“Spiritual Friendship”

“Spiritual Friendship”
A Sermon by The Rev. John Buehrens, Guest Minister
Delivered on Sunday, January 5, 2020
at First Parish in Bedford

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

We got this far to a lucky star, but tomorrow is another day.
We can make it another way, safe home as they used to say.
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high and go home another way.

—James Taylor, from “Home By Another Way”

Opening Words

When a door bangs shut, a window doesn’t open.
Sometimes, it slams on your fingers. God often
gives us more than we can handle. A sorrow
shared is a sorrow multiplied. There’s a bottle
of Champagne waiting to be uncorked,
but it’s not for you. Nobody wants another poem.
The prize-winning envelope has someone else’s name
on it. This year you already know you’re not going
to lose those ten pounds. How can you feel hope,
when the weight of last year’s rejections is enough
to bury you? Still, the empty page craves the pen,
wants to feel the black ink unscrolling on its skin.
In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.

“The New Year” by Barbara Crooker from Some Glad Morning © 2019.


READING                             from the “Discharge to the Minister,”

Delivered at the retirement of the Rev. John Buehrens

from the ministry of the First Parish in Needham, 29 April 2012,

by the Rev. John Gibbons

First of all, I need to say how blessed – nigh unto predestined — I feel to be here this morning. Welcoming back from a sabbatical leave by my dear friend, Cardinal Gibbons. Now he thinks that he got that title by buying a sweatshirt. I say that he got it by helping me, many years ago, get elected as the Unitarian Pope. But just to give you a sense of the helpful colleague he has been to me, I’ve chosen to take the reading for this morning from his own words. From his “Discharge to the Minister,” delivered when I retired from the ministry of the First Parish in Needham, in 2012. He began, in his inimitably tangential and outrageous way by saying:

“All right, John! I’m here to give the Charge to the Minister, a kind of friendly advice. I am reminded, therefore, of a letter once sent to an advice columnist.

Dear John,

            I hope you can help me. The other day, I set off for work leaving my husband in the house watching TV. I hadn’t driven more than a mile down the road when the engine conked out and the car shuddered to a halt.

I walked back home to get my husband’s help. When I got home, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was in our bedroom he was with our neighbor’s daughter. . . I am 41, my husband is 44, and the neighbor’s daughter 22. We have been married for over ten years. When I confronted him, he broke down and admitted that they had been having an affair for the past six months. . .

Well, the letter then goes on with a variety of salacious details and then concludes,

“My husband won’t go to counseling and I’m afraid that I can’t get through to him anymore. Can you please help? Sincerely, Sheila.

“Dear Sheila,” responds the columnist, “A car stalling after being driven a short distance, can be caused by a variety of faults within the engine. Start by checking that there is no debris in the fuel line. If it is clear, check the vacuum pipes and hoses on the intake manifold and also check all grounding wires. Or it could be that the fuel pump is faulty, causing low delivery pressure to the injectors.”

Again, there are more details, but it is signed,

I hope this helps,


Gibbons then said he was sure I didn’t need marital advice, but that giving any sort of advice to me was unlikely to make much difference, so he wanted to be as simple and direct as possible, so his charge to me had only two words. He then presented me with the retirement gift he had purchased for me: a doormat imprinted with those two words: GO AWAY.

This is good advice when one retires from parish ministry. I then took it; and moved to the Left Coast. So in coming here today, I now consider it as returned to its original sender. Welcome back, Your Eminence, and I hope this helps, John


SERMON    “Spiritual Friendship”

Friendship can only exist between good [people] … who have the courage of their convictions.

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia, “On Friendship,” 45 BCE.

One of the many things I’ve always loved about His Eminence, Cardinal Gibbons, is that he takes himself rather lightly. As that Roman Catholic wit, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, whereas the Devil fell because of his gravity.”

So as he returns this morning from his sabbatical, I can’t help but recall a story he tells on himself about an unexpectedly premature return from an earlier sabbatical. Some of you were probably here then — some 20 years ago?  He was to go to the Khasi Hills of India, with my Special Assistant for International Relations, Ken MacLean, to visit our Unitarian partners there. Ken had made all the arrangements, but neglected to tell John he had to get a visa. When that lapse surfaced, MacLean simply responded, “Well, we’re both ministers; we’ll talk our way in.” That actually worked with the airline, but not with the immigration authorities in Calcutta. Neither persuadable nor amused, they kept John in the airport equivalent of the Black Hole before shipping him back to Boston, C.O.D. On the following Sunday he came to church here, sat quietly in the back, and then came forward at the Joys and Concerns, to everyone’s surprise, lit a candle, and said simply, “One billion people in India, and they drew the line at me!”

