Sunday, May 24, 2009


a farewell sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Memorial Day Weekend, Sunday May 24, 2009

OPENING WORDS: “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.


[Extemporaneous Introduction] -- I’ve been thinking for months (and in some ways maybe even decades) about what I wanted to say this morning in my last sermon from this high pulpit, but it wasn’t really until this past week that I figured out where to begin. [details of Walter’s arrest].

My own reaction to all this was actually a lot easier than you might think. All I did was ask myself what I would do if it had been my brother Erik arrested in the alley behind my church after a 12 hour drinking binge, and then went forward from there.

But in many ways this situation with Walter is emblematic of my ministry here. This is the first time, in thirty years, that I have ever had occasion to visit one of my own people in jail, even though it is one of the duties specifically mentioned in the New Testament. My ministry to Walter is something that I’m not going to be able to finish before I leave here; maybe even something that I never should have taken on in the first place. Who’s to say?

But maybe this is also in some small way a part of what my own illness and my own disability are trying to teach: that it doesn’t really matter how capable you are, or how intelligent or talented, or even how organized and hard-working...there will ALWAYS be more than you can do alone, more than you can finish by yourself; and there are times, LOTS of times, when we just need to let go and turn it over to somebody else. Preachers and teachers come and go, but somehow the sermons keep on being preached, and the teaching endures; somebody new takes on the duties and the responsibility, picks up the work and carries it forward, often in directions we ourselves might never have dreamed of....

Back in 1984 the widely-respected church consultant Lyle Schaller published a book called Looking in the Mirror: Self-Appraisal in the Local Church, which was widely-read within our denomination (as these things often are) during its brief season of popularity among us. Schaller was one of the first consultants (at least of my era) to talk about church culture as a function of congregational size. What we today would call the Family, Pastoral, Program and Corporate-sized churches, Schaller vividly labeled as “Cats, Collies, Gardens and Ranches,” emphasizing not only the very different styles of leadership appropriate to each of these vastly different congregational cultures, but also that the smaller two types of congregation (the Family-Cat and the Pastoral-Collie) really do function mostly as organisms, while the larger two (the Program-Garden and the Corporate-Ranch) are true organizations, and demand a very different kind of ministry.

Schaller’s main point though was that a church is NOT a business, and that religious institutions of all sizes can lead themselves deeply astray if they look too eagerly in that direction. In fact, Schaller was also one of the first (along with Peter Drucker) to notice the exact opposite trend in our society: that businesses are looking more and more to faith-based institutions to try to figure out how they can generate the kind of loyalty, devotion and faithfulness (both among their customers and their employees) that churches seem to take for granted.

And in a handful of pages buried just beyond the place where you were most likely to have stopped reading out of boredom, but not so far that you would notice if you skipped ahead to the end, Schaller presented an even more provocative idea which has stuck in my mind now for 25 years. Rather than looking to business for models, Schaller suggested that the military would be a better option, and then went on to list (mostly for skeptical clergy) 44 different parallels (Schaller is very fond of the number 44) 44 different parallels between ordained ministers and commissioned military officers which he believed were worthy of attention.

Among these were the fact that these are both seen as distinctive “offices” set aside from secular/civilian society, and marked by attendance at special schools and the tradition of a special commissioning or ordination ceremony (which includes the taking of an oath or vow); along with the use of special titles and rank, and special clothing reflecting that rank.

“In both vocations” Schaller noted, “the handicap of a comparatively low salary was offset by perquisites of office, womb-like care from entrance to death, the mutual support of the brotherhood, the feeling that one was responding to a calling rather than simply ‘making a living,’ a sense of service to the public and a pension following retirement.”

Likewise, both are professions where “the practitioner, at an early age, had many firsthand encounters with death” and where the mission comes first and the needs of the cause or the institution far outrank the preferences of the individual. And likewise both are deeply vulnerable to what Schaller called “the blight of ‘careerism,’ of placing the future career and well being of the individual ahead of the cause.”

Schaller’s observations had a great deal of impact on me 25 years ago, both because they were at once deeply insightful and well outside the box, but also because they connected so directly with the ancient archetypes of the hunter and the shaman, the warrior and the priest. It’s much more complicated than mere life and death, or the contrast between killing and healing, between violence and peace. There is also here a fundamental principle of leadership, around the necessity for leaders in effect to put their own lives on the line in order to bring the group together. The leader’s personal ambitions and desires, and at times in many ways even their personal safety, are all “sacrificed” for the success of the group. The soldier must learn to lead “from the front;” the preacher must teach “by both precept and example.” To do otherwise is to lead the mission to failure, to mislead the community into hypocrisy and shame.

The core mission of churches doesn’t really change that much from place to place or from generation to generation, or even from denomination to denomination. It begins, of course, with Worship: a time of inspiration and devotion, solemn contemplation and community solidarity, during which the members of the congregation recommit themselves to the values, traditions, and prophetic vision of the church. This word “prophecy” can seem a little intimidating, but all it really means is “to speak for another” -- that is, to speak for God in behalf of the voiceless: the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the prisoners, and others on the margins of society who need someone to speak up for them.

Then there is the mission of Education, a process by which spiritual wisdom and values are both learned and taught, and passed down from generation to generation. The mission of Fellowship (in Greek, koinonia) seems simple enough, but creating an authentic and shared common life by which People of Faith become a true “Faith Community” can be more complicated than it seems. Yet it begins with simplicity itself, and our natural human desire to be together. There’s an old Viking poem which the Unitarian Church in Denmark sometimes uses as a chalice lighting, and it goes like this:

Overvæld ingen med flotte gaver.
Små ting får ofte megen ros.
Med et brød til deling
og en kop sendt rundt
fandt jeg venskab.

[Overload no one with lavish gifts.
A small thing often finds much favor.
With a little sliced bread
and a cup shared ‘round
I found friendship.]
—From the Hávamál (Sayings of the Vikings)
[Submitted by the Danish Unitarian Church]

Hospitality likewise follows on in this same spirit: “open the windows and the doors, and receive whomsoever is sent” Yet hospitality alone is pretty lame without some form of effective Outreach, or what more traditional churches might call “Evangelism” -- effective methods for proclaiming OUR Good News to all who are hungry to hear it. Effective Pastoral Care returns us once again to the essential healing mission of the archetypal shaman.; in fact, the entire mission of the church might easily be summed up as taking people who are hurt and helping them become whole, then taking people who are whole and helping them become wise. And often it is as basic as simply showing up: what seminary professors call “the Ministry of Presence” -- showing up when others can’t or won’t as a reminder that God and a whole community of people who care are still out there even though you can’t see them, and eager to help you any way they can.

And then at last there is the mission of Social Justice, and working to build a better world -- in essence, creating a taste of the Kingdom of God on Earth, where basic fairness is found (or perhaps created) at the balance point between accountability and compassion. “He has shown you, O Mortal One, what is good; and what does THE LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercifully, and to walk humbly with your God?”

That’s the mission, more or less, and it’s pretty much the same wherever you go. But how we put this Mission into Practice here in THIS Time and THIS Place, with the people (and the resources) of this community, for the larger community out there, is entirely up for grabs. It’s a matter of context and execution: what are we prepared to do, and how effectively are we able to make it happen?

During my brief tenure here, and even beforehand, we at First Parish have essentially organized our understanding of Mission around three overlapping themes.

The first of these is that we are Portland’s Original Faith Community, gathered in 1674. [There are several different dates for this floating around, depending on what you mean by “gathered” “organized” or “established” -- loved to have been the one to research all that, had “nature and nature’s God” been willing to grant me the time to do so]. I’ve always been attracted to this motto because it works two ways: yes, we were here first (and that is never going to change), but I also like to think that we are committed to being the most innovative, and thus the most “original” faith community as well, especially when it comes to finding new ways of expressing and promoting the fundamental wisdom and values of our liberal faith tradition, and passing them on to yet another generation of devoted Unitarians and Universalists.

The term “Heart(h)fire” is a concept that the leadership team of this congregation came up with at their annual retreat the year before I arrived here. Here’s the definition that was written at the time: “A source of positive energy, the heart(h)fire is fed, and as it grows, we get back warmth and light that spills beyond our borders and draws in those passing by.” It too is a wonderful image, and as I said two years ago when I first arrived here, the quality that makes it all possible is represented by that central letter “H” within the parentheses. That “H” stands for “Hospitality” -- for the willingness to open up our circle and invite those who have been attracted by the beacon of our fire to join us around the glowing hearth, and be warmed there alongside us, as we learn to share our lives with one another, heart to heart. But it can also represent Hope, Health, Honor and Honesty, and above all else, the simple willingness to be Helpful to neighbors and strangers alike.

