On an autumn day in 1857, Henry David Thoreau confided to his journal, “One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at that season when the maples blazed out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and surrounded themselves with horse-sheds for.” As the most noteworthy resident of Concord ever to resign from its First Parish, it is somehow comforting to think that he simply preferred the blazing forest groves of autumn to the clean lines of the meeting house as a suitable place to worship. Nearly seventeen years had passed since he had sent the town clerk a note indicating that he did not wish to be considered a member of the church, an act which today might lead someone to quip, “he’s just not that into you,” but at least he never said of the Unitarian church what he said of its more orthodox neighbor, after lecturing in the basement of its meeting house: “I trust I helped to undermine it.” While the Transcendentalists in Concord were institutional gadflies in their own day—sometimes something of a nuisance to the church—it’s plain that, a century and a half later, Thoreau and his philosophical companions have long since won the hearts and minds of religious liberals, laying the foundation for the dominant tendencies and expressions of Unitarian Universalism as we know it today.
Now, to my knowledge, there are not many churches around which happen to have taverns located on their campuses, as does the First Parish in Concord, although I do recall reading a newspaper story some years ago about a church in Florida which acquired the bar next door through a bequest from its deceased owner. Unlike Wright Tavern, which I’m told was originally acquired by First Parish so that the taps could be turned off, thereby preventing some of the men-folk from lingering there over a pint or two while the town’s more respectable residents attended worship and meetings, this Florida church continued to operate the bar next door, keeping the spirits flowing freely—but not for free!—under the watchful eyes of its priest, who no doubt saw this as an expansion of his mission field rather than an unseemly conflict. The article left me with this frightening picture of “communion on tap” and pretzels that were actually disguised wafers sprinkled with the salt of the earth. Of course, this arrangement did provide this hitherto declining congregation with a revenue stream that pretty much solved its financial difficulties.
I have no way of knowing whether Henry David Thoreau ever stopped by Wright’s Tavern before it was subject to a hostile takeover by the tithing-men of First Parish, but I do know that he seems to have viewed taverns more positively than meeting houses, perhaps because there were fewer Puritans and town elders to be found in taverns. In other words, he considered the company more respectable and congenial. He himself envisioned a day when, “The tavern will compare favourably with the church. The church is the place where prayers and sermons are delivered, but the tavern is where they are to take effect, and if the former are good, the latter cannot be bad.” Of course, Thoreau neglected to say just how he imagined the goodness of those prayers and sermons would make their way into the lives of tavern patrons, in the absence of their actually showing up at church, which leads me to think that he felt that the tavern bore a greater kinship to the high colors and exuberant spirit of the forest grove than it did to the stayed environment of the meeting house.
The words “tavern” and “tabernacle” share a common Latin root, taberna, which was the diminutive form of the word tabernāculum, which was simply a tent. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit many homes in Concord and they are overwhelmingly beautiful and substantial, but in the end, whether we recognize it or not, human beings are forever dwelling in tents. In time, nature will reclaim the essential elements of even our most substantial homes, just as nature ultimately reclaims each of us. No less is true of the temples we build to our highest values. We dwell in tents—and we worship in tents, too.
In biblical times, the tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that the people of Israel carried with them as they made their way through the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land. The book of Exodus goes into some considerable detail about the size, shape and layout of the tabernacle, the dimensions of which have led more skeptical biblical scholars to question whether Exodus can be trusted in its description of this mobile wilderness sanctuary, which sounds like a backward projection of Solomon’s Temple. Then again, it doesn’t sound any less plausible than a circus tent to me, albeit with greater refinements. It’s said that the furnishings of the tabernacle were of the finest quality and the most costly of materials, as you would expect from a nomadic people who were erecting a place of worship that reflected their lifestyle and practices. Whether or not the details of Exodus can be trusted, it seems abundantly clear that ancient Israel maintained a collective memory of a time when its people worshipped together in a “tent of meeting,” which would have been entirely natural in a desert tradition.
As it happens, taverns and tabernacles are both gathering places—and gathering places of the spirit, no less! Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has suggested that most adults orient their lives around three places—their homes, their workplaces, and some “good third place,” which offers them an informal but public place wherein they round out their lives. Unless we’re reclusive or workaholic, we all have need of some third place which is neither our home nor our workplace, but rather a gathering place where we can find companionship and meaning—a place where we are identified as the unique individuals we are, not by our occupations or by our kinship ties. The “good third place” is that venue “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” to quote a couple of lines of the theme from Cheers. So it won’t surprise you to know that the neighborhood tavern is a classic example of a good third place. But so is the tabernacle, which is to say those places where we gather to worship together in community and explore the deepest of life’s questions and concerns. We are not, as Thoreau suggested, fleeing the high colors of the forest grove, fearing that some mischief is brewing, seeking a safe haven in worship. No, our temples and tabernacles grow out of the very exuberance of spirit that he found in the woods, which others find in the local tavern, and which many of us still find in those sanctuaries where we gather to worship.
Adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, on Sunday, November 8, 2009.