Choose a Category

Sep 18, 2017

Sometimes You Need a Story to Survive

as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017

I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.

I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.

The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”

Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.

Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.

The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.

Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.

I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.

The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.

In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.

I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.

Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”

Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.

Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.

I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?

I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.

But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?

This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.

I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.

Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.

Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.

Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags First Parish Ashby Unitarian Universalism Dante William Ellery Channing Jack Mendelsohn Dorothy Wilder Ashby Vietnam Philip Zwerling Arlington Street Church James Luther Adams Rebecca Parker Mark Morrison-Reed

May 9, 2017

Deeper Shadows to Come

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

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Hopedale Fall River Adin Ballou Dan McKanan Rebecca Parker Donald Trump Ta-Nehisi Coates W. E. B. Du Bois Universalism Herman Melville

May 8, 2017

Available for Preaching Engagements

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.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Sermon Tags Boston New York Detroit Maine New Hampshire Vermont Preaching Engagements

Apr 30, 2017

Finding Each Other on the Road to Emmaus

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.”

denise levertov:

“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”

Let us pray.
Heart’s hunger,
holy mystery,
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
to uncover
all that prevents us from recognizing
each other
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,
afflicting comfortable,
comforting the afflicted,
renouncing violence,
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.

Amen.

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.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Memorial Church Harvard Emmaus Luke 24:13-35 Black Lives Matter Trayvon Martin Freddie Gray Mike Brown Sandra Bland Korryn Gaines Easter Unitarian Christianity William Ellery Channing Kelly Brown Douglas Ta-Nehisi Coates Thandeka T. S. Eliot denise levertov Jimmy Santiago Baca

Mar 27, 2017

The Image of God

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
general, specific,
transient, permanent,
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.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Imago Dei Andover Paul Tillich Derek Walcott Wislawa Szymborska God Marcus Garvey Jesus Christ

Jan 7, 2017

From Generation to Generation (Sermon)

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 10, 2009

This morning I am going to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the way in which we pass gifts from generation to generation. It is the act of preserving and maintaining the community so that the gifts that we receive from it might be available to future generations. Stewardship has four interrelated and interlocking aspects: love, money, values and tradition. The four facets of stewardship are related to each other and to our spiritual lives.

Money is the part of stewardship we talk about least often during our Sunday services. Love, values and tradition frequently appear in the Society's other sermons and services throughout the year. Money, however, generally only gets mentioned during the annual stewardship campaign. I suspect that this is because money often stands in tension with religion.

Money is, after all, one of the major ordering forces of the material world. For many of us it determines what kind home we have, what kind of food we eat, what type of clothes we wear and what forms of entertainment we can seek. Our society consistently broadcasts the message that an individual's self-worth is related to how much money he or she has.

Consumer culture has been built by trying to convince people that they will be happier if only the own certain products. Commercials promise happiness by offering us younger skin, new cars, trendier clothes, exciting food and better homes. The message is always clear. Transformation and personal fulfillment are possible through the consumption of products. What we have defines who we are.

Religion usually posits one of two oppositional messages to this gospel of consumerism. Religious communities suggest that we are either defined by what we believe or what we do. What we have is secondary to who we are. Anyone, regardless of their material possessions, can be a member of a religious community. In fact, someone's material possessions can stand in the way of their ability to participate in a religious community.

There are plenty of stories about how those with few material possessions and little money have a better chance at having a rich spiritual life. Many of you are probably familiar with a story called the rich young man found in the Christian tradition.

Once when Jesus was sitting with his disciples a rich young man came up to him and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied that in order to have eternal life all the young man had to do was keep the commandments. He should refrain from murder. He should not steal or commit adultery. He should love his neighbor as himself.

The young man was not satisfied with this answer and so he asked Jesus "I have kept all the commandments what do I still lack?" Jesus replied "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor..."

The young man was shocked and retreated in confusion. Jesus told his disciples "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God."

This story suggests that to be a member of Jesus's community you had to eschew material goods. They actually prevented one from being a full member of the community. Jesus favored the poor and the outcast more than he favored the wealthy or even the middle class.

Christianity is not the only religion to suggest that there is a tension between the material and the spiritual world. There is a Taoist story, for example, about the encounter between a Taoist gardener and a disciple of Confucius named Zi-gong.

One day Zi-gong was traveling through the country side when he saw an old man digging a ditch to connect a vegetable garden with a well. Slowly and painstakingly the gardener would draw a bucket of water from the well and pour it into the ditch.

Zi-gong approached him and said, "You know, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden faster and with less effort. Wouldn't you like that?"

"What type of contraption?" the gardener asked.

"It's called a well sweep. It is really just a wooden lever that is light in back and heavy in front. You pull on it and it allows you to draw water from the well in a steady flowing stream," Zi-gong replied.

The gardener was not impressed. In fact, he started to laugh at Zi-gong. Then he said to Zi-gong, "My teacher says that those with tricky tools have tricky business affairs. Those with tricky business affairs have trickery in their hearts. Those with trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure. Without purity they will have restless spirits and for them Dao cannot exist. I would be ashamed to use the sort of tricky tool you suggest."

In this story there is a clear scorn for material things. What is simplest is best. Any tool more complex than the most basic one might get in the way of an individual's spiritual life. To be a member of the gardener's spiritual community one must seek simplicity and avoid significant entanglements with the material world.

There is a certain usefulness and richness to such teachings. Our material lives should not define us. When we enter into a religious community or embark upon a spiritual path what we own and how much money we make should not limit us or even be particularly relevant.

Yet our physical beings and our communities are located in the material world. It is true that when we focus too much on money and material things our spiritual lives can be distorted. It is equally true that if we do not focus on the material world enough our spiritual lives will become distorted.

We Unitarian Universalists should be particularly cognizant of this. Unlike a lot of religious traditions most Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical about a realm of pure spirit. The contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, for example, argues that we can best understand our human nature by understanding our physiology. While we might have religious lives and spiritual experiences those lives and experiences are, for a large part, shaped by the material world we inhabit. Neglecting the material world can mean that we neglect the realm of the spirit. Our spiritual experiences are shaped by that material world.

"The Magic Penny" is a story that illustrates the connection between the material and spiritual realms. The story suggests that the more we give to others the more, in turn, we receive. You might remember it from the folk song by the same name.

A long time ago, a little girl found a magic penny. She and her family were poor and so she was delighted to have found some money for her own. She thought that, perhaps, she could buy herself a piece of penny candy.

That afternoon when she got home she was excited and told her father about what she had found. She told him that she was hoping to buy a lollypop. That evening her dad had to ask her for the penny. They were almost out of food and he needed the penny to buy a bag of beans so that everyone in the family could have something to eat. He told her he would repay her as soon as he could.

The little girl was crestfallen but she gave her father the penny and, filled with sorrow, went to bed. The next morning she woke-up and under her pillow were two pennies. She told her father and thanked him for giving her two pennies. He said that he didn't know where they came from.

Later that day she went to the candy store and bought her little brother a piece of candy. The next morning she discovered that her pennies had multiplied again. She continued to lend out her pennies or spend them on gifts for others. With each gift given or loan made her pennies came back to her, more than before.

After awhile she started to horde her pennies. Within a few days she noticed that her pile was decreasing in size. Every day that she went without lending out a penny or using a penny to buy a gift for someone her pile would get a little smaller.

The folk song compares the magic penny to love. The chorus and first verse of the song read:

Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.

Love is like the magic penny because the more love we give the more we receive. If we hold ourselves in, are afraid to engage with others, and fail to share we will end up alone and unloved. It is only by loving others and seeking love that we can find it.

The song and the story capture the spirit of congregational stewardship perfectly. The more you give the more you receive. And stewardship is not just about giving money. It is about sharing our love, our values and passing along our tradition. The song reflects this. It is part of our tradition. It was written by Malvina Reynolds, a Unitarian Universalist folk singer who lived in Berkeley, California.

I first heard the song not as child but as an adult when I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Even though she died in the late 1970s Reynolds was still a presence within that congregation's life. People sang her songs and her family--Unitarian Universalists who attended other congregations in the Bay Area--came to do a program about her every few years.

The song was created by Reynolds as an expression of her love for her daughter Nancy. It is one way that Reynolds passed her love and her values down to the next generation. So, not only does the song provide a nice metaphor for stewardship it actually reflects the practice. Stewardship is not just about money. It is about how we pass along and share what is most important to us.

Passing along gifts between generations was a topic this past week in the Unitarian Universalist parenting group that Sara and I facilitate. As part of the class we the read the poem by Antoine de St. Exupery "Generation to Generation." The poem is about how values are passed from one generation to the next. It ends with the lines: "We live, not by things, but by the meanings / of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords / from generation to generation."

After reading the poem participants took a little time to reflect upon and share the passwords that had been handed down to them from a previous generation. Passwords help us gain entrance into secret or closed places. In the sense of the poem they are the keys that unlock our identities. They help us define who we are and what means to be a member of particular community or family.

In the class, people shared words like justice, spirit or love. These were often key concepts that had ordered their lives. Such things are worth sharing with the following generations.

The conversation was about being stewards of our religious and familial values. As members of families and a religious community we are inheritors of traditions. It falls upon us to continue those traditions.

Stewardship is the act of preserving and nurturing the tradition for those who will come next. You may not know but anyone sitting in this room is the beneficiary of the stewardship of previous generations.

Those previous generations were filled with love. They proclaimed that all of humanity is worthy of God's love and wanted to share that message with others. They believed that love was transformative and that one of the purposes of religious community was to teach us to love better.

They sought to nurture a tradition that expressed and articulated that love. A tradition that provided an alternative to more orthodox religious movements that taught that the love of God and the humanity community are both limited.

This tradition and that love gave them the values to proclaim that women and men should have equal rights, that people of all colors and creeds are full members of the human and that sexual orientation should not limit one's right to have a partner or a family. This love and tradition called them to create a religious community where there is room for many different beliefs so that we might have a congregation which includes atheists, pagans, theists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people with other religious understandings.

And in order to share their love, nurture their tradition and spread their values they gave time and money to support Unitarian Universalism. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a place to worship on Sunday. Without them we would not be able to broadcast the message that all of humanity is one family and that everyone is welcome--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or other human divisor--in our community. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a community from which to reach out to refugees, advocate for peace, emphasize the importance of our connection to the natural world, speak out in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and work for justice.

Think of all of these gifts you have received. Surely they are worth nurturing and passing down to the next generation. One of the ways we pass these gifts down is through the act of financial giving. It is just one part of stewardship but it is an important part.The money that we give to our Unitarian Universalist congregation is an expression of the love we have for each other, the tradition we hold sacred and the values that we seek to promote. Giving money to the congregation sustains it and allows us to continue spreading and sharing our tradition of love.

This year as we launch our annual canvass we are trying something new. We are shifting to something called fair share giving. With fair share giving each person or family is asked to give a percentage of their income, rather than a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving allows you to self-identify how important this congregation and Unitarian Universalism are to your life. You can call yourself a supporter and give 3% of your income, a sustainer and give 4%, a visionary and give 5% or offer a full tithe of 10%. The goal of fair share giving is to have everyone give a meaningful amount rather than raise a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving recognizes that everyone's circumstances and different and that for some even giving at the 3% level can be a stretch. The hope is even if you cannot make a commitment to fair sharing this year you might be able to work towards it next year.

Fair share giving is like the magic penny. In the end it is not the amount that is given that is not as important as the commitment. If everyone gives their fair share we will have more than enough for all of the congregation's needs and ministries.

John Wolf said, "There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin or sexual orientation."

I hope that agree that this congregation and this tradition are worth supporting. If you do I am certain you will receive more than you give and find, like the magic penny, your love and your pledge multiplied many times over.

May be it so. Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Cleveland Stewardship Jesus Christ Money Taoism Confucianism

Jan 3, 2017

The Buddha Should Be As Useful As A Can (Sermon)

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, May 16, 2010

There is at least a segment of you who are wondering what just happened. The order of service shows that before the sermon we were supposed to have a piece of music called 4'33". But instead of playing music Karin sat in front of the piano doing nothing. No notes were played. No melody emerged. Nothing happened. This nothing is the entirety of this piece by the American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage. Yet the very presence of nothing throughout the piece makes 4'33" one of the 20th century's seminal musical compositions. Its central premiss is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a chair, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur is music. 4'33" can, therefore, be understood as expanding music's definition.

Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to make use of an anechoic chamber. The chamber used a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone... There was supposed to be nothing. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear pure silence. Instead he discovered two sounds, a high pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving the chamber he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that what he had heard was the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low ones.

From this experience Cage learned that we are surrounded by sound at all times. "Sounds," Cage wrote, "occur whether intended or not." He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, "an ideal situation, not a real one." When conceiving of a piece of music a composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed listeners hear something different than what the composer intended for them to hear. They hear both the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment's, and his body's, unintended sounds into his music.

4'33" derives from Cage's realization about the constant presence of sound. The only sound in the piece is the unintended sound of the body and the environment. Normally the ambient noise of the environment is the background upon which music unfolds. Cage has reversed the situation. In 4'33" the ambient noise is the music itself.

Changing his listeners' understanding of what art and music are is one of the central tasks of Cage's work. Profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion Cage saw art as having "the function of awakening people to the life around them." One of his teachers, the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, put it slightly differently by telling him, that "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Cage came to understand that the divine is "all things that happen in creation."

Cage's art is useful to a religious community like ours because his works help us to see and hear everyday life as beautiful. His music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what we normally consider music. This is intentional. Cage wanted his music to challenge listeners to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard 'noise' but... then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life."

Heard with Cage's ears music becomes not a matter of composition or performance but the result of an attitude. The rattle of a washing machine is placed on an equal level with a fugue by Beethoven. One is not more beautiful than the other. Both are collections of sounds--the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the metal sides of the machine, the piano's hammers hitting the wires and the bolts jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is a value assigned to them. If we choose we can assign all sounds the value of beautiful. Doing so allows us to take greater pleasure from them. It also opens up the world of experience. If, as Cage said, we "get over our likes and dislikes," then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.

Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of what art is. He is perhaps most famous for his readymades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel and a urinal labeled "Fountain." Duchamp hoped that seeing such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery would cause the viewer to ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?

Duchamp's work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview Cage shared this story about seeing some of the readymades: "his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from--not away, but among--the works of art...the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art."

When I first learned of Duchamp's work it had a similar effect on me. One afternoon a friend and I went to a local grocery store. While there we encountered a clear milk jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.

The bottle of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools and placed in front of me by human hands. The florescent light that shone on it caused the jug to cast a pale green shadow.

When Cage had such experiences they reminded him to celebrate the uniqueness of each object he encountered. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on seeing a soup can in the supermarket: "when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They're only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So, it's worthy of honor..."

In response to Cage's ruminations Retallack replied, "Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can." Sharp quips aside, Cage's point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger moments of insight. Every object encountered is both unique and connected with all other objects in the universe. Considering these facts can turn the most mundane incident into a spiritual experience. Any sound we hear, any article we see or touch is an invitation into deeper connection with the world around us.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han created the word "interbeing" to describe this interrelation of all things. In one of his books he invites his readers to look at the piece of paper on which his words appear. Looking at it closely reveals that it is a connected to all things. "Your mind is in here and mine is also...You cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper," he states.

Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not always easy to obtain. Often we focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage's work is helpful because engaging with it can require a shifting of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine heard for the first time; and the background sounds come to the foreground.

It is possible to cultivate this type of perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground. Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. All spiritual practices serve the same function, to center the self and to point to the possibility of insight.

For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. Cage felt that "personality is a flimsy thing on which to build...art" and sought to transcend it through the use of chance operations in his later pieces. Chance operations are methods of generating art independent of an artist's conscious intentions. They range from simple things like rolling dice or throwing darts to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I-Ching or computer programs. Cage developed a complex methodology for composition using the I-Ching as a base. He would set a certain number of parameters for a piece--its length, the number of performers or the number of instruments--and then flip coins to derive a series of I-Ching hexagrams to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led it, in his view, to more closely mirror the natural world. "What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations," he wrote, reflecting on his composition technique.

Cage's understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got.

Mushroom foraging is a lot like chance operation in composition. You commit to a particular technique--or in the case of mushrooms area--pay attention and see what the world brings you. Sudden shifts in consciousness may occur.

As a frequent forager myself I know how easy it is to slip from a forest bereft of mushrooms to a forest full of them. The chance turning of a leaf reveals a morel. Before there was nothing but early spring May Apples. Now the ground is littered with wrinkled grey caps.

Reflecting on this dynamic Cage once said, "ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking." The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, "a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it's fresh it's like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time."

Cage believed that we are surrounded by beauty, writing "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look." Within this attitude to I hear echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." Cage's work challenges us to directly experience the world that surrounds us. It is not be meditated through symbolic interpretation or given an explanation. It is just to be experienced. Such an openness leads to a constant state of wonder.

If this view has a limitation it is that, perhaps, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his writings and works Cage never seems to seriously wrestle with suffering. Instead he focuses on the possibility of beauty within the world. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful. Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them--the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the harsh stillness of a field before battle--it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world's problems inaction is not a realistic option.

Art only pushes into daily life so far. It may be provocative to quote, as Cage did in his piece "Indeterminacy," the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna by offering the words--"When Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, 'To thicken the plot.'"--but it does little to goad people in action. It is no doubt my own rooting in a religious tradition that's objective is, in the words of one Unitarian Universalist author, "to build the world we dream about" that finds limitations in Cage here. He does not point the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. Yet he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.

Such was not his purpose. Instead Cage's work offers us the invitation to see the world as a blessing. And that is surely the first step towards making it whole. Cage suggests that viewed properly each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each thing we see a thing of wondrous beauty. If we understand the world's beauty how could do anything but cherish it? As Cage himself would say, "Everyday is a beautiful day." Let us make it so.

Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags John Cage Foraging Spiritual Practice Mycology Buddhism

Nov 27, 2016

Let Us Dream Freedom Dreams (Sermon)

as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, November 27, 2016

I am grateful to be back with you. It now seems worlds ago, but I was last with you the Sunday you installed Sarah Stewart as your twelfth minister. I understand you colloquially know her as M12.

M12’s installation took place, you might remember, a couple of weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. In the days leading up to the service there were large protests in Baltimore against police brutality. People were mobilizing to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Ministers and congregations across the country, I observed, were spending their Sundays talking and praying about the need for racial reconciliation and racial justice. I suggested that I was, at best, skeptical about such efforts. In many liberal religious communities, I complained, serious conversation about racial and social justice only take place against the backdrop of calamity. The crisis occurs. Congregations confront the tragedy with much hand wringing. Little changes. The traumatic event is largely forgotten, or becomes normalized, or fades into the background of daily life.

The only way this pattern would change, I argued, was for religious communities like yours to become sites for conversion. Conversion might be defined, I told you, in the words of James Luther Adams as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings with it a new perspective, a shift in a point of view. After the death of Freddie Gray, and the deaths of far too many others, I offered that most whites in America needed to undergo a conversion process. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be white, I urged, need to shift our point of view to see the United States from the perspective of people with darker skin. Whites must come to understand that white supremacy is not an abstract concept or a political slur. White supremacy is an economic and political system in which white wealth is built upon the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment. Those of us that claim we are white must empathically comprehend that racism is as much physical as it is psychological. For human beings with brown and black bodies, racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “is a visceral experience… it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”

It is only once those of us who believe ourselves to be white imaginatively shift our perspective, I claimed, that we can begin to participate in the work of dismantling white supremacy. Otherwise, I warned, the pulpit would remain silent on issues of racial and social justice except at moments of crisis. Speaking out only when tragedy strikes is a form of idolatry. It allows the pretense that the community uplifts justice when in reality it worships comfort and complicity.

In retrospect my sermon from last year appears quaint. For many of us, the world in late November 2016 feels fundamentally different than it did in May 2015. The United States has been through a desperately polarizing election. A new President has been elected through the undemocratic peculiarities of the American political system. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. He lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any successful candidate for the national executive since 1876. The man who assumes the executive office on January twentieth will be at the head of what can only be termed a minority government.

He gained that office by what can best be termed bad faith. His tactics were those of a con man: misdirection mixed with outrageous lies. He violated electoral norms. He praised autocrats and called for foreign intervention in the presidential election. He refused to release his taxes. He revealed himself to be a sexual predator. At times, the man who will be the next President stirred base human instinct: fear, hatred, misogyny, and racism. He verbally attacked immigrants, Muslims, women, and anyone who challenged him. He received open support by white supremacists and an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite all of this he will soon head the most powerful government in the history of the world.

We have now come to a moment when there are calls to unite behind the incoming President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, urged such unity in her concession speech, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The current President has offered a conciliatory tone. He has enjoined American citizens “to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”

The New York Times columnist Charles Blow responded this week writing, “Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything--no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts--to satisfy your ambitions.” Russian American dissident and critic of autocracy Masha Gessen has spent her life writing about the regime of Vladimir Putin. She warns that calls to reconciliation that fail to recognize that “Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election” are foolhardy. In her analysis, he is an aspiring autocrat, a proto-totalitarian, a neo-fascist.

Now me, I’m not much of a political liberal. I place myself in a similar camp to Blow and Gessen. I trust the President-elect. I assume that he will govern like he campaigned. He has already indicated he wants figures whose politics are best described as white supremacist as part of his administration. He has indicated that he will be intolerant of dissent. He intends to round up and deport several million immigrants. He refuses to place his businesses in a blind trust, creating the possibility of conflict of interest and corruption on an unprecedented level. I reject the idea of normalizing our next President.

I suspect that there are a few present here who would like to stop my wind-up to a jeremiad at this point. My litany of woes may seem out of place on a Sunday morning. I imagine that those of you whom I am making uncomfortable desire to remind me that religious communities are not places for partisan politics. So, let me be clear. I am not being partisan. I am offering a prophetic critique. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, I would be standing before you a warning of the Democratic Party’s complicity in attacking immigrant communities. More people have been deported under President Obama than under any other President. I would be reminding you of Secretary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy tendencies. She was instrumental in pushing for the violent overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was an event which resulted in civil war, the deaths of thousands, and the further destabilization of an already instable region. I would be criticizing the Democratic nominee for her longstanding practice of promoting economic programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And I would prod you to remember that she helped oversee the massive expansion of a prison industrial complex that targets human beings with brown and black bodies. In the 1990s she notoriously coined the phrase “super predator.”

But Secretary Clinton did not win the majority of votes in the electoral college. She is not going to be the forty-fifth President. Donald Trump is. And so he, not her, is the subject of my critique. And while Clinton would have represented yet another figure in the long standing, tragic, crisis of the moral bankruptcy of political liberalism, Trump represents something even more sinister, neo-Confederate autocracy. The question before this religious community and each of us as individuals is not to figure how to live responsibly in Hillary Clinton’s America. It is to discern how to live responsibly in Donald Trump’s.

Drawing from the prophetic liberal religious tradition, I suggest that this congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations like it have five tasks ahead. We must boldly proclaim our vision of what it means to be and flourish as humans. We have to develop a historical and social analysis that allows us to truthfully describe our present moment. We need to dream freedom dreams of what might be possible and, in the words of Robin Kelley, aid us “to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We are called to translate those dreams into action. We must maintain a spiritual practice to sustain ourselves through difficult years.

We are part of a liberal religious community. These tasks are not tasks for an individual. They are tasks for our collectivity, our gathered community. If we accept them, we will accept them as a community that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of each individual human being; a community that practices democracy; a community that honors the web of interrelation and interconnection of which we are all a part.

Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition with a particular understanding of what it means to be a human being. Close to two hundred years ago your congregation, like other New England Unitarian churches, rejected a theology that taught that human beings were innately depraved. Our religious ancestors instead favored a theology that viewed human nature as predicated upon freedom. We each contain within us, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, “the likeness to God.” The choice whether we will tilt towards that likeness or give ourselves over to baser instincts is ours.

What ultimately distinguishes religious liberals from religious conservatives is that we believe that human nature is not fixed. It is flexible. People can change. This assertion is more a matter of faith than it is a scientific claim. That we uphold it is one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion. Human freedom has yet to be empirically proven to be true or untrue. Faced with this wager we boldly bet on freedom, on the possibility that we can freely choose who and what we will be.

As a religious tradition we are comfortable with our claims about the essential nature of human freedom. In contrast, developing a historical and social analysis that truthfully describes our present moment is a far more difficult task. White American society--the society that celebrates the Declaration of Independence, worships the Constitution, and lionizes consumer choice--is quite comfortable with abstract discussions of freedom. But historical and social analysis is something that is widely frowned upon. Media outlets like Fox News and the white supremacist Breibart mock rigorous analytics as an egg-headed, liberal, elite activity.

So be it. Our religious tradition is one which is committed to telling truths in church. Describing the world as it actually exists is the most important form of truth telling. Offering a detailed analysis of what happened on November eighth and is happening now would require far more time than we have remaining on this bright Sunday. But allow me to make a few gestures that might help you as a community in your own truth telling. If you disagree with me at the very least my words will give you a helpful data point for the “not that.”

The presidential administration of Donald Trump will be a neo-Confederate autocracy. Like other kinds of neo-fascist, fascist, proto-totalitarian, autocratic, or right populist regimes, it emerges from a failure in political liberalism.

Since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.

The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.

When I label the rising presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Senior Counselor and the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else. As Senior Counselor, Bannon will push Trump to consider the needs of white voters, the next President’s electoral base, over the needs of all others. As Attorney General, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.

I use the label neo-Confederate to place the new Presidential administration within the context of the American history. Neo-Confederate reaction first emerged as a national political force after the Civil War, during the failure of Reconstruction. In the years of and immediately following the Civil War the United States government was largely controlled by a political alliance that the great W. E. B. Du Bois called abolition democracy. Abolition democracy was an alliance between abolitionist and anti-slavery Northerners and Southern African Americans against white supremacy. It was committed to ending chattel slavery and incorporating freed blacks into the American body politic. It collapsed in the mid-1870s when the Northern white elite decided that it had more in common economically with the Southern white elite than it did with African Americans.

The demise of abolition democracy brought about an era of reaction that created the regime of Jim Crow. This regime of legalized racial discrimination was only partially overturned when abolition democracy reconstituted itself in the civil rights era. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s Northern elites allied themselves with African Americans and other people of color to oppose what was then the neo-Confederate state governments of the South. This project reached a great pitch in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. It could be argued that it reached its zenith in the Presidency of Barack Obama. And it might be said that the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton represents its second collapse.

One way to describe Democrats like Clinton is that they believe that American elites have more in common with global elites than they do the working class. Clinton advocated free trade, possessed a dodgy record on civil rights, and abandoned the Democratic Party’s base in labor unions. She lost for the same reason that abolition democracy fell apart in the 1870s. Working people of all races stopped supporting it in sufficient numbers to maintain it because they felt that liberal elites did not have their best interests at heart.

Knowing what went wrong in the past and what is wrong with the present can aid us in dreaming of a different future. If we want to live in a world where the neo-Confederate vision of white supremacy and male dominance is relegated to the dust bin of history then we must imagine a world that is structurally different than the one in which we live now. We must dream freedom dreams.

One of my intellectual heroes, the historian Robin Kelley urges us to dream such dreams. Drawing from the teachings of his own mother he challenges “us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstituted... to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We need to dream of a world without white supremacy before we can build one. Poetry can help us.

Sun Ra:

Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
nowhere here
Why can’t we go somewhere there?

Diane Di Prima:

Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
sleep easily
share blanket, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.

I will not tell you what your freedom dreams should be. I just suggest you should cultivate them. Look to your daily life. When do you feel most fully yourself? Gardening? Cooking? Playing with your children? Riding your bike? At work? At rest? With your partner? Your friends? Alone? At a worship service? Perhaps such moments are good places to start looking for freedom dreams. True freedom is about the transformation of everyday life.

I invite you now to pause and complete the sentence: “I dream of...” Take a moment in silence “I dream of...” [Wait a minute.] Now, if you are comfortable turn to a neighbor and share what you dream of. [Wait a minute.]

Our freedom dreams will only become reality if we share them with each other. If we share them not just inside this building but outside of it with members of our family, our community, and throughout the world.

This sharing is the first step towards action. For action is the next task before religious communities in this time of crisis. I am not your minister. I am just a guest that you have generously invited into your pulpit. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. And so while I want to stir your dreams and push your analysis I suggest that finding your path forward is your collective task, not mine.

I can offer you this advice. Action will not be successful if you act alone. The new President will be at the head of a minority government. Actions that succeed in challenging him will come from mobilizing the majority of the populace. So build networks, resist together, not alone. Reach out together. Forge new relationships and strengthen the ones you already have.

The next four years will be difficult. The neo-Confederate agenda is clear. In order to survive and to act it will be necessary to maintain a strong sense of self and a calm center. The last task before us is simply to take care of ourselves, to nurture the spiritual practices that will sustain us again and again in what I know will be disappointing work. Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Cook a nice dinner for your family. Tell your partner that you love them. Hug your kids. Go for long walks on the edges of the city, through autumnal forests, or by frozen river banks. Ride your bike across town. As you nurture yourself you will find that you nurture others.

As you nurture yourself you will find strength for the tasks ahead. You will find companionship. You will find joy and, perhaps, a modicum of peace. You will find yourself dreaming. Let yourself dream. For in our dreams we can see a better world, a world that stirs in our hearts. It is a world that no matter how treacherous the path before us we can yet bring into being. So, let us set ourselves to the tasks ahead. And let us dream freedom dreams. And let us share those dreams with others.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights News Sermon Tags Worcester First Unitarian Church Worcester Masha Gessen Charles Blow Robin Kelley Sun Ra Diane Di Prima Freedom Dreams White Supremacy Donald Trump Ku Klux Klan Hillary Clinton neo-Confederate 2016 Election

Nov 7, 2016

A New Heart and a New Spirit (Revised)

On the Sunday before the 2016 I preached this signficant revision of the sermon I delivered two weeks earlier at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton. So, here's the A New Heart and a New Spirit as preached onNovember 6, 2016 at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Hudson, MA.

It is nice to be with you again. You have invited me here each of the past three autumns. This academic year, if all goes well, I will be finishing my doctorate. It is likely that this time next year I will be living someplace other than Massachusetts, working a new job, and no longer doing regular pulpit supply in New England. So, let me begin my sermon with a simple note of gratitude. The support of your congregation and congregations like yours has made a real difference in my ability to support my family while I have been in graduate school. Thank you.

This Sunday, I wish I could build the sermon around a sustained note of gratitude. Unfortunately, Tuesday is the presidential election. Gratitude seems like an inappropriate emotion for the closing hours of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy. Instead of gratitude, I find myself obliged to talk with you about the need for national repentance. As a wide variety of political commentators have suggested, no matter what happens next week the impact of the election will be long lasting. One of the candidates has received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The other has been embroiled in endless scandal and controversy. Regardless of who wins, the deep cleavages in American society have been exposed and exacerbated. On Wednesday morning, it will not be possible to pretend that America is a country that does not contain enduring patterns of misogyny. On Wednesday morning, we will not be able to declare that America has left behind its long history of white supremacy. And on Wednesday morning, we will not be able to say that this nation does right by the poor, the marginalized, the most needy, the people who Jesus called “the least of these.”

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is revealed to be the nation’s next President, these problems will endure. I grew up in a family where we followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. The President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality. No matter who has been in the White House, for the past thirty years the wealth gap between whites and people of color has grown.

The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to have sparked conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.

This election has had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.

These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.

In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.

Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced the existential threat of nuclear war. He warned, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.

I thought of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I watched the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Neither offered support for reparations for slavery. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.

The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.

To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom while the other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.

In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.

Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.

None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away that be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.

Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy with my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.

Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.

Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in her seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.

I recognized the truth in what she said. I gained clarity. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then I admitted that my behavior had been problematic. I confessed. The minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did and in doing so both I apologized and changed my behavior. Over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.

This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyny, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required clarity around my own patterns of behavior. It required confession that I had done ill. And then it necessitated an apology and a change in behavior.

Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected original sin, the idea that human beings were innately wicked. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. The great 19th-century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, taught people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.

The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. In the words of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, we must realize that “We are the cause, and we can be the cure” for much is what is wrong in the world. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.

This returns us to the subject of national repentance. For me, this election has brought clarity. There is little to celebrate about either political team. America is sick. No matter who wins the election the illness will continue until we, as a nation, are brave enough to confess. We must confess that in this country the poor continue to be exploited. We must confess that white supremacy and misogyny remain the norm. We must confess that the natural world is being destroyed to feed our materialist addictions. And we must confess that a failure in the political imagination means that unreflective militarism is offered as a violent solution to international problems.

Each of these confessions deserves an apology. But more that, they demand a change in behavior. What would our government’s policies be if America’s politicians took seriously the project of eliminating poverty? How would we treat each other if we tried to move beyond white supremacy and misogyny? What would our lives, and our relation with our ecosystem, look like if we recovered from our addiction to materialism? How would our foreign policy be different if it was not based on the threat of violent force?

As we move towards the close, I invite you take to time in silence. What do we as a nation need to repent for? How are you as an individual in need of repentance? What kind of clarity do you need? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?

[Two minutes of silence.]

My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags 2016 Election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Martin Luther King, Jr. Sin Paul Tillich Rebecca Parker Feminism Hebrew Prophets Jeremiah Ezekiel Bill Clinton Democrats Republicans Liberalism Ku Klux Klan

Oct 29, 2016

A New Heart and A New Spirit

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton, October 23, 2016

It is nice to with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here back in April. The primary season was underway and I offered you a sermon on democracy as a religious practice. I think I must have been in a more hopeful mood. I suggested that the religious practice of democracy is found in the ordinary practice of congregational polity, a commitment to conversation, and the quotidian rituals of liberal religious communities. I remember even lifting up spaces like board and congregational meetings as places where you could nurture individual and collective experiences of transformation.

This Sunday, I am afraid I come before you in a more pessimistic mood. I want to talk with you about repentance and the need for national repentance. Repentance is a concept that generally makes Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. In the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament it is understood as the admission of sins before God. When an individual repents they also commit to change their behavior.

Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.

In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.

None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away than to be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.

Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy about my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.

Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.

Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I thought I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in their seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.

I recognized the truth in what she said. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then the minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did. And over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.

This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyn, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required recognizing my own patterns of behavior, and trying to understand how they fit into social practices, and changing how I acted.

Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected the idea that human beings were innately wicked--which is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. William Ellery Channing liked to tell people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.

The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.

This dynamic has me feeling quite pessimistic. In these, the closing weeks of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy, I suppose the political liberals among us would want me to be optimistic. It appears that voting will largely be a formality. Hillary Clinton has what might be an insurmountable lead in the polls over Donald Trump. She is even polling ahead of him in states like Arizona which rarely vote Democratic. Statistician Nate Silver, of the web site FiveThirtyEight, currently has Clinton with a 85% chance of being the next President. Roughly nine out of ten Unitarian Universalists vote Democratic. I suspect that many of you here today find comfort in the probable election outcome.

