Harold Babcock's Sermons

March 23, 2008

Things That Endure

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:10 pm

“The eternity which I detect in nature I predicate of myself also.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Recently I picked up a copy of a little book by the great 20th century liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding minister of the Riverside Church in New York City.  I suppose it was the title that first attracted me: A Faith for Tough Times.

1952, when the book was written, doesn’t seem on first glance to have been such a tough time, but on second thought I realized that Fosdick was writing his book in the midst of the Korean War, at the beginning of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  Without the benefit of hindsight, 1952 must surely have seemed like tough times, the future bleak and uncertain, and hope tenuous at best.

In the post-World War II world, a time of shifting values when all the old certainties were crumbling and terrible new realities confronted the human race, Fosdick sought to reassure his readers about some of the things that endure.  In a time not unlike our own, he hoped to show that not everything was lost.

In a chapter entitled “The Eternal is Real,” Fosdick posed the question, “Can it be that life is not all flux and mutability, fugitive, fleeting, perishing?  Is there something else here–abiding, everlasting?   . . .To find the permanent amid the impermanent, the durable amid the fugitive,” he said, “is now a matter of life and death.”  Perhaps today that is even more true than it was back in 1952.

In the effort to find something imperishable, Fosdick settled on what he called three “eternal” realities: eternal truth, eternal purpose, and eternal moral law–or what we might call justice.  Even if there turns out to be no God and no future life, Fosdick seemed to suggest, still these three realities would endure and would make life worth living:

As in a scientific laboratory, all else may change but the standards are unalterable–disinterested love of truth, fidelity to facts, accuracy in measurement, exactness of verification–so, in life as a whole, the towering ethical criteria remain unshaken.  Falsehood is never better than truth, theft better than honesty, treachery better than loyalty, cowardice better than courage.

I confess to finding Fosdick’s little book reassuring.  In a time when so much threatens and so much is lost, a time when the future again seems so uncertain, it is good to think that beneath the passing tide, beneath all the relativisms to which we are subject, there might still be something that is eternal, still be things that endure.  In Fosdick’s words, “. . .there are unshakable moral laws with which men and nations may not innocuously fool.”

I want to believe it.  For I do believe that there is such a thing as Truth, though we from our limited human perspectives may only know it in its small-t forms.  I do believe that life has meaning and purpose, even if it is only that which we give to it by our own thoughts and actions, and even if its inherent or ultimate purpose remains obscure to us.  And I do believe in Justice, with a capital J, and that we know it when we see it.

There does indeed seem to be a universality about these three realities that encourages me to believe that there are things that endure in spite of the impermanence of practically everything we see.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that all three of these realities are what might be called “spiritual” values, as opposed to the material things that consume so much of our time and energy in this life.

We are reminded that even the mountains will not endure.   Could it be, as all the theologians have argued throughout the ages, that it is ultimately the spiritual that is real, and that everything else we see is just an illusion?

Some time ago I gave up on the probability, though not the hope, of ever knowing what becomes of our individual personhood, or what is traditionally called our “soul,” after we die.  When it comes to life after death, I am content to let the mystery be.  I am much more concerned these days that Life itself continue than I am about what happens to me personally.  I want to be reassured that the values that I hold most sacred: love and truth and justice and peace and hope, will endure, and perhaps one day be fully realized.

I worry about the future of the human race.  Indeed, I often feel despair about its prospects.  But then I am reminded of the Easter promise of new life.  For as my colleague Sandra Fitz-Henry has written,

The possibility of transformation and renewal, of re-awakening, is offered to us over and over again in Life.  Sometimes we can see it and hear it call.  Sometimes not.  But it is a present possibility.  Almost everyone has felt at times the death-like darkness of despair.  And we have known people whose lives, in large or small ways, have been transformed and renewed.   It is the nature of Life, or perhaps the nature of Nature, that it continues to invite us back into greater life, greater wholeness, into a larger awareness.

