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A Company of Saints? – 9/15/2013

The story goes that there was a school – an institution of higher learning – and this school had a library, as many do. The library was the center of this institution, literally and figuratively – a repository of knowledge, and a place of study. It was one of the oldest buildings on campus, one of the first built when the school began. And so after many years in existence it was decided by the trustees of the college that something more was needed. They made plans to expand the library with a new addition, to gain more room, more natural light, and a modern architectural sensibility that would contrast with the classic shape of the original building, while also complimenting it.

After a good bit of time and much more expense, the work was finally completed, and a ceremony was held to dedicate the newly reopened cathedral of learning. Those in attendance were given shiny new pamphlets extolling the history of library and its new and promising future. These included the building’s vital statistics of this many rooms, this many square feet, this much shelf space to hold this may thousands of volumes, both before and after the construction. Speeches were made and praise given to those who had shown the vision to improve and expand this great edifice. When things were just about over, as the event was winding down, one of the more marginal members of the faculty raised his hand, and though the program had no space for questions and answers, perhaps out of habit as an educator, the person at the microphone called on the fellow in the crowd.

He asked, respectfully, “What, then, became of the leftover books?” For, you see, when the construction plan was first announced, one of the chief reasons given for it was that the library had become overcrowded. More space was needed to store more books, and so an addition must be built. But all of the new construction and the reorganization of the old had sacrificed shelves for hallways and study spaces, computer labs and atriums. So that by actually reading the proud pamphlet about the marvelous new library this fellow in the crowd had stumbled across something: the number of books to be held in this new incarnation of the library was less than the number that had been held in the original. It just happened that a professor of English was the only one to notice.

All of which is to say that things can get dangerous and interesting when you actually read the fine print. Just ask the folks in Sistersville, West Virginia. Sistersville is named for Delilah and Sarah Wells, the sisters who founded the town. Recently, the mayor of Sistersville resigned, and the city council appointed a woman to replace him, making her the second female mayor in the town’s history. At the meeting where this was announced however, someone who had read the town charter raised a concern: according to the charter, women in Sistersville are not eligible to vote.[i]

You never know what you’ll find when you look closely at something. This summer our congregation got an interesting call from one of our neighbors – you may have read about this in our newsletter. One of our fellow Unitarian Universalist congregations is looking for another church to affiliate with: to combine forces for worship and religious education and otherwise share staff, and they wanted to know: would we be interested? We’re going to have a meeting about this after the service with a lot more information and opportunities to discuss and share our feelings and ideas. And this may be only the first of many such meetings: with a proposal like this, saying “no” goes quickly, but saying “yes” will take a lot of time and cooperation, if that’s what we choose.

Because I was thinking about this possibility of partnering with one of our neighbors, I pulled up a copy of the Cambridge Platform. That’s a statement issued by the early Puritan churches in colonial New England, outlining what they were about and how they were going to relate to each other. Even though they would not recognize us – most of our varied beliefs about God and the Bible would have been grounds for a heresy trial 300 years ago – we are still descended from those early Puritans. Our faith has changed dramatically, but the way we organize ourselves is very much the same; we aren’t bound by it anymore, but we were and are still shaped by it. Which is why the Cambridge Platform is a sort of seminary buzzword: it’s the right answer to a lot of odd questions, you have to read it at least once, and other than that people don’t bring it up much in conversation.

I was reading through it because of the section that outlines the responsibilities between congregations, and I’ll have more to say about what I found on that topic at the meeting following today’s service. But while I was on the way there, I stumbled across a paragraph that made me stop and think. Let me read it to you:

          “A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the         militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united    into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the        mutual edification one of another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”[ii]

Now let me break down a couple of things about that. Our faith is shaped by several sources; one of these is Christianity. Much of who we are today in terms of our values, ideas, and practices, we owe to the Christian tradition, and many of us continue to identify as Christians. Yet also, many of us do not, and while there is no single doctrine of Jesus agreed upon among us, we tend to view him in human terms. When I speak of Jesus it is as a teacher and someone in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets – not a God or other supremely important spiritual being. A variety of beliefs are welcome at our table, from the confident atheist to the equally certain lover of God. But the doctrines of Christian Orthodoxy, that Jesus is the one true son of God who died for the sins of humankind, this is no longer our consensus. We have been moving away from it in this particular congregation for more than 200 years, and towards something that I think is bigger, and ready to welcome more people in.

The point is that if the Cambridge Platform were written today, by and for Unitarian Universalist congregations, it would not be full of phrases like “the institution of Christ,” or “the fellowship of the Lord Jesus”. But that is not the phrase in the paragraph that struck me. It wasn’t even the idea that we are to be part of a “militant church”. It was the idea that any congregations held together by this document, including our own, must be “a company of saints by calling.” A company of saints. A company of saints? Do you know that feeling, when you’re making a recipe, and you just put the cinnamon and the baking powder in and you’re mixing it all together when you realize you switched which one got the half a teaspoon and which one got the tablespoon? It was sort of like that.

