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Same City, Different Hill – 9/16/2012

Owing to the historical focus of my message to you this morning, I will begin my remarks with the same sort of opening that my first predecessor 345 years ago might have: with a passage from the Christian Bible. These words come from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 14-16. They are attributed to the teacher Jesus, a fragment of what is commonly referred to as his “sermon on the mount”. Here are the words:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Last year on Christmas Eve, I said something that one of you called me out for. Contrary to what you might expect, I like it when someone takes issue with what I say from the pulpit; it lets me know that at least one person has been paying attention. It was the second service of the evening – it was a bit late, and I was feeling a little punchy. And I brought up the fact that our Puritan ancestors, the folks who founded this congregation and from whom we have inherited it, would likely not be pleased to find their descendants celebrating the festival of Christmas, since they considered the observance to be somewhere between a foolish spectacle and an act of heresy.

After the service, you sought me out and with kindness and good cheer you reminded me that as tempting as it is to poke fun at our forbearers, we owe a great deal to the New Englanders of four centuries ago. You were, of course, quite right about that. So I resolved to say something from this pulpit about just how great is our debt to the people called the puritans. This sermon is the result.

The puritans began as a dissenting faction of the Church of England. They sought certain reforms and changes to the doctrines and practices of official English Christianity – in order to purify it, as the name we now know them under suggests. They were not treated well, under English law, where the puritans where a persecuted ideological minority. But their ideology was not exactly one of live and let live, they did not seek an equitable society in which different religious outlooks, including their own, would be permitted and included. They still wanted society to favor one set of doctrines and beliefs over all others; they just wanted it to favor their outlook. When the prospects looked poor that they might win the religious argument in Britain and change the official church, the puritans began to look for a place to build their own separate social and religious order.

And this brought a great many of them to the land on which we are worshipping this morning. The British Crown had no right to any piece of the continent we call North America, as it was already occupied by several million native inhabitants. But that did not stop Charles I from issuing a charter for the new colony of Massachusetts to a group of puritans in 1629. On the two-month journey from England across the Atlantic to the brand new settlement of Salem, John Winthrop, the man who had been named by the puritan expedition as their governor, gave a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity”. In it, he charged his people to be ready for a great undertaking, the project of establishing a new community, a new society, grounded in their faith. And he warned them that, “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The order that they established in Massachusetts, first in Salem and in Boston and a little later in many other towns, including Beverly, did try to live up to this lofty goal: to be a shining city on a hill. They believed that there was one objective truth about the nature of God and the purpose of life and they held that the people who believed that truth and who practiced it were better than those who did not and that God would favor them over their enemies. They drew no distinction between church and state: to vote you not only had to be a man, and to own property, but you also had to be in good standing with your congregation, attending services every Sunday, following a strict religious code of conduct, and publicly declaring your belief in a detailed set of doctrines. And everyone had a congregation, of course, because each town had an official church, supported by public funds collected from every resident whether they believed in or enjoyed the worship there or not.

John Calvin Kimball, who served as minister of this congregation was among several speakers who delivered remarks on the puritan history of Ipswich at the town’s bicentennial in 1884. I want to thank David Shawn for bringing this piece to my attention. We had, by then, long since ceased to think of ourselves as puritans any longer, and Kimball offered a list of the distinctive characteristics of that religion. His list included hard doctrines, rigid virtues, the practice of seating men on one side of the congregation and women on the other, and the timing the preaching with an hour glass – necessary because sermons were expected to last for at least an hour, and the ministers salary might be reduced if that minimum was not met. Kimball also noted an episode that occurred in Ipswich in which a man and woman were pressed by the authorities to explain why they had not been attending church. The couple gave the excuse that their farm was too far from the meeting house to walk, and so the selectmen of the town solved the problem by selling the property, on their own initiative, so that the wayward souls could be moved to a residence closer to the church.[i]

That is the early history of most of the towns in this part of New England, of many of the Unitarian Universalist congregations here, and of this congregation in particular. We were founded by theocrats, who wished that all people should think and believe and worship as they did. People who held that you could determine whom God loved more by seeing who was the most wealthy or successful in life. Who believed that the vast majority of human beings were destined from birth to eternal suffering after their death. And you may be wondering now, why it is that I said at the beginning I had come to praise the puritans, and instead I seem to be in the process of burying them.