This morning, we heard our Teen Choir sing wonderfully about the “Things That Never Die”: purity, beauty, love and truth, the spirit’s longing, hope, kindness and mercy, contrition, good work to do.  When despair settles on me, when the fear of death keeps me awake at night, I try to recall to mind these things that never die.  Often, as I remember them, it gives me hope and courage to keep on in the face of all that disheartens and frightens and dispirits me.

For it is the death in life which we need to fear the most, “the kinds of things in our lives,” as my colleague Sandra writes, “that prevent us from feeling alive.  Things like fear or cowardice, lack of purpose.  Things like loneliness, grief and boredom that numb us to life.  Things like old habits of thought, old patterns of behavior.”

We are always seeking for new life, always seeking for the things that endure, the things that never die.  Those things are always here, they are always within us, if we have but eyes to see and ears to listen to the still small voice within.

May each of us be reborn to those eternal and sustaining realities, on this day and in all the days still to come, and may they give us the courage and the confidence and the hope to carry on in this beautiful and ever-mysterious world.  So be it.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
March 23, 2008


March 16, 2008

Answering the Call

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:15 pm

“O, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”
-Exodus 4: 13

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’  But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish. . . .”
– Jonah 1: 1-2

“Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”  With these words Moses initiates a theme which will echo down the pages the Bible, culminating when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.”

It is the theme of the reluctant prophet, and along with the “suffering servant” and my personal favorite “the faithful remnant” (a most useful metaphor, particularly in churches), one of the most common.

No one, it seems, from Moses on down to Jesus, wants to answer the call. None of the prophets goes forth to prophecy gladly. They all know that it is dangerous and usually thankless work to speak truth to power. Even among those you know, and those who supposedly love you, it is a thankless task, as Jesus recognized when he said that, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

You know and I know that we all receive many calls in this life, and we know that most of them, at least the ones that really matter, will demand our time, our talent, and our treasure. Some of those calls, as Jesus suspected on the night before his trial and execution, will demand everything we’ve got. No wonder we let it ring–the phone, or whatever means of communication, whether earthly or divine. No wonder we avoid answering the call!

But one should not miss the humor in many of these biblical stories. We are taught to take the Bible much too seriously. Consider Moses. God has appeared to him in a burning bush, and speaks to him out of it. God has a little job for Moses (Sound familiar?  You’ve heard that pitch before). God wants Moses, a simple shepherd, to lead his people, the oppressed Hebrews, out of bondage to the powerful Egyptians:  “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Most people receiving such a commission would probably figure, “It’s God, right?  What can possibly go wrong?”

But Moses, though only a shepherd, is apparently a pretty good judge of human nature. He is understandably reluctant to answer the call. He thinks up just about every excuse he can in order to get out of it:

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”  [God] said, “But I will be with you. . . .

Not good enough for Moses:

“If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

Not a terribly reassuring answer!  God then gives Moses more instruction on what to do and say, and even offers to help him out with the minor details:

“So I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with all the wonders which I will do in it; after that, [Pharaoh] will let you go.”

It’s still not enough for Moses:

“But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’”

Clearly, this Moses is a realistic man. But God will have none of it. So he tells Moses to cast his shepherd’s rod upon the ground, whence it transforms into a serpent, which understandably scares the you-know-what out of Moses (“he fled from it” says the Bible). God turns the serpent back into a rod. Then God turns Moses’ hand leprous, then he restores it:

“If they will not believe you,” God said, “or heed the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you shall take from the Nile will become blood upon the dry ground.”

By this time, most of us would probably be completely convinced; but I suspect it was that nagging doubt about how difficult people can be to lead, how unwilling they can be to accept the truth, even when it is for their own good, that still held Moses back.

At this point in the story, I’m sure its early listeners would be laughing out loud, recognizing themselves in both the reluctant Moses and the recalcitrant people. But Moses still has one more lame excuse to offer up:

“Oh, my lord, I am not eloquent, either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue.”

By now God has had it with this Moses character:

Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth?  Who makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. But he said, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”  Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses. . . .

