Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sermon: "Roots, Wings, and Little Lights" (Delivered 12-28-08)

[In July of 2009 I will serve as the guest lecturer in Unitarian Universalist history and theology at the Midwest Leadership School. The following sermon is based on part of what will my first lecture.]

Call to Worship
After the presents have been unwrapped. After the feasting. After family and friends have been bid goodbye, and the time of returning has happened, then quiet, pause, a fallow time in these last few days before the New Year. Outside, Mother Nature deals us snow and ice and storm. Inside we seek the distractions of college football bowls and board games.

Each year, I lead a service at this time of the year that goes by the title, “Cozying Up with a Good Book.” I contend that there are few pleasures as wonderful as fixing a mug of hot chocolate or a cup of tea, wrapping yourself in a throw blanket, cozying up on the sofa with a good book.

As the dark weather storms outside the window we wrap our bodies in warmth and give our minds the great gift of an exotic vacation. Our thoughts soar, flying off to destinations around the world, to the past and to the future. Without getting off the couch we walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Or, we hold up a mirror by which to see ourselves more clearly. This morning we celebrate books. We celebrate the adventures of the mind as we pass these few final days of 2008.

Summon your imagination. Summon your curiosity. Summon your desire for adventure. I am glad that you are here. Let us worship together.

This morning’s reading is from Sarah Vowell’s fifth book, entitled The Wordy Shipmates. Her name may be familiar to you even if you haven’t read any of her books. She is a commentator on NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass. She was also the voice of Violet in the movie The Incredibles.
The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don’t mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Take the reverend John Cotton. In 1630, he goes down to the port of Southampton to preach a farewell sermon to the seven hundred or so colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Led by Governor John Winthrop, a gentleman farmer and lawyer, these mostly Puritan dissenters are about to sail from England to New England on the flagship Arabella and ten other vessels in the Winthrop fleet.

By the time Cotton says amen, he has fought Mexico for Texas, bought Alaska from the Russians, and dropped napalm on Vietnam. Then he lays a wreath on Custer’s grave and revs past Wounded Knee. Then he claps when the Marquis de Lafayette tells Congress that “someday America will save the world.” Then he smiles when Abraham Lincoln calls the United States “the last best hope of earth.” Then he frees Cuba, which would be news to Cuba. Then he signs the lease on Guantanamo Bay.
[Aboard the Arabella, after it has crossed the Atlantic, Winthrop preached,] “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”

Winthrop couldn’t know that overturning what he just said would become the definition of the American dream…

In 1630, however, the truth that all men are created equal is far from self-evident. Winthrop is saying the opposite—that God created all men unequal. To Winthrop, this is a good thing, especially since he’s in charge. The beauty of this inequality, he claims, is “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”… More than anything, [Winthrop’s sermon] is a declaration of dependence.
This morning’s sermon takes place in between two hymns. I am going to talk to you about roots and wings and little lights. The two hymns in between which my comments are situated are two of our favorite hymns. One of those hymns, that we just sung, is “This Little Light of Mine.” When we sing it, it is a justice hymn. When we sing it we probably think of letting our truth, our love, and our values shine out into the world. The hymn is based on a passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers that they are lights for all the world. That is one idea that I want for us to consider.

The other concept is taken from the hymn that will follow the sermon, another favorite hymn of our church, “Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade, a Unitarian Universalist. In this hymn, she uses the images of roots and wings. “Roots hold us close and wings set us free.” These evocative words signal that we are part of a tradition. Our own religious tradition has deep roots and we are also rooted in traditions of family and culture. However, this hymn declares that we also have wings. Wings are a symbol of liberation and progress, evolution and creativity. Religiously, culturally, we are not static. We are rooted in tradition but we are also creating the future in front of us.

