"What Must They Have Been Thinking?" A sermon on the Bicentennial of The First Unitarian Church Meeting House
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 30, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is by A. Powell Davies entitled, “Why I Come to Church.” Davies was a Unitarian minister who died in 1957. From his pulpit at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where he served for decades, Davies provided a powerful liberal religious voice by combining a passion for civil rights with a deep concern for both spiritual and worldly issues. He wrote:
Let me tell you why I come to church. I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. I am afraid of becoming selfish and indulgent, and my church—my church of the free spirit—brings me back to what I want to be. I could easily despair; doubt and dismay could overwhelm me. My church renews my courage and my hope. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe to others. I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do. I am brought toward my best, in every way toward my best.
:Our second reading, “The Task of Religious Community,” is written by Mark Morrison-Reed. Mark, one of our few African-American clergy, is Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Toronto.
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
As I trust most of you know, at least I surely hope most of you know, next week we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of your Meeting House. It was dedicated on October 31, 1816. We might realize that in a cosmic sense of things, 200 years is a mere blip in the scan of time. Even since the introduction of humanity, 200 years is barely more than an instant. But when we start looking at cultural history, 200 years begins to take on more significant proportions. This same building, where we gather at this very moment, was constructed here at a time when our nation was only 40 years old, when Rhode Island had been a state for only 26 years. From our perspective today, 200 years represents a major milestone.
When we celebrate next week, we will be honoring not just this milestone of a building, but also those prophetic forebears who made this building possible. We will honor their spirit and dedication, which they applied to the visioning, construction, maintenance, care and growth of these elegant facilities. In what I consider to be one of the finer centennial traditions, the bulk of our service next week will be presented in the form of a pageant, which is being masterfully produced by your History Committee.
Next week we'll look at and commemorate this historical event. And so, I thought that for today, we might also focus on this landmark moment by taking some time to explore the question – What must they, those forebears of yours, what in the world must they have been thinking, back in 1816? Here are some things that we know:
In 1794, the congregation built a splendid wooden church, here on this very spot, one with nearly the same footprint as this one. On June 14, 1814, only 20 years later, a disturbed arsonist burnt that building to the ground. Just two weeks later an ad hoc committee of the church gathered to begin making plans for the raising of funds and the construction of a new building, this building. Only a month after the fire, nationally renowned architect John Holden Greene, who was a member of this congregation, proposed a book of drawings in which he had gathered the vision of the congregation. The cornerstone was laid on May 29, 1915, 10 months after the fire. The building was completed the following year, with the dedication taking place on October 31st.
I don't want to talk much about the details of that process. For more of those, you'll just have to wait in anticipation until next week. What I want to take note of this morning though, is the phenomenal pace with which the congregation and its plans moved forward. And once again, what I want to ask is – what must they have been thinking?
We can't ever know exactly what they had in mind… not for sure. But given the evidence, I think we can surmise, with great gratitude, at least some of what they must have been thinking.
I believe that at the core of their thought, what existed was faith. Perhaps the symbols and the metaphors representing that faith have changed somewhat over these two centuries. Perhaps the symbols and metaphors are different now, but I don't think that matters a lot. Those forebears had a burning faith in the possibilities of goodness and in the possibilities of love. Along with many other Unitarian churches throughout New England at that time, I trust that they prayed these very words:
Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine – Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
They more commonly defined their largest good as God. Now we tend to leave it up to each of us to choose our own naming. We leave it to each of us to choose whatever word or symbol we might in order to define the largest good. Many of us use any number of different words.
So, what were they thinking? I believe they thought that theirs was a holy cause; that in the name of love and in its possibilities, in the name of what they found most holy, they were called to a quest for truth, called to its service, called to serve human need, so that the beloved community might be made real, and in harmony with all that is good.
They had no time to lose! This was the one house of worship in the town of Providence, where Roger Williams’ dream of religious freedom had already become a tenet of faith.
What must they have been thinking? They must have thought about the very basic human need for community. They must have thought about the need to re-create, as quickly as they possibly could, a home for their fellow congregants and for the citizens of Providence, a house of worship that could continue to provide a safe and nourishing place to pursue religious tolerance, to pursue freedom of thought, and to pursue the application of reason in matters of religion. They must have found an urgent need to act quickly, lest those in the congregation become dispirited; lest those in the wider vicinity, whose religious needs might also be similarly met here, fail to find the beacon that could serve to guide them into a new way of being in religious community.
What must they have been thinking? Here's the thing – the church that burnt to the ground in 1814 was made of wood. The church that was carefully constructed, even in haste, to replace it was built of quarried stone. They built with stone so that it might never burn down again. They built with stone so that it might still stand here, even today.
