(for Annual Meeting Sunday)
Sermon and Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
June 4, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Call to Worship, by Albert Einstein:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He [or she] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: [their] eyes are closed.”
Singing the Children Out
Musical Call to Worship [Sharon]
*Hymn #16 [sing 3x] ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple”
Candles of Community
Offering [Harvest Hope; call up Jamie Peeples]
Offertory [Shakers Hymn]
The morning reading – “The Work of Happiness,” by May Sarton:
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
out of the silence in the empty house each day—
And how it is not sudden, and it is not given,
but is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
but the tree is lifted by this inward work,
and its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours,
and strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
the old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
white curtains softly and continually blown
as the free air moves quietly about the room;
a shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
and here the work of faith can best be done,
the growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
the timeless sense of time when furniture
has stood a life’s span in a single place,
and as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
the shining leaves of present happiness.
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
but where people have lived in inwardness,
the air is charged with blessing and does bless;
windows look out on mountains, and the walls are kind.
Responsive Hymn #123 Spirit of Life
When I was a little girl, our next-door neighbor, an older woman named Margaret Sommers, was very kind and attentive to me, to my family, and even to our cat. Margaret let me pick flowers and climb trees in her yard, which stretched behind our house. One day I asked my mother what Margaret did for work, since she both drove off to places in her little blue car, and worked in a study at home. My mother said that Margaret was a Christian Science Practitioner. [Christian Science, incidentally, is a religion that was started by a woman– Mary Baker Eddy.] She explained that, when people were ill, or troubled, they would call Margaret. She would listen to them, and talk with them, and maybe pray with them, and read to them from the Bible or other helpful words, in the hope that they would feel better. Had I not known Margaret Sommers, I may never have imagined that I, as a woman, could be a parish minister. But following in her footsteps, I have seen, by her example, which held gentleness, strength, and good humor, that there is no reason a woman cannot do this work.
The Shakers were founded by an exceptional woman clergyperson: Mother Ann Lee. Mother Ann was born on “Leap Day,” February 29th, 1736. On this, the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, we gather as a distinctly religious community of people, to celebrate our successes of the past year, to attend to our congregation’s business, and to reflect on and approve our budget for the upcoming year. We will review and discuss that budget in light of how well it matches our Unitarian Universalist religious values. And so I thought it could be helpful to us, during this worship service, to learn from another distinctly religious community: the Shakers. Their religious tradition is one that has upheld the appreciation of equality, democracy, reverence for the earth, and beauty, truth, and light.
Religion should make us feel –in the long run– more well– spiritually, physically, and emotionally. But in order to do that, a religion needs to look at and address the things we struggle with. We are all, at times, tempted to indulge in doing things that bring short-term gratification– whether that’s stress-eating junk food or watching a few hours of stupid tv. But religion should guide our choices toward our developing a more sure grasp of that which is everlastingly true, beautiful, and delightful. The Shakers have done that for us: in their uniquely touching song, dancing, furnishings, those lovely oval boxes, and their pastoral way of life. How have they done that for us?
The Shakers are a religion based in Christianity, but fleshed out in non-traditional, dissenting ways– [The same could be said of the Protestant roots of Unitarian Universalism.] They believe that God has both male and female attributes. By this, they meant specifically that God is pure spirit with the characteristics: strength, power, compassion, and mercy. They were persecuted for this belief. However, it has its origin in the Hebrew Scriptures [or Old Testament]. Genesis chapter one, verse twenty-seven describes the first man as having been created by a god with a dual nature that is both male and female. The Shakers believe that Jesus embodied the divine perfection of God. And they believe that their founder, Mother Ann Lee, also embodied the divine perfection of God. They believe that the Second Coming of Christ occurred in the life of Mother Ann. The Shakers’ view of God as both male and female and their view of Mother Ann as equal to Jesus led them to believe in the equality of the sexes. That gender equality has been practiced in their communities since their founding back in the late seventeen hundreds. Their spiritual directors are both men and women; they’re called elders and elderesses. And their leaders guiding their business decisions are both woman and men in equal numbers; they’re called deaconesses and deacons. And it is likely that Shaker communities extended their practices of equality to be open and welcoming to people who are gay. [Gopnik essay, p. 100] They hold their property communally, and make decisions about what to buy, sell, or borrow by consensus. Mother Ann also preached racial equality and pacifism. She was persecuted for these beliefs, including being physically assaulted.
I’ve been talking about the Shakers almost as though they are still the thriving religion they were throughout the 1800s. Unfortunately for our nation’s heritage, they no longer are thriving. To my knowledge, only two Shakers are still alive. They live at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, near Poland, Maine. It’s several hundred acres of orchards, farmland, and forests. Some of the land was originally given to the Shakers specifically for their religious life and work. And, so, many people consider it to be consecrated land, or sacred ground. When the last living Shaker in the world dies, what will happen to that lovely land and those buildings?
