“Put On Your Marching Shoes”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on September 18, 2016
At First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Finance. Food. Fuel. Water shortage. Resource scarcity. Climate chaos. Mass poverty. Mass migration. Fundamentalism. Terrorism. Financial oligarchies. We have entered an Age of Disruption. Yet the possibility of profound personal, societal, and global renewal has never been more possible. Now is our time.
Our moment of disruption deals with death and rebirth. What’s dying is an old civilization and a mindset of maximum “me”—maxi-mum material consumption, bigger is better, and special-interest- group-driven decision-making that has led us into a state of collectively creating results that nobody wants.”
—from the introduction to Leading From the Emerging Future
(courtesy of Allan Tate)
This is a story written by a Welsh poet named Hugh Price Hughes:
It is the tale of a man who might have been I, for I dreamed one time of journeying to that metropolis. I arrived early one morning. It was cold, there were flurries of snow on the ground and as I stepped from the train to the platform I noticed that the baggageman and the redcap were warmly attired in heavy coats and gloves, but oddly enough, they wore no shoes. My initial impulse was to ask the reason for this odd practice, but repressing it I passed into the station and inquired the way to the hotel. My curiosity, however, was immediately enhanced by the discovery that no one in the station wore any shoes. Boarding the street-car, I saw that my fellow-travelers were likewise barefoot, and upon arriving at the hotel I found the bellhop, the clerk and the habitues of the place were all devoid of shoes.
Unable to restrain myself longer, I asked the ingratiating manager what the practice meant.
“What practice?” said he.
“Why,” said I, pointing to his bare feet, “Why don’t you wear any shoes in this town?”
“Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
“But what is the matter? Don’t you believe in shoes?”
“Believe in shoes, my friend! I should say we do. That is the first article of our creed, shoes. They are indispensable to the well-being of humanity. Such chilblains, cuts, sores, suffering as shoes prevent! It is wonderful!”
“Well, then, why don’t you wear them?” said I, bewildered.
“Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
Though considerably nonplussed I checked in, secured my room and went directly to the coffee shop and deliberately sat down by an amiable looking gentleman who likewise conformed to the convention of his fellow citizens. He wore no shoes. Friendly enough, he suggested after we had eaten, that we look about the city. The first thing we noticed upon emerging from the hotel was a huge brick structure of impressive proportions. To this he pointed with pride.
“You see that?” said he. “That is one of our outstanding shoe manufacturing establishments. “A what?” I asked in amazement. “You mean you make shoes in there?”
“Well, not exactly,” said he, a bit abashed, “we talk about making shoes there, and believe me, we have got one of the most brilliant young fellows you have every heard. He talks most convincingly and thrillingly every week on this great subject of shoes. He has a most persuasive and appealing way. Just yesterday he moved the people profoundly with his exposition of the necessity of shoe-wearing. Many broke down and wept. It was really wonderful.” “But why don’t they wear them?” said I, insistently. “Ah,” said he, putting his hand upon my arm and looking wistfully into my eyes, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
Just then, as we turned down a side street, I saw through a cellar window a cobbler actually making a pair of shoes. Excusing myself from my friend I burst into the little shop and asked the shoemaker how it happened that his shop was not overrun with customers. Said he “Nobody wants my shoes. They just talk about them.”
“Give me what pairs you have ready,” said I eagerly, and I paid him thrice the amount he modestly asked. Hurriedly, I returned to my friend and proffered them to him, saying, “Here, my friend, some one of these pairs will surely fit you. Take them, put them on. They will save you untold suffering.”
But he looked embarrassed; in fact he was well-nigh overcome with chagrin. “Ah, thank you,” said he politely, “but you don’t understand. It just isn’t being done. The front families. Well, I…” “But why don’t you wear them?” said I, dumbfounded. “Ah,” said he, “that is just it. Why don’t we?”
Well, pretty much every September when I stand in this pulpit and look out at you, I wonder: Who are these people? And what do they want? And what possibly do I have to say?
And so I preach this sermon not just to you, but as much to myself, to wrap my head around what we’re trying to do here. And, well, we do a lot of things around here – what, no acrobats today? – and it’s not easy to sum it all up nice and neat and simple. (That, by the way Josh, is my disclaimer that in this sermon there is not a topical sentence to be found!)
Unitarian Universalism is a lot like that too, not so nice and neat and simple. One of our parishioners, Erin Campbell, came to me last week – trying to figure out what Unitarian Universalism is so she can know what she’s talking about when she teaches her Sunday school class. And somebody suggested she watch Ron Cordes’ 10 hours of DVD’s, aptly titled “Long Strange Trip,” and there is a great poster outside our Common Room, and there are books and pamphlets, and the UU World magazine has just published a special edition for newcomers which, by the way, has a fine photo of this building. None of this, though, is nice, neat and simple.