I find myself rather more disturbed than comforted. I grew up in a family which followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. And the President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality.

The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to sparking much conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.

This possible moment of repentance aside, this election has filled me with despair. It has also had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.

These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then the proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.

In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.

Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced existential threats from nuclear war. What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.

I have been thinking of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I have been watching the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.

The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.

In my story from earlier, I had to gain clarity around my own deep rooted misogyn. I had to admit that it impacted my behavior and that, perhaps, I even benefitted from that behavior. It was emotionally easier not to examine how I acted than to change my actions. I had then apologize and finally I had to change my behavior. Saying I was sorry would have been meaningless if I had not begun to pay more attention to members of the congregation who I had marginalized.

To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both candidates are different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom. The other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.

Maybe your clarity is different is mine. If so, perhaps your confession will be different too. I confess as a highly educated white male that I have benefited from the system. I know my life is easier than the lives of so many other people. I have benefited from the exploitation of unnumbered people whose names I will never know.

Apologizing is hard. I do not believe in white liberal guilt. It makes little sense for me to apologize for the systems that I benefited from. I did not choose to be born someone who had easy access to education and financial support. Instead, I think I should apologize for the times that I have failed to understand what I have gained from the existing social system and continued my complicity in the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.

As for action, for me that means trying to move beyond the present political system and create a new one. It might mean something differently for you. Maybe you even do not agree with me about the need for national repentance or think that one of the candidates offers a solution to the national ills.

Whatever the case, as I move towards the close, I invite you to take some silence to contemplate things you or we might need to repent for. How is clarity needed? What would that clarity look like? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?

[Two minutes of silence.]

My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags 2016 Election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Martin Luther King, Jr. Sin Paul Tillich Feminism Hebrew Prophets Jeremiah Ezekiel Bill Clinton Democrats Republicans Liberalism

Aug 28, 2016

While There Is A Soul In Prison

Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016. 

It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.

Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.

Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.

My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.

I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.

My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?

Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?

I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.

This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”

The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.

Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.

All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.

Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.

I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.

The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.

We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.

All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.

Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.

Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.

Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”

And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.

Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.

As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Anarchism IWW Ministry Sermon Tags IWOC Prison Strike Abolitionism Rebecca Parker John Buehrens William Ellery Channing Liberalism Eugene Debs Human Nature Prisoners

Jun 1, 2016

Reimagine: Three Challenges for Unitarian Universalism

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, May 30, 2016

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Starr King School for the Ministry on the challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. Starr King is, as you know, one of the two explicitly Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the United States. Located in Berkley, California, it is a center for training both future ministers and social justice activists. Over the last few decades it has been at the forefront of theological education by serving as a multi-religious training ground. In addition to training Unitarian Universalists, it has a commitment to training liberal Islamic religious leaders.

Since, I am a both a historian and a theologian I opened my talk at Starr King with nod to the past as a way of setting us on the path to the future. I gave them the same reading we just had, Mark Belletini’s “Reading for the Day.” Belletini is a Starr King graduate and he has been a transformative figure for liberal religion. He was the first openly gay man called to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He is grounded in a multi-religious practice. Raised a Catholic, he has been profoundly influenced by Jewish liturgy and Islamic poetry. He channels the sacred through the fine arts and the human art of connection. He is devoted to teaching and cultivating the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It is a tradition which, in the words of Marilyn Sewell, teaches “that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth.”

Mark retired this past year. In many ways, his forty year ministry has been a testament to why Unitarian Universalism was able to grow steadily over the last several decades. For the majority of the later half of the twentieth-century we have been at the forefront of proclaiming that our religious communities are open to everyone. For a long time we were one of the few places where people who not heterosexual could bring their whole selves to worship. At a time of rising interest in religions other than Christianity, we have since the middle of the nineteenth century affirmed that there are multiple paths to the divine.

Today, Unitarian Universalism is at a turning point. While we grew in numbers steadily between 1980 and 2012 for the last few years our membership growth has either been stagnant or slightly declining. What I am going to do this morning is lay out three interrelated challenges that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. I am going to interweave these challenges with autobiographical illustrations and some cursory reflections on how we might meet those challenges.

Before I continue let me say that each of these challenges takes place within the framework of what we could call the great challenge. The great challenge is the question of whether or not we as a society and a human species will be able to manage the ecological catastrophe that we have created. This catastrophe emerges from our economic system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism, the wealth of the world has been built off a dual exploitation. The raw resources of the planet--magnificent forests of pin straight pine and whale large redwoods, pitch coal, or tarry oil--are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the basis of mostly white wealth. To confront the great challenge of our rising ecological catastrophe we will have to confront the system that has created it. This means, as Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker would have it, that we have to learn to live after the apocalypse. There are great catastrophes behind us and there may be great ones ahead of us. We need to learn with the present resources at hand, as Parker says, we need to engage in “salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” All this, however, is something of another sermon. So, rather than focusing on the great challenge this morning, let us instead focus on some particular challenges that face our faith.

As an introduction to each challenge, a verse from Mark’s poem: “You are alive, here and now. / Love boldly and always tell the truth.”

I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling old buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:

Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”

Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape offer two important lessons. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?

We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, on Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary, just past the mid-point of spring. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time… no longer constrained by fears that us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”

We live in a period of ever increasing modes of religiosity. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. These two observations present the first challenge that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. Traditional religious institutions have to re-imagine themselves to remain culturally relevant. We all know this. For those who care about congregational life, the statistics are grim. Sunday morning worship attendance is shrinking. Churches are closing. Seminaries are closing.

In the coming years, Unitarian Universalists will increasingly have to figure out how to offer guidance, inspiration, and prophetic vision to a society where there is no reigning religious norm. We will have ground our efforts to understand and transcend the great challenge in a desire to teach and explore both emerging forms of religious expression and long established ones.

“Your heart beats now, / not tomorrow or yesterday. / Love the gift of your life and do no harm.”

I left the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to return to academia in the autumn of 2012. Since then I have been doing pulpit supply throughout New England. New England is the historical heartland of American Unitarian Universalism and my itinerant wanderings throughout the region have made me feel, at times, like an old-fashioned circuit rider. In the last years, I have led worship at the some of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations and some of the smallest. Some of the smallest congregations in our tradition are quite small. This is a recent phenomenon for many of them.

Last year, I was invited to preach at a historic Universalist congregation in the center of a small Massachusetts city. Two centuries ago, the congregation had been served by Hosea Ballou, one the founders of American Universalism. During Ballou’s ministry, the congregation had numbered as many as a couple of thousand. The sanctuary was huge--walls with white paint, wooden pews with glistening varnish, a balcony that wrapped around the edges of the room and sat at least three hundred, a gigantic old fashioned New England pulpit that was way up there--just beautiful. It could easily accommodate fifteen hundred hardy souls. Anyone want to guess how many people were there on my Sunday morning? Anyone? Less than ten. That number includes me, my son, and my parents who were visiting from out of town.

The presence of only ten people in that cavernous sanctuary did not make the gathered congregation’s needs any less real. The struggles and aspirations of the community are present no matter how large or small the group. No matter how big or small the congregation we have bring ourselves fully to whatever religious community we enter. This instant we have together is all we have. We must make the most of it and remember that the beloved the community, that sense of the spark of the divine within each, can erupt at any moment.

No matter the size of the congregation, it can serve as an important voice for justice in its community. I was reminded of this recently when I led worship at another tiny little New England congregation in an old mill town. They asked me ahead of time what I planned to preach on. I told them the lasting impact of global white supremacy. It is a topic on which I preach frequently. It was notable enough in that town that the congregation made the local newspaper. Two full paragraphs. Page three. When Sunday morning came round the sanctuary was the fullest it had been in a long while. Afterwards, several people came up and told me that it was the first time they had heard white supremacy denounced from a historically white pulpit.

There is a truth that I am grasping for here. Even if some of our liberal religious institutions are declining they can still make an impact. In this country, movements for social transformation have always had a religious component. Re-imaging liberal religion for the twenty-first century means recognizing that it needs to continue serve the people well, no matter how few or how many. Whatever the size of a congregation we must remember that it can be a space for collective liberation. In some sense this just means remembering the truth of that well-worn quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

“Life is struggle and loss, and also / tenderness and joy. / Live all of your life, not just part of it.”

I come from a long line of troublemakers, political malcontents, social agitators and religious dissidents. My grandparents, on my Mom’s side, have a connection to the Amana colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. Many people on my father’s side are or were secular Jewish socialists. I was raised on stories of family members who fled this country or that to avoid fighting in another bloody capitalist war.

It is should not be a surprise that I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the project of collective liberation. This has taken me to a number places that most people who have my privileged class background do not normally end up. Over the years, I have helped organize an independent union of bike couriers and a wildcat strike that involved over twenty thousand workers. I have gone to jail for civil disobedience and spent about seven years working with indigenous communities, including the Zapatistas, in Mexico.

It is one of the lessons that I learned from the Zapatistas that I want to lift up to you this morning. The Zapatistas, you might remember, originated as a guerilla movement in Southern Mexico. It January 1994 they seized control of about one third of the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. A movement of indigenous Mayan peasants, among them I found remarkable resonances with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. Consider these words from Commandante Ester, a Zapatista leader, describing her community’s decision making process. She said, that her community tried to make decisions “without losing what makes each individual different, [in doing so] unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.” That sounds a fair bit like the approach to community life found in our congregations.

Indeed, one of most remarkable things that I witnessed in Chiapas was the processes of community decision making. I visited a village where there was a discussion on whether or not to renounce Catholicism in favor of non-Christian indigenous religion. For several days, from morning until late into the evening, all of the community members stood around a basketball court and debated the theological merits of Catholicism and of their Mayan religion. Which did they believe was the true? Which would guide their community best in the project of collective liberation?

On other occasions, I had conversations with Zapatista educators about their educational model. They told me that its goal was to enable people to become more fully human. That sounds an awful lot like Sophia Lyon Fahs writing that the goal of religious education is “to become one’s true self.”

We have to recognize that our theological tradition has a power that extends far beyond the white and professionally classed enclaves that have been liberal religions historic strongholds. The challenge, remember I promised I was going to get to a challenge, is that for liberal religion to grow in the twenty-first century those of us who are white have to recognize our theological solidarity with a host of communities of color that articulate theologies similar to our own. This means cracking open Unitarian Universalist culture in its stuck places. This means confronting the culture of whiteness that prevents many amongst us from seeing kinds of Unitarian and universalist theologies outside of our congregations. It means expanding our conception of our religious tradition and, in doing so, meeting the challenges we collectively face in the twenty-first century.

Rising modes of religious expression; shrinking institutions; and opening ourselves to Unitarianism and Universalism outside of our historic congregations. These challenges, within the broader context of the great challenge, are some we face. Let us collectively continue upon the path of re-imagining liberal religion and liberal theology for the twenty-first century. In doing so, let us have the faith that our efforts will serve all of humanity.

And remember that every single human word is
finally and divinely cradled in the strong and secure
arms of Silence.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Starr King School for the Ministry Mark Belletini Marilyn Sewell Unitarian Universalism House Techno Detroit Zapatismo

Apr 12, 2016

Reconstruction's End

[Note: This is the text of a lecture that I gave in John Stauffer's course The Civil War: From Nat Turner to Birth of a Nation at Harvard College. Several people asked me if they could read the text so I am posting it here for general interest. I make no pretense to presenting original research in this text. Much of it is derived from the standard treatment of Reconstruction, Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. A few of the summary paragraphs on elections and economics probably border on plagarism. In the interest of transparancy I have uploaded a .pdf version of the talk with footnotes here. Also, Professor Stauffer starts each lecture with a song that connects to the course material. I picked "Black Betty" as performed by the 1970s one-hit wonder Ram Jam.]

That was “Black Betty,” as performed by the 1970s rock band Ram Jam. The song originated as an African American work-song in the early twentieth-century. Like the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” or “Miss You” it might be taken as a cipher representing white male desire for brown and black women’s bodies. The desire to control the bodies of people of color for economic gain and sexual pleasure is at the core of white supremacy. Caught within it is the myth that brown and black female bodies are always available for white male gratification: “Whoa Black Betty, bam-ba-lam / Go Black Betty, bam-ba-lam / Yo really get me high, bam-ba-lam / Yeah that’s no lie, bam-ba-lam / She’s always ready, bam-ba-lam.”

The defeat of the Confederacy brought the legal end of the control of black and brown bodies by Southern whites. No longer could children, women, and men be sold as chattel slaves on auction blocks. No longer could white masters rape black women with complete impunity. No longer were blacks excluded from the local, state, or federal polities. What came to be called Redemption was an effort by whites to reassert economic, political, and sexual control over black bodies.

“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” We have taken this phrase from W. E. B. Du Bois as something of a slogan for the course. In the arc of the sentence we have arrived at the final clause, “then moved back again toward slavery.” The collapse of Reconstruction did not render blacks in the same state as they had been in before the war. It left in place a white supremacist regime that was different in structure and scope to the system of chattel slavery that existed before the war. I will close my lecture this morning with some reflections on the enduring legacy of Henry Wilson, Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant, called the “Counter-Revolution” that followed Reconstruction. Before we get there, let us focus on our central task for the day: the demise of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction ended with the Bargain of 1877. The bargain was a backroom deal brokered between the representatives of Republic candidate for President, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. It stemmed from electoral crisis in which votes were disputed and the outcome of the electoral college was far from clear. It resulted in Hayes gaining the Presidency. In exchange he agreed to have federal troops in Louisiana and South Carolina return to their barracks and thus grant the entirety of the South “home rule.”

The Bargain of 1877 returned the South to the control of white Democrats for generations. Its long-term impact was almost immediately visible. Albion Turgee reflected on the situation in 1879, two years afterwards. Turgee was a carpetbagger originally from Ohio who served as a state judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction. In an interview he gave with the New York Tribune he remarked: “In all except the actual results of the physical struggle, I consider the South to have been the real victors in the war. I am filled with admiration and amazement at the masterly way in which they have brought about these results. The way in which they have neutralized the results of the war and reversed the verdict of Appomattox is the grandest thing in American politics.”

The question at the heart of this morning’s lecture is this: How did the South turn in military defeat in 1865 to a political victory in 1877? History rarely yields simple answers. Yet, historians generally point to three factors that contributed to the reversal of “the verdict of Appomattox.” These are America’s enduring culture of white supremacy; the exhaustion of the abolitionist tradition; and economic shifts and disruptions. We will tend to each of these in turn. Along the way, I will layout a timeline for the counter-revolution that overturned Reconstruction. But before we turn to Reconstruction’s demise it is worth taking a few moments, again, to briefly outline its accomplishments.

The end of the Civil War brought the end of chattel slavery. With it, came the question of what would happen to the freedmen and freedwomen. What would their freedom mean? At least theoretically, Reconstruction granted blacks control over their own labor, control over their sexual reproduction, and the ability for black men to participate as full citizens in the local, state, and national polities. Each of these achievements profoundly threatened the Southern system white supremacy. White supremacy, again, might be summarized as the control of black bodies for the economic gain and sexual pleasure of whites. In white supremacy the primary mechanism of control is violence: both threatened and actuated.

Under Reconstruction, blacks gained what the free labor ideology of the Republicans had to offer. They had the right to work for wages. They could accumulate savings. They had the right to select their own employers. They had freedom of movement and in theory move up the economic ladder, eventually becoming employers themselves. To some extent, at least, they could also dictate the conditions of their labor. Professor Stauffer has already highlighted the ways in which the Black Codes of 1865-1866 immediately sought to undermine the ability of blacks to control their labor. Both he and Bob Mann also have recounted how free labor ideology for the most part failed to redistribute land.

Under Reconstruction, blacks gained the ability to control their sexual reproduction. Slave masters could no longer rip families apart and sell mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandfathers, or grandmothers off to other masters. The black family is one of the most important institutions to emerge from Reconstruction. By 1870 a significant majority of blacks lived in two-parent households. White men no longer had unlimited access to the bodies of black women to satisfy of their sexual pleasure. The access of white male elites to the bodies of black women had long been one of the cornerstones of white supremacy. Charles Sumner had exposed it in his speech “Crime Against Kansas.” Greatly offending Southern slave owners when he said of South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, “he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him... I mean the harlot Slavery.”

In his self-published 1884 memoir Yazoo, or, On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South, Albert T. Morgan recorded several disturbing vignettes about the place of the control of black women’s bodies in white supremacy. Morgan was a Union officer, carpetbagger, and abolitionist. Born in Wisconsin in 1842, he attended Oberlin College before beginning his military career in the Union army. After the fall of the Confederacy he and his brother moved to Yazoo, Mississippi to attempt to run a plantation on the system of free labor. While there he served as a delegate to the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1868 and as a Republican member of the Mississippi State Senate. In 1870 he also married a black school teacher named Carolyn Victoria Highgate.

In his travels through Yazoo, Morgan encountered a Southern Whig who shared with him stories of his electoral campaign for the State Senate prior to the war. Morgan writes,

“It was made by him on horseback with two mules following behind, upon which he had packed ‘that gal, Sal, by G-d, sir,’ together with an ample supply of whisky and tobacco. …Thus equipped he was able to offer the suffragans of Yazoo weightier arguments than his opponent on the Democratic ticket, for he could bid them ‘choose to their taste,’ from the greater variety of the ‘creature comforts’ which he ‘toted about’ with him. ‘By G-d, sir, that did the business for me, and I was the first Whig Senator ever sent to the legislature from this county.’”

In other words, the politician had essentially bought his state senate seat by allowing white male voters to repeatedly rape a black woman.

Elsewhere Morgan describes a conversation he had with a “popular physician” shortly after the 1868 Reconstruction constitution was adopted. The constitution outlawed concubinage and opened the way for Morgan to sponsor a bill that legalized interracial marriage. In the course of Morgan’s conversation with him, the physician admitted that his principle objection to the new constitution was that it restricted white male access to black female bodies:

“‘Why, sir, that so-called constitution evelates every nigro wench in this State to the equality of ouah own daughters. The monstrous thing! Look atzit faw a moment! Ever since Washington’s time—and he understood it—the world wide fame of the fair ladies of the South faw beauty, faw refinement, and faw chasity has been ouah proudest boast. This vile thing you call a constitution robs us of that too.’

[Morgan interjected,] ‘My good sir, how do you make that out?’

‘Possibly you all are ignorant of the effects of the work you’ve been doing down there at Jackson. But that only illustrates another objection ou’ people have to anything you all may do. Such work ought never to be entrusted to strangers, faw the very good and sufficient reason that they can’t be expected to know the peculiarities of the people to be affected by it. Everybody who has resided in the South long enough to get acquainted with ou’ people and thar ways must know that the nigro women have always stood between ouah daughters and the superabundant sexual energy of ouah hot-blooded youth. And, by G-d, sir, youah so-called constitution tears down the restrictions that the fo’sight ouah statesmen faw mo’ than a century has placed upon the nigro race in oauh country. And, if you all ratify it and it is fo’ced on the people of the State, all the d—m nigro wenches in the country will believe that they’re just as good as the finest lady in the land; and they’ll think themselves too good faw thar place, and ouah young men’ll be driven back upon the white ladies, and we’ll have prostitution like you all have it in the North, and as it is known in other countries. I tell you, sir, it’ll h—l generally ‘twixt ouah young men, and the nigros, too. The end of it all will sho’ly be the degradation of ouah own ladies to the level of ouah wenches—the brutes!’”

The good doctor’s problem was, in sum, that the new constitution protected black women from white men. No longer could “the superabundant sexual energy of ouah hot-blooded” be channeled through black bodies. The physician feared that this change would result in a loss of purity for “the white ladies.”

Reconstruction did more than just free African Americans from the bonds of chattel slavery. It brought black men into full citizenship. Throughout most of the history of the United States, full citizenship has had at least five elements. Three of these were highlighted in Rev. John W. Hood’s speech at the 1865 North Carolina Freedmen’s Convention. He said, “we want three things,—first, the right to give evidence in the courts; second, the right to be represented in the jury-box; and third, the right to put votes in the ballot-box.” Besides the equality under the law, the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, and the right to both elect representatives and hold public office it is worth lifting-up two other elements of full citizenship. These are the ability to create autonomous institutions and the right to bear arms. The relationship between arms, military service, and citizenship is something that Professor Stauffer has discussed in previous lectures.

Less discussed has been the ability to create autonomous institutions. Some of the first steps towards freedom that former slaves took after the military defeat of the Confederacy were the creation of independent black churches and schools. Almost immediately after emancipation, blacks withdrew from historically biracial congregations throughout the South to form their own congregations. During the antebellum period blacks had at best an associate membership within churches. They sat in the back or in galleys and been excluded from congregational governance and Sunday schools. With the end of slavery, blacks created their own worshiping communities. By 1877 almost all Southern blacks left biracial congregations for their own independent churches. In 1860 there had been 42,000 black Methodists who worshipped in biracial congregations in South Carolina. By 1877 there were only 600.

In many cases the first buildings built after armed conflict ended were black churches. Here is a picture of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Also called Mother Emanuel, the congregation was founded in 1816. In 1822 it was investigated by whites because one of its prominent members, Denmark Vesey planned a slave uprising. In 1834 the congregation was driven underground when independent black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. It began openly worshiping again in 1865. This building dates from 1892. The congregation is probably familiar to many of you. It was the site of a white supremacist terrorist attack in 2015. The attack killed nine people, a testament to the enduring links between violence and white supremacy.

As Professor Stauffer mentioned in his last lecture, along with churches, schools were quickly organized throughout the South. By 1869, according to the Freedmen’s Bureau, there were close to 3,000 schools serving 150,000 black pupils. Literacy rates rose slowly, but accordingly. In 1860 approximately 90 percent of blacks throughout the South were illiterate. In the 1880 the percentage had decreased to 70. Despite this limited success, Reconstruction-era Republicans established for the time the principle that the state was responsible for providing public education.

Alongside the creation of autonomous institutions came black participation in governance. Blacks held offices at the local, state, and national levels. In 1875, two years before the end of Reconstruction, African American representation in Congress peaked at members, seven in the House and one in the Senate.

Taken together the black control over black labor, sexual republication, and the ability for black men to participate as full citizens in local, state, and national politics presented a profound threat to white supremacy. White rage at the prospect of black freedom was widespread. A sense of the intensity of white rage can be found in the 1868 response of the Democratic party State Committee in South Carolina. In a pamphlet titled The respectful remonstrance, on the behalf of the white people of South Carolina, against the constitution of the late Convention of that state, Democratic party leaders wrote:

…That Constitution was the work of Northern adventures, Southern renegades and ignorant negroes. Not one per centum of the white population of the State approves it, and not two per centrum of the negroes who voted for its adoption know any more than a dog, horse, or cat, what his act of voting implied. That Constitution enfranchises every male negro over the age of twenty-one. The negro being in a large numerical majority, as compared with the whites, the effect is that the new Constitution establishes in this State negro supremacy, with all its train of countless evils. A superior race—a portion, Senators and Representatives, of the same proud race to which it is your pride to belong—is put under the rule of an inferior race—the abject slaves of yesterday, the flushed freedmen of to-day. And think you there can be any just, lasting reconstruction on this basis? We do not mean to threaten resistance by arms. But the white people of our State will never quietly submit to negro rule. We may have to pass under the yoke you have authorized, but we will keep up this contest until we have regained the heritage of political control handed down to us by an honored ancestry. This is a duty we owe to the land that is ours, to the graves that it contains, and to the race of which and we are like members—the proud Caucasian race, whose sovereignty on earth God has ordained…

White supremacists channeled their white rage through the primary tool that they had always used to prop-up white supremacy: violence. Violence against blacks and against their white allies, both Northern Republicans and Southern Unionists, continued and increased in intensity as the conflict between the Union and Confederate Armies ended. White supremacist(ism) was widespread and well-organized from the opening days of Reconstruction. In the autumn of 1865 freedmen were routinely assaulted in Edgefield county, South Carolina. As one freedman told a Union general, “It is almost a daily occurrence for black men to be hunted down with dogs and shot like wild beasts.” A band of a hundred former Confederate soldiers roamed the county whipping and killing blacks who were brave enough to leave their former masters. In Texas between 1865 and 1868 at least 1,000 blacks were murdered by whites for reasons as petty as refusing to remove their hats. The majority of murders, however, occurred when blacks tried to assert their freedom. Blacks were murdered for leaving plantations, attempting to buy or rent land, disputing the terms of their employment, refusing work orders, and resisting whippings.

Violence against blacks and their white allies went through three overlapping phases. The first phase was the briefest and is attested to by the episode in Edgefield County. White supremacists attacked blacks who tried to assert their new found freedom. This phase spanned roughly 1865 to 1866. The second phase was the phase of the Ku Klux Klan. It ran from approximately 1866 to 1872 and targeted the white and black political leaders of Reconstruction. The third, final, and most successful phase was the white line phase. Stretching from about 1872 to past the end of Reconstruction, it succeeded in doing what the other phases had not, re-establishing white supremacy in the South.

All three phases of violence were possible because of a massive demobilization and change in priorities on the part of the Union Army. In May 1865 the Union Army comprised one million. By the autumn of 1866 it had only 38,000 soldiers. Many of them were not even stationed in the South. With the Confederacy’s military defeat behind it, army leaders shifted their attention to the West and the national project of seizing land and resources from the continent’s indigenous peoples. Towards the end of 1867 the number of soldiers stationed in the South was down to 20,000. It was only 6,000 in the autumn of 1876. As Reconstruction ran its course, the United States fought wars with the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Navajo, Paiute, Shoshone, Sioux, Ute and other indigenous nations in the West. Many Union officers saw their focus shift from what had become a war to end slavery to the conquest of indigenous lands. The infamous Colonel George Armstrong Custer, for instance, had been present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant before being sent West. He ultimately perished in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

As Union soldiers left the South, organized violence against blacks and their white allies began to increase. The career Ku Klux Klan offered the most infamous phase of this violence. The Klan began as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee in late 1865 or early 1866. The organization’s original members were former Confederate soldiers and its name attested to the initial fraternal aspirations. Like other fraternities, the name Ku Klux Klan is supposed to be a Greek reference. Ku Klux was a corruption of kuklos, the Greek word for circle. The Klan expanded in late 1866 and in 1867 began to turn to small acts of terror when former Confederate generals and politicians joined and took over the organization’s leadership roles.

A secret organization with elaborate rituals, the Klan adopted costumes that were designed to both hide the Klansmen identity and inspire fear. It also created its own particular language to describe its nominal organizational structure. The head of the Klan was called the Grand Wizard. The first and likely, only, Reconstruction-era Grand Wizard was Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest was well-suited to lead a white supremacist terrorist organization. Prior to the war Forrest had been both a plantation owner and a slave trader. During the war he had been a Confederate cavalry general who earned a reputation for racism and brutality when he oversaw the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864. The massacre, you might recall, involved the brutal murder of a large number of black Union soldiers who surrendered after the fort they were defending fell to Confederate forces.

In early 1868, the Klan experienced rapid growth. It went from being a primarily local organization in Tennessee to one that stretched throughout the former Confederate states. It was probably united more by a set of common tactics, targets, and objectives than by any sort of unified command. Klan members would set out after dark to a community far enough away that they would not be recognized by their victims. Their targets were selected by local allies and subjected to a range of brutalities. Black Union Army veterans and White Republicans were whipped, shot, or lynched for offenses like voting for the Republican Party. Often the attacks were proceeded by warning notices, such as this one from Georgia. In other cases, the Klan threatened African Americans or whites telling them that they would be killed if they voted Republican or continued to operate a school. Wherever they operated, and whenever they could, they searched for and seized guns held by blacks. In many places the strength of the Klan was such that rather than operating solely at night, they would stage massive marches through Southern communities in full regalia. In some cases these marches were weekly occurrences.

All told, about 10 percent of black officeholders were the victims of attacks or threats. And at least 35 black public officials were murdered by the Klan or its imitators such as the Knights of the White Camelia. Andrew J. Flowers was a justice of the peace in Tennessee. He offers one of the few accounts of these attacks from a black perspective. He recounted that he was whipped by the Klan “because I had the impudence to run against a white man for office, and beat him… They said that they… did not intend any nigger to hold office in the United States.” In another of these rare testimonies, Alabama freedman George Moore reported that Klansmen came to his home, beat him, “ravished a young girl who was visiting my wife” and wounded a neighbor. “The cause of this treatment, they said, was that we voted the radical ticket.”

By the election of 1868, it was clear that the Klan was essentially the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party. Harper’s Weekly regularly reported on the group’s activities. In one article a reporter wrote, “A rebel colonel from Georgia, at a [Democratic Party] meeting in New York, shouted that if ‘Northern Democrats will take care of the bayonet, the Southern Democrats would be responsible for the result of the ballot in November,’ meaning that the Ku-Klux Klan would take care of loyal voters.”

Violence surrounding the election was predictably widespread. In Arkansas alone there were more than 200 murders in the three months leading up to the November 3 election. President Johnson blocked the release of federal arms to the state’s militia. Fourteen counties, primarily Republican strongholds, were unable to vote and the Republicans won the state with a bare majority of 3,000 votes. Immediately following the election, Arkansas’s governor, Powell Clayton, declared martial law in ten counties. Essentially following the national pattern of Congressional Reconstruction, Clayton then divided the state into four military districts. He marched a newly armed state’s militia through Klan strongholds, seized numerous arms, arrested dozens of Klansmen, and ultimately executed three of them after military trials.

Ulysses S. Grant had a clear picture of the situation by the time he assumed office in early 1869. He observed that the Klan was committed “by force and terror, to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprived colored citizens of the rights to bear arms and of the right of a free ballot, to suppress the schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely allied to that of slavery.” Shortly after taking office Grant sent federal troops to suppress Klan activity in South Carolina.

The initial efforts of President Grant, Governor Clayton, and other Republican leaders was not enough to suppress the Klan. In 1870 Klan violence largely continued to increase. The Klan was essentially eliminated in Arkansas but thrived in South Carolina. In Laurens County, South Carolina, a racial conflict in Laurensville turned into a “negro chase.” Bands of whites drove approximately 150 freedmen from their homes and murdered 13 people. Jackson, Florida as many as 150 people were killed. In Meridian, Mississippi, as many as 30 blacks were murdered by armed whites. Albion Tourgee counted 12 murders by Klansmen in North Carolina county alone.

In response Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. These acts prohibited state officials to discriminate against voters on the basis of race. They authorized the President to appoint election supervisors who could bring to federal court cases of election fraud, bribery or intimidation of voters.

The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 was the most far reaching of these measures. It turned actions designed to deny individuals certain of their rights into federal crimes. It was now possible to prosecute those who sought to deny citizens their right to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury in federal court.
The enforcement of the Klan Act was successful at suppressing the Klan but only moderately successful at ending white supremacist violence. Throughout 1871 thousands Klansmen were indicted. Many of the organization’s leaders were tried, often before predominately black juries, and sentenced to prison. By 1872 violence had decreased throughout the South and Klan itself was largely destroyed.

Not surprisingly, the 1872 election was the most peaceful of the Reconstruction era. Grant’s opponent for President, Horace Greeley, only carried three of the states of the former Confederacy: Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Republicans elected the majority of Congressmen in Tennessee and Virginia and governors in Alabama and North Carolina. Blacks constituted a majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives and elected the state Speaker of the House .
All was not entirely well. The election returned Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, to Congress as a Representative for Georgia. Perhaps more significantly, the 1872 election produced rival claimants to the Louisiana governor’s mansion. The Democrat John McEnry refused to concede defeat to the Republican William Pitt Kellogg despite only receiving 43% of the vote. The intersession of federal troops was required to install Kellogg as Governor. The situation was mirrored throughout localities in the state.

In Colfax, the county seat of Grant Parish, blacks feared that white Democrats would seize control of the government. They formed a militia and built modest fortifications. Armed whites surrounded them for three weeks. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, whites began their assault. In possession of both a cannon and a makeshift calvary, the whites soon forced the majority of armed blacks to retreat to the county courthouse. The courthouse was set afire and the blacks were shot down as they fled the blaze. The African American journalist T. Morris Chester described the scene: “The escaping men were overtaken, mustered in crowds, made to stand around, and, while in every attitude of humiliation and supplication, were shot down and their bodies mangled and hacked to hasten their death or to satiate the hellish malice of their heartless murderers, even after they were dead.” All told about fifty blacks died. Only two whites were killed.

Despite the outcome of the election of 1872, and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, the early 1870s marked the beginning of the end of Reconstruction. Northern Republicans began to shift their attentions elsewhere. As Professor Stauffer mentioned in the last lecture, the political leaders of Congressional Reconstruction, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens both died. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment convinced many weary abolitionists that their struggle to end slavery had come to an end. In March of 1870 the American Anti-Slavery Society, the major abolitionist organization, voted to disband. In 1874 the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society followed its example.

Other Northerners transferred their attention from the Reconstruction of the South to the accumulation of wealth. The decade after the end of the Civil War saw a massive expansion in American industry. In 1873, the nation’s industrial production was 75% higher than it had been in 1865. Approximately 35,000 miles of railroad were laid between 1865 and 1873. This rapid industrial expansion created opportunities for previously unimagined levels of wealth. A new class of industrialists arose and many of them had very close ties to the Republican Party. Historian Eric Foner provides a startling overview of the connections between the party’s leadership and the emerging corporate leaders:

“Sen. Lyman Trumbull… accepted an annual retainer from the Illinois Central Railroad. …The Central Pacific rewarded Sen. William M. Stewart of Nevada with 50,000 acres of land for his services on the Committee of the Pacific Railroad. Banker Jay Cooke, the ‘financier of the Civil War’ and leading individual contributor to Grant’s presidential campaigns, took a mortgage on Speaker of the House James G. Blaine’s Washington home, sold a valuable piece of Duluth land to Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes at ‘a great bargain,’ and employed as lobbyist… out-of-office politicos…”

The close relationship between Republican Party leaders and industrialists proved a massive boon for corporations. At the same time the federal government was failing to provide freedmen with land, it was giving massive amounts to corporations. Between 1868 and 1872 corporations were awarded more than 100 million acres of land. This prompted one former slave, Anthony Wayne, to ask, “whilst Congress appropriated land by the million acres to pet railroad schemes… did they not aid poor Anthony and his people starving and in rags?”

The economic expansion ended abruptly in the autumn of 1873. That September the financial problems of the Northern Pacific Railroad sparked a financial panic and spread throughout the credit system. Banks failed. The stock market temporarily suspended trading. Factories started to layoff workers. The prices of tobacco, sugar, rice and cotton, the major Southern cash crops, all fell dramatically. Unemployment became widespread. In 1874 as many as a quarter of New York City’s labor force was out of work. Labor unrest began to grow. There were railroad strikes, miners’ strikes and strikes in the textile industry.

