“The Terrible Sermon” and/or “Getting in the Way of Beauty”

“The Terrible Sermon” and/or “Getting in the Way of Beauty”
By Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on January 4, 2015
The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“And Abraham went out, knowing not whither he was going…“



“I Reach Out My Hand,”
Gordon McKeeman

I stretch forth my hand
knowing not what I shall touch…
a tender spot
an open wound
pulsing life
fragile blossoms
I am tentative, trembling…
wishing to avoid hurt
wanting to link my life with life
Lonely, I desire companions
Naked, I long for defenders
Lost, I want to find – to be found
Will I touch strangers or enemies or nothing?
My hand is withdrawn
but still it touches my vulnerable skin, my furrowed brow
my empty pocket, my full heart
Do others reach, tremble, withdraw?
Do they desire, long, seek?
Are they lonely, fearful, lost?
Will they grasp a tentative, trembling hand?

I stretch forth my hand
knowing not what I shall touch
…but hoping



Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…
Really, I have not spent the last three months planning wise pontifications. Rather I have spent most of this time listening and seeing and hiking and breathing deeply and experiencing and sleeping and, every now and then, waking up.

That’s what a sabbatical is for and the first words out of my mouth must be ones of gratitude. Ministers aren’t the only ones who need or deserve sabbaticals, that I know; but I am so thankful that you made this time possible.

Thank you for showing up while I was away. And – for stepping into the breach, for keeping the chalice flame bright, for doing the million things that needed to be done and those things which no one will ever notice – thank you, most especially, Megan. I am so lucky to have you as a colleague and a friend and we are lucky to have you as our minister.

Before I left, Megan whined a little asking, “But won’t you just come back for Christmas Eve?” Ministers do a fair amount of making holidays happen and it was such a carefree relief for me to watch the holidays go by. I thought of you putting all those little cardboard drip-catchers, those bobeches, on all those damn candles and, in the end, putting together a damn nice holiday. Thank you, Megan…and all our staff…and our leadership…and all of you for pitching in.

E.B. White, you remember, used to say he awoke in the morning torn between the desire to save the world and the desire to savor the world. That, he said, made it hard to plan the day! Thank you for making it easy to plan my days, for giving me an opportunity to simply savor the world. Now I’ll get back to saving the world…and good luck with that!

It says this is a sermon, sort of, but what’s a sermon? Well, to save me the trouble of preaching a real sermon and to save me from repeating a hundred times the story of my last three months, I’m going to pretend that you’ve asked me the question, “Where ya been?” and I am so glad you asked.

The first half of my sabbatical, a year ago, was largely spent close to home and, while good, I tended to sneak into work and keep up with the news and gossip. It sorta defeated the purpose of a sabbatical. This time you and the staff did a remarkable job of keeping me completely in the dark, taking me off email distribution lists and telling me nothing. I also resolved this time to get outta town.

Fortunately, Sue was able to take a two-month leave of absence from her work and so, for October and November, we embarked on a two-month road trip. Of course, Sue had the car packed a month ahead of time, with camping gear, and winter clothes and summer clothes, and books on tape. My job was to fill the tank with gas. I wore a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, a sweatshirt and my Birkenstocks and, I am proud to say that, 13,000 miles later, when we returned home on December 1, I had worn the same clothes the entire time, with a few washings in between!

Sue planned the basics of our itinerary; I drove, following the GPS lady while Sue corrected her errors by hard-copy map. We had no set schedule, except for meeting our son Eric and other family on the beach in Florida for Thanksgiving.

Hearing our plans, a friend said to me: “A two-month road trip with your wife. What a wonderful way to renew a marriage!” Frankly, I hoped we wouldn’t kill each other. Though Sue is not here at this service, I assure you that she is alive and we survived.

We drove west. First to Cleveland where we visited old friends. Then to Chicago where I grew up. North through Amish country in Wisconsin and on to Albert Lea, Minnesota, which Sue had been told, was one of the healthiest communities in America. We weren’t sure why. There’s a parishioner named Jim Smith who sits in a back pew and his grandparents and relatives are all buried in a cemetery next to a corn field in remote Beauford, Minnesota. We went there, took photos of all the graves, and not sure why. It was that sort of trip.

