Service — Shawnee Mission UU Church, 3 August 2014

Here are the readings and the sermon for the service I officiated at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, Lenexa, KS on 3 August 2014.

“In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

“Night Mail,” by W.H. Auden

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Thro’ sparse counties she rampages,
Her driver’s eye upon the gauges.
Panting up past lonely farms
Fed by the fireman’s restless arms.
Striding forward along the rails
Thro’ southern uplands with northern mails.
Winding up the valley to the watershed,
Thro’ the heather and the weather and the dawn overhead.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheepdogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Craw-ford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

from Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch

The train and the stations, the engines and boxcars, the rat-tling aura of faraway places and the stories told by those who had ridden in the wheeled and coupled lines of coaches out to and over the blue horizon: all these put fresh images – some true, some gloringly embellished – into our pantheon of fan-cies and reservations. The train made distances seem less re-al; it also intruded upon the American desire to be left alone, to seek peace and respite and rural seclusion. In its size and its constancy of motion, city to city, its loud whis-tles and rapid clanking and clattering, the train was both a machine and an almost breathing monster of transportation, es-cape, kidnap. The train seemed to go everywhere, and it meant everything. (pp. 260-261)

Sermon — “A Unitarian Dreams of Trains”

When Thom asked me in May if I wanted to do a service this summer, and asked for a possible topic, I replied “yes,” and then “trains.” As our communication was through email, my response to his questions was not instantaneous, though it felt that way. “Trains” was the first thing that popped into my head, and taking that as a sign from my Muse, I sent word to Thom. Having made my choice and having announced it, I then started to wonder, why trains? What am I going to do with this? Well, one thing I won’t be doing is giving some sort of descriptive catalog of trains. When I mentioned my topic to a co-worker at the Kansas City Public Library, she asked, “diesel” or “steam,” “commuter” or “long-distance,” “freight” or “passenger” “Union Pacific” or “Amtrak.” Though I would find such a discussion interesting, I am not well equipped to do it justice. And, besides, I recall a long mon-otone presentation on the history of trains delivered as a lay-led summer service at May Memorial Unitarian Society in Syracuse, NY in 1993, and those memories are not so fond. Ra-ther, my sermon will be more poetic, and fanciful, and person-al in nature. If you were hoping for a lecture on the speed, means of power, and relative aerodynamism of the Chatanooga Choo-Choo, that train’s long gone from Track 29 in Syracuse, NY, and boy, are you late.
Well, so far as I can figure, there were two immediate connexions made in my mind with trains, and with trains in this place at this time. First is the proximity of train tracks to our property, and the fact that we hear the train whistle most Sundays. The proximity of tracks was the first thing I noticed when Carla and I drove over one Sunday to get a look at the property the Church was then considering for purchase as a new religious home. And the whistle was what I chiefly remember in our very first service here – the time for silent meditation was punctuated with the whistle and the rum-ble of a passing train. At first, that used to bug me. Here I was trying to reflect on something related to the service, or to something said in the Candlelighting, and some chuckle-head was tooting his horn blasting away my wispy mental crea-tion, or making it difficult to hear something, no doubt im-portant, said by the minister. But you know, over time, I’ve come to really appreciate that sound, and was most disappoint-ed during the first two services of this July that no train passed. The train whistle has come to have something of a Zen effect on me. If you’ve ever witnessed Buddhist monks having one of their ritual debates, one will ask another a question, and then loudly clap his hands, after which the monk ques-tioned is to reply. That clap is something of a reset, a call to the moment, to clear away the misty thoughts and encourage one to reply with a fresh mind. And when I find my mind wan-dering here, the whistle of the train has a way of calling me back.
The whistle of the train also brought to mind the song “Five Hundred Miles” by Hedy West, a song I had recently heard wonderfully sung by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Stark Sands in the movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. And as the news of Thom’s impending departure for North Carolina was still relatively recent, the opening section of this song brought to mind one of the functions of trains in song – trains are the means by which someone leaves – they are going, and then they are gone, and there is nothing but memory. “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow, a hundred miles.” I rather doubt the claim of 100 miles. I’ve lived in Kansas City for 20 years, and never hear this train whistle, except when I’m at or near church. I’ve never even heard it at the Oak Park Mall, or the Oak Park library, which are much closer to the tracks than my home in Waldo. But whether true scientifical-ly, or not, that piercing wail of the whistle as a symbol of loss, of missed chances to connect with another, does ring true, and for a while still, the whistle that brings me back to where I am, will also recall me to where I was sitting, house right about 6 rows back, inner aisle seat, Thom Belote at the lectern, when I first heard that whistle. And so, that whistle will remain, for some time – eventually, it will fade — a sign of both presence and absence.