Remember last year I became fond of an elevator speech that says, “People may not remember what you say. People may not remember what you believe. People may not even remember what you do. But people will always remember how you made them feel. Unitarian Universalism tries to make you feel worthy and welcomed and honored and comforted and challenged and of use, useful in this bruised and beautiful world.
Maybe that’s my topical sentence.
Well, here’s where I’m going to start: On an average day in America, 10 churches permanently close their doors. There are a lot of reasons for this and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rural communities dwindle. Some churches which used to be in the center find themselves off the beaten path. Costs can be crushing, and it’s great for you to share your tomatoes and zucchini with me, but uh…. And, yes, our entire country is becoming more and more secular; we live in an Age of Disruption, as is noted in the quote Allan Tate gave me at the top of your order of service.
But I think there’s another reason for dying churches and that is that a lot of churches blow their chance, maybe they missed their window of opportunity years ago. Maybe they lacked the will or nimbleness to respond to changing demographics. I know a church that regrets that nobody put up a basketball hoop that might have built a great bridge to connect the congregation with its neighborhood. A lot of churches have built a lot of walls – and paid dearly for them themselves – when they could have been building bridges. For many churches, it never entered their imagination to host programs for kids, or parents, or people trying to get healthy, or lonely people, or marginalized people. Creative partnerships with agencies or businesses or social justice movements went unexplored.
There are a lot of churches that keep doing the same old same old, expecting different results but getting nothing until they die.
Let me do something out of character and give you a Bible text that has something to say about this. Take out your Bibles and turn to the Gospel of John chapter 2: This is the story of the wedding at Cana.
]On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water it had become wine.
So last week I was reading a Catholic priest’s comments about the sorry state of organized religion and Michael J. Buckley, SJ’s take is that churches are dying because they “unconsciously alienate themselves from the social needs and poverty of people outside their walls.” And he illustrates this by that wedding of Cana story: Mary tells Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. To which Jesus asks, “What concern is that to you and me?” It was, actually, of significant concern!
That, my friends, is one of the most important moral questions of all time, and especially our time now. Yeah, back at Cana it was of serious concern to Jesus and Mary that they’d run out of wine. And Jesus, handyman that he was, did something about it! Let’s see: six jars, 30 gallons each…he made 180 gallons of wine that kept that party going!
“What concern is that to you and me?” is a profoundly moral question. Do try to watch the film about Waitstill and Martha Sharp, this Tuesday at 9pm on PBS. Last week it was shown in the White House! In 1939, when it was apparent that a holocaust was looming in Europe, the Sharps agreed to leave their young family and go there to help. Before they agreed to go, 17 other ministers were asked to go, and all refused. “What concern is that to you and me?”
For too long in this country, when it comes to homelessness, too many people have said, “That’s of no concern to me.” When it comes to poverty and economic inequality, we’ve said, “That’s not my concern.” To racism and homophobia, we’ve said, “Not my problem.” To the scapegoating of immigrants and refugees and Muslims, we’ve said, “Huh?” To the obscene investment of billions and trillions in war-making and willful ignorance of human need, we’ve said, “What’s Aleppo?” To climate catastrophe, we’ve said, “Honey, would you turn up the AC?”
Asked “What concern is that to you and me?” we have failed to respond to the moral crises of our times, and in so doing we have sown dragon’s teeth which, come November, now threaten to devour us.
Shoes, my friends? “That’s just it. Why don’t we?”
So it says here that I’ll say something about marching shoes.
And I’m a literal kind of guy, so I googled “marching shoes,” and what came up was the website for Dinkles Marching Shoes out of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania. “Since 1986, the World’s Greatest Band Director, Dr. Harry L. Dinkle, has endorsed DINKLES® full line of marching shoes, boots and band essentials.” I bought me a pair of the Vanguard model, classic all-leather, “put your best foot forward” marching shoe. Thirty five dollars and 95 cents!
Yes, I wore them to church last Sunday, until I went barefoot. Then on Monday with a whole busload of you I marched in them to the State House for the first Moral Rally for a Revolution of Values. And I wore them in our Governor’s office where with a delegation we presented a Higher Ground Moral Declaration that calls upon elected officials and candidates to oppose extremism, move beyond phony divisions of liberal and conservative, left and right, partisanship and to embrace a moral revival that leaves no one behind with liberty and justice for all.
