Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was one of the most influential theologians and ministers in Unitarianism during the Transcendentalist Movement and leading up to the Civil War. In a sermon entitled Justice and the Conscience, which he published in 1859, he said:
God has made man with the instinctive love of justice in him which gradually gets developed in the world. But in Himself justice is infinite. This justice of God must appear in the world, and in the history of men; and, after ‘all the wrongs that patient merit of the unworthy takes,’ still you see that the ploughshare of justice is drawn through and through the field of the world, uprooting the savage plants... Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.
This is probably the source for the phrase “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” spoken by many social justice activists and religious leaders within Unitarian Universalism and beyond, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
I used this as one of the readings for a sermon two weeks ago, reflecting on the question “What Does It Mean to be a People of Perseverance?”. This was the Sunday after 17 students and teachers were murdered at their high school in Parkland, Florida. As I said that Sunday, while I do trust that this is true, deep in my heart, that the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice, there are times when it is very hard for me to believe it, where, as Parker notes, my eye does not reach far enough to see it and I do not have the lived experience yet to know for sure. And yet, something in me trusts that the divine spirit calling us to life is love, not fear. At least, most of the time. And then there are times like the ones we are in, when I wonder and when I doubt.
Trusting that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends toward justice, I realize both the heartbreak and the hope. The heartbreak comes in realizing that this bending can’t come soon enough. So many people are suffering at the hands of the hate, fear and violence inherent in unjust human relationships and systems. So many will not live to see that bending. Paradoxically, perhaps, herein lies my hope. Reading back on the sermons of Theodore Parker and the works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the African American Unitarian author, speaker, suffragette and abolitionist I preached about this past Sunday, I realize that I live in a time when I see things which they did not experience, and could only imagine might happen. Parker did not live to see the end of slavery. Harper did not live to see women get the vote. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when our schools, religious communities and other gathering places are free from the violence of assault weapons. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when every human being can live authentically into who they are, regardless of the ways in which we separate ourselves into us and them. Perhaps I will not get to see when we realize that true love and care for our children requires us to take care not just of each other’s children, but of our earth. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And for it to happen at all, I need to live, even as imperfectly and short sighted as I do, as if it were true.
Wow, we did it. And we are going to do it. We are going to move forward with making our building more handicap accessible and more welcoming. I want to take a moment to pause to say thank-you: to this congregation for your generosity of donations and of spirit; to Tom Coffey, Dee Halzack, Leslie Yauckoes, Ron Cook, Ron Deschenes, Chris Sweetnam, Don Hayden, and everyone else who has served on the Building Task Force—meeting with architects, contractors, town boards and members of the congregation; to Dave Kaffine and Doug Snow for creating and presenting a clear and thoughtful financial plan; to Jim Curley and John Schneider and everyone who worked on the capital campaign; to the Board of Investment members who have thoughtfully guided us to use our financial resources wisely; and to the Standing Committee, under Sarah Manning’s steady leadership, who have kept the process moving along and communicated clearly in voters’ guides. I appreciate the deepening of covenantal relationship that I have witnessed as we have walked together as a congregation toward making our building reflective of our values. I appreciate the trust you are offering one another and the commitment you are making. It is not easy work.
This past Sunday, I preached about faith formation. I shared these words by Judy Frediani, written for the introduction to Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs (by Kate Tweedie Erslev): “...the entire course of a church’s life is its curriculum—that everything a church says and does, and does not do, ‘teaches’ what that religious community is all about...every person and every activity in the congregation can contribute to individual faith development and congregational growth and development.” With this understanding of congregational life, all we do is “faith formation”. This building project has certainly been an example of that. We have explored questions about our values and ethics with regard to our building. We have discussed the importance of stewardship and setting priorities. We have considered who can and cannot get in for worship and community. We have considered the legacy, both as gift and burden, for our children and youth and the generations to come after them. We have made the big decisions as a congregation and given a lot of time and treasure. We have empowered and trusted those among us who have stepped into leadership to make the day-to-day decisions and to educate and update us as needed. As I said my in sermon, Dolores and I talk all the time about how all the things we are doing in worship, religious education, leadership, committee work, pastoral care, social outreach and justice and building community serve as our “curriculum”: what are we embodying ethically, spiritually, and religiously about Unitarian Universalism? What are our children and youth learning from us? And what are we learning from them, as they come at our Unitarian Universalist faith with fresh eyes and ears?
This church year, only half way through, has been filled with challenge, change, loss, accomplishment, and celebration. I sense that while there have been difficult moments, there is also a lot of healthy energy and spiritual growth as we demonstrate our deepening commitment to the well-being of one another and thoughtful stewardship of our congregation and our Unitarian Universalist faith.