May 22, 2020
My web site is being redeveloped by the very capable folks at VIA Studio. For the next week or two, I will not be posting the texts of my sermons or new material. Once they've got the new site up I will resuming posting my sermon texts and other matters. The texts from May 17th and 24th will be made available at that time.
May 7, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online service for May 3, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of perseverance. Today’s sermon is titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The title is a nod to our closing hymn, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” Each verse of the hymn ends with the same question: “How can I keep from singing?”
The question often comes after words juxtaposing the injustices of the world with the promise of better days. The opening verse runs:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The hymn tells us that if we listen we will hear strains of “a new creation” sounding above the “earth’s lamentation.” It is a comforting message. It certainly reflects something that I would very much like to be true right now, those old words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
But the news of the hour has me mistrusting such theistic promises. Behind each set of words sits a divine deity who assures us, in the words of great poetry, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And reassures us, in soaring rhetoric, truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.
Now, I love this hymn. It is one of my favorites. But right now I am not finding comfort in such hopeful narratives. I find myself profoundly concerned about our human future. I am straining to catch any hint of “the music ringing.” And so, in this sermon, I do not want to offer you false hope. Nor I do I want to give you metaphysical reassurances that all shall be well. Instead, I want to follow the French philosopher Albert Camus’s injunction to “use plain, clean-cut language” when discussing the pandemic and horrors it has unleashed.
I am going to offer you a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice. It is built around an observation about the impermanence of things. “Cambia todo cambia... Cambia la superficial / cambia tambíen lo profundo / cambia el modo de pensar / cambia todo en este mundo,” sang the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Everything changes. The superficial, the profound, the way we think, everything in the world changes, runs my hackneyed translation.
Everything changes. This leads to two simple claims about the pursuit of justice. First, no victory is forever. Second, defeat is rarely permanent. No victory is forever. Defeat is rarely permanent. Such words lack the melodic comfort of hymns to the new creation. And my challenge--or perhaps it is our challenge--is how do I make such claims and yet still cling to the refrain of our closing hymn: How can I keep from singing?
Before I turn to a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice, I offer two contextual reflections. The first, a discussion of Unitarian Universalism and religious pluralism. It could alternatively be described as a response to the query: Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church? The second, some observations about our political and economic moment. We might name that section a response to a Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s going on?
So, Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church?
I offer this rhetorical question for all of you who are watching this video and are not members or regular attendees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston or another Unitarian Universalist congregation. I know there are a fair number of you. As I mentioned in my welcome, right now we have people from all over who are watching these videos. If this service is anything like our previous online services some of you are listening to me in your homes in places as far away as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. I even know of a family who has been joining us from Brazil and someone else who is connecting with us from Prague.
And, so, for all of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, let me hone on in one particular phrase that we offer each week in our welcome statement, we need not think alike to love alike. It is attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Francis David. He lived in Transylvania which was then situated at the border between the Ottoman Empire and what used to be called Christendom--the lands in Europe that were then under control of political powers affiliated with one kind of Christianity or another.
Transylvania at that time was a religious diverse community. The practice then was that people more-or-less had to follow the religion of the local monarch. If the king or queen was a Catholic, then the people were expected to be Catholic. And if monarch was Protestant then they were supposed to follow the teachings of whatever Protestant church the resident royalty belonged to. Now, this created all kinds of problems. Frankly, it led to all sorts of stupid wars. The advent of a new monarch brought with them the threat of a religious realignment. Crudely put, if the previous monarch was a Protestant and the new one was a Catholic then the new king or queen would expect all of the people who lived in the country they ruled to convert.
Faith is a deeply held. Few people wanted to switch religions just because the palace had a new resident. And so, there were all sorts of horrible conflicts. In the United Kingdom, just as an example, Mary Tudor executed Protestants for their religious beliefs and then her sister, who succeeded her, Elizabeth the First, executed Catholics.
Francis David was a man of peace. He thought all of this religious conflict was ridiculous. The king in Transylvania was then a man named John Sigsmund. Like David, the king was a Unitarian. David had no idea what the religion of Sigsmund’s successor would be. And so, he, and the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, convinced John Sigismund that rather than make Unitarianism the state religion, he should pass a law proclaiming religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and reads, in part: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any... [person’s] soul.”
Religious tolerance, the idea that each person’s faith, their relationship to the divine, is their own, gradually expanded in Unitarian Universalist circles to an acceptance of religious pluralism. If the preacher can “preach the gospel according to their understanding” then there is no reason why parishioners should not have their own particular understandings of the gospel. The word gospel essential means good news. I use it here not to offer a particularly Christian account of religion but as a way of speaking of the thing you understand to be most important about your relationship to the whirling dance of mass and light, the earthly mess of water and dirt, that which we might call the cosmos, or gaia, or God, or the spark of human reason, or love or... whatever you might name the all of this which we are each a part of and enmeshed in.
Over time the emphasis on religious tolerance, led Unitarian Universalism to be somewhat unique among the Western religions. It became pluralistic. Its adherents came to understand, we need not think alike to love alike, and realized that what the religious community did together was more important than what its individual members believed.
At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and in other Unitarian Universalist communities, we celebrate people’s ability to uncover their own relationship with the, well, I will just call it all this--the light that filters green through the leaves of trees, the virus that is spreading among us, the lush blues of Henri-Edmond Cross’s canvases, the damn rent that is due at the beginning of the month, the beauty and the horror of existence--and, at the same time, ask each other the question: How shall we live together?
We are a community. We cannot all agree upon what we believe. But, maybe, just maybe, as a community we can figure out how to live together. We need not think alike to love alike. It is the hope, the gospel, the good news, if you will, of Unitarian Universalism.
Our embrace of pluralism is why we have humanists in our churches. Humanism is this a worldly focused tradition. Its adherents argue that there is no transcendental force outside of human history--no God or divine force--that is bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Anthony Pinn, a leading humanist and Unitarian Universalist, suggests that humanists recognize, “we’re dependent upon a world that doesn’t bend to our will and doesn’t prioritize the criteria for our well-being.” We are the ones who make whatever meaning we find in the world. And we are the ones we who will bring whatever justice we find into the world.
Alongside humanists, we have people of a variety of religious perspectives who participate in the life of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. There are theists, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even many atheists and agnostics. Some of our members hold onto multiple religious identities or even belong to multiple religious communities.
For my part, I identify primarily with humanism but I find myself drawn to the symbolism and stories of both Christian gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. This partially due to the fact that I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation by a mother who had been born into a Christian family and a father who had been born into a Jewish one. It is also rooted in an understanding that religious language is metaphorical. We use religious symbols to represent that which is greater than ourselves. Humanist philosophy, gnostic Christian symbols--the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living--, and mystical Jewish parables are all attempts to put into words that which ultimately escapes language--my relationship, and yours, to the all of this of which we are each part and parcel.
Why, humanism in the church? What we do together is more important than what we believe. Why, humanism in the church? We are a pluralistic tradition which invites us to draw upon many sources for our understanding of our relationship with all that is. Why, humanism in the church? We need not think alike to love alike.
And, now, my second contextual reflection, What’s going on?
The state of Texas started to re-open yesterday. I took a walk through my neighborhood. There was more traffic than there had been in weeks. There were people noisily sitting at bars and restaurants. Very few of them were wearing face masks. The day before Texas reported the second highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The pandemic is far from contained. It is only getting started. And, yet, the governor and his allies want people to get back to work and to get the economy moving again. What’s going on?
In my home state of Michigan, the scenes from the state capital this week were chilling. Men with rifles stormed the capital building demanding that the governor “Open the Economy.” One member of the state legislature tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them.” That is right, politicians in Michigan are wearing bulletproof vests for fear of getting shot while deliberating on legislation. What’s going on?
Oh, did, I mention, that the governor of the State of Texas is a white man? And that the men with rifles who invaded Michigan’s state capital were all white men? Excuse me, I must have forgotten. But then, there is a tendency in this country’s culture to take whiteness as the great unspoken norm. What would have happened if the men who had stormed Michigan’s state capital had been black or brown? How would they have been treated? What’s going on?
The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily described whiteness this way: “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” And right now, once again, the consequences of this doctrine appear to being laid bare. The white men with rifles and the governor of the State of Texas are trying to re-assert their ownership, their control, of the world while the viral pandemic rages. I do not think it is a coincidence that the plans and demands to re-open the economy came soon after it was discovered that the virus was disproportionately impacting communities of color. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the people being forced to go back to work right now--and forced is the right term because if the businesses they work for re-open and they stay home then they will be ineligible for unemployment--are people of color. It is the logic of system that has built generations of white wealth off of the exploitation of people with brown and black bodies.
Two illustrations from national politics. First, we have the President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to remain open. This move is accompanied by two refusals. The first is a refusal to offer any national regulation on the safety standards that businesses are to follow during the pandemic. Instead businesses are to employ whatever safety regime business managers and owners think best. Business managers and owners do not have a particular interest in keeping employees safe--at least not big business owners and managers--they have an obligation to make the most money possible. That’s the core logic of capitalism. So, in refusing to provide national safety regulations during this time of pandemic the President is basically telling working people that they had better keep working and that they are at the mercy of their employers.
The second refusal is the President’s decision to not invoke the Defense Production Act to produce either personal protective equipment or ventilators. He is willing to invoke it to force people to work under unsafe conditions. He is not willing to invoke it to make sufficient equipment to save people’s lives. Perhaps I should mention that the vast majority of workers at meatpacking plants are migrants and people of color? White wealth built upon the bodies of black and brown people.
My second illustration from national politics comes from the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any significant emergency funding to state governments. This is an effort to bankrupt state governments and destroy many of the gains that working people have made over the last generations. If state governments are forced into bankruptcy then they will not be able to pay unemployment benefits. They will not be able to honor the pensions of public workers. Should I mention here that unemployment is disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or that the path for many people of color into what gets called the middle class has been through public service jobs? Or that it has been an objective of Southern white supremacists since before the Civil War to weaken the federal government so that they could have greater ability to exploit black and brown bodies?
