Harold Babcock's Sermons

April 20, 2008

The Passover of Praise

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:29 pm

“And what will come at last?  The way leads on.”
-Edwin Muir

This past Wednesday I journeyed into the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston to witness as my former parishioner Kate Braestrup received the Association’s Melcher Book Award for her memoir Here If You Need Me, the story of the death of her Maine State Trooper husband Drew Griffith and Kate’s journey into Unitarian Universalist ministry as a Chaplain in the Maine State Forest Service.  You may remember that in one of my sermons earlier this year I spoke about Kate’s book.

For me it was a trip down that hallowed road known as “memory lane,” for I had not seen Kate in person since 1994, the year I completed an interim ministry at the First Universalist Church in Rockland, Maine.  That seems like a very long time ago, now, another lifetime perhaps.  Those of you who have been around for a while may also remember that I preached about Drew soon after his sudden death in an automobile accident in 1996.

Kate had been an active participant in at least one of the adult religious education classes I led during my year in Rockland, and the combination of her intelligence (she was already a published author and knew as much about the Bible as I), her wonderful sense of humor (I’m hoping to get her to come preach for us sometime next year), and her husband’s unusual occupation–in my experience, not a common one among Unitarian Universalists–had stayed with me.   I felt Drew’s loss very personally.

I confess that I experienced not a little pride when Kate publically acknowledged my role in her and Drew’s decision to become active in the Rockland Church and in Unitarian Universalism.  At least, I thought, I had done nothing to drive them away!  Those of you who remember the story may recall that it was originally Drew’s dream to become a Unitarian Universalist minister following his retirement from the State Police.  It was nice to know that I might have played even a small part in his dream, and in Kate’s eventual path to ministry and to happiness in a new marriage and vocation.

That path, of course, has not been an easy one for her to walk, and it is not finished yet.  Last Tuesday was the twelfth anniversary of Drew’s death.  Time in its relentless movement goes on, and we are left to make sense of where it has taken us.

I have often said that while we may not be able to change the whole world, much as we would like to, we do have the opportunity to make a difference in our small corner of it.  If we have had a positive influence on even one person along the perilous journey of life, then perhaps we need ask for nothing more.  Perhaps that is enough.

Of course, for Unitarian Universalists, who do not as a rule expect the Rapture at the end of the line, it is very important that life goes on, with or without us.  It is important that the world goes on and that the possibilities for redemption go on.  If one believes that it is in this world that our salvation is worked out, that it is in this world that our lives can and must make a difference; that it is in this world that change for the better takes place in time and over generations, that it is in this world and no other that our moral choices and decisions have any influence, then it can be a truly despairing thought to consider the annihilation of the earth and all its creatures.

I am led to this dark place by thinking about the journey of life and where it might be leading.  As I think about the path that Kate has walked, I am hopeful for the future of the race.  We can begin again.  But everything depends on whether we can save this fragile and endangered earth, for this is the place where that redemption takes place.

Today is not only Earth Day, but the first day of Passover, and I was reminded that Passover marks the memory of the ancient Israelites’ liberation and exodus from Egypt.  Liberation for what, we might ask?  Well, if you recall that story, liberation was just the beginning.  For the Israelites would have to wander in the wilderness for forty difficult and directionless years before reaching the promised land.  Their leader Moses would not even get there with them.  And even getting there was no panacea.

This wandering became a powerful metaphor for the religious life in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Jesus, you may recall, must wander forty days and nights in the desert before he is deemed worthy to take on the mantle of divinity.  In our own lifetimes, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke powerfully on the night before his death of having “seen the promised land,” even though he presciently warned that he “might not get there” with us.

The way, as our responsive reading this morning reminds us, leads on.  We are not sure of the destination.  That is why in her Passover poem Lynn Ungar speaks of “the terrible blessing of the journey.”  We are grateful for the journey–do we have any choice?–but it is never easy.  There is no rest, not even for the virtuous.  The search for meaning in life is never ending.