And then finally there is the slogan I rode in on, “A Warm & Welcoming Place in the Heart of the City.” I like this turn of phrase for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because it embodies yet another challenge I heard articulated within the first few weeks of my arriving here, the challenge of “becoming the kind of church people expect us to be.” Which brings us back again to the question of size, and the challenge of evolving from an aging yet still friendly, furry, and very frisky dog into a tranquil, productive, and sustainable garden. It’s perhaps the most difficult challenge a minister and a congregation can face, especially when the temptation is always there just to get another puppy.

But growing a congregation from a hundred or so regular worshipers to one where attendance is routinely in the 350-500 person range, along with all of the accompanying changes in staffing and governance, program offerings, even congregational culture itself, begins with a willingness simply to see things through different eyes, and the desire to continue to innovate, to continue to improve, while remaining grounded in the solid foundation that has sustained this congregation for centuries now.

It’s not so much about new ideas for new times, or a desire to change simply for the sake of change. Rather, it’s about the willingness to commit to the RIGHT ideas, and to practice and refine them until they become second nature. How do we best worship together? How do we enjoy one another’s company, and educate our children and newcomers to our faith? How do we reach out to strangers and invite them to be our neighbors; how do we take care of one another, while still working together to make the world a better place?

The answer, of course, is Leadership. Leadership, Leadership, and still more Leadership. The military seems to understand this in a way that the Church (or at least a liberal church like ours) perhaps never will. Of course, there is a world of difference between leading a platoon of 45 soldiers, and a company of 200. (not to mention a battalion of 600 or brigade of 3000), just as there are differences between ministering to family, pastoral, program and corporate-sized churches. But in the army, every third or fourth soldier is some kind of leader -- a squad leader or team leader, a sergeant or some other kind of non-commissioned officer who is responsible for training and leading their small unit of soldiers in the fulfillment of their mission.

Army training now, especially at this hands-on level, is oriented around the model of “Be*Know*Do.” And it really is just as simple as it sounds. Obviously, a leader needs to know what they are doing -- expertise is an important part of any job. And the ultimate measure of success is performance: can the team actually get the job done? But it begins with the character of the leaders themselves: who they are as human beings, and those inner qualities of courage, duty, loyalty and respect, honor, integrity and selfless service that we’ve been considering all morning.

If character is important in a military leader, it is even more essential in a religious leader, at every level from Committee Chair or Covenant Group facilitator to the Grand Dali Poobah of the UUA itself. And it begins not just with courage, but also profound humility, and deep gratitude for the great gift that is life itself. We learn to express this gratitude through generosity and service...not just as a spiritual discipline, but as a sign of our religious discipleship, our devotion and fidelity to the principles and values of our liberal faith tradition, and the important work it calls us to.

And so we too follow the Great Commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart (and all that other stuff), and love thy neighbor as thyself;” to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and perhaps to “Judge not, lest ye be judged” just for good measure.

And then finally there is my message from two weeks ago: not so much a commandment as simply a reminder, that “Wir Alles sind Gotts Kinder” -- We are ALL God’s Children -- and thus brothers and sisters to one another, even when (as with our more traditional family siblings) we didn’t really ASK for them to be born, and we didn’t really get to choose them either, but we’re still stuck with them through ties of blood and DNA...just as we are, I suppose, with the whole human family of which we are a part.

[Extemporaneous Conclusion] First introduction to public speaking, sophomore in High School: “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” For two years it has been my honor and my privilege to serve as the minister of this parish, and the minister to the members of this congregation...who in so many ways have ministered to me far better than I was able to minister to all of you....

“May Thy whole truth be spoken here
Thy Gospel light forever shine
Thy perfect love cast out all fear
and human life become divine.”
[Our final hymn is number 35, “Unto Thy Temple, Lord, We Come”]

Sunday, May 10, 2009


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine
Mothers Day Sunday May 10th, 2009

[extemp intro: Theodore Parker d. May 10, 1860 in Florence, Italy. “The Great American Preacher” and author of my customary benediction; Scholar and Theologian, Abolitionist and Social Activist - all subsequent Unitarian ministers have felt that they "must at least attempt what Theodore Parker achieved."]

I also thought that you all ought to know now that for the rest of my life now (however much longer that may turn out to be), I will always associate Mother’s Day with this congregation, and with the two years that I’ve been privileged to serve here as your minister. It was two years ago on this Mother’s Day Sunday that I first appeared in this pulpit as a candidate to become the called and settled minister of this Parish. The title of my sermon that morning was “A Warm & Welcoming Place in the Heart of the City,” a phrase I THOUGHT I’d cribbed from Jeff Logan’s letter of welcome in your congregational search packet, but now I can’t find it there, so maybe I actually did make it up all by myself after all. But I certainly wasn’t alone in taking that slogan (and the vision it articulated) and making it a living reality here at the head of Temple Street. That was something you took to heart and that we all did together, by embracing this ministry of radical hospitality to neighbor and stranger alike.

And what none of us knew at the time was that my own mother was in the hospital that Sunday out in Seattle, with a metastatic reoccurrence of her own earlier breast cancer (that would eventually take her life in a matter of only a few months), but that she had deliberately kept that information secret from me until after I had spoken here, because she didn’t want me to be distracted on what she know was a very important day -- not just in my life, but for all of us. Talk about selfless Motherly sacrifice!

And then last year, I was the one who was in and out of the hospital, fighting my own battle against cancer.

The previous week I had at last been formally installed as the Parish Minister here, in a very inspiring ceremony that included receiving the key to the city from then-mayor of Portland Ed Suslovic, and extensive greetings from State Representative Herb Adams; music from the Traveling Ensemble of the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, and from our own First Parish Choir, including an original hymn by our Minister of Music Charlie Grindle. There were bagpipes and a bassoon; as well as messages from other local clergy: the Reverend Jennifer Emrich of Yarmouth, the Rev Lee Devoe in Augusta, and First Parish’s own “native daughter,” the Rev Barbara McKusick Liscord, who now serves our congregation in Milford New Hampshire.

And of course it was all topped off by a very inspiring sermon by my good friend the Rev. Ted Anderson of Nantucket, and the actual Act of Installation itself, in which we pledged “to walk together in all the ways of faith known or to be made know to us,” as we worked together at this sacred task of ministry.

And I was a little surprised to hear rumors, (sometime afterwards, thankfully), that there were actually a few folks who wondered why we were even bothering to hold an Installation at all, given the tenuous state of my health; or (worse) that it was all just something that was done to indulge and humor me, and to lift my spirits as I struggled with my disease.

And I hope those attitudes weren’t TOO widespread, because to my mind the Installation was NEVER really about me at all -- it was about all of us, and a reminder that the work we do together IS sacred -- and that no matter what challenges or adversity may confront us, no matter how difficult the work may seem, we are not going to give up and we are not going to give in, we’re not going to quit, or surrender, or throw in the towel, but instead we are going to come together as a community of faith and fight back -- survive, persist, endure, and (with God’s help) ultimately triumph. Don’t just “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Rather, make the best PLAN you can to make “the BEST” happen, then do what you must to minimize the potential downside if the plan doesn’t quite work out the way you’d planned it would
These are the kinds of values that my own mom tried to teach me when she was still alive, and which I’ve also tried to take to heart and teach to my own children and the children I am called to minister to here, and basically to everyone I come in contact with, regardless of their age. And they are values I have certainly seen demonstrated again and again in the past two years, as we have walked together through adversity after adversity that none of us could have envisioned two years ago.

Yet as powerful and important as my memories of these past two years are, my FAVORITE memory of Mother’s Day is from another time, from the semester that I spent abroad as a visiting Doctoral Fellow at Aalborg University in Denmark, almost a decade ago now.

Mother’s Day Y2K.

My mom had come over to visit and travel with me for a few weeks, so to celebrate Mother’s Day I took her for dinner at a silly little restaurant called “the Frigate” located on the decks of a model replica of an 18th century sailing vessel which floats on a small lake in the tiny but venerable Tivoli amusement park in central Copenhagen, situated on a 15 acre site right between the historic City Hall and the main train station.

And like a lot of things Danish, the Frigate was kind of surprising -- because the food there is FANTASTIC. We both had a lamb shank slow-cooked in an herb broth with various kinds of shellfish and other seafood, just the kind of “locovore” slow-food meal that really makes one want to linger at table in the refreshing, warm night air, sipping wine and watching the fireworks in a quaint, cozy, postage-stamp-sized and TRULY magical kingdom right in the heart of one of Europe’s most sophisticated capital cities.