What’s going on? The President of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, and the white men who invaded the Michigan state capital believe that black and brown lives do not matter. What’s going on? White wealth is once again being built off the bodies of black and brown people. What’s going on? Maybe should we take out the old Marvin Gaye track--I recommend the vinyl if you’ve got it--and listen to the words: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today.”
What’s going on? I may have offered too much of the political for those of you who turned to this service for a bit of comfort and connection. However, I told you that I would be offering a humanist account of the pursuit of justice. And that pursuit is an earthly pursuit. It rejects the claim that we should only hope for Heaven when we are dead. Let us now move towards to my humanist account of the pursuit of justice.
Justice is not best understood in the abstract. It is about the actual lives of actual people. And right now, being real about justice means recognizing that the United States has long been a racialized order. And right now, it also means listening to the words of Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and so-called sage of Omaha. A few years ago, he said, “There’s class warfare... but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
My humanist account of justice draws from these real dynamics. No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. Instead, there is constant struggle between all the different communities in society. In a society that has historically been white supremacist, that struggle is partially between those who wish to proclaim that whiteness is mastery of the earth forever and forever Amen and those who have more multi-racial vision. And it is also between those who wish to maximize profit and those who work so that they can simply provide for themselves and their families.
It is a somewhat crude analysis but certainly it seems to be borne out by the struggles of the hour. On the hand, we have those, who appear to be demanding that the lives of working people, particularly those with brown and black bodies, be sacrificed so that they can continue to make profit and have comfort. And on the other, well, Friday was May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers struggle for justice. It was marked by strikes or sick-outs--that is people calling into work sick as a form of protest--at many of the largest companies employing so-called essential workers--who, in many cases, are being treated as expendable workers.
In the last several weeks, the wealth of richest people in the country--Jeff Bezos particularly comes to mind--has been increased at dizzying rate. At the same time, many working families are in a state of complete crisis. More people are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. And the solution is not, as the governor of Texas would have it, to get back to work. It is provide them, as many other countries are doing around the world, with the necessary resources to safely shelter in place. But that would impact the ability of the richest amongst us to make profit.
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I offer this humanist account of the pursuit of justice as a way to remind you that almost all the good things in life that have come to the majority of working people have come through struggle. The New Deal is under assault right now via Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments. It was not granted on high by the largess of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It came about because in the midst of crisis of the Great Depression working people organized, went on strike, withheld rent, refused to participate in an economy that was not working for them, and put enormous pressure on politicians and business leaders to make sure that the economy actually provided them with something.
Unemployment, Social Security, workplace protections, they are all under threat right now. No victory is permanent. And defeat is rarely forever. Following the Civil War there was an effort to build something like the New Deal. It was called Reconstruction. And it turned back the tide, for a time, of white supremacy and built much of the country’s public-school system and offered both black and white people some protections and provisions. These looked a bit like those found in the New Deal and that were later won by the civil rights movement. Those victories were worn away over the decades until the crisis of the Great Depression and then World War II provided an opportunity to rebuild and build upon them. And now... What’s going on? Will the pandemic bring about further destruction of those gains? Or will folks organize to lay the groundwork for working people to have more of the good things of life?
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I am afraid that through this sermon I may have focused too much on a narrative of social salvation for some of your tastes. Where is the song in all of this, you might be asking? You might not be an essential worker. You might be someone who has the resources to continue to shelter in place. You might hear your life reflected in the words of Dorothy Dow’s poem “Waiting,” written shortly after the 1918 flu pandemic:
If you should walk in the park and not find me,
Or go in the market-place and not see me,
Would you not search further?
Does not your heart tell you I am somewhere?
Go out on the long roads--I may be at the end of one.
You might simply be sitting at home safely, waiting for all of this to end so that life might return to something like it once was. You might be wanting a more hope filled message. If you are, I invite you to listen to me as we turn to the end of the sermon and a reflection on Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. It is a novel that I am inviting you to read with me this month as part of my discussion group Texts for Troubled Times.
Camus’s novel is set in an Algerian town immediately following World War II. The book centers on the question: In the midst of a pandemic how shall we, as individuals, pursue justice? It is often read as a parable about life under totalitarianism. Camus was a committed anti-fascist. He fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis. When he wrote the book, he was more concerned about the rise of totalitarianism via the Soviet Union than he was about plagues. But then, he argued, through his book, that totalitarian regimes--those who organize the world around the politics of the dead and seek to marginalize the lives of working people for their own ends--are a lot like plagues. They come on slowly and then blossom in full force. They are endured. They are resisted. And then, when the necessary immunity has been built up, they begin to go away. That, at least, is what Camus thought.
In his novel, he offers advice on how we might live when no victory is permanent, and defeat is rarely forever. He does not suggest that justice will reign forever. “[T]here are pestilences and there are victims,” he tells us. Humans are not able to fully control the natural world. Plagues will come and go and come again. Tyrants and dictators might be restrained for a time but they, like plagues, continue to re-emerge and reassert themselves. That is what happening now, in this time of pandemic, across the globe. How shall we live, then, Camus asks?
By “not to join[ing] forces with pestilences” he answers. By pursuing, what I have called in other sermons, the politics of the living. Choosing, through our individual actions, the things we can do to slow the spread of pestilences of COVID-19 and white supremacy. We should not act, Camus, suggests with the assurance that our actions will bring about an end to the plague. We should persist because we can and because in doing so we might make things better for ourselves and for everyone else.
Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, we can continue to practice social distancing. We can be in solidarity with essential workers. Or, if we are working, we can strike in demand of safe working conditions. It is clear the federal government is not going to provide them to working people and that safe conditions will only be won through struggle. We can boycott the big chains that are making money while small businesses starve. If you look online you can alternatives sources for almost anything that Amazon sells. But most all, we can each ourselves the simple question: What can I do to not join forces with pestilences?
That question may unexpectedly lead to another. Camus found joy in life. He sought to bring more beauty into the world through his novels and stories. In his reading of Camus’s novel, humanist Anthony Pinn, suggests that its lesson is that there is joy in the struggle. He closes some recent reflections on Camus and COVID-19 with these words:
We struggle with our own task, work against the threat of this virus… simply because we can. COVID-19, some day, will withdraw--and we will leave our homes again, gather with family and friends. But the virus won’t be gone, the threat is ever present. Things are “well” not because the threat has been tamed, but because we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves... happy.
I close my reflections with a gesture towards our closing hymn. I find greater truth in its final verse than in its first:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near,
how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?
If we persist in our efforts to be in solidarity with each other and not cooperate with the virus then we will look back on these times without shame. If we persist in the struggle for justice, knowing that no victory is forever, and defeat is rarely permanent, we will be able to make tyrants tremble with the bells of freedom. The tyrants might win and they might not but our peals of liberty will cause them to quake. If we do what we can to slow the spread and to help, and dare I say love, each other then, we will look back on these times, these strange days, with the question: How can I keep from singing?
I have spoken. You have heard. And, as Francis David and I both would have you do, ask yourself: Does this humanist gospel speak to your heart? How can I keep from singing?
May the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, say Amen.
Apr 27, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online worship service, April 26, 2020
The theme of today’s service is renewal and regeneration. And in this sermon I invite us to consider the most pressing question immediately before us: What comes next?
The Governor of Texas has begun the process of re-opening the state. He has appointed a task force to get non-essential workers back to work and businesses back in business. The state, national, and world economy, meanwhile, are currently in a greater freefall than the one experienced during the Great Depression. Many people are hungry. Many people are scared. Many people are tired. And almost everyone is asking, what comes next?
But before I get to that vital question, I have to admit that I almost titled my sermon: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. Like many other families, my own continues to struggle to make it through the everyday. Now, normally, I avoid too much of a focus on my own quotidian challenges in my preaching. This is especially true when it comes to my children. Neither of them signed up to be preacher’s kids. I do not think it is appropriate to turn their lives into sermon illustrates.
However, in the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the primary job of the preacher was to “convert life into truth.” He charged Unitarian ministers to offer up “life passed through the fire of thought.” And I think that I am not burdening my son with some unasked-for narrative by sharing that it is not easy trying to get him to engage with his schoolwork. Out experience is, after all, one shared by many families. The primary truth I can offer, from my own life, today, is demonstrated by the tension between the question at the heart of my sermon and my alternative sermon title. We need to ask: What comes next? And, at the same time, most of us are wrestling with our own variants of: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The tension between our question and my alternative sermon title is not a new one. It might be reframed as another question: How do we look to the future when we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy? And to ask that question is essentially to ask, how shall we mourn?
It might seem counter-intuitive, but mourning is essentially a future oriented activity. When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. We admit that we are suffering. And then we try to ask ourselves the difficult question: What comes next? What comes next itself contains two questions: How shall we remember those we have lost? And how shall we live without them?
This past week the COVID-19 death count in the United States passed fifty thousand. I suspect that most of you have been impacted by the virus. I know someone listening to this sermon is ill. I know someone hearing me preach has lost family or friends. I know someone considering my words has lost their job or their business. I know that almost everyone who is playing this video has been affected by this pandemic. We are all mourning.
As a historian, political philosopher, and a theologian, not to mention a parish minister, I have been finding it increasingly unhelpful to think of the situation we are in as unprecedented. There have been plagues and pandemics before. There have been tyrants before. The wealthy and powerful have feigned compassion for the poor before. There has been mass economic disruption before. And people have mourned before.
One of the central functions of a religious community is to help people mourn. We hold funerals and memorial services. We offer prayers and condolences. We write eulogies. We make meaning through mourning. We ask the question, through tears, what comes next?
For most of us, our primary experience of mourning has been mourning the deaths of individuals. Our grandparents or parents or partners or friends or even children have died. Their deaths might have been swift and tragic. They might have come at the end of a long illness. They might have arrived when those we loved were old, in their middle years, or when they were young. Whenever it has come, we, the mourners, who have survived have needed to ask the questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next?