In the 1874 election, voters responded as they do during times of significant economic crisis. They voted, in wide margins, against the party in power. Republicans lost the House. After 1872 elections they held 199 seats to the Democrats 89. The 1874 elections placed the Democrats in the majority with 183 seats and the Republicans in the minority with 106.

The results for Reconstruction were probably predictable. Emboldened by the Republican electoral defeat, white supremacists in Louisiana formed the White League. Openly devoted to restoring white supremacy, it continued the work of the Klan. Only this time, White League members, or white liners as they were alternatively called, did not bother with the robes and hoods. The White League’s purpose was most explicitly political but its membership was most likely almost identical to that of the Klan. An editorial in White League newspaper, appropriately called the Caucasian, testified to their intention of reestablishing Democratic party control of Louisiana by force. “[W]e, having grown weary of tame submission to this most desolating war of the negro upon us, propose to a take a bold stand to assert the dignity of our manhood, to say in tones of thunder and with the voice of angry elements STOP! THUS FAR SHALT THOU GO, AND NO FURTHER!” The Caucasian’s editors were three former Confederate soldiers.

In Mississippi, an organization similar to the White League appeared. It called itself the White Line. Its members authored and implemented the Mississippi Plan, which Professor Stauffer covered last week. It had five points: Kill every white radical leader. Establish a well organized military. Make no threats; kill instead. Control the polling booths. Whites from other states will help.

The impact on 1875 election was dramatic. The Democrats and White Liners launched a campaign of terror to regain control of the governor’s mansion. Prior to the election, Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames requested that President Grant send federal troops to the state to protect blacks and white Republicans. Under pressure from Ohio Republicans, Grant denied the request. They feared that if Grant sent federal troops to Mississippi war weary Northerners would vote for the Democrats in Ohio. Deciding that it was better to lose Mississippi than Ohio, Grant kept federal troops out of the southern state.

Governor Ames wrote a letter to his wife Blanche describing the situation this way: “Dear Blanche: The canvass is at an end, and tomorrow the voting will take place. The reports which come to me almost hourly are sickening. Violence, threats of murder, and consequent intimidation are co-extensive with the limits of the state. Republican leaders in many localities are hidden in the swamps or have sought refugee beyond the borders of their own counties. The government of the U. S. does not interfere, and will not, unless to prevent actual bloodshed.” When election came the Democrats regained control of the state.

The chief beneficiary of Grant’s decision not to send troops into Mississippi was Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes won election to the Ohio governor’s mansion. The next year he was nominated by the Republican Party to serve as its Presidential candidate. His opponent was the Democratic Governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilden. In the lead-up to the election a campaign of terror reminiscent of? swept the South. On July 8, 1876, violence broke out in the South Carolina of Hamburg??. Five blacks were murdered in cold blood, after they had surrendered to a group of armed whites. Elsewhere in the state former slave Jerry Thornton Moore, a Republican Party activist, was told by his white landlord that Democrats would carry the election “if we have to wade in blood knee-deep.”

The results of that autumn’s Presidential election were disputed. Tilden won most of the former Confederate states, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana. Early in the morning someone in the Republican party headquarters realized that if Hayes carried the three Southern states Republicans still controlled he would win the election by one electoral vote. Telegrams were sent to Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and the states’ officials declared victories for Hayes. The country was thrown in an electoral crisis with Democrats challenging the results.

An Electoral Commission was established and divided equally between the parties. The addition of five Supreme Court justices brought the body to fifteen members. By series of 8-7 votes, the disputed electoral college votes were awarded to Hayes. Tilden’s supporters threatened to block the final count of electoral vote by the House. Representatives of the two candidates hashed out a deal, the exact terms of which are unknown. Whatever they were, they definitely included Hayes recognizing the Democrat-White Line candidates for Governor in Louisiana and South Carolina. These men had both been elected through campaigns of intimidation and violence. If Hayes carried their states it is doubtful that they actually won their governorships. Nonetheless, Hayes agreed to send the federal troops that were preventing them from assuming office back to their barracks. In doing so, he abandoned Reconstruction.

Over the next decades blacks lost much of the freedom they had gained during the Reconstruction years. By 1900 they had almost entirely excluded from voting or holding office throughout the South. When Congressman George H. White of North Carolina left office in 1901 he was the last black to serve in Congress until the late 1920s. Mississippi’s interracial marriage law was overturned and many white men continued to treat their black female servants as sexual playthings. Systems of penal labor were put in place that in many cases were indistinguishable from slavery.

Nonetheless, blacks never returned entirely to slavery and the gains they made during Reconstruction laid the groundwork for the twentieth-century civil rights movement. Autonomous black institutions, particularly the black churches, provided both resources and leadership development opportunities for countless heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.

To summarize and then conclude, historians generally agree that the abandonment of Reconstruction was the result of the endurance of white supremacy, war weariness in the North, shifting priorities amongst the Republican Party and the passing of abolitionist leaders from national politics. To offer my own gloss, I might blame the millennialist habit of thought. Millennialist abolitionists believed that slavery could be ended suddenly and abruptly. Human history could be divide in two. On one side slavery, on the other freedom. The human heart, alas, does not work that way. White supremacists remained white supremacists after emancipation and sought through whatever means they could muster to reassert control over black bodies.

And so a coda to conclude about the legacy of the abandonment of Reconstruction today. Well, two codas really. First, to say that white supremacy is still very much with us and the task of the abolitionists to build a just and equitable society remains undone. If you doubt me or other contemporary justice activists I ask you to consider the following statistics. The average wealth of a white family in this country is close to fifteen times that of the average African American family. Unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites. African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites .

Second, strategies of voter disenfranchisement designed to exclude blacks from voting continue to be part of American politics. Just this morning, the New York Times published an article on how today’s Republicans, who are yesterday’s Democrats, have perverted the federal Election Assistance Commission. They have turned it from an agency devoted to make it easier for people to vote into one making voting more difficult. Who knows what impact this will have on the upcoming election?

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Reconstruction White Supremacy Slavery Civil Rights Revolution Lecture

Oct 18, 2015

Democracy as a Religious Practice

as preached at Harvard Divinity School, October 16, 2015

The sermon I am going to share with you this afternoon is a result of one of those unpleasantries with which we preachers find ourselves saddled. I speak of the assigned sermon topic. We Unitarian Universalists like to celebrate our tradition of the free pulpit. And we should, it is a worthy tradition. But one of the things that your professors might not tell you is that you do not always get to pick your sermon topic. If you serve as a parish minister you will be often burdened with a topic of someone else’s choosing. You’re stuck with all of the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Flower Communion, Mother’s Day, come each and every year. But you also have to tend to the particular business of your congregation. Every minister I know dreads the annual pledge Sunday sermon. And what about Membership Sunday? You have to learn how to respond promptly to the events of the hour. Congregations across the United States will expect their ministers to preach about the results of the Presidential election next November.

This afternoon I find myself facing one of the assigned sermon topics that each of you who aspire to the parish ministry will face. I have to preach a sermon on one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts invited me to take part in a series they are doing on the principles. They assigned me the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And so, today I want us to consider democracy as a religious practice.

Democracy is a religious practice. At least, it is for us Unitarian Universalists. James Luther Adams, that great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist, liked to share a story that illustrates the way we practice democracy religiously.

In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. The congregation was in the midst of an effort to racially integrate. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, including some Universalist churches in the South, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.

Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we "take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.

Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’

Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’

‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’

‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.

Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate—probably around a ridiculous massive solid oak conference table sipping cold coffee in a room that did not have enough light and where the temperature was either too hot or too cold. Anyway, our racist friend recognized that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.

Democracy is a religious practice. Can anyone here testify to the transformative power of democracy in your own lives? Raise your hand if you have ever had an experience like our friend in Adams story, where you went to a meeting and felt afterwards, “I was blind but now I see.”

Well, whether you raised your hand or not let me testify something to you. If you enter the parish ministry or devote yourself to some kind of community ministry you will experience the transformative power of democracy. You will go to a meeting—an emotionally wrought possibly indeterminably long meeting where the coffee goes cold—you will go to a meeting and you will leave that meeting a different sort of person. But more than that, the community that you serve will be different afterwards. You will practice democracy and undergo personal transformation. You will practice democracy and help usher in social transformation.

Such a transformative experience might take place in an exciting setting over what can be cast as an important issue. You may immediately feel, “I was blind but now I see.” The transformation also might take place in a more quotidian environment. Adams’s story is set at church Board meeting. The testimonial I want to offer you is from an equally banal setting, a congregational meeting. And the transformation that I can attest to did not occur in instant. It was spread out over years.

The congregation I served in Cleveland is small and urban. Like most Unitarian Universalist communities, my former congregation voted on approving its annual budget at a congregational meeting. By the time I got to Cleveland, the congregational meeting had devolved into an unpleasant ritual. A motion would be made to pass the budget and then an argument would begin. It was always the same. One small group of longtime members would voraciously complain that the congregation did not have enough money to pay its minister. Another group of, much larger, members would yell back that the congregation had over a million dollars in liquid assets. It could afford to support a full-time minister. The vote always went the same way. More than 90% of the congregation voted to approve the budget. But the energy of the community was drained. It was difficult for us to focus our energy on anything else.

This changed a couple of years into my ministry when the congregation got a new Board chair. She was brilliant. She was experienced in leading non-profits. And she cared about the process of decision making. Between the two of us we developed a plan transform the congregational meeting. It had a free wheeling affair. People got to speak until everyone was exhausted. We got serious about parliamentary procedure. We convinced the Board to adopt a set of rules of order that required discussion to alternate between pro and con positions. Each person was allowed to speak on an agenda item one time, instead of however many times they felt like. We set up pro and con microphones. We asked people to line-up behind the microphones if they wanted to speak on an issue.

This changed the congregational meeting. It meant that the same few people were not allowed to speak endlessly in opposition, making the same points over and over again. They got their say and then we moved on. Meanwhile, I made it a point to schedule pastoral visits with those opposed to the budget during the winter holidays and in the months leading up to the meeting. I got to know them and their concerns. Soon, the congregational meeting became a space where work could be done on things beyond adopting the budget. The congregation was able to shift its focus. Yes, there was still bickering about money. But it was not exhausting. We built a lovely community garden that served local public housing residents. We hosted refugee families from Bhutan. We were a founding member of a large interfaith and interracial network of congregations working on urban and racial justice issues.

I should come clean to you. I choose a boring story to share with you for my own testimonial. Congregational budgets? Rules of order? Parliamentarians? Did you have a good nap? Did my story turn you into a somnambulistic zombie? The truth is democracy, real democracy, is kind of boring. It is usually ploddingly slow. First Unitarian in Chicago passed its resolution in the 1947. It did not actually integrate until the mid-1950s. Democracy does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that many crave in a consumer culture. But that is true of other religious practices. It takes time to follow a process that gives everyone equal voice. But trying to meditate your way to enlightenment or connect to ultimate being through prayer are not quick paths.

I will further admit that I picked boring or difficult readings to highlight this. A chunk of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a passage from Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving speech “We’re On Our Way” do not usually form a part of worship fare. They are probably better suited for a graduate seminar. I imagine that you were hoping for more poetic texts, maybe a little Rumi: “Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, / it isn't wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, / you must do a little work.” Or Audre Lorde: “Quick / children kiss us / we are growing / through dream.”

Instead you got a splash of insight into the relation between a community’s perception of the divine and its polity. Tocqueville, “There is virtually no human action, no matter how particular we assume it be, that does not originate in some very general human conception of God.” Instead you got the entangling words of a modern prophet. Hamer, “we are living in a captivated society today.” Hamer reminds us that like other religious practices democracy contains both the possibility of transformation and the possibility of stagnation, even oppression. Prayer, meditation, and scripture reading cannot all be cast as universal goods. People kill each other over their differing interpretations of scripture. Meditation and prayer can both lead to self-absorption. Democracy can go awry.

In my former congregation someone once tried to get me dismissed because we did not have congregational vote to change the color of a curtain. When practiced wrong, when focused on issues that are marginal, democracy can be immobilizing. Part of the religious practice of democracy is learning to distinguish between the issues that are important to the community and the issues that are not important.

Another part of the religious practice of democracy is finding a definition for the term. It is a term that means different things to different people. As a religious practice, democracy is a process for making decisions about matters important to communal life. In a democratic process all members of the community have equal voice and either representation or a vote.

With this definition in mind, we can remember that in the United States democracy has often gone awry over matters far less trivial than the color of curtains. It has not just immobilized communities. It has destroyed lives. In this country democracy, even democracy as a religious practice, has been far too often linked to white supremacy. The clause “all members of the community” has for much of American history meant that only white males are understood to be members of the community. And this limited notion of democracy has been used to justify slavery and genocide. I picked a reading from Hamer because she reminds us that there have been mighty struggles to change this dynamic. And that religious communities have a had a complicated role in those struggles.

Take Hamer herself. She was one of the great figures of the sixties civil rights movement. She spoke truth to power. She scared President Lyndon Johnson. He once called a press conference explicitly to take the cameras away from a speech she was giving.

Hamer, you may remember, came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. She encountered the civil rights movement when she was middle-aged, after years of regular involvement in her church. In fact, the only education she received after the age of twelve took place in Bible Study. In church she learned to interpret the Bible for herself and lead hymns.

Hamer’s story reminds us that religious communities themselves provide important resources for the practice of democracy. She was critical of the church and its male leaders. Yet she took hymns and scripture, she learned in church and turned them into a powerful resource for inspiring people. She took the religious resources of the church and used them in a movement to recast society, used them to cast a vision of a society that included all members in its decision-making. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during protests and in jail to teach that democracy only truly exists when every human is valued, to proclaim that black lives matter.

Democracy is a religious practice. Hamer helps us recall that as a religious practice it is about manifesting the spirit of a community. She was effective because her songs and words made that spirit palpable.

Those of you are aspiring clergy must learn to make the spirit palpable in the communities you serve. So, my charge to you, my beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, powerful, future colleagues, is to take the religious practice of democracy seriously. Recognize that is a practice, a skill, in which you must engage in repeatedly, over and over, if you are ever to master it. Understand that your congregation will look to you help teach them the practice of democracy. Recall that democracy carries with it risks, that it can go deeply awry, when it is misdirected or, worse, held as province of the few. But most of all, remember that like all religious disciplines, it contains within it the possibility of transformation. So, go forth and study your congregational polity. Learn how to run a meeting. Memorize the important bits of Roberts Rules of Order. And prepare for the possibility that one night, during a long meeting, after the coffee has gone cold, you may find yourself singing, “I once was blind but now I see.”

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags democracy religious practice Fannie Lou Hamer James Luther Adams Alexis De Tocqueville congregational polity

Aug 17, 2015

This Land is Your Land (Video)

UUA General Assembly video of my award winning sermon "This Land is Your Land?" is now available on You Tube. 

 

 

CommentsCategories News Sermon Tags Doctrine of Discovery Sermon Award Immigration

Jun 28, 2015

...Or Perish Together as Fools

preached at the First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, June 28, 2015

I have both the great fortune and the great misfortune of being in First Parish’s pulpit this morning. I have the great fortune because this has been a historic week in which we have seen the arc of the moral universe bend more than slightly towards justice. The Supreme Court voted to legalize same sex marriage throughout the country. In an instant same sex marriage went from being legal in some states to being legal in all states. We here at First Parish have a right to feel both joyful and proud of this moment. We should feel joyful because our cherished belief that society must recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people has come more than a step closer to being a reality. We should feel proud because this congregation has been a pioneer in the struggle for same sex marriage and the rights of the BGLTQI community for not years but decades. More than ten years ago congregants Susan Shepherd and Marcia Hams were the first lesbian couple in the state of Massachusetts, and the country, to obtain a marriage license after this state legalized same sex marriage. Their marriage license was issued by then Cambridge City Clerk Margaret Drury, also a member of our church.

The legalization of same sex marriage is not only thing we have to celebrate this morning. The horrific terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina has prompted states across the South to reconsider the display of Confederate flags. This symbol of white supremacy may finally be consigned to the museum. Elsewhere in the South serious conversations are taking place about what it means to have streets named after the white slaveholders who rose up in arms against the federal government to preserve slavery. What does it mean that in Tennessee there are more than thirty public monuments to the slave trader, Confederate general, and leader of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Forrester? What does it mean that there no public monuments to First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry? The regiment was the first in the Union Army to enlist black men.

The victory of same sex marriage and seriousness of the national conversation about the significance of symbols of the Confederacy prompted one of my Facebook friends to observe, “It's a horrible week to be a racist homophobe.” And so, I have the great fortune of being with you this celebratory Sunday when find ourselves at one of the inflection points of history.

But I also have the misfortune of being with you the Sunday after our senior minister announced his resignation. If you are anything like me I imagine that most of you were shocked by Fred’s decision. Someone told me that when they first heard that Fred was resigning they thought it was an April Fools joke. And so, I know that there is a lot of confusion and that there are a lot of questions out there this morning about what is going to happen next. I know that our Standing Committee, Sue Phillips, the District Executive for the Massachusetts Bay District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Fred are all working together to ensure a smooth transition. We will have an interim minister starting in October. But more important than that is the fact that our work as a congregation will continue even without Fred. Our work on racial justice and our growth as a multiracial and multicultural community will continue. Our work fighting climate change will continue. Our work on rights for the GLBQTI community will continue. All of the important social service work that takes place in our buildings will continue. I joined this congregation because its vision is bigger than any of its ministers. Fred has been an important part of that vision and he has carried a lot of it. We should mourn his departure. But we should be confident that work of this congregation will continue.

In the spirit of continuing, we now turn to the text for this morning. It comes from Martin King. It is a phrase he said often and included in his last sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He delivered it March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral. It was the last Sunday morning sermon that he ever gave. On the last Sunday of his life King warned us that we as a human species had two choices, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” Forty seven years after King’s death we are still stuck with those two choices. This is a celebratory Sunday. On a morning like this we can almost imagine ourselves on the mountain top with King gazing into the promised land. But if we are honest then we will admit that the promised land still lies off in the hazy distance. We are very much at risk of perishing together as fools.

We may stand in a moment of national grace but we as a human species are on the brink of an existential crisis. If we cannot use the week’s miraculous moments to help us put aside our petty, willful, self-blinding, differences then there will remain little hope for future generations. We have to learn to finally unite across race, class, sexual orientation, and other human divisor to confront the fact that we are ruining the planet and with it our species long term chances at survival.

Now, I could provide you with a lot of data to back-up this assertion. I could talk about the gathering terror of climate change. I could mention the frightening rate that animal species are going extinct. That the polar ice caps are melting. That the sea level is rising. That fresh water is becoming ever scarcer. That the deserts are expanding. That forests are shrinking. I could mention that these patterns are accelerating. But we are a conscientious congregation. I suspect that you know all of that.

So here is the question we are confronted with: How can we learn to unite so that we can overcome the human created threat of extinction? This is fundamentally a religious question. It has to do with what binds us together. Are we humans more united by petty spite or by the crisis that threatens our continued existence of this planet? What must we do to recognize that, as William Ellery Channing described us, we are all members of the great family of all souls?

I could pretend that I have the precise answers to these questions. I do not. I struggle with them mightily. This week has reminded me that their answers are as much a matter of grace as they are individual human agency. Grace is a word that has been bandied about a lot this week. It was the keystone of President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior minister of Mother Emmanuel Church. President Obama said, “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.”

Grace is usually understood as a gift from God. As President Obama put it, “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell put it slightly more humanist terms when she preached, “What we have by grace. Grace cannot be earned. It is not deserved. It something freely given, with no price attached.”

Grace for us as individuals shows up as the chance encounters that shift our lives. Grace is the soft rain, the aromatic flower, the glistening refracted sidewalk, the unexpected blue stone, that prompts a subtle shift in perspective, a pronounced change of mood. Grace is that one time you went a party, even when you didn’t feel like it, and met someone, if only for an evening, who reshaped your life. Grace is the smile of an infant that opens the visitas of parenthood. Grace is those extraordinary moments when we respond to the universe around us and recognize that if we are not perish together like fools then everything must change.

Grace for our society is different. It is the unanticipated and unforeseen events that open up the possibility of social transformation. It is Morris Brown leaving the white controlled Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina to found the African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination that has struggled for racial justice for two centuries. It is the transformation of the Civil War from a war to preserve the white man’s union to a war to abolish slavery. It is the great senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner, whose statute sits just outside our sanctuary, calling for Reconstruction. He invoked the words of the Declaration of Independence and demanded “now the moment has come when these vows must be fulfilled to the letter.” It is Rosa Parks sitting down and starting the Montgomery Bus boycott. It is the transmutation of the assassinations of Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo into the Voting Rights Act. It is Stonewall sparking the movement for liberation that just brought us same sex marriage. It is Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole outside of the South Carolina State House and tearing down the Confederate battle flag.

There is a secret to this kind of grace, something about it that we often forget. It takes preparation. This might seem like a contradictory statement. It brings about a question. If social grace is the unanticipated and unforeseen how can we prepare for it? My answer: social grace brings hoped for social change. The keyword in this answer is hope. Hope is the belief that our human nature contains within it the possibility of change for the better. That no matter how drear, oppressive, cruel, or unbearable the world is things can be better because our human actions can make a difference. That we can, to invoke Martin King, make a way out of no way. Hope leads us to diligently prepare for moments where grace can erupt and seize upon them as soon as they do. A tragedy may occur but it can be shifted to grace.

Think about the events in Charleston, South Carolina over the last couple of weeks. There was a white supremacist act of terror that took the lives of nine people. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were murdered. They were not killed just anywhere. They did not die in a shopping mall, a McDonalds, or an elementary school. They were gunned down in Mother Emmanuel Church, the founding congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

An act of terror transformed into a moment of grace. Why? Because the congregation had been hoping, struggling, working, for that grace for almost two hundred years. It had helped it emerge before. It was a symbol for hope, for grace, for the truth that black lives matter. And so because the tragedy took place within its sanctified walls grace broke forth.

Now, I said earlier that the text for today’s sermon was “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” I should apologize for the dated gendered language. But more than that I should admit that so far I have been talking like we human may yet recognize each as members of the same family. That the danger of perishing together as fools is not a grave threat. But it is.

When I conceived of this sermon my intention had been to preach about the difficulty of doing something about the climate crisis. I was going to admit to you that a couple of years ago I made a resolution. I was going to devote an hour a week to doing something about climate change. It was a modest goal. One I thought I could easily accomplish. All it meant was that I needed to set aside thirty minutes twice a week. But I soon faltered. Why? Because I constantly got caught up in the crises of the moment. Climate change is a slow burning issue. There is always something more pressing. Last summer I planned to do a series of sermons on religion and climate change. Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson. Violence and instability in Central America prompted a massive influx of immigrant children. I spent my time preaching about racial, not environmental, justice.

So, I was going to talk with you about how the constant horrors we inflict upon each other gets in the way of us doing what we need to do to survive as a species. I was going to talk with you about my own despair and my own hope. I was going to confess my own paralysis and ineptitude. But grace got in the way. The events of the week reminded me of two things. First, any attempt at social change requires the social. My own futile attempts committing to work on climate change failed because I attempted to engage in the work by myself. I didn’t do it as part of a community. There was no one to encourage me. No one to hold me accountable. And, second, something about the recent events caused me to remember that white supremacy does not just rest in symbols or in acts of violence. It is about the systematic exploitation of black and brown bodies to produce wealth, wealth held primarily by white men. I also recalled that the symbols of hate can change. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s did not march with the flags of the Confederacy. They marched with the American flag.

It was my re-reading W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America” that prompted this recollection. Du Bois’s text is probably the greatest work of American history ever written. In it he describes the formula for white supremacy. It is a system of 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. Let me say that again, the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. As Du Bois put it, “the South built... an oligarchy similar to the colonial imperialism of today, erected on cheap colored labor and raising raw material for manufacture.”

Re-reading Du Bois in the midst of both national tragedy and national grace helped me to listen to the words of President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” It helped me to see that I had been blind to the links between the violence inflicted upon on black and brown bodies and the violence inflicted on the earth. Slavery exploited and destroyed black bodies. Slavery exploited and destroyed the natural resources of the South. If we are not going to perish together as fools then everything must change. We have to move beyond racialized capitalism. For that change to happen we need to figure out how to prepare for grace so that we can seize the unforeseen and unanticipated. And that is something we cannot do alone.

Before I conclude my sermon I want to give you a moment to think about how you can prepare for grace. And after that moment, I invite you, if you are comfortable, to turn to someone sitting near you and share with them what you can do. It can be something simple. It can be something more complicated. It does not matter. And it does not matter if you cannot think of something. You can listen. We have more wisdom together than we do alone. It is partially by sharing our wisdom that we can prepare for grace. I am going to ring this bell three times. The first time I ring it I invite you to sit in silence and think about how you can prepare for grace. The second time I ring it I invite you, if you are comfortable, to find someone to share with. The third time I ring it will be to call us back together. When I do there will an opportunity for a few you, if you wish, to share.

One thing that I plan to do to help prepare the way for grace is remember that white supremacy is a system of racialized capitalism. When I preach about ending racism I will remember to link racism to the exploitation the environment. When preach about climate change I will remember to link it to the exploitation of brown and black bodies. Is there anyone else who would like to share?

May the words we have spoken together help us prepare the way for grace. Some Sunday may this pulpit be able to declaim about the grace that helped us to change everything that must change. Some Sunday may we celebrate from this pulpit an end to the exploitation of black and brown bodies and an end to the exploitation of the earth. Some Sunday may we celebrate all of that grace as we celebrate the victory of same sex marriage today.

Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Human Rights Sermon Tags Black Lives Matter Same Sex Marriage

May 4, 2015

On the Silence of the Pulpit

It is a pleasure to be with you today to celebrate the installation of the Rev. Sarah Stewart as your twelfth senior minister. I have known Sarah for more than two decades. We became friends in high school when we were both members of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists in Michigan. I doubt you could have selected a more conscientious, intelligent, and compassionate person to lead your congregation. So, I congratulate you on your wisdom. I thank Sarah for the honor of preaching to her congregation the Sunday morning of her installation.

It is unfortunate that this joyous Sunday is marred by the week’s unhappy events. The death of Freddie Gray and the resulting riots in Baltimore mean that today, across the United States, sermons will wrestle with the same issue. In Worcester, in Boston, in New York, in Detroit, in Chicago, in Atlanta, in Los Angeles, in Washington, DC, and, yes, in Baltimore, ministers will be talking with their congregations about race and racism, white supremacy, demonstrations, riots, and police violence. There will be sermons on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movements. There will be sermons on the necessity of action, challenging us on seizing the urgent moment. There will be sermons calling for healing, reminding us that whatever the color of our skin we are all living members “of the great family of all souls.”

Most of these sermons will have same general features. They will begin by declaring the death of Freddie Gray a horrid tragedy. They will make some observations about the protests in Baltimore and link those protests to the events in Ferguson. They may mention Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamar Rice. They might celebrate Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the police officers involved with Gray’s death. They might describe the national epidemic of police violence; 393 people have been killed by police since the start of year. Perhaps they will refer to the vast disparity between white and black wealth. The average white family has twenty times the assets of the average black family. The unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. Maybe they will admit to the racist nature of our criminal justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.

The majority of these sermons, I suspect, will invoke Martin King. The moderate preachers may quote from safe texts like his famous “I Have a Dream,” “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair... my friends.” A bolder few, perhaps, will cite his sermon at the National Cathedral. They will deplore, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning... we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” The bravest clergy might invoke his speech “The Other America” to observe, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” They could quote him to assign blame for the nation’s racial problems, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”

I imagine that whatever quote from King the preacher picks the vast majority of the morning’s services will end on a note of hope. Maybe the minister will decide to offer a prayer for racial reconciliation. Maybe the congregation will join their voices together in “We Shall Overcome.” Maybe the benediction will summon James Baldwin and finish with the encouraging admonition, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”

Taken together these sermons come close to a national conversation on race. In this hour, for a few minutes, the reigning white silence is being broken. White clergy like me are preaching about white America’s close to four hundred history of terrorizing, torturing, enslaving, killing, and imprisoning black and brown people. This morning’s rupture in the silence cannot be temporary if we are to have any hope of every transcending our troubled history. The shattering of silence must be permanent. The great poet Audre Lorde challenged people to transform the silence that surrounds suffering into language and action. That is what we must do. White people need to learn to speak about race and white supremacy with the same frequency that brown and black people are violated by institutionalized racism. Pulpits like this one cannot succumb to white silence on those Sundays when racialized police violence is not in the headlines.

Breaking the enduring white silence requires clergy who are willing to preach about racism. More importantly, it requires congregations who are willing to listen to sermons that make them uncomfortable. Often pulpits remain in white silence because ministers are afraid of upsetting their congregants. Preaching is a privilege and a vocation. It is also a job. I am a sometime parish minister. I can attest that many congregants link their support of their church to their satisfaction with the minister’s preaching. I know that too many unsettling sermons can cause some members pledging to go down.

We Unitarian Universalists like to uplift our social justice legacy. But I wonder how willing we really are to engage with the difficult work of transforming white silence into language and action. As an itinerant preacher I visit a lot of congregations. When I visit the settled minister of the congregations often asks me to preach about racial justice. What follows, unfortunately, is a scenario that has become familiar.

The scenario runs something like this. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo, and Trayvon Martin.

After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member usually fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like John Crawford III and Sean Bell at the hands of the police.

His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the grand jury who decides if the police officers that killed Clinton Allen should be indicted for murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed Dante Parker violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”

Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that the decision of a state’s attorney like Marilyn Mosby to charge police officers with murder is rare. I know that the conviction of police officers is even more rare. I know that in order for this to change white silence has to be transformed into language and action. All of the silence in the world will not offer protection from the institutionalized structures of racism. It is only by speaking, and speaking often, that we can begin to dismantle them.

A call to transform the enduring white silence is essentially a call to conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Freddie Gray. Imagine that you are arrested, handcuffed and placed face down on the sidewalk. No one answers your request for an inhaler. You are put, head first, into a police van. The cops do not strap you in. They lay you on the floor. The van starts to move. It rattles about. It comes to a stop. You suffer a severe neck injury. You tell the police you need medical attention. They ignore you. By the time you arrive at the police station you are no longer breathing. A week later you are dead.

Such an act of imagination can be unsettling, even slightly traumatizing. It requires that we admit that ignorance of the racialized nature of our society is kind of privilege. We who are white can insulate ourselves from the reality that surrounds us. We can choose to be ignorant of the white supremacist nature of our society. We can surround ourselves with people who look like us. We can pretend the vast disparities of wealth between whites and people of color are accidental, not intentional.

Paul, or someone writing as Paul, reminded us in Ephesians that there is a price to be paid for such willful ignorance, “Their minds are closed, they are alienated from the life that is in God, because ignorance prevails among them and their hearts have grown hard as stone.” The author of this passage had in mind knowledge of God when he wrote it. I invoke it to suggest that choosing deliberate blindness and closing our eyes to the racist nature of our society will harden our hearts.

Softening our hearts requires that our pulpits are not silent on racial issues. Softening our hearts means that white Unitarian Universalists continue to talk about race next Sunday, next month, next year, and until we have finally overcome the racist legacy of the United States. It means that we have welcome words that trouble us. It means that we have to imagine our religious communities as sites for conversion.

Many of people come to Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking some kind of personal transformation. Breaking white silence means that we learn to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. To quote David Carl Olson, the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, it means understanding, “my liberation is bound up with yours.” Religious communities are uniquely positioned to teach us this lesson. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?

I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and becoming more comfortable with breaking white silence. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If not, consider starting.

For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.

My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. Visit a black church.

In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. You have to transform your previous silence into language and action. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. What can you do as a congregation? How can you support your minister to break white silence? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons? Can you imagine a world without prisons?

If we are to accomplish anything, if we are to truly end white silence, it will require action as a religious community. It will mean that congregants come to expect their ministers to speak about race not only when there has been a riot, or on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, or during black history month, but often. It will mean recognizing that the time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say not one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. Not one more unarmed black man suffocated in the back of a police van.

May words like things ring across the land. May pulpits stand silent in the face of racial injustice no more. May we say not one more, not one more, not one more, until we truly transform silence into language and action.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Baltimore Sarah Stewart #BlackLivesMatter Police Brutality Civil Rights Anti-Racisim Freddie Gray

Jan 18, 2015

The Omens Are All Against Us

preached January 18, 2015 at the Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA

There is a particular scenario that I have experienced several times since I left my pulpit in Cleveland, went back to graduate school and started on my career as an itinerant preacher. It runs something like this: I receive an invitation to lead worship for a wealthy, overwhelming white, suburban, Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one. The person issuing the invitation asks me to preach about social justice. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member always fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Amadou Diallo at the hands of the police.

His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the jury who decides if the police officers that killed Sean Bell are guilty of murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed John Crawford III violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”

Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that police officers are very rarely held accountable for any of these deaths.

In ethics we make a distinction between the general and the particular. The general, black men and boys are frequently the victims of unjustifiable police homicides. The particular, that police officer murdered that black man. I might be erroneous in stating that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I am not erroneous in claiming that police officers frequently get away with murder.

Consider the data. The web site FiveThirtyEight reports that grand juries almost always return indictments. That is, they almost always return indictments except in the case of police shootings. In 2010 U.S. attorneys convened 162,000 grand juries. Only 11 failed to indict. Yet, in Dallas, Texas, from 2008 to 2012, grand juries investigated 81 police shootings. They returned only one indictment. In Huston, Texas, a police officer hasn’t been in indicted since 2004. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reports that from 2004 to 2011 police officers shot and killed more than 2,700 people but only 41 of them were charged with murder or manslaughter.

The few police officers that do stand trial are convicted at a far lower rate than members of the general public. Their accounts of events are more likely to be believed by juries than the accounts of ordinary citizens. By the time we get to the bottom of the statistics only about half of a percent of police officers that kill someone while on duty are ever held legally accountable. Put differently, a cop who kills someone while on duty has only a 1 out of 200 chance of being convicted for any crime. That suggests that systematically they get away with murder.

Perhaps you do not find such evidence convincing. Perhaps you agree with my coffee hour interlocutor and find my language, my use of the word murder, to be troubling. Perhaps you think that I am being unfair and unsympathetic to the police. They are, after all, public servants. Their job is to keep people and property safe. Well, if you think that then my reply is that it is the job of the preacher to be provocative. If you find yourself provoked I hope that you will ask yourself why. I suggest that it might have something to do with privilege, the color of your skin, your zip code and the contents of your wallet. There is a reason why my coffee hour interrogator is a white male. There are also reasons I have coffee conversations of this type when I preach in places like Carlisle, Lexington, and Milton. Just as there are reasons why no one troubles me about my choice of words when I preach in Copley Square or Dorchester.

