Opening Words, by Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when I was sixteen and twentysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
i leave to forgive me
Whitman questions us and wraps an answer in lines from his signature poem, Song of Myself:
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
This is the time of year when we do some sorting. We sort through things to decide what to keep, what to discard, what to print and what to delete, what to file away and what to throw away. It’s another new beginning-the start of another day.
E. B. White’s well-worn words come to mind: “I arise in the morning torn between the desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
We’re here in this sanctuary to sort through some things that have accumulated inside of ourselves during the past year, or cycles of years.
Who knows, maybe you’ll come across some old anger, resentment or guilt that you should have thrown away years ago. Maybe you’ll come across some old ideas about God and religion that have been taking up space so that the God you don’t believe in clutters the way for new, deeper spiritual insights that could serve you, now.
A couple of weeks ago Jan, our Office Administrator, came across a box stuffed with files, papers and letters. She said, “I assume this is your stuff.” Indeed it was.
I was surprised to find, on top of one of the piles of papers, a mimeographed copy of my very first sermon, delivered in the Unitarian Church in Wellesley Hills, on February 8, 1970. The sermon is appropriately titled, ‘What Are the Questions?’
I read it and did some deconstructing. The opening paragraph says, “We are living in the midst of an age of rapid change. Of course the history of man is the story of change, but never has change been so rapid and radical.”
One of the changes that hadn’t caught up to me when I wrote that sermon was the use of the masculine pronoun. I would never say ‘the history of man,’ now. I would say ‘human history.’ But it was 1970, and no one called me on the use of the masculine pronoun, which I used several times in that sermon.
In that first sermon I said, “A church, like an individual, defines itself not by the answers it offers, but by the questions it asks. The course of a person’s life is charted by his questions. Man’s religious nature is his questioning nature, the tendency to look at the stars and wonder, his tendency to look at the joy of others and smile, his tendency to look at the misery of others and weep.”
I used the editorial we, but I know, now, that a sermon is, first and foremost, for and about the preacher. I didn’t fully realize that back in 1970. When I looked again at my first sermon I didn’t have to search long and hard to see how it served me. The title itself was enough: what are the questions?
I was in my first year of seminary. I had a lot of questions, but the biggest question with which I was wrestling had to do with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister.
It felt right to me, but I naturally wondered how others would respond to it. So I wrestled with that first sermon in a way that was unique, since it was my first. I also wrestled with it in a way that has been common to every sermon I’ve done since.
I asked, “What deserves twenty minutes of your time on a Sunday morning? How can I, as a preacher, respond appropriately and adequately to the needs of the people in the pews?”
During the 33 years that have followed that first sermon I’ve stepped into dozens of pulpits approximately 1000 times, and never once have the most basic questions been missing, whether I hit or missed the mark. I’ve always carried those questions into a pulpit, and new questions have been added year by year.
As I was preparing that first sermon, on February 2, one of my favorite people, Bertrand Russell, died of influenza. He was 97 years old. He was actively engaged in life, still an outspoken social critic, whom I admired greatly.
For years Russell had demonstrated against nuclear weapons, and at the time of his death he was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam.
One of his most famous essays was titled, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” in which he said, among other things, “So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the gospels in praise of intelligence.”
The obit in the New York Times contained several quotations from his essays, one of which I used as a reading in that first sermon:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden for their sons, and a whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.” (NYT, 2/3/70)
Now I want to tell you, ever so briefly, how I came to deliver a sermon on February 8, 1970, during my first year of seminary, at Boston University, and what happened a couple of days later.
I had been a youth advisor at the Wellesley church-first a volunteer, and then for pay. The senior minister, Bill Rice, helped me through a difficult time as a teacher at the High School. I became an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam and had been doing some draft counseling with several of my student.
I grew a beard-the only person on the faculty with facial hair. One day the Principal told me to shave the beard. He also told me that I should keep quiet about the war in Vietnam, that I should not encourage my soon to be 18 year-old students to consider conscientious objector status when they register for the draft.
I refused, on both accounts. He said it was insubordination. I was called before the Grand Inquisition at Wellesley High, and without my asking or my knowledge, Bill Rice, minister at the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Church, came to my aid. He became my mentor and hero.
When I was exonerated, Bill told me, rather bluntly, that I should leave teaching, that I should be a Unitarian minister. I was incredulous, but, here we are. I started seminary in the fall of 1969, a twenty-nine year old father of two, struggling to keep body and soul together, as they say.
Just before Christmas of that first year in seminary, Bill called me on the phone and said, “It’s time for you to give your first sermon.” He set the February date, I conducted the service and delivered the sermon.
By a strange, cruel twist of fate, my first sermon was the last Bill ever heard. He sat in the pew that Sunday, and two days later he died of a massive heart attack. He was just 65, and just getting ready to retire.
Bill Rice, by the way, was chairman of the merger commission, which negotiated the joining together of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, which came to fruition to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, in 1961.
As I prepared this sermon, I finally thought, for the first time, how fortunate I was that Bill put me in the pulpit on that fateful Sunday, just before his sudden death.
For 33 years I’ve thought only about his dying and how devastating and tragic the loss was. But now I realize that it would have been a far greater loss if I hadn’t been in the pulpit that Sunday, or that he hadn’t been in the pew. Something important was passed from him to me that day. I still picture him sitting there, looking up with support, encouragement and approval.