I have lost my grandparents to old age and heart disease. I have lost friends to drug overdoses, violence, and suicide. I have had loved ones die of cancer. I have known people who were killed in car crashes and bicycle accidents. In each instance, the same questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next? How shall I mourn?
Right now, many of us feel like the writer Edith Sitwell when she was asked why she wore black. She replied that she was in mourning. “For whom are you in mourning?” came the response. “For the world,” she answered.
We are mourning the world. There is a sense of mourning the world in June Jordan’s poem, “Nobody Riding the Roads Today.” It was written long before COVID-19 blighted the globe. And yet, it captures much of the experience of isolation that I know many of us are feeling:
Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness
...Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone
The world empty, the world split, the world twisted; we are mourning the world. We are asking ourselves, what did the way of life we had before the pandemic mean? We are asking, what comes next? And we, are doing this all, as all mourners must, in the midst of our ordinary, unaccustomed, struggles: illness, fear of illness, deaths of loved ones, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger and want, and, in the case of many an exasperated parent, the cry of, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork? Each struggle connecting to an aspect of what we have lost, of what we are mourning: health, the illusion of safety, economic security, work, and the school community. They each meant something different to us before the pandemic. And their meanings have changed now that we find ourselves living amid a worldwide pestilence.
The anthropologist David Graeber has written perceptively about mourning and the function of religion. Controversially, but correctly, Graeber believes that a central purpose of religion is, in his words, “the production of people.” In religious community, he writes, we “are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles... constantly being attended to and care for.” In community, we are “implicated in processes of transformation.”
It is a statement that I am sure rankles many of my more libertarian or individualistically oriented friends. One of the great myths of the United States is that we are self-made individuals. It is a myth that lies at the heart of the country’s economic system. It animates much of economic discourse and influential economists like F. A. Hayek have claimed “the individualistic tradition... has created Western civilization.”
Individualism sits at the core of the salvation narrative of conventional Christianity. After our deaths, we are promised, if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will ascend to Heaven and enjoy life eternal. The emphasis is on what happens to your individual soul and to mine. It is not on what happens to us together.
Graeber’s anthropological understanding of religion suggests, instead, that we are social creatures and that in community we create each other. Mourning offers an illustration of this dynamic. “Rarely,” he argues, “do the political careers of important individuals end in death. Often political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” What is true of political figures, can be true for all us. Our legacies, our contributions to the commonweal, last beyond our mortal shells.
Some years ago, I asked my friend, the now deceased Spanish Civil War veteran, anarchist, and union organizer Federico Arcos, what he thought about life after death. Federico was a militant atheist. He had little use for organized religion--though he greatly admired both Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I assumed he would simply tell me that it the idea of life after death was absurd.
Instead, he surprised me. “We are immortal,” he told me. “We live on the stories we are part of and in the things we create.” “You see this road,” we were driving, “the working people who built it will live on in it as long as it continues to exist. My dead friends,” he had lost most of his loved ones during the war, “live on in me through the stories I tell. And they will on in you because I am telling you their stories. And if you share their stories,” and I have, “they will continue. That is our immortality.”
We are narrative creatures. We tell the stories of our own lives to each other to make meaning from them. And other people tell stories about our lives to understand our social roles. A religious community is a community of memory. And, “it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge,” wrote twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. “It is only through a disciplined memory of the past,” he continued, “that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly.”
We are mourning. We are asking what our stories have meant. And we are asking, what comes next? Since, we are in the Easter season, and because we are a religious community, I might point out that Christianity is, in many ways, a religion of mourning.
Jesus, the poor man, the rebel Rabbi, the overturner of the money changers’ tables, the preacher of the power of community and the living presence of the Kingdom of God, was put to death by the greatest empire of his day for suggesting that love was the most powerful earthly force. Jesus’s followers believed him to be the messiah, the individual who God had sent to proclaim, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, “let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”
Instead of bringing about the reign of the divine, peace to the cottages, and plenty to the tables, the story is told, Jesus was executed as a common criminal. He was nailed to a cross and placed between two thieves to die a humiliating and excruciating death.
Die he did. And his community had to ask the questions, amid pain and suffering, amid their experiences of grief and loss: What did his life mean? What comes next?
We might read the Christian New Testament and the non-canonical Christian texts, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as a series of arguments about how to answer these questions. In my Easter sermon, I suggested that one answer people found within these texts was a belief in the resurrection of dead--we shall only hope for heaven when we are dead. And I suggested that another answer was the resurrection of the living--opening ourselves to savoring what is and building the just community where we can. And I argued that the resurrection of the dead led to the politics of the dead. And that the resurrection of the living led to the politics of the living.
We can find debates about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living scattered throughout Christian texts. We can read Jesus proclaiming the politics of the living in the words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” And we can read Paul proclaiming the politics of the dead in the words, “I have been crucified with Christ.”
In the texts, Paul can never quite seem to decide whether he believes in the politics of the living or the politics of the dead. In his Letter to the Galatians he makes one of the most forceful statements of the politics of living in any Christian text--canonical or otherwise. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are words that a humanist and a theological universalist such as myself, might re-interpret as saying, we all part of the same human family. The lesson of this pandemic, the story we should be telling while we mourn, is that we are all interconnected and what impacts one of us, impacts all of us.
In the Letter of the Galatians, Paul also provides words that have formed the theological basis of the politics of the dead: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement was used by generations of later theologians--Augustine and Martin Luther in particular--to craft the idea that salvation is individual, it occurs in the next world, and it happens because of what we believe, not because of what we do. Such a focus on individual otherworldliness has often justified the negligence of earthly justice and the exploitation of the poor. It is behind Augustine counsel that obedience to the earthly authorities is obedience to God. It is in Martin Luther’s text, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he denounces those who rebel against the world’s powers and principalities. Those who look for heaven in this world, who seek justice among the living, are, he claims, “the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
I mention Paul, his influence on Augustine and Luther, and his confusion about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living, because his presence in the communities that eventually became Christian offers important lessons for us as we mourn the world. Paul was the one of primary evangelists of religion that became Christianity. Much of the Christian New Testament consists of letters he wrote emerging Christian communities. And in them we can read of a struggle over who will determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
In Galatians, again, we find a revealing passage. Towards the beginning of the letter Paul wrote, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim.” This text, which continues and from which I shall not read in full, provides an account of a struggle for power within the emerging Christian community. The struggle was about who would determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
On one side, stood Paul, and, presumably, Barnabas and Titus. On the other side, was “the acknowledged leaders.” There were theological differences between these two groups. We do not actually know what “the acknowledged leaders” believed. The theological polemics that have come down to us, that is the letters in the Christian New Testament, are from Paul’s faction, not theirs. I suspect that the acknowledged leaders beliefs might have been more in line with the gnostic teachings, the resurrection of the living and the politics of life, found in the non-canonical gospels and attested to in portions of the canonical gospels, than the resurrection of the dead.
That is not important. What is important is that they included “James the Lord’s brother,” and other disciples who claimed to have known Jesus when he was alive. Paul, in contrast, never met the living Jesus. Instead, he “received... a revelation through Jesus Christ” and, that he stated, made him equal in authority to the authority Jesus had granted his friends while he was still alive.
Much of the debate in Galatians is over whether or not Paul’s revelation granted him this equal authority. He claims it did. And he claims that the “acknowledged leaders” “recognized the grace that had been given to me.” We have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. We have only Paul’s account of the argument. We have only him telling us how Jesus was to be mourned and how the community was to answer the question: What comes next?
And that elision, the silence of James the Lord’s brother and his friends, should speak us to across the centuries and provide a crucial warning as we go about mourning the world, as we struggle to make meaning of what we have lost and answer the question: What comes next? The warning is this: those who are closest to the levers of power, those who are the most privileged, will be the ones who will determine how we mourn unless we struggle for the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living.
The silence of James the Lord’s brother is not accidental. It is a product of who James was and who Paul was. James was like Jesus, a poor man, an outcast, a Jew in a pagan Empire who proclaimed that Caesar’s power was less than God’s, an undocumented brown skinned workingman, struggling to make it through the day--as so many people are struggling today. James almost certainly struggled to find housing, to find work, and to get enough to eat. James was persecuted for his beliefs.
Paul, on the other hand, was an educated Roman citizen. Unlike presumably James, for there is no authentic text from James, Paul could read, and he could write. He was trained in Greek philosophy and Jewish theology. He had been educated in rhetoric. He even had a career persecuting men like James before he had his revelation. And yet, it is his letters, his theological treatises, that form the major corpus of Christian epistles and not those of James or his friends. He is the one who has determined so much of how Jesus is to be mourned. He answered the question: What comes next?
It is there, in the Letter of the Galatians, an account of the rich and powerful determining how the poor and marginalized shall mourn. It is there, the replacement of the politics of the living--which Paul sometimes believed--with the politics of the dead--which Paul left as the major part of his legacy.
And that, in this age of pandemic, on this Sunday a few weeks after Easter, as we mourn, is a central issue we must wrestle with as we attempt to answer the question: What comes next? Who will determine the narrative we make, the story we tell, the meaning we create about the pandemic? Will it be the most privileged and powerful among us, for that is who Paul was, or will be it those like James, who are suffering the most?
Will we, like Paul, choose the politics of the dead, with their emphasis on individual salvation, individual economic activity, and claim that we are self-made? Our we will choose the politics of the living, found in Jesus’s words that the Kingdom of God is among you? Not among one of you, not only inside of me, but among all of us, and present, possible, here, now, in this world. That salvation is social, and not individual, that we must build the commonwealth if we are to recover from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
I could close here by offering policy prescriptions and prophetic denouncements drawn from the politics of the living. I could argue that the President’s refusal to heed the warnings and possibilities found within science are part of the politics of the dead. I could take Texas’s Lieutenant Governor to task for his belief that we should be willing die for the economy. I could offer an analysis of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments during this pandemic as an attempt to destroy unions for civil servants by destroying the state pension systems. I could criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for their constant refrain that real help for families “will be the centerpiece of our next legislation.” And I could claim that we need massive income redistribution and the creation of new social infrastructure if our country and our world is to emerge from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
But instead of offering such a lengthy discourse, I will close with turns to two texts that suggest the politics of the living. The first comes from the speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. In her novel “Always Coming Home,” she imagines what comes next, after our present society experiences a collapse, and how the people of the future will mourn the world we have today. They discover new ways to live sustainably. At peace with each other, they do not fear or target the other. They not do not target immigrants or migrants but instead recognize that all are part of the same human family and invite travelers to: “Please bring strange things, / Please come bringing new things.” And welcome them with the words: “Return with us, return to us / be always coming home.”
