© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 9, 2011
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It is because of how she lived her life that I want to talk about the incredible Margaret Fuller today. But it is perhaps in her death that she gave us the most enduring symbol of the results of living such a magnificent life, so it is there, in her last days, that I would like to begin.
Margaret Fuller had left the United States in 1847 as perhaps the world's first female foreign correspondent, sent by the New York Tribune to cover stories in Europe. In 1850, a revolution broke out in Italy. After meeting and becoming romantically involved with one of its leaders in exile in Paris, Giovanni Angelo, Marchese d' Ossoli, she shifted her focus to the Italian revolution.
Later that year, as the revolution was crumbling, she decided, along with her Italian husband and their newborn child, to return to the United States. Fuller had been plagued for months by images of her impending death. Shortly before departing for the States she wrote to a friend that she was "absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close... I have a vague expectation of some crisis - I know not what."
Their voyage across the Atlantic seemed doomed from the start. Shortly after setting sail, their captain died of smallpox. The affliction spread to Margaret's baby son and others on the vessel, with some recovering and others barely holding on. The entire passage was plagued by bad weather and food shortages. Then, just as the failing and desperate vessel finally sighted the American coastline, the inexperienced crew, now lacking their captain and several other men, misjudged the coast. They slammed violently into a sandbar just 100 yards off the coast of Fire Island, NY, just 100 yards from a safe return home. So close. So close.
Many jumped ship and a few even made it safely to shore. Margaret Fuller's body was never recovered. A memorial marker dedicated to her in Mount Auburn cemetery reads:
By birth a child of New England,
By adoption a citizen of Rome,
By genius belonging to the world.
A fitting tribute to this human being whose legacy has had world-wide implications. I can only imagine that Margaret Fuller would have much preferred to make it home, to complete this journey that had in so many ways finally allowed her to step fully into the incredible human being she was. But in her death, she joined a long line of prophetic men and women, from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr., who lived truly incredible lives of service to the world, but did not themselves make it to the promised land.
As King himself said in regards to his own possible death in Memphis just days before it came: "It doesn't really matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" Like King, Fuller had been to the mountain top and looked over, she had seen the glory, she had lived it. Although neither of them said this, I think I know what they saw. I think they saw another mountain top. Because what prophetic men and women know is that nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime. The promised land is in the becoming, it is in living a life that refuses to conform to that which is wrong with the world.
Far from it being a miracle that Margaret Fuller was this kind of person, it was the direct result of how she was raised. Fuller's family was the absolute exception to their time - early 19th century New England - in that they chose to raise and educate Margaret, their daughter, to the same exacting standards as they would a son. Not surprisingly, the young woman this radical treatment produced was unlike any of her gender who had come before her.
Many have called Margaret Fuller the first modern women. Her pioneering writing on the treatment of women is universally lauded as the beginning of the feminist movement in America. A series of articles she wrote for the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, of which she was the editor and Ralph Waldo Emerson the publisher, became a book entitled Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In regards to it, she wrote in a letter to a friend: "I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth." The book articulated for the first time in an American context the role that women played in the American democracy and Fuller's ideas for improvement. It is now regarded as one of the major documents in American feminism.
She also led a series of what she billed as "conversations." They were gatherings exclusive to women in which the highest concepts and most important ideas of the time would be debated, discussed and dissected, and were intended to act as a substitute to the education denied most women of the time.
She also continued writing and researching. She was the first woman allowed to access and make full use of the Harvard Library. By her early 30s she had gained a reputation as the most-read person, male or female, in the United States. Her crowning achievement was to became the first female editor of the New York Tribune, one of the most respected newspapers of its time. Her ascent was beyond unique; it was unprecedented and earth-shattering. Women who had never had models to aspire to within their own gender now had a real image to turn to of how they could indeed become full, contributing members of society. Nothing would ever be the same again. Margaret Fuller changed the world, not by taking on a cause, but by living it with every fiber of her being.
As I described at the outset, she did not live to see that dream bloom. She would not herself experience a world transformed by her example. But by refusing to submit to unjust standards and expectations, she not only liberated herself in the short time she was able to live, but by extension of her example, she was able to liberate so many others as well.
When one lives like this, as King said, it does not matter if they make it to the promised land, because by refusing to concede the ability to live in right relations with the world, they are already there.
That is why I began with Margaret Fuller's death - because she knew, as she reported to her friend, that she had already left the measure of her footprint on this earth by sharing herself radically with the world. Although she died so close to the shores of her homeland, where if she had returned safely she would have been able to witness for herself the revolution she began, she had already experienced that liberation for herself.
With that being said, today is Association Sunday. What we are asking you to do is to give money to the Unitarian Universalist Association, the very institution that is the inheritor of Margaret Fuller's legacy. The UUA exists as an extension of us, out there in the world, promoting our values and creating resources and curriculum to help support our work. Men and women like Margaret Fuller are our ancestors. They are proof that we have been at this work for a long time, and that nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime. If we support it and live it right, we can ensure that this little movement of ours, this bold experiment of liberal religion, can live on long beyond any one of us, and give birth to the promised land beyond our visions.
To give you one very concrete example of how the UUA makes this possible - how they support us and push our values out in the wider world - our movement's General Assembly next June in Phoenix, Arizona will be focused on the issue of immigration, This will be an excellent opportunity to take your values around that particular issue to the next level, to really start to live them.
As always, there will be workshops and speakers around the topic. But unlike in years past, there will also be direct actions, teach-ins, demonstrations, witness events, and other ways to actually live our values in action together in Phoenix. We are not going to just study and learn, but also take real steps and draw real attention to the issue. As those who have come before us and lived their values know well, it is best to prepare our mind, bodies and souls for such an experience. So the UUA is also providing preparatory events. The first in our district is coming up at the end of the month, on Saturday, October 29. It is an all-day workshop and training at our Mount Diablo Congregation in Walnut Creek. Myself and several other people from this congregation will be going. I strongly encourage you to consider participating, whether you think you may come to GA next year or not.
Whether it is this experience or another, my vision for Mission Peak is to continue to grow our capacity to provide just these kind of opportunities to live your values. I think it is what we do best and what the UUA supports us so well in doing. By being a part of this larger tradition, we are partaking in shared work that stretches back through the ages, back to Margaret Fuller and beyond; and that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren as well, because no work that is worth doing is completed in a lifetime. But may we get so close that we can see it.
May it be so. Ashe.
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