Harold Babcock's Sermons

June 16, 2013

End of Year Musings

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June 16, 2013 

“The golden twilights of June want attention paid.”
– James Carroll

I hope that on this last Sunday of our regular church year, you will indulge me in wandering a bit.  I find myself torn, on this beautiful, mid-June Sunday, between looking ahead to the long, empty, carefree summer days which beckon, and backward to all of the wonderful things that we have accomplished together this year.  I couldn’t make up my mind which way to go, and so I have decided to go in both.  And, who knows, perhaps in more.

I can’t help but feel that this has been a year of significant growth for us, not so much in numbers, though there has been some of that, but especially in terms of the strength of our community.  And, I would like to think, that growth in strength has resulted in some individual spiritual growth as well.  We have weathered some storms, both personal and communal.  We’ve had some successes and some failures.  But mostly, I think, we have made some progress.

A look back at some of our accomplishments may help us to see that.  Some of them have been quite visible, and some have been of the more quiet and subtle variety.  I mentioned some of them in my annual report.

You may remember that we began the year needing to resolve the E. Maria Stern bequest process, which had threatened to divide our congregation.  Not only did we successfully weather that potential storm, but out of it emerged a community-wide, interfaith effort, with significant leadership from the First Religious Society, which has raised over $45,000. to date to build a playground for some of Newburyport’s least advantaged residents at the Kelleher Park housing project.  That’s something all of us should feel proud about.

Thanks to Maria Stern’s generosity, we were able to complete the fundraising for our Joseph Alley organ renovation project, replace the old and dangerous room dividers in the upper Parish Hall, and complete the long overdue painting of that building as well.  Planning for renovation of our church kitchen is ongoing, as is planning for improvements to the alleyway which divides our two buildings.  Also thanks to Maria, our annual music series, named for Maria’s dear friend Jean Wilson, will be better able to continue its mission of bringing great music to the greater Newburyport community.

Less noticeable, perhaps, but also important were improvements that were made to the sanctuary sound system and to this lectern, which for the first time in my eighteen years as your minister is actually adjustable to my height!  We replaced most of the lighting in the lower meeting house with more efficient fixtures and bulbs, which resulted in a huge savings on our electric bills.  Making improvements and repairs to our buildings is a never ending, yearly chore of the Building and Grounds Committee and our Sexton, Ed Mair.

How many of you noticed the subtle change that the Worship Committee, at Jay Lane’s suggestion, made to the order of service?  The institution of “Gathering Music” before the Welcome and Announcements and the Prelude means that we can continue our beloved habit of meeting and greeting one another as we enter the church, but also have the opportunity to enter more quietly into worship and to actually hear the Prelude played.

The imminent retirement of our current Business Administrator, John Mercer, resulted in the formation of a task force to consider the many tasks that John has performed so ably over the last decade and to assess the future staffing needs of the church.  The result was a recommendation to split John’s job into two parts: a Business Administrator and a Community Engagement Director.  Hiring on the one position is complete, and on the other will take place over the summer months.  This process has also led us to consider the efficacy of engaging in strategic planning as we look forward to a time of ministerial transition in the not-so-distant future.  A Communications Task Force led by Tom Stites and Lynn Kettleson has looked at the ways that we can improve our outreach both within the church and outward into the wider community.

I’m very excited at the formation of a lively Climate Change interest and action group with both adult and youth participation, and I look forward to what I am sure will be some challenging recommendations issuing from it.  An end of the year, ad hoc meeting to discuss our annual canvass actually attracted a lively group and promises some new energy and ideas around fundraising for our beloved community.  With the help of our prospective new Community Engagement Director, we are hoping to increase participation in all aspects of our church life.

Our Young Church program continues to thrive under the effective leadership of our Director of Religious Education, Julie Parker Amery.  Our church is blessed by the large number of youngsters who participate on a regular basis in religious education, youth programming, and music.  What would our community be without them?  Our adult choir, as mentioned earlier, has grown in numbers and ability under Jay’s skillful guidance.  We have an incredible staff who care deeply about your church and its facilities and work tirelessly on your behalf.  Our usual round of fundraising events was amazingly successful, thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many of you, and indicates to me a high level of commitment to this church and all that it represents.  And, of course, there are all the volunteers, committees, and groups who do the real work of the church.  There are simply too many of you to thank!

Last summer, I led an intergenerational group of thirteen on another wonderful pilgrimage and visit to our Unitarian Partner Church in the Transylvanian region of Romania.  This remarkable partnership has resulted in 46 adults and young people from our congregation making that sometimes life-changing journey to the Holy Land of Unitarianism over the past fifteen years.

All of this is indicative of a church that continues to move “onward and upward,” if not, well, “forever,” then at least for the foreseeable future.  And, of course, there is still plenty to be done.  But the foundation is solid, and I am certain that the people and the resources are here to make most, if not all, of our dreams come true.

If all of that isn’t enough to excuse me, and many of us, from looking forward to a few less active weeks during our annual summer hiatus, I don’t know what is.  I know from experience that this “off” time will allow us to return to our community in the fall refreshed and renewed, glad to see each other’s faces again, and reenergized to continue the work of building the beloved community!  And while I look forward to some down time, I also look forward to the time when we shall re-gather our community and continue the important mission of this great and historic church to change ourselves and our world into the people and the place we want to be.

My colleague and mentor, Charles Stephen, once wrote that “June comes along right when we need it.  Even the word ‘June’ has a comforting tone”: 

It’s a month that arrives just in time to cure our ills, to bring balm to our spirits. . . .  For many of us, the daily activities are fewer in June, the schedules less demanding.  There is time to do less and to do it less deliberately. . . .  Far away and near, wrote Charles, life’s difficulties persist, of course.  But in June we can take a backward step and see them with more clarity, see them, that is, in a context that includes rejoicing that for another year June has returned. 

Of course, as someone has also written with truth, “June is when college graduates take their diplomas in hand and go out to conquer the world.  July is when the world counterattacks.”

Be that as it may, we would do well to heed Shakespeare’s lament that “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me,” said novelist Henry James, “those have been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”  And to me, as well.

In closing, I share with you a wonderful poem by poet Gary J. Whitehead, entitled “First Year Teacher to His Students”: 

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation.  Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist.  Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light.  Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else’s house
in a land you’ve never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await.  Be glad, be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you’ll never now forget of someone’s lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas . . . and all your life it’ll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.

I wish you all a wonderful summer, blessed with warm and gentle breezes, until we meet again.  In the benedictory words of my colleague Sylvia Howe, 

Until we meet again
Remember that you are
A good and loving people.
Go forth into the summer
With peace, hope, and joy in your heart
Until we meet again,
Until we meet again.


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “Sweet summer solstice balances life’s bitterness,” by James Carroll


June 9, 2013

The Happiness of God, and Other Things I Have Never Considered

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Hear the sermon

June 9, 2013

“God is not happy in any sense we can understand.”
– Leszek Kolakowski 

This past week I attended a retirement gathering in Boston for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Executive Vice President, Kay Montgomery.  Some of you may remember that Kay preached here at the First Religious Society several years ago on Association Sunday.

Kay can deliver a sermon with the best of them.  And though not an ordained minister, it is clear that Kay has had a significant ministry to the staff and volunteers at the Association’s headquarters at 25 Beacon Street, and to her many friends throughout the Association.

As it so happens, she is also the only non-ministerial member of my ministers study group.  On the other hand, Kay probably knows more about ministers than just about anybody I can think of, having worked at the UUA for almost thirty years, and having worked alongside five different UUA Presidents.

I mention Kay not only because her retirement is a significant transition for our Association, not to mention that she will be sorely missed by those who have come to know her, but also because the gathering in her honor was held at what will soon become the new UUA headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston’s seaport district.

I confess that I have not been a big fan of the impending move from our historic headquarters at 25 Beacon Street.  While I fully understand the shortcomings of the UUA’s properties on Beacon Hill, I will really miss, in a sentimental way, the ambiance of the old buildings, and the many associated memories going back to my student days at HarvardDivinitySchool.  I fear the loss of that prominent location next to the State House, across from Boston Common, if for no other reason than that it always seemed to offer an aura of gravitas about our Association.

I needn’t rehash here all the good reasons for the move; a recent article in the UU World magazine did a good job of explaining the rationale, as did a recent letter from our retiring Executive Vice President.  And I have to admit that I was impressed by the new building and location.  It’s modern and light and, unlike the old headquarters, has large, open spaces for events like Kay’s retirement gathering.  There is a parking garage directly across the street.  It was relatively easy to get to.  And it’s undoubtedly going to save the Association a ton of money.

But change is hard.  I will really miss the walk up through the Common to “25,” as it is commonly known, from the Boston Common parking garage.  It’s going to take some getting used to.

We know about this change thing.  I have watched our collective anxiety rise during this year as John Mercer’s impending retirement has edged ever closer.  It’s not going to be the same around here.  We’ve come to rely so much on John’s expertise and wisdom in many things.  The good news is that he will still be a member of our congregation; he’s not going anywhere!  He will still be our friend.  But not having John around as a staff member is going to be different, and it’s going to take some getting used to.

A couple of folks have written or spoken to me recently on various aspects of change in our church.  Why do we hold so tenaciously to the past?  Why don’t we “trust the dawning future more,” as one of our hymns so aptly puts it?  How can we become more open and friendly and welcoming, less Yankee and closed?

