“Everything Possible” January 28, 2018, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.” So proclaims the liberal message of a song from our contemporary hymnbook. Yet financial inheritance is one of the most powerful shaping forces of the inequities in our culture. How might we think about our legacies in ways that perpetuate our values more than our privilege? There will be a dedication of children and families, the choir will sing, and the offering will support All Souls operating fund.
Click here to start at the sermon.
Here’s another example of how The Internet Ruins Everything: There is a lovely story about the great dining hall at New College, in Oxford – the name of which is by now ironic, since it dates back to 1379 or some such year. The roof of that dining hall was framed by huge oak rafters, some forty feet across, from great ancient trees hewn down in the 14th century. The trouble is that as the years pass, decade by decade and century by century, oak eventually attracts beetles, and beetles in the long, long run, eventually compromise the strength of even such enormous rafters. All of which is quite true. The story is that when the senior faculty had the beams investigated, in the 1800s or 1900s depending on which version you hear, and found them sufficiently infested and damaged to require replacement, there was some consternation about finding any possible contemporary source for such large, straight logs. Someone remembered that there was an archaic post called the College Forester, still staffed, and this person might have an idea. The elderly individual was summoned, and when presented with the dilemma replied, “We was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’ for them oaks.” According to legend, a stand of oak trees had been planted at the time of the dining hall’s original construction, for the specific purpose of replacing the great beams after hundreds of years, when they inevitably became ‘beetley’.
The truth is somewhat less romantically foresightful; the trees to supply the beams were actually found on various plots of land that the college had acquired at different times over the course of its existence. There was no tradition, handed on from one forester to the next about “Never cut them oaks; they’s for the College Hall.” And in fact, it appears that the original beams had been substantially repaired with other wood from time to time over the centuries anyway, and that oaks had been cut from college land and sold as ships’ timbers in years past as well. No reality is ever as simple as the legend it gives rise to, but I think the real moral is just as important. It is this – your intentions probably won’t survive, but your investments will turn out to be important anyway. None of us can tie a string around the future and say, Do this in 500 years – things will have changed, even in a place like Oxford. Nevertheless, at some point either wise administrators invested in forest lands, or generous donors bequeathed them, and so New College had what it needed to carry on its traditions when the moment arose.
And so it is, over a much less impressive time scale, for institutions like our own Unitarian Universalist churches. We measure our history more in decades than in centuries, although we are currently celebrating 150 years here in Kansas City. One of the things that history shows us is how many times this institution came very close to perishing – to closing its doors and abandoning its liberal religious mission to this whole area – because it had no margin of resources to help weather a crisis. They came in various forms, those crises; some of them were natural disasters, like fire; some were cultural forces, like a national financial depression; some were ministerial miscalculations, and some were divisions among the lay leadership. But the one factor that made them all crucial was that we had no college oaks patiently growing through time and waiting to be sought out at the moment of need. There was no endowment from the past to provide breathing space in the present, and assure a future in some yet to be determined form.
X years ago, some folks who were both wise administrators and generous donors made the decision to change that about this congregation. Because of their efforts and their gifts, this institution now has an endowment well in excess of a million dollars. We have the margin to keep temporary challenges from becoming fatal, and to seize opportunities and take risks that might empower our future. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has made a gift to our endowment fund, or a legacy commitment to this church in your estate. Would everyone here who has done that, please stand up, so we can recognize you? Thank you. You have planted the acorns that will help to ensure continuity for our message and our mission here in Kansas City.
But let us not forget the other half of the moral of New College Hall. When we plan, or build, or plant, or buy for the future, we do so only out of faith; we cannot bind that future to our specific wishes or vision. An awful lot of things could have gone differently over six hundred years, such that the oaks on the land once acquired by that University would never have made replacement rafters. What if the dining hall had burned down, and been rebuilt with other materials? What if Oxford had been permanently abandoned during the plague years? What if New College had moved to Cambridge, and its former buildings sold to house factories? What if all the oaks had been seized by the government to build the 18th century British navy? Moreover, intention across generations is like a game of ‘telephone;’ the message received at the far end may be quite different from the original instruction. Our gifts to the future must be truly that – freely given – so that they can be used when and as needed, to make possible the love that will be left behind when that generation, in its turn, is gone.
