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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

— Robert Frost

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Sunday, February 3, 2008
Rev. Sue Phillips
First Parish Church of Groton

At one point in Marge Piercy’s novel Fly Away Home, a mother is describing her daughters to a friend. She says of her daughters that:

“The girls had been raised Unitarian, which seemed a nice, sensible compromise between having no religion at all and having to lie about what we believed. Enough religion to be respectable but not enough to get in the way.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist? Someone who knocks on your door… for no particular reason at all.” It’s funny, and a little painful, isn’t? These statements resonate with us because they expose the two most popular misconceptions about Unitarian Universalism: that on the one hand we can believe anything we want, but on the other hand, paradoxically, we don’t believe anything in particular.

It’s easy to understand how these twin untruths have emerged. Unitarian Universalism is notoriously difficult to explain. Most of us share the experience of struggling to answer the questions of curious (or sometimes argumentative) relatives or friends. I have a friend who keeps a stack of UUA wallet cards handy (you know, the ones with the seven principles on them), so that when someone asks what UUs believe, she can just kind of throw one at the person and then run in the opposite direction. This is how cowed she is by the challenge of describing our faith.

But to our credit, we UUs have it harder than most. Consider some of the pithy belief statements of other religions. Islam, for example, has an eleven-word statement of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The Apostle’s Creed is the quintessential Christian statement of belief: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… And in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord.” These religious communities are united by a common theological core that tells adherents who they are and defines the boundaries of their community. But Unitarian Universalists have no creed, no immutable theological center at all. (And honestly, most UUs I know can’t order dinner using only 11 words, so what hope can there possibly be for us?)

Unitarian Universalism is more difficult to explain because our center is held by a covenant, not a creed. But creeds serve a distinct and valuable purpose. They are used to draw boundary lines of various strengths between believers and non-believers. In creedal faiths, who belongs and who doesn’t is often relatively easy to figure out. Our boundaries are much more oblique.

We are not unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, which we heard in our reading this morning. Noticing the holes in the fieldstone wall between their properties, a man calls his neighbor to let him know it needs mending. On the day they meet to “walk the line/ and set the wall” between them “once again,” the man playfully goads his neighbor about why there is a fence at all. He jokes that his apple trees will never jump the fence to eat the pine cones on the other side. But then, more seriously, the man questions what is being walled in, and walled out. “Something,” he says, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall / that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun / and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.” [1] Unitarian Universalism is the covenant that doesn’t love a wall, that topples the anchor stone, and creates the gap through which two seeking neighbors can pass abreast.

The history of Unitarian Universalism is full of questions about who should be walled in, and walled out. These disputes have inevitably underscored the tensions between conformity and diversity, between tradition and innovation. These debates have not really been about whether a boundary line should be drawn, but where, for we do indeed have boundaries of belief, even today. It is highly unlikely, for example, that someone who believes in the infallibility of the minister would be comfortable in a UU congregation. Nor would someone who thought gay people should be rounded up and quarantined, like a certain presidential candidate… We are tolerant of diversity within the basic consensus, but quick to react when that consensus itself is challenged. But the boundary is present, “even if it is not guarded by creedal tests and excommunication.” [2]

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s seven principles define our operating consensus today, a consensus that has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years, and will continue to do so. (These are listed in the front pages of the blue hymnal, btw.) But even the principles are not statements of faith, exactly. They are statements of how we will be together in our shared religious journey, not what we believe. They include assumptions about human dignity and human nature, yes, but the principles are prescriptive rather than proscriptive. They are signposts, not speed traps.

Within the broad embrace of these principles, we share a radical covenant: to live together in peace and to share our journey of discovery. For Unitarian Universalist congregations, it is our covenant — not the words of any particular covenant, mind, you and each congregation has its own — but the covenant itself inhabits our common core. And this covenant of mutual obligation must be renewed continuously, because we are always welcoming new people, new ideas, new truth, and new religious insights.