I want to trouble you this morning. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin King identified white moderates as one of the greatest obstacles to racial justice. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate... the white moderate... is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Elsewhere, he went even further, saying, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”

I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to consider that even if I might be wrong with the particular I am right with the general. Our justice system sanctions the frequent legal unjustifiable murder of black men and boys. And that has to change.

I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to recognize that our society has developed what Michelle Alexander has labeled the New Jim Crow. This country is the heir to a legacy of racism that stretches back more than four hundred years. That legacy will not disappear if we close our eyes to it. Martin King told us that there are some things in our social system to which we ought to be maladjusted. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that police kill black men at more than three times the rate they kill whites. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of European Americans, that the average white family was twenty times the wealth of the average black family, and that African Americans live, on average, four years less than European Americas. The election of the country’s first black President has not ushered in a post-racial era. We ought to be maladjusted.

I want to trouble you this morning to ask the question that people asked Martin King fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. They asked him, “How long will it take?” You might remember his reply, “it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

I want to trouble you and suggest that we know better than to give King’s answer. Change might be coming but we are a long ways from the tipping point. King might have seen the mountaintop, he might have seen the promised land, but for us they are still in the distance.

Let us not despair. There are reasons to be inspired. We can take inspiration from today’s new civil rights movement. And we take can inspiration from movements of the past. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Selma, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. This year we also celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War and, with it, slavery. Abolitionists, antislavery activists, civil rights organizers, and members of today’s new civil rights movement share an important commonality. They all linked, or link, personal transformation with social transformation. Recast in religious language, they understood and understand that social salvation begins with personal conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.”

To end racism, white moderates will need to undergo a fundamental change of heart and will. Such a change is often prompted by an unusual event or encounter. We had just such an event here in the Boston suburbs this past week when protesters shut down I-93. I imagine some of you were inconvenienced by the four and a half hour blockage of the highway. Maybe you feel, like Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick, that the new civil rights movement is disruptive. Or you resent the four and a half hours of traffic snarls that the action brought on. Four and a half hours because that was the length of time police in Ferguson, Missouri left Michael Brown’s body on the street after Darren Wilson shot him. You might do well to consider these words from the protestors, “Boston is a city that stops, on average, 152 Black and brown people a day on their ways to work, to their homes, to school and to their families. Is that not ‘disruptive’? Boston is the third most policed city per capita in the country. Is it not disruptive for Black and brown residents to live under this extensive surveillance, under police intimidation and brutality?”

Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Michael Brown, unarmed and shot with your hands up in the air. Imagine that you are Eric Garner, choked to death by a police officer after saying “I can’t breath” eleven times. Imagine that you have to give your son the Talk, the words of warning many black parents offer their children. “If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he's harassing you, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?” Imagine these things and you might undergo a conversion.

One of my advisors at Harvard, John Stauffer, wrote a book a few years back called “The Black Hearts of Men.” In it he chronicles of the story of four friends, two black men and two white, who struggled together to end slavery. You might recognize some of their names: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James McCune Smith. During his research John discovered that these abolitionists, following McCune Smith, understood that there was key to ending slavery and racism. They believed, John writes, “whites had to learn how to view the world as if they were black, shed their ‘whiteness’ as a sign of superiority, and renounce their belief in skin color as a marker of aptitude and social status. They had to acquire, in effect, a black heart.”

It was Douglass’s confidence in his white friends ability to achieve such black hearts that enabled him to nurture hope in the decades of struggle that led to emancipation. He might admit, “that the omens are all against us,” as he did in the wake of 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which effectively stripped all African Americans, free or enslaved, of their rights. But he could proclaim, as he did in the same speech, “Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall.”

Conversion has long been a central concern of religious communities. Unitarian Universalists like us are often made squeamish by the term. We dislike the way religious fundamentalists use it to direct attention away from this worldly concerns and onto other worldly concerns. Let me suggest that, nonetheless, conversion should be a principal interest of ours. Our congregations should be sites of conversion, sites for a change of heart. In our religious communities we should challenge each other to develop the empathy necessary to see the world from a different point of view. If you are white, try seeing the world as if you were black.

Conversion is one of the principal reasons why some religious communities have been at the forefront for social change. Martin King understood this. He understood that we have to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. Religious communities are uniquely positioned to do so. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?

I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and help you mobilize your congregation. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If you don’t then consider making a late New Years resolution and trying one of them.

For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.

My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It is never too late to start. There’s a wonderful interracial Afrohouse dance night I attend in Boston called Uhuru Africa. There are regularly people in their seventies on the dance floor. If you haven’t done so already, mobilize your church. Develop a partnership relation with an African American congregation. Do things regularly with them. Join an urban interfaith coalition. Participate. If you put yourself out there you will eventually expand your network. It might not be easy, it might not be comfortable, but it will happen.

In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. Can you participate in the new civil rights movement? There’s a march tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. in downtown Boston starting at the State St. Station. What can you do as a congregation? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons?

I know that there is more wisdom in this room than I have. I know you can figure what you need to do. The time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say no one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. As you consider my words, I offer you these by Martin King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

May we hear these words and upon hearing them act.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Ferguson Michael Brown Eric Garner #BlackLivesMatter Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Police Brutality Anti-racism

Aug 30, 2014

Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal Our World

preached by the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere and the Rev. Colin Bossen at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 14, 2007

Part 1: Rev. Colin Bossen

Today is Association Sunday, a chance for us to affirm our common bonds, our covenant and our purpose. We celebrate this day with hundreds of other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Today is an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and why our congregation and our religious association are important.

As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist it is clear to me that we need Unitarian Universalism in our troubled world. Our community can give us the strength we need to be healers and to struggle for justice. It can offer us a vision of what a better world might look like. In our community we come together to nurture our spirits and try to heal our world.

I am reminded of the importance of our religious community on an almost daily basis. Thursday we held a candle light vigil in response to the shooting at SuccessTech Academy. Our vigil helped me to remember that in times of crisis and tragedy our community should be, and is, a place for people to come for support, healing and meaning making.

Throughout my life the Unitarian Universalist community has almost always been there when I needed it. As many of you know I am a social activist by nature. Much of the organizing I have done would not have been possible if it was not for the Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities I have a part of. Whenever I felt that it was too hard to go on, pointless to go to another meeting or attend another march, there has always been someone in the Unitarian Universalist community that I could turn to for support.

I have learned about the power of religious community both through direct experience and by watching my elders. In fact, one of the wonderful things about our communities is that they are intergenerational and that they offer us the chance to interact and learn across the generations.

Several years ago, I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. When I was there the congregation had a strong commitment to social justice. The stalwarts of the community were all longtime veterans of justice work. A couple of the older members had developed civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. I remember a Sunday that Hal, one of the civil disobedience practitioners, got up in front of the congregation during joys and concerns. He wanted to proudly announce that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time. The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin, again, and had been arrested for blocking the road to the prison.

His cohort in civil disobedience, a man named Elwood, had declined in health by the time I moved to Berkeley. There were wonderful stories circulating about him. Hal liked to share the one about the last time he and Elwood had committed civil disobedience together. They were at San Quentin and Elwood, who was in his eighties, was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put a execution hood on Elwood and placed him in the middle of the street. At Elwood's trial, this is the part of the story that Hal liked best, the judge threw the charges out. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. That meant that he could not be held responsible for his actions.

I love this story. I think it illustrates a congregation at its best. Hal and Elwood were able to accomplish things together that they could not have done alone. Their faith in their community sustained them over many long years of struggle. It strengthened their voices for social change and gave them comfort in dark times. I knew Hal and his wife Cynthia for many years. I know that it was his community that allowed him to stand going to jail over and over again.

Today, we need our liberal religious communities more than ever. We live in an age of anxiety, in a time when people are anxious and disconnected from each other. In a globalized world we face increasing cultural and political complexity. The world can be a very confusing place. Our liberal religious communities can ground us. They can give us the strength we need to struggle onwards.

At the heart of communities is the idea of covenant. Covenants are agreements we make with each other about how we will live together. They are a practice of loving conduct and a mark of faithfulness to each other in the midst of change, anxiety and differences of opinion.

Covenant is also at the very heart of our congregational polity, our Unitarian Universalist way of doing religion and living together as a faith community. Some of you may be surprised to hear this. You might think that congregational polity means that each congregation simply does its own thing. After all, we each are autonomous and are each run by our members. Does that not mean that we are just free to do our own thing?

That may be the way some folks think about congregational polity, but it certainly is not what our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors meant when they formed the foundation of congregationalism back in 1648.

Part 2: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere


Let me tell you a story about our religious ancestors and what they were willing to risk for the sake of their belief in their covenant.

In 1620, our Pilgrim ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In 1630, our Puritan ancestors arrived at the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Soon after arriving in New England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans began to work together and formed the New England Standing Order of Congregations. This Standing Order began to experiment with a new way of working together, a new way of doing religion in a new context.

Instead of relying on old structures, either the rule of bishops as in the Church of England or the rule of a powerful group of regional Elders and Clergy as in the Reformed tradition, our mix of New England Pilgrims and Puritans developed a new, revolutionary structure where each congregation governed itself, but still lived in cooperative relationship with other congregations. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Puritans remaining in England grew strong and took over Parliament. These English Puritans favored Reformed church structure—that is, the rule by the group of regional elders and clergy.

In 1642, the English Puritans declared war on the king, took control of Parliament and then tried to take control of the colonies in North America. Then the Puritan Parliament passed the Westminster Confession which, among other things, dictated that all congregations were to use the Reformed polity. The congregations in New England could see what was coming and they were very afraid that the English Parliament would try to stop their new experiment in congregational independence. And they couldn’t just ignore the laws from Parliament. After all, Parliament controlled the colonial governments as well as the English army and navy and trade. And now Parliament wanted to control the congregations. This was a matter of politics as well as religion.

So the New England congregations begin meeting to deal with this threat. They outlined their experimental congregational structure and put it all down on paper. Then, when finally faced with a demand to adopt the Westminster Confession, the New England congregations had already formed a very sensitive but risky response which we now call the Cambridge Platform.

The Cambridge Platform diplomatically affirmed the theology of Parliament’s Westminister Confession. The platform said that Parliament’s Confession was "holy, orthodox, and judicious in all matters of faith."

But then the New England congregations went on to say: "Only in those things which have respect to church governance and discipline, we refer ourselves to the platform of church discipline agreed upon by this present assembly."

In other words, only in that minor matter of congregational governance, that itty bitty little question of polity, we beg to differ with you, dear Parliament, and we will use our own structures, thank you very much. The Cambridge Platform was a declaration of religious independence for the colonies long before political independence was even considered.

The Congregational polity of the Platform includes the autonomy of the local congregation, that the local congregation ordains ministers and that membership is based on covenant, not adherence to a creed. And it also said that the congregations themselves live in covenant with each other.

Covenant for our ancestors wasn’t just about the relationship of individual members within the congregations. It was about the relationship between the congregations themselves.

The Cambridge Platform outlined six ways in which congregations covenant, promise to be in relationship with each other.

mutual care,
consultation with one another in times of congregational conflict or indecision,
admonition when a congregation was perceived to be straying from the covenant,
participation in common celebrations and events of the larger community like ordinations and such,
recommendation or reference when a congregant moved from one congregation to another,
and relief and succor which meant sharing financial resources in times of need.
This declaration of religious independence was also a declaration of interdependence. And it was a huge risk for the New England congregations, a very dangerous game. They could have lost their charter, their right o stay in the English colonies. They could have lost their legal rights, their freedom; they could have lost their churches. But they had their faith; their commitment that enabled them to take that risk.

Fortunately for them, the next year, the civil war heated up again and the English Puritans had bigger problems than the New England colonies and their polite but revolutionary congregations.

American Unitarianism grew directly out of these revolutionary New England Standing Order congregations. And it was our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors who put covenant at the center of our polity and what it means to live in a faith community.

Part. 3: Rev. Colin Bossen


Our ancestors did not understand their congregations as isolated. They viewed each congregation as part of a larger web of mutuality, a covenanted community of congregations. The Cambridge Platform helped to define their duties and obligations to each other.

Today we would do well to remember the Cambridge Platform. Unfortunately, many contemporary Unitarian Universalists have a history of forgetting about our covenantal roots. We like to think of our congregations as individuals, liberal beacons in a socially and religiously conservative sea.

In an address at the 1998 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sociologist Robert Bellah named this problem “radical religio-cultural individualism.” A fundamental tenet of liberal religion is the sacred nature of the individual. Individualism has shaped the view we have of the relationships between our congregations. Often we talk about covenantal relationships and act as if our congregations are isolated entities.

Bellah also said, however, that despite our fascination with individualism, we humans are, at root, relational creatures. Our focus on individualism and our forgetfulness concerning the interdependence of our covenant community is a great mistake. It runs counter to our very best natural tendencies.

We humans are essentially relational, we are tied to the rest of the universe through webs of connections. This interconnected reality has long been recognized by a number of religious traditions. Whether it is called the web of existence, the Communion of the Saints or the Tao, relationship lies at the center of our existence. Religion reminds us again and again, that we are ever bound in community. We always live in the reality of interdependence and the hope of covenant.

And it is in community that we find the deep resources to nurture our spirits in times of change. It is in community that we gain the strength to help heal our anxious and wounded world. Whenever I forget this I think of Hal and Elwood. Their story reminds me of how we can help and sustain each other through years of struggle. In telling their story I am honoring my connection to them.

We live in a time of chaos and uncertainty. We cannot cope with this new world using our worldview of radical individualism. If we are to cope with this new reality, we need a new approach, a new worldview, new creativity to navigate this chaotic world.

If we Unitarian Universalists are going to truly cope with our chaotic cosmos, to learn to live and thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, if we are going to nurture our souls as individuals and help heal our connected world, we must rekindle that fire of covenantal commitment, that reality of relationship and interconnectedness that lies at the roots of Unitarian Universalism. That is how we will survive and thrive.

Because we live in connection, as we state with our seventh principle,--to honor the interconnected web of existence--we know that all of our actions, and failures to take action, have repercussions that ripple on throughout the web of life. We are not alone when we take action based on our deepest values, when we work for healing and justice in the world. We are nurtured in the collective covenantal power, that revolutionary commitment that lies at the historical roots of our UU community.

In working to nurture the spirits of persons and heal our society and world, we ground ourselves in the power of those Unitarians and Universalists who came before us as we work with those who are in covenant with us today, for the sake of those who come after us. The web of existence is not bound by time or space.

Part 4: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere


Lately, I have experienced an excellent example of the reality of covenant community, where the welfare of each congregation directly impacts the health and welfare of all other congregations.

A few weeks ago our sister congregation in Findlay, Ohio—the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Blanchard Valley—was flooded. The congregation lost a lot of things: their piano, sound system, chairs, all of their religious education curricula, books, and supplies in the flood waters. And they had to move to a new rental building.

They were able to save their pulpit, chalice, some of their hymnals, and the coffee pots. Yes, the coffee pots were saved. There’s a certain ironic humor in that.

Our District Office, of course, put out an immediate call for help. And help poured in from throughout the Ohio Meadville District and the larger Unitarian Universalist community. Ministers, congregations and other districts contributed to help put that congregation back on its feet.

I recently talked to the minister at the Findlay Congregation, the Rev. Beth Marshall, and she said: “It's easy to feel isolated out here, and yet I now know that there are good colleagues and congregations out there we can depend upon.” We live in covenant.

The story of the Findlay congregation is a great example of how our Unitarian Universalist community operates when it remembers the Covenantal relationship, that deep commitment to interdependence that is at the foundation of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.

It has been said—way too often—that trying to get Unitarian Universalists to cooperate with one another is like herding hungry cats past a tuna boat at dinner time. But I don’t buy that.

I think in our very heart of hearts, we do remember our covenant. It’s in our ancestral DNA. We have just forgotten it for awhile. I believe that the Cambridge Platform, with its six concepts of congregational communion—

mutual care,
consultation in times of conflict,
admonition,
participation in celebration,
recommendation in transition,
and financial sharing in times of need.
—was way ahead of its time. And with a little creative cooperation, we can re-discover and live into that covenantal ideal—here and now.

Today, we can live our covenant when we participate in Association Sunday—when we celebrate our covenant here in the Ohio Meadville district and across North America.

And why do we do all of this? Because the world today truly needs Unitarian Universalism. It needs our message of hope and welcome and acceptance and interdependence. We need a faith community that can truly provide a welcoming place of spiritual nurture for everyone. A faith that can help heal our fragmented, chaotic world.

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote:

"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow."
Today, we can live our covenant.
We can start here and now to rekindle the fire of our commitment.
Our collection of congregational kitty cats can and will come together.
Because now is the time.

Now is the time to remember our roots as Unitarian Universalists.
Now is the time to come together and remember that we are bound in community.
Now is the time to provide a place of spiritual nurture for people seeking a spiritual home.
Now is the time for our congregations to reach out to help heal our world with hope and love.

The world needs Unitarian Universalism.
The world needs the fire of our commitment.
And it certainly needs the strength of our covenant.

Now is the time.

Amen and blessed be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Association Sunday Cleveland Joan Van Becelaere

Aug 29, 2014

No One is Illegal

preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 7, 2007

All human beings deserve the same rights and respect. It does not matter whether you are black, white, Asian, Mexican or Native American. It does not matter whether you are male, female or transgender. It does not matter whether you are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. You deserve to live your life with grace and dignity.

This coming week marks both Columbus and National Coming Out Days. In very different ways these celebrations epitomize the controversy that often erupts when people insist upon and advocate for human rights for all. Columbus Day is a celebration of the European discovery of the Americas. Most indigenous communities do not view the holiday as a celebration of discovery. For them it is a reminder of the genocide of their ancestors.

Our society denies gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people their full human rights. National Coming Out Day is a chance to raise awareness about this. Like Columbus Day it is not a holiday that is universally celebrated. Those who oppose full human rights for members of the queer community are likely to either ignore or protest National Coming Out Day.

When I was a child we celebrated Columbus Day in my elementary school. In one of my classes we made drawings of Columbus and his three ships--the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We learned about how he had discovered America and convinced the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabel to finance his trip across the ocean. No mention was made of the native populations who inhabited this continent before the arrival of the Europeans or of their fate after the conquest of the Americas. To a naive child Columbus was a hero to be celebrated.

My consciousness about Columbus Day changed when I became involved in indigenous solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico. I now understand that it as a complex holiday. On the one hand, it is an important day for Italian Americans and others to celebrate their heritage. On the other, it is a reminder of the suffering of generations of indigenous people at the hands of European colonialists. This complexity makes the Columbus Day holiday an ideal time to reflect upon one of the pressing issues of our day, immigration. Columbus was, after all, the original immigrant. Many of the undocumented immigrants to the United States today are descendents from the original inhabitants of the Americas. The debate about immigration is in part a continuation of a long debate about whom this continent belongs to and who has a right to participate in our society.

The immigration debate has gradually been heating up for the last several years. In 2006 it reached a boiling point when Congress attempted to pass a series of laws to clamp down on undocumented immigration. One of the measures that conservatives hoped to pass called for the deportation of the at least twelve million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. A mass deportation of this type would prove disastrous, not in the least because, according to the Center for American Progress, the costs would be at least $215 billion.

Right now, undocumented immigration is an issue in most wealthy countries. Things have gotten so bad in the Global South, in the developing countries of the world, that people are willing to risk anything to have a shot at a better life for themselves and their families.

Many do risk everything and ultimately die attempting to reach the wealthy countries. In five months in late 2005 and early 2006, for example, between one thousand and fifteen hundred sub-Saharan Africans died trying to sneak into Spain. According to the journalist Jeremy Rose that is "five and seven times the number of people who died attempting to reach West Berlin during the Berlin Wall's entire history."

People do not take such risks and leave their families behind because they want to. They do it because they have to. People emigrate to places like the United States because the options of staying behind in their home countries are much worse than risking death trying to leave them.

There are many people in our country who are afraid of immigrants. They are afraid that undocumented immigrants erode border security, take jobs from American citizens and threaten American culture. These issues frame most of the debate around immigration. I believe they obfuscate the central issue. The central issue is: who do we, and by we I mean both the people in this room and our culture at large, consider a human being? I believe that we all deserve the same rights and respect. We are all human beings. We all deserve to be able to live our lives with grace and dignity.

This idea is at the core of the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This first principle says that our community affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that we think all human beings are human beings and are worthy of respect and dignity. This idea is at the heart of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, in part:

"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
The Declaration of Human Rights is supposed to be the global standard by which countries are judged, both in terms of how they treat their citizens and how they treat others. The Declaration contains all of the basic things that human beings are supposed to be entitled to. According to the Declaration all people are afforded the right to own property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to work and not be forced to work, freedom to choose their own sexual and life partners and freedom of movement. To deny people these rights is to deny them their humanity.

For undocumented immigrants the words "other status" are the key phrase in the document. That means that everyone in this country is supposed to be afforded these rights, whether or not they are here with the approval of the government.

The question of who really is a human being has been one that our country has wrestled with for a long time. Throughout the colonial period and during the first decades of our history as a nation the only people considered to be full human beings were land owning males of European descent. Anyone who did not meet the criteria of being male, white and a landowner was seen as less than a full citizen and, therefore, less than completely human. Slavery was justified by claiming that Africans and people of African descent possessed less developed faculties than Europeans. They were thought to need the guidance of others, their slave masters, to become civilized. Women, likewise, were denied the vote because they were thought of as less rational and capable than men.

Today, though most of us would not admit it, our country continues to have such attitudes. Today we do not consider people who live in the Global South, that is developing nations like Nicaragua, Iraq or the Sudan to be full human beings. If we did we would never let our government pursue the foreign policies it has in those countries.

In fact much of the immigration to the United States is a direct result of the failed economic and political policies of Washington. The last few years have seen an average of 500,000 undocumented immigrants from Mexico per year. Currently the greatest export from Mexico is Mexicans. As a result, remittance, money sent back to Mexico from the United States, is one of the top sources of income within Mexico. This is a direct result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA. NAFTA has decimated the Mexican countryside by placing small Mexican subsistence farmers in direct competition with large agricultural combines from the United States and Canada. Unable to compete, over 1.3 million Mexicans have left the countryside in the last ten years.

The violence that our government has perpetrated in Central America is another major reason why so many people have been forced to emigrate to the United States. Throughout the seventies and eighties the United States backed repressive regimes or right wing guerilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The conflicts in these countries led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of primarily indigenous peoples. Those that could, fled. And those that fled, fled to the United States.

One of the major reasons why people immigrate to the United States is that they want to be treated like human beings. I remember talking with a campesino in Chiapas, Mexico a few summers ago about this. He told me: "You Americans care more about your pets than you care about us." At least three thousand people from Latin America have been found dead along the United States border in the last ten years. I cannot help but wonder if he is right.

The material poverty that most of Latin America lives in is staggering. Through my work with CASA, the human rights organization that I helped to start in Mexico, I have visited Mexico a number of times. While there I have taken trips to the poorest rural communities and urban slums. People live without running water, far from the nearest school or doctor. They live in shacks with dirt floors and thatch or tin roofs. And they work hard for very little. Many live on less than a dollar a day.

The journey that many people from Mexico and Central America take to escape this kind of poverty is arduous. It involves a difficult and lengthy trip to the border, often through dangerous areas where immigrants are preyed upon by organized crime and harassed by governmental authorities. Once at the border immigrants will locate a coyote, a professional people smuggler, to take them into this country. Coyotes charge as much as $3,000 to people who wish to cross the border. Most of the people who cross into the United States lack the resources to pay up front. So coyotes often deliver them directly to potential employers through whom they can work off their debt. This can amount to modern slavery. Undocumented immigrants have been held in bondage for years while working off their debt. Once their debt to the coyote is cleared they often continue to live in fear as their employer threatens to have them deported if they step out of line.

Two myths about undocumented workers are that:
They do work that Americans do not want to do;
and they depress wages for American workers.

If either of these myths are true it is only by the slightest degree. Economics is not a zero sum game. There are not a set number of jobs available. More people in the United States means more needs for goods and services. This in turn means more jobs. The extent to which undocumented workers depress wages is also open to question. An article in the Economist argued that at most undocumented workers depressed wages for other Americans by 8%. Their analysis suggested, however, that the actual number was much closer to .4%.

Most undocumented immigrants do the work immigrants and poor people in this country have always done. They work in fields, in restaurants, in the garment industry and in domestic work. The wages in these industries are low in part because the management in these industries has fought tooth and nail against unionization efforts. Management would prefer that the workers stay undocumented so that they continue to live in fear and stay docile. Giving undocumented workers papers and a path to citizenship would in fact raise wages much more than clamping down on undocumented workers would.

It is certainly true that the income gap between the rich and poor in our country is growing. This is not the fault of undocumented immigrants. It is a result of the same economic and political policies that cause people to immigrate to the United States in the first place. Through trade agreements like NAFTA, a situation has been created where there a free movement of capital but not free movement of labor. Companies are free to move their factories wherever they like if labor costs get to expensive and workers are not able to follow them. This creates a series of captive labor markets, each trying to outbid the other in terms of low wages and services. The governments of poor countries vie with each other for the right to exploit their citizens. Working conditions in those countries are not fit for human beings. In some, children work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for only a few dollars in wages. Such practices were outlawed in the United States three or four generations ago. Yet we allow our government to pursue economic policies that support such behavior. And in the end it hurts our country as well because manufacturing jobs from the United States leave for places with cheaper labor.

This is not capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith. He believed that capitalism required free movement of both labor and capital. Restrict one and you distort the capitalist system and deny someone’s basic rights.

Columbus Day and the debate around immigration are connected to National Coming Out Day by questions of human rights. Both undocumented workers and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities are denied some of their human rights. The struggles of both challenge us to make our society more inclusive.

Not long ago almost all members of the queer communities lived in the closest, afraid to admit their sexual orientation to any but a trusted circle. Over the last several years this has changed and, in many communities, it is now more acceptable to be queer. The stories from lesbians of two different generations that Dana read earlier demonstrate this. Young people questioning their sexual orientation or identity today have far more opportunities to safely explore whom they love than they did twenty years ago.

This does not mean that our society treats members of the queer community justly. It does not. Most states do not recognize the right of gays and lesbians to get married. The murder of Matthew Shepard a few years ago also served as a tragic reminder that while our society has become more tolerant of queer lifestyles, we still have a long way to go.

This is why celebrating National Coming Out Day is important. Coming Out Day reminds us both of the struggles that have been fought in the past and those that must be waged in the future. It is a time for us to pause and remember Stonewall, Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, and the countless others who have either suffered because of who they loved or struggled for equal rights for all people. Coming Out Day is also a time for us to roll-up our sleeves and commit to making the lives of those around us and those who will come after us better. Never again should it be permissible to hate someone because of their sexual or gender orientation.

The history of this country is in part the history of the expansion of the franchise. Gradually more and more groups have been allowed to become full participants in our society. First white men without property and then women and black men were granted equal rights, at least under the eyes of the law. They are now all considered human beings and the laws for committing crimes against them are, in theory, the same. It is time to expand the franchise again. This time we must expand the franchise to truly include all human beings. We must recognize all of our brothers and sisters on planet earth as human beings.

In the hopes that it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Immigration National Coming Out Day Cleveland

Aug 28, 2014

The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion

preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 30, 2007

My theme this morning is the transient and the permanent in liberal religion. When I talk about liberal religion I mean Unitarianism, Universalism or Unitarian Universalism. Over the course of our almost five hundred year history our religious movement has changed a great deal. We have changed so much, in fact, that what seemed essential to us in one era now appears to be only tangential. Despite appearances I believe that no matter what the changes in our movement we have retained an important and discernible core. At our essence we are a covenantal community committed to truth, love, freedom and the ability of each person to find his or her own spiritual path.

The inspiration for this sermon comes from a seminal sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker entitled "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." In that sermon Parker tried to discern the essence of Christianity. He believed that much of what people took to be Christianity was actually a product of the time and culture in which they lived. He wrote:

"In actual Christianity... there seem to have been... two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions... the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth [and] decay...bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all."

Parker wrote as a transcendentalist. For him the essence of Christianity stood in for all religious truth. He thought that Jesus taught not Christianity but absolute religion, the essence of spiritual truth that lay behind all religion. Despite the title of his sermon, Parker was part of a movement that helped turn Unitarianism away from its identity as an exclusively Christian religion. Today, in our congregations, we recognize that all religions contain a kernel of truth in them. We understand that each religion is an effort to reach toward an understanding of ultimate reality. The interpretation may be different but the impulse to reach out is the same.

To help us explore the transient and the permanent of liberal religion, our own attempt at reaching towards the absolute, I would like to offer you three images from my and our religious ancestry. If examined closely, these images can teach us much about Unitarian Universalism.

First, imagine the gathering of a group of 17th century New England colonists. They have left the Church of England and fled their native land. They have come to a strange continent seeking religious freedom and, after months of discussion and debate, they have decided to form a religious community. Finally, they have reached agreement about the shape and form of their community. It is important for them that each individual be allowed to find truth in God and in the Bible as they best know how. One by one they write their names in the membership book and sign a covenant, an agreement about how they will behave together in religious community. Their covenant reads:

"We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth."

Now we turn to our second image. It is late at night. Theodore Parker sits at his desk. He is writing a fiery sermon calling for resistance to the fugitive slave law. That law demands that Northerners return fugitives to their supposed masters in the South. In front of Parker lies a loaded pistol. He has the gun because he and his wife are sheltering Ellen and William Craft, fugitives and members of his congregation. He plans to shoot anyone who comes and tries to return them to slavery.

The third image is of myself as a youth of fourteen. I am on the beach with about two hundred other Unitarian Universalist youth. Moonlight bounces off the sand and waves tumble rocks ever smoother on the shore. We are at the evening worship service of Con Con, the international annual conference for Unitarian Universalist youth. We are singing, sharing stories, running our hands over the soft warm earth. Amid the song, starlight and fellowship I experience an almost overpowering feeling of love and unity.

Each of these images is taken from a different moment in the history of liberal religion. The first image is from our earliest roots on this continent. The last is almost contemporary. We can draw a direct line through all three images to our worship service today. What has changed in our communities since the New England farmers gathered almost four hundred years ago? What has remained the same? What is transient and what is permanent?

I approach these questions from two directions. First, I take a theological tact, and look at the beliefs of both Unitarian Universalists and our ancestors. Second, I examine our culture, that is I look at who makes up our communities and how we relate to the wider world.

To the casual eye it would appear that almost nothing of Unitarian Universalist theology has remained consistent. Our religious ancestors who gathered together in Massachusets were self-identified Christians. The Bible was the central text in their religious community and all of them regarded Jesus as their lord and savior. A sociologist of religion would call them Protestant Christians.

Today, only a portion of Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist congregations identify as Christian. The members of our religious communities follow a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs. In our congregations we find Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Jews, Agnostics, Pagans and others. A sociologist of religion would call us Post-Christian Protestants.

We are post-Christian because, as a religious movement, we come out of Christianity. That means that while we do not retain much of the theology of Christianity we continue to use many of the forms of Christianity. Like most other Protestant movements we have ministers, gather together for worship primarily on Sunday morning and organize ourselves into congregations. In addition we have taken a central idea of Protestantism, the belief that each person is capable of direct relationship with God and able to read and interpret the Bible, to an entirely different level. We recognize that there is truth in religious communities beyond Christianity. We do not just believe that each person is capable of interpreting the Bible. We think that each person is capable of interpreting their own religious experiences and naming their own source of religious authority. For us personal experience, and not the Bible, is the starting point for theological reflection.

Despite the shift from Christian to post-Christian we are united with our New England ancestors by our use of covenants. When we form communities we agree to treat each other in a certain way. The New England religious communities from which we are descended used similar covenants. The Salem covenant of 1629 that I read earlier is an example of one such covenant. Another, couched in slightly different language, is the Bond of Union of this congregation. If you look on our web-site or in our by-laws, you will find a statement that reads:

"We warmly invite into membership all in common with our purpose as expressed in our Bond of Union: mutual helpfulness in the search for truth and for enduring value in ways of life; advancement of sound morals among ourselves and in our community; encouragement and protection of individual freedom of religion."

This Bond of Union is meant to guide us as we live and work together in religious community. It contains several clear expectations about how we will behave in our congregation. It describes what it means to be a member of this community. We agree that when we gather:

We will help each other
We will seek truth
We will try to live moral lives and promote morality, as best we understand it, in our communities
We will respect and protect freedom of religion

Our Bond of Union is not really that different from the covenant of our New England ancestors. Laying them side by side it easy to see how they contain the same spirit. The language may be different, one mentions the Lord and God while the other does not, but both covenants speak of a commitment to truth, of mutual aid and respect. Neither explicitly mentions a standard of belief that people must meet in order to join the community. Instead we are asked to agree to "walk together" or be "in common with our purpose."

Our use of covenant unites us with our religious ancestors across almost four hundred years. We have long understood, to quote the Transylvania Unitarian Bishop Francis David, "we do not need to think alike to love alike."

With our Unitarian Christian, Universalist and Transcendentalist ancestors we share a belief that human beings are at the very least morally neutral. According to the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, our congregations "covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

This pledge is at the heart of what it means to be a religious liberal. Historically, the very definition of a religious liberal was someone who objected to the argument that humanity is somehow inherently wicked. In the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association this sentiment is not couched as a belief—to affirm and promote is not the same thing as to believe—but in looking back at our history it might as well be.

The origin of the American Unitarian Association, one of the precursors to the Unitarian Universalist Association, lies in a 19th century dispute over whether or not human beings had innate goodness within them. The principle spokesperson of Unitarianism during this time was William Ellery Channing and he engaged in numerous debates with more orthodox clergy. In his famous sermon, entitled "Likeness to God," Channing argued that each person had within them the likeness to God. The purpose of religion was to help us nurture that divine spark. Channing felt that it was possible for us to reach an almost Godlike consciousness because, in his words, "we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations [of God]. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind."

As a young man, Channing was Parker's hero and provided him with much inspiration. Looking at texts like Channing's "Likeness to God" and Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" one cannot help but notice similarities between them. That said, Channing and Parker had their differences. Channing acted as a sort of senior statesman for the religious liberals of his day. Parker was a powerful prophet whose anti-slavery views made him pariah among his fellow Unitarians. Channing was reluctant to call for the abolition of slavery until late in his career.

Parker, however, never would have taken the stands he did had it not been for the liberals of Channing's generation. Channing's generation's belief in the perfectibility of humans was in part what led Parker and his cohorts to attack slavery. If Parker was to approach God's likeness how could he not speak out against the evil of his times?

We are united with our 19th century ancestors not only by our feelings about human nature but by our understanding that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. In his essay "Self-Reliance" the Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world." By this Emerson means that it is our own experience of truth that is ultimately important. Each of us has had our own experiences and each of our experiences helps us to understand what is true.

My own truth has been tempered by a healthy dose of mysticism, a feeling that we can all connect to the infinite that surrounds us. This belief stems from early experiences like the one in Oregon where I felt a deep connection to everyone and everything around me.

The wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that I can hold this belief, some of you can disagree with me and we can all be right. We are able to do so because we understand that our religious truths stem from our experiences. We have all had different experiences, which means we have all come to different religious truths. The absolute undergirding all of our experiences may be the same but our ways of understanding what is true will be different.

Covenants are a belief in at least the neutrality of human nature and a recognition that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Taken together these three things form the core of Unitarian Universalism. Combined they form us into covenantal religious communities dedicated to truth, love and freedom. This is the core of our theological vision, our sense of absolute religion.

Having described our theological vision, we should turn our attention to the culture of liberal religion. We Unitarian Universalists are not of the sort to separate ourselves from the world. We have chosen to live in it. We are shaped by, and to a limited extent, shape the culture around us. Parker believed that culture should be the most transient part of religion. While the essence of our religion remains the same, culture should change with the times.

We can look at the culture of liberal religion on local or global levels. From a global perspective Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism are culturally rich. We can find our co-religionists in the Kashi hills of India, in Transylvania, the United States and the Philippines.

On the other hand, if we only look locally, if we examine the culture of our religion in the United States over the last four hundred years it appears culturally poor. David Bumbaugh touches on this in his sermon "Beyond the Seven Principles: The Core of Our Faith:"

"[I]f we ask, "Who is served by Unitarian Universalism" we come at the core of our faith from a very different angle. The answer to that question, whether we like it or not, is that historically Unitarian Universalism has served the emergent middle-class, (dare I say, mostly the Euro-American emergent middle class). This is not a fact we find ourselves able to embrace comfortably."

I am afraid that, in general, Bumbaugh's observation is correct. There are, of course, exceptions, and much of the best of Unitarian Universalism can be found within them. However, it is painfully true that in aggregate our congregations have primarily served the professional and business classes. In general, our communities are made up of teachers, public servants, college professors, mid-level business executives and others of similar educational background. Most of us are neither the people who own the means of production nor those who those who labor in the mills.

Unitarian Universalists are not only a middle-class people. Many of us are also deeply counter-cultural. We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we have rejected the dominant modes of religious thinking in our society. In earlier days we would have been called heretics. Often our understanding of religious truth calls upon us to question the actions of our government, the values of our materialist culture and why people in our world are not afforded to most basic of human rights. When we ask these questions, I believe the permanent in liberal religion, the part of our faith that calls us to extend ourselves beyond our comfortable shells, in peeking through.

Nonetheless, as a religious movement, we need to ask ourselves if the class composition of our congregations is part of the transient or the permanent of liberal religion. When our communities lack the full spectrum of human diversity we are all missing something. We learn by struggling to build community with those who are different from us. If we restrict ourselves to only a thin band of the world's peoples, then our community is the poorer for it.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us, "The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all."

To fully unveil those bonds we need to widen our communities. This is not easy work as it requires us to carefully examine the cultural assumptions we make within our congregations. Often I have heard Unitarian Universalists say that our faith is best fitted for people with a certain level of education or background. If culture is part of the transient in liberal religion this need not be the case.

When we remember that culture is transient, we remember, again in the words of Morrison-Reed, that "alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done." This act of remembrance is part of the permanence of liberal religion. This act of remembrance is what makes our communities worthwhile. It is what happens when we truly unite in a covenantal community to pursue truth, love and freedom. That it may be so.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Liberal Religion Cleveland

Aug 27, 2014

From Cleveland to Chiapas and Back Again

preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 23, 2007

My message this morning is that it is possible to build a better world, a world decidedly more fair than the one we live in today. In such a world no one will go without food, without shelter, without education and each community will be able to decide how to best meet its own needs. This may sound like a utopian dream but today we have the technology to make such a dream a reality. I know that such a world is possible because I have seen the seeds of it amid the indigenous communities of Chiapas and among the communities I am a part of in the United States.

Our reading this morning comes from Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, the primary spokesperson of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation. Marcos speaks of building such a world. He writes: "In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live...This world was not a dream from the past, it was not something that came to us from our ancestors. It came from ahead, from the next step we were going to take."

The Zapatista National Army of Liberation, usually just know as the Zapatistas or the EZLN, their initials in Spanish, are the armed part of a broader social movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Located in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, the Zapatistas have openly struggled for indigenous rights, autonomy and the possibility of a better world for the last thirteen years. Despite their name, the Zapatistas are primarily a non-violent movement. They have only taken up arms once and that was in January of 1994. Since then, despite being frequently attacked by paramilitaries and harassed by the Mexican military, federal and state police, they have not fired a shot.

The Zapatistas took up arms on January first of 1994 against the Mexican government for two reasons. The first was that January first was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA, took effect. The Zapatistas viewed NAFTA as a virtually death sentence for their rural communities. NAFTA included provisions in it that essentially outlawed the collective ownership of land, a practice of the indigenous of Mexico since before the arrival of the Spaniards. Without the collective ownership of land the Zapatistas feared that much of indigenous campesino culture would disappear.

The Zapatistas also objected to NAFTA because it placed small Mexican farmers in direct competition with the large agricultural combines of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and the other states that make up the corn belt. Corn is the base of the Mexican diet and the Zapatistas were afraid that the small farmers from their communities would simply be unable to compete with the cheap corn from the United States that would flood the Mexican market in the wake of NAFTA.

The second reason why the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 was that at time Mexico had been governed by one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, for sixty five years. For all intents and purposes Mexico was not a democratic country, it was a one party dictatorship, and the PRI did not practice democracy internally. Every six years presidential elections were held. The PRI always won them and the outgoing President always nominated his successor.

Rural Mexico is, in general, an impoverished place, more than half of rural Mexicans live in poverty, that is they live on less than two dollars a day, and the indigenous communities of Chiapas were among the poorest of the poor. In some parts of the state the poverty rate exceeds eighty percent. For the Zapatistas NAFTA was the final straw. They felt it was better to die on their feet than to starve to death silently in their communities.

The Zapatista uprising lasted a scant twelve days. They were able to seize control of about one third of the state of Chiapas but by January 12th the Mexican military was poised to go into the jungle and massacre the indigenous communities that supported the Zapatistas. At that point Mexican civil society, that is to say people like you and me, staged massive protests throughout Mexico demanding that the government and the Zapatistas solve their conflict peacefully. In the face of this the Mexican military was forced to back down. That left the Zapatistas in control of a small swatch of liberated territory, an area of which they have set up about implementing their vision of a better world.

I began working in Chiapas in the summer of 2000 when I took at two week trip there with the organization Schools for Chiapas to help build a school in one of the Zapatista autonomous communities. While in Chiapas I met my friend Roxanne Ukahri Rivas and in the fall of 2001 we started an organization originally called the Chiapas Peace House Project. Now called CASA or Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Acción, an acronym that roughly translates to collectives for solidarity and action, the Peace House was started to provide a physical space for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas to come, reflect and work with either indigenous communities or the social movements and non-governmental organizations that supported them. In the six years since we started CASA we have opened two centers, one in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca, and have hosted more than seventy long-term volunteers. Our volunteers have worked on everything from training indigenous campesinos to be human rights observers to mural painting and collective gardening projects.

In the eight summers since I started working in Chiapas I have had the privilege to watch the Zapatista movement's vision for a new society unfold. My first trip to Chiapas was at the end of what I affectionately call "the bad old days." 2000 was the last year that the PRI were in power. Since the cease-fire in 1994 the Mexican government has been conducting a low-intensity war against the Zapatista communities. Another way to describe low-intensity warfare is to call it civilian targeted warfare. In this counter-insurgency model the government gives arms and immunity to paramilitaries who attack indigenous communities. At the same time military and police units encircle the communities under threat. This allows the government to claim that it is not involved in the conflict, that the conflict is between different social organizations, while at the same time slowly starving the Zapatista communities of the resources that they need to thrive.

Prior to the ouster of the PRI, part of the Mexican government's strategy was to harass, detain and deport internationals who came to Chiapas to either act as human rights observers or to offer the Zapatistas aid. I call that period the bad old days because back then if you wanted to visit the Zapatista communities you had to engage in complicated cloak and dagger operations, dodge military road blocks and generally operate under cover. If you did not it was possible that you would find yourself on a plane headed back to your home country with an order never to return to Mexico.

Today the situation in Chiapas remains largely the same. There is one important difference. The Mexican government has stopped harassing solidarity activists and human rights workers. Government officials came to the conclusion that the conflict in Chiapas and the Zapatista movement received a lot less attention if they simply ignored the presence of internationals. After the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 the deportations of internationals ceased. For us then the bad old days are those before Fox's party, the National Action Party or PAN, took power. The Mexican government now tries to claim that really there is no conflict in Chiapas. But for the people of Chiapas the situation was not changed much. In fact it has probably gotten worse. The number of documented human rights abuses in Mexico have increased since the PAN took power.

When I went to Chiapas in 2000 I visited two Zapatista communities. The first was Oventik. An hour outside of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Oventik is probably the most visited of the Zapatista communities. Back in 2000 it often served as a launching point for other journeys into Zapatista territory. We spent two days there speaking with Zapatistas from the community and waiting to travel to the community of Francisco Gomez.

The journey from Oventik to Francisco Gomez took eight hours. We left in the middle of the night and traveled under tarps in the back of cattle trucks. It was one of the more intense experiences of my life. We had to try and circumvent at least three military roadblocks to get to Francisco Gomez. We were stopped at the last roadblock outside of Francisco Gomez. My heart sank and I know that most of the other people I was with were worried as well. We were pretty certain that we going to get deported or, at the very least, turned back. Instead the soldiers let us through.

Years later, talking with a Mexican friend, I found out why. Apparently she and the driver had told the soldiers that they were polleros, which is a Spanish slang word for human traffickers, and that we were undocumented migrants. Given that at least half of our delegation were white gringos like myself I have no idea why the soldiers believed my friend. Regardless, we were allowed to continue our journey.

In 2000 Francisco Gomez was a tiny little community. It had a population of maybe two hundred. The only way to get to the community was via a rough dirt road that bisected the hamlet. Like Oventik, Francisco Gomez is also an important Zapatista center. Both are what are now called Carcoles, which means shell in Spanish. Carcoles act as regional seats for the Zapatista autonomous government. Each Carcole coordinates the activities of approximately two hundred communities. Today most Carcoles have their own clinics, schools, meeting centers, cooperative stores and administrative offices. When I visited Francisco Gomez in 2000 the community was just in the process of building its school. We were there, in fact, to help them build that school. We brought with us a willing volunteer force and, more importantly, enough money to buy all of the concrete that was needed.

We spent two weeks in Francisco Gomez working along side and learning about the Zapatistas. We had a chance to watch them make decisions collectively. In their communities a general assembly of, depending on the community, all men or men and women is the policy setting agent. The general assembly elects leaders to enact the policies while the general assembly decides them. These leaders can be recalled if they overstep their authority, are unpaid, and usually only serve for a very limited term.

When I was in Francisco Gomez it seemed that the Zapatista experiment in autonomy was just starting. The communities still had much to do if they were to reach their stated goal of creating a different sort of society. Their infrastructure was still fairly rudimentary. A lot has changed in the following eight years.

This summer I had the opportunity to take my family to Chiapas with me. We went to Chiapas for two reasons. The first was that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had contracted with me and CASA to run a human rights delegation for them. The second was that I wanted Sara and Emma to have a chance to learn about the Zapatista movement first hand.

We arrived about a week and a half before the start of the delegation to attend the Second Encounter of Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World. About three thousand people from across Mexico and from around the world attended this meeting. The Zapatistas sometimes refer to their big meetings as intergalacticos because they hold that people will attend from as far away as outside the solar system. This summer's intergalatico lasted ten days and consisted primarily of speeches by representatives of Zapatista communities and other progressive, usually rural, communities from around the world followed by a question and answer session. There were also ample opportunities for both formal and informal networking. It was an exercise in listening, achance to hear the voices of others from all across the globe. The Zapatistas want a world in which there is room for all cultures and peoples of the world. Their events usually attempt to bring somewhat disparate groups together to make common cause.

This year's intergalatico was a opportunity for the Zapatistas to highlight the accomplishments of their movement over the last thirteen years. Discussions were held on such topics as the Zapatista government, education, health care, economic and justice systems. Representatives from some Zapatista communities also spoke about women's rights and women's struggles in the indigenous communities and the relationship between Zapatista communities and international solidarity activists.

During the ten days of the intergalatico the Zapatistas held meetings at the Caracoles of Oventik, Morelia and La Realidad--there are five Caracoles in total. La Realidad is in the heart of Zapatista territory and while all of the Carcoles are supposedly equal, La Realidad is clearly more equal than the others. It is larger and is the place where much of the Zapatista military leadership spends its time.

Sara, Emma, Asa and I arrived in Chiapas in time to participate in the second half of the Intergalatico. That meant that we missed the meetings in Oventik and travelled instead directly to Morelia. It was a three-hour trip in the back of old VW micro buses and pick-ups. When we were in pick-up trucks Sara and the kids got to ride in the cabin.

Travelling with a family was a very different experience for me. While there was far less of a chance of deportation than there was eight years ago, it was still challenging. Sara and I had to make certain that the kids had their needs taken care of at all times and I choose to do things differently than I would have had I been by myself. We brought a tent and went to bed early rather than staying up late to take part in the festivities--the Zapatistas love a good party and their events always feature a lot of dancing, art and, usually, a basketball tournament. I was unable to participate as much in the meetings as I had in the past.

On the other hand, bringing my family allowed for interactions on a different level than I had experienced in the past. Asa took on an almost celebrity status. He was probably the only white baby that a lot of the Zapatistas had ever seen. They were fascinated by him. Women lined up to hold him and Sara and I got to speak with them about their parenting practices. Babies, it seems, transcend all cultures.

The biggest challenge about traveling with my family was simply the travel itself. The trip from Morelia to La Realidad was not an easy one. We went as part of a caravan of intergalatico attendees. There were twenty one trucks in our caravan and each truck carried between twenty five and thirty people. For the most part the trucks were cattle trucks and most of us had to travel in the truck bed. Sara, Emma and Asa were given a seat in the cabin but there was not space for me.

The trip took fifteen hours, nineteen if you count the four hours we spent waiting in the sun for the caravan to get organized. The last eight hours of our journey were along windy dirt mountain roads long after the sun had set.

While it was a hard journey it was not all bad. We made friends with our fellow travelers and I got to learn a bunch of radical songs from across Latin America. I traded civil rights and labor movement songs for poetry and music from Mexican and Spanish social movements.

When we got to La Realidad we had the chance to learn more about the Zapatista autonomous communities. Of particular interest were the discourses on women's rights and the Zapatista justice system. The Zapatistas have always had a good line on women's rights. Unfortunately, it has often seemed like there was dissidence between their word and their actions. Prior to this trip I have rarely seen women in leadership positions within the communities. I believe this has been largely because of the traditional roles of women in indigenous communities.

This dynamic seems to have shifted. At the intergalatico women acted as spokespeople for their communities and were visibly part of the highest levels of the Zapatista government. It was a powerful change to witness.

The discourse on the justice system was also interesting because the communities had tried to really implement a form restorative justice. One story I heard about the justice system in La Realidad is about Coyote, a human trafficker who people from Latin America pay to help them sneak into the United States. It seems that people from La Realidad caught him in their territory. When they caught him he had a large number of migrants locked in the back of semi. He was smuggling them North so they could cross into the United States. When the Zapatistas caught them they been had been without food or water for some time. The Zapatistas gave the migrants a good talking to, fed them, and told them that it would be better if they went back to their own communities than if they tried to come to the United States. Many people die in the journey North and once they get to the United States there is no guarantee that they will find themselves in a good situation. The Zapatistas made Coyote refund the migrants their money, levied him an additional fine and sentenced him to a couple of years of community service. I am told he considered himself lucky that he was caught by the Zapatistas and not the Mexican government.

Now I realize that I am speaking very highly of the Zapatistas. It is true that I have a lot of respect for them and believe that the autonomous communities offer an important lesson to how the world might be different. I have learned through working with them that it is possible to build a different world. To have hope for a better world in this day is a powerful thing to have.

However, I do not mean to come off totally uncritical of the Zapatistas. Their role among the social movements in Chiapas and Mexico is complicated. In the last thirteen years they have both worked with and alienated many organizations I am sympathetic to and people that I am friends with. Their communities are far from perfect and they have the same human flaws as all of us. In some communities they have a long way to go before their discourse on women's rights matches their practice. Nonetheless, their experience suggests that we can build a better, fairer world.

Sara, Emma, Asa and I returned to our new home in Cleveland Heights about two weeks before I started my ministry with you. Since then I have been trying to think about how my experiences in Chiapas apply to my work with you here. There are a couple of things that seem clear.

The most important is simply that the Zapatista dream of a better world can be a powerful inspiration. It is possible to catch glimpses of this dream now and again. The essence of Zapatismo is collective work, the practice that people work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals. I saw members from this congregation engaging in this type of mutual aid yesterday when many of you gathered to help an older member of the community scrape and paint his garage and tidy his yard so he could try to sell his home.

The second is that there are some interesting parallels between Chiapas and North Eastern Ohio. Both areas are suffering heavily due to shifts in the economy. Rural Chiapas is in crisis to due to the changes in trade that NAFTA has brought. Likewise, Northeastern Ohio is in the midst of deindustrialization as manufacturing jobs leave the area as a result of changes in technology and the availability of cheaper labor elsewhere. As a result, both areas are experiencing significant out migration as it becomes more and more difficult for some people to support themselves. Sometimes when I am out walking the dog or biking around town, I will see three or four homes for a sale on a single block. And just as Chiapas is one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Cleveland is one of the poorest areas in the United States.

Now I am not suggesting that we organize a revolution. However, I do think that the key to transforming our community is organizing and seeking new solutions to old problems. If we can find our own dreams of what is ahead perhaps together we can, one step at time, stretch to reach them. Our dreams might teach us how our society can be different and how we can build a more peaceable world, one in which there is room for many others.

May it be so. Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Cleveland Chiapas Zapatistas

Aug 26, 2014

The Trouble with Beginnings

preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 16, 2007

And so we find ourselves at the beginning of things. This month marks the start of our ministry together. This is my first sermon as your settled minister. Together we have begun a new era in the life of this congregation.

The problem with beginnings is that it is often difficult to discern exactly when things start. In any relationship there is a lot that happens beforehand to make the actual relationship even a possibility. I arrive here after having gone through an extensive search process. I talked with and pre-candidated with many different congregations before deciding that this congregation was the best fit for me. Your search committee interviewed many different ministers before deciding that I was the best fit for this congregation. Before we got to our decision points, or even began our searches, there was a lot of discernment that took place. Based on my skills, my values, the needs of my family and my hopes for the future I had to figure out what type of congregation I wanted to serve. You had to do likewise as you prepared to look for your new minister.

I think a statement from my brother, Jorin, sums up all of this quite nicely: “There’s a lot of stuff that happened before I was born.” Whenever we start, whenever we are born or embark onto a new adventure, we are coming into the middle of things. What happened before we begin shapes who we are and what we understand is possible. The past can limit us or it can help us to understand that there are boundless possibilities before us. But the past itself is problematic. Ask two participants at the same event and they are bound to give two slightly different histories.

I picked our readings today from first two chapters of the book of Genesis because I believe that taken together they demonstrate the problems with beginnings. If you read the book of Genesis you will notice that it actually contains two different creation stories. In the first story, found in the first chapter, God creates humankind, man and woman, together. He does this after he has created the stars, the earth, the sea, the animals, the plants and pretty much everything that exists.

In the second story, found in the second chapter, the Lord God creates man first and then woman from the body of man. Woman is only created after man has already named all of the plants and animals. In this version of creation man, and not the animals and plants, is what comes first. Woman comes last.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why there are two separate stories of creation in the book of Genesis. The story of creation is not the only instance where the Bible contains two versions of the same story. Over the years Biblical scholars have evolved what is called the documentary hypothesis to explain why these duplications exist. This theory holds that the first five books of the Bible, usually called the Torah or the Pentateuch, were not written by one person or even one community. Instead, they believe that the Torah came together over many hundreds of years and that it had four primary sources. These sources, each representing a different community among the ancient Israelites, can be identified by the language they use and how they understand the divine, the priesthood and the Law.

Scholars of the documentary hypothesis argue that the reason why the book of Genesis has two different creation stories is because it is the amalgamation of at least two different texts. One is called the Elohim because of how it refers to the divine. In this version the divine is called, in English, God. The other version is called the Jahwist because it refers to the divine as the Lord God. The Elohim source is commonly attributed to a community in the Kingdom of Israel while the Jahwist source is usually believed to have originated in the Kingdom of Judah. The two sources offer different histories about the people of Israel and in some cases contradict each other. Whichever individual or group edited the version of the Torah that we have today could not, for whatever reason, decide which of their stories were correct or more important and as result there are many instances where we have the same story told from two different perspectives. At this late date in history it is impossible to know which one is closer to the oral tradition from which the Bible originated, or even if such a concept makes any sense when trying to interpret the Bible.

I think that this illustrates a simple truth about history. There are always multiple interpretations of the same event. Each community, and each person, will understand what happened in the past a little differently.

The other thing that the book of Genesis can teach us is that beginnings are never truly clear. The first sentence of Genesis reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth...” The problem here is that it does not say where God comes from, why God decided to create the earth or what the pre-history of the world was. Even in this story of the creation there’s a missing story of the beginnings of the beginnings.

Again scholars have tried to figure out what is going on. Some have speculated that the Bible actually contains hints of the pre-history of the world within the text. Based on what is offered in those hints, some scholars believe it is actually possible to create a rough narrative of what happened before the book of Genesis. I had a professor in graduate school who thought that various Sumerian and Babylonian sources, when compared with the Biblical texts, could be used to help fill in the missing gaps. Whether this is actually true, or whether it is a flight of scholarly fancy, I do not feel qualified to say.

Today, in our own beginning, we find that we are not really at the beginning. There is a lot of pre-history that proceeds the start of our ministry together. In fact, for some of you our beginning is not a beginning at all but a continuation of the ongoing story of this congregation. For you I am a character introduced somewhere in the middle of the story. I come in neither at the beginning nor, I hope, at the end. The congregation will continue after I move on, an event that I hope will not occur for many years, and at some point my time with you will simply be referred to as the years during which Colin Bossen was your minister, just as you talk about the Farley Wheelwright, Jesse Cavileer, Chris Bailey or Peggy Clason years.

Since I am coming into your story in the middle things I have spent a little while trying to understand what happened before I arrived. Unitarian Universalism and this congregation have a long, interesting and complicated history in the Cleveland area. There is a lot to try and understand. As far as I can figure there have been Universalists in the Cleveland area since at least the 1830s. Our oldest congregation in the area, the North Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Church, dates from this era.

The first Unitarians arrived to Cleveland around the same time as Universalists. It was not until 1867 when the Unitarians were organized enough to form the First Unitarian Society of Cleveland. That congregation is one of the two ancestor congregations of our community. Our other ancestral congregation is All Souls Universalist Church. That congregation merged with First Unitarian in 1932.

The real story of this congregation seems to begin in 1951 when the majority of the members of First Unitarian decided to relocate the congregation to Shaker Heights. At the time the congregation was located at 82nd and Euclid. The neighborhood that the grand old Gothic church was in was changing. Cleveland was experiencing its first major round of white flight and middle class whites were leaving the city for the suburbs. The people who founded the Society were those who decided that they wanted to stay in the city.

About twenty years later came another defining moment in the history of the congregation. I have heard some people refer to it as “the time we gave the church away.” Earlier this year your interim minister, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, preached an excellent sermon called “The Legacy of Empowerment” on this time in our congregation’s history. In that sermon she argued that this period of time has left a long standing imprint on the congregation. What happened between 1969 and 1971 determined the shape of the congregation for years to come.

I do not pretend to understand everything about that period in the congregation’s history. What I do know is this, the late sixties and early seventies were a very tumultuous time in our country, in our religious association and in our city. The years between 1967 and 1971 saw what has been commonly called the black empowerment controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association. During this time Unitarian Universalists struggled with racial issues in a way that we had not done before and have not done since. At the heart of the crisis was the question of whether or not the UUA would give $1,000,000 to the Black Affairs Council, or BAC, to spend as they saw fit.

At the 1968 General Assembly, held here in Cleveland, the member congregations of the UUA voted to give BAC $1,000,000. Not long after, citing a looming financial crisis, the UUA Board of Trustees overturned the decision. Up until that point the General Assembly, to which each congregation sends delegates to represent its interests, was the body that set the budget of the UUA. The decision to overturn the financial commitments that the General Assembly had made was unprecedented and at the following year’s meeting, held in Boston, total chaos broke loose.

An attempt was made to reverse the Board’s decision and when it failed, our religious association almost split in two. Many African American members of BAC left our movement. First they left the meeting in disgust, and then they left our religious association. At the same time, Jack Mendelssohn led a walkout of the white delegates sympathetic to BAC. Almost half of the Unitarian Universalists present at the meeting followed him. It has taken more than a generation to begin to heal the self-inflicted wounds of that day.

In 1969, our congregation experienced its own version of the black empowerment controversy. As the neighborhood around 82nd and Euclid continued to change and the toll on the congregation began to show, it became necessary to hire a police guard during church functions, the administrative offices were broken into so frequently that it was no longer safe to keep stamps there overnight and two women were mugged on the church’s property. In the face of these circumstances the congregational leadership decided that something had to be done.

Under the leadership of then minister Farley Wheelwright, it was decided to consider giving the building and half of the endowment to the Cleveland Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) so that they could start an African American Unitarian Universalist congregation. After a very controversial vote that is exactly what happened. The Cleveland BUUC organized the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation and called John Fraizer to be their minister. For reasons that I do not know, that congregation collapsed within only a few years.

It became clear to the members of the Unitarian Society that they needed to find another place to worship. In 1971 the Society purchased this building. The congregation that came here was dramatically different from the congregation that had been at 82nd and Euclid just a few years earlier. To be blunt, it was much whiter and much smaller. In the course of a few years the membership of the Society shrank from slightly over three hundred to under one hundred. Over the next thirty five years the congregation’s membership gradually shrank to around sixty members.

Through it all this congregation has remained here and struggled onward. No doubt at times some of you have been like the young frog in the story from earlier today. You have been ready to despair, drown in the cream and let the congregation fold. Others have probably played the role of the older frog and kept on croaking “Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!”

This congregation has seen remarkable growth in the last few years and it seems likely that those of you who kept crying “Keep hope alive!” were onto something. The congregation may be at another turning point. It might be poised to shift from a small congregation to a larger one.

Some of you may be hearing this history for the first time. Many of you probably remember part of it from Rev. Rolenz’s sermon. Still others of you may have lived it. The history of our congregation is undoubtedly like the creation myth at the start of the book of Genesis. There is more than one version. But however we remember it or understand it is important.

One of our challenges together will be to honor our past without letting it hold us hostage. Today is a different day than 1969. Our congregation today is very different from the congregation that existed then. We should look to our past as a guide, but we should only hold it as one guide of many. The transcendentalist Samuel Longfellow used to say that revelation is not sealed. Alongside our history we will find many other sources of inspiration as we labor together.

However you understand our history, whether this is your first time here or your thousandth, the truth is that today we find ourselves at a beginning. We are in the middle of the congregation’s history but we are at the start of a new ministry together. We can see the road behind us but the path ahead is murky. What will we decide about our future? What will we choose? Which road will we take?

Here we are at the beginning of things, in the middle of things, with part of our story told and part of it yet to unfold.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Cleveland

Aug 25, 2014

A Black Christ

as preached at the First Parish in Lexington, August 24, 2014

For the last two weeks, events in Ferguson, Missouri have served as a visceral reminder that this country, particularly its white majority, is in need of a conversion experience. The human cost of continuing to live in a white supremacist society, a society that values the lives of white more than the lives of people of color, is too high. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defined conversion as "a fundamental change of the heart and will."

Have you ever had such an experience? One that forced you to re-examine all of your previously held beliefs and develop new ones? I suspect that some of you have. Unitarian Universalism is, by in large, a religion of converts. Only about 1 in 10 of the adult members of our congregations were raised Unitarian Universalist. The majority of us were either brought up in another religious tradition or in no religious tradition.

One powerful conversion story comes from the Unitarian Universalist minister Bill Breeden. As I remember, Bill started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require, or even value, clerical education and as a teenager he began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. At the same time, to make ends meet, he was working at a local grocery store as a stock boy.

It was there that Bill had his conversion experience. One of his duties was to dispose of unsalable or expired food. This was the 1960s and the food was destroyed in a burn pit behind the store. Once a day Bill would gather up the food, take it out back, douse it with gasoline and make a sort of bonfire. Often times the food that he destroyed was still perfectly edible.

One evening as he prepared to pour gasoline over the assembled pile and light it aflame he heard a voice. "Please, sir, could I have that cheese? I am hungry and I would like something to eat. I would like some food for my family." Bill turned and found himself facing a middle aged Black woman. He let her have the cheese and she went on her way.

Put before she did Bill saw Christ in her. Something about her, some manner in which he connected to her, caused him to see the world in an entirely different way. In that moment Christ was transformed from a blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned male to a poor Black woman standing in front of him. His universe, his understanding of the sacred was forever altered.

Over the next years Bill left his fundamentalist community and developed a theology of Universalist Christianity. He saw the divine in all people and upheld the human family as one. Eventually Bill found Unitarian Universalism.

I doubt most people have conversion stories that are quite as dramatic. Few Unitarian Universalists claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others would argue that the word Christ is a metaphor for the human potential and the possibility of perfection that lies within all of us. In this theological strain seeing Christ in someone else means sharing a moment of absolute connection and recognition; witnessing the impossible glorious mystery of the universe in the face of another. It is such a moment that Bill had when he encountered the woman behind the grocery store. In her he saw himself and all of the human family. He realized that the two them shared some sort of deep connection, some type of kinship, on an ineffable level.

Michael Brown would still be alive if Darren Wilson had seen the divine in him when he pointed his gun. Trayvon Martin would still be with us if George Zimmerman had seen him for a human brother rather than as a threat. Thousands of black men and women would never have been lynched if white supremacists understood that there is no difference between white skin and brown skin. Jim Crow would not have lessened the lives of millions if white moderates and liberals saw their own children in the eyes of black and brown boys and girls. The horror of slavery would have been avoided if slavers had heard their own cries in the voices of their victims.

The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing taught the kinship of the whole human race. He wrote, "I am a living member of the great Family of All Souls." He also said, "I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere." The knowledge that all humanity is, on some deep level, one family and that we are all connected means that the actions of an individual can and do effect the many.

Drop a pebble in water and it ripples outward. Act, speak or simply live your life and you cannot know ultimately what effect you will have. The choices that we make effect not only ourselves and our families but future generations.

The events in Ferguson are a sad reminder of this truth. The police have behaved in such an outrageous manner because of America’s long history of racism. Unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers for hundreds of years. The narrative is almost always the same, a white person with a gun felt threatened by a black person without a gun. A white person with power was scared by a black person without it. This century old story is the legacy of slavery. This century old story is rooted in the terror that many whites feel, at a subconscious level, that someday black and brown people will rise up and take back what is theirs. This country was partially built on the labor of African slaves. All of the lands that make up our nation were stolen from Native Americans.

We have the power to change the story. We have the power to undo racism and value the lives of every member of the human family. We can be part of building a new Civil Rights movement. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition urges us to do so. Channing taught one of the purposes of religion was to help people gain insight into their impact on and connection with others. Religion could nurture the conscience and help individuals tune themselves to the "Infinite God...around and within each." The more developed the conscience, the greater the understanding of how each and every action effects those around us. The truly wise, he wrote, "will become a universal blessing." They understand how "an individual cannot but spread good or evil indefinitely...and through succeeding generations." Understanding this they weigh their choices carefully.

Channing's theology caused him to affirm that humanity's spiritual nature included "the likeness of God." Within each person was "the image of God" and by the choices one made that image would either be "extended and brightened" or "seem to be wholly destroyed."

Casting Bill's experience into Channing's theology it would appear that at the moment of his encounter, Bill was made aware of the image of God within both himself and the woman. Their differences were blotted out. Bill realized that, in the language of Channing, they were both members of "the great Family of All Souls."

The images we have of God can obscure the divine from our view. Each image is, by necessity, only partial. Yet often people mistake them for the whole. Even the very word God is misleading. As Forrest Church writes, "God is not even God's name, but our name for that which is greater than all and present in each. God is a symbol expressive of ultimate mystery, meaning and power..." In trying to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe we naturally run across the limits of our human language and human imagination. God is a useful metaphor for those limits. Using the word allows a humanist like me ways to communicate with my friends who resonate with more traditional understandings of the divine. We are all trying to understand the same ultimate mystery, the unfathomable vastness and complicated beauty of universe, just as we are seeking to comprehend our part in that mystery.

Orthodox forms of Christianity try to make the mystery more fathomable by claiming that Jesus Christ was God. A human God is a God that we can relate to and, perhaps, understand.

But by making God human the orthodox imprison her within all of the various complexities of humanity. There is a paradox here. For if God is only fully present in one person then that one person somehow reflects what is of ultimate value differently than anyone else. Jesus is male so God must be male. God is male so males must have the highest worth. This theology of incarnation has led to a place where God is no longer ultimate and universal. Instead, God is partial and trapped in human images. God, the symbol, reinforces human hierarchies.

There are significant stakes in how the divine is portrayed. The image of Christ as White suggests that because God choose to be embodied in as a white person whites are somehow closer to God than others. For some a white Jesus is the foundation of that most pernicious form of partialism, white supremacy.

The Black Christ is presented by black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Albert Cleage and Kelly Brown Douglas as a counter to the White Christ. In various ways these theologians argue that if Christ must be a color that color must be black. As Brown Douglas points out, historically, "in the United States Blackness is synonymous with inferiority." By recasting Christ as Black the "bond between Blackness and inferiority" can be severed. This move, in her words, "fosters Black people's self-esteem by allowing them to worship a God in their own image, and by signifying that Blackness is nothing to be detested. On the contrary, it is a color and condition that even the divine takes on..."

For most of these black theologians the White Christ was a Christ of slaveholders. Brown Douglas identifies the Black and White Christs as having different theological significance.

"The White Christ," she writes, "is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ...because God made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity." Through this Christ Christians view themselves as saved from original sin because of something called atonement theology. This system argues that we humans were born wicked and sinful but God, in his infinite love, choose to accept Christ's sacrifice on the cross as a substitution for the punishment that all humanity deserved.

Brown Douglas argues that this system has at least two major problems. "First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation." One either accepts Christ as Lord and savior and is saved or one does not and is not. If one accepts Christ then no further action is required. There is no call to ethical living. Jesus's ministry to the poor and oppressed is of secondary importance. Right belief, and not right behavior, is the focus of the system.

