May 20, 2017
I will be preaching at the First Parish of Northfield in Northfield, MA on June 4, 2017.
May 18, 2017
May 9, 2017
as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016
This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.
Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce... condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”
The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.
I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.
To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.
That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.
The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.
When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.
The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.
In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.
Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.
The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.
Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives--books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers--and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.
In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.
This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.
What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.
Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.
I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites... The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.
Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.
White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.
The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.
Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.
Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.
So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.
All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe
May 8, 2017
I am currently accepting invitations to preach at congregations for the 2017-2018 program year in the Boston metro area. I am also available to preach in summer 2017 (including June) in the Boston, New York and Detroit metro areas (August only) and Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
I generally provide worship services on the following topics: religious practice and daily life; democracy as a religious practice; the liberal religious call to prison abolition; racial justice or challenging white supremacy; Unitarian Christianity; solidarity with undocumented migrants; the theology of friendship; decolonizing Unitarian Universalism; reparations for slavery; Unitarian Universalist liberation theology; and the metaphoric nature of liberal theology. I will be developing a number of new sermon topics in the coming months and can prepare sermons on a multitude of other topics by special arrangement. I am comfortable leading worship for humanist, liberal Christian, and Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Since this is an advertisement, let me sum up my qualifications as a preacher. I have been preaching since 2000 and have led worship services for over 100 congregations throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These congregations have ranged from the very small (less than 20 members) to the very large (more than 1,000 members) and include, most recently, Memorial Church of Harvard University. Prior to beginning my doctoral studies at Harvard, I served as the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. During my time there the congregation’s membership increased by over 50% and the Sunday morning attendance more than doubled. I have won three awards for my sermons and several have received regional or national media coverage. My curriculum vitae includes more details.
May 5, 2017
I will be at Harvard for another academic year. The Panel on Theological Education has generously awarded me a fellowship that will allow me to focus the majority of my time for the 2017-2018 academic year on completing my dissertation and several smaller research projects that I began as a graduate student. My intention is to defend my dissertation in either the autumn or the spring, depending on what makes sense to my committee and the progress I make over the next few months on chapter revisions. In meantime, I am looking for part-time, freelance, and/or summer work to supplement my income. I will put out an announcement about pulpit supply in the next couple of days. If you have any leads please contact me. You can view my c. v. here and my Linkedin profile here.
May 4, 2017
Apr 30, 2017
as preached at Memorial Church of Harvard University, April 30, 2017. The readings for the day were Isaiah 43:1-12 and Luke 24:13-35. The sermon focuses on Luke 24:13-35.
It is good to be with you this morning. I want to begin with a simple note of gratitude for your hospitality and for Professor Walton’s invitation. Rev. Sullivan, Ed Jones, your seminarians, and Elizabeth Montgomery and Nancy McKeown from your administrative staff have all been delightful. Thank you all. Working with everyone has been a pleasant reminder that while I might prepare my text alone, worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
Today is the third Sunday in the Easter season. In keeping with the Christian liturgical calendar, our lesson this morning is an Easter lesson. It is Luke 24:16, a sentence fragment that we read as “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.”
The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus’s disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus’s execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement’s leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the text explains.
Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.” In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, “something prevented them from recognizing him.”
Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.
Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an “idle tale” or “nonsense.” Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.
Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.
This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend’s favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.
Such encounters are embarrassing. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.
When police officers murder people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. The police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked “like a demon.” That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.
Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we “must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon.” She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Trayvon. They both belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 321 people they have killed thus far in 2017?
I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.
One of the principal theologians of my Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within “the likeness to God.” Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, “from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment.
This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.
Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus’s teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.
Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?
Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in academic life. Think about it. Most of us have participated in the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except... these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.
Do any of these seem familiar: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else’s query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.
Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague’s question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other’s work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.
When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. What about you? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?
Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people “who believe that they are white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.
Most people who believe they are white believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this. Neither are universities.
The theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the “Race Game.” The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you might tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate white man. He brought with him his ten-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”
The “Race Game” can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: “The guest preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man.” The Social Class Game: “He was an upper middle-class professional.” The Ableism Game: “The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity.” Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.
But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.
What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world’s powers and principalities.
Tomorrow’s May Day marches, protests, and strikes demand that the American government recognize the human in every person. The rally 4:00 p.m. at Harvard is a challenge to the University community to protect our marginalized members. Yesterday’s climate march was a call to honor the divine everywhere and in everything on this blue green ball of a planet. This morning’s passing of the peace was briefly an opportunity to recognize the human in the face of each person you greeted.
The first hundred days of the new President’s regime have been a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty.
Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is! “For the kingdom of God is among you!”
It is the poets who sum this sermon best.
T. S. Eliot:
“Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?”
Jimmy Santiago Baca:
“the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is.”
“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”
Let us pray.
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
all that prevents us from recognizing
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.
Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
comforting the afflicted,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.
May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.
Gloria Korsman, Research Librarian at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, aided me with the research for this sermon. My understanding of Luke 24:13-35 also benefited from conversation with Mark Belletini. One of my advisors, Mayra Rivera Rivera, helped connect me with the congregation.