Having considered these issues for many years now, I have a few thoughts.  First of all, real change takes time, especially if it is a culture shift we are talking about.  And we don’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water: just because something is old or traditional doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad.  I happen to think that we have done a pretty good job here at the FRS of “holding fast to that which is good,” in St. Paul’s words, while at the same time allowing for significant change to take place.  This is not the same church it was when I arrived eighteen years ago.  That is a fact, and not a judgment.  It’s just different.  And I happen to think it is pretty good.

I often tell people that we are a “middle of the road UU church.”  By that I hope I don’t mean that we are boring, I mean that we are pretty diverse in our theological outlook.  The “G” word doesn’t freak people out, but I think people who struggle with that word also feel at home here.  We haven’t wasted a lot of time on the old humanist/theist/Christian debate within Unitarian Universalism.  Folks here are pretty comfortable with different approaches to religious questions, and I like that.

I also like to think that within the formality of our building and our worship service, there is room for a lot of informality.  I certainly don’t feel like a formal person, though I can’t deny being a Yankee.  We’ve learned how to laugh more in my time here.  I admit that we are a “churchy” church, but that actually seems to be part of our attraction.  It hasn’t impeded our growth: quite the contrary.  People want a relevant and contemporary message, but they like the beautiful and historic aspects of our worship space and service.  I think it’s a good mix; it certainly has suited my character well, so I may be somewhat biased.

I believe that the greatest challenge we face as we move ahead into the future is how to become even more of a community, more than just a Sunday morning church, a place where people’s gifts and talents can really be put to good use for them and us throughout the week.  We’ve made significant progress on this in the time that I’ve been here.  But one of the most important reasons for our proposed staffing change in replacing John Mercer’s diverse talents has been to help that process along.  We have such a wonderful congregation: I want more of us to get to know each other well, and I want more of us to be more closely attached to the beloved community we are trying to build here at the First Religious Society.  Those of you who are already deeply involved know how meaningful this kind of participation can be in one’s life.

You may well think that this is a digression from my published topic of the day.  But the fact is, I have reached that time of the year when I don’t have a whole lot that is new to share with you.  That is why, for all its obvious drawbacks, I continue to like our tradition of taking a summer hiatus from our regular worship and work routines here at the church.  I, for one, need that fallow time in order to gather new ideas, renew my enthusiasms, and regain my energies.  I am so grateful that we have the HamptonFalls church to provide meaningful summer services in such a beautiful setting, and I hope that many of you will take advantage of it.

One of the things that the “down time” of summer allows me to do is to get back in touch with the ground of my being.  Not only does it give me some extra time for reading, but, just as useful, it allows generous time just for thinking and simply for being.  Questions which have gotten lost beneath the crush of day to day decisions and crises and the relentless succession of Sunday services in the church are given space to rise into consciousness again.  Interests that have lain dormant in the face of more urgent tasks are allowed to reassert themselves.

You may be surprised to learn that the big religious questions are among those things that usually must take a back seat to more pressing concerns.  That’s a paradox, isn’t it?  When was the last time I seriously thought about the nature of God, that is, found the time to think about the question of God in some new and provocative way?

Perhaps that is why I was so taken by the essay “Is God Happy?” by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, which our fellow parishioner Yvonne McQuilkin introduced me to a few weeks ago.  Regardless of what Kolakowski was going to say about the subject, I had already found his question provocative, and indicative of the many things to which I have never given any consideration whatsoever.

So many of us get hung up on the old ways of doing and looking at things.  The old paradigms are hard to leave behind.  The old concepts and mind pictures have an irritating lasting power.  How difficult it can sometimes be to look at things in a new, and fresh, and totally unorthodox way!

One of the reasons that I am so grateful to poets is that they often give us those new ways to think about and experience the everyday and the commonplace.  Even the familiar realities can be given new life by the judicious and economical use of language.  I heard a great poem at Kay Montgomery’s retirement, with apologies to the poet whose name escapes me.  It’s short and to the point:

That was fast.
Life, I mean.

That’s it!  As we grow older, we know the truth of that poem, it’s not new information.  But in putting it so succinctly the poet makes us stop and think about it anew.  Wow, yes, the time has simply flown by, and did I even notice?

By just posing his question about the happiness of God, Kolakowski got me to thinking about the different ways that I have tried to think about and understand God in the past, and brought home to me, once and for all, the idea that I cannot in fact imagine God at all, and certainly I cannot imagine a God who could be happy with the present state of his or her creation.  By posing the question of God’s happiness, Kolakowski places the old question of theodicy—the question of how God can be just or righteous given the amount of suffering in the world he created and is supposedly sovereign over—in a whole new light.

As the reading for the morning suggested, happiness is not a very useful way to think about either God or us.  Happiness, then, may not be the proper measure of our lives or the end for which we are finally intended.  Perhaps we are called to something higher: the alleviation of suffering comes immediately to mind.

Disconcerting though change can be, I am usually grateful when given the opportunity to see things in a new light.  The mystery of what we call God has been a given for me for a long time, but God’s inscrutability has now been brought home to me in a new and powerful way. I’m sure that in the weeks ahead I will find myself thinking a lot about God’s happiness, or otherwise, not to mention God’s existence, or not.

There is nothing we can do about change, be it a change in our perspective, a change in the way things have seemingly always been, even a change of headquarters.  Things and ideas and people come and go; that is the nature of this life we have been given for a short time.  Either we can try to go with the flow of the change, or we can shut down and be overwhelmed.  I opt for the former, challenging as that can sometimes be for me.

May we all, in the days and weeks to come, find some time to contemplate the changes that each of us is facing.  May there be time to consider the things we never even thought to consider.  And may we, in spite of all the reasons to feel otherwise, find a little of that peace which passes understanding, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away, entering our souls and helping us to weather the changes and even to welcome them.  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “Is God Happy?” by Leszek Kolakowski


June 2, 2013

“Twenty Questions”

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June 2, 2013 

“Did I forget to look at the sky this morning/ when I first woke up?”
– Jim Moore 

Since Sabrina and I moved to our new home in West Newbury about eighteen months ago, one of my joys when I wake up in the morning is to look out the bedroom window on to the half-acre or so of land in back of the house, to take satisfaction in what has been accomplished since we arrived there, and to consider all the things that, “God willing” as we say, are still left to be done.

That half acre of open field borders on an overgrown stone wall and a wooded area which in turn borders a wetland, all of it under a conservation restriction because of an endangered turtle which supposedly makes its home there (the previous owner claims never to have seen one).  It’s a wonderful place for wildlife and especially for birds, and we have managed to attract a good variety to our feeders, as well as to the bird boxes I built and placed along the borderlines of our property.  This year we have tree swallows, bluebirds, and sparrows nesting there.

Agricultural uses are still permitted on this former farm field, and so I have planted some fruit trees, created a possibly-way-too-large vegetable garden, and placed a couple of beehives in the back of the property where the undergrowth provides a nice winter wind-break for the bees.  There is plenty of white and pink clover for them back there, and in the spring there is a beautiful carpet of dandelions—among the honeybees’ favorite flowers.  (Remember that the next time you are tempted to poison them out of existence.  It kills the bees, too.)

Also in the backyard, there is a beautiful, solitary sugar maple tree, a gift from Sabrina’s most recent graduating class and colleagues at the Cape Ann Waldorf School.  It’s already big enough that I can sit in its shade.  There is a recently completed chicken coop with ten chickens (thank God for our fellow parishioner Russell Perry-Platine, who helped me to build it in one desperate day from a supposedly simple “kit”), and a small barn (I’ve always wanted a barn) where I keep all my tools and park my small John Deere tractor (I’ve always wanted a tractor). 

This spring I added a woodstove, originally in my mother’s house in Maine, to the barn, so I can even work on projects out there during the cold, winter months.  There is a nice workbench salvaged from our first house in Attleboro, and plenty of room—well, there is never quite enough room, is there?—for bee equipment, tractor attachments, unused snowshoes, my old cape racer sled, and all sorts of other treasures.  A lot of the tools once belonged to my father and grandfather.

I guess I never quite got over spending my first three or four years of life on a little chicken farm in West Castine, Maine. 

Needless to say, one of the things I try to remember to do every morning is to count my blessings.  I think that is why I was so taken by Jim Moore’s little poem “Twenty Questions” when it recently crossed my desk.  The poem is at least partly about being grateful for the ordinary things we encounter in our everyday lives: 

Did I miss the willow tree?
The white gravel road that goes up from the cemetery,
but to where?  And the abandoned house on the hill,
did it get
even a moment?  Did I notice the small clouds so slowly
moving away?

It is also about the not-so-simple act of paying attention, of mindfulness (even the unused mop gets some attention), of allowing ourselves to experience the full range of our emotions (“Wouldn’t it be wrong not to mention joy?  Sadness,/ its sleepy-eyed

twin?”), and of regret for the roads taken or not taken: 

If I’d caught the boat
to Mykonos that time when I was nineteen
would the moon have risen out of the sea
and shone on my life so clearly
I would have loved it just as it was?

There is the hint of yet-to-be-tried possibilities, the poignant mystery of aging, the wish to be able to let go of all our pointless striving: 

Is the boat
still in the harbor, pointing
in the direction of the open sea?  Am I
still nineteen?  Going in or going out,
can I let the tide make of me
what it must?

Moore’s lovely poem got me to thinking about what my own twenty questions might look like.  So here goes, though I warn you I’m not keeping count. 

Did I remember today to notice the way the morning sun hits that border of trees in back of the house, giving them an almost back-lit appearance?  Did I offer a silent prayer of thanks for the well-being of my loved ones and friends?  Did I, for once, forget to complain about the aches and pains which increasingly claim my attention in the morning, and instead remember to be grateful, as our fellow parishioner Rick Anderson put it at a meeting the other night, to be on the right side of dirt?

