A Free and Responsible Search

READINGS             1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, … but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. …

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


Excerpt from Credo William Sloane Coffin, WKJ, 2004, page 27

Too often the churches have taught that the opposite of love is hate, just as they have taught that the opposite of peace is conflict. What the opposite of peace is I am not sure. I know it is not conflict, maybe not even violence; perhaps it is injustice.

But as regards love, I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love is not hate but fear.

Community is the spirit, the guiding light of the tribe

Whereby people come together in order to fulfill a specific purpose

To help others fulfill their purpose,

And to take care of one another                        Sobonfu Sumé

What is our purpose? What are we called to do, and how do we decide? What happens when we see things differently? Where do we find guidance?

Sometimes, we might find it in religious texts.

Love is patient; love is kind; …”

That passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is not about romantic love. It is about the life of a church community – a reminder of the ways in which, at their best, community members are in covenant with one another.

Paul was 1st century Christian missionary who traveled throughout the Mediterranean, converting Jews and pagans to Christianity and establishing churches. All of the early churches were home churches. The gatherings took place in the houses of the wealthier members, members who had room to host and feed a crowd. Once a church was established Paul moved on, and followed its progress through correspondence with its members.

From Paul’s letters we know that the Corinth’s church members were behaving badly. They sometimes served the communal meal only to invited guests (the wealthier members), they competed over who was best in the spiritual gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues, they listened to itinerant prophets whose messages differed from Paul’s, and they squabbled among themselves. In his letters Paul scolds and instructs and exhorts them to do better.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” he wrote. “It does not insist on its own way.”

First Corinthians chapters 12 and 13 are one guide for us. They are the theological foundations of congregational polity – the form of governance we follow today. They underlie the centuries’ old practice by which each member has responsibility for exercising his or her conscience in the important decisions made by the congregation.

We are also guided by at least five of the seven principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association – reminding us that as a member congregation of that association we covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large

Farther away in time but closer to home, we also have the founding principles of the Florence Congregation – the words chiseled into the plaque in the back of our hall. They are (I’m paraphrasing slightly):

Respect for the right of intellect and freedom of conscience,

Belief that it is each person’s duty to keep mind and heart at all times open to receive the truth and follow its guidance,

Commitment to unity of purpose to seek and accept the right and true, and

       an honest aim and effort to make these the rule of life.

How do you decide, for yourself, what’s right and true?       Where did your values and principles come from?

I got my values from the churkendoose – an old story that was recorded by both Ray Bolger and Burl Ives. We acted out the story once, here, several years ago. My sister Betsy and I had a 78 record on which we played the Ray Bolger version over and over when I was very little – before I was even in kindergarten.

The churkendoose is an odd-looking creature – a strange mix of chicken, turkey, duck and goose. The other animals mock and shun him and then send him away. As a child I empathized with the poor churkendoose – no one should be treated as inferior and odd, no one should be treated the way the other animals treated him. The story does have a happy ending: one day the fox appears, the churkendoose reappears just in time to scare him off, and the animals hail him as their hero.

There were probably some additional influences on my values development, growing up in the sixties: Civil rights, women’s rights, the Great Society. My mother championed programs supporting the education of black women at Wellesley College where she taught, and she was an early and active opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam was an awakening for many of my generation. For my 8th grade social studies class I wrote a meticulously researched paper critical of the U.S. role in the war. It came back covered with paragraphs of red-ink rebuttal from the teacher.

I was on Boston Common in the fall of 1969 for the massive anti-war demonstration. A few years later, I participated in a lobbying effort in Washington. This was in May 1972, the final year of Richard Nixon’s first term in office, a month before the Watergate break-in that would eventually lead to Nixon’s downfall. (I told part of this story once before – my first year here I think.)

I was a college freshman. It was reading period. I had exams to study for and papers to write.   But I was motivated to go, partly by my political convictions and partly by my interest in a tall young man with red hair from my philosophy section. We got up one morning at 5AM to board a bus for the capital. Our mission was to petition members of Congress to vote against appropriations for the war in Cambodia.

We arrived in Washington around noon. Someone divided us into teams and told us which congressional office to visit.

The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who was then the chaplain of Yale’s chapel, was one of the trip’s organizers. He instructed us to regroup in the Capitol rotunda at 4:30 for a rally. At the end of the day, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the rotunda, happily singing protest songs. Someone pointed out the famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock, a tall, imposing looking man who was active in the anti-war movement.

