Harold Babcock's Sermons

March 11, 2012

“In Celebration of the Life We Share Together”

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Hear the sermon

March 11, 2012 

“. . .We light this beacon of hope, sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
in celebration of the life we share together.”
– First Religious Society Chalice Lighting Words 

Recently, I was looking through some old files and came across a sheaf of papers about the first stewardship campaign in which I was involved as a minister, way back in 1982, at the Nora Church inHanska,Minnesota.  Not to be maudlin, but in looking at the list of potential givers I realized that more than half of them have since died.  Wow.

So many wonderful and committed members of that church.  So many dedicated committee members and workers and teachers, so many beautiful and irreplaceable people, who taught me practically everything I know about being a minister, and, perhaps most importantly, taught me much about being a human being.

So many generous and hard-working church members, who showed me what it meant to be part of a beloved community of memory and hope.

These were not wealthy folks.  Most of them were farmers, or worked in farm-related businesses.  Many had recently lost their farms and jobs in the wave of mid-western farm foreclosures in the early 1980s.  Most of them were getting on in years, some living on fixed incomes.  Yet each of them would make a contribution to that year’s stewardship drive, some large, some small.  For a few, a financial stretch.

One thing they all had in common: they loved their little church on a hill in southwesternMinnesota, surrounded by corn and soybean fields as far as the eye can see.  They cared for their beautiful little carpenter gothic building, and for the tree-shaded cemetery behind it, burial place for several generations of Scandinavian religious liberals.  Poignantly, they call the little hill “Mt Pisgah,” after the mountain upon which Moses stood and looked out at the promised land into which he would never enter.
Theological schools don’t often teach future ministers about fundraising, even though it turns out to be a huge and important aspect of the ministry.  If we are lucky, we learn a little in our field education work or internships; but more commonly, we get our first lessons from the first church we serve.  Depending on the situation in which we find ourselves, this may or may not be very helpful.

I was lucky.  My first settlement was in a congregation that cared deeply about its history and was well aware of its uniqueness as aUnitarianUniversalistChurchin a mostly Lutheran and Roman Catholic part of the country.  They cared about their buildings and the grounds which surrounded them.  They cared about their connections to the larger Unitarian Universalist movement, more important when you are the only liberal church within hundreds of miles. 

But most importantly, they cared about each other.  It is true that most of them could say, as my friend Philip Booth once wrote in one of his poems, that “By blood or illness, gossip or hope, [they were] relative to every last house” in Hanska.  But these were also people who knew how to welcome newcomers into their midst, particularly a young, pregnant couple from far-away New England who had suddenly landed in the middle of the Minnesota prairie to be their ministerial couple, and who were mostly clueless about what that involved.  In the weeks and months that followed, they would show us.

I would see them welcome other strangers, too, always with the same warmth and kindness and care.  They taught me much about what it means to be a church, and about the sacrifices that church membership and participation sometimes requires: sacrifices of our time, our talents, and our treasure.

I happen to think that most of us come to church on a Sunday morning because we want to be part of a community, even if we want to do so by sitting quietly alone.  Not a perfect community, of which there are none that I know of on earth; not a church where the hymns are always singable, the sermons are never boring, and the people are always friendly.  Not even a place where everyone is like-minded.  But a community of fallible, imperfect folks like you and me.

After all, can you really think of anything worse than joining a community where everything and everyone was perfect, and people thought just like you?

I happen to think that community not only has a value, but that it is essential to us.  According to my dictionary, community is the quality of appertaining to or being held by all in common; community implies some agreement and identity, fellowship and communion.  A communion is a sharing or holding in common with others: a union.  Communion implies communication.  Community is a life in association with others: it means society.

When we think of a community, we should think of a body of individuals, gathered for the satisfaction of mutual needs, for the benefit of mutual comforts, for company: for the company of those who travel with us what the French philosopher Amiel once called “the dark journey.”

Obviously, a church or congregation is a community.  The New England Puritans, our spiritual ancestors, defined a congregational church as “a company of saints by calling, united into one body . . . for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification one of another.”

