A Free Faith
This faith of ours, Unitarian Universalism, has a history very much tied up with the history of our country. And when I search for a single sentence to define our faith, who we are and what it is we stand for, I say that ours is the democratic method applied to matters of faith and conscience. Or to make it simpler, ours is the religion of democracy.
But maybe you already know that in Sudbury because, after all, you were there in the beginning, or at least your forebears were back in 1775, when a drummer stood in the common located just out the front doors of the First Parish meetinghouse and began a beat to assemble the neighbors. All through the morning the old bell rang as the men with their muskets gathered round this church. For ten years they’d been drilling, inside barns during the cold winter months. And a considerable part of the powder and shot held by the colonists had already been distributed around these parts. For the town here was at that time the largest in Middlesex, with over 2000 residents, and for at least a decade Sudbury had been a hotbed of opposition to British rule. Conspirators had been gathering at How’s Tavern, as the Wayside was then called, long before the town voted in 1768 to resist the hated Stamp Act and boycott British goods. When the English Parliament retaliated by slapping a new tax on tea, people here responded with equal determination. Articles ratified by the town folk in 1773 resolved "that whoever shall sell, buy or otherwise use tea … shall be deemed by us enemies to their Countries welfare, and shall be treated as such."
The people of Sudbury were fighters. They weren’t military professionals like the Redcoats who were marching up the Concord Road that morning. No, they were farmers and blacksmiths, cobblers and carpenters. They were volunteers who elected their own officers, rather than having commanders appointed over them. Yet they were in earnest, and as early as 1645, when the town purchased a halbard (a kind of double-edged battle axe) along with a flight of colors, it voted that that "the youth from ten to sixteen shall be directed upon ye usual days, in ye exercise of arms, as shall guns, half pikes, bows and arrows ….." Then at age sixteen, your duty wasn’t done. Rather it was just beginning, as able-bodied males under the age of sixty were put on an "Active List," to be summoned in case of need. Everyone had a job to do, not only the Drum Beater like the one who stood that morning banging out the alarm, but also Dividers of the Shot, another elected town office whose job it was to make sure that every household could provide for its defense.
And so they came, one complement marching in from Framingham, two companies of cavalry from Wayland, by the tens and dozens, every one with his cartridge box of thirty-six rounds, until finally hundreds were gathered here. "The morning was peaceful and lovely," wrote one local historian. "Nature was advanced for the season. The fields were green with grass and even grain which waved in the April breeze," heedless of the storm brewing. Sudbury would send more than half of the Minutemen who confronted the British regulars that day. Two of the town’s own, including a Deacon of this church, died in the skirmishing. But not before they sent the British General Gage and his troops hightailing it back to Boston.
If there were holy days on our religious calendar, April 19th would surely be one, for so many of the principle actors were our own spiritual ancestors. Not only Paul Revere and William Dawes, the other rider that night, who now lies in the burial ground at King’s Chapel, which turned Unitarian in 1787, the same year the Constitution was ratified; but also John Adams and John Hancock, both baptized in the First Parish of Quincy, but sleeping that night in the neighborhood and warned to flee. Captain John Parker who led the Lexington regiment, first to encounter the British, was grandfather of Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister who would extend the revolution in a battle to end slavery two generations later. Reverend William Emerson was there, too, ringing the church bells in Concord, shouting to his neighbors "If we die, let us die here," whose famous grandson Ralph Waldo memorialized that "shot heard round the world" for a later generation.
But neither our nation nor our faith really began that day. Asked to name a date when it all started, John Adams replied that "the revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people." That consciousness of libertypolitical and religious—began to germinate from the very moment of New England’s settlement, when our foremothers and fathers migrated to these shores to establish churches organized according to their own lights and reading of the scriptures, setting themselves at variance with the Church of England and with the King who was head of that church. Habits of self-government that began in congregations like this one, with the custom of electing one’s own minister, were amplified in town meetings that became the hallmark of popular decision-making, so much so that another Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, called town meeting "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government."
Here in Sudbury, which boasts the oldest continuous town meeting in the world, women from the very earliest days were allowed to participate in the deliberations and voting as well as the men. Indentured servants and simple laborers as well as what were called "freemen" or property holders had an equal voice in the joint meetings. Unlike other places in the theocratic Mass Bay Colony, no formal church membership was necessary to take part in these proceedings. By the year 1640, when First Parish was founded, the people of Sudbury had organized themselves into one of the most genuinely democratic communities the world had seen at that point, where neither sex nor creed nor social class could be considered an impediment to exercising the full privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.