Suddenly, we heard a voice through a bullhorn. “This is the Capitol police. The Capitol building closed at 4:30. You are trespassing on federal property.” I looked around. The rotunda was empty of everyone but our group. Police officers lined the walls and flanked the exits.

“You have five minutes to leave,” the voice continued. “After that, you will be arrested.” Coffin, Dr. Spock, and the other organizers – the “grownups,” as I thought of them – stayed planted where they were and kept on singing. I was confused. No one moved. I was sure Bill Coffin could read my mind, and that he was glaring at me, compelling me to stay put.  

But no one had told us, the students, that they had planned to get arrested – nor that they had planned that we all would get arrested. I thought of the pile of books on my desk back at the dorm. I imagined making a phone call to my father, asking for bail money.

Similar thoughts must have been going through other minds. The man with the bullhorn warned us again. A few of us stood up to leave, and the rest followed. The grownups continued to sing. We filed out through the line of police. Then the arrests began.

We watched as our leaders were escorted out and led into paddy wagons. My feelings were mixed. Mostly, I was angry. I felt that Bill Coffin and the others had tried to use us. I had seen something in his eyes – pride, power, even glee – that upset me. He was someone I admired.

I was glad, too, that I had had the courage to be one of the first to stand up, to exercise my own judgment, to refuse to be used in an action to which I hadn’t consented. And yet I was conflicted. Should I have stayed put?

It was, and is, complicated. Whenever people are engaged with dissent there are different priorities, and different levels of comfort with different kinds of actions. We have different opinions about what is effective, or right. And –leaders have the responsibility to be transparent and inclusive, as and when they can.

Today, in a very short time, we will vote on whether or not to become a level one sanctuary congregation, to welcome a guest seeking sanctuary, should that guest appear.

The sanctuary discernment team has stepped up to leadership over the past two months. They have done extensive research and produced short FAQs and longer reference documents for all of us to review. They have spoken with civil and immigration rights lawyers and with city officials, and have brought experts here to answer our questions. They have acknowledged the unknowns and tried hard to encourage transparency and open communication.

I still have empathy for the churkendoose, for people who are treated unfairly, dismissed, not treated as having the same inherent worth and dignity as those in a more privileged place. I believe we are called to give help and support as we can.

In this moment I also feel some trepidation. I have empathy for the little girl Alice in our story, standing on the jetty in fear, looking into water so deep she can’t see the bottom.

The Reverend William Sloane Coffin died about ten years ago. I still admire him. For most of his life, he was a force in the civil rights movement and many other social justice causes. I didn’t go to Sunday services often, as a student, but when I did his sermons lifted the roof off the chapel, revealing blue sky and the wondrous, wounded world beyond our campus cloister. He reminded me of my better self, and of my responsibilities to others. It was Coffin who said, “As regards love, I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love is not hate but fear.”

The opposite of love is fear. If he is right, then it is also true that the opposite of fear is love. The opposite of fear is love – the opposite of fear is love and care and compassion for our neighbor, and for one another.

The opposite of fear is also faith.

Approval of the sanctuary resolution, if we do that, will be an act of faith. Offering shelter to someone, if we do that, will be an act of faith.

I had no idea, when I preached a sermon about sanctuary last September, how that sermon would be received. I said then that the decision would be yours to make. I said that there were many good reasons not to do it.

Those reasons remain. It would be a big step and a big commitment. We cannot anticipate all the ways it would affect us.

Some of you have thought hard about this and believe it’s not the right step for us. I respect that. Like our Florence forebears, we affirm      respect for the right of intellect and freedom of conscience. We affirm and uphold a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and decision-making by way of democratic process.

I am humbled and deeply grateful to be the spiritual leader of this congregation, a congregation whose people take our principles and values seriously and faithfully.

And I know that if we make the decision, if we decide to dive together into the deep, we will do so in faith.

We will do so in faith that when we find ourselves sinking someone will be there to pull us back to the surface. We will do so in faith that, despite times of confusion and conflict, perhaps even panic and sorrow, we will be there for one another.

We will do so in faith, also, that in offering sanctuary there will also be times of growth, and learning, and hope, and gratitude. We will be there for one another in those times, as well.

We are bound in covenant to each other and to those who have preceded us. We are bound in covenant to serve our purposes and our mission. We are bound in covenant to serve one another, in the spirit of mutual support, cooperation, care and love. We will honor that covenant today, and in the months and years ahead.