That meal wasn’t exactly inexpensive either, although fortunately the bill came in kroner, which helped me to persuade my mom that all those zeros didn’t REALLY add up to as much money as she thought they did. But how else might you express your gratitude to someone who carried you around inside her body for nine months, and who fed you from the same? -- who washed you and clothed you and taught you how to walk and how to speak, how to brush your own teeth and tie your own shoes, not to mention (at some point along the way, one hopes) the difference between right and wrong?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course; there are LOTS of different things we can do to show our mothers, and our grandmothers, and our stepmothers and those who have been LIKE mothers to us just how much we love them and appreciate all that they have given to us. A fantastic meal is just the LEAST that I could have done; I only wish now that I still had the opportunity to do it again and again, not just on Mother’s Day, but every chance that I can find.

Not long after that my Mom returned home from Denmark, and I packed up my own things in preparation for an extra month of travel at the end of the semester through France, Italy, and Germany. Basically, the same summer trip that a lot of college students get to make in their 20’s, I finally had a chance to take in my 40’s -- and I’ll tell you this in all honesty, having waited twenty years only made it all the better.

And as you might imagine, I visited a lot of churches while I was there. Notre Dame and Sacre Couer in Paris; the Cathedral at Chartes; Mont. St. Michel (what an amazing place THAT is!); Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, along with countless other smaller and less famous places too numerous to recall.

Mostly I was going to see the art and the architecture, but I also rarely failed to at least light a candle, or to offer up a little prayer about whatever happened to be in my heart at the moment. And I also climbed an awful lot of steeples, each time swearing that this one was the last one, and that I would never be doing THAT again
But it was in Germany, during my visit to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Cologne Cathedral, that something very small and unexpected happened which gave me an entirely new perspective and insight into what I was really doing there and why. Because of some poor planning on my part, I only had about an hour between trains to visit the cathedral, which is located only a few hundred yards from the train station -- but still, I had all my luggage with me and was feeling the pressure about missing my connection -- and then when I arrived at the church I was disappointed to discover that (except for the Narthex), everything was closed to tourists because there was a worship service going on!

Now under ordinary circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem for me; I would have just gone on in and joined in the worship, and then done my sightseeing afterwards. But as it was, I had all this baggage with me, and I had this train to catch, so that option didn’t really seem appropriate. And at that moment, as I was standing outside the sanctuary under the statue of Saint Christopher trying to decide what to do, I overheard a sentence from the homily, as clearly as if someone standing next to me had spoken directly into my ear -- “Wir Alles sind Gotts Kinder” -- We ALL are God’s Children” -- a five-word sermon I have preached myself many times in the past thirty years, and which pretty much sums up the essence of everything I’ve had to say in three decades of ministry.

Wir Alles sind Gotts Kinder....

Ordinarily, I like to explore some of the other aspects of this message when I preach it, such as the part that we are also all brothers and sisters to one another -- it’s a lot more tangible and down to earth, plus it avoids the problem that not all of us enjoyed especially good relationships with our own parents, which tends to get in the way of exploring a similar kind of relationship with a Deity we may or may not actually believe in....

But today I just want you all to know that the Eternal Spirit of Life, which Scripture tells us created the Universe and everything in it, loves each and every one of us just as deeply, just as fiercely, just as PROFOUNDLY, as a mother loves her child. And once you have FELT that love yourself, if only just once, if only for a moment, you will know the truth of it in your heart in a way that transcends all need for any kind of rational “proof” or “evidence.”

Because Faith is not an irrational belief in things we know aren’t true. Rather, it is the CONFIDENCE to TRUST the non-rational experience of God’s profound love for us, and to respond to that love by loving our own neighbors (and strangers) as if they were our brothers and sisters. Which, in fact, they are, at least in some sort of abstract, metaphorical, metaphysical way.

Now as I mentioned earlier, I know that not everyone has enjoyed a perfect relationship with their own fact, I wonder whether any of us really have. And not all of us will be fortunate enough to experience the power of God’s extraordinary love for us firsthand either. But when we act in faith to love our neighbors, we also make it possible for them to experience God’s love through us! We become “Angels of the Gospel” -- or in plain English, messengers of God’s Good News that God is Love, that we are all loved by God, and that we should express this love by loving one another. So simple, and yet so profound. So why does it seem like we need to remind ourselves so frequently of these very basic truths?

Remember, those Truths that are universally and absolutely true are going to continue to be true regardless of whether or not we choose to believe them. And likewise, none of us is ever going to know “the Absolute Truth” perfectly and completely. It’s just more than any mortal being can handle. And it’s a long and often difficult journey from cradle to grave, with plenty of opportunities for our own ignorance to trip us up; we need the help of others to guide us on that journey, and at times will also be pressed into service as guides to others, who need to benefit from the hard-earned lessons we have already learned on our own.

The goal and purpose of life-long learning is a search for Wisdom; not just for more knowledge or information, or even “truth and meaning,” but for the maturity and good judgment and perhaps even the courage to use the things that we have learned wisely, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of those who will follow after us.

And even if by some good fortune one of us should come to know and understand everything there is to know and understand, in a matter of years...perhaps a few decades at most...they will have passed away, and the process will continue all over again.

With each new birth and with each rising generation we face the same challenge that has been faced by all humanity since time immemorial. And thanks to churches like this one, we successfully meet it, generation after generation after generation.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"...the things that are God's."


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Palm Sunday, April 5th, 2009

When I was a child, growing up in a Unitarian family, and attending a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School, I don’t recall the Bible being a very big part of my day to day experience. I know I knew something about Noah and the Ark, because I can remember building a big Ark out of my wooden blocks, and then lining up all the plastic animals I could find, two by two if possible, but there were also some unusual combinations (just to make certain everyone got paired up): jungle animals, farm animals, dinosaurs and domestic house pets alike, all together in one big jumble. And I also must have known a little about the Christmas nativity story for much the same reason: my mother liked to collect Crèches, and there was one in particular that I liked to play with in season (although my mom wouldn’t let me put those animals on my Ark).

And I also recall that whenever we went to see the pediatrician, there was one of those big, illustrated Children’s Bibles in the waiting room; and I always enjoyed glancing at that to distract myself from whatever scheduled injections awaited me inside. I remember in particular there was an illustration of 2 Samuel 18:9, David’s rebellious son Absalom caught fast by his hair under the thick branches of a great oak, “hanging between heaven and earth.” I don’t know why that picture made such a strong impression on me, but it did, even though I didn’t actually read the story itself until I was a Divinity Student at Harvard.

I didn’t actually get a Bible of my own though until I was a sophomore in High School, on a Debate Trip to a tournament in Bellingham Washington, where we were staying at the Leopold Hotel. And I decided to keep the red Gideon Bible that I found there in the drawer of my bedside table, and take it home with me. The King James version, of course. My ambitious plan was to read the whole thing cover to cover, so that I could have some ammunition when debating with the Born-Again Christians who accosted me every day in the High School lunchroom. Or maybe I was the one accosting them....

At least I had the good sense to begin with the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew blew me away: three whole chapters, and every word highlighted in green. And John’s Gospel was in some ways even more amazing, with all its mystical teachings about the Holy Spirit, even though the events John describes rarely match up with those recorded in the other three. Luke (and its companion book, the Acts of the Apostles) eventually became my favorite for a variety of reasons, but it was actually Mark’s gospel which initially made the strongest impression.

For starters, it’s the shortest of the four canonical Gospels, and scholars also believe it was the earliest, written only about 40 years after the events which it describes. Matthew and Luke both appear to have used Mark as a primary source for their own gospels (that’s right, they copied him), along with a collection of the Sayings of Jesus now lost to history, and known to scholars by the initial “Q.” And Jesus doesn’t really say a lot in Mark’s gospel either; instead the story begins with Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordon, his temptation in the Wilderness, the calling of his initial disciples, and the proclamation of his original message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, Repent and Believe the Good News.” And then it is pretty much one miracle after another (with an occasional parable thrown in) until Jesus and his followers finally reach Jerusalem for the beginning of Passover and what Christians will eventually come to know as “Holy Week.”

The miracles themselves (as I was later taught in seminary) basically come in four flavors: healings, exorcisms, feedings, and control of the weather. And like all good Unitarians I quickly learned to give them rational, plausible, “naturalistic” explanations. The healings were easy: it says right there in the text, they were all caused by faith. If you had enough you were healed, and if you didn’t you weren’t. I don’t really care much for the theology, frankly; but at least it moved healings from the category of supernaturally miraculous to something along the lines of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

The exorcisms were even easier: if you didn’t believe that demons were real in the first place, why should you have any problem with Jesus casting them out? Clearly there was something psychological going on there, but after so many centuries it’s hard to say exactly what.