What must they have been thinking? I trust I can tell you quite surely, my friends. What they were thinking of... was you! They were thinking of the generations that have passed through these doors and been a part of this congregation from that time until this. They were thinking of you and of the generations yet to follow.
They ponied up their dollars, they rolled up their sleeves, they sacrificed their time, their energies, their resources so that you, too, might have available to you what they had found: a place where any seeker might find love to be the doctrine; a place where any adherent might bring their quest for truth, where a person might find opportunities for service; might band together toward the fulfillment of human need, so that the beloved community might be made more real and in greater harmony with that which is the larger, with that which is the largest good.
What were they thinking? They were thinking of you. They were people of faith and they had faith in you. As I've said from this pulpit before, faith need not be about believing in something or someone that we find to be impossible. Faith is about believing in what is possible, especially when we act in ways that promote that which we have faith in. Faith is what gives us reason for hope. Whatever trials and tribulations we might face, whatever decisions we might have to make, whatever processes we might undergo – faith in that which is possible is what gives us hope in navigating our way through all of the many transitions and changes of our lives, even in the life of this church.
The faith those forebears acted on 200 years ago enabled them to use all the resources they could lay their hands on in order to construct a great house of worship that might be an enduring home for those who, like them, would need to come, to seek for, to search out, to plant and to grow seeds of faith that might offer hope for each day and for the future.
Over the decades and the centuries of this church's history, the understandings, the metaphors and symbols of faith, have certainly changed, and they have been transformed. Just as they will continue to change and transform in the years to come. It's not the understandings, or the metaphors or the symbols that are holy and central. Just as it was for those forebears, it is what those ideals of faith give us access to; it is what they open us up for.
If those forebears of two centuries ago came before you now, I imagine they might say to you something like: "You see what we did for ourselves and for those of our day. You see what we did for you as well. Tell us then, what are you doing for your selves and for those of your day? What are you doing to secure this house and this community for those of tomorrow? Tell us what you must be thinking in this, your age."
I hope you would be ready to answer. I hope that you might be able to tell them that you are growing your faith in what is possible and in the possibilities of love. I hope that you could tell them that service is still a prayer for this congregation, that peace and knowledge remain as high aspirations, that the call to redeem human need is still held as a high calling, and that, as a congregation, you are here to grow in harmony with that which is the largest good, which each one here names for themselves.
I hope you could tell them that, like them, you, too, will pony up the needed dollars, roll up your sleeves, sacrifice your time, energy and resources, so that you, so that those of this age, so that those from all the ages yet to come, will continue to enjoy and be inspirited and that you will grow within this beneficent legacy that was left to you by them.
What I'm saying is that they did not simply leave you this grand building. They left, for you and for the generations to follow, a path forward that is based upon their faith and left to the faith that you are willing to build and to build upon.
The vision of your work yet to come will be like theirs, but it will be based in your faith, in your commitment to continue to be a voice of reason amidst a sea of superstition, fable and self-delusion. It will be based in doing your part to right the wrongs of social injustice. You have such incredible opportunity, such privilege, to be the recipients of this great heritage. And you have the opportunity, the privilege, today to see the future of that heritage, the legacy that you will leave to others – those who will follow – you have the opportunity to stake your claim in that future.
This is a community that holds a faith that is based inwards and expressed outwards. It holds a faith in what is possible, not in what is fanciful. This is a religious community that has historically held and still holds and expresses a faith in the holy process of living with determination and resolve, with intention and attention, and with the hope of a better world, a hope in the beloved community, which our faith brings us into as partners in the co-creation thereof.
Based in faith and belief in the future, this Meeting House was built 200 years ago; the congregation began nearly 300 years ago. Let your vision today be nothing less than the promotion of faith and the meaningful pursuit of your place in that unbroken line. Let us say to one another here: We are building upon a strong foundation, strengthening it and broadening it enough to sustain whatever building, whatever work, whatever crisis, whatever opportunity may come our way, now and in the future.
What must they have been thinking? We can learn, draw our inspiration and be fortified by what those prophetic forbears must have been thinking. Let our celebrations then be a call for us to live out this moment in ways that might prophesy hope for this day. And more, let our celebrations be a call for our stewardship and care and ability to foresee this place as the future religious home for the generations who will live in coming centuries that we can know nothing of. Let our celebrations be a call to live out this moment in ways that might prophesy hope for those of the future who will have need of our faith in order to build their own, for those of the future who will need to know that we, that you, had them in mind, that we held faith in them.