One of the great quandaries of the human condition that is contemplated in all the enduring religious traditions is mortality. Historical observation suggests that each of us will die some day, and that is quite a daunting thought all by itself. Most of us choose not to think about it all that much. One classic rejoinder suggests that if you want to be immortal, you should plant a tree, write a book, and have a child. But while these are all good things to do in the right circumstances, they do not solve the problem of mortality in its full scope. For the truth is that even our bids for various types of eternity are themselves mortal. Our children will die in turn, with or without progeny of their own; the book will go out of print eventually, the libraries will burn and the databases crash; a lightning strike, or urban sprawl, or global warning, or the emerald ash borer will take out that tree one day or another. As Shakespeare once reminded us about the world as theater,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Do not be fooled – even New College Oxford with its vaulted halls; even this feisty little congregation with its commitment to seeking truth and dwelling in peace, will perish in time. You cannot buy immortality, either personally or collectively – everything possible just doesn’t include that.
This is why you may have found a suspicious bit of moisture at the corner of your eye a few minutes ago, when we dedicated ourselves in covenant with these adorable babies and their families. There are such things as tears of joy – I have known a few myself – but I believe that the tears that well up at weddings and at welcoming ceremonies for babies are a different, and deeper, thing. Another poet, Robert Frost, gives us this hint, as we begin to look forward to spring:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
For the truth is, despite everything that is still possible for these little ones, they will grow up to be faulty and finite human beings, just like the rest of us. We will disappoint them, and they will disappoint us; they will do brilliant, beautiful things, and stupid, mean things; they will suffer, and make mistakes, and become less than everything possible, because that is what being human almost always means. Right now they are golden, like the first green leaf of spring, but leaf subsides to leaf, and nothing gold can stay. The church is like that, too; once in a while we have one of those ‘everything possible’ moments, when the covenant community of memory and promise shines in the light of our hopes and ideals, and the chalice flame leaps up gold in our best intentions, and the human spirit is filled with hope. It’s not untrue – it may be the truest thing there is – but it doesn’t endure.
Last week, at my brother’s house in Florida, going through my father’s papers and scrapbooks, I came upon a picture of my own dedication dress – the one I wore the day I was dedicated in the Unitarian Universalist church where I grew up. I wasn’t in this picture; my sister was wearing the dress – that’s how it worked in our family, we handed things down. I remember that dress, if not the occasion itself; I’m not even sure what building it would have been in, our congregation met so many different places, until we built our own church home when I was a teenager. I think it must have been shortly after the fifties-era fellowship that my parents had joined called our first minister; I was five or six, old enough to feel special that day, if not to understand exactly why. There was a dress, and there was a rose, and there were solemn words – does it matter what they were, exactly? There was a community, saying that I mattered, that there was no end to what was possible for me, and that the only measure that meant anything was the love I would leave behind when I was done. The dress is long since rags, and that rose is dust, yet there are other roses today, and other children, and the same promises.
In 1922, the early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a book about what religion might look like imagined primarily through the eyes of women’s experience. In “His Religion and Hers,” she wrote this:
To the death-based religion the main question is,
What is going to happen to me after I am dead? – a posthumous egotism.
To the birth-based religion the main question is,
What must be done for the child who is born? – an immediate altruism.
The death-based religions have led to a limitless individualism, a demand for the eternal extension of personality. Such good conduct as they required was to placate the deity or to benefit one’s self – to “acquire merit,” as the Buddhist frankly puts it. The birth-based religion is necessarily and essentially altruistic, a forgetting of oneself for the good of the child, and tends to develop naturally into love and labor for the widening range of family, state, and world. The first leads our thoughts away from this world about which we know something, into another world about which we know nothing. The first is something to be believed. The second is something to be done.
I don’t know how familiar Gilman was with either the Unitarianism or the Universalism of her era; she grew up in New England, but died in 1935, well before the merger of the two denominations. Yet if there is anything that can be said about our faith, from its roots up until today, surely it is this: not something to be believed, but something to be done. I confess that the question What is going to happen to me after I am dead? has never interested me that much; the only measure of my words and my deeds, as far as I can tell, will be the love I leave behind when I’m done. The love I leave behind here, in this world. So what must be done for the child who is born? Well, plant those oak trees, for one thing. Not so that my name would be inscribed on some future rafters; not to bind those children or their descendants to my will and my world, but because that is how my faith is done, providing for the needs, whatever they may turn out to be, of those who come after me.
