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[Chalice]A Centennial Sermon[Chalice]
". . . all we value here"

Presented March 10, 1985 at the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City, Iowa in celebration of their Centennial year, by Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.

Time is a stroller - a perpetual stroller; it is the constant companion of all our days. Matthew Arnold, in a famous line, said that we are riders on a river of time

So we move along for a little while, measured in years, enjoying or despairing, as the case may be, the passing scene.

Here in this house we have had a place for sharing our passage of time for nearly thirty years, which, added to time in other places in our city, have allowed Unitarians a round hundred years in all. This is a good number, a nice firm number; it rolls along the tongue, both feeling and tasting good. a HUNDRED YEARS, a century - Oh my, A CENTURY - why that's longer than most of us shall live. It is the time for the passing of generations. It is historic time, for history is made up of centuries. How wonderful that here we have one right in our hands, our century, the century of the Unitarian presence in this bastion of northwest Iowa.

Imagine 1885, if you will. The land crossed by railroads, arriving here in Sioux City from the north, the east, the south -- Chicago and Northwestern, Illinois Central, the Milwaukee Road. No automobiles. It was the railroad that made the city viable. They carried the commerce of this agricultural empire, the cattle, the hogs, the grain, and, most of all, the people. For these made possible the forming of the Unitarian church and its affiliated groups in surrounding towns and villages. The people formed this church. This heretical faith with its challenge to the mind and spirit, to build a religion out of life itself; to discover in the wisdom of humankind through the ages the same wisdom which the earth and the seas and the skies yield to this present moment and to every generation.

You have spent time this year with the story of this century, and of this church, its founders, its people. Our Unitarian historian, Dr. Charles Lyttle, concerned with this time of liberal religion spreading across the western states, saw the larger story of Unitarians from Chicago and St.Louis to the Twin Cities, Sioux City, Omaha, and Denver and titled his volume: Freedom Moves West.

"Unity" was the dominant word a hundred years ago among those who were or became Unitarians in this city. When the church at Tenth and Douglas Street was built, the keystone in the entry arch at the corner had those letters chiseled in the red granite stone. UNITY, it said to the passerby and to all who entered. This was the continual theme of its minister, the Reverend Mary Safford, and of her associate Eleanor Gordon. The unity of life and the unity of the spirit. The totality of existence was in this word, the source of all life, all thought, all development was in it. It was, as we might say, a freighted word. It carried a host of meanings and allowed inquiry and investigation into every range of human interest.

There are dangers in such a broad and encompassing concept. It demands much of each person who embraces it. There is a requirement of self-discipline in each avenue of pursuit of meaning. A discipline of mind and spirit which cherishes the use of freedom, but understands freedom is very precious, very fragile and yet enormously resilient. It is as the grass of which Pete Seeger sang in his famous ballad, "God Bless the Grass." Remember the lines of the second stanza:

"God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the truth."

I must tell you that the words of this song, made famous by the singing power of Pete Seeger were, in truth, written by a most wonderful Unitarian woman, Malvina Reynolds, whom I once had the rare privilege of visiting in her home on Parker Street in Berkeley, California. Malvina was later the featured guest of the Unitarian Universalist Association held in Dallas, Texas, where she sang her own songs to a hushed, and then a singing audience.

I mention this, for Malvina Reynolds is a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage now, a woman whose songs moved a nation. Do you recall: "Magic Penny" or "Little Boxes" or that one titled "Let it Be?"

"When you walk n the forest, let it be,
There's a flower in the wood, let it be,
There's a flower in the wood
And it's innocent and good,
By the stone where it stands, let it be,
Let it be, let it be,
It's so lovely where it is, let it be."

Enough of this, however. It is with persons, men and women, with children, who shared the feelings of Malvina Reynolds, Though they lived in an earlier generation, who brought the free religious faith into this growing city and drew together into a congregation.

I recall reading some of the historical material which belonged to this church and to the groups within it. The study groups, meeting to consider the poetry of Robert Browning or the plays of Shakespeare, or issues of the day, whatever that day was. I suspect these groups were very much like the ones you may read about in . . . and the Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, that unusual best-seller of last year and this.

A liberal religious society, a Unitarian church in any mid western city, be it in Iowa or Illinois or Indiana or Nebraska, is a phenomenon. It is as a strange and rare flower in the midst of many common flowers. It has a kind of distinctiveness. It is a distinction that is in great measure due to our primary insistence on religious freedom.

Much is made of Thomas Jefferson by persons in all shades of the religious spectrum, but I will quote him in this context, when after commending the Bap0tist of Roger Williams' type for their consistent advocacy of religious freedom, he compared this to the right-wing clergy of New England congregationalism, saying: "The advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them."

Our Unitarian congregations in mid western states from 1830 to the end of that century were spokes persons for a religious faith that drew upon the Christian tradition and went beyond it. The "laws of nature and of Nature's God" as expressed by Jefferson, were not to be turned upside down or inside out or reversed to make it say "God's Nature."