The rest, as they say, is history–well, at least Biblical history. Moses reluctantly answers his call, and with the vocal assistance of his brother Aaron goes on to become the greatest leader his people have ever known,–though, God knows, and just as he suspected, they are not easily led. The people, it turns out, are a bunch of stubborn and stiff-necked complainers. As the episode with the golden calves will prove, they are also backsliders. Moses will lead them in the desert for forty years before they finally reach the promised land, that land “flowing with milk and honey.”  It will be hard sledding all the way. And Moses himself will not even get to the promised land, but will die within sight of it [see Deuteronomy 34], a cruel irony.

Moses is properly considered to be the first and greatest of the Hebrew prophets. But no wonder those who came after him were reluctant to answer the call!  They already knew what they were in for. They also knew that they could never hope to rise above the original, and that it would somehow be lacking in humility to answer the call without going through some kind of inner or outer struggle. In other words, it’s not supposed to be easy. If it cost us nothing, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Centuries later, the prophet Jonah would become the embodiment of the reluctant prophet, though he would only be one among many. The Book of Jonah is unique among the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible in that it is the story of a prophet, rather than a collection of the prophet’s words. You will recall that Jonah gets into deep trouble–literally–when he refuses to answer God’s call:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”  But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Jonah knows all about Moses. He knows what it means to answer the call. So, he decides to jump a ship going to Tarshish. (You Newburyporters may be interested to learn that his port of departure was Joppa.)

Jonah should have known better than to think he could avoid the call. God causes a great storm which the sailors of the ship correctly blame on their passenger, and they ultimately cast Jonah into the sea where he is swallowed up by “a great fish.”  Three days and three nights Jonah is in the belly of the fish, but finally he is delivered up to reluctantly answer the call and heads off to Nineveh on his thankless task. We never find out what happens to him in the end, but we can only assume that it isn’t pretty.

By now, you are probably wondering what is the point of this sermon, besides offering you a few possibly interesting and fun facts about the Bible, so I will tell you. In the next few days, many if not most of you will be receiving a call. No, it will not come from God. Sorry about that.

The call you will be receiving will come from  your canvasser, a volunteer and a person just like yourself who has already answered the call to act on behalf of this church in our annual fundraising drive. I really hope that you will answer his or her call. Without your willingness to answer or return your canvasser’s call, their’s can be a pretty thankless job.

Your canvasser will be asking you to get together for a brief visit to talk about what this year we are calling “giving in gratitude” to the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Newburyport. I hope that you will take this opportunity to meet with your canvasser and to consider all that this church means to you and to our wider community. We have much to be grateful for.

Last Sunday we heard from just a few of our members about what first brought them to and keeps them here at our church. For me, it was very moving to hear about some of the important and even profound ways that our church impacts not only our own lives but the lives of others. Perhaps you already believe, as I do, that without the presence of this liberal religious congregation, our greater Newburyport community and our own lives would be much diminished.

I know that most of you have already received information about this year’s fundraising needs and goals, so I will not trouble you with those. The information is also available on the Visitor’s Table in the vestibule. Suffice it to say that this church simply can’t do its work without your support: without your time, your talent, and, not least, your treasure.

None of us really wants to answer the call. We’d rather hit the road for Tarshish. We can probably think of almost as many excuses as Moses for why we shouldn’t answer. We know what it will cost. We know it may lead to further sacrifice and deeper commitment. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you this morning. Answering the various calls we receive in life can be hard. Sometimes it can take all we’ve got. But it can also change our lives in unexpected and amazing ways.

May the calls we receive, even those which demand too much of us, lead us closer to the more meaningful lives we are seeking. As always, it is good to be together in this place and time, and to share the gift of life together. Amen, and God bless.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
March 16, 2008

March 2, 2008

Who Are We and What Are We Called to Do?