Unitarian Universalism has often been described as “a way, not a stopping place.”  We are grateful for this freedom of the way even as we recognize its difficulty, its exhaustive possibilities, its wilderness potentialities and probabilities.  Unlike those who can rest in their religious certainties, we must find meaning in the search itself.  But this is hard.  Those who say that Unitarian Universalism is an easy faith–you know, that we can believe “anything” we want, supposedly–are wrong.  This is a difficult path to walk, and it is one in which we never can come to rest.

I have been blessed throughout most of my life to feel that the path is leading me somewhere, and that is what keeps me keeping on.  But there have been times in my life–thankfully not usually of long duration–when I have felt that I have lost the path, and it is not clear that the fork I have chosen to follow will make any difference at all, to stretch Frost’s metaphor of the road not taken.

This past year has been such a time, when I have wondered if my life and work are of any ultimate importance whatsoever.  As I listen to the daily news with its sound and fury I wonder if indeed it signifies anything at all.  I am brought to the brink of despair by wars and rumors of wars, by the politics of division which always skirt the real issues, by the religion of hate, by the economics of greed, and by the challenges raised to our survival by global warming and environmental degradation.  What becomes of all our vaunted ideals if this world ends and there is no other?  What is the point, then, of all our striving?

My colleague and friend Carl Scovel, a truly spiritual man, speaks of God as a pattern of meaning, and of the loss of faith as the loss of faith in that pattern of meaning.  I’m not sure at all about God, and certainly I am not sure about a personal God, but I have had intimations of a pattern of meaning.

It is that pattern which has seemed so tenuous during the last year or so.  I am not sure that it exists outside of my own mind, and this is not a happy thought.

Fortunately, as my colleague Carl goes on to explain, the journey of faith is never a straight line.  Indeed, Carl says, faith is really a series of experiences of losing faith.  An interesting thought.

Faith evolves as a series of repeatable steps along the way.  From wherever we start, those steps begin with a sense of dis-ease–perhaps even of despair, though Carl doesn’t call it that.  Disease morphs into desire: the desire for something more, the desire for meaning, the desire for redemption, perhaps simply the desire for hope.  From desire follows discovery: some new way to find or make meaning of our lives, a new spiritual discipline to follow, a new way to be useful to others.  And this, Carl says, can lead to delight.  We are glad, once again, to be alive, and we have faith, which is trust, that as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich has written, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But alas, this is not the end of the line.  No, always and eventually there is disillusionment.  Doubt and defensiveness once again raise their troublesome heads, and we again must seek ways to deepen our lives, and perhaps we do deepen them, perhaps we go deeper than we have ever gone before.  Perhaps it is the disillusionment itself which causes the deepening.  This is the opportunity for re-discovery, but, my friends, the way leads on, and sometimes we find ourselves back at the very beginning once again.  It can wear one out.

The great mystic St. John of the Cross called this a journey into “the dark night of the soul,” and while we are in that dark place we know not whether we shall ever see the light again.  Our faith must be that we will.

I share these thoughts for Passover and Earth Day not to bring you down, but to offer you the companionship of the way.  I know that many of us feel despair, if not constantly at least from time to time.  Illness and grief and age and loss and fear for the world take their toll, and it is hard sometimes to go on, it is hard sometimes to find the desire to go on.  It is hard to find hope.  The longer the path, the more we lose along the way, and the harder it is to begin the journey again.

But change and renewal will remain a possibility as long as life shall last.  Spring reminds us of that, and Passover reminds us of that.  Kate Braestrup’s story reminds us of that.  It may not be what we wanted, but as Lynn Ungar puts it, “God did not promise that we shall live, but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars, brilliant in the desert skies.”  We are free for something: perhaps it is only for that glimpse of stars, which must be enough.  Amazingly, and against our just desserts, it often is.

So let this be our Passover of praise: to the journey of discovery which knows no end, to the faith which grows from loss, to the hope which, against all odds, braves winter and emerges with earth’s renewal in spring, to the love which is stronger than death, to the glimpse of stars in the middle of the darkest night.  The way leads on, and we have no choice but to follow.

May we go out in peace and return with light.  Amen.

The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
April 20, 2008


April 6, 2008

The Role of Social Responsibility in the Church

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:35 pm

“Make yourself necessary to somebody.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

When, in 1842, the great Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing published his essay on “The Duty of the Free States,” it marked the end of a painful evolution from silence to the eye of the storm of abolitionism.

