“The Earth Laughs in Flowers”
Worship Service for Flower Communion Sunday and
New Members Sunday
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
March 26, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Opening Words [Ralph Waldo Emerson]:
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
Consecration of the Flowers [use reading #724] [Norbert Capek] [Rev. Jennie]
Story for All Ages [Rev. Jennie]
Choral Call to Worship [the Adult Choir]
*Opening Hymn #38 Morning has Broken
Joining Ceremony for New Members (Please See Insert)
Candles of Community
Offering [call up Linda Moore] & Offertory [“Be Like a Bird”]
Reading, from, “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new [people], new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
Sermon: “The Earth Laughs in Flowers”
On this New Members’ Sunday, we proudly and gladly welcome into membership in our congregation all the unique and special people listed on the insert in your Order of Service. Dear New Members, you are now officially and publicly Unitarian Universalists! The most famous Unitarian of all is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some of the facts which are generally known about Emerson are pretty intimidating. He was truly a genius. He is said to have had an amazing and refreshing “courage of original thought.” As this is also our Annual Flower Communion Sunday, I love recalling another quote by Emerson, “The Earth Laughs in Flowers.” At the time of his death, Emerson was recognized as one of the foremost thinkers and writers in America. Today, over 230 years later, he is still recognized for having achieved ground-breaking new ideas in the fields of philosophy and religion. His first real career was as a Unitarian parish minister, as his father had been, and as two generations of Emersons had been before him. But he left parish ministry to become a lecturer, teacher, essayist, and poet. That was all to the good– Parish ministry was not his true calling nor his real strength, whereas as a public speaker and writer, he was hugely popular and influential. And his writing remains keenly inspirational to adults young and old today. Since he was one of America’s greatest thinkers and writers, today we tend to think of Emerson as a statue, or a formal painting in a heavy elaborate frame, or as a finely-wrought pen-and-ink portrait of nobility. But this morning, I do not want us to be intimidated by Emerson. So much about him was appealing and endearing. He was an actual human being, who not only achieved great things, but stumbled professionally; who loved deeply and grieved sorely; and who had a sense of humor, often self-effacingly, as well as life-long love and loyalty to his family, friends, and neighbors.
It’s too bad that most people today don’t know about Emerson’s sense of humor. He was the middle child of several siblings, and he was considered to be the silly one, creative and imaginative. He began writing poems when he was a boy, and longed to be an illustrator or painter. I mention his creativity and imagination and sense of play because it takes all those things to break new ground in philosophy and the arts and sciences. When once he was asked why, in his pastoral interactions, he was not more warm with people, he responded that vocationally he was not called to be a kitchen wood stove.
But despite his gentle sense of humor, there were some topics which Emerson would not tolerate being spoken of in jest– subjects such as death and poverty. Emerson grew up with far more experience of those harsh realities of life than any child should. His father died when he was eight, and the family lost a sister of his, as well. Tuberculosis was, at that time in the Boston area, of epidemic proportions; Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, died of it not long after they had married. After his father’s death, his mother took in boarders, worked as a maid, and sold her husband’s precious library of books so the family could survive. They often did not have enough to eat, and Emerson and his brother had only one overcoat between them. So they took turns wearing it every other day as they walked to school. Such suffering did wrench Emerson’s heart. He eventually developed a spiritual outlook which was uplifting, optimistic, and inspiring– what we now refer to as Transcendentalism. But deep in his heart, he never fully processed the undeserved unfairness life deals us which can only be termed hard luck.
The hardship of his youth did not prevent him and his brothers from acquiring a first rate education. In addition to his formal schooling, Emerson, throughout his life, set for himself and achieved a scholarly reading list of supplementary great works of literature. He read the Bible in its original languages of Greek and Hebrew, as well as several other languages. He took note of recommendations by the learned men and women around him, and so was always reading the latest and most unconventional books and essays. And he always kept journals of his own essays, poetry, and commentary. He went to Harvard at fourteen years old on scholarship, and later to the Divinity School.
As a minister, preaching was his strength, whereas he always struggled with the pastoral care aspect of the role. We can now see that his major obstacle in that regard was the tribulations and grief from his younger days which he had never fully resolved. In our day, we have the benefit of a myriad of professional help to aid us in processing life’s traumas, such as hospice workers and many different types of counselors. Emerson had none of these specially trained people to help him two hundred years ago. His contemporaries were literally supposed to “grin and bear it,” and so he did.