Writing in a book entitled The Problem of Christianity, the late Josiah Royce said, “The core, the center of faith, is not the person of the individual founder, and is not any other individual. . . .  Nor is the core to be found in the sayings of the founder, nor yet in the traditions. . . .  The core of the faith is the Spirit, the Beloved Community, the work of grace, the atoning deed, and the saving power of the loyal life.”

I consider myself very fortunate, for I have had a life in which I have been valued, in which I have had a place.  I have always known that I am part of a family, and of an ancestral line.  And, growing up, I was also part of a community where I was known and where I was related to people, and within that community I was part of a church, and so on.  I have been blessed in my life and work by meaningful participation.

In his fictional works, essays, and poems, author and farmer Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors over the last twenty-five years or so, refers to this kind of meaningful participation in community as “membership”: “a membership of parts inextricably joined to one another.”  To be one of the members means to be a part of a community: a valued part, in spite of any shortcomings; one who belongs not only to the community as a place, but to the other people in that community.  Or as one of the old congregational covenants that I love so well puts it, a place where we are “members one of another.”

We belong to each other.  As Berryputs it, “By ourselves, we have no meaning and no dignity; by ourselves we are outside the human definition, outside our identity.”  In a similar vein, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson writes in With a Daughter’s Eye, “More and more it has seemed to me that the idea of an individual, the idea that there is someone to be human, separate from relationships, is simply an error.”

One of the reasons that I love the church is that it serves the function of community that geographical communities more and more rarely seem able to provide.  For we desperately need places where people know our names, where, as Garrison Keillor so poignantly puts it, “people love us, and will be glad to see our faces.”  We need places where we can find acceptance: in the words of the old hymn, “just as we are.”  In short, we still need our places of membership; we still need to belong to one another; we still need community.  For ultimately, it is what gives our lives meaning.

If that isn’t something to celebrate, then I don’t know what is!  Many weeks during the church year, during our chalice lighting, we repeat those now familiar words from which my title, and the theme of this year’s stewardship campaign, are taken:

We gather this hour as people of faith,
With joys and sorrows, gifts and needs.
We light this beacon of hope,
Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
In celebration of the life we share together.

If you want to know why my family and I make a financial pledge of support to this congregation, look no further than those words.  We don’t pledge to meet a budget, important though that may be; we don’t pledge to maintain a building, beautiful though it is; we don’t pledge to pay salaries, much as those are needed by the recipients, or even to run liberally religious education programs which would not exist without our support; and we certainly don’t pledge to pay the bills, much that is appreciated by the utility companies.

What we make a pledge to is our life together, a life that is often more difficult and lonely and disappointing than we had hoped.  We make a pledge to support a community where our sorrows as well as our joys will be acknowledged, where our gifts can be shared, our passages celebrated and mourned, and where some of our needs—for friendship, comfort, and the kindness of strangers–can be met.

We pledge to the gift of Life itself, a life that as Wendell Berry and Catherine Bateson both recognize, is meaningless or worse if lived in isolation from others.  We pledge to mark the passage of time, and to be reminded, as I was in looking over those old stewardship files from Hanska, that we, too, are part of the passing tide.  And we pledge to remember and to celebrate the beautiful and the good and the true that we have known in the people with whom we have been privileged to share our lives.

It is this that I would ask you to think about when your canvasser calls, or when you go online to make a pledge.  As the morning’s reading reminded us, “. . .Making a pledge to one’s church is fundamentally different from making donations to non-profits such as Oxfam or public radio.  The church isn’t simply one charity among many: it’s the people we go through life with, celebrate and mourn with.  One’s pledge is an investment in the community, in friends and neighbors, and in ourselves—a response to the real, tangible needs of the present, as well as towards a stable future.”

May we go forth today, carrying in our hearts the light of our chalice and all that it represents, celebrating the shared life that is ours for certain on this day only, this precious life and these precious people.  I love you all.



– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: by John Barbour, from The Gloucester Universalist, newsletter of the Indpendent Christian Church Unitarian Universalist in Gloucester, MA; “The Rhyme of the Ancient Canvasser,” by Farley Wheelwright


March 4, 2012

The Importance of Public Witness

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March 4, 2012 

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception
alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

– Walter Brueggemann


This morning we are being joined by participants of the New England Peace Pagoda’s 11th annual “Walk for a New Spring,” this year dedicated to the theme, “Remember Fukushima.”  As it says in the brochure describing their walk, “Our walk is a prayer for the suffering of the Japanese people and a plea for the people ofNew England to recognize the grave dangers that nuclear energy poses to our lives, where we live, and all life on our Mother Earth.”

The founder and teacher of the Peace Pagoda movement, Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, wrote in 1956, “According to the materialistic view of life, fulfillment of (endless) desires purportedly rids the world of social evils . . . hence genuine religion, ethics and morals are rejected . . . and money, once meant merely as a means of exchange . . . serves as an almighty god on earth. . . .  Thus spiritual inversion takes place without being noticed and societies of modern civilization at the height of prosperity, suddenly find themselves confronted with the risk of being reduced to ashes. . . .”  Prophetic words, considering the global economic crisis which continues to bring hardship and uncertainty to so many people here and abroad.

We all may not agree with the Peace Pagoda’s goal of closing nuclear power plants, or believe that it is presently feasible to do so, but I suspect that we would all agree with their objective of “building more community to care for one another should serious situations arise,” and with their hope that “together we can realize a safe and sustainable world.”  It is certainly my prayer that it might be so.

The visit from our dedicated and committed friends from the Peace Pagoda movement has reminded me once again of the importance of public witness, even of the seemingly futile kind.  It has reminded me of our corporate or communal responsibility to what my retired Unitarian Universalist colleague Richard Gilbert has called “the prophetic imperative.”

Every minister is taught in seminary about his or her triple role of preacher, pastor, and prophet.  Most of us are not equally comfortable or competent in all three roles.  Some of us are great pastors and lousy preachers, and vice versa.  A few of us—I don’t include myself in this group—are great prophets, ministers who are courageous enough, or foolish enough, to speak truth to power.

It is never easy to be a prophet.  In the western religious tradition, Jesus is one who spoke about the impossibility and danger of being a prophet in one’s own country.  We know what happened to him, and we know that the great prophets of old and of more recent times often suffered deprivation or even death for their efforts on our behalf.  Even those who offer mainly silent witness are often ignored at best, and persecuted at worst.

Today, in places likeSyria, people are dying in order to witness to their desire for self-determination and for freedom from tyranny.  It is a sad fact that somewhere in our troubled world, there is always great injustice, violence, and domination of the weak.  Most of us cannot bear to look upon this kind of suffering for too long; it is simply too depressing and too painful.  But fortunately there are always those precious few in every time and place who are willing to dedicate and even to sacrifice their lives to suffering’s alleviation.

Like those prophets of old, these are the ones who dare to witness to an alternative perception of reality.  That reality may not yet exist, it may never fully exist, but in the minds of these witnesses it is as real, or even more real, than the one in which they are living.  They hold out the possibility for the alternative to become primary, and in doing so they bring hope to the rest of us who often find ourselves mired or implicated in various ways in the complexities of the present reality.

Do they change things?  I will let you be the judge, but just try to imagine our world without them.

The great prophets of our western religious tradition were people who dared to criticize and challenge the powers that be.  They presented a fearful vision of what would happen to us if we continued down the path we were traveling.  They also presented a vision of what the world might look like if we changed our ways.  Always, however, they understood our weakness and our human frailty.  Even as they cried woe upon us, they also knew they must comfort us.  The same prophet Isaiah who predicted the destruction of his people also said,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to
Jerusalem and cry to her,
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for her sins. [Isaiah 40: 1-2]

R.B.Y. Scott, a great scholar of the Hebrew prophets, reminds us that the word “prophet” has nothing to do with predicting the future.  A prophet is not a soothsayer.  Rather, the word “prophet” means “one who speaks on behalf of someone else.”  The Hebrew prophets believed that they were speaking on behalf of God.  But in a very real sense, they were speaking on behalf of the voiceless people of God, calling them to become the better people that they longed to be.  And they were speaking in real time, to the real situations in which they found themselves.

