The Transient and the Permanent January 10, 2016
In his novel, Barchester Towers, the English Victorian Anthony Trollope wrote “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.” So prepare yourself for a great hardship to be inflicted upon you for the next 15 – 20 minutes.
But what is a sermon? Be advised, I do insist on calling it a Sermon. Not an address, not a presentation, certainly not a lecture, but a sermon, and unapologetically so. Because the sermon is within the context of an act of worship. Its purpose is not to edify or instruct, not to inform you about the book I have read most recently or offer commentary on the state of the world, though all of those things might be elements within the sermon. Put simply, the purpose of a sermon is, in some way, to leave you in the presence of your God, or if that language is problematic for you, to help you reacquaint yourselves with that which to you is most holy, in whatever way you might need to interpret that.
When it is most effective, though only the preacher might be speaking, a sermon is in fact a dialogue. A dialogue between me in the pulpit and you in the pew, but also a dialogue conducted within your own hearts and minds. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Creative Ministry, wrote this about the dialogue which happens between pulpit and pew.
“When this dialogue takes place, those who listen will come to the recognition of who they really are since the words of the preacher will find a sounding board in their own hearts and find anchor places in their personal life-experiences. And when they allow his words to come so close as to become their flesh and blood, they can say “What you say loudly, I whispered in the dark; what you pronounce so clearly, I had felt some suspicion about; what you put in the foreground, I felt in the back of my mind; what you hold so firmly in your hand always slipped away through my finger. I find myself in your words because your words come from the depths of human experiences and therefore are not just yours but also mine, and your insights do not just belong to you, but are mine as well.”
Theodore Parker, generally recognised as one of the three greats in the history of early American Unitarianism, centered in Boston in the first half of the nineteenth century, the other two being Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, reputedly wrote his sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk. There have been times when I have been writing a sermon when I have thought this a very desirable precaution against the indignation of my long-suffering congregation. But Parker did so not as protection against his outraged parishioners, but against the slavery lobby, against whom he was a passionate adversary at a highly charged time.
But it must be said that Parker also managed to alienate his fellow Unitarians. Though we sing his praises now, he was deeply unpopular with and actively ostracized by his ministerial colleagues. But more of that in a moment.
How many of you have been to England? And how many to the north of that fair isle? Those of you who have been to the north of England, to Yorkshire and Cumbria, Northumbria and Lancashire and Derbyshire, will know that a stunning feature of the rugged countryside is the dry stone walls. They are amazing testaments to the skill, patience and hard work of those who built them, at a time when stone was cheap and labour cheaper. The have no mortar to hold them together, but are stone placed upon stone in a intricate lattice work, and they have stood for centuries, often even going up the sides of near vertical hills. They are monuments to permanence, still serving their purpose hundreds of years after being built, still carving out the land in a patchwork of lines.
I spent nine years in New Hampshire, the Granite State, and there they also have stone walls. But there are two main differences from the stone walls of England. The first is the size of stones. In England, they are manageable blocks, of various shapes and sizes but none bigger than a man can carry. In New Hampshire, they didn’t both splitting the rocks up, they just used them as they were. Great heaving boulders which somehow they prised and grunted into place.
The second and more significant way in which the stone walls in New Hampshire are different is that you can’t see them. They are all hidden by trees. If you have ever been to that state, you will know there is no shortage of trees – maple and beech and sumac and sycamore, never more beautiful than in the Fall. Something in excess of 80% of New Hampshire’s land mass is covered in forest. But the truly amazing this is that virtually of it is secondary forest. But 150 years ago, more than 80% of the land mass was cleared farm land.
What happened? In short, the American Civil War happened. The farmers of New Hampshire dutifully answered the Union call and went south to fight. That bloody war, in which more Americans died than in all wars before and since combined, meant that many of those who went to fight did not return. Many killed, of course, but not all. Many others survived, but they had seen the rich farmland of Virginia and Pennsylvania and Maryland and they thought to themselves, why are we breaking our backs fighting the bitter cold of winter to farm rocks when we could stay here and do so much better. So thousands of New Hampshire farms were abandoned. The fields, so painstakingly cleared, were soon over-run by trees. And the stone walls, built with such effort and toil, disappeared fro view. So now, today, you can be hiking along a trail through dense woods and come across a stone wall, comprised of huge boulders which some poor sod had grunted into being, no doubt consoling himself with the thought that, oh well, at least I am building something of permanent use and value.