Apr 13, 2017
Mar 29, 2017
My preaching date at the First Parish in Wayland has been changed to April 23, 2017.
Mar 27, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, Andover, MA, March 26, 2017
It is nice to be here with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here in Andover two springs ago. I remember your congregation as warm and welcoming. Georgia has been super helpful. I am glad to report that my memories have not been deceptive.
This morning I want to talk with you about God. Specifically, I want us think together about who or what God is and how we imagine God. So, let me start with a question. When I say the word God what image appears? How do you imagine God? Does God have a face? A body? A sweet voice that provides tender inspiration? A stern baritone that rolls like thunder across harsh rebuke? How do you imagine God? Does the very word prompt in you a rising anger? Do you reject any concept of the divine? Do you consider yourself a humanist? Do you put this worldly human concerns over and against any deity’s reality? How do you imagine God?
Our question has perplexed artists, theologians, religious leaders, and, well, really, almost everyone for as long as there has been human culture. In the twentieth-century the theologian Paul Tillich defined God as a symbol for ultimate concern. God represents the thing that matters most to us human beings. That thing is a little different for every person and in every moment of time. Even the most cursory survey of religious history reveals how much our ultimate concern has shifted over the ages.
The most ancient images of the divine are all similar in shape. Paleolithic Venus figurines have been found throughout Europe. Rough carved from a single piece of ivory or stone, they each feature spherical breasts on a spherical body and an exaggerated detailed vulva. No one knows exactly what they mean or how they were used. They were created by a preliterate culture. Most scholars think these millennia old figurines were made for some sacred ritual purpose. Perhaps they used in healing rituals. It might be that they were thought to bring the blessing of fertility. Whatever the case these small statutes of female bodies were created by hands. Someone imagined them. Then that someone patiently chipped and carved and worried the feminine divine from mental image to physical instantiation. Is this aged icon how you imagine God?
Maybe your image of God comes from somewhere else. Perhaps when I say God you envision a dynamic pantheistic cast. Do you see Ganesha, the multi-armed elephant headed Hindu Lord of Obstacles? He places obstacles in the paths of those who grow too haughty. He removes obstacles from others in their times of need. Maybe instead you glimpse beautiful Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. In her bare fleshed perfection, she might be accompanied by another deity from her ancient pantheon. Perhaps she is with her lover Ares, fierce god of war. Maybe your image of the divine is linked to old Egypt. The goddess Bastet, cat headed and woman bodied? Horus with the head of a falcon? Are any these your image of God?
How do you imagine God? Does the word conjure forth visions from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Do you see God reaching forth from a host of angels? His face is bearded and white. He is clad in an off-white robe, almost pink really, and his arm extends to a naked Adam. Adam reclines on a blue green hill. The first man reaches towards God. His finger is slightly crocked. God is struggling to reach him. Adam is just out reach of the divine. He gazes back at divinity with a mixture of laziness and longing. Are these white men frozen in a five hundred year old fresco who you think of when you imagine the divine?
How do you imagine God? It is a question with ethical and political implications. The famous nineteenth-century American agnostic Robert Ingersoll claimed, “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” The divine orderings that we humans imagine are often but celestial reflections of our own earthly concerns. The Venus figurines could have been created because in a Paleolithic community fertility and fecundity, the continuation of the species from one generation to the next, might have been of utmost concern. The complexities of pantheistic hierarchies of deities reflected the emerging complexity of the first urban societies. Michelangelo placed a white man at the pinnacle of the cosmos because his society was ruled by white men. Despite his creative genius he could not imagine, or at least dare to portray, a brown skinned woman or black hued man as his deity.
My own images of God are vague and nondescript. I am ambivalent about theism or the existence of the deity. I suppose as a minister I should have more defined views. But I appreciate that Unitarian Universalism allows us ambiguity. I have had moments of intense connection with something I would call the divine. In a bath of blue, standing before Chagall’s America Windows at the Chicago Art Institute, I see the artist’s fragmented fractal shapes, triangle panes of cobalt, cerulean, cyan, cornflower, sapphire, and turquoise, colliding with magenta and lemon, to form pirouetting figures, candelabrums, an unfolding cityscape of jagged buildings. Blue, Judaism’s color for the divine. One summer Saturday in seminary that bath of blue, washes over me and I feel intrinsically part of the universe, connected to the cool walls, connected to the slapping of shoe soles on the museum’s floor, the whisper of cloth as someone walks past.
Another moment, sipping tea in the kitchen while talking to a friend. The tea is green, bitter but sweet without sugar. My friend and I are having the same conversation we have had every week for the past three years. It’s spring and the first greens of the year peak in through the window. I feel comforted, blessed, connected, not just to my friend but to everything.
Searching the early autumn broadleaf forest for chanterelles, I look down at the leaf litter and see nothing--no apricot stemmed wrinkles of sweet mushroom flesh just browning crumpled leaf litter. I look up at the maples and oaks casting off summer’s lushness for burnt orange and piercing red. I look down again and suddenly see an almost endless array of edible fungus. As I pick pound after pound of the flaming sweet smelling mushrooms I feel like I have entered another reality, the forest and I are, for more than a moment, one.