But this will not be a sermon or service on the topic, “my minister done left me.” Though I love the blues, I’m not much of a bluesy person by nature, and though howling at the moon, or the whistling of a train may provide a good release, I want something more in my sermons. So let’s see what else trains might suggest about being Unitarian-Universalist, and about where we are. So, back to “Five Hundred Miles” for a minute. In that first section, I find myself in the “you” role. I’m not the speaker, the “I” on the train, but the one left. But, by the second stanza, with the “you” long gone, I find myself being the “I” – there’s no one else to be here. And what about the “I” of the second stanza – well, here we have a guy (well my “I” is a guy, but there’s room for more than one “I” here – there may be no “I” in “team,” but there are four in Unitarian-Universalist), away from home, far away from home, and missing it terribly, yearning to get back. This guy needs, and doesn’t have, a home. In the 22 years I’ve been a Unitarian, since I first “signed the book” at May Memorial on December 12, 1992, I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve heard say about May Memorial, or Meadville UU Church, or All Souls, or SMUUCH, that they had been looking their whole lives for such a place and finally found it. So, like the “I” on that train, we have a home for which we yearn. For many of us this place is that home, no longer yearned for but found. It’s good to have such a home and good to be such a home to many more, a welcome and welcoming station for all.
The third stanza I find a bit harder to shove into some correspondence with UUism and with us here. After all, we all have shirts upon our backs (by the way, thank you, all for wearing shirts — it would be awfully distracting for me up here – and if I might recommend to the board – “no shirtless Sundays”) and we all have some possessions. But let’s be clear, some here do feel the material pinch of our straight-ened times, and we should be mindful of that; besides, there are other types of poverty than financial. In any case, the “I” of this third stanza is not just poor, but rather ashamed. He (or she) cannot go home because of the stain of poverty – “Lord, I can’t go back home, this a way.” Many in this room have known some stigma in their lives which kept them separate from community, a stigma inflicted from without – others judg-ing us as falling short, or from within – seeing common human frailty as an awful and awfully personal and shameful flaw. In response, I’d like to recall little Edward on the isle of Sodor. He could have let others’ views limit him, and keep him from community. He didn’t. I’d like to suggest we be more like Edward. Conversely, I’d like to suggest we not be like Gordon, overly proud and lording it over others – shame has two sides, and both hurt community.
I’m very fond of Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro.” It involves my favorite form of train travel – the subway, and it describes what, for me, is the key element of religious ex-perience – revelation. In a moment, Pound, in a Metro sta-tion, seeing a car full of people come in, experiences that moment as a wonderful wholeness, in which the individuals on the train disappear and become rather the “petals on a wet black bough.” I’ve known a similar experience myself – on the Red Line of Boston’s T, which ran in my youth between Dorches-ter and Cambridge, one spring evening in 1972. As I sat in the train, heading home from a trip to Harvard Square, I felt this amazing sense of oneness with the world all the while retain-ing a sense of myself as unique. The moment happened as the train came out of the tunnel to cross the Charles River on the Longfellow Bridge. As the skyline of Boston appeared on the far side of the Charles, I became aware of the change in the lighting in the subway car. In the near total darkness of the tunnel, the lights within the car had served only to enlighten the passengers and cast their image against the glass. All be-yond was dark. Alone – I was a fairly lonely teen – I could see the other dozen or so passengers, each caught up in their own world, but was also aware of their reflections all about me. When the train came out of the tunnel, though it was night, those reflections dimmed somewhat in the midst of the lighter darkness of the spring night without. The Boston sky-line came into view through the windows. And I became espe-cially aware of the lights in all the buildings facing. There was the Massachusetts General Hospital, with lights going on and off as staff moved from room to room in their rounds, and many lights were still on, in all the brownstones along Stor-row Drive, which runs along the Boston banks of the Charles. And at that moment I felt a kinship of sorts, with my dozen or so fellow passengers, in our well-lit cocoon, none of whom I knew, or ever met, but also with all those unseen people be-yond in those lit rooms across the river. We shared a moment, though they would never know. The feeling lasted no more than a minute, probably less. The train soon came into Charles Station, and would soon be subterranean again, and with the stimulus gone, the moment past. And yet, that moment had a profound effect on me, and the memory has stayed with me ever since.
When this church was dedicated a year or two ago, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar made much of the fact that this congrega-tion’s first home was in a converted milk barn, which he took as symbolic of the role of the church to nourish, and that we had now moved to a converted school, which he took as symbolic of the role of the church to educate and to spread the message of its good news. Well, today, I’d like to consider the fact that we are so close to train tracks. Well, what do trains have to teach us? What lesson might we learn there? Well, if we look at the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, we learn that the railway is a place of diversity, from little Thomas and Edward to big Gordon, each with important work to do, each bringing different gifts to a common enterprise. On the is-land of Sodor, the stories tell us, all trains have their parts to play, it is important that each use his/her gifts, and is also important that each recognize the special gifts of the other trains. Big Gordon, we recall, eventually learns the lesson of the interdependence of engines, even if he doesn’t admit it in the story, “Edward and Gordon,” while Edward never loses sight of his inherent worth and dignity.