Did I marvel at the path that has brought me thus far along the way, with all of its mysterious twists and turns, its serendipitous coincidences, its too-perfect-to-be-chance encounters? 

Did I consider all of my underserved good fortune?  The cancellation of my final exams at Boston University because of student riots in 1970 which allowed me to squeak by in Chemistry with a D?  My low draft lottery number which fortunately came up only in 1973, as the Vietnam War was winding down?  My mother’s telling me “so what?” when I told her that a young woman she had suggested I ask out on a date was already engaged, a comment which returned to me in a flash of inspiration when I discovered that another young woman I had asked out on a date turned out also to be already engaged?  (Do I really need to tell you who that was?)

What about the wonderful friends I have met along the way?  Too many of them are gone too soon, but I will always carry their memory with me, and that is a great comfort.  The opportunity to live for three years on the Minnesota prairie?  The incredible good fortune to have traveled fifteen times to faraway Romania, and to have dear friends and almost a second family there?  My work on behalf of Transylvanian Unitarianism for the Unitarian Universalist Association?  The luck to have served a succession of churches, none of which has been anti-clerical?

Do I appreciate enough that my children are decent human beings?  That, whatever their and my shortcomings, they are kind and caring and loving people?  Am I grateful enough for my sustaining marriage to that aforementioned young woman, a relationship without which I would never have been able to accomplish any of the things that I have accomplished?

I am pretty sure that, much of the time, I am not.  But occasionally I remember to be, and I hope that that will prove to be sufficient when all is said and done.

Moore’s other question in the poem is one that I, too, continue to grapple with, and which, increasingly as I grow older, seems less and less to clarify: 

And did I think of the right hand
of God?  What if it is a slow cloud descending
on earth as rain?  As snow?  As shade?

As it does for Moore, that looming, unfathomable, and ultimately unanswerable question of God often leads me swiftly on to other, more mundane concerns: 

Don’t you think
I should move on to the mop?  How it just sits there,
too often

That transition, I think, from God to unused mop is no mistake.  Some questions are just too big and too overwhelming for us mere mortals to look at for very long.   As poet T. S. Eliot wrote, with truth, “[hu]mankind cannot bear too much reality.” 

For the question of God includes all those other unanswerables, those mysteries of life and death and in between, of loss and heartache, disappointment and failure.  All of us experience these at some level and to some extent.  That is the price of life, and we must pay it.  But that price also includes joy, the joy which is equally mysterious, and, as much as sadness is, often undeserved.

What I try to be grateful for is that I have sometimes had the sense of a guiding principle or compass directing me in my journey through life.  Is that guiding principle what we mean by God?  Occasionally I feel that the universe does care about me.  Is that God?  What about the times when I don’t feel that way?

Like Moore, I move on quickly these days to more mundane concerns.  One can speculate only so long on such high matters.  Then it is good again to get my hands into the dirt.  Did I forget to thank the earthworm for its humble labors?  Did I decide to overlook the snail’s residency on my lettuce?  Can I accept that the carrots I planted with such care are never going to grow?

What are the questions that you need to be asking yourself?  Did you remember to be thankful for the gift of life when you awoke this morning? Did you recall that even your grief is a gift, for it is a reminder of your loves, and love is the greatest gift next to Life itself, the life which brings us to consciousness of this amazing world and of our equally mysterious place within it?

Did you consider that there is still so much that we don’t know, and that sometimes even that lack of knowledge is itself a great comfort?  That what we imagine could well be true?  That almost anything is possible? 

I hope that you will take some time, in the weeks to come, to ask some questions of your own.  The questions, I think, can be a form of prayer, and though unanswered and even unanswerable, can point us to the places in our lives that most need our undivided attention.

May you go forth to live in those questions, and may you, as the poet Rilke suggested to a younger colleague, “. . . someday, far in the future . . . gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.”  May it be so, for each of us.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: Matthew 6: 25-29; “Twenty Questions,” by Jim Moore

May 26, 2013

Memory and Hope

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:47 pm

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May 26, 2013 

“For if you find hope in the ground of history, you are united with the great prophets who were able to look into the depth of their times, who tried to escape it, because they could not stand the horror of their visions, and who yet had the strength to look to an even deeper level and there to discover hope.”
– Paul Tillich 

The purpose of a civic education, wrote Paul Gagnon [Why Study History?], “is to prepare people for bad times.”  Gagnon was responding to the question, posed by students and school committees alike, “why study history?”  His simple answer was a single word: judgment.  We study history so that we can exercise good judgment, especially during bad times.

One can see that this logic applies just as well in the personal realm as in the public.  A knowledge of history—whether private and personal, or communal and public—can help us to exercise good judgment in hard times.  Indeed, I believe that both kinds of knowledge are necessary.  Together they can make the difference between life and death.

It has always seemed to me that one of the most important purposes of religion is also “to prepare people for bad times.”  Traditional believers use “sacred” history—the history of God’s saving acts as found in the Bible—as a hedge against bad times.  God has acted before, God will act again: so the argument goes.  No matter how bad things seem today, they will get better, because God is a God of history.

Those of us who do not share that faith in the supernatural aspects of sacred history must look elsewhere for our saving history: to secular history, with its own heroes and heroines, perhaps; or to the history of our heterodox Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, with its emphasis on this world rather than on some other-worldly promise.

Beyond these histories—the sacred, whether orthodox or heterodox, and the secular—there is yet another place where we look for wisdom to sustain us through the bad times, and it is close at hand.  It is to our own, personal history: the journey not only of our own, individual lives, but that of our families and of the various communities of which our lives and their lives are, and have been, a part.

We underestimate the healing power of memory, both our own memories, and the memories of those with whom our lot is most closely cast in life.  In our own experience, which is unique and yet part of the collective experience of the human race, we have the resources to weather the bad times.  As Gagnon says of history in general, “tragedy, comedy, beauty, and paradox” are there.  I believe that memory can help us to overcome despair and to look to the future with hope.

There is a familiar story from the Buddhist tradition about the mother who was so broken by grief over the death of her child that she sought help from the Buddha, the Compassionate One.  The woman’s private grief, it seemed, was beyond healing, so that she was not even sure that she could go on living.  So the Buddha suggested that the woman go door to door until she found a house which suffering had never visited.

And you know what happened: there was no home which had not known suffering, either in the present or in remembered time.  The woman’s grief did not go away, of course, but her loneliness did.  She was able to continue living her life, and later others in her family and community sought her out for advice and counsel, for she, too, had become wise.

Without history we would have cause for despair.  Without memory—without history writ small—we are cut-off, adrift.  We cannot place ourselves in a proper context, whether of suffering or of joy.  Without memory we cannot have a proper sense either of our insignificance or of our importance.

It is hard to imagine where we can find purpose and meaning for life if we are cut off from our past.  Certainly, contemporary culture by itself cannot give us adequate purpose and meaning.  We are still participants in a story, but we can only locate ourselves within it if we know what has come before.  We may not know where we are going, but we can have a pretty good idea of where we have been, and thus of where we are.

My observation is that too many of us are unaware of where we have come from historically and culturally.  We know neither our own personal history nor the history of our people.  As a result, we do not know where we are heading.  The future is a blank.  Make this a societal problem rather than an individual one, and it’s a recipe for disaster: politically, religiously, culturally, and environmentally.

With no adequate vision for the future, we become mired in the present in a completely negative sense.  We live only for the pleasure or the moment, and have no resources to sustain us when tragedy strikes.  As the prophet Isaiah said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  The evidences of this truth are all around us.

It is good to live in the present moment as long as we have given thought to what consequences it may hold for the future.  But I don’t think our patterns of conspicuous consumption are what the Buddhists have in mind when they advocate for living in the “here and now.”  Indeed, many of the things that we do for the pleasure of the moment actually keep us from appreciating the here and now, and endanger the future for all who shall come after us.

We live between the poles of the remembrance of things past and the hope for things to come.  In between, there is the present moment, the here and now.  Without the past, without history, without memory, it is hard to imagine how we can understand the present where we find ourselves.  Without memory, we are cut-off from meaning and purpose.  We cannot see where we are going or why we should go there.  The future is filled with foreboding, and we are become like children in a fairy tale, lost in the deep, dark forest without knowledge of where we have come from or where we are going.  The inevitable result is that we will be suckers for the first gingerbread house we happen upon.

That gingerbread house can take the form of a negative political ideology or of a fanatical religious philosophy.  Either way, if we are not careful it can end with our destruction.

To look with hope to the future, we must know from whence we have come.  We must have thought about what it means to come from that particular place and people, and to be where we now find ourselves.  It worries me that so many people are ignorant about history and literature, for history and literature are the bearers of information about who we are and about how we must act if we are to survive as individuals and as a community.  Such ignorance can leave a void for lies and falsehood to fill.

Knowledge of our roots will not protect us completely from taking wrong turns along the way, but it can keep us going and prevent us from getting stuck, which is the beginning of despair.  An adequate knowledge of history and memory; a healthy sense of who we are and where we have come from, and why we are on this particular path, can carry us beyond despair and move us toward a chosen goal.  The memory that other tragedies have been endured, other losses experienced, other problems overcome—even though at tremendous cost—this is saving knowledge.  It brings desperately needed hope.

My past is precious to me.  My memories are precious to me.  Not all of them are happy ones, but they are what sustains me during my bad times.  When I cannot see beyond what in Pilgrim’s Progress is aptly named “the Slough of Despond,” I can at least look backwards, along the path that brought me here.