During my Needham years, he and I were both in a small group of colleagues that met monthly for mutual support. One reason I had taken that parish after serving as President was that it was close to where my parents had settled in retirement — and they needed some spiritual support. My mother was wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. When my father learned that he had terminal cancer, I knew that I would not be able to conduct his memorial service. So I asked John to meet with him and my mother, and to get acquainted with my brothers and their families, too.

Dad was no churchgoer. His chapel was his woodworking shop. For the service, John wisely had each of his three sons recount our rather differing experiences of him as a father. What he added, among other grace notes, was a poem called, “The Contents of a Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.” Our older daughter, Erica, so loved John’s ministry to us all that when she married Andy, a bar mitzvah boy whose mom was then the president of her synagogue – it took place in a Boston Unitarian church, but under a chuppah, with a rabbi as the principal officiant, with Gibbons as co-officiant. Then when our younger daughter, Mary, chose to celebrate her marriage to her wife, Anna, who comes from a Filipino Catholic family, in the Episcopal church where my wife Gwen was then a Priest Associate, the Rector presided — with Gibbons assisting, even in an inclusive communion service, in which nearly everyone participated – Episcopalians, Catholics, UUs, non-believers.  Then when my mom died, who conducted her memorial? Not I, although it was held in my Needham church. The Cardinal. With a choir of women from Uganda, some of whom had been her caregivers for years, as the singers.

We call him our family chaplain. This, my friends, is testimony to the deep spiritual friendship my family and I feel toward the man who has ministered here for nearly thirty years now. John knows that if, God forbid, anything should suddenly end my life, Gwen or our daughters would invite him to San Francisco to take part in my memorial, just as I would surely do likewise.

Back in the early 19th century, when Unitarian ministers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and others were preparing to serve churches like this one all around Boston, the chief criteria for admission to Harvard centered on competency in Latin and Greek. Although, as Ben Jonson quipped of Shakespeare, I now retain but “small Latin and less Greek,” I know that every one of them had read the great essay by Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia, “On Friendship.” “Friendship can only exist between the good,” Cicero says, “when we mean by ‘the good’ those whose actions and lives display honor, honesty, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, self-interest, and vengefulness; and who have the courage of their convictions.” That’s a standard true friends try to hold one another to, even when their opinions may differ.

In the Christian tradition that those same early ministers in our faith inherited and then helped to reinterpret, the traditional theme for this week was how Jesus himself came to his mentor, John, humbling himself and receiving baptism, for the remission of sins – always a puzzle for those who later proclaimed Jesus as God incarnate and without human sin. He then joined his mentor  in proclaiming the coming Reign or Commonwealth of God here on earth, but not as a warning,  simply as a promise — one already fulfilled, whenever you and I truly treat one another as sisters and brothers, equal children of one Divine Mystery, and then just wish the best for one another. In other words, their theologies differed. So may it always be. Even among spiritual friends.

Some of you may have seen my recent essay in our denominational magazine, the UU World, called “Spiritual Friendship and Social Justice: Lessons from the Transcendentalists.” In it, I gave some illustrations of how that transformative small group of Boston area Unitarian ministers and friends, which met only from 1836 to 1840, helped to spark and then rekindle the sputtering commitment to what the founders of American democracy called self-evident truths. That all of us, created equal, are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As it says in the Declaration.

I led with a remarkable discovery. Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker died in Florence, Italy, in 1860. He had gone there seeking relief from TB, the endemic illness of the 19th century. It was Parker’s eloquence behind two phrases later used by others: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” used by Lincoln in ending his Gettysburg Address; and “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” later often used by Dr. King.

Partly because I was an exchange student in Italy at the age of 16, and can still speak Italian, last year at this time my wife and I spent a winter month in Italy, including a week in Florence. Where I visited Parker’s grave there, and discovered his fellow abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, with whom he had worked throughout the 1850s in protecting fugitive slaves, had found the original marker over his bones inadequate, writing, “A man like that should have a memorial that is a sermon in itself.” He then commissioned an elegant monument that ends with the words: “His name is here inscribed in marble; his memory on the hearts of those whom he saved from slavery and superstition.” This 27 years after Parker had died. When Douglass arranged his trip so that he could arrive on the very anniversary of his friend’s death.