That is assuming, of course, that we make it through the hall of fun-house mirrors that constitutes this particular moment of cultural history, and out the other side to a renewed sanity, compassion, and respect for our fellow beings, and the truth. Yet our current collective dislocation makes it more significant than ever that we sustain communities like this for the long haul. Like the great depression, the ascendancy of Donald Trump and all that he stands for is a social emergency; something we must use every resource at our command to resist and survive. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to work enough that there are some community values left intact and some institutional principle left standing when our nation comes to. There just have to be people who still believe that it matters what needs to be done for the child who is born, who are still able to teach that the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.
You make that happen – here, today, and every Sunday that you renew our covenant and sing to our children and welcome our visitors and support our mission with your words and your bodies and your dollars. You make that happen when you remember our departed friends and show up at justice rallies in the park and bake cookies for a Sunday Plus lunch. You do it when you ponder how to allocate all the things of this world that you won’t need after you die, and think about helping to ensure the future of this scrappy, persistent congregation, so that it can pester Kansas City to do better, and be better, for another hundred and fifty years. Ken Patton says that if you want to leave your mark upon the world, beauty is the only implement that works. Build temples, he says; the rafters and the pillars will remember your dreams.
Today we celebrate the commitment that connects children to parents, and families to communities, and institutions across the generations. That little momentary impulse of generosity that moves you to remember this church — and perhaps even the larger UU movement — when you are distributing assets, or planning your estate, translates over the years to come into a voice of encouragement, a gesture of the love we leave behind when we’re done. It doesn’t make us immortal; it doesn’t ensure the persistence of our personalities, or our wishes – in the end, nothing does that. We have no power to determine the future of our very own children, let alone the course of history. And yet, some things do endure, sometimes surprisingly – ideas, and ideals; scholars and their dining halls; covenant communities bound by the memories and the promises that we make to each other, starting with the babies, and what needs to be done for the child who is born. We must plant the acorns, and tend the trees as they grow from decade to decade, trusting that what we have sent into the unknowable future will be received with gratitude and rejoicing on other shores of the river of time, by those we will never know, to supply needs that we can only begin to imagine. If indeed it is all to perish someday, then all the more urgent is today. And tomorrow. Whatever time we have, to leave behind a legacy of love when we’re done.
from the writings of Kenneth Patton:
Rich are those who live in today,
Filled with the problems and promises of their own times.
Richer are they who live in their own times,
But also see in them the strands of all the times that have been.
This earth is our present garden and a path for our feet,
But each grain of soil is also a history and a romance.
Could it speak, it would tell of being many times the flesh of plant and animal,
Lifted high in leaf, swift in muscle.
The smoothness of the stone is the story of many waters.
The stars are very old, though they seem to have changed hardly at all
In the brief moment our vision has looked upon them.
Time and death, the great gatherers, are ancient dwellers of this place.
Fruitful is the life of those who sink their roots deep in the soil
Of culture laid down by the generations.
The human race too is a rich soil gathered from many centuries.
Humanity itself is a romance and a history.
Rich are they who see things newly, as if eyes had never before looked upon the earth.
Richer are they who learn to look through the eyes of those who have gone before,
And add to their vision the freshness of new sight.
We live this day within all the years of the past.
Only seasoned by the memory of yesterday
Is the bread and meat of today tasted in its full flavor.
Age is the end of a wild wandering;
If you carve figures for mile-posts and heap stone cairns into temples,
Their beauty will lure others to follow your likely path.
Would you make a mark on the face of the world, beauty is your only implement.
Would you make yesterday worth remembering, only songs will equip time with immortality.
Then leave your journeying to build temples,
And adorn them with invitations to longer journeys that you cannot take,
And images of countries you may never enter.
In far-off times, others will put their carvings beside yours,
And light candles where long ago yours burned away.
In their celebrations there will be a lingering of your questions and solicitations.
The rafters and pillars will remember your dreams,
And your children will discover the ancient beauty of your hands.