Ever cautious about reformist zeal and particularly about abolitionist rhetoric (his 20th century biographer, Jack Mendelsohn, called him a “reluctant radical”), Channing had come to the conclusion after much inner struggle that in order to be true to his religious ideals–and to the call of the gospel–he must bring his tremendous influence to bear on the side of anti-slavery forces.

As early as 1798, when he spent a year in Richmond, Virginia as a private tutor, Channing had begun to have troubling reservations about the effects of slavery on both blacks and whites.  In Boston, as minister of the Federal Street Church beginning in 1803, Channing spent his entire ministry preaching to a congregation of powerful and wealthy Bostonians, many of whose fortunes had been made by what Channing’s younger colleague Theodore Parker called “the slave power.”

When Channing finally took a stand in what turned out to be the final year of his life, he was openly snubbed in the street by members of the congregation he had served for almost forty years.  Better late than never, his adherence to what I can only imagine all of us would call a “just” cause brought alienation from life-long friends and admirers.  It was the price he paid for calling his church to act in its role of social responsibility.

Channing is only one of the shining lights from our religious tradition who felt impelled by the imperative of his religious belief to speak out for social justice.  Another was our own minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose anti-slavery views probably cost him the ministry of this church in 1849.

Other Unitarians and Universalists who spoke and acted out on slavery included Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, John Murray, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, who as early as 1790 had written of “the sect calling themselves Universalist” that,

We believe it to be inconsistent with the union of the human race in a common Saviour, and the obligations to mutual and universal love, which flow from that union, to hold any part of our fellow creatures in bondage.  We therefore recommend a total refraining from the African trade and the adoption of prudent measures for the gradual abolition of the slavery of the negroes in our country. . . .

Sylvanus Cobb, another abolitionist Universalist, began publishing in 1839 an anti-slavery newspaper called The Christian Freeman and Family Visitor. Several Universalist congregations even took official stands opposing slavery in the years before the Civil War.

Slavery is but one of the many social causes that Unitarians and Universalists have embraced.  The Women’s Rights movement found early leadership from Margaret Fuller, whose book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is a pioneering feminist text.  Unitarian Susan B. Anthony is well known for her role in the women’s suffrage movement.  Perhaps less well known is the Rev. Olympia Brown, a Universalist and the first denominationally ordained woman minister in the United States in 1863, who worked for over fifty years for suffrage, and lived to see the adoption of the 19th amendment in 1920 at the age of 85.

Brown took literally the Universalist claims for the inherent worth of each individual.

Individual Unitarians and Universalists have also taken strong anti-war stances.  During the first World War, John Haynes Holmes swam against the tide of war fever to proclaim himself a total pacifist.  His congregation, the Community Church of New York, considered dismissing him, but to their credit decided to honor the liberal religious tradition of the “free pulpit.”  Holmes remained the minister of Community Church until the late 1950’s, and is remembered as one of the great preachers of the liberal church.

On the Universalist side of the ledger, Clarence Skinner, President of Tufts University when that institution was still in Universalist hands, took the unpopular stand of pacifism during World War II.

And in the area of prison reform, Charles Spear brought his Universalist ideals to bear in the mid-19th century through reform legislation and the publication of The Prisoner’s Friend.  Universalists were responsible for the abolition of capital punishment in the State of Maine, among other places.

In more recent years, Unitarian Universalists have been active in opposition to nuclear proliferation and questioning US policy in Central America.  Unitarian Universalists have been vocal supporters of the rights of gay and lesbian persons and leaders especially on the issue of legalizing gay marriage.

In spite of this history of involvement in issues of social responsibility–and I have only scratched the surface–the role of social responsibility in the church continues to be a controversial issue, both within our own association and in the religious community at large.  And, of course, religious people don’t always agree on what is socially responsible.  As an article in the Christian Science Monitor some years ago suggested, “Theologians and scholars on both the left and the right tend to agree that churches should endorse the concepts of justice and equality.  But they differ on how these ideas should be implemented.”