This first observation leads Brown Douglas to a second: "in order for humans to benefit from God's saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter." Without that knowledge salvation was not possible.

The logic of this White Christ served as a justification for slavery. Enslaving Africans and introducing them to Christianity saved them from the eternal damnation they would have faced otherwise. As one pro-slavery advocate argued: "The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized."

In contrast, the Black Christ, in Brown Douglas's analysis, "empowered the Black slaves to fight for their emancipation from the chains of White slavery." The important feature of this Christ is that not he somehow saved humanity. It is "that Jesus helped the oppressed in his own time." Importantly, for many, "Jesus was a living a being with whom the slaves had an intimate relationship." That Jesus, because of his own suffering, could offer succor and understanding in times of crises.

Starting in the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts and Albert Cleage further developed articulations of the Black Christ. These theologians, each in their own way, recast the Black Christ in terms that some Unitarian Universalists might find familiar.

Cleage, a minister in Detroit, argued that the historical Jesus was a black man. Further, he suggested that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had not occurred. It was a lie perpetrated by those who used Christianity as a tool for subjugation. The good life was not to be had in heaven after death but here on Earth. The myth of heaven was something that was used to oppress people. Jesus's resurrection after his death came through the continuation of his ministry by his disciples. This ministry had freedom from oppression as its central goal.

Cone, the founder of the academic school of black liberation theology, understood the Black Christ to be an ontological symbol. Ontological symbols allow humans to communicate imperfect knowledge of the divine. They are important because they point beyond themselves and suggest some fundamental truth about reality. God, for Cone, stands on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, he argued, God must have a black aspect.

Roberts, a professor at Howard University, used the Black Christ as a symbol for what he thought of as "Christ's universality." For him there was not just a Black Christ but a Red Christ and a Yellow Christ. Christ could be seen in all the colors of humanity. Re-imagining Christ in this way allowed for Roberts to try to free, in his words, Jesus from "the cultural captivity of... Euro-Americans."

There is a significant overlap between these understanding of the Black Christ and much of Unitarian Universalist theology. Like Cleage traditional Unitarians affirm a human Jesus and emphasize his ethical teachings. Like Cone most Unitarian Universalists understand Christ as a symbol--one of many in the world--that offers to teach us something about the mystery of life. With Roberts, Unitarian Universalists affirm that God, or the divine, is present in all of the human races.

Unitarian Universalists might also agree with a criticism that later generations of black theologians have of their predecessors. For black women theologians such as Brown Douglas it is not enough to make Christ Black. Christ also has to become a woman so that the full spectrum of humanity can be represented in the divine.

These understandings of the Black Christ remind me of Channing's dictum that we are members "of the great Family of All Souls." While Unitarian Universalists hold to this ideal we often fail to make it a reality. Our congregations are largely white and our message reaches but a portion of the human family. For us, Sunday morning often remains the most segregated time of the week.

I suspect that the image of the Black Christ has something to teach us, regardless of the hue of our skin. This symbol is a reminder that the divine can be found in all. If we, like Bill Breeden, can learn to recognize that divine spark in others no matter how unlike we can take a step towards truly building a community that embodies "the great Family of All Souls." We do not know where such steps might lead us or how such recognitions might change us.

Alice Walker, in her novel, the Color Purple wrote: "Here's the thing...the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else." With this in mind, in the coming weeks try the following spiritual exercise. Take five minutes each day as you walk down the street or drive in your car and try to see God in the people around you. Acknowledge that God, the metaphor for the mystery of creation and destruction, death and birth, that binds us together, is part of and beyond us, can be seen in each and every person that surrounds us. Apply this practice to those least like you and see if you notice a change or a transformation. Perhaps you will.

We can end the violence that people of color experience at the hands of whites. But we can only do so if we can begin to see each other as members of the same human family and see the divine that resides in each of us.

That it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Ferguson Race Liberation Theology

Aug 17, 2014

Through Eyes that Have Cried

preached at the First Parish in Lexington, August 17, 2014

It was the martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero who said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Unitarian Universalist theologians Forrest Church and Rebecca Parker offer us similar advice. Church claimed that the core of our universalist theology was “to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate... it.” Parker, meanwhile, writes, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.”

As many of you know, last month I spent a week in El Salvador as part of a delegation organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, also called NDLON. Our goals were to better understand the reality of migration from Central America to the United States; the reasons for migration; and the experiences of deportees. During our week in El Salvador we met with academics, representatives of the Salvadoran government, and a popular education organization. The most visceral parts of the trip were our conversations and interviews with deportees and the stories we heard about migrants.

I invite you to see through their eyes. I have already shared with you two stories that we gathered while in El Salvador. Let me share with you two more, one from a deportee and one from a migrant.

Imagine you are a nineteen-year-old Salvadoran woman. Your parents are dead. Your grandparents raised you in dire poverty. The home your family shares is on the outskirts of San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city. The floor was dirt. There is no running water. Often, there was not enough food to eat. You rarely had your own bed. As you grew older you wanted to find a job to support your grandparents. They were getting old. Your grandfather had heart trouble. You searched for months. You found nothing. Finally, you decided to set out for the United States. You have a cousin who lives there. He sends your aunt and uncle money each month, more than enough for them to live on. You want to provide the same kind of support for your grandparents. Your grandmother has arthritis. It is difficult for her to move.

Your grandparents and your other relatives raised money to help you on your journey to the United States. They came up with $2,000. It was not enough to hire a coyote to guide you across the border. But it did help.

You set out. The journey took five weeks. Part of the time you walked. Part of the time you rode “El Tren de la Muerte,” the death train. It is a network of freight trains that stretch from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, to the US-Mexico Border. When you rode it you saw someone slip between freight cars and have their legs severed. You can still hear the screaming. You and several of your fellow migrants tried to ford a flooding river. You saw two young men die, drowning when the rising water swept them away. You barely made it across ahead of them.

You made it to Los Angeles. You found work, illegally, in a laundry. Your wages were enough that you could send back a couple of hundred dollars a month, provided you lived in a cramped apartment with several other migrants. You did not mind. The money was a small fortune for your grandparents. After five months there was an immigration raid on your workplace. You were caught and carted off to a detention center. You were told that if you agreed to be deported voluntarily you could return to El Salvador immediately. You refused and tried to fight deportation. So, you spent five months in a privately run deportation center in Texas before you lost your case. Every morning you woke up early to work in the facility’s laundry. You made a dollar day. The corporation who ran the center charged you that much to make a local phone call. If you wanted to buy a bag of chips from the canteen it was $2.50. After you lost your case you were manacled, chains were put around your ankles, wrists and waist, and put on a plane back to El Salvador.

You arrived at the repatriation center outside the El Salvador International Airport after spending twelve hours on an airplane in chains. Everything you have with you fits into a standard issue red mesh bag: a couple of pieces of mail, your shoelaces, and a wallet. It is all you bring back with you after ten months in the United States. After you are processed by immigration officials, fingerprinted, and told that there are no criminal charges pending against you locally, the woman who runs the repatriation center directs you to the phone. She tells you to call someone to pick you up. You call your grandparents. Your grandmother tells you that your grandfather died while you were in detention. He was a victim of his bad heart. No one can meet you at the airport. It will take you at least a day to get to your grandparents' house. And then what?

You are a fourteen-year-old boy. You left El Salvador after the local gang started threatening kids on your soccer team. They tried to extort money from the players’ parents. To make sure everyone knew that they were serious, the gang members killed one of your teammates. They shot him in the middle of the street, after school. That was when your parents sent you to the United States. They gave a coyote $6,000, almost everything they had, and prayed the coyote could get you across the border. The journey was terrifying. You were afraid that the coyote was going to abandon you in the desert. You were afraid that he was going to kidnap you and demand that your parents pay him ransom. You made it to Los Angeles. By the time you received asylum and were safely reunited with family members, your aunt and uncle, the gang had killed six more of your teammates. Each of them was murdered in public.

When we look through eyes that have cried what do we see? If I was placed in the same kind of situations that many migrants find themselves in I would make the same choices that they have made. I would stuff a backpack, raise money and depart for the unknown land of opportunity and safety. What would you do? Didn’t many of our parents and grandparents do the same thing?

There are stories about migration in my family. My grandfather Morrie and great aunt Claire fled the Ukraine with their parents in the early 1920s. It was after the Russian Revolution. They were Jewish. Things for Jews in the Soviet Union seemed to be getting worse, not better. Violence was on the rise and religious persecution was increasing. My grandfather, great aunt, and my great grandparents left their home in Odessa with the clothes on their backs and whatever they could put in a small handcart. My grandfather was two or three years old. My great aunt pushed him in the handcart most of the way across Europe until they reached a port where they could sail to the United States. Their story and the stories of migrants from El Salvador vary only in the details.

It should not be hard to see through eyes that have cried. Who has not cried? And yet faced with the pain of others we humans often react fearfully rather than lovingly. We turn away. We try to push people away. Jesus offers us a story in the Christian New Testament that challenges us to greet the tears of others with love rather than with fear. You might remember it, it is usually called the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

In the Gospel of Luke it reads: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The Gospel reports that after telling this story, Jesus asked his listeners, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“The one who had mercy on him,” someone replied. To which Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

There are many interpretations of this parable. One I particularly like comes from the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. He observes that the Samaritan in the story crossed the road to help the man in the ditch. The wounded victim of the robbery was not initially in the Samaritan's path. The Samaritan made a conscious choice to aid him. Reflecting on this, Gutiérrez writes, “The neighbor... is not the one whom I find in my path, but rather the one in whose path I place myself, the one whom I approach and actively seek.”

This is an important lesson for Unitarian Universalists, especially Unitarian Universalists in overwhelming white and affluent congregations like this one. Many of us have the privilege to close our eyes to others. We can choose to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. We can choose to be ignorant of the violence that exists in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The majority of child refugees who have fled to the United States this summer have come from these three countries. They have some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all ranked amongst the planet’s five most violent countries. Since 1995 El Salvador has topped the list at least five times and Honduras has topped the list at least four times.

I did not understand how violent El Salvador was until I went there. In a good year the whole country has a murder rate equivalent to that of Detroit or New Orleans. In a bad year, the murder rate can be two or three times that found in the most violent cities in this country. The communities that migrants are fleeing have murder rates significantly higher than their country’s average. If I lived in such an unstable society I would leave it too.

Do we close our eyes? Or do we open them? Can we see through the eyes of others? It is imperative that we do. Closing our eyes is an act of fear. Opening them is an act of love. Which do you want as the motive force in your life? Fear or love?

Choosing neighbors who might make us uncomfortable is an act of love. Choosing to live with neighbors who only look, act, and think like us is an act of fear. Which shall we choose? The influx of refugee children forces us to make such choices. Shall we welcome those who are fleeing violence? They are children. They have suffered far too much already. Shall we increase their suffering and fear the changes they bring to this country? They do bring changes. They will make this nation a little browner and a little more fluent in Spanish. They also bring us the chance to see through their eyes. We need to.

The truth, and it is a truth which for many of us does not sit easy, is that this country has significant responsibility for the crisis of violence in Central America. It is a legacy of the region’s civil wars. Those wars began in the 1960s and ended in the early 1990s. The United States government fueled them, sending arms to prop-up right wing regimes against left wing popular insurgencies. The United States military trained the death squads that massacred tens of thousands. In 1980, Oscar Romero challenged President Carter’s support of El Salvador’s right wing thusly, “instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution… [sharpens] the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people...”

The cycle of deportation continues to sharpen injustice in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Over the past few decades the United States has deported millions of people, a small minority of whom have been gang members. When these gang members find themselves back in their country of origin they organize gangs. By deporting gang members, the United States government has exported American gang culture. The governments of Central America lack the resources to control gangs and they have spread throughout the region, bringing violence and instability with them. Immigration will not be stopped by deportation. Deportation will only further destabilize the countries that people are leaving. Deportation is an act of fear. Immigrants need to be met with love. The only way for people in the United States to stem the tide of migrants is to help stabilize the societies that they come from. In the short run, that will be far more difficult than deporting people. In the long run, it is the only solution.

Before I close, let me offer a brief coda. This week the murder of Michael Brown and the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have made the human cost of living in a white supremacist society clear. This morning liberal and conscientious ministers across the country are focusing their sermons on our society’s desperate need to address its ongoing racism. They are expressing righteous rage that unarmed African Americans continue to be gunned down by the police. They are expressing indignation that police departments throughout the United States have been militarized. Many are invoking what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow, the partially privatized prison system that continues to target, stigmatize, and marginalize people of color. Many are calling for a rejuvenated civil rights movement. A few are going so far as to echo Martin King, who said, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice;” and “The judgment of God is upon America now;” and “America too is going to Hell... If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty... she too will go to Hell.” King, remember, saw racism, poverty, and militarism as interlinked. He called them the giant triplets. The triplets are born together. We will only be rid of one of them if are rid of all of them.

The only way we will rid ourselves of the giant triplets is if we learn to see through the eyes of others. Imagine yourself in Michael Brown’s situation. Imagine yourself killed by a police officer in broad daylight, unarmed, hands raised. Imagine yourself as Trayvon Martin, gunned down while walking home from a convenience store. Imagine yourself as any other of the millions of black men and women who have been victims of racial violence. Try to see the world through their eyes. You will find your own tears there, whatever the color of your skin.

This is the task of our religious community. If we are, in the words of Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” then we must learn to see with the eyes of others. We must remember, as Rebecca Parker charges us, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.” It is only by seeing holiness in one another’s eyes that we can begin to turn from fear to love. It is only by recognizing someone else’s tears as our own that we can overcome racism. It is only by seeing through eyes that have cried that we can learn to welcome, and not to fear, the migrants who have come to our borders.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags El Salvador Immigration

Testimonies from "Through Eyes that Have Cried"

Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero

My name is Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. Before I was deported, I worked with the Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). My husband and son still live in Los Angeles. My son is five. We named Barack, I would love to show you his picture. He is such a beautiful boy.

His name is ironic. Like many people I though the election of the first black President would bring a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead President Obama has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him. He has deported more than two million people.

I just want to be with him son. His name, Barack, it is ironic.

The Bus Driver

I am a victim of gang violence. I used to operate a bus with two of my friends. I was the driver. My friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. I was allowed to live. They let my other friend live as well. Soon the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill us, they did not want any witnesses to the murder. The gang murdered my friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That’s when I decided to leave the country. I just called my mother to let her know that I am back. She told me it was not safe to come home. I have no idea what I am going to do next.

CommentsCategories Ministry Poetry and Creative Writing Sermon

Jul 20, 2014

Two Bodies, One Heart

preached at First Parish in Lexington, July 20, 2014

The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.

Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”

Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.

Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.

The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”

Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through the mazing Portland streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.

Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.

Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.

When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were almost always similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”

“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”

Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. Just a few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.

Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making is a pretty powerful common center.

Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.

It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.

Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.

The virtues might be understood as those qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them.

Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.

Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.

But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.

Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”

We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. Just the other day, a friend visited from Cleveland. I took the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. Just the other day, a friend called me and reminded I should try to make the world a better place. Next week I am going to El Salvador to gather testimony from undocumented immigrants who have been deported back there.

How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.

I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.

Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights.

Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Friendship Emerson Thoreau

Jul 6, 2014

The River May Not Be Turned Aside

preached at the First Parish in Lexington, July 6, 2014

Have you ever played the “Race Game?” Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only 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 tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate young white man. He brought with him his seven-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”

I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever 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.”

Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is taught to children.

Thandeka recounts the stories of how many white people learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:

See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see

We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee

She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin

Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say

Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...

It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.

I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.

I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.

This morning I do not wish to only stir up whatever feelings of shame, anger, and fear come up when we talk about race. I want to give you a note of hope. I want to talk about reparations for slavery, for Jim Crow, and for the continuing racial injustice in our society. Racism has been called America’s original sin. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I do not believe in original sin. I do not believe that we born racists or racialized. I believe racism and racialization is learned behavior. And just as the behavior has been learned, it can be unlearned. Those of us who are white can teach our white children differently than we have been taught. We can work to make things right.

I took Frederick Douglass’s “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?” as my text this morning because I knew that on this Sunday after July fourth I was occupy one of the great pulpits of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was read here, as it is every year, on Friday. Let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed from thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for some, mostly white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.

Do not let fact that the President of this country is black fool you; we continue to live in a society designed to benefit whites over others. Freedom and oppression continue to be conjoined. If you doubt this consider that the average wealth of a white family in this country is twenty times that of an African American family; consider that the unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites; consider that African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites; consider that African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites; consider how hard it is to play Thandeka’s “Race Game.” The statistics for Native Americans are similarly depressing. The conclusion is inevitable: our society is structured to benefit white people at the expense of African Americans and most other people of color.

On this Sunday after July fourth it is appropriate to ask not “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?”--for legalized slavery has been largely ended--but: “What to anyone who cares about racial justice is the Fourth of July?”

Now, I suspect that at this point some of you are beginning to wonder what you have gotten yourself into. Peter has gone away for the summer and left your storied pulpit in hands of a lunatic radical. You might be thinking: we are ten minutes into the sermon and all we have from this maladjusted savant is a cringe worthy political oration. I might reply, in the words of Martin King, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” We ought to be maladjusted to white supremacy. It is a grave threat, perhaps the gravest, to our souls.

By soul I mean, our essential essence, the core of our personality, that part of each us that animates us and makes us uniquely who we are. Our souls are social products. They are born from our interactions with ours. White supremacy lessens our souls. White, black, brown, white supremacy spreads the lie that some of us are more innately gifted, better than, others. For many European Americans, it creates illusion that we have earned what have not. For many people of color, it suggests that undeserved suffering is somehow a predestined punishment. It circumscribes the circles that we interact with, separates people and communities.

For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”

The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you are white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.

Race is a social construct, a collective sin. It requires institutions to maintain. Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” If we are to overcome the sin of separation and save our souls then we must speak out. We must admit that our own Unitarian Universalist Association tends to continue to do social justice and theological work from primarily the perspective of the white middle class. We must call for, work towards, reparations.

You might know that this year at General Assembly we adopted a study action issue focusing on “Escalating Inequality.” It is a telling, and well intentioned, document. It document acknowledges the increasing inequality in our society but it makes no mention of race or racism. It makes no reference to the gross disparities in wealth between most people of color and most whites.

Racism and economic inequality are hopelessly intertwined. One is almost certainly the product of the other. The skin caste system in this country dates from the colonial period when it was intentional constructed to turn the African and European servants of the great plantation owners against each other. Whites were promised a modicum of privilege if they sided with the great landowners against African slaves. Poor whites gained a measure of freedom in exchange for enforcing the slavery of blacks. Whites who strayed, who sided with the African slaves, were ostracized, or worse.

If we are going to address inequality then we must seek reparations. And here’s where the hope comes in. Reparations may seem like an impossibility but they are a real possibility. There is a precedent. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forcibly relocated to internment camps. In 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps redress. On the international level, Germany and German firms have paid various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.

I do not know what form reparations will take but there are four concrete things that can be to move us towards them. First, those of us who are white can examine what it feels like to be white. We can play the “Race Game.” We can examine the ways in which we have learned to be white, and how we have benefited from and suffered under the racial caste system. We can end the denial that we live in a white supremacist society. Second, your congregation can pass a resolution making a public statement in favor of reparations. You celebrate your connection to the great abolitionist Theodore Parker. Honor his legacy. My home congregation, First Parish in Cambridge, has a banner on the front proclaiming its divestment from fossil fuels and challenging Harvard to do the same. How powerful would it be for the church on Lexington Common to hoist a banner each July fourth calling for reparations? Third, you can write the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association and challenge them to include language about reparations in the final version of the study action issue on inequality. Finally, call your white Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, and ask her to support Congressman John Conyers’s bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. He has introduced it repeatedly. It does not commit the government to do anything beyond creating a commission to study reparations. That would be a first, necessary, step.

In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass compares the country to a river. I find his description hopeful. Let me leave you with his words. “Great streams are not easily turned from channels... They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel... But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch...” Which is the river’s true channel? The legacy of liberty or slavery? Will your soul, or mine, be a withered branch or will it rise in stately majesty?

Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags reparations

Jul 4, 2014

The Case for Reparations

This coming Sunday I am preaching at the First Parish in Lexington. The fact that I am preaching in that particular historic pulpit has prompted me to reflect on Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" My sermon, "The River May Not Be Turned Aside," responds to Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly calling for reparations. In doing so, I take up the call for reparations and challenge Unitarian Universalists, and European Americans, to commit to them. In preparing for preaching I dug up a sermon I preached in 2006 "The Case for Reparations." Reading, I can really see how far I have come as preacher. My sermon on Sunday will have quite a different structure and sensibility. The message, however, will be more-or-less the same.

The Case for Reparations
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long, January 15, 2006

I was born eight years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Despite this he has been a powerful presence in my life. My parents are both veterans of the sixties civil rights movement and I grew up hearing stories about King, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and numerous others. Dr. King and his philosophy of non-violence were held as an example of the best that the human race could achieve by not only my mother and father but by my schoolteachers and church community.

I have an early memory of hearing Rosa Parks speak at my church. I was probably about ten or twelve and the details are a bit fuzzy. What I remember of her speech is this: She was very small. She emphasized her ordinariness. And everyone in the church thought she was very important.

Rosa Parks died last year. Her passing received the sort of national attention normally reserved for presidents. Her casket was placed in the capital rotunda, a first for a woman, and the nation's flags were ordered at half-mast. Her death was an opportunity for many, especially those in the establishment, to celebrate how far the country has come since the days when Parks and King fought Jim Crow and led the Montgomery bus boycott.

Today is King's birthday and tomorrow people will celebrate a federal holiday in his honor. Right now churches around the country are remembering King and Parks. In the twenty years since King's birthday became an official holiday I have been to many services that have lionized him. Most of these have focused on his non-violent philosophy and position as the leader of the civil rights movement. In much of popular culture he has become such a symbol of the civil rights movement that he has acquired an almost god-like status. As a result the broader civil rights movement and the work of many of his predecessors and contemporaries has been obscured.

King's birthday is one of the few times of the year that people in America are willing to talk openly about racism as a problem. Usually, though not always, racism is described in the past tense and King's work is presented as either mostly done or complete. I am afraid that many people have replaced celebrating King with his continuing his work. In fact for some, the fact that King can be the subject of a national holiday is in of itself enough to demonstrate that racism no longer exists. In this way the celebration of King's birthday risks becoming a type of tokenism.

There's a cartoon from an eighties labor journal that captures this problem. In the first panel two people ask President Ronald Reagan: "What do you say to charges that your policies encourage racism?" He replies in the next two panels: "Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday Dear Martin! Happy Birthday to You!" The final panel has Reagan scratching his head and thinking to himself: "How could I ever have opposed this holiday?"

King’s birthday has become both an opportunity to celebrate the heroes and veterans of the Civil Rights movement and, for some, a chance to pretend the oppressive systems that Dr. King fought to change no longer exist. After all today both the Republican and Democratic parties have prominent members who are African American. Condoleeza Rice claims that if was not for Rosa Parks she never would have been able to become Secretary of State. The implication is that the appointment of an extreme right-wing African American woman to the third highest position in the executive branch is the culmination of the civil rights movement. The accomplishments of a few African Americans like Rice leads to the claim that racism is largely defeated and obscures the continual oppression of the majority.

As the recent events in New Orleans demonstrate racism is alive and well. The fact that a majority of those left behind in Katrina's path were African Americans was no accident. Forty years after the high water mark of the civil rights movement—the passage of the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights acts—the majority of African Americans still live in poverty. During Katrina they were primarily the ones who lacked the resources to flee the hurricane. The federal, state and city governments did little to compensate for this and offer them help. Neither adequate shelter from the storm nor buses to leave the city were provided.

The majority of European Americans have chosen to ignore or forgotten the conditions that many African American poor live. Katrina uncovered the desperate multigenerational poverty that many African Americans continue to live in and forced them into the public eye again. This type of poverty is not limited to New Orleans and can be seen many places if one chooses to look for it. A trip to parts of Long Beach or nearby South Central Los Angles will reveal the poverty that is an ever-present reality for many African Americans.

This poverty is often the result of the structural changes in the economy that have made high paying blue-collar jobs harder and harder to find. The nation’s inner cities have been intentionally starved of the material resources necessary to provide good education and opportunities for economic development. It is not a coincidence that the most resource starved urban areas are populated largely by people of color. Without access to higher education many African Americans are unable to obtain more than low-wage jobs in the service sector and provide adequate resources for their children to escape the cycle of poverty.

African Americans continue to suffer from structural racism in other ways. They make up a disproportionate number of the prison population and are often targeted by police for crimes they did not commit. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that African Americans are more likely to receive harsher sentences than European Americans who commit similar crimes. The phrase driving while black is not just a colloquialism. It is an adequate description of the racial profiling and discrimination that many African Americans face from police.

The civil rights era won an end to the legal discrimination of individuals based on the color of their skin. It is now illegal to refuse to hire someone or admit them to a university because they are African American. What the civil rights movement did not eliminate was the structural, economic and civic, forms of oppression that are directed at whole populations but that individuals can escape. It is still legal to discriminate against whole populations by not providing adequate resources for education, housing and economic development. A comparison of the conditions many of the nation’s inner cities and suburbs demonstrates this. And, as the 2000 election in Florida and the 2004 election in Ohio prove, legal or not it is still acceptable to create obstacles for large groups of African Americans to vote. Today the forces of racism are subtler than those King and Parks fought but they are just as damaging and pervasive.

It is my contention that the best way to erase this structural racism is through a re-configuration of society's institutions. The United States was founded by slaveholders and much of its economic wealth was generated by enslaved Africans. While the institution of slavery was abolished in 1865 much of the country’s economic and social structure continues to reflect its legacy. Today the majority of African Americans live at or near the poverty level and continue to work undesirable and low-paying jobs. Working people without unions, whether African, European or Mexican American, are paid subsistence wages while an extremely small number of people control the majority of the country’s resources. The vast majority of those who are lucky enough to find themselves in the 1% of the populace that control 90% of the nation’s resources are European Americans.

Reparations for slavery are a necessary step to transform this system. After the Civil War few, if any, freedmen and freedwomen received redress for their enslavement. While there was talk of giving every liberated man forty acres and a mule little redistribution of wealth actually occurred. The European Americans who built their fortunes exploiting others were able to keep them and many African Americans, lacking material resources, were forced to go back and work for their former masters as sharecroppers. This system remained in place until the 1960s. Until that time many African American families were unable to accumulate the material resources necessary to escape the cycle of poverty.

Congressman John Conyers has repeatedly introduced a bill into the House of Representatives calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. The passage of his bill would do four things:

1. It would acknowledge the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery,
2. It would establish a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
3. It would study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and
4. The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies for the study of issue of reparations. We might all engage in a similar study.

We should encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association, our churches and elected officials to engage in a similar course of study. The city councils of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta have passed resolutions calling for the study of reparations. I believe the city of Long Beach and the state of California should take a similar course.

My call for reparations may sound radical but a precedent for them already exists. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forced to relocate to internment camps. Many suffered and lost their property as a result. After the war there were a series of bills passed to compensate former detainees and in 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps $20,000 in redress. In addition Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush senior have all issued formal government apologies for the camps.

There is also a precedent on the international level. In the last few decades Germany and German firms has had to pay various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.

The movement for reparations is international in scope. Slavery was part of a larger pattern of colonialism that has created the world we live in today. The sad state of countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in the world is a direct result the colonial period. As the anti-colonialist and psychotherapist Frantz Fanon wrote in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth:

“Europe is literarily the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the under-developed peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave-trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves.”

Today many of these countries are demanding some form of reparations from their former colonial masters.

It is wrong to think colonialism is entirely in the past. Colonialism is essentially the transfer of wealth from the colonial country to the colonizers country. Today many former colonies are saddled with huge debts to the developed world that they must pay before they provide services for their own people. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs from communities in the developed world with strong unions to countries in the developing world where unions are illegal or impossible to form is another example of how colonialism continues. The conditions under which people have to work coupled with the few economic and political freedoms they enjoy is a continuation of the pattern exploitation of the local populace by the colonists. The people who make many of the goods we enjoy lack the resources to use them themselves. They spend their energies creating goods for the developed world to consume. Instead they would be better off manufacturing goods that would better their countries. And so the overall pattern of the transfer of resources from the developing world to the developed one continues unabated.

Colonialism continues in another, more violent, form as well. During the Cold War former colonies served as places where the proxy wars of the two superpowers were fought out. The countries where these proxy wars have taken place have been devastated and left politically and socially unstable.

One example of a country where a proxy war was fought is Afghanistan. In this country the United States helped organize an insurgency, primarily composed of Islamic fundamentalists, against a secular Soviet backed state. Our government gave these insurgents military training and resources. In exchange the insurgents fought what was purported to be a common enemy, a communist government. After of the Soviet backed government was toppled the United States abandoned Afghanistan to feuding warlords. Eventually the Taliban took power and began to support a movement against what its members viewed as imperialism. The name of this movement was, of course, al-Qaida and many of its members, including its infamous leader Osama bin Laden, received training from the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. governmental agencies.

In 2001, days before September 11th, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. As the name suggests the focus of this conference was how to end the global and local systems of oppression and racism that continue to ruin the lives of some many people across the planet. At this conference almost all of those present, including many European countries, agreed that the developed world owed the former colonies reparations. The delegation from the United States walked out in response.

While I believe that reparations are necessary to correct past wrongs I also believe that they will, indirectly, benefit those who gain from structural racism. In order for colonialism and racism to continue those of us who benefit from them must dehumanize the people that we exploit. By treating other human beings as less than human we too fall short of realizing our own full human potential. A part of ourselves becomes numb and dies by ignoring the suffering that we have caused. Enacting reparations will allow us remove the emotional blinders that we wear to ignore the suffering around us and the suffering that we cause.

Parks, King and the civil rights movement managed to end legal discrimination and segregation. It is now time for us to continue their work and struggle to end structural racism by demanding reparations for African Americans. In doing so we will be building the sort of world that they dreamed of. One in which all women and men can meet together as sisters and brothers.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags reparations

Feb 17, 2014

Over My Head (Carlisle)

as preached at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, February 16, 2014

This is my last Sunday with you. It has been a pleasure serving as your sabbatical minister for the last two months. Asa and I have enjoyed getting to know you. I have found my time with you to be something of a grounding break from graduate school. It is easy as an academic to get completely absorbed in the scholarly life. My time with you has provided me something of a ballast while I have been studying for my general exams. You have helped me to keep things in perspective and remember that there is a life beyond graduate school. I hope that you have found service as sabbatical minister to be useful.

The sermon I offer you this morning is a mediation on the question: What does it mean to be present to the holy? This question could be recast: where do we find God? God is, of course, one of the most difficult words to define. I was reminded of this difficultly while talking with friends a few months ago. They have a four year old who is just at the point of asking big questions. Recently, she was asking about God. My friends do not believe in a God that sits outside of the universe and human history judging us. They believe in what a theologian might call an immanent God, a God who is part of, who makes up, the universe itself. So when their daughter asked about God they told her that God lived inside of her. A horrified look came over her face. “No,” she replied. “There’s nothing inside of me. It’s just me.”

This story suggests the challenge we face when communicating about the holy. Language frequently fails us. It is difficult to talk about the holy because often people cannot even agree on what they are talking about. Words are gestures towards a larger reality. They frame how we understand the world but they are not the world.

A few years ago the physicist Stephen Hawking generated significant interest by claiming that the findings of modern science demonstrated that God was no longer necessary. Since we now have a fairly complete picture of how the universe came into being, how life evolves and how the physical laws of nature work, he reasoned there is no longer room for God in the rational mind.

Liberal theologians have long argued the opposite. God, they claim, is not a rational construct. God is a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher, described as the father of liberal theology, believed that “the feeling of absolute dependence” is the experience of “consciousness of God.” It is the moments that I am most aware of my dependence that I feel the presence of the holy.

I close my eyes and it fills my senses. The room dark, pitch even, illuminated only by the haze of medical machines and a blue string of Christmas lights. Hysteria, desperation, the sounds of panic and despair contrast the dimness of the room. On the bed, the thin, wan, retreating figure of a sixteen year old girl. Her Haitian mother wails, alternating between Creole and accented English, over her fading body. The words come back, a terrible litany of loss, “There will be no graduation for you. There will be no wedding for you. There will be no babies for you. There will be nothing for you, nothing.”

For the last five months the daughter has struggled with cancer. Tonight she has lost that struggle. The doctors and the nurses have told her parents it is over. Everything but the morphine drip and the monitors have been disconnected. This is it. The daughter is about to die, is dying, is dead.

Over the decade I have spent as a member of the clergy, I have witnessed many deaths and conducted many funerals. This one, the death of a young immigrant to cancer, remains one of the most memorable. Perhaps, because the mother’s wails echoed the famous line from the 22nd Psalm, words repeated by Jesus as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Or maybe it because at that moment I felt an intense connection to life itself. The waning breaths of the young woman, the mother’s love, the prayers we said together combined and I knew that I was in the presence of something greater than myself. To be witness to death is to be witness to our absolute dependence.

Despite this it is at death, and in moments of pain, that the absence of the holy can be felt most profoundly. William Schulz, past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and former Executive Director of Amnesty International, once gave a lecture entitled “What Torture Has Taught Me.” In it he challenged the concept of an immanent God, a God that is present in all things, by claiming “that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a counter perspective when trying to make theological sense of the Holocaust: “To the question, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ the answer is: God was there — starving, broken, humiliated, gassed and burned alive, sharing the infinite pain as only an infinite capacity for pain can share it.”

African American liberation theologians like Kelly Brown Douglas make a similar point when they argue for the necessity of a Black Christ. In this view, Christ needs to be black so that he can accompany, in Brown’s words, “the Black struggle to ‘make do and do better’ in face of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist oppression.” As Brown puts it, “Christ is inside of my grandmother and other Black women and men as they fight for life and wholeness.”

I do not pretend to know whether Schulz or Greenberg and Douglas is right. What I do know is that one of the most political decisions that each of us makes, that each culture makes, is in how we define the holy. Rebecca Parker makes precisely this point when talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. She writes, “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.” To choose between locating the holy in Jesus’ life or in his death is to choose between two radically different theologies. The option of finding it in both, or in all things, is yet another.

When we start to think about the holy we are confronted with questions beyond just the choice to find it in life or death. We also must ask: Does the holy only belong to some people? Is it only found in some places? Is it everywhere and everything? Is it a metaphor? Is it separate from the visible world? Does it act upon us? Do we act upon it? How do we know when we experience its presence?

These are not questions with rational answers. They are tied to feelings. I do not know how I know. I only know when I feel. I was fourteen. It was my first time away from my parents for an extended period. I was at a week long Unitarian Universalist youth camp in the Pacific Northwest. The grounds, abutting the ocean, were rich with immense trees. The camp was isolated and powered by its own generators. Each night after dinner and evening worship there was a hymn sing around a camp fire.