The feedings were and remain my favorite, simply because they can be explained on so many levels, both literally and metaphorically. In each instance, a large crowd of people has assembled to listen to Jesus teach. And when the time comes around for them to eat, the disciples want to send them away to obtain food elsewhere. But instead, Jesus asks how much food the disciples have with them (in both cases, just a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish), and in language evocative of the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread and blesses it, and then after giving thanks, breaks the bread and distributes it to the Disciples, who in turn distribute it to the crowd. And then when they send around the baskets to pick up the leftovers, more food comes back than was sent out to begin with.

Well it’s pretty obvious to me what’s going on here. What kind of idiot (other than maybe a disciple) would go out into the desert to listen to a holy man speak without bringing along a little something to sustain themselves on the journey?

What Jesus DOES create is the kind of trusting community atmosphere where it is safe to share with others. And since there was always enough food to go around, nobody has to go hungry. Because “the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” [Mt 13:33].

And as for the weather miracles, well, it was never really clear to me from reading whether Jesus actually calmed the storm, or simply calmed the nervous sailors until the storm blew over on its own. I’ve been with nervous sailors before; I’ve even been one myself. The waves always look a lot more threatening than they are.

But the thing I liked most about Mark was the drama and suspense of Holy Week, which takes up approximately half of the pages in Mark’s gospel. It’s so dramatic that a few scholars have even suggested that Mark’s gospel was originally written to be performed as a play. And contributing to the dramatic suspense is a uniquely Markian theme known as “the Messianic Secret.” Because you see, unlike just about every other Christian before or since, Mark never actually comes out and tells you who he thinks Jesus is. Rather, he has Jesus ask “Who do men SAY that I am?” only to rebuke Peter for offering the suggestion that Jesus is actually the long-awaited Messiah. As readers we are certainly led in that direction, although for most twenty-first century readers the subtle first century distinctions between Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, or even Prophet, Teacher and Rabbi are so nuanced as to be lost on us.

Likewise, there are no Resurrection appearances in Mark. The last we see of Jesus is when Joseph of Arimathea has the body removed from the cross and wrapped in linen, then placed in a rock-hewn tomb with a heavy stone rolled in front of the entrance. Then nothing happens until a few days later, when the women go to anoint the body with oil, and discover that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty.

They speak with an angel (well, a young man in a white robe) who tells them to look for Jesus in Galilee, but the women flee from the tomb “trembling and bewildered,” and “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” [Mk 16:8] Which may simply be Mark’s way of explaining why no one had heard the story of the empty tomb until Mark finally wrote it down 40 years later.

But the most dramatic part of the story (especially for a 16-year-old boy reading this material for the first time) comes in-between. On Palm Sunday Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem for the Passover, with Jesus making a triumphal riding on a colt (or in Matthew’s version, a colt AND a donkey) while his disciples cut palm fronds as a sign of honor (and to keep down the dust on the roadway), and the assembled crowd sings “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the Highest Heaven.” When the people of the city ask the crowd what is going on, the crowd replies “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” [Mt 21:11]

There probably weren’t nearly as many people watching this demonstration as later Christians would like to believe. But there is an almost cynical irony to the act itself, since it seems intended to mimic (or maybe even parody) the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate’s earlier entry into Jerusalem at the head of a column of mercenary cavalry and marching Roman legionaires, who had come to reinforce the local garrison at what was always one of the most turbulent and potentially volatile times of the year. It doesn’t take much to turn a crowd into a mob. So already the dramatic contrast between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar is being spelled out in public view.

The next day, Jesus and his followers go up to the Temple Mount itself, where Jesus does something that to my mind is the most amazing thing in his entire ministry. Using a knotted cord as a whip, he overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and basically brings the business of the temple to a complete halt. “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,’ ” he says. “But you have made it a den of brigands.” [leston] For the next few days he teaches openly in the Court of the Gentiles, protected by the crowd from the grasp of the temple authorities, who would like nothing more than to kill him then and there.

This is the part of the story that appealed to me most when I first read the story 40 years ago, the back and forth debate between Jesus and his antagonists, who try again and again to trick Jesus into saying something that will either turn the crowd against him, or draw the attention of the Romans. But he always seems to have just the right response.

And so the Chief Priests and the Scribes and the Pharisees turn to bribery and treachery instead. They somehow manage to find and convince one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, to betray his teacher by guiding the authorities to a place where he can be easily captured, away from the protective eyes of the crowd.

So as Jesus and his loyal disciples celebrate the Passover meal, their “Last Supper” together, Judas leaves to make arrangements for the temple guards to arrest Jesus later that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, outside the city walls. Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss; the guards swoop in from the shadows to make their arrest, and after a brief scuffle the disciples all disappear disorganized and confused into the night.

Only Peter and an unnamed young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth attempt to follow, but the guards catch hold of the latter, and he flees naked into the night, leaving the linen cloth behind. [Mk 14:51] Peter has a little better luck; he gets all the way to the courtyard of the house where Jesus is being interrogated before he is recognized as one of the disciples. Denying that he even knows Jesus, Peter also betrays his teacher, then weeps for the shame of it as the cock crows the coming dawn, and he realizes what he has done.

Jesus, meanwhile, eventually ends up later that night in the hands of the Romans, who interrogate him further, beat him up a little (just because they can), and eventually take him up to Golgatha -- the Hill of Skulls -- where he is crucified alongside two other brigands/robbers/revolutionary insurgents [lestas] who just so happened to be on the morning execution list. Roman Imperial Power has just put down another threat to its hegemony; the Pax Romana (eventually with Christian assistance) is still destined to bring “peace” and order to the Mediterranean world for another few centuries at least.

But let’s go back to the original question about taxes to Rome, and these competing ideas of the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) which were so important to first century Christianity.

Taxation was everywhere in the ancient world; it was the way that the wealthy and powerful few used their power to increase their wealth at the expense of the vast, impoverished peasantry...who were basically left with barely enough to keep body and soul together, thanks to an oppressive system which combined land foreclosures, debt peonage, and exploitive taxation to keep the masses firmly under the control of their Lords and Masters.

The Romans actually outsourced their taxation to local contractors; the highest bidder won the right to collect the tax, and anything they could get over and above that was theirs to keep (which explains why tax collectors are so especially vilified in the Bible).

Even the temple was in on the racket. First, by insisting that all sacrifices of a certain kind could ONLY take place at the temple in Jerusalem, they forced people who wanted to offer those sacrifices often to travel a great distance and at great hardship just to get there.

And once the people had arrived, they still needed to purchase the animal they wished to sacrifice locally in Jerusalem, using a special temple coinage free from any “graven images” (such as a portrait of the Emperor, just to give one example).

So when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, it’s not just the practice of temple sacrifice he was condemning, but the entire partnership of the temple priesthood with the local Roman-led “domination system” which kept the majority of the population in great poverty.

Likewise, when Jesus asked the Pharisees to show him a denarius, he’d already tricked them into revealing to the crowd whose payroll THEY were on. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. God does business in an entirely different currency altogether.

As I’ve mentioned from this pulpit on several other occasions, the word “sacrifice” means literally “to make sacred,” and the size of the sacrifice -- how much you actually give up (especially in proportion to your wealth) -- is only one of the considerations. In the ancient world ideas about sacrifice originated in ideas about hospitality itself. If you want to make friends with a stranger (even someone as strange as God) there are basically two ways to go about it. First, you can offer them a gift. And second, you can share with them a meal.

In first century Palestine, ideas of sacrifice still embodied both of these notions. Some of the sacrificial animal was destroyed completely, as a so-called “burnt offering.” That was the “gift” portion of the sacrifice.

But more important was the meal you shared with your neighbors: an expression of gratitude for the ways that God has blessed you made manifest in an act of generosity toward others. From gratitude to service: this is how we make our lives sacred, by sacrificing a portion of our own comfort and affluence in order that others might have an easier time of it as well.

“The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom is at hand, Repent and Believe the Good News.” Repent: metanoeite = “transform your mind;” Believe: pisteuete = “trust/be confident.” The Kingdom is right here, all around us, and all we need to do to become citizens of God’s Empire (rather than subjects of Rome) is to follow God’s leadership rather than Caesars’s.

This part of the story is told in Mark 12: 28-34 right after the passage about taxes to Caesar, but before the story of the Widow’s Mite. A scribe has been listening carefully to this entire exchange, and comes near to Jesus to ask him a familiar question: “What is the Greatest Commandment of All?” And Jesus answers as so many others have both before and since:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the scribe responds “to love one’s neighbor as oneself, - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To which Jesus, seeing that the scribe has answered wisely, adds the final word: “you are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, the Scripture tells us, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

“Repent and Believe” Change your attitude, and Trust the folks around you. And the funny thing is, you don’t even have to believe in God in order to feel confident about the trustworthiness of the Good News, and to benefit from this wisdom about how best to live our lives. All you really need to do is BEHAVE like a good person, a “Godly” person, an authentic person of Faith.