Yet looking for God I have encountered absence. I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed for a loved one to recover from their addiction and been met with only silence. I have sought divine solace in the midst of restless nights fraught with worry and found none. I have opened my eyes to the horrors of the day--war, desolation, cruelty, greed--and discovered neither meaning nor love ordering our muddy blue green ball of a planet. And so, I am ambivalent about the divine. I have experienced connection and I have discovered absence. What about you?
Better theologians than I can craft doctrines from all of this mess. Today, let us not worry so much about divine existence. In our pluralistic society, and in our liberal religious tradition, it is a deeply personal question. I suspect each of you might share different stories about connection and absence. I know each of you make different conclusions about the existence or nonexistence of the divine. Yet for all of that we share some kind of reality, some set of common reference points.
The poet Wislawa [we slava] Szymborska made a humanist statement that might sum the major argument of this sermon:
We call it a grain of sand
But it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does fine without a name
mistaken, or apt.
Whatever ultimate reality there is in this universe is seen through human eyes and narrated through human stories. We take all of this rough and glorious mess, all of this absence and connection, and cast it into words and symbols. That is the only way we can share with each other something about what it all is and what it all means. The word sand is not quite sand. It is a symbol, a representation, an abstraction both calling to mind the general idea of sand and a particular grain of sand.
So too with God. The word God represents whatever it is we most value, we hold highest in our lives. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used to say: “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”
How do you imagine God? My own academic research of late has been into how people have represented God. Close to a hundred years ago Marcus Garvey was troubled by white images of God. Garvey is not a name usually uttered in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. In the 1920s he was the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It was the largest mass movement in African American history. It claimed a membership of millions and influenced not only the black freedom struggle in the United States but the struggle against colonialism throughout the globe.
The 1920s were a period of blatant white supremacy. There were race riots throughout country in which whites killed blacks. Lynching was an epidemic. The Ku Klux Klan was a dominant force in American society. It claimed millions of members. In response, Garvey preached what later would be called black pride. He wanted black people not be ashamed of the color of their skin. One of his strategies was to attack white symbols of the divine. He told his followers to reject a white Jesus and a white Mary. Instead, he encouraged them to worship the Black Man of Sorrows and a Black Madonna.
Though he is best remembered as bombastic and egotistical, Garvey could be a remarkably subtle thinker. After encouraging his followers to worship a black Christ he told them, “Christ was not black. Christ was not white, Christ was not completely red--Christ was the embodiment of all humanity. To be Christ he must have an equal part of all mankind in Him.” The Christian New Testament offers no physical description of Jesus. Garvey thought white people had a white Jesus because their ultimate concern was for whites. He wanted black people to have a black Jesus to express that their ultimate concern was for blacks.
What do such racially charged images do for your imaginings of God? Fill you with pride? Trouble with you? Appear irrelevant? In raising these images of God this morning I am trying to make three interwoven gestures. First, whatever the reality of the divine, our images of the sacred are human constructions. Second, the pictures we create of the holy matter. A white male God in heaven justifies white male rule on earth. Any honest student of history can tell you that white male rule on earth means a society organized for the benefit of white men. Different images of God lend their authority to different kinds of social structures. Third, whatever it is that these images represent is ultimately beyond human language. For me, God is best understood as an experience of transcendental connection, an experience of being a part of something greater, vaster, than myself. Your understanding of God might be different. But whatever the case, words will fail to help us reach agreement about the nature of the divine. If they could we as a human species would have long ago settled on who and what God is. But we haven’t.
Please do not understand these three gestures as a call for iconoclasm. I am not suggesting that we destroy our images of the sacred. Art provides one of the paths to connection with whatever it is that finally lies beyond about our ability to describe.
Our Puritan ancestors were suspicious of images of the holy. They took the Hebrew Bible’s third commandment of making no graven images quite seriously. Many a New England meeting house lacks stained glass, features white washed walls, and contains not a hint of representation.
We need not embrace such iconoclasm. Instead, I suggest that we approach our religious symbols with humility. Let us remember that they are but representations of the divine. They are not God, just as God is not God’s name. If we find that these symbols help us to connect to each other and to the transcendent mystery and wonder of which we are all a part then let us celebrate them. If, instead, we discover that they separate us from each other or justify a tyrant on earth then maybe we should hold our images of God to be idolatrous. Such images are not worthy of destruction but they are not worthy of worship either.
How do you imagine God? The late poet Derek Walcott translated his experience of connection:
A fish breaks the Sabbath
With a silvery leap.
The scales fall from him
In a tinkle of church-bells;
The town streets are orange
With the week-ripened sunlight
Do such words help you commune with whatever it is that lies beyond all human language? There is beauty in them for me. When I read them I feel connected to something beyond my myself.
This fine morning, may you find beauty and a sense of connection in all of the words and symbols you use to describe that which cannot be described. May you share that beauty with others. In doing so, you might find a richer sense of connection. Again, Walcott:
Of sunlight and pigeons,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.