You see, the Transcendentalists pushed themselves, and one another, to extend the idea of spiritual friendship beyond a white boy’s club of like-minded ministers, and to encourage others in their spiritual influence to go and do likewise. But don’t get me going! If you want to hear more examples of how and why they wanted us all to transcend ourselves, in commitment a future in which all might fully develop their spiritual and moral potential, then stay for the Bedford Lyceum this noon. That will be my theme then.

Here’s my point this morning: Most of us simply don’t do enough to push ourselves out of our own comfort zones when it comes to friendships. We need to go outside ourselves and try harder. It’s perhaps the New Year’s resolution most needed all around America during this coming year. The Transcendentalists wrote letters, not just tweets or Facebook posts, and were deeply honest. They kept personal journals, in which they admitted despair, doubt and discoveries of new truth. They even – and this astonishes me – sometimes shared those spiritual journals with one another.

“Send me your journal,” wrote James Freeman Clarke, the youngest member of the original Transcendentalist circle, to his spiritual friend, Margaret Fuller, “and I will send you mine.” Clarke, now almost forgotten, but so admired by me that had his portrait behind me in my office when I was UUA President, had a deep gift for practicing and promoting spiritual friendships transcending differences in gender, class, location, ideas, and, yes, even race. He wrote 22 books, including one, Ten Great Religions, that enjoyed 22 editions, and he became, at Harvard, the country’s first teacher of comparative religion. He corresponded with liberals in India, Japan, China, and all across Europe.  In giving me an honorary degree, I was later called “the evangelical rabbi of liberal religion.” That phrase that led my daughter to send me a card she’d found at college. It showed a bearded rabbi with a patched, well-travelled robe, a prayer shawl, and, under a yalmulke, a head with the hair somehow all loved off on top – labelled the “the Velveteen Rabbi,” and with the question, “Vhen do I get to go out and run and play with the real rabbis?” Clarke was all that, and more, long before me.

He was one of our ministers west of the Appalachians. He went to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1833. When his failed first attempts at preaching in frontier fashion, without notes, led listeners to stand up and walk out, he confessed to his friend Margaret that he had felt his courage draining from his fingertips. When they were both just 20, they had studied the German idealists together. Quite an intimate thing to do in 1830, across gender lines. Yet they soon realized that they could never be life partners. Margaret would’ve been a poor minister’s spouse in the social conventions of the time. Instead, she sent him sermon ideas. And he published, in the Western Messenger, the Unitarian journal he edited, her earliest essays. Encouraging her to go on and become, in her revolutionary Conversations for Women, a key figure in catalyzing early American feminism.

It’s rarely pointed out, but almost all the Transcendentalists were the grandchildren of leaders in the American Revolution. Emerson’s grandfather was the minister in Concord who watched the Revolution break out at the Old North Bridge, in the “shot heard round the world.” Parker’s grandfather, Captain John Parker, led the Minutemen on the Lexington Common that same Sunday, when the battle raged through this town of Bedford. Parker, like Frederick Douglass, realized early to end slavery in America would likely require a “Second American Revolution.” Or as Douglass put it, in verse, after the Supreme Court ruled against democracy in the Dred Scott case of 1857, that people of color could never be citizens, with all the rights spoken of in the Declaration,

The fire thus kindled, may be revived again;

                        The flames are extinguished, but the embers remain;

                        One terrible blast may produce an ignition,

                        Which shall wrap the whole South in wild conflagration.

That is not the only reason my book is called Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice. Another is the first scene, in which abolitionist Unitarian minister Charles Follen dies at sea, on Long Island Sound, amid burning bales of cotton, in the conflagration of the Steamer Lexington – on a January night in the year 1840.

Friends, the question that will be before us this coming year is not an easy one. It is simply this: In order to preserve the ideals on which our democracy was founded, will a Third American Revolution be necessary? I hope not. And if it comes to that, I hope it can be largely non-violent.

Should the mendacious, racist billionaire now occupying Oval Office not be removed by the Senate, and then, God forbid, be re-elected in November through voter suppression, foreign interference, and corruption, then I for one will fully support a Third American Revolution. Perhaps in the form of a General Strike; a refusal to work, to buy nothing but basic food, or to do anything but protest in the streets, until the self-transcending purposes for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, can be restored.

My friends, we owe this solidarity to one another, to those who came before us to show us the way, and to those who, in our own lifetimes, have helped us to sustain our hope and our vision. So may it be. Amen.