For a second it made me ask myself, “Am I in the wrong line of work?” Being a Unitarian Universalist isn’t supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be challenging, to demand that we confront our own prejudices and assumptions and live a life that is boldly true to the love that connects us and the truth as we understand it. But at the first reading, ‘saint’ seemed like an awfully different standard. Aren’t saints venerated for their patience and tranquility. When saints are alone in the car and hear someone from the opposing political party on the radio, they don’t yell back at them, do they? Oughtn’t a saint to answer all of their emails quickly and courteously – or at least not worry about it if they don’t? Shouldn’t a saint be able to have a spirited debate with his five-year-old about getting dressed for school and come out looking like the more reasonable and mature of the two?

After calming down, though, I began to think about the ways in which this statement could be useful: if not as a requirement, than at least as an aspiration. In modern English, the word saint is tossed around to mean someone who’s really good. A stranger stops to help fix a flat tire by the side of the road and we say something like, “Thanks, you’re a saint.” For many of us, though, the word brings up images from the Christian tradition, mostly from the Roman Catholic end of it, of people with halos and peaceful expressions on their faces, sometimes depicted in scenes of their painful and violent deaths.

These include names like John and Paul, both of whom were murdered by their governments; Francis and Augustine, who each led lives of hedonism and reckless abandon before dramatic changes of heart and soul; and Joan and George, who both were military saints, remembered for bravery and nobility in battle. But the idea that the word saint points to – a spiritual figure so wise or courageous or devoted that they are worth trying to learn from and emulate – that idea is not unique to Christianity. It has parallels in the Jewish tzadik and the Muslim wali, and in the Hindu world there are several different titles sometimes translated as saint. In at least one case, all three of these groups overlap.

Sarmad Kashani was an Armenian Jew who came to India in the 17th century. By some accounts he converted to Islam, others say he became a Hindu after that. It is hard to know for sure, because in the religious poetry for which he is famous, Sarmad describes himself variously as a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist and a nonbeliever. He was a holy man with a wild and stubborn reputation. Perhaps to explain himself he once wrote,

“There is no fault

With a mad man

The fault lies with you

Love hasn’t maddened you yet”[iii]

Today his tomb is visited by pilgrims of many kinds: Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and because Sarmad was a man who loved men, activists from India’s gay rights movement also sometimes number him among their own martyrs.

Before I started studying religion professionally, the saint I was most familiar with was fictional. Isaac Edward Leibowitz is the titular figure in Walter Miller’s classic science fiction novel, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. Saint Leibowitz was a Jewish engineer who survived a nuclear apocalypse and devoted his life to salvaging and protecting the knowledge of a decimated planet in the form of books. In the novel he has long since died, killed on one of his book-smuggling trips by other survivors who are pathologically afraid of the power of science and knowledge.

When I was in seminary, I had a job cleaning books in the rare book room, which housed one of the largest collections of exclusively Unitarian writings in the world. (Don’t get too impressed, there’s not a lot of competition.) There were books of all shapes and sizes in at least eight different languages, but some of the oldest books were among the very smallest. They had to be made so little because in the time when they were written, being caught with one of them could mean prison, or execution. So they were copied out on pages so small they could be hidden in a sleeve or a stocking. A particular prize of the collection was one such small book by Michael Servetus. Original copies of his work are very rare, in part because when he was executed for heresy, the fire was kindled with every copy that could be found of his books. Servetus ranks among the entirely unofficial, completely uncanonized list of our own saints that we Unitarian Universalists invoke from time to time.

The authors of Cambridge Platform would have meant something specific by that word, saint. To them it meant anyone who shared their particular religious beliefs and commitments. Because theirs was the one true version of religion, as far as they were concerned, whoever was truly dedicated to it was, by definition, a saint. As Unitarian Universalists, that can’t possibly fly, because our faith is more humble than that. We know that we not the only spiritual path that contains truth and value. As the poet Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” But the various examples I’ve recounted here, the others you may have thought of yourselves, point in a certain direction. So I want to tell you this: a saint need not be perfect. A saint must rather be awake to and aware of their own imperfections, and determined to live the best life they can both despite and because of those flaws. What makes someone a saint is their devotion to a good far larger than the narrow interest of themselves or their own small circle, and the way in which that devotion inspires others to expand their own hearts. When a person lives in this way, struggling to make the world more compassionate, more wise, and more just, by any means they can – they might, in any given moment, serve to inspire someone else. You never know who is going to catch you doing what is right, and it only takes one time to count: in that one moment, for that one person, you were a saint. It only takes one, but it is worth it every time that it happens.           That is an understanding of what it means to be a saint that I can use, and it is one that I think is worth setting before ourselves. To seek, in the words of those irreplaceable, troublesome ancestors of our, to make our community a company of saints by calling. Not a group of people who are already saints, but who are doing their best to live in a way that they might inspire each other and anyone else, to turn away from narrow indifference, and towards a generous heart. A congregation striving to renew its commitment to the greater love that encompasses all people, and even though we will falter, to keep trying again and again and again.


[ii] The Cambridge Platform (1648), Chapter 2, #6.

[iii] From the Rubaiyat of Sarmad.


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