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:21 pm

“If your congregation were ten times as bold, what might you accomplish?”
– Question posed at the New England Regional UU Conference

Last October, a small group of us from this church attended the New England Regional Unitarian Unitarian Universalist Conference which was held in Worcester. This day-long event was intended as a way to bring together Unitarian Universalists from across New England to spend some time thinking about the question I have posed in my sermon title this morning: who are we, and what are we called to do?

One travels to these conferences somewhat reluctantly, as it means giving up a Saturday for uncertain results. Are they really going to tell me something I don’t already know?  Generally, however, I come away from such outings with some new information and with a renewed sense of belonging. These, as someone has famously said, are my people. For all their faults and foibles, Unitarian Universalists are for the most part good folks, trying to make a difference in their churches and communities. I usually come away from such meetings glad that I attended, even glad that I have given up a precious day of my weekend. It is energizing and occasionally even inspiring to spend time with others who care deeply about our Unitarian Universalist faith and, more importantly, about changing our world.

This year, the conference facilitators asked the question, “If your congregation were ten times as bold, what might you accomplish?”  Isn’t this the question that we all ought to be asking ourselves?  Isn’t this the question that the First Religious Society in Newburyport needs to be asking?  If nothing else, I hope that you will go home today thinking about this question.

Of course, underlying this question is another, perhaps more pressing question, a question both personal and institutional: are we willing to be changed?  Are we willing and courageous enough to challenge the status quo?  Are we willing to step outside of what is comfortable and familiar to really examine how and why we do things, what we might do better, what we might do more bravely?  God knows, there is plenty to be done, even right here in our lovely community of Greater Newburyport.

And do we have any choice?  In a world which is changing almost by the minute, can we afford not to change along with it?

As one of our Worcester conference facilitators challenged us, “If you think change is bad, try irrelevancy.”  Do we want our church to become irrelevant?

Let us consider some times when we had the courage to change. In 2002 we made the decision to renovate the cellar space beneath our 201-year-old meeting house. This was a decision that came after literally years of discussion and planning. It was a decision which meant we were going to change the way that we presented ourselves to the community. It meant that we were taking the risk to grow. It meant even to say that we dared to mess around with this beautiful old building, because we recognized that, as an old hymn has it, “the church is not a building,” but rather that the church is the people in it. We knew that the renovation project would change our congregation, and it has.  Our church has continued to grow and, I believe, to thrive. With more space, our Young Church program has expanded, and we have been able to provide more programming for our entire congregation. We have become more visible in our community as a result.

And there have been other times when we took the risk to change. Consider the many years of patient activity and programming that it took for this church to become a “Welcoming Congregation,” open to the visible and active participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. In spite of fears that we might become known simply as “the gay church,”–though would that really be such a terrible thing?–we took the chance to live out our Affirmation of Faith and to more fully embody Jesus’s great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

One could point to other risks taken which have reaped unexpected rewards. Our youth choirs present another example of that great bit of cinema wisdom, “If you build it, they will come.”  Today, our Young Church and Teen Choirs are one of the primary ways that young people attach themselves to our church and one of the primary ways that we have found to keep them involved through their high school years. It took real vision to imagine that a bunch of teens would want to make the effort to get out of bed early and come to the church every Sunday morning to sing!  And what an amazing bunch of singers they have become!  (We’ve even managed to salt several of the local high school varsity choirs with a number of our teen choir members!)

Other programs have been expanded here at the church in recent years as well, such as our adult religious education program.  More and more people are taking advantage of the many wonderful programs we have to offer, but there was a time, not so long ago, when we wondered if folks were really interested in coming out for adult education. Now we know the answer.

These are only a few examples of times when we have been bold enough to change. But change is scary, I know. There are lots of things to be afraid of when you make the choice to change and to reach out. Always, there is concern about perception in the community at large, which I have mentioned. Or, we could grow even more: do we really want to? Aren’t we big enough already?  Do we really want all of these new people coming in, and, besides, they may have different ideas. . . . What if they challenge my theology?  (Of course, that would assume that I know what my theology is!)  What if they believe in God?  Or not?  And so on.