Which, of course, brings me right back to Theodore Parker. If there is one sermon for which Parker is remembered and revered to this day, it is his sermon entitled The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. His essential thesis was this. In Christianity, he argued, there are those things which appertained to the particular time and place in which Jesus lived, but there is no reason for us to suppose that we have to do the same today. We don’t have to trudge barefoot from village to village, begging for hospitality while we preach the gospel. Something for which, I have to say, I personally am quite grateful. Similarly, said Parker, there are things we do today which are comforting and inspiring and appropriate for us today. But these are transient things, the incidental trappings of this particular time and place and culture.
But then there are those things about Christianity which are permanent, eternal, and universal. Things which Jesus taught, which remain as true today as the day they were spoken. They are the bedrock, the core of the Christian faith. But, said Parker, too often we confuse the transient with the permanent. Too often we get invested in the silly little things of faith and the passing parade of fashion and we think that they are what is important. And they aren’t. While we must steadfastly cling to the permanent, said Parker, we must be willing to let go of the transient.
Now, you can probably understand why this sermon was not a big hit with the Unitarian establishment of the time, who interpreted it as a direct assault on their petty fussings. But Parker hit the nail right on the head. Some things we do have the mark the eternal, and some are strictly ephemeral. The tricky thing is, we don’t always know which is which. We cannot necessarily know, in our own time, that will be of lasting value and what is the work merely of the moment. We are never qualified to be the judge of our own time. Winston Churchill once said of a political opponent that history would judge that person harshly. Churchill was confident of that, he said, because he planned to write that history.
Clara Barton, herself not one to be idle, not one to be deterred by the drag anchor of the past, once said “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things always have been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent! I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”
But how are we to know, as we labour on our own stone walls, as we do the work of our own time and place and circumstance, whether our stone wall will be like the stone walls of northern England, monuments of permanent beauty and utility, or the stone walls of New Hampshire, invisible and irrelevant because of forces beyond our ability to foresee? How are we to know? The answer is, of course, we are not to know. Our task is not necessarily to build for the future; it is to be faithful in the present. Because faithfulness itself does abide, whether or not its fruit does. Future generations might or might not have use for what we do today. But future generations will always have use of the example of us being true to our own time.
Howard Thurman tells the story of watching an old man planting a grove of pecan trees. The little treeless were not more than two or three feet high, and Thurman, then a brash young man, asked the old man, “Why do you not select larger trees so as to increase the possibility of your living to see them bear at least once crop of nuts.”
The old man looked at Thurman and replied “These small trees are cheaper and I have very little money.”
“So you do not expect to see the trees reach maturity to bear fruit?” insisted Thurman.
“No,” replied the old man, “but is that important? Al my life I have eaten fruit from trees I did not plant. Why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone? Besides, the man who plants because he will reap in harvest has no faith in life.”
There is much of life which is the reaping of what we have not sown, and the planting of what we shall not reap. But we plant and we reap in the context of our own time.
There is nothing more fleeting that the beauty of a single flower. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote:
Flower in a crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you there, root and all, in my hand, little flower – but if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.”
The blossom os a single short season, a flower starts to die the moment we pluck it for our delight. Yet, with it lie the secrets of life, the wonders and miracles of the universe. Speaking of the roses beneath his window, Emerson wrote “These roses make no reference to former roses or to better ones. They are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
Though each beautiful flower in the creation of impermanence, beauty is eternal. Likewise, each of us in transient, inhabiting the permanence of this place. We bring our gifts for others to share, we take what gifts others offer in return. Fleeting, time bound creatures that we are, yet here we are, called up to be perfect in the full beauty of our fleeting existence.