In the future she invites us to imagine, the future that comes after whatever it is we have now, people come to recognize their interconnection with each other and with all that is. Her vision is a promise of what might be if we learn the lessons of the hour and reject the myth of individualism in favor of the truth that we are social creatures. Our salvation is social.
And finally, I turn to what is perhaps the greatest statement of the politics of the living from the twentieth century. It comes from Charlie Chaplin. At the close of his film “The Great Dictator” his character, the little tramp, his stand-in for the poor and marginalized, his cipher for James the Lords brother, makes a speech denouncing the fascists and fools, the powers and principalities, of his day, that were then hurtling the world into war and desolation:
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people...
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security...”
These are words that speak of the politics of life. Let them teach us how to mourn, how to make meaning from all that we have lost. And let them help us to answer the question: What comes next?
And, also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork.
Let the congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, say Amen.
Apr 17, 2020
The question is one that a lot of religious people and leaders are asking themselves right now. The global health pandemic means that responsible congregations throughout the world have shuttered their doors to physical services for the foreseeable future. Some are continuing to use their sanctuaries to film online services, others are producing online services directly from the homes of clergy and staff, and some are not meeting at all. Many are hosting online religious education, meditation, small group ministry, and social forums.
The situation is in many ways a new one. This is not the first time when religious communities have had to close their physical spaces during a time of pestilence and plague. But it is the first time that such a mass closing of worship services has taken place when technology is broadly available for almost any congregation to have some kind of online presence.
There are a lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how congregations should react to the situation. The UUA has a lot of advice. I’ve also read pieces from Sightings and from the remnants of the Alban Institute. As I have been thinking about these dynamics myself, I have been seeking answers to five questions: 1. Why have an online congregation? 2. What is an online congregation? 3. Who participates in an online congregation? 4. Where does an online congregation meet? 5. How does an online congregation meet?
1. Why have an online congregation?
This turns out to be a bit of trick question. The answer that immediately comes to mind is that we have an online congregation because our congregation can no longer meet in-person. And so, the online congregation becomes a representation of, a metaphor for, or even a simulacrum of the physical congregation that is (we hope temporarily) shuttered.
In the case of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, an online congregation is a sort of placeholder that exists to provide a way for the members and friends of the shuttered physical congregation to continue to connect with each other. It also a way for us to continue to serve the wider community by making publicly available the kind of programs we normally offer throughout the week. So, for instance, in addition to our online worship service we have a weekly online forum that I am curating and many small groups that meet over Zoom.
My description of why we have online congregations leaves aside entities like the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF)--a non-physical Unitarian Universalist church that provides services for anyone who cannot, or does not want to, connect with a congregation that gathers in-person. But, this leaving aside also raises an issue. There are some online congregations--Unitarian Universalist and otherwise--that existed prior to the pandemic. One of the principle questions that newly online congregations like mine will need to answer in the months that come is: What distinguishes us from previously existing entities like the CLF? The Robert Koch Institut, roughly the German government’s equivalent of the CDC, is forecasting that it might be as long as 18 months before large physical gatherings are safe again. If that is true then this question will become all the more important.
2. What is an online congregation?
A painting of a synagogue is not a synagogue. A photograph of church is not a church. And an online congregation is not a physical congregation. It is both representation of a congregation that meets in-person and something different than a congregation that meets in person.
In some sense, an online congregation might be regarded as what Benedict Anderson named an “imagined community.” Anderson coined the term to describe nation states that are bound together by the imaginations of their individual citizens. It is an act of imagination to envision that people who live in Houston and Chicago have something in common while people in Houston and Mexico City do not. Imagined communities are typically bound together by the use of shared symbols (such as flags) and rituals (like voting or holidays). They can be bound together by other things as well--currency, language, bodies of law--but that appears to be less important than the use of either symbol or ritual.
Online congregations are imagined communities because their members--or participants--imagine themselves to be part of the same religious community. We cannot gather together in person. We cannot easily interact with most other members of the congregation. But we can imagine ourselves to be joined in religious communion.
This imagined aspect of community is quite different than what takes place on a Sunday morning. And that opens up another question: How do congregational leaders sustain the imaginations of their members so that they continue to imagine themselves to part of the same imagined community? There are various strategies that might be deployed and First Houston is using a number of them. We have videos posted online twice a week: a weekly forum and a weekly worship service. We offer numerous online Zoom gatherings: small groups, online classes, and virtual coffee hours. We have Facebook pages for both of our campuses and send out email messages twice a week. We have a program where volunteers from the congregation call other members between once a week and twice a month. I keep this blog...
What might not be obvious is that in some sense religious communities have always been imagined communities--even if local congregations have not been. The very function of the Pauline letters in the Christian New Testament was to knit to together scattered local congregations--many of which were probably very small--in such a way as to help them imagine themselves as part of the same religious movement. The shared hymnal that Unitarian Universalists serves a similar function. And so does almost all scripture and liturgy--which allows people to imagine contiguous communities across time and space.
3. Who participates in an online congregation?
This might be the most disruptive question in my list. And it is something that depends a lot on the technology choices that congregational leaders make and how they choose to advertise their congregational offerings. The staff and I have decided to make the offerings of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston open to all who are interested in them. We are posting prerecorded services to YouTube and inviting people who are interested in participating in our online meetings to preregister for them. This is essentially what we did prior to the pandemic: Sunday services were open to anyone who wanted to visit and programs were open to anyone who registered to participate in them.
There is, however, one striking difference: anyone in the world who has access to internet and who wants to can view our prerecorded services or register and participate in our online programs. We have seen two shifts in congregational life as a result. First, we have had a small number of non-Houston based people participating in either our program offerings, such as our parents group, or viewing our Sunday services online. We have received, for instance, some Sunday morning offering donations from people who don’t live in the Houston area.
Second, we have been able to draw from non-local people for participation in our programs. We have specifically done this through our visual meditations. They have drawn from artists through the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Those artists have shared the videos with the friends and families, thus increasing the reach of the congregation. I have also started to do this through my forum guests. Of the four people I’ve done forums with thus far two have been local (Kim Waller and Diana Tang) and two have been from outside of Houston (Kate Coyer and Ty). Thus far, the most watched forum is one featuring a guest from outside Houston.
My big questions here are: What will this larger reach mean for the congregation when we begin to gather again in person? Will we want to keep people from outside of Houston engaged in congregational life? If so, how will we do that?
4. Where does an online congregation meet? and 5. How does an online congregation meet?
These last two seem like they should have obvious answers: on the internet and through multiple platforms. However, I think that the answers can be somewhat nuanced or complicated. For instance, the online congregation need not meet only through the internet. I speak regularly with folks from First Houston on the phone and we have a LINKS program where each member of the congregation is assigned a volunteer who calls them on a regular basis. These are forms of meeting that fall outside of being strictly online. I also find them to be more effective than a lot interactions mediated by the internet.
As for how, well... there are a lot of different platforms available. We have decided against livestreaming services in favor of pre-recording them and posting them as YouTube videos. This allows us to have an easy public face that anyone who wants to can access and also doesn’t lock people into participating at a particular time. Right now, we have just over 900 households viewing our YouTube videos on a regular basis--almost triple the number who attend the congregation when we meet in person.
There’s been a strong tendency towards religious communities using Zoom to host various kinds of online gatherings--something we’re doing. I suspect that as the months pass we’ll shift the exact how of we meet online. Technology will most likely evolve and we’ll find somethings to be more effective than others. For instance, it already seems clear that the programs that we offer for general check-in are not nearly as popular as the more structured ones. It might also become clear that alternative platforms to Zoom are more effective for the congregation’s needs.
In sum, there are a lot of unknowns about how the next several months will unfold. Religious communities like mine will need to continue to adapt. The pandemic brings with it both grave challenges and some interesting opportunities for congregational life. Both addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunties will probably take a fair amount of imagination. I’m actually excited to see how religious communities adapt themselves. And I hope that in our efforts to adapt the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston will continue to be what has been for more than a hundred years: a community devoted building the beloved community and uncovering the potential lying within each human heart.
Apr 13, 2020
as preached online for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 12, 2020
You might remember that our theme for worship for April is renewal. This is our Easter service. I am scheduled to be talking with you about renewal and rebirth. And in this sermon, we are going to be focusing on something that might be called the resurrection of the living. The inspiration for it comes from two scriptural lines. The first is found in a text in the Christian New Testament known as The Acts of the Apostles. In the old King James version it reads, “God is no respecter of persons.” The second comes from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” a gnostic Christian text from the early second century. There we find this description of the answer to the question, “What is the resurrection” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
God is no respecter of persons, an ancient idea that bespeaks the truth that we are alike to the divine. Each person, the rich and the poor, will go the way of all flesh. The living resurrection, a transition into freshness. Taken together these texts teach us that we all share a common fate and all contain within us the possibility of awakening into a “revelation of what is.”
The lesson is echoed in the words of William Ellery Channing, the principal nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian. He said, in an Easter sermon, “here on earth the influence of Christ’s character is seen in awakening an active, self-sacrificing goodness” in the heart of each; taught that the purpose of religion was to rouse the “likeness to God” that lies within all; and claimed that heaven might be found on Earth. “A new sense, a new eye, might show the spiritual world compassing on every side,” he preached.
