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All You Need To Know – 6/17/2012

And so we come to the close of another church year together. Our liturgical cycle opens each September with the communion of the waters, the mingling of the different rivers and streams that feed our common spiritual sea. And now in June, we arrive at the communion of the flowers, as each of us will take with us from this place a blossom to symbolize the shared wisdom and commitment of this congregation. Water feeds the earth, and the earth gives forth its wonder and abundance. Each of us comes to this community with our own stories, our own gifts, our own dreams and insights, and mixed together they serve to nurture new hope and possibility.

Today is also the last Sunday before the official beginning of summer, and while we do not close for July and August, there is no arguing that we have a different mode than in the autumn, winter and spring. Lay leaders will be leading worship services for us at Dane Street Beach this summer, and I am looking forward to attending and being spiritually nourished by them. But this is the last time that I will be in the pulpit for a few months as I take my annual vacation and study leave, which this year also doubles as paternity leave. So this is my last chance for a little while to say something of value to you.

As you may already be aware, people of my vocation are known, generally, for being verbose. And I think often of Kurt Vonnegut’s rule that any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what his research is about is a charlatan.[i] Since my work requires neither lab equipment nor higher math, I can hardly claim that I deserve more leeway than this. So I thought that I should find some simple summary to offer you all – something to suffice if you take just one scrap of theology to heart from this year of church. And I very nearly found it, on the internet, that staggeringly powerful force in so many human lives that seems at times capable of solving any problem, other than fire and too much internet.

A colleague of mine pointed me to a quote from Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman emperor who was also a noted philosopher. Here are the words:

     “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

That quotation summarizes quite ably my own understanding of what living is for. For many different reasons and in many different ways Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have, for as long as we have been, hewed to some version of that statement. Most took the first route – that God is just, and loving – but however the many voices of our tradition got there, they sing together in grand consensus: we ought each of us, in every moment, to do what is right, because it is the right thing to do. Nothing satisfies the spirit like the struggle for justice. Nothing quenches the thirst of the soul like the project of peace. Nothing nourishes the heart like the work of love. Treating all people with fairness and mercy and confronting evil in the world around us and in ourselves may not lead to wealth or to fame. It can cost a great deal, in fact; friends and family, the esteem of our neighbors, our safety, our security, and even our lives. But still to live a good life remains the highest reward; it cannot be bought for any price.

But I said that this quote almost summarized my central message to you cleanly. It might have fit together in a fairly pretty package tied with a much better bow than I can produce in real life, except that Marcus Aurelius never said it. He never said anything particularly like it. As nearly as I could determine, it is a set of sentences conceived by some anonymous modern person that came to be attributed on the internet to the famous philosopher. This does not mean that the words themselves cannot contain truth – the fame or anonymity of their author should not affect whether or not we take them to heart. But it makes their story a little less elegant, and it points to how complex the work of living justly is. In order to do what is right, we need to understand what is. There is always more to learn about the situation that we find ourselves in, and each new fact can change our understanding of what we ought to do.

Every day that we do not spend together, my partner Sara and I will call each other and ask, “what would you like to have for dinner tonight, honey?” Because food is a fundamental need, and we are each concerned with the other’s wellbeing, and our own. So we are ready to work together, to meet that need.

The need to find the compassionate, loving choice, at every juncture in our lives, is no less essential. Doing that requires a clear understanding of the world we inhabit and insight that extends beyond our own limited perspective. And that, friends, is what we have spiritual community for. To assist each other in finding what the moment demands of us. To listen together for what we are being called to do by that still, small voice in the heart that some call God and which draws us in every instant towards a greater wholeness for ourselves and for all the world.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote this:


A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.


No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.


This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,



His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.


We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.


The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.[ii]


Though we should never stop seeking to improve our condition, we also must not expect that our problems will simply go away. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling. The work of compassion, of living with an attitude of justice, even in an unjust world, is constant, and challenging. But it should not be lonely. None of us is marked, FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE, though all of us ought to be. The delicate, breakable quality of ourselves and the world we inhabit directs us to what is right in each situation. We must be ready to carry one another across the road, and we also must be ready to ask for help when we are the ones who need carrying. If that is all you take home with you from a year of church, I will choose not to be too offended. Because, if you truly hold it in your heart, it will be all you need to know.

[i] From his novel, Cat’s Cradle, 1963.

[ii] From her collection Red Suitcase, 1994.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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