There is a theological thought of considerable importance in that carefully phrased term, "Nature's God." It is a mark of a religious liberal to put it so; for it makes "Nature" the antecedent of deity and not the other way around.

When you read of, or consider among yourselves, the current question of religious "Sanctuary," you must, it seems to me, come to terms with this same question of a "higher law" - a higher law generated somehow in this realm of the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God." It was this higher law which gave justification to the American Revolution, justifying the colonists to break the civil law of the British crown and parliament, and through a revolution bring a new nation into being with a totally different source of authority than any which had appeared in the western world before.

(I am, at this moment, somewhat surprised at the direction this Centennial address is going.)

What I do wish to impress upon ourselves as we come together this morning, is that we are in an amazing and revolutionary tradition. I also have a great wish to knock on the doors of your mind and awaken you to the grave and present danger that threatens this natural theological base of religious freedom. It is the incipient, underlying danger that Jefferson noted in the quotation used earlier, the danger from the right-wing clergy and their army of supporters.

The field of conflict is clearly drawn between the followers of revealed religion and of natural religion. The discussion, however, is not permitted to be on this distinction, the merits of one or the other are not to be discussed.

Revealed religion, the religion of Falwell, Swaggart, and a swarm of others is vehemently asserted by them, to be the single, sole and final ground for morality. Any and every kind of dissent from this claim is given any one of several titles, all of them uttered with a scathing tone of utter repulsion. In the earlier day the word was "infidel" the sin was, of course, "infidelity." "Infidelity" was, as the once President of Yale College, Timothy Dwight (a strict Calvinist and grandson of Jonathan Edwards) announced, a plan for "exterminating Christianity."

Christianity, in turn, it must be explained, was in his argument, not only the foundation of all morality, but also of the nation itself. Hence, an "infidel" was a danger to the commonweal, a traitor, in short.

Not long ago, Martin Marty suggested in his book; The Infidel, that we are entering our own era of attack with a slight change in terminology. The "infidel" of the 19th century is the "secular humanist" of the 20th. Only this past week, I heard spokes persons of the American Conservative Coalition decry the "secular humanists," and in the following discussion cite, as central to this horrible contingent the signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933.

There were 34 signers of that Manifesto, all were men and half of the group, or seventeen, were Unitarian and Universalist ministers. The Reverend Lon Ray Call said three months after its appearance, that "it fell like a dud in the battle-scarred career of American theological thought." Today it is largely an historical item of interest to a few writers, but has risen as a treasured phantom to be attacked by the Moral Majority, the American Conservative Coalition and others. And so the Manifesto has its most effective life now, fifty years after Lon Ray Call was writing it off as a dud.

Well, it is we who are being attacked week after week by the religious conservative right-wing biblical fundamentalists. When they say "Secular Humanists," they are saying, just under their breath, -- Unitarian, Universalists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and the United Church of Christ." Now I may not enjoy all this lumping, but it does seem to me that we must move into high gear with reaffirmation of our principles and our religious faith.

Not only is it our right to exist as a religious movement, but it is also our right as citizens to give free expression to our faith that is under attack. It is the public school system that is threatened. It is freedom of the press which is challenged. It is the open expression of agreement or difference that is in jeopardy.

I am just as convinced today, as I was in the years of my ministry here in this city, that we must not rely on "pale negations" but must be alive and vocal and audible with positive affirmations.

And what are such positive affirmations? I place first of all: The realization and affirmation of your own life as part and parcel of the universal life flowing through all time and space and yet is timeless and space less. It is the affirmation f belonging, of rightfully belonging.

A second positive affirmation flows from the first. It is the affirmation that this life of yours is endowed with powers and rights - freedom, reason, creative ability.

These are basic affirmations, ones that sustain through times of tribulation, sorrow, calamity. For it is these which are the testing ground of religious faith. Faith, such as these affirmations we speak of, does not come easily, not by repetition of preaching. They are raised to meaning through your own variety of testing experience.

In 1835 Ralph Waldo Emerson was in correspondence with his British contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. In one of his letters, Emerson wrote: "Faith and love are apt to be spasmodic in the best minds. We live on the brink of mysteries and harmonies into which we never enter and with our hand on the doorlatch we die outside."

Note that Emerson did not say a bolted or locked door, but a latched door, a latch which may be lifted and the door opened. A latch which we can take hold of.

I speak of these affirmations as basic and powerfully important for the religious person and especially for the free religious person. You may find this kind of affirmation running through the religious experiences of men and women around the world and reported by them in the literature of their faiths. This is so, since basic to any kind or sort of religious faith is a sense of the cosmic origins which lie within all life forms.

Listen to the words of Rabindranath Tagore, a great liberal spirit and voice of India in this same century.

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit."

This Sioux City congregation through the changing years of a century has come back in each time of tribulation and despair, reasserting a faith that sings of life and its beauty and its challenge.