That path has twists and turns, of course.  It is only in hindsight that it appears to have a direction at all.  But there are always lessons along the path.  And most important, there are people: some living, many dead.  There are some I never knew, but of whom I know.  I carry them all with me in memory.  They continue to guide me along my path.

From my place in the Slough of Despond, I might conclude that my situation is hopeless, and I that I cannot go on.  But as I look back over the path of my life, I realize that there has been tragedy and despair there before, and that it has been endured and overcome.

On Memorial Day—set aside originally for remembrance of the Union dead of the American Civil War—I like to recall that my great great uncle Sewell Bowden was killed at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and that his younger brother Frank died at the Battle of Gettysburg two years later as a result of wounds and an amputation.  Two brothers from one family, killed in the same war, almost exactly two years apart.  The tragedy of those deaths for their immediate family can hardly be imagined, how they would have tried to make meaning of the deaths of those two sons.

That private tragedy has long since been taken up into the collective experience of the whole American people.  Though they may well have seemed meaningless at the time, those deaths have meaning for us because they were part of an event which helped to shape, and continues to shape, our nation.  And those deaths also have meaning because all private grief, as the Buddha taught, is universal.

From our limited perspectives, our own lives may also at times seem devoid of meaning.  How do we keep from succumbing to that potential despair?

Through my parents and grandparents, I have been able to participate in a more recent past, one which I of course did not experience myself.  The lesson I have learned is that mine is not the first generation, and I am not the first person, to have experienced hardship and despair.  For me, this insight is a wonderful source of hope for the future.  People before me have endured and overcome.

Without such knowledge, I would be hopeless.  I doubt that I would be able to go on.  For like the bereaved woman with her private grief, I could not go on if I believed that I was the only one to have experienced such a loss.  But I know that I am not the first, and that knowledge helps to keep me going.

Knowledge of the past can remind us that there is also joy in life.  True, it cannot protect us from our sadness, of from a profound sense of grief for the shortcomings of the human race.  But joy is not necessarily the end we should seek, or the end we need.  Rather, what we should seek for is hope.  For there is no guarantee in the future, as countless persons in generations before ours have learned.

As long as we have hope borne of memory, we can move forward into that uncertain future, and perhaps even have a positive impact on the direction that that future may take.

I know that my life has been guided by the people I have known and the experiences I have had, and I believe that we can influence the course of history as long as we do not succumb to hopelessness and despair.  We may not get out of this alive, as one comedian has suggested, but even the dead have lessons to teach.

Life makes us no promises.  Our wars and our holocausts should assure us of that.  But as holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us, memory is a powerful tool.  We are the ones who must give the dead life; it is our sacred trust.  To remember is often painful, but to forget is to doom ourselves to a futureless present.  To forget opens the doors to tragedy and despair, but to remember is to have hope.  As an old hymn puts it, 

Standing in the living present,
Memory and hope between,
God, we would with deep thanksgiving
Praise thee more for things unseen.


 – The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from The Shaking of the Foundations, by Paul Tillich

May 12, 2013

Be Swift to Love

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 3:16 pm

Hear the sermon

May 12, 2013 

“What truly matters, beyond all our accomplishments and acclaim, is that we be swift to love.”
– William Schulz 

“What truly matters, beyond all our accomplishments and acclaim, is that we be swift to love,” writes former UUA President Bill Schulz.  I know just enough about my chosen subject of the day to confess at the outset that my knowledge has come mostly from the good fortune of being on the receiving end of love.  I know what it is to be loved.  I know that I could do better on the giving end.  But then, I suspect that many of us feel that way. 

Be swift to love.  By the way, this is not meant to be an exercise in guilt, which the late Erma Bombeck once characterized as “the gift that keeps on giving.”  Nor is it meant as yet another trivialization of love, something with which we are all too familiar.  As an elderly friend once put it, after being introduced as having been “happily married” for forty-three years, “Anyone who thinks you can be happily married for forty-three years doesn’t know much about marriage.”  Or, we might add, about love.

I don’t have any illusions about love being easy.  But I think that’s what many people want: cheap love, the kind of love that doesn’t cause us any problems, the kind of love that doesn’t demand anything too strenuous of us, certainly not the kind of love that might cause us to shed any tears.

The theologian Danial Day Williams once wrote, 

Love does not put everything at rest; it puts everything in motion.  Love does not resolve every conflict; it accepts conflict as the arena in which the work of love is done.  Love does not separate the good people from the bad, bestowing endless bliss upon one, and endless torment on the other.  Love seeks the reconciliation of every life so that it may share all the others.

“The not so simple subject of love,” my colleague Charles Stephen once called it.  What is love, anyway?  It’s not so simple to define.  Just about everyone who’s ever put pen to paper has made a stab at definition: there’s no shortage of literature and theory and music on love.  Love is a very popular subject.

In his widely read book of two decades ago, Dr. M. Scott Peck offered the following definition of love: Love, he said, “is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  What does this mean?

First, love has a purpose and goal, which Peck defined as “spiritual growth.”  It is not self-gratification, though it may lead to self-fulfillment.

Second, love is an evolutionary process: it does not rest content with the status quo.  When one successfully extends oneself and one’s limits, one grows or evolves.  One is no longer the same as before.  This growth happens even when the purpose of our love is to enable someone else’s spiritual growth.

Third, love includes both self-love and love for the other.  As Peck says, ‘Since I am human and you are human, to love humans means to love myself as well as you.”  We must love ourselves before we can love another.  Perhaps that is what is meant by the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is more difficult than it sounds.

A Buddhist monk I once heard used the following story to illustrate the difficulty of loving oneself.  Think of the mind or spirit or soul as a dog, he said.  If we are constantly yelling at and beating on the dog, we should not be too surprised when it bites someone.  But if we treat the dog with kindness and affection, with forgiveness for it foibles and flaws, it will respond with love and devotion.  How can we be loving if are always beating up on ourselves?  If we want to love others, we must first be kind and forgiving and loving to ourselves.

Fourth, love takes effort, because it takes effort to extend one’s limits, to grow.  Love is hard work.

Fifth, love is an act of the will.  We must choose to love.  As theologian Carter Heyward wrote in the morning’s reading, “Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.”

The ultimate implication of Peck’s definition is that “true love” is always a religious experience.  Too often, though, our selfishness gets in the way and prevents us from truly loving anyone.  The only way that spiritual growth can take place (as any mystic from any religious tradition will tell you) is to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of the self.  With that paradox, I leave the attempt at definition.

If we are fortunate, we have or have had wives and husbands, partners and friends, parents and children who love us in spite of our shortcomings, who put up with us at our worst, who allow us simply to be, frightening as that possibility sometimes seems.  If we are lucky, we are affirmed in spite of our flaws.  If we are really lucky, we are loved for what we are.  For as Goethe wrote, “To be loved for what one is, is the greatest exception.  The great majority love in another what they lend him, their own selves, their version of him.”  That is a very scary thought, for it suggests that many of us are very, very lonely.

But love is no panacea, either.  C. S. Lewis has written that, 

. . . to love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

We invite the possibility of tragedy by our love, be it for our children, for our wives and husbands, for our lovers and friends, even for our pets.  As author Norman MacLean writes with truth in his novel A River Runs Through It, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”  The greatest act of courage, after all, is not to sacrifice our own lives, but to love other people.  Love is the greatest act of courage we can undertake, for we must undertake it in what poet Wendell Berry calls the “forethought of grief.”

As Edmund Morgan, a writer on grief, has written, “Love means grief, in time.”  The Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson struggled with this reality of love in his eulogy, “On My First Son”: 

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O could I lose all father now! for why
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

To love is to risk the pain and grief of loss.  So William Blake warns us in “Love’s Secret”: 

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart.
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears.
Ah!  She did depart.
Soon after she was gone from me,
A traveler came by,
Silently, invisibly:
He took her with a sigh.

Even loving a pet can bring us to grief, as you animal lovers know, and as Robert Herrick wrote in his poem, “Upon His Spaniel Tracy”:                  

Now thou art dead, and no eye shall ever see,
For shape and service, spaniel like to thee.
This shall my love do, give thy sad death one
Tear, that deserves of me a million.

Being swift to love does not guarantee that our lives will be easier or that all the world’s problems will be solved.  Howard Thurman writes in Disciplines of the Spirit, “The experience of love is either a necessity or a luxury.  If it be a luxury, it is expendable; if it be a necessity, then to deny it is to perish.  So simple is the reality, and so terrifying.  Ultimately there is only one place of refuge on this planet for anyone—that is in another’s . . . heart.  To love is to make one’s heart a swinging door.”

The bottom line, of course, is that time is wasting.  That is why the poet counsels us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  For always at our backs we hear “time’s winged chariot draw near.”  A modern poet, Katherine Anne Porter, revisits this ancient theme in her poem, “Variation 1001: To the Foolish Virgins Who Aren’t Gathering Roses”:

Ladies, why idle you here
Wasting the cool of the morning?
I’ve come to sing you a song
And bring you a warning.

Let me sell you a rhyme
For a bright penny—
Now is a better time
To love, than any!

Loving is not for long
The bright day is flying—
Ladies, there’s only a breath
Between living and dying!

“Life is short,” wrote Amiel, “and we never have too much time to gladden the hearts of those traveling the dark journey with us.”  Or for gladdening our own hearts.

On a day when we celebrate the love of mother and child, it is good to be reminded of all this.  It is good to be reminded of the brevity of life, and of the necessity of love.  I have to believe that love can make a difference, that it can even help to create the world of justice and peace that we dream about.  “To make love is to make justice,” wrote Carter Heyward.  It sounds ridiculous on the surface, but I want to believe that it is true.

