Sunday, February 1, 2009


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

OPENING WORDS: from "Of Justice and Conscience” by Theodore Parker

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

It’s nice to be back in the pulpit again though, especially after having to ask Will to fill in for me last Sunday, but cause I’d been afflicted earlier in the week with a particularly nasty case of the, the type of which one immediately begins to suppress ones memory of all of the symptoms in hopes of never having to experience them again. And even though I was feeling a lot better by the time Sunday finally rolled around, it still felt reassuring to know that I could call on Will, and still have the opportunity to worship along with everyone else as a member of the congregation, and to hear his thoughts on a topic that has also been of interest to me for a long, long time.

It was particularly interesting to me because of the way Will chose to introduce it. In 1978, shortly after arriving on the East Coast to begin my theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School, I got a part-time job as a Field Education Student Intern at the First and Second Church in Boston’s Back Bay. There were actually several of us student interns at First and Second, not only from Harvard but from other Divinity Schools in the Boston area, and it wasn’t long before we were looking around for a nice, quiet place there in the neighborhood where we might stop and get a drink before catching the subway back to Cambridge, or to Newton Centre or wherever else we might happen to be going. And we eventually settled on a place called “the Bull and Finch,” right there on Beacon Street at the foot of Beacon Hill, and for the next three years that was pretty much our regular hangout whenever we wanted a cold bear at the end of a long day (or maybe a hot Irish Coffee at the end of a very COLD day)....

So imagine my astonishment in 1982, having moved back to Seattle only a year after my graduation and ordination, to discover that my sleepy little neighborhood bar was suddenly the setting of the most popular television program in America! And it only gets stranger. Because ten years later “Cheers” spun-off another series about one of its regular characters, Dr. Frazier Crane, who moves from Boston back to his hometown of Seattle in order to begin a new career as a radio talk-show personality. Frazier and his brother Niles like to meet up at a place called the Cafe Nervosa, a place which looks suspiciously like the basement espresso bar at the Elliott Bay bookstore in Pioneer square, which is one of my favorite SEATTLE hangouts!

Thankfully, they’ve done a little bit better job at avoiding the temptation to try to cash in than the Bull and Finch people did. Still, it’s a little eerie to feel like you’re being stalked cross-country by a Hollywood location scout, especially given the coincidence that one of the OTHER most popular television programs in America that season, “Northern Exposure,” was also being filmed in the Pacific Northwest, in the small town of Roslyn Washington, home of the “Brick” -- Washington State’s oldest continuously operating saloon (they’ve been pouring beer there since 1889), which features a very unique footrail and flowing water spittoon that is actually listed as a tributary of the Cle Elum river.

So even though the program supposedly took place in Alaska, those of us who actually knew Roslyn and the Brick knew better; while my personal experience of watching the program was further complicated by the fact that one of the regular characters on the show (General Store owner and operator Ruth-Anne Miller) was played by actress Peg Phillips, who was the mother of Unitarian Universalist minister Elizabeth Greene.

But here’s the point I want to make. The Bull and Finch, the Elliott Bay Bookstore Cafe, and even (or perhaps I should say especially) the Brick are all real places; while “Cheers” and the “Cafe Nervosa” and the quirky little town of Cicely Alaska are not. We know all of THEIR names: Sam, Diane, Frazier, Fleischman -- even though they’re not really real people -- while our own experience of being part of that anonymous, mass-culture audience is essentially one of gathering around the water cooler at work (when the programs are first broadcast) to talk about what we each watched alone in our homes the night before; and then (if we are so inclined) slipping into a subculture of fandom which continues to watch these programs in syndication or on DVD, while collecting ever greater amounts of trivial minutia regarding our chosen virtual communities.

There are in fact REAL Great, Good Places all around us, “Third places” other than home or work where we can enjoy the benefits of an informal public life confident in the knowledge that even if everyone DOESN’T know our names, a few folks might at least recognize our faces. And it makes me feel good that churches, and this church in particular, can sometimes place that role on people’s lives, and connect us to one another in significant, meaningful ways.

But in order to fulfill our FULL potential as authentic communities of faith, churches must also aspire to do much, much more. Local churches are embodiments of the Church Universal, small manifestations of the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, participants in the Divine Commonwealth, expressions of “the Beloved Community.” Churches are “communities of memory and hope,” which “revere the past but trust the dawning future more,” and where often generations of faithful souls have congregated publicly to pray to God and to worship together, to take care of one another, and to grow deeper in faith over time....

Today’s message is the second in a series of sermons I plan to preach between now on Easter about “UU DNA” -- those things that are so basic and essential to who we are that they might be thought of as part of our genetic make-up. And today's topic in particular -- Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? -- is often considered one of the most perplexing problems in Western theology, not only for Christianity, but for Judaism and Islam as well. If God is Good, and All-Powerful and All-Knowing, how can he possibly allow the innocent to suffer? Is suffering somehow punishment of our bad behavior -- perhaps bad behavior were weren’t even fully aware of? -- or are we instead somehow pawns in struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil, and our suffering less “punishment” for some evil act than merely “collateral damage” in a contest that is ultimately beyond our means to know or understand?