Then on to the Badlands in S. Dakota, by way of kitsch-classic Wall Drug, and Mt. Rushmore and Rapid City and the Needles Highway. Then Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, sacred to Native Americans.
Throughout the trip, all across the country, there is so much Native history – all of it traumatic – if only we notice. Here too, under our feet.

When we weren’t camping, we stayed in motels and east of the Mississippi, nearly all the housekeepers were Hispanic. West of the Mississippi nearly all were Native American.

Then Yellowstone Park (entirely volcanic with geysers and steam and boiling mud). Herds of elk and bison and “beware of bears!” The weather was perfect for hiking and the trails were empty but in the morning, frost was thick on our tent.

On to the Grand Tetons (the national parks are indeed America’s best idea!), then to Promontory, Utah where the golden spike was driven. And Spiral Jetty, an art installation on the Great Salt Lake. There too is a Chinese company that raises brine shrimp and is the world’s largest manufacturer of fish food! Who knew?

In Snowville, Utah there is the Outsider’s Inn, a dump of a motel, and in the morning – after having slept the night – we discovered the bed was full of mouse droppings! Across the street was Mollie’s Diner and the finest omelet of my life. Ah, road trips!

More Native history at Pyramid Lake and the Paiute reservation. And at Mono Lake, weird spiked tufa rock formations, which reminded me of our late parishioner Chuck Cole who knew all about tufas.

Eventually to California and Yosemite where John Muir camped with Teddy Roosevelt. Phenomenal rock formations, Half Dome and El Capitan, and groves of giant sequoias (some 2000 years old and 3 times the height of our steeple!).

It used to be that people would name some of these sequoias – in honor of themselves – the Gibbons Sequoia – or in honor of great Americans – the Roosevelt Sequoia – and they’d nail a board with its name. But they’ve stopped this practice because one tree – no matter how remarkable – is but one tree. What matters is not the individual but the ecosystem. There’s a sermon in there! (I was reminded of this yesterday when I read that dietary recommendations are now being made, not solely on the basis of what’s good for our bodies but on the basis of what’s good for the earth! What matters is what’s good for everyone and everything.)

You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to Yosemite and Muir wanted to camp with him too. But Emerson’s handlers said, “Oh no, he must sleep in a hotel. The great transcendentalist cannot be allowed to sleep on the ground!” There’s a sermon in there, too!

In the Bay Area, we stayed with an old girlfriend of mine…and her husband. (Stay on good terms with those old flames!) And we visited friends and colleagues, a cousin of mine and one of Sue’s.
To the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley (as to Meadville in Chicago) I delivered copies of the books I recently republished, an 1830’s Hungarian Unitarian’s account of life in the United States. This memoir – by the Unitarian Boloni – is an important counterpoint to that by the Catholic de Toqueville.

There was Big Sur and the funky Henry Miller Memorial Library, and elephant seals, and the Hearst Mansion, and the Reagan and Nixon Presidential libraries. Later we would visit W’s library in Dallas and Woodrow Wilson’s in Virginia. Of those, Nixon’s was my favorite: kinda gritty, 5:00 shadow, just like Dick; no whitewash, no lipstick, no jelly beans or phony hagiography. The best of the libraries, though, was the George & Eleanor McGovern Library in Mitchell, SD. Two rooms! That and the Corn Palace made for a great day!

And there was a side trip to Avery Island in the Louisiana bayou, home to the factory where they make Tabasco sauce and where you may buy Tabasco-flavored Spam, Cheese-Its, and ice cream.
And speaking of local color, all across the country, I’ve never seen so many Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree stores. Nor have I seen so many billboards promoting fireworks, and gun shows, and personal injury and malpractice lawyers, and adult superstores, and election campaigns for judges and sheriffs…all these being some of America’s worst ideas. There was the hospital fund-raiser that featured the raffling of an AR-15 rifle. And road-signs promoting concealed weapons permits. (John held up one such sign; and said, “Now there’s one less such sign!!”)

Another observation of our roadside culture: In every gas station and restaurant rest room, there is now a box for the disposal of insulin injection needles. The diabetes epidemic is such that these have become routine roadside features!