Things were passed to me after his death, too. The robe I’m wearing today, for example, has his name in it. It’s the robe he wore in the Wellesley pulpit during the last of his 25 years there. He bought it after Meadville gave him an honorary doctorate. I had to remove the three doctoral stripes.
When Bill first told me that I should be a Unitarian minister I dismissed the idea. I told him that I did not consider myself a theist, in any traditional sense. His immediate response was right on the money. He said, “You’re going to spend the rest of your life with that question.”
How right he was. No wonder I titled the sermon ‘what are the questions?’ Now, thirty years later, after a Building Your Own Theology class, Andy Gundell wrote an affirmation he calls, simply, ‘the question,’ which he sang for us today.
Since that first nervous-making sermon on that Sunday in Wellesley the new questions have come from involvement with real people who have been dealing with real life issues, as well as issues from my own life.
After a dozen or so sermons I started asking questions about the sermonizing itself, questions like ‘how entertaining must a preacher be; how much humor is appropriate; how much should I talk about myself, using illustrations from my own life experience; what about illustrations from my children and grandchildren-do I need their permission; what about using illustrations from the lives of members of the congregation (with their permission) and how do I know when I’ve crossed those lines, allowing too much entertainment, too much humor, too much talk about myself, or illustrations from the lives of family or congregants?’
I’ve wrestled with all of those questions, and many more.
I’ve never stepped into the pulpit without a deep and genuine respect for this process, for what I think the pulpit is about.
E. B. White quipped that he was torn between saving the world and savoring it.
When I step into this pulpit I’m torn between my saying what’s on my mind and revealing what is in my heart; I’m torn between addressing the many pressing problems of the world, and responding to the day-to-day needs of the members of this congregation.
For many years this pulpit robe, this Geneva gown, has served as a reminder that I didn’t invent this process, and that I’m supported and encouraged by those who came before me, by Bill Rice and by people like William Ellery Channing who spoke bravely and eloquently about the free mind, which we read responsively this morning. He said;
“I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognizes its own reality and greatness.which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to new light (and) receives new truth as an angel from heaven.which does not cower to human opinion.”
Now we’re entering a new year-an election year. As citizens of this nation we share concern about our nation’s loss of moral authority in the world–the ways we’ve squandered the sympathy and goodwill of the world in response to 9/11. We failed to use that compassion to carefully and constructively build coalitions. We went from being victims of aggression to aggressors. In an unprecedented and reckless move, our President took us to war in Iraq. His stated reasons for doing so have thus far proven to be without basis in fact. He had no real plan for the consequences, no plan to move Iraq toward the presumed democracy he planned. He did all this without moral clarity. Subsequently we’ve lost whatever moral authority we had in the world.
In addition to the catastrophic war in Iraq, he turned a surplus budget into an economic catastrophe, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Governors and mayors all over the country declare bankruptcy.
I could go on, the list is long and getting longer. I mention it because this is an election year. We share these deep and difficult concerns, and we need to find appropriate ways to address them. I don’t mean to suggest that we have agreement about these issues-I’m simply stating some of the things that are on my mind.
Night after night, when I look at the pictures of our young dead service men and women on the McNeil Lehrer News Hour, the silence is chilling. In such sadness there are no adequate words.
I look back and realize that I poured myself into that first sermon, in Wellesley Hills. It was the beginning of a quest that continues, here and now, in this place, on this day, in this pulpit. I’ve been pouring myself into my chosen profession since that first foray in Wellesley.
I felt good about that first sermon. First I felt good simply to have the opportunity to do I, to stand in that pulpit which I’d come to admire and appreciate so much. I remember the hours and hours of preparation, struggling to find words to express what I wanted to say, what I needed to say.
I remember the supportive and encouraging comments from family and friends and from people I’d never seen before or since. For example, there was a surprising comment from a woman who waited in the greeting line at the back of the sanctuary to say, “My husband wishes he could hear you give a sermon ten years from now-he thinks you’ll be a great preacher.”
Some comments at the door stick like Velcro. (The inventor of Velcro, George de Mestral, wondered about those pesky burrs that stuck to his wool pants and his dog’s fur. They were annoying because of the amount of time it took to remove them. But they were fascinating-George wondered why they stuck, so he looked at the burrs under a microscope, and he noticed that each burr consisted of hundreds of tiny hooks that ‘grabbed’ into loops of thread or fur. Mother Nature had naturally made a fastener that was fool-proof! So he decided to take what Mother Nature had created to turn his idea into an everyday useful product. The next time you get stuck with one of those burrs, give it a close examination and you may turn it into a useful insight!)
I’ve learned a lot from some of those sticky burrs.
As we enter this New Year, may we share one simple, basic and important resolution: to pay attention; to pay attention to the people around us, the people we live with, the people with whom we share this religious home. May we pay attention to the world around us-to those who are making policies that determine the course of this nation, and to those who are suffering, ravaged by poverty and illness, to those who have been left out of the American Dream.
May we also find ways to savor the world, to laugh together, to find joy in life, to touch that place of peace inside of ourselves, and to take care of our spirits and our souls.
I’ll close with words attributed to Francis of Assisi:
Make me an instrument of peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy;
where there is darkness, light.
Grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled, as to console;
seek to be understood as to understand,
seek to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.