These questions pose challenges for all fundamentally monotheistic faiths, but in many ways they are especially problematic for a faith like ours, which takes its name explicitly from the doctrines that God is One and that All Souls are destined for heaven, and where we sometimes tend to spell “God” with two “O’s” and “devil” without a “D,” (think about that one for a second) and where evil itself is often dismissed as merely an absence of good, rather than a real force in its own right. Hence, “Afflictive Dispensations of Divine Providence” -- it’s not that the dispensations themselves were bad, it’s just that we experienced them in an afflictive way.

And I suppose it almost goes without saying that if you DON’T believe in a Good, All-Knowing, All-Powerful God in the first place, this problem is a lot less perplexing than if you do. Who’s to say that life is fair, or that the Universe is fundamentally benevolent in its make-up. Suppose the Universe is actually neutral, or even basically hostile and malevolent: what does that say about the problem of evil then? Buddhism tells us that human suffering is the result of our “thirst” for the things of this world that “come into being and pass away,” our attachment to things that are impermanent in nature, and therefore not ours to keep. The only way to escape this attachment is to recognize that it is the source of all our suffering, and to follow the Nobel Eight-Fold path, basically a combination of Right Knowledge, Right Behavior, and Right Mindfulness which allows practitioners to overcome their thirst and thus relieve their suffering, but living an enlightened lifestyle that is “in the world, but not of it.”

And yet, it seems to me, there’s at least one more piece to this puzzle that needs to be looked at. Because even if the Universe isn’t fair, we WANT it to be...or at least somehow expect that it really ought to be fairer than it seems. And this may say as much about us as it does about the Universe itself. Some of it may reflect lessons we’ve learned as members of this society: do unto others as you would have others do unto you, love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. It may be even simpler than that -- basic childhood lessons about sharing our toys and taking turns, so that everyone gets a chance and no one is left out.

Or suppose that the scientists like Carl Sagan are correct: that we ARE the part of of the Universe that is becoming conscious of itself, and that the ethical standards we create for ourselves do indeed reflect the long “moral arc of the universe,” bending every so slightly toward justice as we, in our growing self-awareness, bend it that way. We may not always get the result we want every time. But by working for justice, we slowly yet consistently make our society a little more fair, even if it doesn’t always live up to the standards we would set for it ourselves.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, not quite a year ago now, i could have spent an awful lot of time asking myself “Why Me?” And there are all sorts of reasons I could have pointed to, including stupid decisions I made about smoking when I was younger, and a general failure to keep up with good, healthy habits as I grew older and more susceptible to illness. But even thought I could come up with all sorts of good reasons for why I HAD cancer, I couldn’t really explain why I’d “gotten” it -- what (if anything) I had done to “deserve” this disease at this particular moment in my lifetime. And seeing this, I decided not to waste a lot of time worrying about it either. Cancer is something that happened to me, and since I can’t go back and fix that or change it, I’m just going to have to go forward and live with it as best I can, thankfully with a lot of help and support from caring people I have met along the way.

And likewise now, as I look out over this congregation and listen to your joys and concerns, see so many people who are also struggling with issues in your own lives -- perhaps health issues, or financial problems brought about by the current economy, and I just have to hope that you will find here in this community the things you are looking for: the knowledge that it isn’t fair and it’s not your fault, that you shouldn’t take the blame for things that are out of your control, that there are others here to help you, and that you too can still be a help to others even when you’re feeling beaten down yourself. Because you and I are the eyes, and ears, and hands of God, doing God’s good work here in this world as best we can, for as long as we can. And it doesn’t really matter whether anybody knows our name or not....

READING: “Job” from Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s ABC by Frederick Buechner.

Job is a good man and knows it, as does everybody else, including God. Then one day his cattle are stolen, his servants are killed, and the wind blows down the house where his children happen to be whooping it up at the time, and not one of them lives to tell what it was they thought they had to whoop it up about. But being a good man he says only, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Even when he comes down with a bad case of boils and his wife advises him t curse God and die, he manages to bite his tongue and say nothing. It’s his friends who finally break the camel’s back. They come to offer their condolences and hang around a full week. When Job finds them still there at the start of the second week, he curses the day he was born. He never quite takes his wife’s advice and curses God, but he comes very close to it. He asks some unpleasant questions:

If God is all he’s cracked up to be, how come houses blow down on innocent people? Why does a good woman die of cancer in her prime while an old man who can’t remember his name or hold his water goes on in a nursing home forever? Why are there so many crooks riding around in Cadillacs and so many children going to bed hungry at night? Jobs friends offer an assortment of theological explanations, but God doesn’t offer one.

God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kinds of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam. He also, incidentally, gets off some of the greatest poetry in the Old Testament. “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades? Hast thou given the horse strength and clothed his neck with thunder?”

Maybe the reason God doesn’t explain to Job why terrible things happen is that he knows what Job needs isn’t an explanation. Suppose that God did explain. Suppose that God were to say to Job that the reason the cattle were stolen, the crops ruined, and the children killed was thus and so, spelling everything out right down to and including the case of boils Job would have his explanation.

And then what?

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee.” Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

At least for the moment.