The last night of the camp we had a dance. It was a wonderfully goofy affair. People dressed in ridiculous costumes, painted their faces and flailed around to punk rock anthems by the Clash and disco jams like the Village People’s “YMCA.” After an hour, maybe two, the power suddenly went out.

The dance’s abrupt end found a number of us back at the fire pit, singing. It was the only place on the campground with any light and, besides, we enjoyed making music together. I don’t know how long we sang, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour... It was a consuming experience. Eventually we reached the hymn, “Over My Head.” You might know it, “Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / There must be a God somewhere.” We sang that song for awhile, substituting new phrases for what was over our heads as we went. Laughter, joy, singing... Someone, a little snidely, finally suggested light. And when we reached the end of the, “There must be a God somewhere,” the power at the camp went back on.

It seemed like a minor miracle. It might have been someone from the camp’s idea of a prank. Whatever the explanation, the experience left an impression. Up until that moment I described myself as an atheist. Now I am not so sure. I am more open to the mystery of our lives and cognizant of the limitations of language. I understand that words like holy, divine and God are metaphors for the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The human mind, marvelous as it is, is quite small and in the end each of us can grasp but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe’s complexity. To speak of the holy is, I believe, to acknowledge this.

There is a certain timelessness to my memories of the holy. They fade far less than others. They come forward in vivid color rather than tattered grey, occasionally so strong that they blot out the present. There is a difference between ordinary time and holy time. The experience of the holy is more defined, placed in sharper relief. It marks me, changes me, even if the change is ever so slight.

James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” speaks to this. In his poem, Wright finds himself in a perfectly ordinary place “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota” observing the ordinary. For what is more ordinary in rural Minnesota than two ponies “munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness”? And yet, it is here that Wright finds a blessing. Simply observing these ordinary ponies, the affection they have for each other and the peace they seem to feel while grazing alone, together, makes him realize that “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

Wright’s poem suggests that the transformative experience, being in the presence of the holy, can be found in even the most unremarkable of activities. It is not what surrounds us that matters. We do not need to seek out the extraordinary to find the holy.

The poem is instructive on several levels. It reminds us that the holy can be found everywhere. James Wright discovered it in two ponies. Kelly Brown Douglas sees it inside her grandmother. I have felt its presence in the room of a dying child and at a youth camp. When we find the holy we must somehow engage it. It must be wrestled with. Wright did not look away from the ponies. Rabbi Irving Greenberg and William Schulz struggled to make sense of a world filled with pain, torture and the Holocaust. To be in the presence of the holy is to be open to change. Wright wanted to burst from his body. The music at youth camp shifted my atheism. This change can come at a cost--pain, the presence of death--but it does not have to. One suspects that the only thing Wright’s experience of the ponies like “wet swans” cost him was reflection.

The feeling of being present to the holy is helpful on another level, a moral level. It reminds us that the experience of the holy frequently requires an other. Each of the experiences that I have described is an experience of connection, not the experience of an autonomous and isolated individual. We each construct our theologies out of our personal experiences. Since each of our experiences are different our theologies are different as well. This might lead to moral relativism but it does not have to. If being present to the holy means being present to our feelings of dependence and connection then we know we have strayed when we disavow those feelings.

Moral clarity comes from understanding our dependence on the universe not on claiming a sense of independence from it. For me there is only one heresy worth interrogating, the myth of the autonomous individual. None of the experiences of the holy that I have described have taken placed in a vacuum. All of them are interactions between people or between people and the larger world. We need each other, or at least an other, to experience the holy.

It is like the hymn we sang that night at youth camp, “Over my head there is singing in the air.” Over our heads there is something in the air. It is through that something, because of that something, with that something that we know that we are present to the holy.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Feb 10, 2014

Basho's Road

as preached at the First Religious Society Carlisle, February 9, 2014

Haiku was the first form of poetry I learned. I encountered it in elementary school. I think I was in fourth grade. One of my teachers taught us to write the simple form. It was an exercise to help us learn about syllables. Three lines: first line five syllables; second line seven syllables; third line five syllables. No rhyming necessary. 

I have no memory of my first haiku. I doubt it was sophisticated. Most likely it was a concrete pile of images, sparked by something simple I observed on my daily walk to and from school. 

Blue jays fly over
my head. Green tree leaves are
everywhere I go.

It was not until college that I realized that haiku was a serious literary form. I engaged with it through the Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. A lot of their haikus were not proper haikus. They captured the essence of the form, instead of following it precisely. What I noticed reading them is that haiku could be more than just a series of images. Instead, they could contain a compressed narrative like this selection from Gary Snyder's "Hitch Haiku:" 

They didn't hire him
so he ate his lunch alone:
the noon whistle. 

There is more packed into that little poem than there is in a lot of sermons. It offers many questions and few answers: Why didn't they hire him? Who was he? Where did he eat his lunch? Reading the poem I picture a grizzled itinerant worker, in dungarees, sitting on a flat large stone, sun shining over head, in a small woodland clearing behind a factory. I imagine the kind of factories I used to discover rambling through Detroit and Chicago. Brick, half-crumbled and pressed up against a spot of vacant industrial land slowly being reclaimed as wilderness. 

It was from the Beats that I eventually made my way to the Japanese haiku masters. I loved Kerouac's On the Road. Someone told me that Kerouac was inspired partially by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho's The Narrow Road to the Interior.  

Basho was one of the greatest writers of haiku. He composed what is the most famous work in the form: 

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water
A deep resonance. 

Numerous commentaries exist on this text. Most observe that Basho was a Zen Buddhist. For him the pond was a metaphor for the mind. When water is clear and still it is like the mind when it is enlightened. Undisturbed, the reflections on its surface are the images of objects, not the objects themselves. The actual objects exist outside the pond, just as everything we perceive exists outside of our minds. 

Any motion of the water in the pond is produced by external factors. Waves come when wind riles up the surface. They disappear when the wind dies. Ripples emerge when an object pierces the water's calm top. They too quickly fade. 

In the poem, the frog can be understood as a thought. It appears from nowhere. Troubles the water with its splash, leaves behind a dissipating sound and then is gone under the surface. Perhaps it will reappear again, frog eyes sticking through duck weed and scheming their next step. 

The poem's popularity and such interpretations have led to parodies. There is this by Gibon Sengai: 

The old pond!
Basho jumps in,
The sound of the water! 

Haikus like these were presented either alone or as part of a series of interlinked poems called renga. Renga can contain somewhere between two and a few hundred haiku. Some of them are authored by a single poet. Others are written by many working collaboratively. One of my favorite pieces attributed to Basho is perhaps not even original to him. It appears in one of his texts as composed by a priest who traveled with him: 

Regardless of weather,
The moon shines the same;
It is the drifting clouds
That make it seem different
On different nights. 

This piece, like many other of Basho's haikus, appears in one of his travel sketches. This series of texts, which include The Narrow Road to the Interior, narrate some of Basho's travels around Japan in the late 17th century. They alternate, as I have been doing in this sermon, between narrative descriptions, philosophical reflection and poetry. 

They describe Basho's journeys as pilgrimages. Pilgrimages are a kind of intentional journey, undertaken with some sort of spiritual or religious purpose in mind. 

Usually when we think of pilgrimages we think of traveling to a specific destination. In the Christian tradition, people have long made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to the sites of miracles and to the tombs of various saints. On such pilgrimages, the journey is completed when the destination is reached. Sometimes the object being travelled to is thought to have supernatural powers that grant  a blessing on the pilgrim. This blessing may be a healing that comes in this life or a cleansing of sins that leads to a better afterlife. 

Basho's pilgrimage was of a different sort. Instead of seeking a particular destination, he sought to travel for self-discovery. Within this kind of pilgrimage there is usually a recognition that life itself is a journey. As Basho himself writes:

"Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling." 

Within these sentences is the acknowledgement that to be human and alive is to be in motion. Think about it. We spend much of our lives traveling. Whether it is from home to work and back again or to some distant city to visit friends and relatives, our lives are filled with travel. Some days, it seems like all I do is move. Just Friday I went to school, rode the bus home, dug the car out of the snow in a blur of motion, rushed Asa to piano, and went to two different groceries and the pharmacy. Sound familiar? I imagine it does. 

Even when we are not navigating the way through our lives we are still in motion. The Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. The sun, in turn, circles the center of the Milky Way. The Milky Way rushes out from the origin of the Big Bang as the universe expands. On a smaller scale, the atoms of which we are comprised are moving too. Each of these trillions of particles that compose our bodies consist of tightly packed bundles of neutrons and protons surrounded by rapidly moving clouds of electrons. Existence itself is motion. 

The wisdom of Basho's practice of pilgrimage is to seize this moving reality and then use it seek enlightenment. For the Buddhist this means something particular, an understanding of the transitory and illusory nature of existence. For us Unitarian Universalists it may mean something else. Either way, a helpful tactic within Basho's practice of pilgrimage is to seek inspiration, what we might call the divine, in the ordinary. This leads to sometimes humorous results as in this haiku: 

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in bed, 
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow. 

Such a poem suggests that when life is viewed as pilgrimage every experience has religious potential. For most of us, it is probably difficult to imagine every experience as a potential religious experience. We can learn from every interaction we have and everything we encounter. Pain or joy, success or failure, extraordinary or banal, each moment and experience in our lives contains within it a kernel to reflect upon. It all depends upon what approach you take and how open you are to exploring your life. 

Take something ordinary like cooking. Within the act of preparing a meal there is the opportunity to learn about the ingredients themselves, the chemical processes which we use to prepare foods and the social dynamics around eating. You might remember a couple of weeks ago I brought a clementine for us to look at during the time for all ages. Gazing at the clementine was a way to reflect upon the chains of dependency which comprise our lives. The fruit came from someplace other than Massachusetts. It was picked by hands besides mine and transported to the store by many people. It derived from countless generations of cultivation. The clementine allows us to think about the whole structure of civilization and the dependent reality of human existence. Without food we cease to be. 

Such reflective wisdom might run counter to Basho's own spiritual tendency. He wrote, "Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon." But then again, perhaps not. The contemporary Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh has written an elegant meditation entitled "Interbeing." In it he claims: 

“we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper... 

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be... The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper’ elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, ...sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.” 

The religious quest is partially about reaching this state of awareness of interconnection. It certainly speaks to the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The question is not if such an understanding is one of our goals as religious people. We can find such a goal attested throughout many of the world's traditions. Rather, the question is how do begin to reach such a goal. 

One consistent answer has been to practice asceticism and shed attachments to individual material things. At the beginning of The Narrow Road to the Interior Basho notes that before beginning his journey he sold his house. With this action then everyplace and no place potentially becomes his home. Rather than fixing his home as some place in particular it becomes wherever he his. As he writes, 

I felt quite at home,
As if it were mine,
Sleeping lazily
In this house of fresh air.

Similar advice for seeking the religious experience can be found elsewhere. In Luke, Mark and Matthew, there is a story about Jesus giving advice to a young rich man. Many of you, I imagine, remember some version of the text. In Matthew it reads: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and youwill have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." 

In our tradition, the life of Henry David Thoreau offers a slightly different example. Thoreau was a kind of ascetic. A resident of nearby Concord, he went to Walden Pond to try to live, as he wrote, "alone in the woods... in a house which I had built myself... living by the labor of my hands only." His famous book reflecting on his experiences is filled with his scorn for the material conveniences of civilization. The clear implication throughout is that such goods inhibit a life of reflection. 

I have thought about such advice the last year and a half since Sara and I sold our house in Ohio and moved to Massachusetts. Our living space is much smaller than it used to be. We have had to get rid of a lot of things we accumulated over the years. In the process I have reflected upon my relationship to my materials goods. How much do they really matter? How many provide nothing more than brief distraction and then sit on a shelf collecting dust? What do I really need in life? 

Again, turning Basho, I find some useful advice. At the start of his journey he dispossess of some but not all of his material goods. He writes, "the load I... carried... consisted of a paper coat to keep me warm at night, a light cotton gown to wear after the bath, scanty protection against the rain, writing equipment, and gifts from certain friends of mine." Even if we take the route of a spiritual ascetic some things remain essential. 

Any pilgrimage requires a certain level of material comfort to succeed. Even with his ascetic tendencies Basho did not wander the countryside naked. To journey through life material goods are to some extent necessary. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say we inter-are with them. That is not say we are dependent upon fancy sports cars for our existence. But we all need food, shelter and clothing. 

And it is worth remembering that even if try to walk life's paths alone we are never really completely independent. Reading "The Narrow Road to the Interior" one finds that Basho traveled in the company of others. Some of the haikus he records do not even originate with him. This one, for instance, comes from his companion Sora: 

Rid of my hair,
I came to Mount Kurokami,
On the day we put on
Clean summer clothes.  

With that observation, I think of my own path to Basho. It began with an elementary school teacher, wound its way through my college years and helped deliver me here. Along the way I have had companions. Not the least of whom has been my wife who, I discovered when I picked it up, peppered my copy of Basho with commentary. Another reminder that the journey we take may be our own but we do take in the company of others. 

We all receive help on our individuals journeys, whether we are cognizant of it or not. If we look at the practice of pilgrimage closely we will discover buried within it are justice questions. What is necessary for each of us on our journey? How much do we all need it? Can we have too much, so much that it prevents us from ever seeing what is really there? What obligations do we have to those who travel with us? Such questions are their own reminder that when we see things as they are a certain richness opens up. It is like the form of haiku itself, the poems appear simple but hide a wealth just below the surface. As another translation of Basho's frog poem reads: 

pond
frog
plop! 

May we, like Basho, travel through life blessed with companions, and a religious community, that helps us to see things as they are. 

Amen and Blessed Be. 

CommentsCategories Sermon

Feb 2, 2014

A Black Christ

as preached at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, February 2, 2014

Have you ever had an experience that caused a fundamental shift in the way you see the world? One that forced you to re-examine all of your previously held beliefs and develop new ones? I suspect that some of you have. Unitarian Universalism is, by in large, a religion of converts. Only about 1 in 10 of the adult members of our congregations were raised Unitarian Universalist. The majority of us were either brought up in another religious tradition or in no religious tradition.

As someone raised Unitarian Universalist I am naturally curious about the people who join our congregations. I never had the experience of leaving my faith community in disbelief or disgust. I find it helpful for my ministry to learn about why and how people come to our tradition. Broadly speaking, I have found that, people join a Unitarian Universalist congregation for two reasons. The first is that they become disaffected with the belief system of the religious community they were born into. They examine it under the cold light of reason and under that light it fails some fundamental test. Either they cease to believe in God or they cease to believe in that community's God.

The second reason people come to Unitarian Universalism is that they have a conversion experience. James Luther Adams defines conversion as "a fundamental change of the heart and will." We do not talk about conversion experiences very often. Perhaps this is because so many among us left our previous religious homes for rational reasons. The rational group find it difficult to understand how someone could have a conversion experience. Some think that such experiences, because they sometimes falter under reason's light, have little to teach.

Conversion experiences, disconcerting as they may occasionally be, do have something to offer. I find that they cause me to reexamine my faith and cast my understanding of Unitarian Universalism in a different light.

One powerful conversion story comes from the Unitarian Universalist minister Bill Breeden. As I remember, Bill started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require, or even value, clerical education and as a teenager he began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. At the same time, to make ends meet, he was working at a local grocery store as a stock boy.

It was there that Bill had his conversion experience. One of his duties was to dispose of unsalable or expired food. This was the 1960s and the food was destroyed in a burn pit behind the store. Once a day Bill would gather up the food, take it out back, douse it with gasoline and make a sort of bonfire. Often times the food that he destroyed was still perfectly edible.

One evening as he prepared to pour gasoline over the assembled pile and light it aflame he heard a voice. "Please, sir, could I have that cheese? I am hungry and I would like something to eat. I would like some food for my family." Bill turned and found himself facing a middle aged Black woman. He let her have the cheese and she went on her way.

Put before she did Bill saw Christ in her. Something about her, some manner in which he connected to her, caused him to see the world in an entirely different way. In that moment Christ was transformed from a blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned male to a poor Black woman standing in front of him. His universe, his understanding of the sacred was forever altered.

Over the next years Bill left his fundamentalist community and developed a theology of Universalist Christianity. He saw the divine in all people and upheld the human family as one. Eventually Bill found Unitarian Universalism.

I doubt most people have conversion stories that are quite as dramatic. Few, if any, Unitarian Universalists I know claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others, such as myself, would argue that the word Christ is a metaphor for the human potential and the possibility of perfection that lies within all of us. In this theological strain seeing Christ in someone else means sharing a moment of absolute connection and recognition; witnessing the impossible glorious mystery of the universe in the face of another. It is such a moment, I suspect, that Bill had when he encountered the woman behind the grocery store. In her he saw himself and all of the human family. He realized that the two them shared some sort of deep connection, some type of kinship, on an ineffable level.

A feeling of the kinship all humanity is lies at the heart of our religious tradition. The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing once wrote, "I am a living member the great Family of All Souls." In doing so he purported to claim kinship and connection with all of humanity. His tract continues "I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere." The knowledge that all humanity is, on some deep level, one family and that we are all connected means that the actions of an individual can and do effect the many.

Drop a pebble in water and it ripples outward. Act, speak or simply live your life and you cannot know ultimately what effect you will have. The choices that we make effect not only ourselves and our families but future generations.

For Channing one of the purposes of religion was to help people gain insight into their impact on and connection with others. Religion could nurture the conscience and help individuals tune themselves to the "Infinite God...around and within each." The more developed the conscience, the greater the understanding of how each and every action effects those around us. The truly wise, he wrote, "will become a universal blessing." They understand how "an individual cannot but spread good or evil indefinitely...and through succeeding generations." Understanding this they weigh their choices carefully.

Channing's theology caused him to affirm that humanity's spiritual nature included "the likeness of God." Within each person was "the image of God" and by the choices one made that image would either be "extended and brightened" or "seem to be wholly destroyed."

Casting Bill's experience into Channing's theology it would appear that at the moment of his encounter, Bill was made aware of the image of God within both himself and the woman. Their differences were blotted out. Bill realized that, in the language of Channing, they were both members of "the great Family of All Souls."

The images we have of God can obscure the divine from our view. Each image is, by necessity, only partial. Yet often people mistake them for the whole.

Even the very word God is misleading. As Forrest Church writes, "God is not even God's name, but our name for that which is greater than all and present in each. God is a symbol expressive of ultimate mystery, meaning and power..." In trying to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe we naturally run across the limits of our human language and human imagination. God is a useful metaphor for those limits. Using the word allows a humanist like me ways to communicate with my friends who resonate with more traditional understandings of the divine. We are all trying to understand the same ultimate mystery, the unfathomable vastness and complicated beauty of universe, just as we are seeking to comprehend our part in that mystery. As Pete Seeger said, “I am no longer leery of using the word ‘God,’ though I have my own definition... ‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.’”

Orthodox forms of Christianity try to make the mystery more fathomable by claiming that Jesus Christ was God. A human God is a God that we can relate to and, perhaps, understand.

But by making God human the orthodox imprison her within all of the various complexities of humanity. There is a paradox here. For if God is only fully present in one person then that one person somehow reflects what is of ultimate value differently than anyone else. Jesus is male so God must be male. God is male so males must have the highest worth. This theology of incarnation has led to a place where God is no longer ultimate and universal. Instead, God is partial and trapped in human images. God, the symbol, reinforces human hierarchies.

Here I find the recent controversy brought on by Fox News personality Megyn Kelly to be instructive. You might remember how, in December, she said during an on air segment, in response to calls for diverse images of Santa Claus, “...for the kids at at home, Santa just is white...” Later in the same segment she went on to claim, “Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact -- as is Santa.”

In my house, this prompted, amongst other things, playing Teddy Vann’s soul classic “Santa Claus is a Black Man” on high rotation. The fantastic chorus, sung by Vann’s then five year old daughter, runs:

Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And he’s handsome like my daddy too
Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And I found out, that’s why I’m telling you.

There are significant stakes in how the divine is portrayed. The image of Christ, or for that matter Santa, as White suggests that because God choose to be embodied in as a white person whites are somehow closer to God than others. For some a white Jesus is the foundation of that most pernicious form of partialism, white supremacy.

The Black Christ is presented by black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Albert Cleage and Kelly Brown Douglas as a counter to the White Christ. In various ways these theologians argue that if Christ must be a color that color must be black. As Brown Douglas points out, historically, "in the United States Blackness is synonymous with inferiority." By recasting Christ as Black the "bond between Blackness and inferiority" can be severed. This move also "fosters Black people's self-esteem by allowing them to worship a God in their own image, and by signifying that Blackness is nothing to be detested. On the contrary, it is a color and condition that even the divine takes on..."

For most of these black theologians the White Christ was a Christ of slaveholders. Brown Douglas explores the history and significance of the skin color of Christ in her book "The Black Christ." She identifies the Black and White Christs as having different theological significance.

"The White Christ," Brown Douglas writes, "is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ...because God made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity." Through this Christ Christians view themselves as saved from original sin because of something called atonement theology. This system argues that we humans were born wicked and sinful but God, in his infinite love, choose to accept Christ's sacrifice on the cross as a substitution for the punishment that all humanity deserved.

Brown Douglas argues that this system has at least two major problems. "First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation." One either accepts Christ as Lord and savior and is saved or one does not and is not. If one accepts Christ then no further action is required. There is no call to ethical living. Jesus's ministry to the poor and oppressed is of secondary importance. Right belief, and not right behavior, is the focus of the system.

This first observation lead Brown Douglas to a second: "in order for humans to benefit from God's saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter." Without that knowledge salvation was not possible.

The logic of this White Christ served as a justification for slavery. Enslaving Africans and introducing them to Christianity saved them from the eternal damnation they would have faced otherwise. As one pro-slavery advocate argued: "The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized."

In contrast, the Black Christ, in Brown Douglas's analysis, "empowered the Black slaves to fight for their emancipation from the chains of White slavery." The important feature of this Christ is that not he somehow saved humanity. It is "that Jesus helped the oppressed in his own time." Importantly, for many, "Jesus was a living a being with whom the slaves had an intimate relationship." That Jesus, because of his own suffering, could offer succor and understanding in times of crises.

Starting in the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts and Albert Cleage further developed articulations of the Black Christ. These theologians, each in their own way, recast the Black Christ in terms that some Unitarian Universalists might find familiar.

Cleage, a minister in Detroit, argued that the historical Jesus was a black man. Further, he suggested that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had not occurred. It was a lie perpetrated by those who used Christianity as a tool for subjugation. The good life was not to be had in heaven after death but here on Earth. The myth of heaven was something that was used to oppress people. Jesus's resurrection after his death came through the continuation of his ministry by his disciples. This ministry had freedom from oppression as its central goal.

Cone, the founder of the academic school of black liberation theology, understood the Black Christ to be an ontological symbol. Ontological symbols allow humans to communicate imperfect knowledge of the divine. They are important because they point beyond themselves and suggest some fundamental truth about reality. God, for Cone, stands on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, he argued, God must have a black aspect.

Roberts, a professor at Howard University, used the Black Christ as a symbol for what he thought of as "Christ's universality." For him there was not just a Black Christ but a Red Christ and a Yellow Christ. Christ could be seen in all the colors of humanity. Re-imagining Christ in this way allowed for Roberts to try to free, in his words, Jesus from "the cultural captivity of... Euro-Americans."

There is significant overlap between these understanding of the Black Christ and much of Unitarian Universalist theology. Like Cleage traditional Unitarians affirm a human Jesus and emphasize his ethical teachings. Like Cone most Unitarian Universalists understand Christ as a symbol--one of many in the world--that offers to teach us something about the mystery of life. With Roberts, Unitarian Universalists affirm that God, or the divine, is present in all of the human races.

Unitarian Universalists might also agree with a criticism that later generations of black theologians have of their predecessors. For black women theologians such as Brown Douglas it is not enough to make Christ Black. Christ also has to become a woman so that the full spectrum of humanity can be represented in the divine.

These understandings of the Black Christ remind me of Channing's dictum that we are members "of the great Family of All Souls." While Unitarian Universalists hold to this ideal we often fail to make it a reality. Our congregations are largely white and our message reaches but a portion of the human family. For us, Sunday morning often remains the most segregated time of the week.

I suspect that the image of the Black Christ has something to teach us, regardless of the hue of our skin. This symbol is a reminder that the divine can be found in all. If we, like Bill Breeden, can learn to recognize that divine spark in others no matter how unlike we are we can take a step towards truly building a community that embodies "the great Family of All Souls." We do not know where such steps might lead us or how such recognitions might change us.

Alice Walker, in her novel, the Color Purple wrote: "Here's the thing...the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else." With this in mind, in the coming weeks try the following spiritual exercise. Take five minutes each day as you walk down the street or drive in your car and try to see God in the people around you. Acknowledge that God, the metaphor for the mystery of creation and destruction, death and birth, that binds us together, is part of and beyond us, can be seen in each and every person that surrounds us. Apply this practice to those least like you and see if you notice a change or a transformation.

Perhaps you will. And who knows where that small change may lead. That it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jan 19, 2014

Been Waitin' So Long

as preached Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday at the First Religious Society Carlisle, January 19, 2014

When she remembers the 1960s, the civil rights activist Zoharah Simmons tells a powerful story about organizing in rural Mississippi. She was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, the major African American student civil rights organization. Fifty years ago, during what was called Freedom Summer, she travelled to Laurel, Mississippi to organize African Americans to vote. Zoharah had never been to Laurel before and she knew no one there. When she and her two colleagues had been assigned the task of organizing in Laurel they were told, “Now you are going to have to drive up to Laurel and be as clandestine as possible and try to open up... the town... Try to find people who might want to be involved in this and who will give you shelter.” They were given a list of names to contact and little else.

When they got to Laurel they went to the home of one of the people on the list. She gave them more names. Zoharah picked Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s name from that list and went to knock on her door. I can imagine the scene, Zoharah nervously approaching the house, pausing, drawing breath, and then knocking, tentatively, half hoping that no would answer. Someone did. Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s came to the door. Zoharah introduced herself, afraid of being rebuffed, told that her efforts were futile, that Mississippi was never going to change, that she should go home. But Mrs. Sphinks did not tell her that. Instead, she looked Simmons up and down and said, “Girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life. Come on in.”

Now, I love this story. It has so many rich strands to it that we could spend the next twenty minutes just pulling it apart. There’s Zoharah Simmons and there’s Mrs. Euberta Sphinks. They both have so much to teach us about what it means to change the world. I want to ask questions: what would have happened to Mrs. Sphinks if Zoharah had never come to her door? Would she have kept on waiting forever? What about Zoharah? Would she have stayed in Laurel, Mississippi and kept trying? Or would she have packed her bags and left? I also want to know, is there someone out there waiting for me? I am I waiting for someone? Maybe we all are...

Patience is something that is crucial for any form of social transformation. The world changes slowly, especially when it comes to moral issues. And yet we have to be ready for that change, for the opportunity for change, at any time. I had a professor in seminary who liked to underscore this point. He was a very devote Jew. He refused to close doors completely. He said, the messiah might come at any time. He didn’t want the door to be closed, and miss the announcement, when she arrived.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday I want to ask all of you two questions: What are you waiting for? How are you preparing? Hold onto those two questions as I proceed with the sermon.

Almost precisely a year before he died Martin King challenged this country with his sermon at Riverside Church “Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break the Silence.” It was a sermon that changed the way he related to the domestic power structure and how he placed himself in relation to global struggles for freedom. In it he made a direct connection between the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity in this country and the struggle against American capitalist imperialism in Vietnam and other countries. In it he told us that we were “a society gone mad on war” and warned that this country “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” Not long after that, in a different speech, he made his point even more graphically: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.”

In that last year of his life Martin King warned us that the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity faced three triple giants: racism, militarism, and materialism. Unless we underwent a true moral revolution we risked being squashed by those giants.

Now, I am from Michigan and I spent five years as a parish minister in Cleveland, Ohio. I can tell you that in the last four decades bombs meant for all countries that the United States military has attacked have dropped on the cities that I love. The bombs meant for Vietnam have hit Detroit. Bombs sent to Cambodia landed in Cleveland. Those destined for El Salvador hit Roxbury instead. Bombs dropped on Iraq found their targets in Washington, DC. Missiles launched in Afghanistan brought death to Oakland. And rockets sent to Bosnia ended up on the South Side of Chicago. The list of countries that the United State military has bombed since 1968, the year Martin King was assassinated, is more than twenty names long. As a society we continue to spend the vastly more on war than on ending poverty.

The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy this past year. Its infrastructure is crumbling. In places the roads are little more than gravel, the street lights are broken, and the abandoned buildings stretch on for blocks. There are neighborhoods that are returning to prairie. I have seen poverty there, men in the street with open sores on their faces, that should not exist in the twenty first century, in the richest society in human history. There’s a skyscraper in downtown Detroit, a forty story building, that has been abandoned for so long that standing on the street you can see mature trees growing on its crown.

When the poet Amiri Baraka wrote about the African American freedom struggle he said, “we / vote among roaches.” Wherever we are in the struggle to build a just society, we still have a long way to go. The federal government has essentially abandoned Detroit. The city’s bankruptcy debt is about $18 billion. This country’s military budget in 2013 was more than $700 billion. For the cost of funding the military for about a week the federal government could have saved Detroit from bankruptcy. Not only did this not happen, there was no national conversation about it. Martin King would have been ashamed of this country. If he was alive today, on this day we celebrate his birth, he would say to us now what he said back in 1968 to his congregation, “The judgement of God is on America now.” And he would ask you, and he would ask me, “what are you waiting for?” He would remind us that he was willing to give his life for what he believed in. And he didn’t just believe in racial justice. He believed in economic justice--that everyone should have a safe place to live and job that gave them dignity. He would have cried with gentle rage about the chemical spill in West Virginia that rendered water undrinkable for 300,000 people. He would have been indignant that we bailed banks but left home owners in cities like Cleveland and Detroit to rot. He would have reminded us that he believed not only in racial and economic justice but in peace. He believed that men and women from this country should not go and kill men, women and children in other countries. It is hard to say these things in polite conversation anymore. But the question remains, why are we still waiting to build a world with peace and justice? What are you waiting for? What I am waiting for? Who are we waiting for?

Poet and civil rights veteran June Jordan famously said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” She is right, there really is no one else. It is just us. If we do not figure out what needs to be done then no one will. What needs to be done? Martin King knew. He said, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” What might that revolution look like? Let me tell you a couple of stories. They come from my mentor Staughton Lynd, the historian and civil rights activist who served as coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Mississipi Freedom Summer. That was the same project that brought Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks together.

Staughton likes to share a story about James Farmer, who at that time served as SNCC’s Executive Secretary. One day Staughton and his wife Alice went to the SNCC office early in the morning for some reason. The only person they found there was James Farmer. He was sweeping the office floor. When Staughton tells the story he often remarks, “He is the only person in a similar position of authority whom I have ever encountered performing such a task. Alice and I attempt to act likewise.”

This might seem like a discordant note when placed alongside Martin King’s call for a revolution in values. It is not. Stay with me for a minute. I am going to go a bit further afield with another of Staughton’s stories before bringing my point home. This story comes from the Spanish Civil War, which was a struggle against fascism right before World War II. The anti-fascist forces included a lot of different groups. One of the largest were the anarchists who sought not just to defeat fascism but to build a new world, a world without poverty and war, as well. As Staughton tells the story:

“It seems that one day during the Spanish Civil War there was a long line waiting for lunch. Far back in the line was a well-known anarchist. A colleague urged him: ‘Comrade, come to the front of the line and get your lunch. Your time is too valuable to be wasted this way. Your work is too important for you to stand at the back of the line. Think of the Revolution!’ Remaining where he was in line, the anarchist leader replied: ‘This is the Revolution.’”

I want to suggest that there are three lessons that can be drawn from these stories. And that these lessons point to the kind of revolution of values that our society needs to undergo and what we as individuals can do to bring about such a revolution. First, and most important, a revolution in values begins in this moment, in the here and now. Yes, it has to be a focus on changing the structure of society. But we will only be able to make that change if we change the way we treat each other. If we want a more egalitarian society, we have to treat each other as equals. If we want a society without racism, we have to strive eliminate racism from our own lives. As the great peace activist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace--peace is the way.”

Second, if we want a new society, a just society, then we have to create institutions that can serve as seeds for that society. We have to develop spaces where we can challenge each other to undergo a revolution of values and question how the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism operate in our lives.

The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, thought that this was the purpose of our religious communities. He taught that voluntary associations, groups of people that came together united by common interests and bonds of commitment, were the most powerful force in human society. The revitalization of society stands or falls with such voluntary associations. We tend to fixate upon prophetic individuals but, the truth is, truly powerful prophets are parts of organizations. We know who Martin King was because of the organizations he participated in and led. The civil rights movement is much more the story of heroic organizations than heroic individuals. Without the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference a prophet like King would have found himself alone in the wilderness.

Most prophets have recognized this. Jesus, after he received his call, gathered up his disciples and created a religious community. Mohandas Gandhi built ashrams in both South Africa and India to serve as spiritual bases for his activism. The characters in Lynd’s stories are both involved in organizations. Zorah Simmons did not end up in Laurel, Mississippi on her own.

This brings me to my third point. Organizations need leaders. However we conceptualize them, organizations need people who can inspire others to act. A revolution in values requires a new kind of leadership. And I do not think that Martin King, as great as he was, necessarily exemplifies that kind of leadership. Instead, I think it is to be found in people like James Farmer, or the anarchist from Staughton’s story. Such leaders remain in direct relationship with others from the movement of which they are a part. They do not try to assert dominance over others. Instead, they try to build capacity in others. They are driven by the belief that anyone can acquire the skills to be a leader.

This is a lesson we can learn well if we look around on Sunday morning. It takes a lot more than a minister to make a powerful worship service. We have musicians. We have to people who tend to the administrative functions. We have to keep our space clean and inviting to guests. All of these people take us a little further down the road than we would be able to go without them. Elsewhere, I have observed that some of the most unappreciated leaders in the congregation are the people who get everyone else clapping to the hymns on Sunday morning. I always notice when such people are absent. The service is less lively, less renewing, without them.

Let me summarize my three points. A revolution in values requires us to build organizations that challenge us to develop a new kind leadership. This is a leadership that sees everyone as a potential leader and brings out the best in them so that they can bring the best in the community, and ultimately the world. Such an organization will challenge us to confront the triple giants of racism, materialism, and militarism both in the wider world and in those places where they are operative within our own lives.

Let me suggest that this congregation can be a starting point for such a revolution in values. To return explicitly to our Unitarian Universalist tradition, James Luther Adams, the theologian I mentioned earlier, liked to remind us that our congregational polity was one of the sources of democracy in this culture. He even joking referred to our religious tradition as “Spiritual Bolshevism” to signify the revolutionary potential within it.

