First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"The Right Thing at the Right Time" by Rev. Tom Schade

Last week, I preached at the Church of the River, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Memphis Tennessee. Sunday was their version of the Commitment Sunday that we had a couple of weeks ago, when the Rev. John Weston preached here, and where they bring forward their pledge cards at the end of the service.
The Church of the River has a beautiful modern sanctuary, with a sloping floor. And the sanctuary faces a broad expanse of windows that look up the Mississippi River, which flows toward them, like Time itself.
They are a future oriented congregation, choosing to look at what is coming toward them. I suppose that on the same piece of land, they could have oriented their building to watch the river of time flowing away from them, leaving them behind.

My message to them on Sunday was about generosity, and commitment to our religious work. My title was “Covenants or Coercion?” It was my point that as humanity looks to balance freedom with some authoritative institution, the choice is whether that institution will be democratic, voluntary and covenantal, or will it be based on some authoritarian coercion.
I got so excited about the need to build up the network of free, democratic and covenantal religious institutions that are sprinkled throughout our culture that I gave them back their honorarium check.
They have absorbed, into their congregation, some people from New Orleans who have started a catering business in Memphis, so the lunch afterwards was excellent.

Rev. Burton Carley from Memphis had invited me to meet with the Prairie Group, a UU ministers study group that meets near St. Louis, and I had accepted. The Prairie Group was studying the life and influence of Abraham Lincoln this year. So, I went and studied Lincoln with them.
Abraham Lincoln is such a key figure in American history, and such an unusual person as well that he will be studied for a long time. One reason he will be studied is that he is one of the finer writers of that 19th century bible-flavored prose that he favored.
This summary of him was made by William Lee Miller, in his book “the Virtues of Abraham Lincoln”:
In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt; where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot; among fishermen, Lincoln did not fish; among many who were cruel to animals, Lincoln was kind; surrounded by farmers, Lincoln fled from farming; with a father who was a carpenter, Lincoln did not take up carpentry; in a frontier village preoccupied with physical tasks, Lincoln avoided manual labor; in a world in which men smoked and chewed, Lincoln never used tobacco; in a rough, profane world, Lincoln did not swear; in a social world in which fighting was a regular male activity, Lincoln became a peacemaker; in a hard-drinking society, Lincoln did not drink; but when a temperance movement condemned all drinking, Lincoln the nondrinker, did not join it; in an environment soaked with hostility to Indians, Lincoln resisted it; in a time and a place in which the great mass of common men in the West supported Andrew Jackson, Lincoln supported Henry Clay; surrounded by Democrats, Lincoln became a Whig; in a political party with a strong nativist undercurrent, Lincoln rejected that prejudice; in a southern-flavored setting soft on slavery, Lincoln always opposed it; in a white world with strong racial antipathies, Lincoln was generous to blacks; in an environment indifferent to education, Lincoln cared about it intensely; in a family active in a church, young Lincoln abstained; when evangelical Christianity permeated the western frontier, Lincoln raised questions-and gave different answers than his neighbors.
The great question always raised about Abraham Lincoln is how did he came to the position that that slavery must be abolished and the slaves freed, and that further, the slaveowners should not be compensated for their supposed loss of their property. Indeed, for much of the his life, he explicitly said that freeing the slaves was not his goal. On the other hand, we find statements of his going back to young adulthood which make clear that he thinks slavery an abomination, a wicked system of injustice.
So there are two schools of interpretation about Abraham Lincoln.
One sees Lincoln as a crafty anti-slavery Westerner who was driven by loyalty to the first principles of the nation as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, namely the equality of all, and the inalienability of our rights. But for all of adherence to principle, Lincoln was first of all, a politician who masked his views to maintain his political viability, knowing that to take a New England style abolitionist stance in Illinois would be political suicide.
The other school of thought about Lincoln is that he was a man of the West, one a large population who saw the westward expansion of the country as their opportunity for advancement. But they did not want to compete against slave labor in the West. And so they opposed the expansion of slavery into the West, and denounced slavery in principle, because they saw it as a threat to themselves. The Westerners saw the Southern planters as their adversaries, and hence, themselves as allies with the slaves. The Abolitionists on the other hand, saw themselves as the benefactors of the slaves. In addition, the Westerners needed the federal government as the power that would keep slavery out of the West. Lincoln was, it is thought, first of all, a party man, dedicated to building the new Republican Party. The new Party brought the Free Soilers, like Lincoln, into an alliance with the Abolitionists of the East. And when the Republican party won in 1860, and the South seceded, Lincoln fought, therefore, to save the Union, and then when it became clear that freeing the slaves would cripple the Southern economy and bring a large number of recruits to the Union army, Lincoln then freed the slaves.
