Sunday, October 7, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday October 7, 2007

Last week I mentioned in passing that when I first met Fred Lipp last summer, he had given me some excellent advice about looking for inspiration for my sermons by going out into the streets of Portland; and this past week I actually found some.

Last Monday afternoon I was making a home hospice visit at the request of a social worker who had phoned the church, and while I was there one of the nurses (who was just completing a 24-hour shift) discovered that her car had been towed from the street outside the house. So I offered to give her a lift out to the tow yard on Warren Avenue, and on the way there we talked about all the things you might imagine two people would talk about in that situation: about how annoying it is to have your car towed, and how angry it can make you feel, which is probably why tow truck operators themselves often seem so hostile and rude, since that’s all they get day in and day out from the people whose cars they have towed....

And eventually we arrived at the tow yard, and she got out and paid her $65 tow fee (cash) and collected her car, and I drove back to the church for an evening meeting with the Membership Committee. And after that meeting broke up, a little a later than expected, I drove back home, but couldn’t find a spot to park on my street, so instead I parked just around the corner, not realizing that even though my street gets swept on Wednesday nights, that particular cross street is swept on Mondays....

You can all see where this is going, right?

Sure enough, I woke up Tuesday morning, and discovered that MY car had been towed. But fortunately I knew exactly where to go and how much cash to bring with me, and was even able to get a ride from Carl Laws (who had come into the church office to get a little work done, because HIS office was without power after the big natural gas explosion Monday over in South Portland), which led to lunch afterwards and a visit to the nearby Evergreen cemetery to see the graves of Horatio Stebbins and Quillen Shinn.

But there’s more. For the fourteen years I lived in Portland Oregon, I had the same license plate (CLERIC), and when I moved to Massachusetts I was delighted to discover that it was also available there as well. This plate has saved me a lot of tickets over the years, most of which I’m probably not even aware of. But when I arrived here in Maine (where vanity plates cost next to nothing compared to other states), I discovered that CLERIC was already taken, so I had to get this plate instead (CLERIC-2).

And at the time my car was towed, this plate (MA) was still on the bumper, while this one (ME) was in the window until I could find a screwdriver to swap them out. And because of that, the City of Portland Traffic Enforcement Officer who had my car towed in the first place actually wrote me TWO tickets: one on this plate, and one on this one -- which required yet another trip (this one, fortunately, just down the street to City Hall) to get that all sorted out and to settle my account with the government.

But it’s moments like these which make me wonder how I would have felt being a minister back in the days when churches like First Parish were supported by tax revenues, and ministers actually had the authority (if they chose to exercise it) to cite people and have them fined (or on ocassion even confined in the stocks) for failing to attend services on Sunday morning. I wonder whether folks back then, when they saw their pastor approaching them on the street, felt a little the way we do when we witness a tow-truck driver hooking up our car, and if in turn that is why those old-time Puritan preachers never seem to be smiling in their portraits, and why their theologies seem so stern and dark and grim to us today?

We’ll never really know for sure, of course, because one thing I can be certain of as a historian: no Puritan ever had their car towed for parking overnight on the wrong street, and therefore we will never find a primary source document in which they describe their experience of the church in precisely those terms. But it might have felt a little like that. For some of them, at least.

One of the things I really love about being a historian is that it does give me the opportunity from time to time to see the world through the eyes of people whose experience of it was very different from my own. It’s like travel, or (as one of my professors once put it): “The past is another country; they do things different there.” Back in colonial times, and in the early days of the Republic (when Maine was still a colony of Massachusetts), churches like First Parish really were tax-supported public institutions; not part of the government, per se, (because the Puritans believed very strongly in the separation of church and state, and especially the government should keep its nose out of the church’s business), but rather a rather interesting amalgam of several overlapping organizational entities which we would basically consider synonymous today.

Ministers, for example, basically wore two hats. On the one hand, they were elected public officials who received their salaries out of public funds -- “Public Teachers of Morality” who were responsible for educating both Children and Adults in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and also for enforcing various ordinances prescribing a certain level of decency and piety and morality in the larger community (kind of like a dogcatcher, I like to think -- not a big office, but an important one). And on the other hand they were also the Pastor of the local church, a much more honorific position which was typically not compensated at all.

The Church itself was understood as a communion of the Mystical Body of Christ -- a community of the “saved” who worshipped and enjoyed fellowship together, and who looked to the Pastor as the shepherd of their flock. And this organization was legally distinct from the Parish (which was both a specific geographic area along with all of the people living therein, whether they were members of the church or not). And the Meeting House was a physical structure owned by the taxpayers of the Parish, but utilized both by the church and by any other public organization which need a place to meet.

And finally the Congregation was basically whoever showed up on Sunday mornings (and, in most places, also Sunday afternoons) -- a “promiscuous assembly of believers and seekers” which varied a bit from week to week, depending on who was actually sitting in the pews.

And that was the situation until 1819, when a Constitutional convention meeting on this very site pointedly decided NOT to include a tax-supported, established church in the Constitution of the newly-established State of Maine. And although I haven’t had a chance to go to the library and actually look up the details, my supposition (which is to say, my educated guess) is that shortly afterwards First Parish would have essentially been “privatized.”

A separate “Religious Society” would have been incorporated to take the place of the Parish, and the Meeting House itself converted into what amount to condominiums. Each of these pews you are sitting in would have been sold to individuals (who were collectively known as “the Proprietors”), who would have then been taxed each year for the support of the minister and the on-going maintenance of the Meetinghouse itself. Which is also why each of these pews still has a little door on it (so that the proprietor of that pew could close out any unwanted intruders), and also how we can still tell who sat where 150 years later.