John Marks Templeton wrote, 

The more love we give away, the more we have left.  The laws of love differ from the laws of arithmetic.  Love hoarded dwindles, but love given grows.  If we give all our love, we will have more left than he who saves some.  Giving love, not receiving, is important; but when we give without thought of receiving, we automatically and inescapably receive abundantly.

Be swift to love, make haste to be kind!  Gladden the hearts of those traveling the journey with you.  That is my message for this morning.  Time is short.  Think about it.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: “Our Passion for Justice,” by Carter Heyward

May 5, 2013

Membership and Meaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:09 am

Hear the sermon

“In our experiment in religious community we are saying:
|begin with acceptance, begin with the openness which is a form of love,
begin with the love that lets others be who they are—
then personal growth is more likely to follow and truth—
living, relevant, personal truth—is likely to follow, too.”
– Roy D. Phillips 

Over the years, I have spoken to you many times about the meaning of membership in our church, and, frankly, I’m not sure that I have much that is new to say on the subject.  So this morning I want to take a somewhat different and more personal tack, and talk about the meaning which comes from membership.  Perhaps what I have to say will be self-evident and resonate with you.  I rather hope so.

What I know about this topic mostly comes from my experience of being part of a family, of growing up in a small town in Maine, of being a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and of ministering to a variety of Unitarian Universalist churches over the past thirty-one years, and, more recently, of my participation in the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council, my work as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ambassador to the Transylvanian (now “Hungarian”) Unitarian Church in Romania, and, more particularly, of my relationship with our congregation’s Unitarian partner church in Ujszekely in Transylvania.

My knowledge is, therefore, less theoretical than experiential.  It is less about definitions and concepts than it is about matters of the heart: about love and about the mysterious sense that the journey of our lives actually has had a direction, even though that direction is sometimes hard to chart.

During my most recent visit in Transylvania, Borika Jakab, whom many of you will remember from her visit here in 2005, or from your visits to Ujszekely (Borika is the wife of the minister, for those who may not know), and I were speaking about the problems of many of the people in the congregation there and of friends and colleagues of Borika and her husband Zsolt.  It was obvious that there are many problems there, and at one point we agreed that there was no such thing as a perfect family.  Mental health issues, addiction, marital problems, wayward children, abuse, and disappointments of all stripes are the common currency of family life no matter where you live.  There is no such thing as a perfect family, neither here nor in far-off Romania.

And yet, we also know that much of the meaning that we take from life comes from that primary familial relationship.  It is the first place where we begin to form our identity and from which we may gather a sense of purpose in life.  If we are lucky, those initial familial relationships are sound enough that we gain a mostly positive sense of membership and the meanings that it can bring.  The family is the first place where we “belong,” the first place where we are made aware of the benefits of belonging.  It is where we begin to understand who we are, and who we are in relation to the world.

My strongest sense of belonging after my family came from my upbringing in a small town on the coast of Maine.  There was little question that I “belonged” in Castine, Maine.  My grandfather was the physician in the little hospital which he and my grandmother, a registered nurse, had established there.  My mother was a teacher in the local elementary school.

On her side of our family, our roots go back at least eight generations in that place.

Castine is situated on a peninsula.  You have to want to go there.  It was, in addition to being a beautiful place, a relatively secure and self-contained little world in which to grow up.  It was from there that I learned that one’s understanding of one’s place in the world, of one’s identity, and of one’s participation in a larger whole, can bring rich rewards in the form of knowing who we are and can perhaps even help to give us a sense of why we are.

I grew up in the Unitarian, and after the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the Unitarian Universalist church.  It was literally a stone’s throw from my house.  I attended Sunday School there until the eighth grade, when I left town to attend boarding school in another part of the state.  I attended church there with my parents and my paternal grandparents.

It was there that I first explored the great questions of life, death, and in between.  Even sex was a not-taboo subject!  It was there that I first considered entering the ministry.  Little did I know that my membership there would provide me with a lifetime of meaning and identity and an even deeper sense of belonging, with experiences I could not even have imagined at the time, and with relationships and friendships that have been profoundly impactful on my life.  (If you have children here, you should consider this possibly lifelong benefit for them of having a church connection.)

After a typically dissolute youth and graduation from college and graduate school at the University of Maine, I finally decided to follow my early inclination and curiosity and enter into theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.  In both of those places, Maine and Harvard,  I had a strong sense of belonging and membership.  I made friends who helped to give my life meaning by helping me to understand more deeply who I am in relation to the world and taught me things I could not otherwise have known, things which have brought beauty and solace and joy to me life.  I was with people who shared common goals and a common outlook on life.  Even in my darker moments, I always knew that I was not alone or isolated, but that I was surrounded by people who cared about and supported and loved me.

In 1982, in a little prairie town in southwestern Minnesota, I embarked upon my ministerial career.  I could not have chosen a more spectacular place to serve my first church.  Hanska, Minnesota sits in an ocean of corn.  On a little hill (called Mt. Pisquah after the mountain on which Moses stood to gaze into the Promised Land into which he would never enter—an amazing metaphor for life!) stands the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church.  It is a beautiful setting, if perhaps a bit isolated.  Founded by Norwegian immigrants, it is about as opposite to our usual UU demographics as you can get.  Most of the members were farmers.  Most had never attended college.  Some still spoke Norwegian.

Of course, I bumbled through my three years in Hanska, totally embraced by that small and loving congregation in spite of all I didn’t know.  Those people taught me much about why one ought to belong to a church.  I watched as they supported one another through heartbreaking loss and occasional tragedy.  I watched as they worked and had fun together.  I watched as they struggled with family issues and with an economy that was not kind to farmers in the early 1980’s.  I simply cannot imagine my life without that experience and without those people.  A piece of my heart will always belong there.  No matter what self-doubts I may have had about my ability to become a minister, they put their confidence in me.  I owe them much.

After that early experience in Hanska, I served five other churches before coming to Newburyport.  I spent six years in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in a larger congregation in a very different kind of place, a declining manufacturing town, and in a church with roots in the Universalist side of our tradition.  Though not the happiest period in my life, still I was embraced by the congregation there, and, though I was having some second thoughts at that time about remaining in the ministry, I continued to learn from the experience of belonging to a community striving to provide a spiritual home for themselves in challenging times and to make a difference in an often troubled world.

As in Hanska, there were profound and tragic events from which I continued to learn about the vicissitudes of life, its joys and its sorrows, and to count my blessings, to grow, and to learn more about myself.  Again, those people taught me things I could not have known about life had I not been a part of their community, and which I hope helped to make me a kinder and more compassionate person.  I received far more from them than I ever gave.

After a two year hiatus from ministry, during which I returned to the community of my childhood, I re-entered the ministry as an interim in the Rockland, Maine UU church, followed by a year as a circuit riding interim in three small congregations in the Oxford Hills region of western Maine.  In all of these congregations I met people who taught me important lessons about life and death, people who remain dear to me though I no longer see them, and whom I shall never forget, people who made me feel that I belonged in their midst.

Through all these changes, my identity and membership as a Unitarian Universalist was part of the glue that kept my life together and gave me a sense that I had a place in the world.  My many relationships across the Unitarian Universalist universe are actually a perpetual surprise and joy and even a mystery to me.  It is hard, when you are so deeply involved in something over so many years, not to feel how empty your life would be without that amazing web of relationships and experiences, relationships and experiences which have of course been enriched tremendously during my increasingly lengthy tenure as your minister!

In 1995, after coming here to the First Religious Society, which had already established a partner church relationship with the church in Ujszekely under my predecessor  Bert Steeves, I began to get involved in the work of international partnership.  This work has led not only to now fifteen trips to visit our partners in Transylvania and even a trip to visit our Unitarian brothers and sisters in northeastern India, but it has given me a more global and I trust less parochial view of the world in which I live.  It has given me a much deeper sense of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the ways that it can help sustain very different kinds of people in very different kinds of places.  That work has profoundly deepened and enriched my own spirituality and, I dare to hope, at least a few of yours as well, either by direct experience or if only by hearing about it second hand.  In short, this work has changed my life.

I sometimes say that I have a second family in Transylvania, and it is true.  Not in my wildest dreams growing up in a small town in Maine during the Cold War could I have imagined such a possibility, and yet, it has been one of the most meaningful blessings of membership and belonging of the many that I have received in my life.

In short, I cannot imagine my life at all without those friendships and experiences, and without all the meanings that membership–in my family, my community, and particularly in a Unitarian Universalist church–have brought to my life.  Whatever it may mean to become a member of a church, it is clear to me that membership in all its forms can bring incredible meaning to our lives.  What that meaning is will vary from person to person, but I can almost guarantee that it will be there if you make the effort and commitment to become part of a striving religious community like ours.

That, at least, is my hope, for each and every one of us, on this day of new member recognition, and in all of the days of belonging still to come.  Amen. 

The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

 Reading: on membership, by the Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed

April 21, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 4:45 pm

Hear the sermon.

April 21, 2013

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy,
the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.”
– Goethe


The events of this past week were yet another reminder, if we still needed one, of why community is so important.  So many selfless acts of generosity, courage, and heroism were performed in the aftermath of the terrible bombings at the Boston marathon.  In spite of the horror and, for some, the complete devastation of Monday’s events, the human spirit shone through in so many glorious ways that at least a little of the raw edge of a senseless and cowardly act of violence was softened and made less horrific than it might otherwise have been.

But why must it take an act like this to bring us together in such profound and meaningful ways?  Why do we not always show each other the kind of care and concern that was so vividly demonstrated on Monday and in the days following?  Why do we not recognize how vulnerable we are each and every day, how mortal, how superficial are our differences, and reach out to one another as if our lives depended upon it, which, of course, they do?