So what was Lincoln’s “real” attitude toward slavery? We find it very difficult today to tell what a politician really thinks and intends by looking at his speeches and positions. And we are familiar with the political culture of today. So of course, it is next to impossible to know what Lincoln really thought.
But I have come to be drawn by the picture of Lincoln as someone whose positions kept evolving as time and the river flowed toward him. Adherence to principles matters a lot, I know, but I think it more important to be able to see what is the right thing for this moment in time. After all, I identify with this. I have not been consistent all of my life, and have flipped-flopped on more than one occasion.
One of my mentor ministers used to say on occasion about life in the church, “Sometimes, you have to put aside your principles and just do the right thing.”
To be responsive to the present moment, and the present situation.
Abraham Lincoln had a pragmatic, yet tragic, understanding of history. Again and again, he makes clear that he sees the unfolding of a divine Providence at work in the nation’s agony. But rather than a faith that God is on his side, or that even that he is on God’s side, Lincoln possesses an open-ended wonder about the final purposes of God. Hear these words from his sublime Second Inaugural:
“Fondly do we hope – fervently we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was written said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none; with charity to all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.”
In other words, Lincoln does not claim to know God’s purpose. Indeed, he speculates that God’s purpose may be harsh: that all the wealth created by slavery will destroyed in battle and that all the blood shed in slavery will be repaid by the blood of the Civil War, and Lincoln can imagine that such an outcome would yet still be just and righteous. And even in that condition, Lincoln struggles to rise to the occasion with the right thing at the right time. “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.”
This is not an easy assumption that God is on our side, nor is it the happy faith that God guarantees us a happy ending. No, this is sterner stuff, a faith that each of us must stand firm for the right as have been given to see it, and still recognize that we may only see our situation dimly. I Indeed, we may not have been called to be the good guys.
Unitarians, especially Unitarians here in New England, spend a lot of time agonizing the actions of our ancestors in the era before the Civil War. Generally, we like to think that all of our forebears were abolitionists, and of course, they were not. And we tend to think that those who were Abolitionists earlier were more morally advanced than those who came later.
The problem is, of course, that none of that actually seemed to matter in terms of freeing the slaves. The Southern planters were not going to free the slaves because of Abolitionist pamphlets and editorials. There had to be a war, and they had to be losing that war, before it was possible to free the slaves over their objections. They had to be forced to free the slaves.
So, from that point of view, and it is one that I think we need to take on this Veterans’ Day holiday, the 9 men, whose names are on the plaque downstairs as having died in the Civil War, gave more to end slavery than any Abolitionist preacher.
We may wish that it were not so humanity chooses its future by wars and violence, but that day has not come yet. Without glorifying war, we honor the warriors who fight them, and commend them that stood firm in the right, as God gave them to see the right, doing the right thing at the right time.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis in our history, but not the only one. Since September 11, 2001, the nation has been involved in a war about which there has been much disagreement and dissent. The election results of Wednesday will not unite the nation in a new era of bi-partisanship and good feeling. Indeed, I predict that the next two years will be even more contentious. Now that we have divided government, the checks and balances envisioned by the founders will begin to work. It will be healthier, but it will not sweetness and light, either.
Each of us will have face upstream into the future and stand firm for the right, as God gives us to see the right. Try to do the right thing at the right time. This congregation, composed as it is by good and loving people who have deep passions for justice and peace, will be neither a partisan community, nor a secluded retreat where the news of the outside world never troubles our spiritual musings. Gathered here by a democratic and voluntary covenant, we try to discern together what is the right thing for this time, and can try to remind each other to act with charity toward all and malice for none.
We do not know the fullness of the present, nor the eventual outcome, nor even what final role we are fated to play.
Indeed, all of us are fishing in the river of time, which tumbles from the far future and swirls around us and then rushes away.
Indeed each of us will someday lose our footing and be carried away. We cling to those we love, and yet sometimes they, too, are swept away, gone from our grasping hands.

How are we to live?
How can we be sure that we are doing the right thing?
That we have chosen the best path?
How can we be guaranteed that we are not causing greater suffering than we know?
We have no such guarantee.
We do not know the role that we play, but can only choose to do right thing at the right time, as God has given us to know the right.
As Paul says, Honor and dishonor, praise and blame are alike our lot; we are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown people the whole world might know, dying, yet still living, suffering yet not dying. In our sorrows, we always have cause for joy, poor ourselves, to bring wealth to the world.

Have faith, good people, have faith.


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