The living resurrection, my sermon, with its central message drawn from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” might be divided into two parts. The first, a bit of context and some theological exposition. The second, a confession about our contemporary struggle.
Most of you have probably never heard of “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” Some of you self-identify as liberal Christians or come from Christian families. If this is the first time listening to one of our services marking the Christian high holidays, you might be surprised to hear a text read that deviates from the standard lectionary. You might have been expecting Acts and one of the Psalms or a reading from the canonical gospels of John or Matthew. But certainly not a passage from “The Treatise on the Resurrection.”
Here at First Unitarian Universalist, I always include a reading from the gnostic tradition in our holiday offerings. Unitarian Universalism has its roots in two heretical Christian traditions. Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing, believe that Jesus is best understood as a great moral teacher. They rejected the idea of what is called atonement theology, summarized best in the statement, “Jesus died for your sins.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” “The importance of Jesus,” she writes elsewhere, “is not that he paid the price for sin. Jesus is important because he embodied loving concern for others and called people to love their neighbors.” Jesus pointed to the possibility of what other great religious leaders--the Buddha or mystic Rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov--and have pointed to as well, religion should awaken us to the beauty of the world around us and the compassion within us.
Universalism is the other heretical Christian tradition that inspires us. Universalists celebrate the love of God for all. They believe that God loves everyone, without exception. “The scriptures declare that God is love, that he is a good Being, that he is no respecter of persons, but is good to all, and that his tender mercies are over all his works,” wrote the nineteenth-century Universalist Lucy Barns. Such a good and loving deity, Universalists think, cannot damn her creations to an eternity of suffering. Instead, they understand, death brings us humans a common fate. They know that whatever Hell we find, we make for ourselves in our earthly realm. The theological sentiment of the Universalists is captured well in a fragment of the singer Bobby McFerrin’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm. McFerrin speaks of his faith in the feminine divine:
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won't forsake me,
I'm in her hand.
Unitarianism, the knowledge that we can each open ourselves to the glory unfolding around us and the compassion within us. Universalism, the wisdom that we all share a common fate and that power of the divine is found in love. These are ancient heresies, teachings rejected by the powers and principalities of ancient Rome for their subversive nature. Each year during the high Christian holidays we read from texts like “The Treatise on the Resurrection” to remind ourselves that the core of our Unitarian Universalist theology is as old as the Christian tradition itself. It is just that we happen to be the heirs of those people who refused what the philosopher Cornel West and others have called Constantinian Christianity, the marriage between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Constantinian Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus without really asking questions: Why was he killed by the greatest Empire of his day? What did he teach that made him so threatening? The heretical Christians who wrote “The Treatise of the Resurrection” believed in resurrection of the living, “a transition into a new freshness.”
Constainian Christians instead preach of the resurrection of the dead. They sing the beautiful hymn, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through / My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” The old heretical Christian asked instead, in the words of the labor hymn, “Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?” Or shall we imagine the possibility that here, in our earthly realm, there might be, “joy and peace for all”? The resurrection of the living or the resurrection of the dead?
“The Treatise on the Resurrection,” this morning’s text, comes from heretical tradition called gnosticism. The teachings of William Ellery Channing resemble those of the gnostics. Contemporary scholar Elaine Pagels has distilled gnostic thought into three primary gestures. First, it taught that the resurrection of the living was the discovery that “self-knowledge is knowledge of God.” There is a flicker of the divine--what humanists might call the spark that leaps from each-to-each in times of common crisis--within each of us. We are resurrected to life when feed that spark.
Second, they claimed that Jesus was “a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.” Following teachings such as those found in “The Treatise on the Resurrection” or the better known “Gospel of Thomas” offers us advice on how we might each kindle our own flame. Much of that teaching might be captured in the advice of the prophet Micah who rhetorically asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” The resurrection of the living, the gnostics believed, was available to all who opened themselves to the “revelation of what is” and sought “the transformation of things” and “transition into freshness.”
Third, they saw Jesus as a human being who pointed the way to the resurrection of the living, not someone who was the “Son of God in a unique way,” as Pagels puts it. Instead, those who underwent the resurrection of the living could become like Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas relates, “Jesus said, I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out... He who will drink from my mouth will become like as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” The likeness of God, claimed William Ellery Channing, resides within each of us.
The resurrection of the living, here is where we reach my confession. I am having more than a little trouble believing in it this morning. As I speak to you, the words of the poet T. S. Eliot lie somewhere in the background, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
It is hard to preach about the resurrection of the living, to offer you a sense of renewal and the hope of rebirth, in this cruel month of April. Like a lot of people, I am struggling. I am blessed to continue to have a job and good health. But I am a single parent of a thirteen-year-old boy. We are sheltering in place together, in our 1,200 square foot apartment. Like a lot of parents, I am finding it difficult to stay home all day--with the exception of an hour walk in the evening--with a kid who has to attend school online, complete his homework, cannot see his friends, and who is not able to go outside all that often, to be hard. It is almost unbearable. Which is not to say that I do not love my son. It is more that juggling work--this sermon was written in a series of snatches between vain attempts to get schoolwork completed in a timely fashion--and having to do all the cooking and well, everything, else is more than a little hard. Most days I go to bed simply grateful to have made it through the day without entirely losing my mind.
I do not tell you this elicit your sympathy. Rather, I tell you this to join my voice to the chorus of others making statements like, “It is OK not to be OK” or “Parents are not OK.” Voices from around the world tell us that they are not OK. From Italy, Sylvia Poggioli writes of “the grimmest [ritual]: the 6 o’clock televised press conference at which... the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count” are announced. Hari Kunzru describes how the unrelenting deaths in Brooklyn are bringing “a rapid disintegration of all social and economic life [that] has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system.” Nicole Rudick observes from New Jersey that during this cruel April, “boring is the best you can hope for.” Staying in Oxford, England, Merve Emre, experiences “isolation,” walking “the empty aisles of the supermarket--no pasta, no beans, no peanut butter,” and learning of a “nurse who had worked for forty-eight hours straight crying in her car because she couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables after her shift ended.” In New Mexico, Danny Lyon meditates upon the impending death of a friend and asks the question: “When this horror passes, and it will, will the survivors accept a new way to live? The party is over... Is this the turning point? Will we emerge into a new and better world?”
The survivors... I pray that all who are watching this service, and all of your loved ones, will be among them. For this is likely to be one of the most difficult months that many of us have lived through. To date, more than a hundred thousand people have died from COVID-19, more than twenty thousand of them in the United States. In this country alone there are over five hundred thousand infected. The true number could be ten times that since testing has been such an abysmal failure. That would mean five million infected, one out of every sixty-six people living in the United States.
Epidemiologists are reporting that over the course of the pandemic at least sixty thousand people in this country will die. Some forecasts are much higher. The national death rate is supposed to reach its greatest height in the next weeks--suggesting that April will live up to its reputation for cruelty.
The cruel month of April is bringing massive job losses. Close to ten million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. Another ten million will probably lose their jobs by the end of the month. Somewhere close to fifty percent of people under the age of forty-five have are now unemployed and huge numbers of people without healthcare. In most states, the unemployment system is overwhelmed and benefits have been slow in coming. Rent was due at the beginning of the month. Many families were forced to make the choice between paying it, buying food, and, in some cases, paying for medicine.
The cruelty of the month suggests that at least a few of you who are watching have experienced illness, are suffering from the virus, or have recently lost your job. If that describes you, I hope you will reach out to us here at First Unitarian Universalist. One of the purposes of a religious community is to take care of its members. The congregation is here for you during this time of pandemic. We will what we can to provide you with comfort and relief.
In the midst of such of a cruel month, it is difficult to preach a sermon on the resurrection of the living. I suspect it is difficult to preach an Easter sermon today from any tradition. Easter is supposed to be a grand and joyous holiday. Here at First Unitarian Universalist, we typically celebrate it with: magisterial organ music; an exuberant choir performance; bright, voluminous, bouquets of flowers; a few Easter bonnets; and our annual Easter parade. Each year, for more than twenty years, this congregation’s children have celebrated the holiday by marching down Fannin Street to the Emergency Aid Coalition with a rather sizable donation of canned goods.
None of that is happening. Instead, I find myself preaching again to an empty sanctuary--prerecording a message that I hope will provide you with a sense of connection, a bit of uplift, and perhaps some clarity during these strange days. It is Easter and the emptiness of the sanctuary provides us with the temptation to choose the theological analogy of the resurrection of the dead. For it is on Easter that Jesus’s disciples, the scriptures in the Christian New Testament claim, found the empty tomb. And it is on Easter that they became convinced he had been brought back to life--the resurrection of the dead.
The story is recounted that Jesus, the young peasant revolutionary from Nazareth, was executed on Friday. Jesus, the story says, a young peasant with brown skin--for any peasant born two thousand years ago in the town of Bethlehem would have brown skin--was put to death by the officials and soldiers of an imperial state. Jesus, the radical who, the Gospel of John tells us, “made a whip of cords and... upset the tables of the money-changers” and drove them from the Temple, and “whom,” the Acts of the Apostles in the old King James claims, “they slew and hanged on a tree,” and who, when his friends and loved ones went to reclaim his corpse, was discovered not to be in his tomb. Jesus--who, in a more contemporary translation of the Gospel of Luke, warned, “But alas for you who are rich; / you have had your time of happiness, / Alas for you who are well fed now; / you will go hungry / Alas for you who laugh now; / you will mourn and weep. / Alas for you when all speak well of you; / that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”--was not moldering in his grave. Instead, the Christian scripture declares, “God raised him to life on the third day.”
The empty tomb; God raised him to life on the third day, that is the story of the resurrection of the dead. The empty sanctuary; the suggestion that God will cause us to rise up again, after this pandemic, a non-heretical Easter metaphor. God will cause us to rise up again, the claim, the belief, the message that everything is going to be fine in the end, that we will return to the way things used to be, to “normal,” that stock market will resume its endless rise, that employment will come roaring back.