Family is not a word that means the same thing to every one of us. Some of us have families we are very close to, others of us are estranged. Some of us rely and depend upon those bonds of kinship, others of us, it is painful but true to say, do not have the families we deserve. But all of us have people to whom we are connected, by blood or by upbringing, who have affected who we are. And no matter how much we might love our families and everyone in them, each of us can think of at least one of our relations that we struggle to be in relationship with.

For myself growing up, that difficult relationship was with my Uncle Charles; some of you have heard me talk about him before. I called him Uncle Charles like Uncle was his first name and Charles his last because that was the name I always heard my mother call him by. He was her mother’s brother, my great uncle, technically. The kindest true word I can think of to describe Charles as I knew him is ‘cantankerous’. The man liked a spirited argument, which was good, because he was very good at starting them. Political, theological, grammatical. All of the above. We butted heads more than a few times, and he passed away several years ago without any particular resolution.

Now I think about him quite often, and when I do, it is not out of frustration, but as inspiration. Uncle Charles was a priest. We had different ideas about God and scriptural authority, and how best to organize a religious institution, but we still both basically chose the same job. I never really talked to him about his work, or about my ambition to become a minister. But I feel connected to him by the role we share, across time. Sometimes I think about the decades that he spent serving congregations, and the love that he must have felt for the people in his care. Nothing else will sustain a person in this profession, other than deep caring for the people who depend on you. Though my great uncle and I were very different people, in this way I know that we are the same.

So, too, are we, like our puritan ancestors. Not so much in the content of our faith, as in its form. Yet that form is also what has led us to our content, to the deep truths of Unitarian Universalism. The French science-fictionist Jules Verne once wrote about a family which began with a marriage in 1340. And each time that one of the two partners in that marriage died, the other remarried someone who in turn outlived them long enough to remarry again. So that the same household lasted for five hundred years; the players turned over again and again, but the shape of the relationship remained.[ii]

Here is the blessed inheritance that we owe to the puritans. They may have had rigid and narrow ideas about religious truth, but they believed that those beliefs had to be arrived at freely. Every person needed to study the bible for themselves, pray for themselves, search for themselves in order to reach the truth. From the liberty, in fact the duty, to study and to reflect grew voices to challenge the status quo: voices of equality and skepticism, and of an understanding of what it means to love they neighbor that transcends the barriers of doctrine and creed.

The puritans were far from fully democratic, given how they limited the vote and tied their government to a strict ideology. But they made each congregation an authority unto itself: there were no bishops to answer to, no councils of elders to control religious affairs from afar. Just as it was up to each individual to seek a righteous path for themselves, it was the responsibility of each congregation to assist their members in that holy work, to discern together what the holy spirit and the needs of the community were calling out for, and to act from that.

The puritans held that each person must seek holiness for themselves, but that this needn’t and shouldn’t be something undertaken alone. A community of other people, similarly engaged, is required to find the way to a purposeful existence. And so, also, they believed that such communities shouldn’t have to toil alone either. Their congregations banded together for mutual support and assistance, in a network of equals. So they built a system that was egalitarian almost despite itself. It proved to be a poor means of keeping their cold dogmas fixed in stone. Instead it has kept us seeking out new truths.

The puritans built their faith around their scriptures, searching through them daily to try to find the message that they held; not only ancient and eternal, but immediate, for they believed that their sacred documents were constantly speaking and offering new lessons they needed to learn. As Unitarian Universalists we no longer have a single scriptural canon – we no longer draw a line and say, on this side is the inerrant word of God, and on this side noise and meaninglessness. But this is because our vision has grown to find wisdom and meaning in a vast variety of sources: in the direct experience of our own lives, in the natural world, in poetry or prose or the newspaper or teachings from many different religious traditions, and yes, most definitely from the Bible as well. It is as though the city has remained basically the same, but the hill underneath it, the thing that elevates it, this is what has changed over time. If history is any indication, it will continue to change, and if we seek, one day, to finally be worthy of that image of a shining city on a hill, let us pray, friends, that we never stop changing.

[i] From his remarks at the Celebration of the Two-Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, August 16th, 1884.

[ii] From his short story, Dr. Ox’s Experiment, 1872.


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