“To See What Is in Front of One’s Nose is a Constant Struggle”

“To See What Is in Front of One’s Nose is a Constant Struggle”

A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, April 30, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here
now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

“The First Green of Spring,” by David Budbill




“The newspaper guy” by Brian Doyle


Four days a week the newspaper guy drives by at dawn or dawnish
And flips the paper toward our house from the window of his Olds.
It lands in a different spot every single time. This fascinates me no
End. I mean, he’s flipped it hundreds of times and not once that we
Remember did it ever land in the same place twice. My lovely wife
Is fascinated by how wide the range of landing sites is—the garden,
The path, the rosemary bushes, the annual booming dandelion farm,
Once the welcome mat by the door, once amazingly on the chair by
The door—a spectacular shot, when you think about it. Twice I have
Been unaccountably up early enough to see the thing done. He slows
Infinitesimally from about twenty miles per hour to nineteen and out
Flies the paper. He’s an older guy, from what I can see. Probably this
Is his second job, or he’s retired and picking up a little cash. The day
When the paper was delivered by a boy is gone. I was that boy, once.
Now it’s the guy in the Olds. We take the little astonishing things for
Granted. People make the paper, and manufacture it, and distribute it,
And four mornings a week a man calculates lift and arc and parabola
With a fine and experienced eye and whip of the wrist. It’s just a tiny
Thing, but it isn’t small at all, is it? All the attention is on economics,
The decline of papers, the man forced to take on a second job, the old
Battered car held together by spit and tape. But he’s great at the thing
He does every morning, even if sometimes his throw causes a ruckus
Among the tomato plants. The whole essential point of every religion
And all forms of genuine love is to see the miracle of what is right in
Front of you, isn’t that so? Attentiveness is the first food, the overture
In the unimaginably intricate gracious symphony: something like that.



101 days.  101 Dalmatians?  101 damnations!  These cataclysmic catastrophic days I find myself looking for hidden meaning almost everywhere: in our hymns, for example.  We started this morning by singing “My Life Flows On in Endless Song” and I ask: Does my life flow on in endless song above earth’s lamentation?  Do I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation?  Can we keep from singing?


Folks, do you recall, after the cataclysm and catastrophe of 9/11, how freighted were the words of our hymns?  Words about war and peace were charged with meaning.  Now, again, I find myself pondering things about which I heretofore gave little thought or about which I was a bit cynical.


For example, I grew up as a Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist, long before we adopted the Seven Principles.  Raise your hand if you know what I mean by the Seven Principles.  OK, I can name a few of them, I’m sure, but they’re not tattooed on my brain and if you ask me, “Quick, what’s the 3rd principle?” well, I’m not sure.  I even know a somewhat cynical former UUA president (who also happens to be our very own affiliated community minister) who once said he thinks these Principles are a tautology, almost meaningless, like, who could possibly disagree with this?


These days, I take a different view.

If you would, please, take out your hymnals and turn about 5 pages in and let’s read the Principles together.  But let’s pause after each of the seven because I have a question to ask.


“The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?  Can you think of anyone?


“Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


“Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


“The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?


I’m pretty sure we can think of some rather powerful people who would disagree with every one of our 7 Principles!  Those principles are not a tautology.


Indeed we have at least one branch of our federal government that is utterly dismissive of human dignity, reason, truth, meaning, diplomacy, science, public education, art, conscience, compassion, health care – in short, dismissive or antagonistic to civilization itself!


A while ago you heard me take note of a recent newspaper headline: “The enlightenment had a good run!”


My point is that we are the religious heirs to an enlightenment tradition that remains radically relevant, if we but pay attention.


It was George Orwell who said, “Seeing what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.” I implore us to see the seemingly mundane things that are in front of our noses – like these 7 Principles – and enliven them, engage with them and employ them as the tools of enlightenment and civilization that they are.


On this Sunday when we welcome new members, I encourage all of us to re-member the radical, counter-cultural, more relevant-than-ever gospel of Unitarian Universalism.


Over there, that flaming chalice is also under our noses.  Sometimes my attitude toward these chalices also can be cynical.  When I was a kid, we were content to have a simply printed chalice logo on humble Unitarian stationery but then someone had to go out to their garage and weld and tinker and actually build one; and these days in UU churches someone has to go hunting for matches, and smokeless scent-free chalice oil, and sometimes the wick is too long and I end up with oil on my hands, and it’s a miracle we haven’t burned our churches down!


Burning, smoking, oily flaming chalices are a hazard and a nuisance…until I remember that that logo was first stamped on letters and documents used to rescue Jews, desperate undocumented immigrants attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.


What possible relevance could such a thing have to us today?