The resurrection of the dead... Last week Rev. Scott urged us to reframe hope. He quoted the writer David Whyte, “Hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.” Hoping that the world will return to “normal” after the pandemic ends or that we will all quickly return to work and profit making is hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Literally, it will require that some of us die so that others might resume making money--a wish that Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has expressed. But it will also mean that we, as a society, have learned nothing from this pandemic and all the suffering it has brought.
Instead of hoping things will return to the way they were, instead of seeking the resurrection of the dead, I think, this Easter, as hard as it is, we must choose the resurrection of the living. The resurrection of the living, what does it mean for us in this moment? It is hard me to preach about it or seek it, as I struggle amid the chaos of an upended world to compose these words, but I suspect I know what it means: take pleasure in living and pursue the politics of the living.
Taking pleasure in living, awakening to the “revelation of what is.” The other night, I went for a late walk over by the Menil Collection. The museum was shuttered. The streets near empty. The darkness as dark as it gets in the middle of Houston. Live oak trees lined the sidewalks. Sculptures interrupted, as they always do, the symmetry of the Menil’s lawn--a lush and neat expanse surrounding the rectangular building with its inviting porches and columns. A flutter interrupted the sculptures, the trees, the lawn, the columns, the porch. A flutter and then flash of wings and legs, tufted feathers, the observant, silent, head of a tricolor heron. Never had I seen such a bird before--let alone in the midnight of the city. There it was: nature’s beauty, revealing to me how life continues, thrives, in the midst of a pandemic. A spark of the resurrection of the living.
You can awaken yourself to the resurrection of the living no matter where you are during this pandemic. The beauty of the world surrounds us. There are always complex patterns and unexpected openings--no matter how cramped we might be and no matter how much we suffer. And here I could offer a learned discourse on all of those who have found beauty among misery and horror. But instead, I will just quote the survivor of World War II, Sami Rosenstock, who wrote during that moment of terror, “Salt and fire await you on the mineral hill of the incandescence of living.”
The incandescence of living, if we are to experience the resurrection of the living we must pursue the politics of the living. This is what Jesus did. And this is why he died. The politics of the living follow the injunction that God is no respecter of persons. They urge us to remember the most vulnerable among us. They challenge us--be we white or black, Asian or Latinx, poor or rich--to recognize that the grave injustice of the disproportionate death rate among African Americans is a result of the politics of white supremacy. It is not an accident that black people are dying from the virus at a higher rate than white people. It is the result of a system that has spent generations creating riches for wealthy whites at the expense of people of color. Pursuing the politics of the living means heeding the call of Anthony Fauci who reminds us that the unequal death rate is a result of “health disparities [that] have always existed for the African American community.”
Again, there is much I could say about the politics of the living. But instead, since this is Easter, I will just quote Jesus who said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you did for me.” The politics of the living come from the resurrection of the living. They challenge us to ask ourselves the question--most especially in the midst of a pandemic--what shall we do to make the world more beautiful for all?
The resurrection of the dead; the resurrection of the living... I confess to you, my friends, absent in body, though present in spirit, that this Easter I having trouble choosing the resurrection of the living. April is cruel. It will get crueler. I do not anticipate that sheltering in place will get easier. I do not believe that any of this will end soon.
But I will make what small movement I can towards the resurrection of the living. I will leave this place and go for a walk with my son. We will wear masks. We will keep our social distance from others. And, perhaps, we will see a tricolor heron or a flower or some other spark of beauty to awaken us to the “revelation of what is.” And it will remind us that no matter how difficult the hour, the glory of life is ever present.
And I will leave this place and do what I can to remember that God is no respecter of persons. I will speak out and demand that our society care for the least of these--which in this time of pandemic could become all of us. I will do what small things I can. Write my words. Call those who are struggling. And remember the rhetorical question, from the ancient prophet Micah, who called for the resurrection of the living when he asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Why do I seem to shout?” the ancient text inquires. “What is the resurrection?” it asks. Didactically it answers:
“It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
This Easter may each of us, no matter how along we might feel, no how matter vulnerable we are, no matter how much we are struggling, begin to undergo the resurrection of the living. For, “These are the symbols and images of resurrection. They establish its goodness.”
The goodness of the resurrection of the living is established. Hear those ancient words and remember that truth, my friends. And now, I invite you to remember that truth, hear my words, and present in spirit say, Amen.
Apr 2, 2020
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom call with leaders of the The Metropolitan Organization (TMO). TMO is the Houston affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is not a member but a few of the lay leaders from the congregation’s Justice Coordinating Council have been urging us to explore membership, I have met with some of the organizers, and some members of the congregation have attended some of TMO’s events. I was also one of the founding members of Greater Cleveland Congregations, the IAF in Northeast Ohio, when I was serving the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. The Zoom call was to help TMO spokespeople prepare to talk with the press about the issue of food insecurity during the pandemic and the TMO organizers asked if I would be willing to speak with a reporter--which I was happy to do.
The whole interaction got me all thinking about what we should be organizing for during this time of crisis. The conversation clarified my own thinking and so I thought I would take the opportunity to compose something that might help facilitate further organizing.
We want health, food, and housing security for everyone living in the United States of America for the duration of the pandemic. These demands are public health demands. If people do not have health security they will not seek testing and treatment. This will lead to the further spread of the virus. If people do not have food security they will have to leave their homes to secure food for their families. This will lead to the further spread of the virus. And if people do not have housing security they will not be able to shelter in place. This will lead to the further spread of the virus.
It is only by ensuring that all people living in the United States--regardless of citizenship status--have health, food, and housing security that the crisis can be mitigated. Citizens must have health, food, and housing security. Undocumented migrants must have health, food, and housing security. Even students and tourists who have become stranded in the country because of the pandemic must have health, food, and housing security.
The United States is the world’s largest economy. Historically low interest rates coupled with the federal government’s ability to “borrow” money from the Federal Reserve essentially mean it can print money and spend as much as necessary to address the situation. There’s no reason why the federal government shouldn’t be ensuring that everyone has health, food, and housing security throughout the duration of the crisis.
The federal government can also mobilize manufacturing to ensure the production of adequate personal protective equipment and medical equipment for the duration of the crisis. It can pump money into research for a vaccine and treatments and the training--on an emergency basis--of medical staff.
Here in the Houston region, there’s a few things we can be demanding right now that would help bring about health, food, and housing security:
1. Food distribution workers are essential workers. The city and county should mobilize its resources to both procure and, if possible, manufacture personal protective equipment to all essential workers. Given the scope of the emergency, legal niceties such patents should be ignored in order ensure the production of personal protective equipment. And, if necessary, the city and county should attempt to exercise eminent domain over local manufacturing facilities to repurpose them for the production of vital equipment (this will probably fail for a lot of reasons but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try).
2. The Houston Independent School District should reopen safe food distribution as soon as possible. Other area school districts have figured out how to safely do so and HISD, as a major food distribution point for families in need, should follow their suit. [Note: This is scheduled to happen on Monday.]
3. State officials should put Disaster-SNAP benefits in place immediately. The Texas is in a state of disaster. That means that state officials can begin to pursue this benefit for people in the state who need it. Following Hurricane Harvey many people received DSNAP benefits, which were around $500 per month per family. This would greatly reduce food insecurity for families that have lost income due to the pandemic.
4. People should be able to use DSNAP benefits to get takeout from restaurants. This would both provide additional food distribution sites and subsidize businesses, which would, in turn, ensure that some people who would otherwise lose their jobs remained employed.
5. There should be a universal mortgage and rent freeze. No one should be required to pay either rent or mortgage during the duration of the crisis and no one should owe money to a bank or a landlord at the end of the crisis. Many people are facing extreme pressure from landlords to pay rent, even if they lack the resources to do so, because even if there’s a freeze on evictions landlords are threatening to evict them as soon as the freeze lifts. It is only by completely freezing rent and mortgage payments during this time that the most vulnerable can be protected.
6. Vacant hotels should be opened to house homeless people and others who are facing housing insecurity. This has already begun to happen in some cities. Houston and its environs need to follow suit. Getting homeless people off the street, where they cannot easily practice appropriate hygiene or physical distancing, needs to be a priority. Otherwise, the virus will spread quickly through this vulnerable population.
Organizing is, in many ways, more difficult than ever right now. And so, it is challenging to know exactly how power might be built to achieve these goals. A few basic ideas include:
1. Strikes by Essential Workers
This is already happening some places. It is leading to increased access to personal protective equipment for essential workers and increased production of vital medical supplies, including ventilators. Religious communities should support these strikes and workers.
2. Pressure on Local, State, and Federal officials
With people stuck at home they should have more time to call politicians and sign petitions. Letting politicians know what we want and need as frequently as possible is critically important. Large corporations are already doing this through their lobbyists--many are receiving unprecedented rollbacks of regulations and financial support. Ordinary people should not be shy about putting pressure on politicians at this time. As Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing without demand."
3. Rent Strikes
Again, this is already happening in some places. A lot of people know that they are going to have to make a choice between paying rent and food and medicine. They are saying that they will refuse to pay rent. If enough people refuse to pay rent it will be impossible for landlords to evict even a fraction of them. It is also notable, that some large corporations--particularly fast food chains--are already stating that they are going to refuse to pay rent in April. And again, religious communities should support these strikes and workers.
4. Build New Networks
We are all in this together. The virus threatens everyone. It is only by building new connections of mutual aid and support, new networks in our workplaces, and new networks with our neighbors and within the global community that we will be able to collectively address the pandemic. This is one reason why I have prioritized connecting with groups like the TMO. I also hope to use the weekly forum I am doing to help expand my congregation’s networks.
I am sure that both these policy positions and strategies will evolve over time. These are some of my initial ideas, based on conversations I have had and research I have done, to put society on the path to secure health, food, and housing for everyone. And it is only by doing that we will be able to successfully address the grave crisis we face.
Apr 1, 2020
as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.