In many of the movies I watched as a youth and continue to watch today, trains often play a part. A note to Hollywood – if you want to be sure of my visit to the theatre to see your film, put a train in your trailers, and I’ll be there. Star Wars Episode VII: Get Poor Chewie Off the MTA – yeah, ba-by! Many films demonstrate the universality of the rails, both how they connect one place to another, and also how they provide transportation for everyone. The wealthy can afford private cars of their own, those less fortunate ride in the day coach, and the destitute find a way to ride the rails by hopping aboard freight trains. There are countless songs about the latter, and others that allude to it – e.g. in “Ear-ly Morning Rain,” where the singer/narrator laments that “you can’t jump a jet plane, like you can a freight train.” In the days before the superhighways, and before air travel became more common, trains did provide an interconnected web of rail, and made it possible for anyone to get up and go. They also sent out a siren’s call wherever they passed and tooted. For children in schools across the country located near train tracks, such as the children of the Bonjour school, the place which has become our church, the train and its whistle sent forth an auditory call, however brief, to all within earshot of the world at large, the world beyond. That whistle sent out a seductive invitation – one that could be acted only in the imagination of the children then, but one day…
In trains, in movies, it is quite common for strangers to hang out together in the club car or dining car and get to know one another. You don’t often see this in films focused on plane travel or bus travel. There people are often shown together, but not connecting with others. And in films about baseball teams, or baseball heroes, there is often a scene or two of the team traveling from New York, or Boston, or Phila-delphia to the West, to St. Louis or Chicago, Cleveland or Cincinnati gathered in their own private car looking forward to the upcoming series, or celebrating their hard-won victory or licking their wounds after a shattering defeat when the se-ries was over. And in boys’ books about college athletics – such as those which detailed the adventures of Frank Merri-well, or Dink Stover – the same sort of camaraderie would be built in the train taking the team to “the big game.”
In documentaries (a lot made by the British government in the 1930s) such as Night Mail, for which W.H. Auden composed the poem which Carla and I read, we see the important day to day (or night by night) function of the trains and how they serve to connect people in business as well as in personal matters. In those films, a lot is made of the schedule, and of all the steps that must be taken by men and women all down the line, so that the trains stay on schedule and perform their important work. And so, we come, full circle to Thomas and his friends.
What does that mean for us? After all, we are sitting here – you physically, and me in the lazy boy recliner of my mind, and not traveling. The train moves in the background from time to time, but we are not on that train. Our station-ary status, however, is, itself, an illusion. We live our lives on a spinning globe hurtling through space, whose move-ment is so internalized we don’t feel it. And every moment of our lives various parts of our bodies are ever working, the synapses in our brains firing, the heart pumping, the lungs expanding and contracting. The nerves throughout our system are always scanning and perceiving and helping our brain to interpret. Even as we sit, we are ever in motion. Besides, we look at life as a journey, not as stasis. Most of us in this room identify as Unitarian Universalists, and we see our-selves as part of a movement, not a monument. So maybe the train, with its whistle, can stir us from our reveries, remind us where we are, and, perhaps remind us of our journey. And the train can be a useful metaphor for church, and Unitarian-Universalist church especially. For we would be moving, but we would also be in community, and would spend time together talking, laughing, singing. And the train, as a means of transit, offers room to move unlike buses or planes, includes the largest group of travelers, it moves fast, but not so fast that we don’t have time to sit and chat.
Those of my generation, pushing 60, and those trailblaz-ers who’ve pushed up to 60 or beyond, recall a time when rail travel was still common – those in the Northeast still know this. But through the 1960s and later, rail travel in most of the US declined, and upkeep of the lines was not maintained. It got so that schedules were meaningless, as the train was rarely, if ever, on time. People stopped looking to trains and have turned to other means of transit. And herein lies a cautionary note for us. Our Unitarian Universalist line, and the Streamlined SMUUCH Express, are the way to go for most in this room. But we are not just passengers on this train, we are shareholders as well, and the workers who keep the enter-prise going. To keep this train in tip-top shape will require effort. I have no doubt we are all up to the task. Let us look to this job not as some burden dropped our already ex-hausted shoulders, but as a great opportunity and the adven-ture it can be, one we enthusiastically undertake, shoulder to shoulder with one another, making an extraordinary effort to-wards the common good.

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