NOT Selfish.

.NOT Arrogant.

NOT Small-minded.

NOT a Jerk.

`Is that really so much for any of us to ask or to expect? That we should at least behave as well as we would desire to be treated ourselves, with honesty, integrity, honor and respect? These are the things that belong to God, and to every other person of devoted Good Will who walks upon this planet, regardless of their beliefs.

It’s no great sacrifice to practice them every day.

And at the end of the day, this is really all that God (and our neighbors) expects of any of us anyway....

READING: Luke 20: 19-26 (Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Gospel)

Now the seminary professors and denominational executives tried to lay hands on him right then and there, but were afraid of their constituency. For they knew full well that he had aimed this Comparison at them. So they played it cool by hiring some detectives to pose as Christians and collect evidence from his preaching, so he could be arrested and turned over to the House Subversive Activities Committee. These detectives asked him, “Doctor, we know when you speak and teach you shoot straight, regardless of who’s listening. We know too that without any doubt you are teaching God’s Way. Now, is it right to pay Federal taxes or not?”

Catching on to their trick, he said, “Show me a dollar. Whose picture and insignia are on it?”

They said, “The President’s.”

He replied, “All right, then, give government things to the government, and God’s things to God.”

So they were not successful in trapping him in anything he said in public, and his answer so astonished them that they shut up.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Widow's Might

A homily delivered by the Rev Dr Tim W Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 29th, 2009 (Stewardship Sunday)

It’s a familiar enough story, one I’m certain almost all of us have heard at some point or another in our lives (although far fewer of us, I suspect, have really given it the thought it deserves). It’s the Tuesday before Passover, and Jesus is teaching openly in the Courtyard of the Gentiles outside the Temple in Jerusalem, protected from arrest by the large crowd of people who have thronged around him to listen to him debate with the Scribes and the Pharisees, the Lawyers and the Scholars who represent the interests of the wealthy temple elites. And he’s just said one of the single most-memorable things attributed to him in the Gospels, responding to a question about whether or not it is lawful for a faithful Jew to pay taxes to Rome by asking to see a Roman coin and then asking whose image was on it. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” And then while his adversaries looked on in speechless amazement,

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people put in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything, all she had to live on.” [Mark 12: 41-44; cf Luke 21: 1-4]

I’ve never been quite certain how best to interpret this passage. The fact that Jesus is talking only with his disciples makes me think that this is primarily a private object lesson in the virtues of generosity, sacrifice, and commitment: a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus is about to make himself. But I also can’t help but think that it is also an implicit criticism of the wealthy givers, who may contribute much more in absolute terms, but are still contributing out of their abundance, as well as a condemnation of the entire temple system itself, which demanded such donations even from the most vulnerable members of society. The wealthy still have plenty left over after they have made their contribution. But the widow holds back nothing. Two copper lepta, two “mites” in the King James Version, and she throws them both in, not even holding back one for herself. Her faith, her trust, her confidence that somehow this day she will be given her daily bread (and perhaps even forgiven her debts), is without reservation. Her own love of God and love of neighbor inspire that confidence, and that trust, and guides her away from the kinds of temptation that ultimately lead to evil.

In the letter I wrote to be sent out with the other Stewardship materials, I mentioned that in times of financial uncertainty such as these, none of us can really feel secure in our position, but that the need people have for the church itself is at the same time greater than ever. And those of us who are still fortunate enough to be able to give out of our abundance have a special responsibility to our neighbors, because even though none of us are unaffected by the downturn, we still have the ability to make a difference in meeting this greater need. And in doing so, not only do we make it possible for our less-fortunate neighbors to benefit from our generosity, we also find fulfillment personally. We are empowered to act as agents of compassion and generosity and creativity and gratitude; we become messengers (angeloi = angels) -- of God’s Good News.

But what about those of us on the other side of the coin? Those of us who have lost our jobs, or are living on fixed (or even declining) incomes, and who are personally feeling the effects of the downturn as a week-to-week struggle just to keep body and soul together? How are we supposed to respond? And I’d like to suggest that our response is no different than anyone else’s; and that with trust and compassion and generosity and creativity and gratitude, we too can become empowered and fulfilled, despite our precarious financial situations.

Throughout this Stewardship campaign, and really over the entire course of my brief tenure here, I’ve spoken about the “three T’s” of Time, Talent, and Treasure as the foundation upon which a healthy church community must be built. Time is perhaps the easiest, and the most important of the three. For better or worse, when you become unemployed Time is suddenly something you have a lot more of in your life. And you need to use it wisely; but one very excellent use of Time is to spend it in church on Sunday mornings. Just showing up makes a huge difference in the quality of EVERYONE’S experience here -- it increases the energy, it increases the intensity, it increases the vitality of the entire Act and activity of Worship. And it costs you next to nothing; a couple of hours out of your day, and a little gasoline for your car, unless you live close enough to walk, or can arrange (like I do) to catch a ride with a neighbor. So even when times are tough economically, the gift of YOUR time can have a huge impact, and makes a big difference in the quality of our collective lives.

And the same is true of your Talent. You may not be working full time for a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be productive, or contribute to the prosperity of our community in other ways. And I’m not just talking now about the church community either. The larger Portland community can also no doubt benefit from your talents, while getting out of the house and out among the people begins that all-important process of networking and connection-building that generally leads both to finding another job, and also to making new friends who perhaps share many of your same interests and values, and might even make fine additions to THIS community.

And then finally there is the Treasure. This year in particular it is important that EVERYONE make some sort of pledge to the church, simply so we can use that information in the budgeting process, rather than simply relying on historical guesstimates based on past performance and future expectations, as we have in years past.

But the most important pledge you make is the one you make to yourself. When you sit down and think about your priorities, and what you honestly feel you can afford to do, what does that add up to, and are you willing to PROMISE YOURSELF that you will make that contribution happen?

Suppose, for example, you were to commit to yourself to attending EVERY Sunday Service next year, and that every Sunday morning you will drop a twenty dollar bill in the collection plate. Your annual contribution would add up to over a thousand dollars, which is approximately the same amount as our current average pledge.

But suppose twenty dollars is too much. Suppose you can only commit to ten, or to five. These are still pretty significant
contributions, when you start to add them up over dozens and dozens of contributors.

Even in the best of times, approximately two-thirds of the money contributed to First Parish comes from fewer than one-third of the contributors. And when times become tough that ratio becomes even more pronounced. But whether you are a major donor or simply a small contributor, it requires everyone’s participation in order for us to fulfill our mission as Portland’s Original Faith Community, providing a Warm & Welcoming Place here in the Heart of the City.

Again, as I said in my letter, for over three centuries now, through Wars and Fires and Panics and Recessions and a Great Depression, the People of First Parish have come together to sustain that vision, and to fulfill that mission. Rich or poor, working or looking for work, retired or just setting out on a career, we ALL need to set a good example for one another, and for the larger Portland community, by generously contributing what we can. The responsibility is now in OUR hands. And frankly, I can’t think of anyone I would trust with it more.

Sunday, March 15, 2009



a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 15th, 2009

OPENING WORDS: “Question with boldness even the existence of God, because, if there is one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear....” -- Thomas Jefferson

How many of you saw in the news last week, that Northern New England has now officially surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the “least churched” region of the country? Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest myself (as well as serving the majority of my ministerial career there), I was immediately struck by two closely-related thoughts. The first was a memory of something that was said about me during a celebratory farewell “roast” at the conclusion of my first settled ministry in Midland, Texas, where the new search committee had already started to survey the church membership regarding their prevailing theological views, and had discovered that after four years of my preaching there, I had managed to DOUBLE the number of atheists in the congregation!

My second thought was that even though I have now served here in New England for twice the time I was in West Texas (two years on Nantucket, four years in Carlisle Massachusetts, and now two years here in Portland), I can hardly claim to take credit for this current change of affairs. But I do feel a little like that proverbial gentleman who moved from Texas to New England, and lowered the average IQ in both regions. And the real irony, of course, is that for most of American history: certainly through the colonial period, and continuing on through the early national period and into the Irish and Italian immigrations, New England has been one of the most heavily-churched regions of the nation, and the underlying reasons for these changes are at heart of the topic I have chosen for today.