Mar 29, 2020
Despite the fact that the Sunday service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has moved online, we are continuing some bilingual elements in our service. This week we included a reading by the Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010). The author of many books, she was an honorary member of Uruguayan National Academy of Letters. “Limo” can be found in antología de la poesía hispanoamericana actual, ed. Julio Ortega (Mexico City: siglo veintiuno editores, s.a. de c.v., 1987).
I worked with Alma Viscarra, First Houston’s Membership and Communications Coordinator, to translate the poem. Alma’s a native Spanish speaker and while my Spanish is reasonably good, it is wonderful to be able to collaborate with someone who is both fluent in the language and has a terrific poetic sensibility. We went through three drafts. I did a first translation, trying to pay attention to not just the literal meaning of the words but the overall sense of the poem. Alma then read my translation alongside the original and suggested alternative interpretations and pointed out things I might not have understood because they are colloquial expressions. I then went back and made the final edits. I think that working together we got a much better English version than I would have produced by myself. It is an enjoyable process for both of us.
I have included the Spanish version below the English translation, in case anyone is interested.
Silt by Amanda Berenguer
The fire tells me that the flame is the truth,
and the ancient sea, that seafoam is the truth:
the truth of the song that is the wind,
the truth of the dying river.
The sky tells me that the cloud is the truth,
and the sailor tells me
that the star is truth:
the truth of blood’s everyday journey through the body,
the truth of the soul fleeing in darkness.
That the truth is hope--they told me.
Let the heart soar! Let the dream soar!
Let scarves and oblivion soar!
What is the truth--I ask myself again--
since dawn, I have asked myself...
And nighttime has slowly crawled up,
And I wanted to say it, and I haven’t known how.
Limo por Amanda Berenguer
Me dice el fuego que es verdad la llama,
y el mar antiguo que es verdad la espuma:
verdad del canto que es lleva el viento,
verdad del río que se va perdiendo.
Me dice el cielo que es verdad la nube,
y el marinero que es verdad la estrella:
verdad del viaje usual de toda sangre,
verdad del alma huyendo en las tinieblas.
Que es verdad--me dijeron--la esperanza.
¡Al aire el corazón! ¡Al aire el sueño!
¡Al aire los pañuelos y el olvido!
Que es verdad--me repito--desde el alba...
Y ha llegado la noche despacito,
y lo quise decir, y no he sabido.
Mar 25, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 22, 2020, online worship
These are strange days. If you are anything like me, you are probably finding that you have to adjust to a new--and rapidly changing--situation. I certainly never imagined myself leading a congregation that is worshipping exclusively online. And I bet that most of you never imagined that you would be participating in worship remotely. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been around for over a hundred years and in all that time the congregation has always met in person for worship, fellowship, and the difficult but vital work of building the beloved community.
But these are strange days, and I find myself missing seeing you and sharing the regular rituals of our worship service. As I preach this sermon, I find myself looking out over an expanse of empty wooden pews. As I preach this sermon, I find myself glancing over to where our choir usually sits and seeing only Mark Vogel, our Music Director. As I preach this sermon, I find myself thinking about our Thoreau campus where some of us regularly gather to worship and watch videos of the sermons. Thoreau has a lovely sanctuary that overlooks a clover filled expanse of greenery. That sanctuary is vacant now. And as I preach this sermon, I find myself wondering who exactly is listening. Are you one of our members, friends, or one of our regular visitors? Did you stumble upon this service online? Are you listening to it in the Third Ward, in Montrose, in Sugarland, or in Richmond? Are you listening from someplace far away?
I imagine you are in your home, sheltering in place. It is what most of us are doing during these strange days. I have been limiting myself to my apartment and trips to the church. Some of you are probably working entirely from home--maybe it has even been a few days since you have been outside. You might be listening to this service on Sunday. You could be seeking solace at the same time this congregation usually gathers in person. Or you may be doing what I did last week when I listened to Scott’s moving sermon. I made dinner while I took comfort from his compassionate words and my cat chirped at my feet, trying to convince me that he deserved an early feeding, and my son played video games in the other room.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope that our service is providing you with a sense of connection and consolation during these strange days. As Scott told us last week, “during troubling times it’s good to be part of a community such as this.” I have been renewed by Mark’s music and Scott’s words. And the exquisite images from the Hubble Telescope and that donna e. perkins and Rania Matar have shared with us have provided me a needed balm. Art, music, poetry, are important reminders that it is always possible for humans to bring more beauty into the world. There has been poetry written during war, and economic depressions, and forced migrations, and unjust imprisonments, and, yes, even bouts of pestilence and plague.
We have words from Julian of Norwich, whom Scott quoted last week, and who pointed towards transcendence within: “I saw the soul as wide as if it were an infinite world, and as if it were a blessed kingdom.”
We have words from Carl Sandburg, who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, and wrote of our shared mortality:
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate,
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.
We have words from Mark Doty, who survived the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted us to know:
A bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
And, now, we have words from Lynn Ungar, who invites us to:
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
We have words, and paintings, and sculptures, and music, that testify to the power of humanity to bring more beauty into the world even when we humans find ourselves at the end of the world. And that is where we find ourselves now, at the end of the world.
We find ourselves at the end of the world, in our remaining time together, I want to talk with you about three things. First, we need to admit that in some, real, non-metaphorical way, the world has ended. Second, living at the end of the world means that we are living amid an apocalypse. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller tells us. There are many things being unveiled, disclosed, and revealed right now. We should pay careful attention to them. Our human future depends on it. We would do well to heed James Baldwin’s words, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” Third, we should turn to our theme for worship: compassion. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, compassion is what is going to see us through. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, as we peer into the murky cloud of the future we must recognize that today, tomorrow, and each day we collectively struggle with the pandemic, we will be forced to make a choice between compassion and callousness. It is only by choosing compassion that we can learn the lessons of the hour.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has changed how we live and interact. The safest thing we can do right now is to avoid as many people as possible. Keeping our distance, sheltering in place, it means that so many things that seemed perfectly normal even a few days ago are foolish and dangerous now.
We have closed to the church buildings to the public. Most of the staff is working from home. Gustavo is still here, making sure our Museum District is properly maintained--we have a volunteer checking in on our Richmond campus. And Cheryl and Tawanna are coming in some of the time to process the mail, to handle the banking, and to make sure that all the bills get paid. The ministerial and worship staff is here occasionally--to produce this service and, beginning next week, a midweek forum. But, starting Monday, all of our staff meetings will be online. There will be no regular staff lunch, no just dropping by someone’s office when I have an idea I want to share or pastoral matter I want to talk through.
In the last week we have worked hard to take our congregational programs entirely online. In the next days we will be offering some form of almost all our programs through Zoom. We will have small group ministries and religious education programs for children and youth. On Sundays, we will have virtual gatherings for the whole congregation. In April, Scott and I will each be leading spiritual development and support programs for adults. I’m going to offer one on the religious and philosophical classics that might see us through these strange days--we will start with Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” But none of this will take place in person. And most of it will be open to anyone online who wants to register and join with us. Our virtual community will be different than our physical community.
I am hopeful it will be safe for us to regather as a worship community in September. But whenever we do, we will be different. We will have gone through this experience of online worship together. And we will have a different sense of who our community is and what it does. Something will have ended and something else will be beginning. Because we find ourselves at the end of the world.
How has your work life changed? I know a lot of people who are now working from home. Colleges and universities are closed. Most of my academic friends are teaching classes online. Big corporate offices are closed. My friends who are engineers or accountants are almost all now working remotely. What about you? Where are you working? Or are you working?
A lot of people have already lost their jobs. I have friends who are restaurant workers. Many of their workplaces have shutdown. And I have a friend who is a yoga teacher. In the last couple of weeks, she has lost every single one of her paid teaching gigs. Many people are financially vulnerable and scared. Some cannot pay their rent or buy enough food to feed their families. Jobs that seemed solid ten days ago have evaporated.
Middle and upper income people on the verge of retirement--or those who have retired--have lost large sums of money. They are worried that they will not be able to support themselves or return to the workforce. The plans of a lifetime--work for forty years and then retire--appear precarious or threatened. In some real sense, the world has ended for them. They no longer make the economic assumptions that they once did.
It is not just our work lives and economic situations that have changed. Many other things have shifted. Like me, a lot of parents are trying to juggle parenting while working from home. My son’s school has closed. It will not physically reopen until the autumn. He is now mostly at home--except when he goes to the park. It is not safe for him to have friends over. So, he spends a lot of time online--which is something that so many of us are doing now. Will the nature childhood be the same when it safe for him to gather with his friends again? Probably not, for we have reached the end of the world.
A lot of people, like me, have made the wise decision to severely limit their physical contact with others. And, here, I find myself thinking of all the older members this congregation, and of my parents, and of all of those I know and love who are over the age of sixty-five. The virus that causes COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for them. It is not safe for many of them to leave their homes. A lot them are doing what my parents are doing, hunkering down for the unknown duration, not planning on venturing to the grocery store, but having food delivered, truly sheltering in place.
I hope that this service is providing them a sense of connection while they are in self-isolation. As Scott said last week, “We will get through this together.” And we here on the staff of First Houston will help you get through this by reaching out and by helping you reach out to each other.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The global political order of the last seventy-five years has come to crashing end. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant power. The inept bungling of the current President and the federal executive that he decimated mean that the pandemic will have dramatic consequences for this country. Ideological decisions to cut the budget for pandemic management have left the federal government ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly metastasizing situation. The economic damage will be severe. But just as severe will be the political damage. The politics of America First will prompt the government to look inwards, to persecute immigrants, and to expel foreign nationals. None of this will solve anything. In a global health pandemic, the only polity--understanding of who or what is the political community--that makes any sense is a global one. Humanity is all in this together. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Whenever this is over, and it will eventually end, the world will not be the same. Religious communities will not be the same. Friendships will not be the same. Families will not be the same. School will not be the same. Work will not be the same. Global politics will not be the same. We find ourselves at the end of the world.