I don’t know the answer to those questions.  As one who believes in and is committed to building a beloved community in good times as well as bad, I can only guess that many folks believe that they are invulnerable, that they are immortal, until something like the bombings in Boston wakes them up and makes them understand otherwise.

Many people feel no need to belong to an intentional community such as a church.  Often it is only when a tragedy occurs, or a death in the family, or a rite of passage such as a marriage or child dedication, that they turn to the church for solace and sustenance or, just as important, for a place in which to share their joy.

It’s great that we are here for them.  That is certainly part of our mission.  But it would be even better if they recognized the ongoing benefits of belonging to a living, breathing community of people, a community of people who travel what Amiel calls “the dark journey” with us, and who, as Garrison Keillor writes so poignantly, “love us, and are glad to see our faces.”  As one of my ministerial mentors, John Cummins, once wrote,

The greatest rewards are long term ones.  You cannot plumb the depths of our principles nor discover all our common values nor explore all the possibilities for growth in one year or five.  And, of course, the greatest rewards go to those who give as well as take.

The fact is we could use their ongoing presence and support, because an institution like ours cannot continue to exist without the care and support and commitment of many dedicated people.  We cannot be there at hard times like these unless there are those who are willing to sacrifice and to labor on our behalf.

I have seen what this kind of belonging can mean for people at difficult times in their lives.  While nothing can completely take away the pain of losing a child, or the devastation of a teenager’s death in a car accident, or the hurt of a loved one dying too soon, a caring and comforting community can certainly help.  Not only at extreme times, such as the events of last week, but in those times that inevitably come to all of us: illness, disappointment, sadness, and, of course, the death that naturally comes to each of us, and to each of those we love, in time.

I’m grateful to our friend John Mercer for my sermon title this morning.  Engagement, thought of in the marriageable sort of way, means a much more serious kind of commitment than simply dating.  Engagement, in that more serious way of deeper commitment, is something that our church could always use more of.  How do we get more of us fully engaged in this enterprise of the church, specifically, of our church, the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Newburyport?

My late colleague, Peter Raible, once wrote, 

When we give ourselves significantly to others and to causes, we open our existence and we unclog the arteries of being.  Existence turned inward toward the self is ever a death warrant: while existence turned outward toward the world enlarges us and gives meaning and purpose to our life.

This, theoretically, is why we choose to make a deeper commitment to those we love, when we become engaged and when we marry.  We recognize at some level that we cannot live for ourselves alone, that there is much to be gained in giving up some independence in order to gain the benefits of interdependence.  Self-centeredness is such a dead end.  It is such a lonely place to inhabit.  When we make a deeper commitment to the ones we love, or even just to the ones we live with, we often find that we are happier and more fulfilled than we were before.  Not only do we gain the support of others, but we also learn important lessons about ourselves, and we come to see that we are not alone in either our distress or our good fortune.

This week, John sent me a lovely silhouette of a young man on one knee proposing to his lady love, a kind of prompt for this morning’s sermon.  Of course, nowadays that silhouette could contain any number of combinations of young men and young women!  People of whatever gender proposing their love to—people of whatever gender.  Thank God we are coming to recognize that commitment is the most important factor in a relationship, not some imagined “right” or “natural” juxtaposition of the sexes, which, as we know, offers absolutely no guarantee of a successful or sacred union.  I celebrate true commitment however and whenever it is made!  And we all should.

One of our greatest challenges as a congregation is, how do we move our friends and members to that deeper kind of commitment and support, from a kind of tentative, “dating” relationship, to a deeper and more serious form of “engagement”?  Because, as Goethe wrote in the quotation I have included on your orders of service, “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.”

There is a tremendous potential here.  We have so many wonderful and interesting and talented people of all ages.  What would it mean if we could come to know each other even better?  What if we truly came to know each other’s stories, which, in a small way, we have been trying to do with our Journeys of Faith program?

Julie Parker Amery and I have just finished leading together, for a third time, a religious education program called “Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.”  All I can say about that is that it is amazing the things we don’t know about those who come to church here.  What if we could come to know you better and to connect more of you in your shared interests and passions?  What if more people knew about your triumphs and struggles, your skills and talents?  Imagine what we might accomplish!

One remarkable event during this church year was the community-wide effort to build a playground at KelleherPark.  It’s simply amazing what we can do when we take the step into that deeper kind of commitment, when we join our hearts and minds and hands together, when we are fully engaged in a project or process.  I’m especially proud of all that members of this congregation have done to make this project a reality.  I believe that those of us who have been involved have come to know one another more intimately and meaningfully as a result.  And I hope that this will translate into an even deeper commitment to our church community.

How do we get more of us involved in projects like this, both within our church and beyond, in the larger community?  This has been a question that many of us have been asking for a long time.  How do we grow, not just numerically, but spiritually, and in terms of our bonds to one another, and of our commitment to this wonderful place that so many of us love and support so generously?  As I once read in a column in the newsletter of the First Parish in Cambridge, “It is commitment to our relationships that offers constancy and the sense of belonging that turn a building (whether a house or a meetinghouse) into a home, or a group of people into a community.”

This May, at our Annual Meeting, you will have an opportunity to decide if we are ready to take the bold step of adding a person to our staff whose job it would be to make this dream of deeper engagement a reality.  The Parish Board has accepted the recommendation of the task force formed to consider how to fill the huge shoes of our retiring Business Administrator,  John Mercer, to break John’s job into two positions: an Office Administrator whose primary responsibility is to oversee the financial well-being and business affairs of our church, and a Director of Community Engagement, whose responsibilities would include communications and volunteer coordination and fostering connections, among others.  You will have an opportunity to learn more about this proposed position and the task force recommendation in the next few weeks, leading up to the Annual Meeting on May 19.  You can also find information about it on the church website.

The bottom line is that even though we just completed our most successful pledge canvass ever—bless you, Brent Mitchell, and all who have contributed!—we are still short the money we will need to fund this new position.  This is the challenge that we face.

So many times over recent years your staff has heard wonderful ideas for programs and endeavors that would help us to grow in all the ways that I have been speaking about.  But the reality is that there simply is not the staffing or the time to do most of the things which would really take us to the next level of engagement and that would allow us to become the more deeply spiritual and active community presence that I believe so many of us long for us to be.

The rewards of a deeper kind of engagement in our church may not be self-evident to everyone, but I believe that they are the kind of rewards which will help us to weather the storm of terrible events like those of the week just past, and which will ultimately bear the mark of the eternal: as the late Jacob Trapp reminds us, those rewards are: 

The giving we have invested in others; the love we have expressed in deeds; the kindness we have shown; the work we have done because we loved it; the light we have shown that others might not stumble; the evil that we turned into good—because we saw that none of us lives apart, but that we are all indeed “members of one another.”

As I wrote to you earlier this week, at times like these, it is especially good to be together.  In the stress and strife of our busy days, we sometimes forget why it is that we are here, and what it is we are trying to accomplish.  Let us give thought to those things as we leave here this morning.

In closing, a poem to remind us that no evil and despicable act can break our spirit or turn us from our goal of building a beloved community of memory and hope, that life and love and good will ultimately triumph over all.  The poem is entitled “First days of spring—the sky,” by Ryokan:

First days of spring—the sky
is bright blue, the sun huge and warm.
Everything’s turning green.
Carrying my monk’s bowl, I walk to the village
to beg for my daily meal.
The children spot me at the temple gate
and happily crowd around,
dragging to my arms till I stop.
I put my bowl on a white rock,
hang my bag on a branch.
First we braid grasses and pay tug-of-war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air:
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
“Why are you acting like such a fool?”
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland, Texas, by Timothy Jensen

March 31, 2013

Practicing Resurrection

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March 31, 2013 

“Practice Resurrection.”
– Wendell Berry, from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

“Life springs eternal.”  Those words of an early ministerial mentor of mine, Tracy Pullman, always return to me at Easter time.  Tracy wrote, “No matter how encrusted our lives may become, no matter how beaten into conventional molds and practices, no matter how indifferent to the spiritual demands of life at its best, yet within everyone, we have faith to believe, there dwells the spirit and the power to lay hold on new energies, to define new visions and to exhibit greater strength.”

We are surrounded by resurrection.  And I’m not just speaking about the annual rite of spring’s rebirth which is about to unfold in all of its green splendor.  We are surrounded by resurrection!  All around us we see examples of it.  New life out of old.  Pain and sorrow overcome.  Failure surmounted.  Health restored.  Hope renewed.  Love reborn.

And all of this in spite of death.  We know about death.  We have all experienced loss, or will.  No one is exempt.  But the miracle is that even in the face of death, our spirit rises to overcome it, even as St. Paul affirmed, “Where, O death, is your victory?   Where, O death, is your sting?”

Somehow, even in the face of our deepest grief, we find the strength to go on.  “I thought I was wounded to the core,” wrote poet Denise Levertov, “but I was only bruised.”  We go on, because we are only bruised, not wounded to the core.  We go on, because new life always beckons, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts open to understand.

Death, it turns out, is part of life.  It is a necessary part of nature’s yearly round.  My colleague Philip Hewitt writes,

The conventional Easter parable points to the life resurgent in nature, the “annual resurrection.”  Yet this triumph of life does not banish death.  It embraces death.  Much of last year’s carnival of green, which celebrated the triumph of spring, now lies in death and decay as the sustenance of the new and vigorous life which repeats the cycle.  Nature is immortal, but her individual members are not.  And it is only when we lose our craving for self-sufficiency, for an individual existence in isolation from, or even in opposition to, the great whole of which we are a part, that we have really absorbed the lesson of the parable.  Then we cease to live for ourselves alone, and begin to understand what it can mean to die and come again to life.