Over time, the Society would have gradually come into possession of some of these pews itself, either by seizing them for non-payment of taxes, or because no one had stepped forward to buy them in the first place. Some of these pews would have essentially become “rentals,” while others (typically up in the gallery) would have been “free seats” open to anyone who wished to show up and sit in them.

Eventually, in 1908, the Proprietors of the Pews of the First Parish Church in Portland decided to give up their individual equity positions in the Meeting House, and create in its place a Trust which would hold title to the Meeting House (along with any bequests which had been received for its upkeep), and maintain it for the benefit of the congregation that worships here. The total value of that Trust in 1908 (exclusive of the value of the Meetinghouse itself) was only $1800; today it is worth about $1.8 million, so you can see that the Trustees have actually done pretty well for us over the years.

And there is actually not just one endowment fund, but three: a fund restricted specifically for the preservation and upkeep of the Building; a fund which belongs to the Society itself (and whose proceeds flow directly into our operating budget) and finally a (much smaller) fund whose proceeds are available to be used “at the Discretion of the Minister.”

But the main thing I wanted to say about all this it that the Trustees are basically responsible for seeing to it that we can keep the doors open and a roof over our heads, and they have done an admirable job of that over the years. But it’s the responsibility of the people sitting in these pews to make certain that something worthwhile is happening in here once we have all walked through those doors, and to make certain that the little doors on the pews themselves are always open, and that anyone (and everyone) who wishes to is welcome to sit down and join us.

We are the beneficiaries of a generous and visionary legacy. And it is our duty (and frankly, our privilege), to act in a manner worthy of that trust, and to hand the gift down to those who will follow us in even better shape than we received it.

And it’s in this context that I want to talk briefly about the idea of “heart(h)fire,” which is a wonderful 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 they wrote 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’s a wonderful image, and the thing 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.

Which (since this is stewardship month) brings us to the all-important topic of feeding the fire....

There are lots of different expenses involved in the day to day operation of an organization as large and complex as First Parish, but the most expensive item in any church budget of any size is almost always personnel: people and payroll. And this tends to put leaders like myself in kind of an awkward situation, because on the one hand we certainly want to model the same virtues of gratitude and generosity we proclaim from these high pulpits, and yet on the other we also struggle with all of the same challenges each of you do to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads, pay off our student loans and put our own kids through college, and perhaps even someday being able to afford to retire.

And we typically attempt to do all this on compensation which tends to lag well behind that of other professionals with similar educational credentials and institutional responsibilities, who work in fields where vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are not necessarily essential features of the historical and cultural landscape.

And don’t get me wrong, because I do have a roof over my head, and I’m clearly not hurting for things to eat, and I’ve actually already paid off all my student loans (including those for the PhD), and both of my children are likewise terminally educated. And depending upon how much longer I want (and am able) to work, I still have another 15-20 years before I really need to start worrying about how to support myself in retirement (although I’ve certainly started thinking about it well before now).

But on behalf of ministers everywhere, and especially on behalf of all of the hard-working staff here at First Parish, I want you to know that second only to your active participation and personal encouragement, the single most important thing you can do to demonstrate that you believe that the work of this church is valuable and worthwhile is to support it generously through your financial contributions.

Because (as I’m sure many of you know from your own experiences in the workplace,) the challenge these days of providing competitive compensation and adequate benefits (including health insurance and a retirement plan), or even just keeping salaries even with inflation, is often staggering.

So in effect, what I’m challenging you to do today is to commit to becoming the kind of employer you all wish you had in your own careers, rather than discounting the importance of the work we are trying to do together here by attempting to walk that narrow tightrope between traditional New England frugality and old-fashioned tightfisted parsimony, and struggling year after year to “just get by” by trying to do the things that ought to matter most to us as cheaply as we can.

I know it won’t happen overnight. But it’s a worthy goal to strive for, and one which reflects the important values of justice and equity we so frequently express in public.

For my own part, about five years ago (while I was going through my divorce), I made a promise to myself that however that all worked itself out, afterwards I was going to figure out a way to live comfortably within my means on 80% of my actual income. And with that other 20% -- half I was going to save for myself (in addition to the money I was already saving for retirement), for the proverbial rainy day, or in case (for example) I wanted to make a down payment on another house someday, or maybe just so that I could buy a sailboat and explore Down East.

So half for myself, and the other half -- 10% of my total income -- I was going to give away: 5% to my “routine” philanthropies like the church, and public broadcasting, and the many colleges and universities I attended (all of whom, of course, have their hands out constantly despite the outrageous amount of tuition they’ve collected from me already); and the other 5% to whatever I feel like at the time (including special projects at the church, or in other churches that I have served over the years).

And don’t get me wrong -- we’re not talking about a huge amount of money here; and it has taken me quite awhile to get to the place where I actually had enough control over my income and expenses to be able to do this intentionally. But it also feeds my own “heart(h)fire,” to know that I have empowered myself to distribute my own wealth in a worthwhile way that reflects my personal values. And on that note, here is my pledge card for the 2008 calendar year, and also a check for the first installment here in 2007.

And believe me, this feels a LOT better than handing over $65 in cash to the tow-truck driver on Tuesday morning, or paying my parking ticket at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Like everything else we do here at First Parish, all I’m really suggesting that you try it out for awhile in your own lives, and then decide for yourselves whether or not I’m telling the truth....