In some parts of the west, the hatred for President Obama knows no bounds. A storefront in rural California had posters with KILL OBAMA in giant letters and then, coyly and sickeningly in parentheses and small letters, (care). KILL OBAMA (care).

There were gigantic coulter pine cones, and friends in Las Cruces, and White Sands in New Mexico. In Arizona, I had breakfast with a college roommate and later, in Dallas, stayed with another roommate, now improving despite liver and pancreatic cancer.

Eventually we made it to Florida, camped in the panhandle, then attended son Eric’s graduation from a health educator course at the out-there Hippocrates Institute. Think wheatgrass, and juicers, and raw foods. Oh my.

After seeing the debut of the documentary Food Chains, one day I joined migrant farmworkers picketing with other UU’s at Winn-Dixie, demanding that tomato pickers be paid one penny more per bushel of tomatoes.

On Thanksgiving on the beach in Naples my job was to stay sober long enough to say grace. I did.
On the way home, we visited former parishioners now living in Charlotte, NC and Sue was back at work in December.

After two months in the car together, we were happy to grant one another some independence and I went to Berlin, a fascinating city I’d never visited. A Transylvanian girl (who has been with us in Bedford) now lives there with her Polish boyfriend; and with Zsofi I criss-crossed the city.

There’s the war history, of course; and Hitler’s bunker, still there but sealed, is but an unmarked parking lot. A city block of stone slabs recalls the Holocaust. And there’s Berlin’s cold war history, Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall, and the German parliament in the Reichstag with its glass dome with spiral staircase providing vistas of the city but requiring legislators in the chamber below to look up and see the people over their heads.

How the events of German history should be remembered is a profound subject. Today there are few flags or patriotic paroxysms – Germans know the dark places where these things can lead. Someone observed that when most nations win the World Cup in soccer, they spend days in drunken nationalistic revelry. When Germany won last summer, they woke up the next morning saying yes, it was quite good to win, and went back to work.

Germany is sobering but that didn’t stop the many Christmas markets from serving gluhwein, hot spiced mulled wine, and there is a vibrant youthful creative energy to Berlin, determined among other things to stop the excesses of capitalist development and to preserve a human scale. Berlin is also bicycle heaven with lots of commuters even in cold weather, and designated lanes and traffic lights.

From Berlin I went again to Transylvania, visited friends and our partner village where just two weeks ago the weather was spring-like. There, too, the drink of choice was forrod bort, hot spiced mulled wine; and again I joined in the winter tradition of butchering of a 200 kilo pig.

As usual I added to my Hungarian vocabulary: a “kopkodo” is cheap bar – literally a place where you spit on the floor. I visited a kopkodo or two. And whether it’s the pig’s tail or the pigtail on the back of my head, I learned that “farok” means tail…but one must be careful as it’s also slang for…penis.

My Hungarian is quite entertaining.

A highlight in Transylvania was the Christmas concert of the Unitarian High School Choir in Kolozsvar. They sang a variety of traditional songs, but the one that brought down the house was a rendition of the 80’s classic by the group Queen: The Bohemian Rhapsody! Do you remember this? Galileo! Galileo! Scaramouche! Scaramouche! I’ve suggested to our choir director Brad that we consider this for our next Christmas concert but, well, Brad responded with the enigmatic lol!

I returned on the 21st and on Christmas, Sue and I were shacked up in Quebec…while you were fiddling around with all those damn candles.

So what’s the take-away message from this sabbatical? Good question.

Here are two scenarios, one from a book I read and the other from a film I saw.

The book was Revival, by Stephen King. I’d never read Stephen King before – and I probably won’t again – but this one features Charles Jacobs, a minister who becomes disillusioned with the church but reinvents himself as a kind of wizard and carnival huckster performing magic, and tricks and healings with lightning and electricity. (Sue suggested this as possible career option for me.)

Jacobs’ loss of faith is precipitated by the death of his young wife and son in a senseless car accident. After their funerals when he returns to the pulpit, he preaches what came to be known as The Terrible Sermon, and it would be his last in that church.

In excruciating detail, with his parishioners squirming in the pews, Jacobs’ Terrible Sermon recounted numerous episodes of senseless death, tragedy and cruelty and finds the Bible offering no adequate explanation and the church being no more than a scam that exploits peoples’ need to believe.