We are surrounded by resurrection!  Another colleague, Earl Holt, writes, 

The possibility of transformation and renewal exists; it is in all of us.  All around us are people whose lives, in ways large and small, have been transformed and renewed; those who have overcome the loss of what was most precious to them in the world, those who have won a battle with alcohol or other drugs, those who have transcended the temptation to despair when life was at its darkest.  Resurrection is not a long ago, unique, unlikely event, but is potentially present in all human life. . . .  Easter is the promise that we can be reborn; it is the promise of new life.

Belief in this kind of resurrection provides the possibility of living a different kind of life.  It is a belief in a resurrection within life.  It is a way of reorienting ourselves toward life and possibility, rather than toward fear, toward hope and joy, instead of despair.

But, you say, death is real.  Death is final.  And what of an afterlife?

“The idea has been a common antidote to death,” writes BostonGlobe columnist and former Catholic priest, James Carroll. 

You know that human beings have invoked the notion of “God” here, Carroll writes, as if the only way to make sense of death is to imagine being magically plucked from it.  No loss.  No grief.  “God” solves the human problem just by removing it.  But what if the human triumph over death consists simply in the knowledge of it?  What if the “other world” for which you long exists already in the contemplation of mortality, an interior world out of which this train of thought is coming?

This is heady stuff, but, you say, it lacks the assurance for which we long.  Is there life after death?  What would it look like if there were?  I personally can’t imagine it.  It’s this life that I want, and I want it more abundantly, in spite of all its trials and tribulation, in spite even of death.

For of one thing I am certain: this life offers moments of surpassing beauty, moments when “the triumph song of life” sings in our hearts.  I have experienced those moments, and they are real, as real as anything has ever been.  This life contains all that we love.  Would we, even in the face of the inevitability of loss, even in the face of life’s inescapable sadness and tragedy, even in the face of death itself, wish that it had never been?  And is it not this ecstasy and agony of life which binds us together as human beings?  We can’t have one without the other.  Whatever comes after this life, we have had these moments.  We have known something of love or we would not be here.

I am a realist.  I know that for some, the picture I am painting is not enough.  Not everyone is able to overcome despair and sadness, loss and grief.  Far be it from me to stand in judgment about that.  To me that reality is a call to try to be more kind, to try to help ease the way of those who travel “the dark journey” with us, to try to offer more hope and courage along the way.

Practicing resurrection is not easy.  Like anything valuable, it must become a discipline.  We have to work at it.  There will be days when we fail.  But as my late colleague ForrestChurch once wrote, “As long as we have the power to give others hope, confidence, and faith, we will surely live again and again.  This too is a way to practice resurrection.”

The psychologist Eric Fromm once wrote, 

Let us proclaim the reality of resurrection—not the resurrection which is a creation of another reality beyond this life—but a resurrection which is the transformation of this reality in the direction of greater aliveness.  People and society are resurrected every moment in the act of hope and of faith in the here and now—every act of love, of awareness, of compassion is resurrection—every act of sloth, of greed, of selfishness is death of the spirit.  Every moment life confronts us with the alternatives of death or resurrection—to live is to choose, and in choosing we give our answer.  Our answer lies not in what we say or think, but in what we are and how we act.  Let us proclaim, let us choose, let us live the reality of resurrection!

We need repeatedly to be brought to new life.  “I thought I was wounded to the core, but I was only bruised,” wrote Levertov.  Let us live in the possibility of that knowledge, and not only in the possibility of an afterlife of which we can know nothing.

In the ancient Christian church, it was standard to greet fellow Christians with the salutation, “He is risen; he is risen indeed!”  Personally, I prefer to imagine a day when all of us can proclaim, “We are risen; we are risen indeed!”  If we practice resurrection, I believe that day will eventually come, for each and every one of us.

In closing, a prayer by the late Unitarian minister, Vivian Pomeroy: 

Oh God of Life, you renew the face of the earth and quicken all things; we bless you for this lovely time; we praise you for all the beauty it brings to our eyes and for all the cheer it gives to our hearts.  Forbid that we be sullen when the trees break forth into singing; forbid that we be unmoved when the great tide is flowing again.  Make us eager not only to be good but also happier, knowing that joy is one of the fruits of the spirit.  May we not defraud ourselves of the fleeting day, but drink here and now of the sweetness of life.

So may it be.  Amen.

 – The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


March 28, 2013

Communion as Invitation to Love

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March 28, 2013
Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.”
– John 13: 34

One of the most profound religious experiences I have had in recent years has been my participation in several communion services at our UnitarianPartnerChurch in Ujszekely in the Transylvanian region of Romania.  Two years ago at Easter time I was in Transylvania and had the privilege of sharing in the celebration of Easter communion with my colleague Zsolt Jakab.  Though I had previously conducted a yearly Maundy Thursday communion service during my ministry to the MurrayUniversalistChurch in Attleboro, there is something very special about the manner in which our Transylvanian Unitarian brothers and sisters participate in this ancient ritual.

Transylvanian Unitarians celebrate communion four times a year: at harvest time, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  These services are by far the most popular religious services among them.  Communion Sundays are among the few times during the year when a majority of the congregation is present at church services.  Those who are unable to attend because of age or infirmity are brought communion in their homes following the service in the church.  These home visits to deliver communion have been some of the most moving religious experiences I have ever had.  To see the tears start in the eyes of an elderly parishioner no longer able to get to church is a reminder of the power of both religious symbolism and religious community.

Let me be clear: there is nothing supernatural about communion in the Transylvanian practice of communion.  If there is magic, it is in the moment when the minister, looking deeply into the eyes of each communicant, delivers the communion bread and wine and blesses him or her by saying, “Isten aldja meg”: God bless you.  As my Transylvanian Unitarian colleagues Csaba Todor and Kinga Reka Szekely have written, 

We do not believe that the bread is the real body of Jesus.  Nor do we believe that the wine is the blood of Jesus.  There is no metaphysical meaning in the wine and the bread.  There is no theological speculation.  The bread and the wine symbolize the substance of our life now and the possibilities for the future.  The focus of communion is on the people who are here for communion.  We believe in a community of people who are alive, and community with a world of faith beyond physical reality.

Communion for the Transylvanian Unitarians is about remembrance of Jesus, who is venerated not as a deity but as a nearly perfect human role model; about gratitude for all the gifts of life, but in particular for the gift of community; about making a clean start, unencumbered by all the ways that we have missed the mark; and, especially, about love: the love of God for us and us for God, as well as our love for one another as human beings.  As Csaba and Kinga explain, 

Communion is a sacred moment when we look at ourselves in the light of God’s radiant love.  People who believe they were born with a divine spark in their hearts know that human life is a short but wonderful opportunity to experience love and connectedness.  In order to do this we need moments of depth.  We need to stand in silence for a moment, to look in the mirror of our consciences and in the mirror of our partner’s eyes. . . .  Communion is an opportunity—an invitation—to focus our lives on love.  The love we can give, the love we can receive.

In delivering the communion, some old-world rules apply: first the men line up, in order of age, the oldest first down to the youngest participants.  As the women sing together, the men come forward to receive the bread; the women follow, oldest to youngest, as the men sing.   Then the action is repeated as first the men and then the women come forward to receive the wine from a common chalice.

When I have participated, I have distributed the bread while Zsolt shared the cup, thus saving one of the trips to the communion table.

Either way, the experience is one that every member takes with deep seriousness.

I have always been impressed by how willingly I am accepted as a minister at occasions like this.  No one seems to question who this strange interloper is, or what business he has participating in this most intimate of religious celebrations, and most are pleasantly surprised and even amazed when I speak the words of the blessing to them in their native Hungarian language.

Imre Gellerd, a Unitarian minister who took his own life after repeated harassment and imprisonment under the formerly Communist government of Romania, and one who is considered almost a saint for his steadfastness in the face of oppression, once wrote that, “As far as the Lord’s Supper is concerned, the Unitarian position seems to be the closest to the early Christian principles.  Jesus clearly said: ‘Do this in memory of me.’”  Dr. Gellert wrote that “The Lord’s Supper is the liturgy through which we remember Jesus’ life and death, and we receive encouragement to follow his example. . . .  Repenting our mistakes and our sins, we must promise that in the future we will endeavor to better preserve the purity of our hearts, and to live a life worthy of God and ourselves. . . .  It is a communion with the divine and with our neighbors: a communion of ourselves with our highest values.”

These are ideas and ideals to which I find it easy to give my assent, and I hope that you will too as we join in this ancient ritual this afternoon.  Though we will partake in a somewhat different manner than our Transylvanian friends in the communion celebration, I hope that you will think of our faraway brothers and sisters in faith and consider the profound meaning that this invitation to love holds for them, and might come to hold for us, also.  As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

March 24, 2013

All We Know About Jesus

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March 24, 2013 

“. . . All that remains for me is to present in a nutshell
what we know about the historical Jesus, Jesus the Jew.”
– Geza Vermes 

Back in the day when I attended the Unitarian Sunday School in my hometown in Castine, Maine, Jesus was a much more central figure in our religious education programs and affections than he is today.  In books like Jesus the Carpenter’s Son and Who Do Men Say I Am?, the old Beacon Series religious education curriculum presented Jesus very much in the light of modern historical and literary criticism of the Bible: a human Jesus, one meant to inspire not by his supposed supernatural powers, but by his prophetic imperative and by serving as a human role model for the very best that each of us can aspire to be.  A historical Jesus, as opposed to the Christ of faith.