Because of this openness, Unitarian Universalism has a reputation for being easy. Because we lack an explicit, unchanging theological center, we are often accused of embracing a laissez-faire spirituality in which our faith has been reduced to bland pablum, a sort of theological lowest common denominator. Folks often accuse us of being a community of values rather than beliefs, of inclinations rather than faith.

When we are honest with ourselves, there are troubling hints of truth here. I believe that in general we have encouraged this reputation for being blandly spiritual because we often do not take our theology very seriously. In this propensity, we mirror our society as a whole. Stephen Carter, the Culture of Disbelief, warns that in contemporary American culture religion is often treated as a fad — rather than as the foundation upon which the faithful build their lives. What this culture says is if religion has become inconvenient, give it up! If you can’t remarry because you have the wrong religious belief, well, hey, believe something else. And through all this trivializing rhetoric runs the subtle but unmistakable message: pray if you like, worship if you must, but whatever you do, do not take your religion seriously enough to be challenged by it. In other words… treat religion as a hobby.

Some people are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because of a mistaken belief that they will not be challenged here to take their beliefs seriously. Some are attracted to our faith because of what it is not rather than what it is. Declaring ourselves free from old, destructive beliefs is an important step in claiming our individual religious authority, absolutely. Our congregations have always provided a safe haven for those who have been hurt by institutionalized religion, and I pray they always will. So it is no surprise that many people come here because it seems the religious path of least resistance.

It is understandable if we came here for that reason. But it is truly unfortunate if we stay for that reason.

Those who seek the path of least spiritual resistance will likely be uncomfortable here. For they would fail to recognize the covenant that binds us, one to the other. Our covenant requires an orientation to hope, hope for ourselves, that we might learn something here, and share it. That we might become what we’ve always longed to be. Our covenant requires a willingness to do all this hopeful searching in community, this community, and in relationship, to these particularl people; it demands that we show up. Our covenant demands our willingness to grapple vigorously with what we believe, to test and ponder. That we have the courage to live in the contradictions of faith and the unknowing — the simple, awesome mystery of our bruised and noble lives. And when we lose our courage, which we surely will at one time or another, our covenant calls us to show up anyway, and to be held in each other’s loving embrace.

Meanwhile, our faith has a bit of a PR problem. In the absence of immutable theological mortar, what holds us together? And how on earth do we describe our faith with enough confidence and clarity that we can avoid having to throw those darn wallet cards and running away like some crazed spiritual banshees?

Let me start by acknowledging the challenge of explaining Unitarian Universalism to people who haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. I don’t know about you, but I often feel a little defensive right from the start, so I usually wind up barraging the listener with lots of facts peppered with important-sounding theological words and lots of famous names. My personal strategy is to let loose with a long string of prepositional phrases punctuated by obscure historical facts, and if I’m really on a roll I can mention Ralph Waldo Emerson before the listener thinks I’m a priestess of Rev. Moon’s Unification Church.

OK, so my sentence usually goes something like this (got your pencils ready??): Unitarian Universalism is a new incarnation of two different streams of Christian theology, both of which have been around since the very beginning of Christianity (semi-colon); with Unitarianism asserting the primacy of God, the humanity of Jesus and the use of reason in religious inquiry, and Universalism underscoring the inherent benevolence of God and the essential goodness of all people (semi colon); both ideas of which have been espoused by a lot of famous and brilliant people including Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (For some reason by the time I manage to mention Emerson most people are glassy-eyed, so I think I need to work on that sentence a little bit.)

But seriously, if I had to pick one word, just one word, to describe Unitarian Universalist theology it would be optimism. For centuries the Unitarians distinguished themselves in science, government, and social policy because our faith was grounded in the belief that human reason could be applied to the dilemmas of the human condition. Social problems like slavery and human suffering, scientific mysteries like evolution, and religious dilemmas like how to interpret the bible, as John Buehrens explained last week. Underneath all these challenges lay supreme confidence that the human mind and heart were powerful gifts given by God.

