Reading: From “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” by Theodore Parker, delivered at the Ordination of Rev. Charles C. Shackford in the Hawes Place Church, Boston on May 19, 1841
In actual Christianity, there seems to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man; the other, the eternal truth of God.
It must be confessed, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as religion. An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, love to God, and love to man. Religious forms may be useful and beautiful. But they are only the accident of Christianity; not its substance.
No doubt, an age will come in which ours shall be reckoned a period of darkness – like the 6th century – when men groped for the wall but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion, not an eternal truth; an age when temples were full of idols, set up by human folly, an age in which Christian light had scarce begun to shine into men’s hearts. But while this change goes on; while one generation of opinions passes away, and another rises up; that pure Religion, which exists eternal in the constitution of the soul and the mind of God is always the same. Forms and opinions change and perish, but God cannot fail.
Sermon: “The Transient and the Permanent”
When I worked in the theatre, it was primarily with playwrights and directors, moving between the written and the performed text of new plays.
In our conversations, we often spoke about discovering the “through-line” of the text, or to say it another way, the threads that run through the whole of the story. It was like, the play’s heartbeat. Once understood, the through-line grounded all of us who would touch the play from then on.
We could add scene, lighting, and costume designers, stage managers, actors, techies of all sorts;we could tweak the text, take out or add whole scenes. And as long as we all had a sense of and a dedication to those through-lines and threads, we knew everything would be fine.
Our creative collaboration could flourish within a safe container, because we all understood what we were trying to get across.We could all be creators and changers, constructors and deconstructors and reconstructors – because we knew what wouldn’t change. In the theatre, this kind of clarity is so important – because change is constant.
You create whole worlds in a few months, reside within them, find yourself in turn changed by them, and then on closing night, you tear them all down. And then you go on to creating the next world.
And so theatre artists, like all of us, must also discover in themselves, their own life’s through-lines.
Theatre artists – no, all of us. All of us must discover the threads that remain unchanging, even as entire worlds seem to be made, unmade, remade, again and again across the course of our lives.
Teacher and writer Parker Palmer tells of his attempts at such self-discovery, and his appreciation when he found the Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” He decided at first, it must mean to “let the highest truths and values guide you.” Let your life speak.
And so as he says, he “lined up the loftiest ideals [he] could find and set out to achieve them.” But, as he goes on, “the results were rarely admirable and often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always, they were unreal, a distortion of [his] true self
as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.
After many years of discovery, he says he realized that “let your life speak” means something else entirely, which is that ‘before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” Let your life speak. And listen.
In your quiet moments, what does your life have to say? What are those questions that bubble up to the surface again and again, the urgent desire, the irrepressible hope?
Discovering your “through-line,” comes from a willing listening to those things that you cannot help but live “if you are to live your own life.”
As I was thinking about this Sunday, this Sunday after Marc’s last Sunday in the pulpit,
I thought first about a congregation and community coming to terms with the transient. A community in change.
All week various people stopped in or called, and asked when Marc would be in. We had to say, we weren’t sure he would be. After 23 years of being able to walk in and find Marc’s willing ear, his easy smile or silly songs, we’re facing a new reality. A new world.
And just as in the theatre, what will allow us all to give of ourselves most freely, allow us to contribute and stay connected and build and grow and create this new world together, is discovering, and articulating our through-lines. Our threads.
This was the challenge and opportunity Theodore Parker faced in 1841 when he preached that sermon at his new colleague’s ordination.
Religiously, Unitarianism was facing the challenge of Transendentalism, a philosophical movement by some of its most progressive ministers and lay leaders, including Parker himself. Transcendentalism criticized Unitarianism for being too intellectual and disconnected from real life. Greatly influenced by German Romanticism, it affirmed individual human capacity to use our intuition to discern a greater (or transcendent) truth – in contrast to the Unitarianism of the day, which took reason, tradition, and biblical scholarship as its foundations. We hear the influence of transcendentalism in Unitarian Universalism today in our first source, which begins, “the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder.”
In 1841, the United States also faced major cultural changes, as well. The abolitionists were increasingly pushing for an end to slavery, and Parker was at the forefront of these anti-slavery efforts; one historian calls him its “intellectual leader.”
Parker was 31 when he wrote preached this sermon, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. At the time, he was the pastor of a small church in Massachusetts. Five years later, he was called to a new congregation planted in response to his powerful message. By then, he had so upset the mainstream of Unitarianism he had to preach his own installation sermon.
It didn’t take long, however, before his reputation spread, and many Sundays he would preach his message of justice and pure religion to several thousand people. Though many today don’t know his name, you likely know his words, which President Obama has quoted and attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but MLK got them from Parker: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways….but from what I can see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker greeted the gathered community in 1841 with a great sense of change. He felt the calling of a world transformed. And yet importantly, what Parker offered his people was not simply what needed to change, but what would remain constant throughout the change.
He was not, like his fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, inspired to leave the Unitarian ministry all together, but rather to reform it from within. He loved the church, he believed in the church, he wanted the church to continue on – changed, yes, but not dismantled.
He envisioned an emboldened church that resisted being enamored with the transient,
but instead willingly experimented with all that is temporary so as to better pursue, understand, and experience the constant.
With Marc and Vicki’s retirement, it is inevitable that many would wonder about what it will mean now to be a member of this congregation.For many, Marc has been their through-line. But if the minister is in fact transient, then what shall we point to as permanent? I’ve heard some say it’s the people. I come here for the people.