When finally an elder stands and says, “Charles, you need to step down,” Jacobs replies, “Yes, you’re right…. Nothing I say will make any difference, anyway.” When he leaves through a side door, the congregation sat “in the kind of silence people must experience after a bomb blast.”

You know, there’s a pretty good case to be made for the “life sucks and then you die” approach to things. We’re all pretty convinced of this sometimes.

Well, Stephen King wove a good yarn out of this story – he’s a good writer, and funny, and bright – but in the end I don’t want a meaningless story.

Contrast that approach to tragedy with the film Wild, with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed, on whose memoir the film is based. Cheryl Strayed too had known tragedy and meaninglessness, in her relationships, in drugs, in her loss of self. Her life was a wreck. Somehow, at age 26, alone and remarkably unprepared, she chose to hike 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

It was agonizing and exhilarating, she endured to the end; and she was made whole again. “Sometimes,” she said, “to become whole you just have to put yourself in the way of beauty.”

I think that all of us need sometimes to put ourselves in the way of beauty, to let beauty make us whole again. I needed to get away from the church for a while to do that and, hey, you may have to do that sometimes too!

But I also think that’s why we gather here in church: to put ourselves in the way of ideas and challenges and truths and beauty that otherwise we might not notice.

“To put oneself in the way of beauty” is a deliberate act; happenstance is not enough. As the Chinese proverb reminds us, “You can stand on the mountain for a very long time waiting for a roast goose to fly into your mouth.”

And so, I ask you to think about your hopes or intentions for the New Year, and ask yourself, “How can I put myself in the way of this opportunity?”

As it’s said, it’s not enough to hope to win the lottery. You have to buy a ticket. I do not recommend the lottery, but I do recommend getting in the way of that which can make your hopes possible.

I needed to get away for a while that I might listen and see and explore and breathe deeply and sleep and, every now and then, wake up. We’re here to do all those things and I see a few of you catching a few winks right now. And waking up, too. That’s good.

In January we look back but we also look forward. With the very best of intentions, with hope, and putting ourselves in the way of all good possibilities, let us be on our way.

I am grateful to be on the way again with you.

We join in reading responsively Edwin Muir’s words, “The Way”:

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I’ll make here my place,
(The road leads on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey’s done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.
Closing Words:
“Beauty is before me, and
Beauty behind me
above me and below me
hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by,
I am immersed in it.
In my youth, I am aware of it,
and, in old age,
I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty, it is begun.
In beauty, it is ended.”


(Three days after this sermon was delivered, there were the Paris attacks that killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. John posted the following to the First Parish email distribution list.)


In my sermon last Sunday, I neglected to tell of one of my more memorable experiences last month in Berlin. It’s relevant to yesterday’s horrors in Paris.

On a walking tour of Berlin, I visited the Opera Square – Bebelplatz – bordered by Humboldt University, the State Opera, and St. Ludwig’s Cathedral. Im 1933, this square was the site of one of the most notorious of Nazi book-burnings. PBS describes it:

On May 10, 1933, university students in 34 university towns across Germany burned over 25,000 books. The works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud went up in flames alongside blacklisted American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller, while students gave the Nazi salute. In Berlin 40,000 people gathered to hear German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels give a speech in Berlin’s Opera Square. He declared “the era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. … And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.” Radio stations broadcast the Berlin speeches, songs, and ceremonial incantations to countless German listeners. Widespread newspaper coverage called the “Action against the Un-German Spirit” a success. The Nazi war on “un-German” individual expression had begun.

Today, in the Opera Square there is an art installation, a memorial to the book burnings. It is a large glass window, flush to the ground in the center of the square. When you peer down into it, underground, you see rows and rows of…empty library shelves. Emptiness. Book-burnings, it says, leads to emptiness.

Seeing this memorial was one of my most moving experiences in Berlin.

The suppression of art, academics, literature, and satire – even that which may be offensive to some – is an offense to the human spirit. It was Heinrich Heine who said, “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.”

Ours is a faith tradition that for centuries has affirmed the manifold expressions of the unfettered human spirit.

Again, with pens, paper, pencils and pixels, we stand with those who affirm freedom.

Je suis Charlie!

And, recalling Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer also killed, we say as well, Je suis Ahmed!

– john