Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, May 27, 2018.
Our worship theme this month is transcendence. Early on, Josh Goulet preached about the transcendent as that which is beyond our ability to adequately name or describe, but still, available to people across the theological spectrum. Last Sunday Jason Shelton shared with us the transcendent power that comes through music and singing. Today I’m thinking about our Transcendentalist forebears, those women and men who, in the early 19th century, broke from what they saw as the stodgy religion of their day, encouraging people to trust their own experiences and find the Holy not just in church, but in their lives, and out in the world.
That name Transcendentalist comes from their idea that people have knowledge and understanding, about ourselves and the world, that goes beyond, that transcends what we can learn through our senses. They said this understanding comes through our intuition and imagination, and is available to everyone who seeks it.
We may take these ideas for granted now, that everyone can access the Holy themselves. But plenty of people are still locked in old ways of seeing religion, who think you need special training or knowledge or words or ritual to access what is our birthright. When all you really need is to open yourself up to the world, and to the stirrings and longings of your own heart.
Especially at this time of year! On Friday, my sermon writing day, I took my laptop out into the backyard; it was a beautiful warm day, and my writing kept getting interrupted by the birds singing and flitting by, by the wind stirring the blooms of the dogwood and the lilac, by the simple beauty of the green, green grass.
Mary Oliver writes about putting yourself in the way of grace, and the way she does this, like the Transcendentalists, is by getting outside and paying attention. She writes:
“I believe in the soul—in mine, and yours, and the blue jay’s, and the pilot whale’s. I believe each goldfinch flying away over the coarse ragweed has a soul, and the ragweed too, plant by plant, and the tiny stones in the earth below, and the grains of earth as well. Not romantically do I believe this, nor poetically, nor emotionally, nor metaphorically except as all reality is metaphor, but steadily, lumpishly, and absolutely.
“The wild waste spaces of the sea, and the pale dunes with one hawk hanging in the wind, they are for me the formal spaces that, in a liturgy, are taken up by prayer, song, sermon, silence, homily, scripture, the architecture of the church itself.
“And as with prayer, which is a dipping of oneself toward the light, there is a consequence of attentiveness to the grass itself, and the sky itself, and to the floating bird. I too leave the fret and enclosure of my own life. I too dip myself toward the immeasurable.”
It’s said that the Buddha once gave a sermon in which he simply held up a flower, and smiled. He didn’t say a thing. Of this, the Transcendentalists would approve.
I’m grateful you come here to church, and I hope and trust that you are also opening yourself, especially in these days, to the big church outside these walls, to the good news that is above us in the evening sky, the good news that can be found in the dirt from the garden that gets under your fingernails, the good news that you can hear and feel when you lie down in the green grass, or listen to the birds sing, or put yourself in the place of grace and wonder.
Henry David Thoreau, one of the most famous of the Transcendentalists, built himself a simple cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, two miles from the center of Concord, MA. Thoreau wasn’t roughing it that much—his mother lived only a twenty minute walk away, and she did his laundry and provided some of his food! But his reflections on that two year experiment in simplicity, his effort to “suck the marrow out of life,” have resonated with people ever since.
But it’s good to remember that Thoreau didn’t stay there at Walden for too long. He wrote,
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.”
Thoreau was no escapist or naval gazer. In the lives he lived after Walden, he became an ardent abolitionist, speaking and working against slavery. He published the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” which later inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in their work for human rights. He had other things to do, and more lives to live, and he got on with it.
And what about us? It’s all too easy to follow along in the path that others have traveled before us, or laid out for us, or the paths that we ourselves have worn, day after day. Every now and then, it’s good to look up, and look around, and ask yourself, “Am I living the life that is my own? Are there changes I want to make? Are there other lives I am being called to explore?”
It seems to me that this is both an inward and an outward process. It’s important to know how to drop down into your own self, and hear the quiet voice of your own soul, to listen for what life is wanting to emerge from within. At the same time, it helps to ground this search in what is happening in your own time and place: what are the needs of these days we’re living in, and what do I have to offer? The preacher and theologian Frederick Buechner says your vocation, your calling, is “the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”
Your calling may be to companion a loved one as she deals with memory loss, or to be a friend to someone who is grieving right now. One of your lives may be to spread kindness as you travel through your days. Or to make art. Or to feed people.
These days I’m feeling compelled to do more to be in solidarity with immigrants whose families are being broken up by our government. So I’ll be taking part in the Jericho Walk around the ICE offices in Burlington on June 6. And after our recent choir festival, I’m wondering how singing could be part of our interfaith and social justice work. Can you imagine our church full of people from different faith traditions singing and organizing together?
This week I hope you will ask this question of yourself: “Do I have more lives to live?,” and then you’ll sit with that question, and see where it leads. Talk to others about this, and let me know what happens, if you want. Our ideas and visions can and should inspire one another!
And what about this congregation? What new ways might we live out our calling to be a welcoming, caring faith community? How might we be more of a force for liberation and transformation? What do you want to do about that?
Almost two hundred years ago, our forebears here in Haverhill started a Universalist church to sharing their life-affirming theology that no one is beyond God’s love. On the Unitarian side, we claim the Transcendentalists, who imagined a larger and wider faith, not bounded by church or creed, but open to the life that is unfolding in our midst.
This is our time. The question is, what are we going to with it? In a letter to one of his friends, Thoreau offered some advice. He wrote, “Be not simply good— be good for something.” Don’t these days ask the same of us? Yes, let us be open to the wonder and the blessing of this life. And yes, in our lives, let us be good for something, while we’re here!