But what he was lacking in his ability to do pastoral visitation, Emerson more than made up for in the pulpit and podium. I have read many of his sermons since some people, some of the time, will be expecting me to preach in the Emersonian tradition. His sermons are nothing less than works of art. His was a different age than ours, when people were accustomed to listening to lengthy scholarly discourse frequently. In Emerson’s day, which is referred to as “that oral age,” preaching was thought of as among the highest of the arts, and “the literary sermon was a trademark of Unitarian preaching . . . giving scope to [the preacher’s] genius, knowledge, and imagination.” He also dared to preach on the most challenging of theological themes, among them, the nature of evil, and “compensation” (what we would now call retribution or consequences), and death, freedom, self-reliance, moral character, grief and loss, the knowledge and reality of God, theodicy (which is the question of how a loving god can allow evil to exist in the world), the value of prayer, the life of the soul, and the place of the individual in the universe. Preaching is always influenced by the sociological and political issues of the time. Emerson’s preaching was greatly influenced by the early nineteenth century’s emphasis on progress, development of moral character, education, purposeful living, and self-culture. He did emphasize the development of moral character through self-discipline and self-denial, and the importance of living a conscientious life. But he advocated a life of simplicity, appreciation of the natural world, and self-satisfaction over that of wealth and status. He preached against such issues as slavery and dueling. As a professional preacher and minister, Emerson also knew that it is inappropriate to vent about personal pain from the pulpit. Inasmuch as Emerson’s personal tribulations entered his preaching, they did so symbolically, through the larger theological issues he chose to explore. He never spoke directly about his father’s death, the poverty of his youth, his own battle with tuberculosis, his wife’s terminal illness and death, or the pressure he felt to achieve status as a minister in the shadow of his father’s career. These struggles he reserved for his private journal entries and conversations with family, friends, and neighbors.
Emerson had a high respect for the authority of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but professed that revelation could also be found in other texts, and in the beauty of the natural world. The way he used Biblical scripture was to interpret the passages as guidance for our living an ethical and inspired life today, here and now. This is the way Unitarian Universalists still read and use the Christian and Hebrew scriptures today.
Emerson’s final sermon as a settled minister regards the “Lord’s Supper Controversy.” In it, he detailed why he could no longer preside over communion, and he resigned. The sermon, therefore, was not meant to change the congregation’s mind about its ritual of sharing communion. In that famous sermon, Emerson was telling himself, primarily, and his church, secondarily, that he had come to a point of rejecting external means to grace. His spiritual journey from that point on was private and internal. In that sermon, Emerson also stated that, in his interpretation, Jesus did not mean “to impose a memorial feast upon the whole world.” At that time, the purpose of the communion ceremony was being questioned and debated. However, it would appear that most churches, Emerson’s included, were not ready to discontinue the practice of communion, nor even to undertake it simply as a memorial service.
Emerson, as we know, went on to become a lecturer, teacher, philosopher, and highly-acclaimed author, known as the Sage of Concord. Now knowing the harsh details of his personal life, I feel this was for the best. In our day, a seminary and denominational board would certainly discourage from parish ministry anyone with Emerson’s “unfinished business” and “personal baggage.” The pastoral care he provided was probably constrained by his unresolved traumas. We now know that a minister must be able to represent to others a healthy sense of hope, and a faith in a greater love, purpose, order, and plan. When I look at the deep emotional pain Emerson was in, I have to doubt that he was able to do that much of the time. So, I do believe “lecturer or teacher” was more fitting work for him.
The other glaring difference between Emerson and Unitarian Universalist ministers today is that Emerson did not exhibit life-long allegiance to, nor support of, the institutions of Unitarian congregations nor to the Unitarian denomination– whereas, today, we Unitarian Universalist ministers do. Was Emerson committed to the healthy growth and development of the church he served and the American Unitarian Association? He was not– whereas I and my colleagues are committed to UU institutions. Growth in membership numbers, cultivation of more generations and of intergenerational activities in all groups of Unitarian Universalists, fiscal health, religious education for all ages, social action projects through which we collectively take action to improve our communities and the wider world, musical and other programs for cultural enrichment, group discussions in which we clarify our religious and spiritual beliefs, and outreach to non-UUs so that more and more people will know the wonder of our rich denominational history, our present good works, and our goals for the future. Did Emerson work to promote these things? Sadly, the answer is, not so much. But my colleagues and I have committed our lives to the work of promoting these things. When it comes to the health and growth of all UU institutions, we UU ministers are pulling out all stops, and we will continue to go full-steam ahead, so that everyone will know that they have the choice and the ability to discern religious truths themselves, and that we believe that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is the best community in which to do so.
One of my colleagues, the Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, says that her goal is to help members make their congregation “sustainable and inheritable to the next generations.” I say, Amen for us here in our congregation. But in order for that to occur here, I have to say this to our new members, and to all our members– When you disagree with a theological belief expressed or ritual practiced in our congregation, don’t be like Emerson! Don’t decide to resign, plan your resignation, announce it with no room for discussion, and then leave– Please don’t do that. In our congregation, we are all stimulated and stretched by our honoring of differing beliefs and rituals. Our congregational life is stimulated and enhanced by the beliefs and rituals each new member holds dear, brings with them, and contributes. I so look forward to learning what those varied beliefs and rituals of yours are.
And, lastly, when you chance to wonder what will last of your religious lives here, think of how Emerson’s groundbreaking ideas still influence us in this room, over 230 years later– And think of how your influence will still linger, more than two centuries from today.
Welcome to our noble religious tradition– [Let us sing–]
*Closing hymn 118 “This Little Light of Mine” [1-3, then repeat the 1st verse]
*Benediction [Ralph Waldo Emerson]
“If a [person] write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
*Extinguishing the Chalice