Let me begin with the roots. I grew up in the small New England town of Wayland, Massachusetts and attended the Unitarian Universalist church growing up. That congregation was founded in 1642 and is about the same size as our congregation here in Overland Park. One summer I was home from college and I found myself wanting to talk through some of what was going on in my life with one of the ministers of that church. We met at Bruegger’s Bagels and talked and during the conversation my minister mentioned that she considered herself to be a “bibliotherapist.” That is to say that whenever she faces challenges, she is likely to seek assistance in the shelves of a bookstore or a library. I left the counseling session with a belly full of bagels, with a sense of greater perspective and reassurance, and with a list of books I might want to read.

And I tell you all of this because there was something in that religious interaction that was distinctively Unitarian Universalist. I don’t mean to say that people of other religious traditions don’t read books. Rather, this idea that reading is a sacred act comes out of our religious heritage. From our roots.

This morning I am not only going to talk about roots and wings and little lights; I am also going to talk about the Puritans. Many of my remarks refer to a specific book, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, a wildly entertaining intellectual history of the Puritans and a book that is also good scholarship. I am going to discuss some of the roots of Puritan thought that continue to influence us today.

Especially for those of you who are newer to Unitarian Universalism, when I tell you that Unitarian Universalists are the religious descendents of the Puritans, you may react to this statement with a sense of shock and incredulity. The dominant images we have of the Puritans today are of religious fanatics who killed accused witches in Salem, hung Quakers on Boston Common, exiled Roger Williams to Rhode Island for being too mouthy, and then exiled Anne Hutchinson as well for being too mouthy and too female.

Moreover, the Puritans have a reputation for being killjoys and overly serious moralists. And some of this reputation isn’t deserved. On one hand, they were a serious bunch, religiously devout and fearful of incurring God’s wrath. One the other hand, some of the stereotypes of them being joyless people just do not ring true. They loved to feast. They loved to drink. (When the Arabella set sail for the Massachusetts Bay colony, they loaded the ship with ten thousand gallons of beer.) And, despite what Nathaniel Hawthorne would have us believe in his novel The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans enjoyed their sex as well, although their concept of sex was limited to heterosexual sex for the purposes of procreation.

Other images we have of the Puritans carry some amount of truth, but aren’t exactly precise either. For example, the Puritans are often considered to be the first capitalists and when sociologist Max Weber coined the term “The Protestant Work Ethic” he most certainly had the Puritans in mind. The truth is a bit more complicated. The economic system of the Puritans certainly valued work, but it was also anxious about wealth. You could make a historical argument that the Puritans were early socialists just as easily as you could argue that they were early capitalists. Their social system prized high levels of charity and the redistribution of wealth. These values were based on a very serious reading of Jesus’ teachings about, and self-sacrificing care for, the poor and the needy.

So, what are some of the Puritan roots from which we still draw sap today? First, I would argue that we still exude the Puritan quality of restlessness. The so-called Protestant work ethic was not so much about the greedy creation of wealth. It was the way the Puritans channeled and sublimated their own tremendous doubts about their own salvation. Since they believed in predestination—from the beginning of time it was already decided whether you were headed for heaven or for hell—they constantly looked for clues about where they would go in the afterlife. Hard work and earthly success was seen as a hint that you might be one of the elect. Their lives were restless and they were constantly wracked with doubt.

And we are equally restless people, if the truth be told. The place where this plays out most conspicuously is in our justice work. Unitarian Universalists tend towards social awareness. You only need to attend the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly and take a walk through the booths in the exhibit hall and you will find UU group after UU group working tirelessly for everything from anti-racism to women’s rights. And this is all such good work, the work of making our world peaceful and fair and free. Only sometimes I talk to the people at these booths and find myself wishing that they smiled more. Sometimes they seem so constantly restless that I wonder about their own suffering. Of course, I manifest my own restless qualities. This isn’t at all about feeling restless about my own salvation. It is about trying to reconcile my own existence with a world that is deeply troubled.