My colleague the Rev. Victoria Safford writes of this confidence.

“For more than three hundred years, American Unitarians recited with sunny assurance, We affirm the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character and the progress of Mankind onward and upward forever. They said this, we said this, even after Stalin and Mao, Nagasaki and Dresden, the Holocaust and Vietnam, with a radiant, fierce confidence. On the Universalist side there was less arrogance but more heresy. They also found a strange God in the pages of the Bible, a loving and forgiving presence, more like a mother or a father than an angry, jealous king, but for them, too, the true blasphemy, according to the orthodox, was not how they felt about God, but how they felt about people. The Universalists believed that everyone is saved, that we can do evil but we can never be evil, inherently; that anyone, no matter who, no matter what, if they wanted it sincerely, could be reconciled, redeemed, restored to the embrace of God. The only hell we know, they said, is the one we make for one another here on earth, by the commission of cruelty or the omission of love. Their optimism about us was generous and boundless… they knew that the foundation of the world and the character of God is love, and the hallmark of humanity was not original sin, but original blessing.” [3]

The Unitarian’s assurance in the immutable human movement toward moral and social progress, and the Universalists’ belief in the benevolence of God and the goodness of humanity. Victoria calls these twin beliefs the “hopeful double helix” of “our genetic code as a denomination.” [4]

In our UU genetic code, where optimism is dominant, we are sorely tempted to believe that human failure is recessive. So recessive, in fact, that most of us don’t really believe in sin, at least not as an ever present, morally threatening personal reality. We may not believe in the theology of sin and damnation, but as a people, as a worshipping community and as individuals, we need to develop what one colleague calls “a spirituality of imperfection.” [5] We could work harder to develop an appreciation that failure and complicity and denial and a whole host of moral shortcomings are also embedded in human hearts, including our own. [6] Ours would be a more authentic spiritual practice if we paid a little more attention to the shadow side of the human spirit, not as an abstraction — something that wreaks havoc only on the national stage, or in other periods of history — but as an ongoing threat to being the very best that we can be. The optimistic genetic code that our ancestors passed down was not intended to support a religion that would simply make people feel better. It is meant to make us be better, to live into our full humanity, which is broken as well as beautiful. [7]

Spiritual freedom is also written into our DNA, but our religious forbears knew that spiritual freedom is not the end of our religion. It is the beginning. “Ours is an exquisite and terrible freedom, and yet we are not free to believe whatever we want to. Here we are free to believe not what we want, but what we must” [8] — we are free to search for those beliefs from which our hearts cannot escape. You are free here to understand, to notice and name your own experience. Our “faith tradition, which trusts the integrity and worth of each individual, sets you free not so that you can casually dabble in religion, but so that you can become… intoxicated by an authentic, personal faith you cannot help but live… Unitarian Universalism does not give you freedom from religion, it gives you freedom for religion.” [9]

Ultimately, each one of us is free to construct a living faith out of whatever field stones we can find or dig up. This is demanding and disquieting work. It can be relentless, and lonely. Without a unifying creed, there is little to remind us who we are at the end of the tired day. We can only return to ourselves, and to each other. Each one of us can, as in Robert Frost’s poem, “walk the line/ and set the wall between us once again.” Or, better yet, before we start mending that fence, we could “ask to know what (we were) walling in or walling out. We could guard the gap were two could walk abreast, and call it holy, holy.

[1]   Robert Frost, Mending Wall.
[2]   Conrad Wright, Walking Together, pp. 30-34.
[3]   Rev. Victoria Safford, "Debts and Trespasses," October 1, 2006
[4]   Ibid.
[5]   Ibid.
[6]   Paraphrased from a 2006 article by Rev. David Hubner.
[7]   Safford, Ibid.
[8]   From a sermon by Rev. Victoria Safford.
[9] From a sermon by Rev. Scott Alexander.

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