–including the garage that was built in 1910 to house their first car? A few years ago, the Shakers entered into a trust with the State of Maine and several conservation groups. Their hope is that the land will always remain for agricultural and forest purposes, not be turned into another bunch of big box stores. Some of the other properties that were once Shaker communities are now a private school, a nursing home, and a Catholic convent. The ones that were in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky and Canterbury, New Hampshire are now Shaker museums. Those two Shakers who are left in Sabbathday Lake, Maine are making plans for the future of their religion, one way or another. In the meantime, they are holding out the hope and faith that more people will convert, so the Shakers will live on.
And in the meantime, they are keeping their hands and hearts busy with work that has inherent quality and purity. This morning we sang the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” And “Simple Gifts” is used in Aaron Copeland’s, “Appalachian Spring,” one of my favorite pieces of classical music. The Shakers wrote thousands of other religious songs as well. The Shakers “designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, ‘an act of prayer.’” [Wikipedia summary, p. 5] Their guiding principles include: “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.” and “Put your hands to work, and your heart to God.” Among many things the Shakers invented are: the screw propeller, the circular saw, the clothespin, and the wheel-driven washing machine. “They were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and they were pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets.” [Wikipedia, pp. 5-6]
Those two Shakers up in Maine have help with the work of their land, from paid workers and volunteers. “[The group called] the Friends of the Shakers [is] a volunteer group with about sixty active members [who] make semi-annual visits to paint fences, stack firewood, and perform other tasks.” [Boston Globe article, p. 2] Mother Ann Lee used to say, “Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling.”
When she was thirty-eight years old, in 1774, Ann Lee and her husband and her religious followers traveled from the bleak, poor, industrial city of Manchester, England, by boat, to Albany, New York. People of all different economic backgrounds joined the Shakers, and the community took in abandoned children and orphans. Laws passed in 1960 now prevent religious groups from adopting children. That fact, plus the fact that Shakers are celibate, accelerated the decline in the numbers of their practitioners. I think it’s too bad that a way hasn’t been figured out for intergenerational Shaker communities to continue on. The children in those communities had lively, fun childhoods. Scholar Adam Gopnik writes, “The Shakers were ascetics without being Puritans. They didn’t object to color and comfort, even as they rejected ornament and luxury.” [p. 104] And famed choral director Joel Cohen, who made a recording of their songs by the Boston Camerata, visited the Sabbathday Lake Shakers a several years ago. He found them to be a whole lot of fun, saying, “The idea that they’re Puritanical is just not true. They like to laugh; they drink wine. People tend to conflate the Shakers with the Amish [mistakenly].” [Globe article, p. 3] The Shakers’ worship services have always had a robust, noisy, free-form quality to them, much more like the singing and shouting and thumping on tables at a union rally than a traditional Protestant worship service.
The daily schedule of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers is [Wikipedia, p. 7]:
- Rise at 7:30 in the morning; the Great Bell on Dwelling House rings, calling everyone to breakfast;
- At 8:00 a.m., Morning Prayers start. They may read two Psalms and then some more from the Bible. This is followed by spoken prayer and silent prayer, and concludes with singing and dancing to a Shaker Hymn;
- Work for the Shakers begins at 8:30 in the morning;
- Work is interrupted at 11:30 for mid-day prayers;
- Dinner begins at noon. This is the main meal of the day for the Shakers;
- Work continues at 1:00 p.m.;
- At 6:00 p.m., it is suppertime, the last meal of the day;
- On Wednesdays, at 5:00 p.m., they hold a prayer meeting which is followed by a Shakers Studies class.
But this daily schedule doesn’t tell us how richly fulfilling the Shakers’ community life was. Each member of the community had a real sense of ownership in the production and distribution of the goods the community produced, and a sense of ownership in the real political power of a voice in the community’s decisions. As such, the Shakers were socialist communities. As such, their basic needs were provided for– including their physical and intellectual needs, and their need for friendship, companionship, and recreation. Perhaps the most important need their communities met for them, though, was a human being’s need for aesthetic enrichment. The Shakers intentionally created a life surrounded by beauty– including song, dance, religious paintings, handicrafts, their uniquely lovely furniture, and serene pastoral vistas everywhere they turned to look. This, I think, is what made all the difference– They all had a hand and a voice in making sure every member’s basic living needs were met– And those basic needs included the need for aesthetic beauty in all forms. This, I think, is how we all could take a lesson from the Shakers and stretch ourselves more. Pastimes that are the spiritual equivalent of junk food are enjoyable in the short-term, but they don’t feed our soul. The Shakers’ communal lives remind us to receive the richness of fine music, dance performances, great literature, visual art, and the varied loveliness of the natural world. When we do not do so, we curtail our ability to infuse the work of our hands with that beautiful light that shines from within each of us. The Shakers made activities like manufacturing a chair, cooking applesauce, and distributing seeds spiritual gifts to the world. Let’s not let that delightful spiritual practice die out.
*Closing Hymn #207 Earth was given as a Garden
*Benediction, by May Sarton:
“Help us to be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit who know that without darkness, nothing comes to birth, as without light, nothing flowers.”
*Extinguishing the Chalice
Postlude [Kevin McKinney] Bob Dylan’s, “I Shall be Released”