Sermon Reading: “We Build on Foundations We Did Not Lay”—Peter Raible, UU Minister
Sermon: Drinking from Wells
Peter Raible says that
Raible’s words echo the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy. There the Deuteronomist says that we were given wells that we did not dig and vineyards and groves we did not plant.[i]
Happiness, justice, and one’s very existence rely on others, on things we did not create or build or plant. No one arrived in life entirely on their own, of their own doing. It’s an impossibility. So it is our lives are interconnected—not just with everyone who lives now—but with all life in cycles across time. Who we are and who we are becoming exist on a continuum that reaches back into history—not just into our personal and family histories—but also back into the larger collective histories of humankind.
And before that even, those connections stretch yet further back to the first breath or OM, a cosmic event, to the hand of God, to the universe—before there were even people at all. Recognizing our existence as part of that continuum is very humbling and awe-inspiring.
Isaac Newton expressed his gratitude for who and what came before with a famous metaphor: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” He understood how knowledge grows, how accomplishments happen, how to see beyond what Newton could see on his own by standing on the shoulders of others. There is a tendency to think of people like Newton as though they arise magically out of nowhere, as though self-made, or as though the products of their family alone or merely of the particular times in which they lived or as somehow solitary exceptions. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, or Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell can seem larger than life, as though they are the true heroes and giants of history. And of course they are, but there is far more to the story. There is a fuller story of the long and complex arc of history, events, people, thought, accomplishment, obstacles, and change that have converged to make possible any given moment or life or accomplishment.
The so-called giants were and are forged and fostered through lineage and community and events. Many leaders, thinkers, spiritualists, and activists emerged specifically out of communities of faith and deep religious conviction. They were inspired by those who came before and prepared the way for them. There would not have been a Martin Luther King Jr without a Gandhi, and there would not have been a Gandhi without the Bhagavad Gita or a Jesus or a Leo Tolstoy or a Henry David Thoreau. There would not have been a Martin Luther King Jr. without a Rosa Parks or a Bible. There would not have been a Barack Obama with a Jackie Robinson or a Martin Luther King Jr. There would not be a William Barber II without a Martin Luther King Jr or a Jackie Robinson. There would not have been a Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama without a Gandhi. There would not be a Van Jones or a Cornell West—or a bell hooks or Oprah Winfrey or Maya Angelou or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—without a Sojourner Truth.
And there are so many others who are part of the trajectory of any one person’s reputation and achievement. There are many people who are part of fostering and growing truth, freedom, and care—including those whose names are lesser known or unknown. Some of those individuals are in the history books and some are not. The thing is, a King or Holiday cannot arise without those who came before them and those who surrounded and joined them.
Unitarian Universalism is profoundly informed by this tradition of people who were leaders, stewards, and caretakers of values, ideas, communities, justice, and truth. We here, the members and friends of this congregation, are part of that continuum. Each of us is linked to that history, embodying those values, whether we know all the stories of all those upon whose shoulders we stand or not.
This church, our church, would not be here otherwise. This church would not exist if it were not for George de Benneville the physician who came to the United States from France and lived in Philadelphia and the Oley Valley where he preached universalism. His descendants were the Keim, Boas, and Ritter families.
This church would not exist if it were not for those families. They invited Rev. Theophilus Fiske to preach in Reading in the spring of 1829. That was a few years before there was a Unitarian Universalist church building. Rev. Fiske created quite a stir. An angry crowd gathered because his preaching denied the existence of hell. Can you imagine people getting angry about there being no hell, which for UUs has been a message of hope and healing. But in those times, the separation of the saved and the damned was a fiercely held theology. Today the idea of universal salvation is not shared by everyone but is not generally speaking considered a scandalous idea.
Three years after Fiske preached that message of universal love, the cornerstone of the Reading Universalist church was laid. The building was dedicated in the spring of 1832. That year the church installed its first minister, Rev. Asher Moore. A few years later in 1836, Captain F.S. Boas became superintendent of the Sunday school.