I suppose there are many persons, indeed I am sure there are many, who would immediately raise the question: "But what of God, but what of the Bible?" Where, they ask or demand, is the authority for what you say? In what book do you find the source of this faith and of your affirmations?

The answer is simple, plain, if difficult to accept. The answer is found in the full ongoing life and experience of the human family - a family that may be as small as one household, and as large as the peoples of the world. For it is the family of man, of humankind, that gives meaning to religion. All Bibles are the outpouring of human experience and reflection on the meanings of such experience. This is the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Taoist writing. But religious writings are not confined to these examples. It is in the poetry and the drama and the sculpture and the music and the painting and in whatever is true expression of the heart, ear and mind.

As Paul Tillich noted in his address at the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Columbia University: "Religion in the largest and most basic sense of the word is ultimate concern."

This is what Jay Atkinson, Carl Whittier, Rabbi Gordon speak for in and out of the pulpits, in and out of churches and temples. It is what each of you is all about in the goings and comings of each day, in small or great ways.

None of us gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says: "Today I shall deal with Ultimate Concerns." Yet that is what we are all about as we give dimension of depth to the day's actions, the day's decisions, the day's relationships with persons who come and go in those hours. Our husbands or wives, our children, our neighbors, our colleagues and coworkers. In every touching moment we are dealing with that most precious of all that is within the universe. We are dealing with life and with lives.

Dr. A. Powell Davies, perhaps the finest spokesman of the liberal faith in our century, said: "When we act, and living is impossible without activity, we are bound to act on some basis of belief."

It is that "basis of belief" that this church exists to strengthen and develop. It is to give dimensions to our belief.

I gave you as a title for this address: ". . . all that we value here." Now I will tell you where this came from and what the context was. This is a phrase from a line in a poem written in the middle of the nineteenth century (1858) by the remarkable Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Using as a symbol, the great earthquake of 1755, which destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal, Holmes wrote "The Deacon's Masterpiece." (The poem is a satirical allegory, suggesting how the most carefully structured theological scheme erected by the great Calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1754, failed to survive against rational minds and scientific advances.)

The poem is a ballad of the New England deacon who built a wonderful one-horse Chaise in 1755, determined to select materials to fashion a chaise that would never give out. The poem describes how this was done and of how the chaise survived to its Centennial - its hundredth birthday. Anticipating the end of his tale, Holmes sets these lines into the poem:

"Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.

So it is that on the morning of November 1, in eighteen hundred and fifty-five, the parson takes a drive in the wonderful one-horse chaise. --

"All at one the horse stood still
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
First a shiver, then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill ---
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
. . . . . . . . .
What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it has been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
how it went to pieces all at once, ---
All at once, and nothing first, ---
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.

For many people this is just a fun ballad and never perceive that Dr. Holmes is describing what happened to the old theologies in the face of new discoveries, such as the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. Dr. Holmes saw the dogmatic and creedal base of Christendom collapsing just as the Deacon's Masterpiece. Each had been a beautifully planned and crafted creation, one a material object, the other a creation in the mind. Each had its lifetime and each collapsed.

You may note that Holmes' prophetic sense did not take into account the stubbornness of non-rational concepts. However, Holmes saw the profound change that followed in Darwin's wake, a change as great as that which a later generation was to witness in the great dynamo of the Paris exposition, or many of us were to witness in the wake of the first atomic explosion.

In this range of human issues and religious understanding, we may and must discover the value that remains when most, if not quite all, that we have known is swept away by the tidal waves of new discovery. The "little of all we value here" that remains may truly be, as Holmes suggested, "a tree and truth."

If I leave you with just these two things as being "all we value here," it may occur to you, now or later, that you have all the treasure of earth and life.

I have reflected at many different times on that hot summer night in 1947 when the Unitarian Church at 10th and Douglas Street went up in flames. We, who stood in the block along 10th Street watched it fall apart, didn't even have a tree. All we had was the truth that was contained within those men and women and families who were the true church, the congregation of faith. I remember those years which followed, the slow, or so it sometimes seemed, climb up the hill to 18th and Grandview and then years later made the transition to this site. But it was not really a long time at all. It was nine and a half years from the fire to this phoenix out of the ashes of the old.

As we move along into the road of all the tomorrows, hold fast to that which is true and survives the tests of life. Keep fast in mind that "Truth is not less true because it is ignored or rejected by majorities. Ideals are not less valid because they meet derision and scorn from a generation that is weary and selfish." These are words of Frederick May Eliot, a true religious liberal, president of the American Unitarian Association, who was here in 1956 to speak at the dedication of this building.

I tell you, all of you who are companions of this way in religion, you are entrusted with a great and honored heritage - the use of freedom in the pursuit of truth.

Let me close with a description of our Unitarian churches as offered by Dr. Eliot in a brief address on "The Essence of Liberalism." This is what we are:
". . . a company of seekers, and the bond which holds them closely together is their common confession that what they seek is still beyond them."

©1985 Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Brigham, John W. 1985. A Centennial Sermon ". . . all we value here", (accessed July 9, 2020).

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