As most of you MUST know by now, this past winter I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on a topic I’ve been calling “UU-DNA” -- those things about our faith tradition that are so basic and fundamental about who we are and how we got to be this way that they might as well be part of our institutional genetic code. So far I’ve spoken about the importance of Congregational Polity and Local Control, the essential role of personal experience in determining what we believe, and the always-troublesome Problem of Evil: why do bad things happen to good people? And finally this month I’m finishing up with a two-parter on “Mr Jefferson’s Prophecy” and “Mr Jefferson’s Legacy” -- our third President’s erroneous 1823 prediction that “there is not a young many alive today who will not die a Unitarian,” and what we actually got instead: a “Wall of Separation” between church and state which delineated a radically new religious landscape for a new, young nation here in the new world, as well as creating the circumstances for the evolution of the dramatically different religious environment in which we live today.

Frankly, I’m not sure that ANYONE living at the end of the 18th century could have accurately predicted the kind of religious environment we now live in at the beginning of the 21st. Those two hundred and more years -- beginning with the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (and covering a lot more history than I suspect anyone wants to hear this morning) -- have resulted in the creation of an explicitly secular civil society that is also, without a doubt among the most fervently-devoted religious cultures in the world. And how this happened is to a large degree the direct result of a bitter political confrontation between two Unitarian Presidents two centuries ago, and the very different roles which they saw religion playing both in their own lives and in society as a whole.

America’s first President, George Washington, was a soldier and a farmer, a Deist and a Freemason -- first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen -- but hardly a great intellectual or philosopher when it came to matters of religion. He was, however, extremely sensitive to the role that precedent and public ritual would play in the formation of this new nation’s identity, and absolutely opposed to linking that identity too closely to any particular faith or sectarian denomination.

So instead it was Washington’s two Unitarian successors -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- who actually framed the terms of the subsequent public debate. The personal relationship between Adams and Jefferson was a complicated one, as well as something that has fascinated me since I was just a child. In 1776 they worked closely together to draft the Declaration of Independence and shepherd it through the Continental Congress, thus setting the 13 colonies out together on the road to revolution. A quarter of a century later they were bitter political rivals, whose conflicting values in both religion and politics provide the background for the story I want to tell today. And then, after nearly another quarter-century of retirement from public life, during which they attempted to explain themselves to one another though a long and in many ways intimate correspondence, their lives and names became locked together for eternity in the annuls of American History by the shared date of their respective deaths: July 4th, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration.

But it’s the election of 1800 -- an election that in many ways was even MORE pivotal than the election last fall -- that provides the background and the context for the subsequent tale. The issue of the separation of church and state was hardly new in 1800, and even dates back to well before the 1st Amendment and the creation of a national Constitution which enshrined it as a principle of Federal law. And yet even now it is easy to overlook that the question actually has two parts in addition to two sides, which we can see very clearly in the language of the amendment itself: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It’s the so-called “Establishment Clause” with its intent of keeping the Church out of the business of government, that we generally think of today when we think of the purpose of the amendment nowadays. But in many ways the “Free Exercise” clause has been even more important. This is the part of Federal law, which prohibits the state from getting involved in the business of the church, that has for most church leaders (historically, at least) been a much greater concern than whether or not they may someday get a chance to dictate the policies of government. The Free Exercise clause not only assures that individual churches will be left free to attend to matters of faith as they see fit, it also guarantees that every individual will be free to pick and choose their own church (including NO church) as suits their own conscience and temperament. In other words (as I’m sure you’ve heard it said before), freedom OF religion also includes freedom FROM religion, or at least after you’ve reached the age when your parents can no longer compel you to attend.

None of this debate, by the way, either then or now, has ever assumed a separation of Religion and Politics. If Politics is basically the practice of living together in civil society (and is sometimes defined as the “art of the possible”), while Religion reflects our best and highest values, morals, and principles (as well as an occasional belief in miracles), they NEED one another in order bring out the best of the “body politic,” and help us to understand that we are all one people in the same boat together. James Madison once famously observed that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and the same could easily be said of churches. And yet, to be reminded from time to time that there are indeed angels out there, and that we need to be attentive to their messages, can often do a great deal to bring people together, even though it sometimes also runs the risk of driving them apart also runs the risk of driving them apart.

It was just this sort of impasse that brought Adams and Jefferson (and their respective supporters) to such bitter loggerheads in 1800. Jefferson was in private a deeply religious man, but he was also a deeply private man, who liked to keep his religious views to himself, and shared them only with his closest and most trusted friends. His Unitarian beliefs that God is One, a Providential Spirit who set all things in motion at the creation of the Universe, and who likewise endowed all human beings with certain “natural” and “inalienable” rights; together with his deeply-held conviction that Jesus was a man and a great moral teacher whose teachings can be summed up by the Golden Rule, were in essence identical to those of his political rival. But unlike Jefferson (who tended to believe that the solution to everything was “more liberty”), Adams also believed that MOST human beings NEEDED some sort of moral instruction (as well as some form of consistent, external social constraint) if they were to be kept on the “straight and narrow.”

Had the stakes seemed smaller, these two once and future friends might have reconciled their differences through honest and open dialogue, which of course is exactly what they attempted to do in retirement. But at the time, it seemed instead that the election of 1800 represented a critical watershed in the brief history of the young American republic. Would its future be found in a return to the “tyrannical” aristocratic practices of Great Britain, and its established Anglican church? Or would it follow the slippery slope of the French Revolution, which had guillotined both priests and princes in its brutal “Reign of Terror?” Jefferson and his followers of course most feared the former, while the supporters of Adams (the New England Standing Order clergy chief among them) attempted to portray Jefferson as a potential “Infidel in Chief,” who wanted nothing more that to confiscate every Bible in the land, and bring an end to religion altogether.

Jefferson won that bitterly-contested election, and of course neither side’s worst fears were realized. Instead, the next quarter-century of small-”d” small “r” “democratic-republican government subsequently became known as “the Era of Good Feelings,” at least when it came to politics. On the religious front, Jefferson’s election was accompanied by something neither he nor Adams could have really predicted: the beginning of the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” a period of frontier revivals and camp meetings, which would sometimes go on for weeks at a time. What was true in American politics also became true for American religion; each and every individual soul now enjoyed the liberty to decide for themselves what their faith would be, although that faith often bore very little resemblance to the more sophisticated beliefs of someone like Jefferson, whose ultimate faith in liberty had helped make freedom of belief a reality.

This same period in our history also saw the beginning of the disestablishment of the tax-supported Standing Order here in New England. Maine put an end to tax-supported religion in 1820, right here on this spot, with the drafting of its original state constitution. Stubborn Massachusetts (still dominated by Unitarians, but not for much longer) was the last to give in, in the mid-1830’s, opting instead for universal, tax-supported public education as a means for inculturating the immigrant classes with American values (while at the same time leaving them to worship in their own churches on Sunday mornings, and to complain about the burden of double taxation, just as the Baptists had, when they set out to create their own system of parochial schools).

And of course the greatest irony of all is that once freed from their obligation to be all things to all people, churches instead became free to seek out their own natural constituencies, and to shape their message in precisely the terms they needed to in order to appeal most strongly to their target audience. For Catholic churches this generally took place in ethnic terms, with an emphasis on holding on to their own. But for Protestant churches, ethnicity (at least among immigrant populations) was simply one element of ever-shrinking significance, when compared to factors like education and social class, theological doctrine, worship style, even geographic proximity and the personality (or reputation) of the minister. Over the course of the past 200 years, the American church has become an enterprise, which has in that time marketed itself more or less aggressively depending upon the tenor of the times and its own level of institutional energy.

Denominations like ours, with a long history of seeing ourselves as a “public” church attempting to live up to Jefferson’s Prophecy, have often been slow to adopt this “entrepreneurial” approach to religion. And in many cases we’ve been able to afford not to; our deep roots and broad social networks have allowed us to preserve our self-image as “America’s Real Religion,” along with the elusive goal of winning everyone over to our way of thinking. But thanks to Mr. Jefferson’s legacy, I can comfortably predict that this is never going to happen. We may someday become slightly more numerous than one in a thousand, but even to achieve that we need to look very carefully at who we are and where we come from, and the essence of our mission to the communities we choose to serve. We need to be honest, forthright, and unashamed about our beliefs, our values, our goals, our principles, and our practices...and we need to lift them up high, so that all may see and that those who agree can easily find us here. We need to invite our friends, and support this church with our time, and our talent, and yes our treasure...even when times are tough, and we are nervous ourselves about whether or not we will even have a job a year from now. And above all, we must all hang together, because if we fail to do so (to paraphrase Mr Franklin at the signing of the Declaration) we will all most certainly be left to hang separately, and alone -- from a metaphorical , if not a literal, noose of our own making.


To Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge and Others A Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the State of Connecticut

January 1, 1802


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States

Sunday, March 1, 2009


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 1st, 2009

OPENING WORDS: “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.... Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal.” --Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia.


“ I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian....”