The fact is, we have already changed; whether it is for the better or not I must leave to your individual consideration. I know how I feel about it. But there is so much left to be done!

Always, we must keep before ourselves the question that I have posed in my title this morning: “Who are we, and what are we called to do?”  Are we here only to serve ourselves, our own needs and desires, our own personal spiritual growth, or are we here for some greater purpose, some grander vision? It was the  possibility that we might be here for mostly selfish reasons that Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams warned us against when he suggested that such an attitude constituted a “sham spirituality.”  True spirituality, Adams reminded us, always contains the imperative of service to others, of mercy and of action for social justice. In other words, true spirituality always contains within itself the necessity for change.

Are we really serving our community?  Do we really want to?  And, if so, what do we need to do to actually live out the vision that we have been working so hard to formulate over the last two years?  We say that we want our church to be an agent of change in our community, that we want it to be a church which is socially active. Are we?

Where are we going, and why?  What are we called to do?  In the Christian tradition, of course, there is the great metaphor of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is not a place, but literally a reign–r-e-i-g-n. Even Jesus seemed to be conflicted about whether the reign of God had already begun, or whether it was to be initiated at some time in the (distant) future.

I happen to believe that Jesus intended for us to initate God’s reign in our own time. I believe that he understood that we are God’s hands and heart here on earth. And, though it is too often ignored, Jesus set out a pretty good vision for how the Kingdom of God should look:  “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  I don’t know about you, but every one of those examples challenges me to be a better human being than I presently am.

I’m not sure that we need any new metaphors: I believe that the old ones are just fine. I think we all know what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. It’s pretty clear, even though we may not like all of it. (“Come, sell all you have, and follow me” comes to mind.)  It is not enough to say we are too busy or too tired, or to say that we don’t have the means to it. We, who have more than enough, must carry out the vision. It’s up to us.

At our day long vision retreat in January, when we attempted to pull together all of the information that we have been gathering over the last couple of years, and to create the beginning of a viable plan for moving forward into the future, I reminded those who were present how many great ideas had emerged from our work. Literally, there were hundreds of great ideas!  But without people to take those ideas and champion them and make them real, it will not mean much. The failure will be ours, not something inherent in the process.

What I am saying is that it is going to take your participation to make our vision a reality. This is where the proverbial rubber is going to meet the proverbial road!  We can only accomplish as much as you are willing to do. Without a vision, the Book of Proverbs reminds us, the people perish. Perhaps they perish with a vision, too, if they are unable to muster the energy and desire to transform their vision into reality. We need you–we need your participation beyond Sunday mornings–if we are to make a real difference in the world: even in the world that lies just outside of these great doors. Consider this an invitation to you to become more fully involved in the life and activities of this congregation!

About three years ago, at the very beginning of what became our visioning process, a group of us attended a conference entitled “The Almost Church” at Andover Newton Theological School. One of the pieces of wisdom from that conference has stayed with me. It was part of the promotional literature of a church somewhere, not a UU church I am sorry to say, but a church that understands what it means to be a real community for change. It said something like, “When you need to be cared for, this church will be there to take care of you. But the day will come when you will be asked to be there and to care for somebody else.”  Being part of a church community is not just about taking, in other words: we all have an obligation to give something back.

I really like that as a model for what a beloved community should be. We welcome you here: we hope that it feeds you spiritually, and we hope even that it might help you through a difficult time in your life. Perhaps it will offer you something which is life-changing. But we also need you to return the favor. The consumerist model of church-going, in other words, only goes so far. I can tell you from experience, anyway, that you only get out of it as much as you are willing to put in, whether it be your time, your talent, or your treasure. Occasionally, and miraculously, you get more than you could ever repay.

There is so much work to be done. There is so much change that needs to happen!  We can make a difference in the world, but it will take the participation of each and every one of us to do it. Who are we, and what are we called to do?  That is the great question which each of us must answer. I hope that you will think about these things in the days to come. May the spirit of life be with us as we struggle to create the better world of our dreams. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
March 2, 2008

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