Recently, we had a gathering of the elected leadership for the next 3 years, and in the room, we realized that only 3 or 4 of the over 20 had been leaders in the congregation for more than 5 years. If these leaders are any indication, the people are not the through-line.
People in the church change. We move into different roles, different phases in our lives, into greater, and less, and then greater again activity in the church. So if it’s not the minister, and it’s not the people – then what?
Well, I have some suggestions – but they are just suggestions.A big part of the interim work of the next two years will be about discovering these through-lines and threads, and claiming them.
So take these simply as – conversation starters….for your consideration….I offer them now because they are things that I have heard said about Marc that cause some fear and grief that because he’s leaving, we are “losing” these things.
And I offer them because my sense is that we are not actually losing them at all – because Marc’s presence with us over these 23 years – a whole generation – has taught us well these qualities and ideas, and now it is our job to keep them going.
It’s our job to demonstrate and live out how we have been permanently changed by his ministry – to recognize that though his literal presence is not permanent, our impact on one another and the ways we grew together – can be.
So here they are –
- In this church, it’s ok to be imperfect. It’s ok to forget stuff, it’s ok to say the wrong thing, to apologize, to start again. I don’t know how Marc will feel if and when he hears that this is my first suggestion of the permanent impact of his ministry….but I hope he knows what a gift it is. That I got to see him sometimes struggle to get the chalice lit,
that his microphone too often malfunctioned, that he couldn’t seem to stick to his agreed upon time limits, that he would sometimes stumble over his words, or get lost in the order of service…these are all a gift that says – it’s ok to be human here. That in fact, this is what we are about. Bring your whole human self. Marc has offered us his common humanity without ego and instead with laughter, a sparkle in his eye, and an overall gracious spirit – and this puts us all at ease. My friends, let’s continue this. I know other congregations who are obsessed with perfection. I have my own perfectionist tendencies. But in truth, none of us are perfect, and trying to keep up that illusion is exhausting and soul-sucking. Let’s not do that. Let’s keep laughing together and making mistakes, and forgiving each other, and helping each other figure out how to move forward.
- Speaking of laughter, I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if the new interim minister will have the same sense of humor as Marc. Let’s just get this out of the way: the answer is – no. No one has the same sense of humor as Marc. No one can pull off the combo of irreverence and reverence in the same way Marc can. No one….except this congregation. I think I’ve confessed before but I’ll confess again -I can be a little serious. Maybe you’ve noticed. But I like to laugh, I like to play, and I love that we are a congregation that considers joy a core value. Let’s consider this a permanent truth about us too. We should be taking our work, but not ourselves, too seriously. When we start to confuse this, when I start to confuse these things – help me out. Pull out the blue wigs and the silly song lyrics, the crazy hats and the bad jokes. And help us all stay true to this very important through-line.
- And finally, this is a congregation that is both trustworthy and trusting. Have a big idea that aligns with our mission, have sufficient support to carry it forward, have a plan for how to do it – go for it! We trust you! That’s how we ended up with our Faith Family Hospitality program, our ESL Tutoring, our Stewardship Committee. Marc trusts people, and his trusting attitude has in turn fostered a greater trustworthiness. During this past year, in a time of a lot of change, this has been the most important through-line for me – trust the congregation, they are worthy of your trust. You are. We are.
There are many more through lines and threads for us to discover in these coming years. But these three – embracing imperfection, laughter and trust – so well embodied by Marc and his ministry – are especially important to name and claim right now -else we imagine that somehow these too are transient rather than permanent, and imagine that these qualities retire when Marc retires. But they don’t need to. We get to decide.
When I selected the photo for the order of service today, I was counting on the fact that many of you likely have been following Neil de Grasse Tyson’s update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. And even if you aren’t in that camp, maybe you still remember Carl Sagan’s version…? In either case, you might recognize the photo as the image of the Cosmic Calendar they present. That is, if the whole history of the universe was mapped on to a single earthly annual calendar, this is what it would look like.
You’ll see at the start, the Big Bang. In March, our galaxy formed. In August, our sun. In September, the oldest rocks on earth, and by late September, the first life on Earth. But humans, looking like we do now – we don’t arrive until December 31st, at 11:52 pm. And recorded human history is pretty much the last 11 seconds. In Parker’s time, when he tried to answer the question, what is permanent, he could say “God” and his community knew what he meant.
But here, today, answering this question is complicated by our theological diversity and our twenty-first-century scientific and cultural awareness. Is anything permanent, or eternal today? I mean – we’re a blip. My life, your life, we’re such a tiny tiny little transient blip. The earth, blip. Even our solar system. Blip.
And this larger thing, this universe, is far greater than anything we can understand.
It existed long long before us, it will in one form or another, exist after us. And mostly, the large majority of it, is an incredible mystery we can’t even begin to comprehend, and we are just fellow passengers along for the ride, held by this great and mysterious ocean.
From star dust we came, to star dust we will return. And yet somehow, this little blip that I am, this little blip that you are, and the stuff we do together, has a lasting impact on the greater whole. Somehow we matter. Somehow everything matters. It’s all connected. There IS a through line.
It’s how one little chunk of 23 years can live on long after those 23 years have passed. All this, by the way, sounds an awful lot like the way that the ancients used to describe God.
Parker says, “in the old days, men groped for the wall, but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion, not an eternal truth.”
In these times of change, in our individual lives, and as a religious community, let us go in search of the permanent, and put our trust there. We’ll be fine.