These words may be new to you, but we are coming up now on the 187th anniversary of their composition, and I personally have been living with their haunting irony for most of my adult lifetime. They stand before me like a taunting challenge from a heckler in the back of the room: if you’re so smart, why ain’t your rich? If you’re so famous, why haven’t I heard of you? And if your religion is so great, why aren’t there a lot more of Unitarian Universalists?

There are a little over 300 million Americans alive today, approximately half of whom are, have been, or will be young men. On the other hand, there are only about 250 thousand Unitarian Universalists living in the United States, and only 39% of those are male. Of course, I’m talking about certified members now. If you look instead at census and polling data, those numbers improve a litte; according to Gallop and the Pew Charitable Trust, approximately three to six-tenths of one per cent of Americans consider themselves to be Unitarians, Universalists, or some combination thereof. Even so, the basic reality is that to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be one in a thousand. Or to put it another way, if you were going to mingle in a random group of people [obviously not here, but maybe at the mall], your chances of running into another Unitarian there would be approximately 250 times WORSE than my chances of surviving cancer for the next five years!

This Winter I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on something I call “UU DNA” -- the things about “our liberal movement in theology” which are so distinct and ubiquitous that they might be thought of as part of our “genetic make-up.” So far I’ve spoken about the “promiscuous” nature of our unique version of Congregational Polity, about the importance of Personal Religious Experience as the principal source of religious authority, and also about Unitarian Universalist responses to the Problem of Evil: “why bad things happen to good people.” And those sermons can now all be found on our church website; [I believe you can get to them by clicking on my face at the homepage}. And now today and again in a couple of weeks we come to the conclusion of this series, by examining this lingering and sometimes haunting sense of challenge and expectation -- as well as missed opportunity and squandered potential -- that still sometimes colors our image of ourselves two centuries after Jefferson made his prediction. If we’re so great, why aren’t there more of us? In fact, why have so many people never even heard of us at all?

But before we tackle those questions, I’d first like to look a little more closely at Jefferson’s own Unitarian credentials. Denominational historians generally consider Jefferson to be one of five Unitarian or Universalist presidents. But unlike the other four: John and John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft -- all of whom have tangible records of church membership and denominational involvement -- Jefferson considered himself “content to be a Unitarian by myself,” and was never formally affiliated with any Unitarian church or organization.

Part of this is simply a matter of geography and historical timing. Jefferson was born in 1743, and died at his home at Montecello in Virginia on July 4th, 1826 [the same day John Adams died at his home in Massachussets]. For approximately two/thirds of his life, Liberal Christianity (at least in America) would have been known simply as that; it was not until after 1805 (and the election of Henry Ware Sr. as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, at the beginning of Jefferson’s second term as President) that the term “Unitarian” began to come into use to describe the liberals, and it was really not until a decade later, at William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore (Unitarianism’s southernmost congregation at that time) that the label “Unitarian Christianity” was publicly used by the liberals themselves, to describe the doctrines they felt defined their faith.

By that time there were already one hundred or more congregations who were Unitarian in all be name [including this one here in Portland], but they were mostly here in New England; only Joseph Priestly’s church in Philadelphia, an offshoot of British Unitarianism, was an exception to this rule. It was not until 1825 -- a mere 13 months (actually, a year, a month, a week and a day) before Jefferson and Adams’s deaths, that the American Unitarian Association was formally organized in Boston.

Jefferson was a great admirer and supporter of Priestly, and probably even attended services at Priestly’s church in Philadelphia while living and serving in the Government there; he was certainly familiar with Priestly’s writings, which were an inspiration for his own infamous “Jefferson Bible.” But as a public figure whose religious opinions were already controversial, Jefferson was reluctant to have his name invoked in theological disputes, and therefore tended to keep his personal faith a private matter, to be discussed only among close friends and those who shared his views. Yet despite having been born too soon to enjoy what some have called “the Golden Age of Unitariansim, “ there is certainly no doubt in my own mind, as a historian, that when Jefferson died as an old man of 83, he died a Unitarian.

But just exactly what did being a Unitarian mean in Jefferson’s day? A good portion of Jefferson’s creed we heard in this morning’s reading: that God is One, and that Jesus was a great spiritual teacher, who taught that our highest duty in life is to Love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Beyond that though, Jefferson’s personal faith embodied three additional features typical of Unitarianism then and now. The Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur has described these qualities as “Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance,” and in many ways they still characterize the continuity in liberal religion from Jefferson’s day until our own.

By Freedom is meant the very idea of religious liberty or “liberalism” itself: the Freedom of Conscience which entitles (and obligates!) the seeker to believe whatever their Reason and their Experience tell them to be true. Reason, in turn, places its trust in what was then sometimes called “Natural Theology” rather than revelation-- a belief in “Nature and Nature’s God” whose eternal truths are self-evident, and best discerned and understood through scientific observation and logical inquiry, rather than through some sort of supernatural revelation. Jefferson’s co-revolutionary Benjamin Franklin once quipped that “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” But in more serious moments, the distinction between “rationality” and “rationalization” is easily discerned by “reasonable” human beings.

It’s the question of Tolerance that more frequently causes stumbling. The value of Freedom dictates a broad latitude of belief and opinion, since each is free to follow their own conscience. The value of Reason, on the other hand, is constantly asking that nagging question: “How far can we open our minds before our brains fall out?” Jefferson’s notion of a “marketplace” of religious ideas, where each religion is brought before the tribunal of Reason and Free Inquiry, proved itself somewhat naive and ineffective in the context of a complete separation of Church and State, where mere “toleration” gave way to an environment of diversity and pluralism where the mere idea of a dominant “true religion” seems absurd.

In his book Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers, my friend and Divinity School classmate Gary Kowalski describes what happened next:

**By defining the individual as a spiritual free agent within an unregulated religious marketplace, the founders opened the field to revivalists vying to save souls by whatever means possible -- promises of heaven or threats of hell packaged in terms the roughest pioneers could comprehend.

**A changing theology propelled America’s conversion. An earlier generation held that only God could deliver sinners into a state of grace. There was little human beings could do to hasten or prevent a dynamic of redemption that was entirely in the hands of the Almighty. But evangelists in the nineteenth century agreed that a more popular, extemporaneous preaching style might help ready the reprobate to receive the divine influx. Droning sermons gave way to more dramatic altar calls. Showmanship entered the pulpit. The two former presidents [Adams and Jefferson], with their high-minded, philosophic discourse were at a persuasive disadvantage. [p 190]**

Unlike Jefferson, John Adams believed that there was a place for an established church in the new United States, and had his views prevailed that church would have no doubt resembled some form of Unitarianism. But with the First Amendment and Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” future generations faced a very different landscape than the one their ancestors had known. [But this is territory we will explore next time, when we examine “Mr Jefferson’s Legacy.” ]


READING: letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822

To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse

Monticello, June 26, 1822

Dear Sir, -- I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.

1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself; is the sum of religion.

These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
1. That there are three Gods.
2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.

But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor! I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.

Sunday, February 8, 2009



a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday February 8th, 2009

OPENING WORDS: The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.... --Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”


A Unitarian from California went up to a hot dog vender in New York’s Central Park and said “Gimmie a Zen Dog.”

“A Zen Dog?” said the New Yorker. “Never heard of it.”

“You know,” said the Californian. “Make me one with everything....”

Today's Sermon is the third in a series of five sermons I’m preaching between now and Easter entitled “UU-DNA,” because they deal with topics which are so basic and ubiquitous about who we are that they can almost be thought of as part of our genome, or genetic make-up. Today’s topic in particular resides right at the heart of our identity as people of faith, and is even listed in the hymnbook at the First Source of our shared “Living Tradition:” “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” These particular words were drafted by a committee over the course of a four-year period between 1981 and 1985, when they were formally adopted by the General Assembly , along with the rest of the statement to which they belong, as part of the preamble to the by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

On the other hand, the title that I’ve chosen for my sermon today, “Mystics, Skeptics, and Dyspeptics,” has a somewhat different history. This particular phrase belongs to the Rev. John Gorham Palfrey, who served as the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School from 1831-1840, and who used these words to describe the students who attended that institution during what was doubtlessly one of the most tumultuous decades in its history, since it corresponded with both the publication of “Nature” and Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” Theodore Parker’s famous “South Boston” sermon, and the “explosion” of Transcendentalism as both a literary and a religious movement in New England.

“Mystics, Skeptics, and Dyspeptics.” I don’t think it was intended as a compliment. And yet, in many ways, Palfrey had (and still has) it exactly right. The mystical part is easy. We don’t typically think of Unitarian Universalism as a “mystical” faith -- we are much more likely to describe it as a “Rational” Religion, a religion based on Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance; even a “scientific” faith which has for centuries placed it’s trust in “natural theology” (which is to say, observation of the physical universe) rather than revelation, and where science trumps scripture practically every least on points of material “Fact.”