This is your history, here in Sudbury. It’s also our history as religious liberals. For our virtues are republican virtues. Our commitments are to democratic ideals of self-determination, personal autonomy, freedom of belief, the sanctity of conscience, separation of church and state, and majority rule with a firm protection for the rights of individuals and minorities. As people of faith, we are committed to the audacious claim that despite their superficial differences of skin color or how much money they’re born into, despite differences of gender, sexual orientation and immigration status, all people are created equal. We are committed to free inquiry and unfettered access to information, opposed to governmental secrecy and censorship and opposed to a media controlled by a corporate elite. We are committed to the arts of building a pluralistic and open society, to the practice of tolerance and dialogue, to fostering literacy and education, to encouraging community activism and grassroots participation. For Unitarian Universalists, all of this is what it means to be a liberal.
And this liberalism also for us has a religious dimension, because we hold that it is within this framework of democratic values that the human spirit is energized to become capable of moral action and mutual responsibility. It’s through the free interplay of questions and ideas that the imagination expands, including our notions of God and justice. I don’t know God means for you but I have a sense of reverence wh
en I think about the people who marc
hed at Selma, or those who fought at Gettysburg. Something stirs in my soul when I ponder events like the gathering in Philadelphia where delegates signed a charter of freedom with their sacred honor, when I contemplate the shared struggle of people paying with their lives for the things they believe in. Justice and equality are not just political goals; they’re what love and compassion look like in their social expression. Hope is not just for the hereafter. Hope is for here and now, and it comes from empowering the vast numbers of people who have no power so that together we can gain control of our collective destiny and, out of a troubled world, fashion a future with a decent life for all our children.
That hope is sometimes hard to find. I’m not sure I see much of it in Washington, D.C. I always don’t see much democracy there, either, certainly not in the so-called "town meetings" the networks organize where hand-picked audiences ask scripted questions of candidates chosen to appear on the podium based on how much money they’ve been able to raise from lobbyists. I don’t see much of the American Dream in the workplace or business where wealth and power has been concentrated increasingly at the top. I don’t always see it in the legal system, where this land of the free puts more people in prison, for longer jail terms, than any other nation on earth, a disproportionate number of them Latino and black. I worry when I see protest limited to restricted "free speech zones" with the demonstrators cordoned behind chain link fences. (Because, funny, I thought the United States was a free speech zone.) I worry when the President can target citizens living abroad for assassination and can indefinitely detain those on U.S. soil without charge if he deems them suspected of terrorism. I thought kind of thing that was against the Constitution.
Understand me, if I criticize this country, it’s only because I love it dearly, the same way Langston Hughes loved it, despite its failures and falsehoods. I hate to see the American promise of dignity and opportunity for all melt away. Even more, I hate to see it slip away without a fight. Because I’m not sure that we can trust the politicians of either party, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the NSA to rescue government of the people and by the people. I think there may be a crucial role, an indispensable role, maybe even a fighting role, for the people—people like you and me.
That’s why I believe congregations matter. People assembled to discuss the issues of the day, to pool their resources for the common good and to vote on how their money gets spent, to elect their own town moderators and church boards, to form the intermediary institutions of civil society, between the isolated individual and the overarching power of the state, to exercise the faculty of dissent, to learn how to disagree without demonizing their adversaries, to build a culture of transparency where meetings are open and records are available for public inspection, to engage in parliamentary procedure and faith-based organizingall of this matters enormously, along with a free pulpit, where ministers are permitted and encouraged to say things out loud and in public that would cost a TV anchorperson his or her job.
You, First Parish of Sudbury, have an historic role to play. You’ve done it before. You should be proud of that, very proud. But you should never rest upon your past. Because you have work to do. To be the voice of liberalism in this community. To prove again that a small number of people acting on their convictions can make a difference. To preserve and pass on the heritage of religious freedom you’ve inherited. To hold out the chalice of your being, asking where this tradition that you safeguard is guiding you now. To be the drum beaters and the bell ringers: this is the charge you keep.