Some argue against the adoption of “political” agendas, saying that the church’s role is to “raise consciousness” rather than to engage in social and political programs.  Others, such as Charles Bergstrom, former executive director of the Lutheran Council in the USA, counter that “standing above the battle does not fit the challenge of the Old Testament prophets nor Christ’s encouragement to serve.”  Howard Thiemann, a professor of theology and public policy at Harvard Divinity School, has stated that there is no question that Christian dogma calls for “standing with and for the poor.”  And Max Stackhouse, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, has said that “if religion doesn’t touch all areas of life, we are probably worshipping a God who is too still.”

The issue will probably never be fully resolved.  One person’s politics is another person’s moral cause.  But one thing seems beyond question: from it’s very beginnings the Judeo-Christian tradition from which Unitarian Universalism has descended has contained a strong social imperative, obvious in the words of the Hebrew prophets, in the history of the Christian church, with its strongly communal beginnings, and in the teachings of Jesus himself, as the morning’s reading [Luke 10: 25-37] reminded us.

The tension between what is and what isn’t appropriate in the area of social responsibility will always remain.  But what seems clear from our recent visioning process is that there is wide consensus in this congregation around the importance of congregational engagement in social justice work.  Whether this engagement is to be individually or community based is the question, and it is one which cannot be left up to some other “they” or “them” to decide and implement.  It is the work to which each and every one of us is called.

One way to get involved is to join in the work of our First Religious Society Social Action Committee, so ably led by our member Rob Burnham.  Another is to join in the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, whose work we are recognizing this morning.   Founded in 1939 as a response by religious liberals to the growing facism in Europe, the Service Committee began working with refugees and saved hundreds of people from death camps and thousands more from starvation.    Two of its founders, Waitsill and Martha Sharp, were recently honored as “righteous among the nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel–the highest honor of its kind.

After the war, the Service Committee was involved extensively in reconstruction programs throughout Europe, and eventually broadened its work to include the poorest countries of the developing world.  Today it is focused on educating about the hidden and not so hidden costs of the Iraq War and in efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast area devastated by hurricane Katrina, as well as on the continuing genocide taking place in the African region of Darfur.  (Plans are currently underway in our Youth Group for a possible Service Committee trip to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts there.)

Many of you already participate in the work of the Service Committee through our annual “Guest At Your Table” program or by purchasing holiday greeting cards.  A membership organization, the UU Service Committee depends on us, and I encourage you, if you are not already one, to become a member.

Participation in the work of the Service Committee helps us to put our religious values to work in constructive ways that are not always possible locally.  As theologian James Luther Adams reminds us,

The community of justice and love is not an ethereal fellowship that is above the conflicts and turmoils of the world.  It is one that takes shape in nature and history, one that requires the achievement of freedom with respect to material resources as well as with respect to spiritual resources. . . .  A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believers from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality that demands the community of justice and love.  This sham spirituality, far more than materialism, is the great enemy of religion.

Everyone knows the story of the Good Samaritan.  The true test of religious faith, as Jesus recognized, is found in the ability to reach out beyond oneself and one’s own prejudices to those who are different, even to those who may be perceived to be our enemies.  He had a pretty realistic view of where such behavior could lead: “Beware,” he told his followers, “for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you . . . , and you will be dragged before governors and kings.”

It has always been the nationalisms of mind and spirit which have prevented the blossoming of a religion of compassion and social responsibility, a true religion of empathy with the poor, the hungry, and the dispossessed people of the world.

Our liberal religious tradition has a long history of engagement.  Clearly, social responsibility has a central place in the work of the church.  What will we do?  How will we live out the imperative to serve our neighbor?  This is the question that each of us must answer individually, and that we as a congregation must grapple with.

There is a little story, appropriately enough from the troubled Middle East, about a spindly little sparrow who is lying on his back in the middle of a dusty road.  A horseman comes by, dismounts, and asks the sparrow what on earth he is doing lying there in the middle of the road with his feet up in the air.

“I heard that the heavens were going to fall today,” says the sparrow.

“Oh,” says the horseman, “ and I suppose you think that your puny little legs can hold up the heavens?”

“One does what one can,” says the sparrow.  “One does what one can.”

May we all take more seriously the responsibility that we all share to make our religion active in the world.  The world needs us.  Perhaps we need the world as well to become the people we are called to be.


The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
April 6, 2008

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