked, “Where does this road lead?”

The painter said, “I have not myself traveled yet on this road, but you wait, I will go and see.” And he entered the path, and disappeared beyond the hills, and never came back.

I hope to be back. And to be with all of you again.    Inshallah.  I love you.


Closing Words

My favorite knock-knock joke:



(Silence, pause, waiting, waiting….

And eventually, then….)