Another root from which we draw sap and another feature that we share with our Puritan ancestors is skepticism of false authority and a desire to be self-regulating. There was a massive religious uprising in England that gave birth to the Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, and dozens of other religious groups. These groups were all critical of the organizational structure of the Church of England and especially the power vested in Bishops, the King, and ecclesiastical hierarchies in general. Reacting against the corruptions within the Church of England, the Puritans established their own system of local control. Their churches would call their own ministers, elect their own officers, and regulate their own conduct. It is important for us to remember that this desire for less external control was not a move towards a more laissez faire church. The Puritans wanted higher expectations. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spells out in exacting detail the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of ministers, church leaders, and church members.

A third root that connects us with our Puritan ancestors is a devotion to scholarship and literacy. The Puritans of the 1600s were probably the most literate group of people ever to live on this planet. Historian Perry Miller writes,
“Puritanism was no an anti-intellectual fundamentalism; it was a learned, scholarly movement that required on the part of the leaders, and as much as possible from the followers, not only knowledge but a respect for the cultural heritage. Being good classicists, they read Latin and Greek poetry, and tried their hands at composing verses of their own. The amount they wrote, even amid the labor of settling a wilderness, is astonishing.”
I earned my Masters degree in Divinity from Harvard, a school that was founded by the Puritans in 1636 for the training of, “a learned clergy” so that, as they put it back then, “when our present ministers lie in the dust” they wouldn’t be forced to choose between accepting illiterate clergy from the colonies or importing ministers from England who have been grossly corrupted by the false teachings of the Church of England.

At Harvard one of the most amazing resources was an enormous microfiche collection of every piece of writing published in the colonies. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of pages. These folks read and read and read. So, when one of my childhood ministers talked about being a so-called “bibliotherapist” she was invoking Puritan roots that go back nearly three hundred and eighty years. Yet other circumstances of this simple story emphasize the wings of our religious tradition rather than our roots. That the minister to whom I was turning for counsel was a woman would have greatly upset those Puritan ancestors. That the reading suggestions presented to me included a Catholic, a Buddhist, and a secularist would have been equally distressing. We are both rooted and winged, a product of our past and the creation of our present.

In The Wordy Shipmates, an image runs through the book from a passage from a sermon that John Winthrop preached aboard the ship The Arabella in 1630 called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Harvard professor Peter Gomes, in a best of the millennium list that came out in The New York Times in 1999, called Winthrop’s sermon the best sermon of the past 1,000 years. The basic gist of the sermon is that the world will be watching what the Puritans do in this new land and that the Puritans are to be, drawing language from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a city upon a hill and a light to all the world. Winthrop goes on to warn the Puritans that being the light of all the world means living by some pretty lofty standards. Sarah Vowell says about this image,
“The image of a city on a hill will get passed down as an all-American beacon of hope. But it wasn’t only that to Winthrop. To him, the city on a hill was also something else, something worse—a warning. If he and his shipmates reneged on their covenant with God, the city on a hill would be a lighthouse of doom beckoning the wrath of God to Boston Harbor.”
In tracing the history of this image through American history, Vowell notes that it was an image used both by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In fact, Reagan used the “City on a Hill” line so many times that when it came time for Reagan’s funeral, a passage from Winthrop’s sermon was chosen as a reading.

The reading was delivered by Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court, and the first woman to serve in this position. Just a few weeks before Reagan’s funeral, the biggest news story in the land was the release of pictures of inmates being tortured at Abu Ghraib. These are the words of Winthrop that Justice O’Connor read at the funeral:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”
Vowell points out that we live under both the arrogance and the expectations of Winthrop’s sermon. She writes, “America is supposed to be better. No: best. I hate to admit it, but I still believe that, too. Because even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don’t even believe in God! And I have heard the screams! Why is America the last best hope of Earth? What if it’s Liechtenstein? Or, worse, Canada?”

We stand at the brink of a year about to pass. A difficult year for many of us. We stand before a year that is to come. Into this new year we carry with us roots, and wings, and little lights. We bring the past that we cannot leave behind, even if we really wanted to. We are rooted. And, we bring wings, the hope that we can break out of the forces of custom. And we bring our little lights. Yes, we have heard the warning. And still, and still, what other choice do we have but to let our little lights shine and commit ourselves to making sure that our light illuminates and reflects the best of what we are and what we are called to be?