The flaming chalice is not a romantic relic. The flaming chalice is a beacon of sanctuary, sacrifice, and safety.  It is subversive to tyranny, an insubordinate tool of resistance to oppression. Woody Guthrie put a slogan on the calfskin of his banjo, “This machine kills fascists.”  It also may be said, “That flame fights fascism!”


Recently someone said “If ever you wondered what you would have done had you lived in the era of the American civil rights struggle, wonder no longer for that is the era we live in now.


Last Friday several of us were at Temple Shalom Emeth for their annual Holocaust remembrance service and while the Holocaust indeed was a unique horror, its lessons reverberate now.  In the Book of Esther, it is written, “If you remain silent now, all may perish.  Thus perhaps you were brought to this moment for such a time as this.”


To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.


This church is yet another thing in front of our nose.  And what is this church?  Among other things, this free church is heir to the Protestant Reformation which Martin Luther initiated 500 years ago.  A once-unified Western Christendom had a great fall and all the pope’s horses and all the pope’s men could not put Christendom together again.


And just as the Enlightenment assailed the divine right of popes and kings and orthodoxies of every sort, here in the cauldron of the American experiment – here at the birthplace of American liberty, here amidst shots heard round the world – here emerged a natural religion no longer dependent on the supernaturalism of divine revelation but a religion which affirms that if there is holiness to be experienced, that holiness shall be experienced by human senses, a religion of free pulpit and pew, a religion accessible to all people, a religion not of partialisms that separate the saved from the damned but a religion instead of unities and universals.


Here emerged a religion founded upon our common experience of the world and that which is real.  In a recent essay, George Monbiot asks what is our greatest modern peril and he says our greatest peril is to screen ourselves off from reality.  He says,


“It is no longer rare to meet adults who have never swum except in a swimming pool, never slept except in a building, never run a mile or climbed a mountain, never been stung by a bee or a wasp, never broken a bone or needed stitches. Without a visceral knowledge of what it is to be hurt and healed, exhausted and resolute, freezing and ecstatic, we lose our reference points. We are separated from the world by a layer of glass. Climate change, distant wars, the erosion of democracy, resurgent fascism – in our temperature-controlled enclosures, all can be reduced to abstractions.”


Now I appreciate temperature-controlled enclosures, but ours is a religion that is meant to leave the building.  Ours is a church built on a foundation of natural religion, of human experience and not abstractions, a visceral knowledge of what it is to be hurt and healed, exhausted and resolute, freezing and ecstatic, for these are our only true reference points.


To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.


It is said that a catalyst for the Reformation was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. And now, many say, we now face another reformation with the advent of the internet, the hammer-stroke of Luther having been succeeded by the key-stroke of Tim Berners-Lee.  (You know Tim Berners-Lee, don’t you?  He is the inventor of the World Wide Web, he lives in Lexington, and he is a Unitarian Universalist.)


Today, reality is not merely subdivided but it is infinitely segmented, atomized, pixilated, bits-and-bytes-i-ficationed.  And in addition to all the enormous accessible benefits of this new world, everything in the present era also has been so broken down – some, you know, say you can choose your own news, choose your own facts, choose your own reality – that some would claim that even truth is relative (“Is Truth Dead?” asked a recent issue of Time Magazine) and truth, it appears, is whatever you can get away with.


This church, this thing in front of our noses, is founded on a differing conviction that reality is real; that facts are not subjective but, that truth is – not truthy – but true.


The president of the United States said recently, “I play to people’s fantasies.”


This church, this thing in front of our nose, plays not to people’s fantasies but to human realities, to human hopes, to human needs; we play to the unities and universals.


When in 1729 the Massachusetts legislature accepted the petition to establish a town of Bedford, they did so on condition that a meetinghouse be built here on land held in common, the Bedford Town Common.  This was the first church and, for more than 100 years, the only church in Bedford.  And when, in 1817 (200 years ago) this building was built, town and church remained one in commitment to the common good.


Then in the 1830’s church and state separated and other churches were built but still First Parish remained with the Bedford Town Common, shall we say, right here in front of our nose!


To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.


That our First Parish occupies a privileged place, proximate to the Common is no Patriots Day providence.  (And here I must pause in amusement at my alliteration: That this First Parish occupies a privileged place, proximate to the Common is no Patriots Day providence.)


Which, more importantly, is true:  We are called, it is in the DNA of this church to be called to public service (we are a spiritual center with a civic circumference) We are called to leave our sanctuaries of comfort and privilege and to risk engagement with the world that is…in front of our nose.


Our 7 Principles, our flaming chalice, free religion, natural religion, free pulpit and pew, truth, reality, experience, our call to civic duty, the unities and universals.


To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.

To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.


Members and friends:  To the struggle!