Perhaps this reflected the more mono-cultural and mono-religious context of the 1940s and 1950s, when Unitarians more closely reflected the prevailing Christian culture, and awareness of other non-Christian faiths—including even Judaism—was less pronounced.  “Church Across the Street”—the precursor to our “Neighboring Faiths” program, was, as its title suggests, a curriculum about visiting other Christian “churches.”  “Neighboring Faiths”, its successor, accepts the reality of the many non-Christian and new religions which now practice among us, and includes visits to synagogues, temples, and mosques as well as churches.

Be all of that as it may, I grew up with both a fascination about Jesus and a strong sense of his moral leadership for our faith.  Of course, there were other more contemporary religious role models of whom I was aware and to whom I turned: Gandhi, certainly, but also Martin Luther King, Jr., then at the height of his activities and power.  In Sunday School we also did learn about other great historical religious figures: the Buddha and Mohammed, as well as Moses and the Hebrew prophets.  But Jesus stood above them all, again reflecting our Protestant Christian roots and, to some extent, the remnants of our Christian chauvinism.

Unitarians were among the first to extoll the virtues of studying world religions—what was then known as “comparative religion,” “comparative” because everything was to be compared to Christianity.  Christianity was still for a long time considered just a cut above the rest.  James Freeman Clarke, a Transcendentalist and later a professor of the new field of comparative religion at Harvard, wrote one of the first books on the subject, entitled Ten Great Religions.  While it mostly succeeded at offering an objective view of other faith traditions, the book and its author could not escape from the conviction that Christianity somehow represented the culmination, the zenith if you will, of religious faith.

Perhaps this accounts for the centrality of Jesus in Unitarian Universalist religious education during my childhood.  Whatever the case may be, I imbibed without hardly knowing it New Testament passages like the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the turning over the tables in the Temple.  I knew the rough outlines of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and death.  I liked Jesus, and I suppose that to some extent I believed that I should try to live a life as closely approximating his as I could.

And I wondered about all the claims made for Jesus.  I enjoyed speculating about those claims, and while I remained very much a humanist in respect to them—that is, a believer in the full humanity of Jesus as opposed to his unique divinity—it nevertheless led me to consider the ways in which Jesus—and indeed any of us—might come to be not just a “son or daughter of God” but, in a very real sense, might become “godlike.”  Jesus fanned his “spark of the divine” into full flame, but any of us, I believe, contain the same potential as he.

I maintained this fascination with Jesus through the years, and was excited to have the opportunity to pursue my interest in an intentional way in classes I took after entering Divinity School.  The so-called “quest for the historic Jesus” became one of my favorite subjects, both formally and informally.  To this day I enjoy reading books about Jesus and the continuing scholarly pursuit of historical knowledge about him.  The most recent of these books that I have read is a brief one which I commend to you: Searching for the Real Jesus by Geza Vermes.

Before I turn to an examination of some of Vermes’ conclusions, I can’t resist relating a humorous incident that took place during the infamous “Senior Exams” which used to be a requirement for graduation at Harvard Divinity School.  These consisted of a week of intensive exams covering every aspect of the Divinity School curriculum: Old and New Testament studies, World Religions, theology, ethics, and so on.  My colleague Stephen Kendrick, now minister of the First Church in Boston, decided to play a joke on all of us nervous test-takers on the first day by producing a bogus senior exam, which he passed out before the real one had arrived.  I’ll never forget one of the questions on Stephen’s fake exam: “Should the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’ be, once and for all, abandoned; or should funds be raised and another expedition sent out?  If so, where would you send the expedition and what should they take as supplies?  If not, what else should New Testament Scholars do with their time?”

Needless to say, not everyone at the exams that day saw the humor in this, but I have always believed that one of the marks of a healthy and mature faith is its ability, at least occasionally, to laugh at itself.

But back to “the real Jesus.”  Vermes’ most important contribution to the ongoing study of the historical Jesus has been his uncompromising loyalty to the Jewishness of Jesus, as reflected in his landmark work, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels.  A Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College in the University of Oxford, Vermes believes that the only way to a true understanding of the historical Jesus is to understand him as a Jew within the Jewish culture and religion of his time.

In Vermes’ view, Jesus was an innovator within Judaism and not the founder of a new religion.  Indeed, in his brief life Jesus didn’t even have time to start a new religion.  Christianity came later, and is much more accurately described as having been founded by St. Paul.  Like James Carroll in the morning’s reading, Vermes is well aware of the roots of anti-Semitism in the Christian view that Jesus was somehow opposed to Judaism and that Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.  Vermes has spent his academic career countering this view and in making the case that Jesus can only be understood in the context of his Jewishness.  Amazingly, his view is still met with consternation by many believing Christians.

Writing in an essay entitled “The Changing Faces of Jesus,” Vermes writes that, 

Today the Jewishness of Jesus is axiomatic whereas in 1973 the title of my book, Jesus the Jew, still shocked conservative Christians.  To accept that Jesus was a Jew means not only that he was born into the Jewish people, but that his religion, his culture, his psychology, and his mode of thinking and teaching were all Jewish.  Over the last 50 years, Christian and Jewish scholars have worked together and a significant dialogue has developed between enlightened Christians and Jews.

And what are the fruits of that dialogue and of Vermes’ scholarship?  Not so very many, though perhaps a more accurate understanding of the Jesus of history is continuing to evolve thanks to Vermes placing him squarely within his cultural and religious milieu.  A quick summary of Vermes’ conclusions goes as follows (for the full detail, read the book):

What is known about Jesus?  Very little. . . .  One fact is clearly established: he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea between 26 and 36 CE.”  He was “a Galilean.”  Little is known about his childhood. 

“Do we know anything regarding his family and his social circumstances?  He was poor and [apparently] unmarried.  He lived for 30 years in the townlet of Nazareth with his parents, Joseph and Mary, his four brothers and at least two sisters.”  (This latter fact, confirmed in the Gospels, always comes as a surprise to those Christians who have never actually read the New Testament.)  It seems pretty obvious that Mary wasn’t a virgin.  Jesus had a “tense relationship” with his family, including his mother Mary, whose later role in the Church has nothing to do with the texts of the New Testament.  The family apparently even discouraged Jesus from accomplishing his mission.

“What was Jesus’ education like?  He was a builder or a carpenter, but his vocabulary and the images he employs make one think rather of a countryman.”  Jesus, writes Vermes, “was a simple and modest man.  He was a prophet in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha of the Bible.”  Like them, Jesus “was endowed with outstanding charismatic power.”  He was a healer, an exorcist, and a wonder worker, none of which made him extraordinary in the Jewish culture of his day.

“When did Jesus start to preach?  The beginning of his public career coincided with the ministry of John the Baptist, which is dated by Luke to the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, in 29 CE.”  In other words, his public ministry was extremely short.

“Who formed the audience of Jesus?”  Along with his chosen 12 apostles and 70 disciples, “. . .He delivered his message in the streets, in various places, on the shore of a lake.”  He apparently encountered “much success.”

“What was Jesus’ message?  Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the near future, as it were tomorrow.  Hence he demanded a total devotion to the cause of God, a renunciation by the faithful of all material possessions and even the abandonment of their families.”  His message, “. . . which was directed towards Jews alone, was centered on the Law of Moses, which he aimed to renew internally by insisting on its spiritual significance.”

“Do we know why Jesus died?  Jesus was arrested on the eve of Passover by the Jewish authorities, and was subsequently delivered to the Romans and was crucified.”  Vermes continues, 

The only event that can explain his arrest by the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem is the upheaval he caused when he attacked the merchants of the Temple.  This happened in the midst of the preparations for Passover with a surcharged atmosphere of the city which was under Roman occupation.  Although he was not a political rebel, he incited trouble during a revolutionary period.  The provocative attitude he displayed before the priestly authorities . . . did not help the situation.

As Vermes puts it succinctly in several places, “. . . Jesus died on the Roman cross because he did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  His death was ultimately at the hands of the Roman authorities and not of the Jews. 

“How can the resurrection be explained?”  As Vermes writes in another essay, “Crucified, dead, and buried, Jesus rose in the hearts of his disciples who loved him, and so he lived on.”

And finally, “Did Jesus think that he was of divine nature?”  Vermes believes that the deification of Jesus “was progressive,” beginning with his being called a “Son of God,” a phrase “synonymous with ‘Son of Israel’ or ‘a Jew very close to God.’”  It was the later Christian Church which proclaimed Jesus to be synonymous with God.  As the Rev. Dr. Roger Booth writes, “The change from Jewish stress in God-serving behavior to Gentile pre-occupation with qualifying beliefs about the person (status) of Jesus arose after his death.”

So how might the “real” Jesus be summed up?  Vermes writes, 

He was not meek and mild.  He could be impatient and angry. He displayed the strength, iron character and fearlessness of his prophetic predecessors.  He loved children, welcomed women, and felt pity for the sick and miserable.  He sought the company of the pariahs of Jewish society.

As Richard Gilbert wrote so movingly in the morning’s reading” 

Obscured by centuries of violence,
Clouded by countless creeds,
Dissected by a thousand scholars,
Preached from a million pulpits,
Mouthed by a billion lips,
Crucified by willful distortion
And innocent ignorance.
I hope he’ll be remembered
In simple, unadorned humanity.

And that is all pretty much all we know about Jesus, for now at least.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: from an interview with James Carroll in the winter 2000-2001 Bostonia magazine about his book, The Cross and the Sword; a poem by Richard Gilbert from his sermon, “What Have They Done to Me? An Interpretation of Jesus 1995.”

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