One of my favorite hymns, Rank by Rank, closes with the line: “…guard we well the crown they won; what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes, and seal them true.”
It’s easy to take our freedoms for granted, so it’s good to be reminded that those freedoms, including religious freedom, didn’t come without struggle and sacrifice: it was, indeed, a ‘crown they won,’ and we must stand guard lest it be stolen! Freedom is all about choice, and freedom to choose is always at risk.
At this annual service of rededication I think first of the folks who got together 59 years ago, meeting at first in one another’s homes in Bridgeport, Fairfield and Westport — their numbers grew so they rented space in the Women’s Club in Westport, which they soon outgrew and moved to the Saugatuck School where they continued to grow into The First Unitarian Church in Fairfield County. Finally they acquired the land we’re on today and built this wonderful sanctuary.
(After the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 the name had to be changed, since there had been a Universalist congregation in Stamford since 1841. We became the Unitarian Church in Westport, drawing members from all over Fairfield County and beyond.)
I don’t know precisely what the original dozen or so folks dreamed, but I like to think that somewhere, in some of their minds, their dream included what we have here in this sanctuary today – not necessarily in detail, with glass walls looking into the woods and banked by a serene memorial garden – but they dreamed of having a home of their own that they would be proud to leave for future generations. They did that!
Our pulpit has been refurbished, and when it was brought back into the sanctuary by the craftsman who shared in the work, he looked at the sanctuary and simply said, “Wow!”
The hymn says, ‘What they dreamed be ours to do.’ While their dream included having land and buildings, that’s not the essence of the dream. The essence of their dream, I believe, was about creating a caring, compassionate community – people of various religious backgrounds, or no religious background…people who could overcome differences that might divide, and find the common ground of caring that has characterized this congregation from the start.
That kind of caring and compassionate community needs to be nurtured, and where there are cracks in the wall, we need to fix them; where there are gaps in communication, we need to fix them; where there are people out there who are in need of this kind of religious community, we need to welcome them.
That’s what I see in the phrase: ‘what they dreamed be ours to do.’ It is at once an inspiration and at the same time it is a challenging, demanding responsibility. That’s what we need to be doing – that’s what they hoped, and it’s a hope we share.
Today we re-dedicate ourselves to the essential purposes of this religious community, inspired by those who came before and responsible to those who will follow us.
I think back to our 19th century forebears who dreamed of a religion that was not mired in old creeds and confining dogma, that saw Jesus as fully human and located the divine spark within every person as the potential for love and compassion; so they were called Unitarian, saying that God is One, not three.
I think back to our 18th century forebears who refused to accept the idea of hell as a place of punishment to be feared in an imagined afterlife, asserting that God was a God of love, not of punishment, who would not create such a place. So they were called Universalists, saying that all souls are saved, in the sense that none are eternally separated from God.
Today we are reminded of the roots of our religious faith; we are reminded that we carry the torch of religious freedom, and the responsibility to provide leadership in religion’s new frontier, weaving science and faith, history and mythologies that speak to both head and heart.
It’s not enough to support the teaching of Darwin’s discoveries about the evolution of life on our planet – of course we support every step that science takes along the road toward living out our human potential. But along the way we need to be sensitive to the feelings of loss that many people in the traditional religious community feel – science sometimes threatens to undermine the foundation on which they’ve built their faith, and that faith system has sustained so many for so long.
It’s not enough for us to predict ‘the end of faith,’ (Sam Harris) or to say that we have to ‘break the spell,’ (Daniel Dennett) or to declare that God is a ‘delusion.’ (Richard Dawkins), even while we understand those sentiments.
It’s not enough to dismiss the picture of the old anthropomorphic gods that the religions have painted over the centuries – we need to fill the gap with a concept of God that’s compatible with our rational minds; we need to embrace an idea of the divine that dwells within each of us, and among us, and in all of Nature; something worthy of our praise, worthy of our respect – a concept that does not compromise the rational mind, but neither should it deny that thoughtful, intelligent people are supported and sustained by stories and pictures provided by the so-called Abrahamic faith, a belief system whose foundational story is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
It’s a tall order. We have our work cut out for us.
‘What they dreamed be ours to do.’ They dreamed of a religious community characterized by a genuine sense of caring and compassion for one another as our primary religious task.
They dreamed of a religious faith that embraces science at its best, including the best science of the mind – to better understand what makes us tick and why we humans invented all the religions to begin with.
They dreamed of a religious community committed to social outreach as summarized in that famous passage from Matthew 25 where Jesus tells his friends that whatever they have done for others – whom he referred to as ‘the least of these’ – you have done it to me. That’s an important part of what we need to do: to feed the hungry, to help the homeless, to visit those who are sick or confined, and to know that doing so touches something sacred, since the divine spark animates every person and every creature.
May this time together today inspire us to do whatever we can to keep that dream alive – it was their dream, and it is the dream we are here to share.
I want to express my appreciation for the great staff who serves this congregation, starting with Ed Thompson, our dean – he’s been here for over 30 years; And Margie Allen our Associate Minister, Debra Haffner our Community Minister, Perry Montrose, our Director of Religious Education, David Vita our Director of Social Justice, Jamie Forbes our Director of Youth Outreach, Jan Braunle and John Carroll our Administrators and, of course, Bobby Santiago, our Sexton
Finally let me add a word of thanks to our Board of Trustees and all the committees and lay volunteers who make it all happen. One of the things they dreamed is that this would, in a memorable phrase from 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, a congregation ‘of all the people, by all the people and for all the people.’ Lincoln borrowed the phrase and we take it out from time to time to remind one another that this congregation is ‘owned and operated’ by its members.
What they dreamed be ours to do!