There could not have been a Moore or Boas without a de Benneville or a Fiske or the families who encouraged the development of Universalism in Reading. And there could not have been any of them without all the earlier seeds of universalism more broadly speaking, John Murray and Olympia Brown, among others.
Without Fiske or de Benneville or the Boas, Keim, and Ritter families, there would not have been a Rev. Griswold Williams. In the early part of the 20th century, the congregation called Williams who served the church from 1920 to 1930. Williams inaugurated the theater group in the church that later became the Reading Community Players, and he authored a well-known covenant whose words are included in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal:
Without Moore or Williams or Asher Stichler who was the congregation’s moderator in 1838 when the church was without a minister or staff, or without the many other leaders and volunteers who came after them, none of us might be sitting here today. And without Boas who started the Sunday School, the children and youth today might not have a liberal religious education program.[iii]
And there were others who attended to the needs of members and friends, as well as the needs of the local community and beyond. They carried the light of justice, peace, freedom, conscience, and inclusion through involvement in local agencies and attendance at rallies, and they wrote letters to the editor and to congress people.
They tended to people’s needs for a liberal religious education, for spirituality, and for pastoral care. They prepared each other casseroles during difficult times, held each other’s hands through divorce and illness, named and dedicated their children, celebrated marriages, graduations, and accomplishments, and buried their beloveds while held in love by others of liberal faith who shared a unique and healing way of understanding the world. Just as we do now. The passion that those individuals felt for the community translated into their commitment of time, talent, and treasure. They sought to ensure that future generations like ours would benefit from their passion and also take up the work, lending their time, talent, and treasure.
It is up to us to carry the values and dreams forward. We are the people on whose shoulders the current and future church depends. We are the ones who must tend and dig the wells from which we and future people will drink and kindle the fires that will warm future seekers of this faith. That is truly inspiring and also a powerful responsibility.
I hope that 100 years from now—or fewer—people will look back and say, “in those early years when the black lives matter movement arose, our religion and our church joined the movement. Our church was the first in Reading to do so. Crowds gathered throughout the country to insist instead that all lives matter, while we continued to preach a message of a still greater love, a universal inclusive love, that affirmed the worth of black lives.” I hope future UUs will be able to say: “It is hard to imagine anyone being upset about saying Black Lives Matter.”
I hope that 100 years from now—or maybe 50 or 25 or fewer—people will look back and say, “Can you imagine people getting angry about teaching young people about their relationships and bodies and sexuality? Can you imagine people getting angry about exploring religious beliefs informed by science? Can you imagine people getting angry about religious pluralism? Or about holding many names for God—or none? Or about affirming the right of conscience?”
At this time of year, members and friends are invited to reflect on their relationship with this religious community, to consider its importance and relevance in their lives, and its impact in the world—in the past, the present, and into the future. Members and friends have the opportunity and responsibility to name their commitments, including the financial commitments they will make for the coming year. What do you hope for now and into the future? How will we together ensure that the passwords of our faith are carried from generation to generation?[iv]
Peter Raible says:
May we be grateful for the wells that others have dug for us. May we tend them and dig new ones for ourselves and for future generations of Unitarian Universalists so that they too can quench their thirst for truth, peace, and love.
Together may we become the shoulders on which those to come can stand. May we become those who make it possible to see further than could otherwise be seen.
Amen. Blessed be.
[i] Deut. 6:11.
[ii] L. Griswold Williams, untitled reading (No. 471) in Singing the Living Tradition.
[iii] “Famous Churches—How They Started: Universalists First Met Here in 1829; Had 35 Charter Members,” Reading Eagle, August 7, 1938.
[iv] Antoine de St.-Exupéry, “From Generation to Generation” (No. 649) in Singing the Living Tradition.
(NOTE: Special thanks to Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, IL, whose sermon at the 2018 UUMA “Winter Institute” provided inspiration for this sermon.)