At the rally, for each of the issues we addressed we first laid out the scriptural basis for our position from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, as well as our civic scriptures, the Constitution (“We the people…” and the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) Then a moral position was stated, followed by testimony from someone who could tell the story from experience, from their own life. And so a fast food worker described how, despite working overtime, he could not afford rent and is homeless. This is not a political problem; it is a moral problem. And one of the most moving moments was the testimony of our friend, Megan’s housemate Nazish Riaz, who spoke of islamophobia and hostility to refugees, quoting the Qu’ran to the effect that “to be unwelcoming to the stranger is like being unwelcoming to ourselves, for all of us are strangers sharing one planet, one life.”
Here in this congregation we’ve been putting on our marching shoes a lot. Two weeks ago there was a demonstration in Burlington (10 minutes from here), at the Homeland Security ICE offices, protesting family detention whereby families – often seeking political asylum as they flee horrible violence in Central America – are separated and mothers and infants are imprisoned as they wait for months or more than a year awaiting their application to be processed. These aren’t undocumented immigrants seeking work; these are legitimate asylum-seekers! This, too, is not a political problem; it’s a moral problem!
We are a marching congregation. Our Climate Justice folks and Mothers Up Front march to the State House, and to other congregations.
I was intrigued recently when our former assistant minister Maud Robinson (now hoping to be our minister in Cardiff, Wales) made the admiring comment that Bedford is a “campaigning congregation.” I asked her what she meant and she said she was inspired by our Black Lives Matter activism, by pipeline protests, by solar panel activism, by those who held anti-war signs standing along the Great Road. She said how good the marriage equality movement had been when she was in Edinburgh – good for the country, and good for the congregation because it was an affirmative answer to the question, “What concern is that to you or me?”
We in this campaigning congregation affirmatively respond to that question whenever we respond to human need. And human need, of course, is vast. I am talking about disability rights and access for all; being a welcoming congregation (how long till we fly a trans flag?); supporting our veterans (as we will do with a weekend of Veterans Day activism in November); but that’s not all. Human beings have a need for art, for music, for dance, for expression, for learning, for simply being heard, for pastoral care, for companionship, for being of use and work that is real. And so there is an Art Gallery Team, and there are glorious choirs, and there are small groups, and a pastoral care team, and teachers and learners (“Here,” it says in our mission statement, “all can teach and all can learn) And let us never forget the people who set up and take down folding chairs, make coffee, and serve on committees and do the most basic things that make this place work!
We do put on our marching shoes!
There is a William Blake poem, “I sought my soul. But my soul I could not see; I sought my God; but my God eluded me; I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.”
Plenty of congregations doggedly impressively pursue the first two quests, but get hung up on the third.
When we are at our best, we know that our neighbor is ourself and we put on our marching shoes.
Unitarian Universalism is not neat, clean and simple. Nor is First Parish. What we are called to do together is not neat, clean, and simple.
Or is it? Time and time again, in the revival of moral values movement, in the climate justice movement, in all the movements and activities I’ve mentioned someone will remind us that it’s not about politics, it’s not about art, or singing or teaching…it’s about love. Choir isn’t about singing; it’s about love. Justice is only what love looks like…in public.
And so you get one final bonus poem about love, titled “My Love For All Things Warm and Breathing,” by William Kloefkorn,” who died in 2012 but was a teacher and the State Poet of Nebraska and winner of the 1978 Nebraska Hog-Calling Championship.
My Love For All Things Warm and Breathing:
I have seldom loved more than one thing at a time,
yet this morning I feel myself expanding, each
part of me soft and glandular, and under my skin
is room enough now for the loving of many things,
and all of them at once, these students especially,
not only the girl in the yellow sweater, whose
name, Laura Buxton, is somehow the girl herself,
Laura for the coy green mellowing eyes, Buxton
for all the rest, but also the simple girl in blue
on the back row, her mouth sad beyond all reasonable
inducements, and the boy with the weight problem,
his teeth at work even now on his lower lip, and
the grand profusion of hair and nails and hands and
legs and tongues and thighs and fingertips and
wrists and throats, yes, of throats especially,
throats through which passes the breath that joins
the air that enters through these ancient windows,
that exits, that takes with it my own breath, inside
this room just now my love for all things warm and
breathing, that lifts it high to scatter it fine and
enormous into the trees and the grass, into the heat
beneath the earth beneath the stone, into the
boundless lust of all things bound but gathering.
What concern is that to you or to me? What is our window of opportunity…now?” Let us make room enough now for the loving of many things. Let us be filled with a boundless lust of all things bound but gathering.
Love is the spirit of this church.