Safety First

Sermon by Andrew Pakula
 

Reading 1:

By Nadine Stair (age 85)

If I Had My Life to Live Over
 I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
 I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd
have fewer imaginary ones.
 You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.
 Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I'd have more of them. In fact, 
I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments.
 One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.
 I've been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
 If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.
 If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.


 

Sermon


There is a pamphlet on my desk at this moment.  On the front in very large letters are two words “Safety First.” 

That sounds just fine, doesn’t it?  After all, there is nothing more important than safety, is there?  Who could disagree with that?

Safety is one of those issues that no one wants to be on the wrong side of – a subject that no one can bear being accused of being weak on.  It reminds me of a very funny liberal American comic by the name of Steven Colbert who assumes the role of a mythical right-wing news show host. When he interviews people who disagree with him, he is prone to say something unanswerable like “why do you hate freedom?”  Well, “why do you hate safety” would be a similarly impossible question.  

Want an extreme example from the other end of the spectrum from “safety first”?  Travel to the American state of New Hampshire, and look at their state motto – it is printed on every automobile license plate: “Live free or die!”  OK, New Hampshire has always been a bit extreme.  

There was a time when I absolutely put safety first.  As a child, I was timid and shy.  I was fearful and very content to stay at home.  I did not want to try anything new or meet new people and I certainly did not want to take any risks.  Now, no one would say that I’m a big risk taker now by any means, but I’ve moved away from that extreme where I just wanted to stay in my room and play quietly!  I am glad that I did.  As Emerson said, “People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”  I don’t like the feeling of being unsettled any more than I ever did, but I am willing to put up with it knowing how much is to be gained.

I’d like to tell you a bit about one of my Unitarian heroes – Theodore Parker.  Parker was born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts.  This was at the time that Unitarians were just beginning to separate from the more conservative mainstream of New England churches.  His church – the very same one I attended before I moved to London – became Unitarian while Parker was still a boy.  

To say that Parker was intellectually precocious would be an understatement.  He became a schoolteacher at the age of 16.  He readily passed the entrance exam to enter Harvard, but lacking the money to pay his tuition, he simply went on and read the entire Harvard curriculum on his own!  When, he later decided to become a minister and applied to Harvard for ministry training, despite his lack of a college degree, he was accepted with advanced standing!

Language was one of Parker’s great interests and, for a time, he managed to teach himself a new language every month.  By the age of 26, when he graduated Harvard and became minister of a congregation near Boston, he could read in twenty different tongues.

But it is not Parker’s brilliance that makes him so appealing to me.  Theodore Parker was a man who followed his convictions.  When his theology diverged from that of Unitarian orthodoxy of his day, Parker’s outspokenness led him to be ostracized by his colleagues.  Many cruel words were written and said about him, but, despite his pain at this treatment, Parker did not deviate from his path.

Later, Parker became an avid opponent of slavery – in this respect too, he stood apart from his colleagues. Most ministers at the time preferred to avoid the slavery question altogether. They worried about opposition from wealthy members of their congregations whose fortunes depended on slavery, and they were loath to provoke the split between northern and southern states that eventually occurred.  

Parker knew all these things, but he was not deterred.  Theodore Parker did not simply oppose slavery safely from the sidelines.  He did write and speak forcefully against slavery, but he did not stop there.  He raised money to arm antislavery militias.  He even sheltered fugitive slaves in his own home.  At one point, he kept a sword and a pistol by him as he wrote his sermons in case he should need to defend his guests.

Although the powerful Boston Unitarian establishment shunned him, Parker had many friends.  To allow him to preach in Boston, some of them arranged to rent a large theatre – the Melodeon.  Parker’s services proved greatly popular and when attendance there rose to 2,000 people – yes, two thousand people every week – they were forced to move to an even larger venue – the Boston Music Hall, where huge crowds eagerly came to hear him each Sunday.

Theodore Parker did not put safety first.  No – maybe not even second or third.  Far more important to him was being true to his convictions and serving others.

Another story:

An ordinary bus on an ordinary day in Munich in Nazi Germany.  The bus was stopped.  SS soldiers entered and began checking papers.  Jews were being identified, removed and put in a truck waiting down the road.  One woman on the bus began to tremble – tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed her distress, he asked what was wrong.  She explained “I don’t have the papers you have.  I am a Jew.  They’re going to take me.”

Instantly the man exploded with apparent rage and disgust and began to scream at her “You stupid bitch” he roared.  “I can’t stand to be near you!”  The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.  “Damn her!” the man shouted.  “My wife has forgotten her papers again!  I’m so fed up!  She always does this!”  The soldiers laughed and moved on.  The woman never saw the man again – a man who put his own safety aside and saved her life. 

I am grateful beyond words that we do not live in times where such life and death choices face us regularly as they did during American slavery or the Nazi regime in Germany and occupied Europe. It is easy to take for granted the peace and relative justice that surrounds us – it is a blessing indeed.  But decisions about whether or not to put safety first still confront us daily.  This tension is an integral part of the story of life.

I think of a seed that safely over-winters in the cold earth.  Winter is the seed’s season for safety and protection from the world’s harshness.  When spring comes and the seed senses warmth, moisture, and maybe light, there is a decision to be made.  Were I that seed, I’d have to give it some thought.  It may not be freezing any more, but it’s certainly not safe.  Staying a seed – protected in the earth seems like a nice safe way to be.  If I sprout, I can get stepped on or eaten. But of course, growth for a seed requires taking that risk.  Without risk, there can be no growth.  “A ship in harbour is safe” said author John Shedd “but that is not what ships are built for.”  Seeds – and human beings are built for growth.

I have seen the courage of a sprouting seed in many places.  One that particularly fills me with admiration is when one of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender brothers and sisters dares to emerge from the stifling safety of pretending to be someone they are not. It is a huge risk to come out.  Important relationships are suddenly threatened, and the terrible truth is that many friendships do not survive such a revelation. Coming out can lead to desertion by family members too.  And of course, anyone who is openly something other than heterosexual is also a more likely target for attack.  In many places, their rights are limited and they may even be subject to criminal penalties.  So why come out if it is so dangerous? 

Anais Nin said “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  Indeed the cost of remaining hidden and confined – however safe it may seem – is a kind of death.  To fail to grow is a kind of death in itself.

Nadine Stair – who wrote this morning’s reading – shares her own life’s wisdom with us from the age of 85 as she says:  “If I Had My Life to Live Over, I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.”  Few of us at that age will find ourselves saying “I wish I had played it safe more – loved less – reached out less – cared for fewer people…”

Religious communities such as ours are often beset by disagreements fuelled by the tension between of safety and growth.  As difficult as this can be, this tension is a healthy one:  Religion at its best is about both change and continuity.  We, in this congregation, are determined to provide comfort and community for those who have already found a place within these walls – and that calls for safety, continuity, and harmony.  But we are also committed to welcoming into community those who have not yet arrived.  Every time we reach out, we also risk. Every time we tell a friend where we go on Sunday mornings in this country where no one goes to church, we take a chance.  And every new person who enters our lives changes things in some unpredictable way.

This tension is an intrinsic part of the nature of being human and reaching out in love.  C.S. Lewis – the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and also a prolific Christian writer and literary scholar – says this:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

We live in the balance between safety and adventure.  Between stasis and growth.  Between hiding - and standing up boldly for all to see.  Exploring that balance is an ongoing challenge – it is part of the spiritual work we must do.  We can never decide once and for all that the right answer is “Safety First” or “Growth First” or even “Live Free or Die”!  Let us agree to live lives in the balance, adjusting our course as we go, guided by love.

So may it be with you.