One of the great things about the vocation of ministry is that one is constantly reminded of one’s shortcomings and failings.  It’s a very humbling profession.  One is almost daily reminded of one’s sin, in its original meaning of “missing the mark.”  I am constantly missing the mark, falling well short of my highest ideals and of some of my most dearly held aspirations.  But it forces one to keep before oneself that vision of a better world of our dreams and of the better person that one wants to become, and I am grateful for that.

I believe that this is a role that public witness plays for all of us.  We may not agree with what is being witnessed to, we may not be able to change our minds or our ways yet, but it gets us thinking.  With luck, it gets us thinking about the distance between our actions and our aspirations, and encourages us to shorten that distance.

Richard Gilbert was the minister for over thirty years at the UniversalistChurchin Rochester, New York.  He was one of those rare ministers who excelled in all three roles of preacher, pastor, and prophet.  His 1980 book The Prophetic Imperative laid the groundwork for what the book’s subtitle calls “Unitarian Universalist Foundations for a New Social Gospel.”  In his book, Gilbert wrote, 

The “prophetic church” . . . is that religious community which seeks to intervene in human history in the interest of social justice.  This intervention will be made in the context of religious conviction but without the supernatural confidence of the individual prophet who felt he was a mouthpiece for God.  The authority of the prophetic church in the liberal religious tradition will instead be derived from a naturalistic concept of God as creativity.  Thus the prophetic church . . . is one which addresses social evil in the light of a transcendent standard of justice which is created from a dynamic interplay of freedom, equality, and community.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of theFukushimadisaster is its reminder about human pride or what the ancients called the sin of “hubris.”  Like last summer’s horrendousGulf of Mexicooil spill, it should have taught us, yet again, I hope, to face our human and natural limitations.  No matter how great our technological achievements, nature remains a great and ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable force; and, amazing as we are, we humans remain imperfect and often fatally flawed in our abilities and our judgments.  We are capable of great achievements, but we are also guilty of tragic over-striving, capable of great good, but also of unspeakable evil.  The ancient Psalmist asked,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands,
          you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
          and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
          whatever passes along the paths of the seas. [Psalm 8: 3-8]

The operative and overlooked words in this now somewhat notorious Psalm are in my opinion, “a little lower than God” [my emphasis].  That is, the Psalmist was reminding us that we are not God.  We have preferred to read it as if we were.  As the Psalmist says in another place [Psalm 139], we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”–but we are still imperfect beings.  Our “dominion” is not over the works of our own hands, but of God’s.  Our failure to exercise careful stewardship over those wondrous works is one of the greatest human tragedies.  We have not been good or equitable overseers of the natural resources with which we have been blessed by a power beyond ourselves, and this should give us pause and call us to amend our foolish ways.

I am grateful to my friends from the Peace Pagoda for reminding me of all this.  I am often disappointed in myself and in the church for its failure to do more to alleviate the sufferings around us and to make positive change in the world.  But I am encouraged by Richard Gilbert’s assertion that “The very existence of the church as a social institution constitutes a corporate witness.”  Whether this means that we help to make positive change simply by existing, I will leave to your own speculation.  As Gilbert warns, “The church should see itself as an agency for social change, not simply a place where individual social involvement is ‘tolerated’ or ‘merely encouraged.’  If social action in the church is left to a marginal few, the social strength of the church is greatly diminished.”  Witness alone is not enough, and may never be enough.  What is also required is corporate action on behalf of the change we hope to see.  But it all begins with our willingness to witness to what we believe is right.

Clarence Skinner, the great Universalist social prophet of the early 20th century, once wrote that, “The true social objective is the perfection of human character by the progressive improvement of those conditions and environments which are within the social control, and which largely determine character.”  The question we must always ask ourselves is, “Are we doing enough to make that improvement a reality?”

I am grateful for that “mighty cloud of witnesses” which ever calls me back to the beautiful, the true, and the right, and which encourages me to take action on its behalf.  May we go forth today to witness to and to act upon those sacred truths that we have learned by virtue of our life together in this special and beloved community, and may we always give thanks for all those who care enough to try to build “a world more fair, with all her people one.”  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: from Unitarians Face a New Age; from The Prophetic Imperative, by Richard S. Gilbert

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