We are living in apocalyptic times. Apocalypse, the word itself comes from the Greek, by way of the Latin. It means to uncover or to disclose or to reveal. And that is exactly what this virus is doing, it is revealing fundamental truths about our society. Things that appeared solid have proved illusory and I cannot help but think of Karl Marx’s famous line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Whatever you might think of Marx, and there’s a lot to dislike, his words name the dynamic of apocalyptic crisis. In these times, we see what really matters. We learn we need food, shelter, health, and connection--even if can only come through a screen. In these times, we discover whose work really matters.
The health care workers, the farmers, the grocery workers, the food service workers, the transportation workers, the maintenance workers, society cannot function without you. It is you who will keep the rest of us going while we shelter in place. You are the ones who are risking your lives so that the rest of us can get through this viral pandemic. Without your willingness to work, to endanger yourselves, and your families, no one else would have any chance of getting through this.
Your labor is essential. And this unveiling, this bringing into plain sight that which is so often is hidden, should prompt you to recognize how vital you are to society. For I cannot but look at the heroic work you are doing and hear words of the old labor anthem:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong
Those phrases might some members of our regular Sunday morning congregation uncomfortable. But apocalyptic times, and apocalyptic visions, are not easy to bear. When the veil is torn away, we see things we have hidden from ourselves. And this country has hidden the fundamental truth that the labor of food workers, and health care workers, and transport workers, and day care workers, are essential to keeping society functioning. And for too long, so many of you have had to eke out precarious existences, barely paying the rent, working too hard, working too many hours, and now so many of you are being asked to do even more than that. I know grocery workers who are putting in seventy hours a week to food on the shelves. And companies like Whole Foods are telling workers that they will not give them paid sick leave. Instead, they are being told to give their earned time off to their sick co-workers. And I remember the old words, “[W]ithout your brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What you do is essential. The veil has been ripped off.
The veil has been ripped off and the truth is shining through. Low wage workers, Whole Foods workers, Amazon delivery people, you have great power. Our society cannot function without you. In this apocalyptic moment you have the possibility to use that power to organize, to go on strike, to make demands, and to win yourself more pay. No one whose labor is essential should ever have trouble paying their bills, finding a place to live, or affording enough food to feed their family. No one who must take care of others in these strange days, in these apocalyptic times, should worry about whether or not they have health care.
And, now I know that I am making some of my regular congregants uncomfortable. But apocalyptic visions are like fever dreams--perhaps an apt but uncomfortable metaphor--and they can make us squirm. And it the preacher’s job to offer up the prophetic voice, to speak the truth that must be spoken, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And if we are to learn the lessons of the hour, that is precisely what must be done, we must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we do not then society will not change. And if society does not change then I fear we will be unprepared the next time the veil is ripped up away and we face a global crisis.
So, grocery workers, delivery workers, health care workers, if you want to take the lessons of hour and use the opportunity to struggle for better, safer, wages and conditions, here is what you might do. You might find one of your trusted co-workers and ask them the questions: Are you safe at your work? Are people getting sick? Are you being paid enough to live? And then you might suggest that you and your trusted co-worker each meet individually with your other co-workers and ask them the same questions. Get everyone’s email and phone number. Make a plan. Promise to support each other. Set a day and a time. Walk off your job, but keep your social distance, and, as a group, tell your employer you demand better wages and safety condition--you demand adequate masks and gloves so that you won’t get sick and sufficient pay so that you can afford your home and feed your family.
Do not just do it for yourselves. Do it for the rest of us. Because here is the truth, the real unveiling, the lesson of this apocalyptic moment, most of the good things we have in this society--Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, all of the programs that came from the New Deal and ended the Great Depression--came about because people like you in early generations, during the Great Depression, who were performing essential work, refused to work anymore until they could work safely and be paid enough to support themselves and their loved ones.
The federal government is not taking the actions it needs to address the viral pandemic. It is not repurposing industry to build ventilators for sick people, to build hospitals, or take masks. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the Amazon workers said: We will not deliver anything else until the government focuses on building us hospital beds if we get sick. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the grocery workers said: We will not stock the grocery shelves until masks are made for us to safely interact with our customers?
The veil has been lifted. The essential work of society has been revealed. And I hear, echoing in the distance, but perhaps creeping closer, the old question, put into poetry by William Butler Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have reached the end of the world, we are living in apocalyptic times, and now, what beast shall it be? Shall it be a compassionate one or callous one? Yeats’s verse hints at both possibilities--for Bethlehem is where the Christians believe that their messiah was born and, yet, the beast is rough.
So, we come to the final point of our sermon. “Once upon a time we had... time... And now we seem to have lost it,” Catherine Keller observes. And now we must choose between compassion and callousness.
For we are rapidly running out time. The viral outbreak grows ever more dire. And we now must choose between compassion and callousness. The choice cannot be deferred any longer. Deferring the choice to immediately mobilize, to immediately act, means choosing to callousness. Yes, those of us who can, who are not essential workers, need to shelter in place. That is a compassionate act, for it will slow the spread of the virus.
But we need to do more than that we, we need to choose compassion as our guiding principle going forward. And we need to recognize that we are in extraordinary times. We are in a crisis and we should listen to the economist Milton Friedman, “only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change.” Real change is going to come from this crisis. The only question is: will it be compassionate change or callous change?
Already the current President is using the pandemic to pursue the politics of callousness that he has long sought to enact. He is sending asylum seekers back to Mexico. He is undermining the ability of unions to collect dues from federal workers. He is demanding the relaxation of environmental protections. Each action, he claims, is somehow related to fighting the pandemic.
We can choose differently. We can use this crisis to pursue the politics of compassion. We can society’s quick mobilization as lesson that it is possible to act rapidly to address the climate emergency. We can take the truth that all of us are vulnerable to the virus; that our health care system cannot continue in its current form; and that we need universal health care now. We can recognize that we are all dependent upon each other and, so, therefore we must all take care of each other. We can choose the politics of compassion.
We have reached the end of the world. We are living amid an apocalypse. The veil has been lifted. Will we choose the politics of callousness or the politics of compassion? “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise,” said James Baldwin. What shall we choose? What will you choose? How shall we act? How shall we take the lessons of the hour? These are the questions that haunt us in these strange days. And I end not by precisely answering them but by raising them. For truthfully, they are not my questions to answer alone. They are questions we must answer together. We must answer them together, even as we social distance, because we are rapidly running out of time. Let us choose wisely.
The case count is rising. The virus is spreading. Please, take good care, be safe, know that you are loved, and that this congregation is here for you, and now, I invite you to say with me, wherever you are, Amen.
Mar 20, 2020
The global health pandemic is upending many things right now. Religious communities have been impacted and, as the senior minister of decent sized multi-site congregation, I have had to think a lot about congregational finances. We have about twenty people--both full-time and part-time--who work for the congregation in some capacity. I know that in order to continue to provide services to the congregation and the community I need to keep them employed for as long as possible. I also know that, someday, we will need to re-open our physical operations and that, when we do, we will need a staff onsite to offer worship, nurture religious community, and provide pastoral care for all those who wish to join with us.
Last night, I presented my Board with a modified budget for the rest of the fiscal year and some principles under which I would be developing the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget. A couple of colleagues have asked for assistance in forecasting their budgets for the next year and for figuring out how to make it through the rest of the fiscal year. In that light, I am sharing what I came up with:
1. The congregation should try to keep all staff, including, or perhaps especially given their economic vulnerability, hourly workers employed as long as possible.
2. All staff should be expected to work to their ability during this time. If they get sick they will continue to get paid. Not paid a set number of sick days, just paid, until such time as they are well enough to work again. If they have a job, such as being a Sunday nursery care worker, that is not needed at this time, they should continue to get paid.
3. The physical plant will cost less to operate. We will be using less electricity, less paper, and so forth. Some staff will need to continue to come into work to maintain the physical plant. Most will be able to work from home. We should forecast significant savings in utilities and the like because of the reduced costs to operate our physical locations.
4. All non-critical repairs that cannot be completed by the sexton should be deferred.
5. We should assume minimal offering income during this time. We normally get about $5,000 in offering income a month. I am assuming only $1,000 a month in offering income.
6. We should assume no rental income for the remainder of the fiscal year and, at best, reduced rental income beginning in September 2020 (which might be optimistic given the incompetence of the current leadership of the Federal Executive).
7. We should assume some people will not be able to honor their pledges. I am assuming that the country rapidly hits around 20% unemployment.* And, accordingly, I am assuming that we only receive 80% of remaining pledges for the fiscal year and only 80%** committed/forecast pledges for the next fiscal year.
8. All program spending is frozen, effective immediately.
9. We should draw from the operating reserves. If there ever was a rainy day, this is it.
10. We should freeze all staff salaries at current levels.
11. We should plan on having the above cost cutting procedures in place through at least June 2021.
12. If things get worse we may have to make additional cuts. Think about cutting people’s salaries (including your own) before you cut their jobs.
My recommendations to my fellow religious leaders:
1. Move as quickly as possible to aggressively and compassionately cut your budget.
2. Revise your income forecasts along the above lines.
3. Prepare for at least 18 months of financial hardship.
4. Remember, you’re the steward of an institution that has likely seen significant hard times before and will likely see them again. Don’t panic.
* Unemployment during the Great Depression hit about 25% at its peak in 1933. In 1929 it was 3.14% and, the next year, it rose to 9%. It continued to rise until there was aggressive and intelligent intervention by the federal government--something unthinkable under the current administration. The precarious nature of much of contemporary work and the so-called gig economy (which is really just a way for corporations to mercilessly exploit workers) suggests that the unemployment rate will rise very very quickly. In my home state of Michigan they’ve seen a jump of 1,500% in unemployment claims in a single week. Retail and hospitality are both in freefall and combined make up about 20% of the workforce. The significant loses these industries will and are experiencing will have a cascading effect throughout the economy. And that doesn’t take into consideration the impact the other industries that are experiencing job losses because, say, factories can’t operate safely, will have on the economy.
** The formula I’m using for my congregation is significantly more complicated. However, I still come up with around the 80% number.