But “truth” is often something more than just the facts. The REAL source of religious authority in Unitarian Universalism is neither science or revelation, but rather personal experience, which leads us to several interesting insights about who we are. To begin with, Unitarian Universalists are NOT people who are free to believe whatever we wish. We are people who are COMPELLED to believe what our Reason and our Experience tell us to be true. Second, because we are only human, none of us are ever going to know the truth perfectly -- we are always developing in our understanding, as our experience grows and our wisdom and understanding grow along with it. And finally (at least for now) what is true for us as individuals is true for us as a society and as a species as well. It’s not that “truth” itself is relative; the TRUTH (in bold, capital letters), is what it is, and is going to be true whether we choose to believe it or not. But again, our UNDERSTANDING of the Truth grows and evolves over time as we ourselves grow and evolve, and it will continue to do so until that as yet unimaginable day when we too, like the God of Christian Theology, are Omniscient/All-Knowing. That is, assuming our minds are even equal to the task. It’s certainly not something I see happening any time soon.

But not all of our knowledge is rational and analytical. Some of it is emotional, some of it intuitive, and a great deal of it (especially when it comes to matters of spirituality) comes in the form of what Scientists often label as “Peak Experiences” -- well-documented episodes of mystical insight in which individuals typically feel in a very profound and visceral way that we are very, very small creatures in a vastly large Universe, whole within ourselves, yet intimately connected to ALL THAT IS, to everyone and everything that ever was, or is, or ever will be. It’s the kind of powerful insight that we associate with great truths like “God is One” (yet more mysterious than we will ever fully understand), and that all human beings are both children of the Creator, and brothers and sisters to one another.

Peak Experiences (at least in our culture) are often associated with nature (like Emerson’s transformation into Transparent Eyeball), yet they are also often associated with other spiritual disciplines like meditation or fasting, and sometimes even happen spontaneously and without much warning. We see examples in things like Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordon and subsequent 40 day fast in the wilderness, or in the Buddha’s prolonged, pre-enlightenment meditation beneath the Bo Tree. And yes, they can also sometimes seem a little silly or even ridiculous to the outsider. Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller is said to have once proclaimed in a moment of mystical insight “I Accept the Universe,” to which the poet Thomas Carlyle responded when he heard “Gad, She’d better.” And Transcendentalist bookseller Elizabeth Peabody was briefly the laughing stock of Boston when, while walking across the Boston Common deep in contemplation, she walked head-first into a tree. “Didn’t you see it?” one of her companions asked? “I saw it,” Peabody replied, “but I did not realize it” -- in other words, the mental act of noticing the tree had not quite made its way all the way into her conscious awareness.

The insights of mystics can often seem silly or obvious in this way. But they also provide the foundation for some of the most profoundly important eternal truths which exist at the heart of every authentic religious tradition. The logic of doing unto others as we would have others do unto us, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, may seem obvious enough in the abstract, despite the constant temptation to ignore the other guy and look out first for number one. But things like the Golden Rule take on a far more compelling importance when you have actually FELT that experience of common humanity and universal connectedness in a way so powerful that you can’t quite put it into words.

And yet, it is this same compelling power of the Peak Experience that also brings us to the “Skeptical” part of our formula. I mean, let’s face facts: we can’t always believe everything God tells us. That little voice one might sometimes hear whispering in their ear, telling them to shave their head, tattoo their body from head to toe, and to move to Borneo to enlighten the few surviving headhunters there about the dangers of global warming and the benefits of a Vegan diet may well belong to one of God’s angels, but before you go on-line to start shopping for cheap airfares it probably couldn’t hurt to go through a fairly rigorous period of critical discernment. Even our most cherished beliefs must be able to stand the test of this kind of scrutiny, to be spread out in all their detail under the cold, harsh light of Skeptical examination., and still hold enough water to at least quench our thirst afterwards.

Covenant Groups, like the ones we’re gearing up to launch again in the next month or so, are the perfect kind of forum for this sort of dialog to happen. A Covenant Group is such a simple program it hardly needs explaining, but let me go ahead and describe one anyway. Optimally consisting of between 8 to 12 people, Covenant Groups meet either once or twice a month, typically in somebody’s home, for a minimum of an hour and a half. There are no refreshments served, or anything like that...although sometimes the host will have available a little something to nosh on AFTER the group is over. But the focus is on being together intentionally, WITHOUT the distractions of a typical social gathering.

The meeting begins with the participants sitting in a circle, facing one another around a chalice (which is why they are sometimes called “Chalice Circles”). There’s an opening reading, and somebody lights the chalice, ushering the group into sacred space. The next thing that happens is the “Check-in” -- not the relatively brief and perfunctory check-ins we sometimes experience at the beginning of our board and committee meetings, but a “deep Check-in” of perhaps five to ten minutes per person, during which each participant has the opportunity to share in a profound and authentic way what is happening in their lives. Of course, it takes time to build up the level of trust in which that depth of sharing can truly happen. But this is also part of the on-going Covenant Group experience, of meeting together with the same group of people over a period of months or even years.

Following the Check-in comes the topical discussion, which usually consists of a series of open-ended questions and perhaps another reading or two. Ideally, the discussion is lead by a trained group facilitator, who is both familiar with the process and the content of the session, and who understands how to draw the group out and help them engage in the discussion. In groups that only meet once a month, these topics are often selected by the team of facilitators in advance, so that every Covenant Group in the church has the opportunity to discuss the same topic, not only among themselves but informally with the members of other groups; in fact, they may even hear a sermon on the topic as well. Groups that meet twice a month will typically choose the second topic themselves, either out of the literally thousands of prepared sessions that are now available, or else one or two people writing up the session themselves. Finally, the group ends with a brief “Check-out” of likes and wishes -- one sentence each about what you thought went well, and what you would have like to have seen go differently, regarding the session just completed. A few closing words to extinguish the Chalice, and the session is least until the next time.

And that is a Covenant Group: simplicity itself. But where does the Covenant part come in? First, in the commitment to regular attendance. The entire group depends upon the participation of each of its members in order for the group to function. We all have times when we can’t make it to an obligation. But don’t sign up for a Covenant Group unless its at a time when you know you can attend, and you fully intend to attend each and every session offered.

The second commitment is obviously one of confidentiality. It’s OK to talk about the topic outside of the group; in fact, it’s encouraged. But don’t gossip about the confidential things that people share during Check-in, or even about individual opinions (other than your own) regarding the topic of the group discussion. Like I said earlier, it takes time to build up a level of trust that will allow the group to function at it’s optimal level, and that trust can quickly be destroyed by just a few careless remarks. So Confidentiality is a second element of the covenant, perhaps even a more important one than the Commitment to Attend.

And then finally, in many churches there is typically an annual service component, as a group, both within the congregation and beyond it. This is important simply as a reminder that each group is indeed connected to the larger church community, and to the community beyond that which we serve as well.

So, Mysticism, Skepticism, and now the one you’ve all been waiting for: Dyspepsia. This may seem a little tongue in cheek, but lets face it: there are just some things most Unitarian Universalists simply can’t swallow. We don’t like things being force-fed to us (much less being shoved down our throats); and there are lots of things as well that leave a bad taste in our mouths, or maybe even leave us feeling a little sick to our stomachs. And if this makes us “Dyspeptics,” why is that such a bad thing? The fact that we are sometimes willing to trust our gut feelings, both in terms of what we like and what we don’t like, is a powerful compliment both to our occasionally TOO rigorous intellectual skepticism, and the kind of deep and profound mystical wonder that resides at the heart of our faith tradition, no matter how well we may try to hide it.

Humility, Awe, Gratitude, Compassion, Fascination, Curiosity, Devotion, Love... Unitarian Universalists certainly don’t have a monopoly on these qualities; in fact, just the opposite; it is our willing recognition that these are Universal qualities that Transcend the boundaries of culture and tradition, that make us almost unique among the major faith traditions of the world. We are proud of our Living Tradition, because it is a Growing Tradition, which allows us to look beyond it for additional sources of Hope, Encouragement, and Inspiration, without ever diminishing the power of its original insights or underlying principles.

“Praise the source of faith and learning, that has sparked and stoked the mind, with a passion for discerning how the world has been designed. Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey, keep our faith forever growing, and renew our need to pray....”

Our closing hymn is number 158 - “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning....”

READING: from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836) [adapted]

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the [adult], but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is [one] whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of [adulthood]. [Their] intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of [their] daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through [them], in spite of real sorrows.... Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, [one] casts off [their] years, as the snake [its skin], and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how [they] should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, [one] beholds somewhat as beautiful as [their] own nature.