I think that there is one thing, only one thing, that we need to do to start to realize that potential. And here I return to the story of Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks. There is a part of it I forgot to tell you. Euberta Sphinks had already organized her neighbors. When Zoharah showed up at her door Euberta went across the street and knocked on the door of her friend, Mrs. Carrie Clayton. I am telling you these names because today we should celebrate not just Martin King but all of the leaders, known and unknown, who made built the civil rights movement. Anyways, Euberta Sphinks went across the street to tell her friend, in effect, we are not alone. There other people out there struggling for the same things we are struggling for. And now one of them has found us. We are stronger than before and we can take our struggle, here in Laurel, Mississippi, to a new level.

And that is exactly what they did. People in those little towns in Mississippi had been struggling for African American freedom for hundreds of years. In the 1920s and 1930s they had organized sharecroppers unions. Their grandparents had fought with the union army to end slavery. Their great grandparents had resisted the slave masters in endless, untold, creative quiet ways. Each generation built on the struggles of the previous ones. When Zoharh and Euberta found each other they were able to take that struggle to a new level.

Let me close with a brief autobiographical note. I have spent much of my adult life as an organizer. In doing so, I have been part of groups working to bring about a revolution in values. Wherever I have gone to organize I have discovered that the people there were already organized. What they were waiting for, whether they knew it or not, was someone from another group to tell them, “Hey you are not alone. Together we can take this struggle to a new level.” This has been true whether I have been organizing truckers in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, bike messengers in Chicago or taxi drivers in Cleveland. It has been true in every congregation I have ever served. It was true when I committed civil disobedience alongside other Unitarian Universalist clergy in Phoenix, Arizona and went to jail. If we, Unitarian Universalists, are going to help bring about a revolution in values then we need to get outside of our comfortable communities and find others struggling against the triple giants of racism, militarism, and materialism. When we do we will discover we are not alone.

We already have everything we need to change the world. We truly are the ones we have been waiting for. But first we need to find each other. Who are you waiting for? Who am I waiting for? Who is waiting for us?

As I leave you to contemplate those questions I say Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jan 14, 2014

The Gift of Grace

as preached at the First Religious Society of Carlisle, January 12, 2014

This morning I want to begin with a story. It comes from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." The book, as you might remember, centers around the former convict Jean Valjean and his struggle to lead both a good life and remain free from prison. One of the major themes of the book is redemption and transformation. Towards the beginning of the novel Jean Valjean has an experience that allows him to transform his life from that of an outcast, a former convict, to a man of wealth.

Shortly after he is released from prison Jean Valjean travels to a small town looking for lodging. He has a passport with him that declares him to be a former convict. As a result, no one will give him food or a place to sleep. No one, that is, except for the local Bishop. The Bishop takes him in, gives him food and a bed to sleep in. In the middle of the night Valjean repays the Bishop by stealing his family silver.

Early the next morning the police catch Valjean as he slinks out of town. They ask him about the silver he is carrying. He claims that the Bishop gave it to him as a gift. The police take Valjean to the Bishop for questioning. When the Bishop sees Valjean, he confirms his story. The Bishop even goes so far to tell Valjean that he forgot to take a pair of silver candlesticks with him. These were the only items of value that Valjean had not stolen from the Bishop's household. Before Valjean leaves, the Bishop takes him aside. I will let Hugo describe their final exchange:

"The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:--

"Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man."

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them.

He resumed with solemnity:--

"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

The Bishop's gift of silver to Jean Valjean was a form of grace. Grace is an unexpected and undeserved gift that transforms us, even if only for a moment. Grace is not something that we earn or create for ourselves. We can only receive it and try to give it to others.

The story of a thief who steals something from a holy man is an archetypal one. It occurs in many cultures. This morning I want to use it to explore different aspects and kinds of grace. In the version of the story found in "Les Miserables," grace is something that one human being gives to another. It is not supernatural but natural.

After the gift of the Bishop's silver, Valjean becomes a sort of holy man himself. He saves lives, brings up an orphan and ultimately tries to redeem his own great adversary, the policeman, Javert, who spends decades hunting him.

The profoundly transformative grace that Hugo describes at the beginning of his novel is rare. It is not an every day grace. It is something extraordinary, the stuff of fables, the sort of experience that we are lucky to have once or twice in our lives.

While the Bishop’s grace might be extraordinary, its essence was not. The core of the Bishop's gift to Valjean was that of the kindness of strangers. This should not be a foreign experience to any of us. Who has not felt the warm smile of a stranger as they walked down the street? Such moments can sometimes stick with us. They can bring a heightened awareness to us and cause subtle shifts in our perception, sometimes allowing us to see the world around us as beautiful, which is its own form of grace. Ezra Pound tried to capture the sense of such a moment of grace in his two line poem "In a Station of the Metro":

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

Pounds' poem shows how, for him, the faces of a subway crowd were momentarily infused with deep beauty. This is a much more mundane kind of grace than Hugo describes in "Les Miserables," but it is grace nonetheless.

These moments of mundane grace, small kindnesses, gentle looks and unexpected beauty can be fleeting. On occasion they remain with us for a while, but most of the time they are forgotten almost as they occur. Such mundane grace can come from almost anyone, be they strangers or our most intimate friends and family, and at any time.

We can give grace just as easily as we can receive it. Another version of our story, this one from the Hasidic Jewish tradition, illustrates how.

It seems that once there was a Rabbi who encountered two thieves in the process of robbing his home. He was not a rich man and they were about to take everything he owned. When he saw them he did not grow angry or try to stop them. Instead he told them, "take these things as a gift from me." The thieves fled in confusion. Being a Rabbi, he was concerned about the souls of the potential thieves. So, from that night forth before going to be bed he would say "All my possessions are held in common. They belong to everyone." He wanted to make certain that if other thieves came they would not be guilty of theft.

In this version of the story the Rabbi gives grace to others indiscriminatingly. They may be coming to steal his possessions but instead of committing a crime, they end up receiving a gift. The Rabbi denies himself ownership over his possessions so that if someone steals them they won't be guilty of a sin.

For the Rabbi the giving of grace is a spiritual practice. Every day he reminds himself that what belongs to him does not really belong to him, but belongs to everyone. He is indiscriminate in his well wishing. He gives it to the stranger as easily as he does to members of his community.

Each of us is capable of giving grace in the same way that the Rabbi does. We can do it by being kind to those around us. You never know when simply smiling at someone might change their mood, or even save their life.

A few years ago I read about a young man who survived a suicide attempt. He threw himself off of the Golden Gate Bridge and into the San Francisco Bay. Before he jumped he sat on the bridge for a while. He felt alone in the world and told himself that all it would take to stop his suicide was someone simply talking to him while he sat on the bridge. Many people passed him. No one so much as said hello to him. After an hour or so he leapt off the bridge. Someone could have stopped him if they had given a stranger the simple gift of a hello. But no one did. All he needed was a simple act of grace. No one gave it to him. Yet anyone could have.

This reminds me of how easy and how challenging it can be to give grace. It easy: sometimes all it takes is a smile. It is hard: it requires us to move out of our comfort zones; to reach out to those who surround us; to be aware of those who surround us. And that can be a great challenge. It is one I fail to meet almost everyday. When was the last time you smiled, and I mean truly smiled not just nodded in recognition, at a stranger?

This brings me to the third version of our story. It comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Many years ago there was a Zen Master whose life was very simple. He lived by himself in a small hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief snuck into the hut only to find that there was nothing to steal.

After a little while, the Zen Master returned and found the thief. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the burglar, "and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The Zen Master stripped off his humble garments. The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away.

As the thief fled into the distance the Zen Master sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he thought, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."

Of the three versions of the story, this is the one that I like the best. It raises questions about what grace is and who is capable of giving it. It suggests that the reception of grace is facilitated by a person's attitude. To look up at the moon and think that it is a gift to give might seem ridiculous. On the other hand, being able to look at the moon and realize that it is beautiful is a gift. Not everyone has that capacity at all times.

I imagine that most of you have had the experience of seeing a breathtaking moon rise. You are driving down the highway and then, over the next ridge, it catches you unaware, seemingly out of nowhere, a brilliant yellow moon. The craters stand out and the orb of the moon appears larger than it should. A cloud drifts by, the stars shine brighter, and everything in the world suddenly seems impossibly beautiful. On occasions like that, the moon itself is a sort of grace. You did not do anything to deserve it. It came unbidden and on its own, but there it is. To cultivate an awareness of the grace of the moon is to become more aware of the profound grace that surrounds us at all times.

Maybe we have to strip ourselves naked like the Zen Master to truly experience the grace that surrounds us. Perhaps it is only once we have shorn our minds all of the distractions of materialism that we are able to truly experience the world around us as a kind of grace. Life itself is its own unasked for gift. This is something that I think most people forget from time to time. Especially in the chaotic hustle and bustle of our consumer culture. Who has time to appreciate, or even pay attention to, the moon amidst cell phones, computers and televisions? When was the last time you looked at the moon?

When the Zen Master gave away his last clothes to the thief, he might have been thinking that he was removing the last of his material distractions. In that moment, as he stared up at the moon, maybe his absolute lack of material possessions made him acutely aware of the simple gift of life. Did he understand that each breath, each moment, is a form a grace? Did his own nakedness make him even more conscious of the beauty that surrounds us all?

And what about the thief? What was the thief thinking as he fled the Zen Master's hut? Did the gift of clothes transform him somehow? With his material needs met, was he able to see the moon? or did he remain the same old vagabond after the encounter?

Between the Zen Master and the thief the question must also be asked: who is giving and who is receiving grace? Perhaps both give and receive in their own way. Perhaps the theft of the clothes is as much a gift to the Zen Master as the clothes themselves are to the thief. Each brings the other a new sort of awareness.

The Zen story also suggests that we are most aware of grace when we cultivate the right attitude towards it. This is a spiritual practice. The Zen Master was able to do without his clothes and appreciate the beauty of the moon precisely because he was a Zen Master. Not everyone would have the same experience in a similar situation.

Not all of us, and probably none of us, will ever become Zen Masters and be able to both give and receive grace in the way that Zen Master in the story does. But we can cultivate the right attitude for giving and receiving grace. This is the attitude of gratitude.

Our lives are their own forms of grace. It is proper that we respond to the unexpected gifts in the world with gratitude. As Elizabeth Tarbox said in our reading this morning: "The world is full of blessings." When we express gratitude we become aware of the grace that exists in our lives. Tarbox suggests this when she expresses gratitude for having a heart that can break while at the same time remembering "the sunrise over the ocean." For the complicated world we live in--with all of its blemishes--even gratitude is not enough. But cultivating gratitude can make us more receptive to the grace around us. It can cause us to be thankful for even the pain in our lives. Such pain makes us human. A spiritual practice of gratitude can cause us to expand our definition of grace to encompass all of life itself.

Grace is something we receive and it is something we give. Each version of the story tells us something about grace from a slightly different perspective. The story from "Les Miserables" reminds us of just how transformative grace can be. The Hasidic tale teaches us that grace is something that we can easily give each other. And the Zen Story complicates the picture and tries to remind us that grace can be found in nature and when we cultivate the right attitude.

Let us then be aware of the grace that exists in our lives. Let us be grateful for the sun, the moon and the stars. Let us appreciate the cracks in the sidewalk, the weed flowers that come up through concrete and the shine of broken glass. Let us remember the miracles found in an orange. Let us be thankful for the kindness of strangers and of our friends. Let us be ever open to the unexpected and the grace that we may receive at any moment.

Thank you for listening to me. I am grateful for that.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Sep 9, 2013

Encountering the Kingdom: Video

The video for my sermon "Encountering the Kingdom" is now available. You can view it here

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jul 28, 2013

Sermon: Over My Head

preached at the First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, July 28, 2013

It has been a pleasure worshiping with you this month. Since I left my parish in Ohio at the end of last summer I have been doing pulpit supply. There is a real difference between preaching somewhere once and regularly. Worshiping with the same congregation week after week allows for a dialogue between pulpit and pew to emerge. Last week someone came up to me after the service and let me know they disagreed with a portion of what I had to say. The knowledge that I would be coming back here this week made me think about that person’s critique differently than I would have if I had preached here once.

The opportunity to preach here four times has let me offer you a sermon series on Unitarian Universalist as religion of presence. Each week have we have asked a different question. We began three Sunday’s ago by asking: What does it mean to be present? Then we asked: What does it mean to be present to each other? Last week: What does it mean to be present to justice? This week we conclude by asking: What does it mean to be present to the holy?

This question could be recast: where do we find God? God is, of course, one of the most difficult words to define. I was reminded this difficultly the other day while talking with friends. They have a four year old who is just at the point of asking big questions. Recently, she was asking about God. My friends do not believe in a God that sits outside of the universe and human history judging us. They believe in what a theologian might call an immanent God, a God who is part of, who makes up, the universe itself. So when their daughter asked about God they told her that God lived inside of her. A horrified look came over her face. “No,” she replied. “There’s nothing inside of me. It’s just me.”

This story suggests the challenge we face when communicating about the holy. Language frequently fails us. The critique one of you had of last week’s sermon revolved around a single word choice. This is similar to the problem of talking about the holy, it is difficult because often people cannot even agree on what they are talking about. Words are gestures towards a larger reality. They frame how we understand the world but they are not the world.

A few years ago the physicist Stephen Hawking generated significant interest by claiming that the findings of modern science demonstrated that God was no longer necessary. Since we now have a fairly complete picture of how the universe came into being, how life evolves and how the physical laws of nature work, he reasoned there is no longer room for God in the rational mind.

Liberal theologians have long argued the opposite. God, they claim, is not a rational construct. God is a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher, described as the father of liberal theology, believed that “the feeling of absolute dependence” is the experience of “consciousness of God.” It is the moments that I am most aware of my dependence that I feel the presence of the holy.

I close my eyes and it fills my senses. The room dark, pitch even, illuminated only by the hazy light of medical machines and a blue string of Christmas lights. Hysteria, desperation, the sounds of panic and despair contrast the dimness of the room. On the bed, the thin, wan, retreating figure of a sixteen year old girl. Her Haitian mother wails, alternating between Creole and accented English, over her fading body. The words come back, a terrible litany of loss, “There will be no graduation for you. There will be no wedding for you. There will be no babies for you. There will be nothing for you, nothing.”

For the last five months the daughter has struggled with cancer. Tonight she has lost that struggle. The doctors and the nurses have told her parents it is over. Everything but the morphine drip and the monitors have been disconnected. This is it. The daughter is about to die, is dying, is dead.

Over the decade I have spent as a member of the clergy, I have witnessed many deaths and conducted many funerals. This one, the death of a young immigrant to cancer, remains one of the most memorable. Perhaps, because the mother’s wails echoed the famous line from the 22nd Psalm, words repeated by Jesus as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Or maybe it because at that moment I felt an intense connection to life itself. The waning breaths of the young woman, the mother’s love, the prayers we said together combined and I knew that I was in the presence of something greater than myself. To be witness to death is to be witness to our absolute dependence.

Despite this it is at death, and in moments of pain, that the absence of the holy can be felt most profoundly. William Schulz, past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and former Executive Director of Amnesty International, once gave a lecture entitled “What Torture Has Taught Me.” In it he challenged the concept of an immanent God, a God that is present in all things, by claiming “that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a counter perspective when trying to make theological sense of the Holocaust: “To the question, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ the answer is: God was there — starving, broken, humiliated, gassed and burned alive, sharing the infinite pain as only an infinite capacity for pain can share it.”

African American liberation theologians like Kelly Brown Douglas make a similar point when they argue for the necessity of a Black Christ. In this view, Christ needs to be black so that he can accompany, in Brown’s words, “the Black struggle to ‘make do and do better’ in face of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist oppression.” As Brown puts it, “Christ is inside of my grandmother and other Black women and men as they fight for life and wholeness.”

I do not pretend to know whether Schulz or Greenberg and Douglas is right. What I do know is that one of the most political decisions that each of us makes, that each culture makes, is in how we define the holy. Rebecca Parker makes precisely this point when talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. She writes, “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.” To choose between locating the holy in Jesus’ life or in his death is to choose between two radically different theologies. The option of finding it in both, or in all things, is yet another.

When we start to think about the holy we are confronted with questions beyond just the choice to find it in life or death. We also must ask: Does the holy only belong to some people? Is it only found in some places? Is it everywhere and everything? Is it a metaphor? Is it separate from the visible world? Does it act upon us? Do we act upon it? How do we know when we experience its presence?

These are not questions with rational answers. They are tied to feelings. I do not know how I know. I only know when I feel. I was fourteen. It was my first time away from my parents for an extended period. I was at a week long Unitarian Universalist youth camp in the Pacific Northwest. The grounds, abutting the ocean, were rich with immense trees. The camp was isolated and powered by its own generators. Each night after dinner and evening worship there was a hymn sing around a camp fire.

The last night of the camp we had a dance. It was a wonderfully goofy affair. People dressed in ridiculous costumes, painted their faces and flailed around to punk rock anthems by the Clash and disco jams like the Village People’s “YMCA.” After an hour, maybe two, the power suddenly went out.

The dance’s abrupt end found a number of us back at the fire pit, singing. It was the only place on the campground with any light and, besides, we enjoyed making music together. I don’t know how long we sang, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour… It was a consuming experience. Eventually we reached the hymn, “Over My Head.” Maybe you remember the words. We sang them a couple of weeks ago. The first verse runs, “Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / There must be a God somewhere.” We sang that song for awhile, substituting new phrases for what was over our heads as we went. Laughter, joy, singing… Someone, a little snidely, finally suggested light. And when we reached the end of the, “There must be a God someone,” the power at the camp went back on.

It seemed like a minor miracle. It might have been someone from the camp’s idea of a prank. Whatever the explanation, the experience left an impression. Up until that moment I described myself as an atheist. Now I am not so sure. I am more open to the mystery of our lives and cognizant of the limitations of language. I understand that words like holy, divine and God are metaphors for the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The human mind, marvelous as it is, is quite small and in the end each of us can grasp but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe’s complexity. To speak of the holy is, I believe, to acknowledge this.

There is a certain timelessness to my memories of the holy. They fade far less than others. They come forward in vivid color rather than tattered grey, occasionally so strong that they blot out the present. There is a difference between ordinary time and holy time. The experience of the holy is more defined, placed in sharper relief. It marks me, changes me, even if the change is ever so slight.

James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” speaks to this. In his poem, Wright finds himself in a perfectly ordinary place “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota” observing the ordinary. For what is more ordinary in rural Minnesota than two ponies “munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness”? And yet, it is here that Wright finds a blessing. Simply observing these ordinary ponies, the affection they have for each other and the peace they seem to feel while grazing alone, together, makes him realize that “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

Wright’s poem suggests that the transformative experience, being in the presence of the holy, can be found in even the most unremarkable of activities. It is not what surrounds us that matters. We do not need to seek out the extraordinary to find the holy.

There are many stories from the Bible that are instructive on this dynamic. One found in Genesis is the story of Jacob wrestling what the text refers to as “a divine being.” In the story Jacob, the patriarch whose children eventually founded the tribes of Israel, stops, alone, by the side of a river to spend the night. There he finds a man. They wrestle all night, the man trying to escape Jacob, Jacob refusing to let him go. Finally, the dawn comes. The man wrenches Jacob’s hip from his socket and says to him, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And so, the divine being blesses Jacob. In doing so, he changes Jacob’s name to Israel.

The story instructively suggests several things. The holy can be found anywhere. Jacob encountered it on the river bank. James Wright discovered it in two ponies. I have felt its presence in the room of dying child and at a youth camp. When we find it we must somehow engage it. It must be wrestled with. Wright looked at the ponies. Jacob struggled against the divine being. I heard music, saw light, and rethought the way I see the world. To be in the presence of the holy is to be open to change. Jacob received a blessing and a new name. Wright wanted to burst from his body. This change can come at a cost--a limp, pain, the presence of death--but it does not have to. One suspects that the only thing Wright’s experience of the ponies like “wet swans” cost him was reflection.

The story of Jacob and the feeling of being present to the holy is helpful on another level, a moral level. It reminds us that the experience of the holy frequently requires an other. Each of the experiences that I have described is an experience of connection, not the experience of an autonomous and isolated individual. At the start of this sermon series I suggested that we each construct our theologies out of our personal experiences. Since each of our experiences are different our theologies are be different as well. This might lead to moral relativism but it does not have to. If being present to the holy means being present to our feelings of dependence and connection then we know we have strayed when disavow those feelings.

Moral clarity comes from understanding our dependence on the universe not on claiming a sense of independence from it. For me there is only one heresy worth interrogating, the myth of the autonomous individual. None of the experiences of the holy that I have described have taken placed in a vacuum. All of them are interactions between people or between people and the larger world. We need each other, or at least an other, to experience the holy.

It is like the hymn we sang that night at youth camp, “Over my head there is singing in the air.” Over our heads there is something in the air. It is through that something, because of that something, with that something that we know that we are present to the holy. And so, in that spirit, I invite you now to sing with me hymn #30 “Over My Head.”

Blessed Be and Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jul 26, 2013

Sermon: Encountering the Kingdom

preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist on July 21, 2013

This morning’s sermon is a reflection on the question: what does it mean to be present to justice? If you have been here for either of my last two sermons you might remember that for the month of July I am offering a sermon series on Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. Last week we reflected on the question: what does it mean to be present to each other? Next week we will conclude by asking: what does it mean to be present to the holy? This week though is justice...

The events of the recent weeks prompt me to reflect on our question as it relates to race in the United States. I could easily pick another area to focus on, struggles for reproductive, environmental or economic justice, but the last month’s news has been such a clear reminder that, as theologian James Cone would say, “racism is America’s original sin” that focusing on any those topics seems irresponsible.

The Supreme Court decision to overturn part of the Voting Rights Act and the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case have been powerful reminders that this original sin remains as present as ever. The election of a black President has not brought about a post-racial society. The news program Democracy Now reported this past week that in 2012 alone there were 313 documented extrajudicial killings of African Americans by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin’s murder was horrifying, in part, not because it was exceptional but because it was ordinary. Almost once a day a similar scenario to Zimmerman’s murder of Martin plays out some place in the United States. And when it does the justice system often responds in a similar way, the murderer is not held accountable.

We could spend the rest of the morning talking about how the justice system, which should really be called the injustice system, oppresses and violates people of color. The system frequently grants impunity to their killers, as long as those killers have light skin. The injustice system also incarcerates people of color at much higher rates, and for longer periods of time, than white people. If you have not read it yet, you should read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” which documents how the injustice system has in the past few decades been used to disenfranchise, oppress and violate African Americans. In Alexander’s telling, a telling which is backed by a plethora of data, the injustice system has replaced Jim Crow. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In some communities of color as many as 1 out of 3 adult males are either in jail or on probation. In most cases these people have had of their rights as citizens, including their right to vote, stripped away from them.

I could spend the rest of my sermon going into Alexander’s thesis in greater detail and dissipating the illusion of a post-racial society. I could explain how Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin is but the latest outrage in a society that values the lives of young men of color much less than it values the lives of young white, and light skinned, men. I could quote to you an op-ed by Mac D’Alessandro, a member of this congregation, at length and observe “that unless we act quickly, there are going to a lot more Trayvon Martins out there.” I could tell you that Mac’s parents taught him, no matter how humiliating the situation, to always respond to the police “Yes, sir” and not offer “the slightest bit of expressed indignation” if he, as a black man, did not want to end up “physically assaulted or worse.” But if I spent all morning doing that I would be delivering more of a lecture than a sermon and I expect that many of your eyes would glaze over, and your hearts would harden, in a haze of depressing statistics and horrifying narratives.

The purpose of this sermon is to aid us in thinking about how we can be present to justice. I want to advance the thesis that being present to justice isn’t so much about being aware of injustice but learning to act in a different way. President Obama made a similar point this week in his statement on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case when he said, “…in families and churches and workplaces… ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

The Martin case and the Supreme Court decision have both had me thinking about the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement. Many of the leaders and activists in that movement understood that while it is important to change racist and unjust laws it is more important to change racist attitudes. Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without that a revolution in values “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” would continue to reign. No matter what the law, if people do not change their behavior towards each other racism will continue to be fact of life.

Among the civil rights leaders who advocated this view is Staughton Lynd. Lynd is not one of the most well known or important of the civil rights activists. But he was present at, and was involved with, many of the crucial events of the movement. He taught at Spellman College in Atlanta in the early 1960s. He was an advisor to the Student National Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, there and throughout the South. He was most notable for his involvement in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which he served as one of the two co-chairs of the Freedom Schools. He achieved his greatest notoriety a few years later when he was fired from Yale for his political activism and black listed from the academy. Since then Lynd has written a dozen books on the history of the civil rights, labor and anti-war movements and been a tireless activist for social justice. His books balance the scholarly and the personal. Like many a great teacher, they are illustrated with numerous parables. This one comes from Freedom Summer and is found in the memoir “Stepping Stones” which he co-wrote with his wife Alice: “One morning that summer I woke up early in the room I had rented near the Summer Project headquarters. I went over to the office. Someone was already there. It was Jim Forman, national chairperson of SNCC. He was sweeping the floor. He is the only person in a similar position of authority whom I have ever encountered performing such a task. Alice and I attempt to act likewise.”

This story encapsulates Lynd’s vision of justice. In it a black man, Forman, and a white man, Lynd, are working side-by-side to create a better society. Both are sufficiently dedicated to the vision to risk their lives. The Civil Rights activists were frequently threatened with violence. Freedom Summer went ahead even after, just as it was beginning, three of its volunteers were murdered. Despite this existential threat Forman and Lynd continued to work together. The society that they sought to create was more radical than one which simply contained racial equality. They wanted a society filled with such a sense of egalitarianism that the national chairman of important organization could be found sweeping the floor. In such a society all work would understood to be important. In the society where every kind of work is seen as important every worker has dignity. The slogan of the garbage workers strike that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed supporting was “I am a Man.” The society that Lynd wants is one in which all people, be they garbage workers or important leaders, have value. Lynd’s parable suggests that the way in which to bring about that society is not to talk about it. It is to act as if it already exists. And that means that everyone, even the most important person, lends a hand in cleaning the office.

So, that is Lynd’s vision of justice. What is yours? My friend Chris Crass, from the anti-racist organizing collective the Catalyst Project, has developed a fantastic guided meditation to help people imagine just world. If your congregation is like most groups that I have worked with you have not had many opportunities to do such imagining.

This is unfortunate. We know that every movement for justice begins with imagining that the world can be different than it is. The abolitionists who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until the Civil War slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. This despite the fact that slavery was the bedrock of the United States's economy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King's words, "the audacity to believe" that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of the Jim Crow South have been overturned.

What do you have the audacity to believe? If tomorrow, the world you are working to create was brought into being, what would it look like? I invite you get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your chair. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the life force. As you exhale, feel your body releasing your stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain into the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working toward creating. What is your vision for social justice? We all see a lot of violence and harm institutionally and interpersonally. If we could re-imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world look like? What would it look like in your family or in your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how? What kind of institutions or resources would be in your neighborhood? What kind of services would there be? What would they look like? What would the values of the economy be based on? How would decisions get made about things affecting your neighborhood? How would conflict be dealt with? What kind of activities might be going on? Can you think about other countries or communities? Do the ways they are organized and the values they share inspire you? Are there things that you draw from your community or family that inspire parts of your vision? When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.

As we move to the close of the sermon, I want to share with you two of the most enduring images of the better world that is coming. The first of these is present in Allen Ginsberg poem “Psalm III” which we heard a little earlier this morning. Ginsberg commences his piece: “To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.” He concludes: “I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.” The beginning and the conclusion of the poem invert the normal order of things. The holy is found first in the cockroach and on skid row. It does not exist solely in the delicate flower.

This sense of inversion, the standing of the presumed order of things on its head is one of the most enduring tropes about justice. Throughout the Bible we find images of the world turned upside. In that world, as Jesus would have it, “the last will be first, and the first last.”

Maybe the most radical statement of inversion are found in another set of words by Jesus, often called the beatitudes. I imagine that you have heard them before. Whether you have or you have not, they bear repeating. The verses that people are most familiar with appear in the Gospel of Luke as: “Blessed are you who are in need; the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who now go hungry; you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now; you will laugh.” Most people, however, forget the next few verses, probably because they are more challenging to the standing social order. It is all good and well to say that those in need will be satisfied or those who weep will soon laugh. It is more difficult to hear: “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.”

The theologian Harvey Cox observes that this second part of the beatitudes, what he calls the “woes” “do not appear in church school materials and they are rarely the text for sermons.” For people with even a modicum of privilege, the prospect of turning the world upside down is a scary one. Scary as it may be, the image remains a necessary. Cox argues elsewhere that “our most potent resource [for building a better world is]... the human imagination.” Imagining the world turned upside down simultaneously awakens a sense of the possible and highlights reigning injustices.

The filmmaker and author Michael Moore penned an editorial about racial injustice that turns the world upside down. It came out more than a decade ago and begins, “I don't know what it is, but every time I see a white guy walking towards me, I tense up. My heart starts racing, and I immediately begin to look for an escape route and a means to defend myself. I kick myself for even being in this part of town after dark.” Moore goes onto observe “person who has ever harmed me in my lifetime… has been a white person.” It is, of course, worse than that as he reminds his readers that white people have “started every war America has been in,” were responsible for the Holocaust and the genocide of North America’s indigenous peoples. He states, “You name the problem, the disease, the human suffering, or the abject misery visited upon millions, and I'll bet you 10 bucks I can put a white face on it faster than you can name the members of 'NSync.”

Moore’s point, and mine, is not to trigger a sense of white guilt. It is instead to prompt the question, “why is it exactly that I should be afraid of black people?” Imagining the world turned upside down can help us ask the right questions rather than focusing on the wrong ones. President Obama engaged in a similar act of imagination this week when he said “I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?”

Part of the answer to our question: what does it mean to be present to justice? is clearly being present to the possibilities, and the truths, that the imagination sparks. A second possible answer can be seen in another passage from the Christian New Testament, one also from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just healed a group of lepers and he’s being questioned by a group of Pharisees. The Pharisees were amongst the social activists of their day and they wanted to know when the Kingdom of God was going to come. That is to know when and where they could find justice. Jesus answers, “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 within you!”

Jesus’s statement can alternatively be translated, “the kingdom of God is among you!” If the verse is translated as “among you” then it suggests to me that the kingdom of God, which is another way of speaking of the presence of justice in our lives, can be lived right now in the way that we treat each other. If the verse is translated as “within you” it similarly suggests that the kingdom is to be found in the way that we live our lives. It suggests that the kingdom is encountered when we look inside ourselves and discover what Immanuel Kant called “the moral law within.” Whether the verse is translated as “among you” or “within you” it suggests that we need not wait for some distant eschatological event to live our vision of justice. We can start doing so right now. Waiting for justice will only delay it.

If we want to see racism disappear we need to begin by interrogating all of the places where racism exists in our lives and seek to eradicate it there. It is not a matter of simply speaking out. It is a matter of changing behavior. And we each have the power to do that. Do you have a friend or relative who places the blame for urban violence on people of color? Challenge them. Do people of other races and ethnic groups make you uncomfortable? Do you avoid them? Change that. Join the NAACP or another anti-racist organization like Boston’s Black and Pink, which is devoted to supporting BGLT prisoners, most of whom are people of color. Visit an African American or immigrant religious community.

Understanding that the Kingdom of God is within and among us means understanding that we have the power to change the world through our actions. Each of us can take action, whether the gestures we make are grand or small. Staughton Lynd, after all, found Jim Forman’s choice to sweep the office floor just as inspiring as all of his other work for justice.

As a religious community, we Unitarian Universalists have long known this. Our theology has always had a decisively this worldly focus. Instead of waiting for the kingdom of God to arrive we have sought to build it here. Our religious ancestors emphasized the religion of Jesus, his parables, his stories and his example, because they believed, as theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, we are called we called to be citizens “not of of somewhere else but of here.”

Let us continue that tradition. Let us answer the question: what does it mean to be present to justice by seeking to actualize the visions we each found this morning. Let us imagine the world upside down and be present to the Kingdom of God that is both within and among us. Doing so is the only way that we ensure that one day, be it distant or soon, we will be able to say that there are no more Trayvon Martins. Young black men will not believe that they must always say “yes, sir” to the police or fear walking home at night with a bag of candy and container of ice tea. Instead, they will stride through the streets confident that everyone they encounter will see them as children of the divine, just like everyone else. May it be so.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jul 14, 2013

Sermon: Present to Each Other

preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, July 14, 2013

I wrote this morning’s sermon before the news came that George Zimmerman had been acquitted. The news came late enough in the evening that I didn’t have time to substantively change it. Yet I feel I must address it, however briefly, before we can proceed with the sermon that I originally prepared. If you are like me you are probably feeling a mixture of emotions: outrage, confusion, disgust, despair... I encourage you to sit with those emotions. I will. And next week my sermon will focus on this injustice more intensely.

Whatever your emotions, the facts of the Zimmerman case are clear. Zimmerman, a man armed with a gun, got out of his car and shot to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Only Zimmerman will ever know the exact sequence of events that led up to the shooting. Only the jury will know precisely why they found Zimmerman not guilty.

This morning, however, we know four things. We know that for the thousandth time or the ten thousandth time or maybe the millionth time since Europeans arrived on this continent a light skinned man has killed a dark skinned man and suffered little legal consequence. We know that if the situation had been reversed, if Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmerman, the verdict would have almost certainly been different. We know that what happened to Trayon Martin happens to hundreds of black men in this country every year. This is true even if we remember but a handful of their names—Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant… And we know that know that for this to change everything must change: the judiciary; the police; the enduring structures of white supremacy; the way we relate, as individuals and as a society, to guns and violence; what we hold in our hearts. It all must change.

And so, before I proceed with my sermon, let us have a prayer for change.

Ella Baker said: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest…”

With these words in mind, let us pray for a society in which everyone, no matter their skin color, will be able to walk safely through the streets;

Let us pray for an end to gun violence;

Let us pray for the dissolution of legal system that consistently has different outcomes for people with dark skin than it does for people with light skin;

Let us pray that we have the strength as individuals, and as a religious community, to help bring about these changes.

Amen.

My sermon this morning is a reflection on the question: What does it mean to be present to each other? If you were here last week you might remember that I am serving this month as your summer minister, leading worship and proving pastoral care coverage. The four services I am leading form a sermon series on Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. Last week I asked: What does it mean to be present? Next week I will ask: What does it mean to be present to justice? This morning, however, I am asking: What does it mean to be present to each other?

I begin with a story about the Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also called the Baal-Shem, the master of God’s Name. He was one of the greatest Rabbis who ever lived. In 18th century Eastern Europe he founded the Jewish mystical movement called Hasidim. Legend has it that he was a great miracle worker. There are dozens of stories that describe his powers.

One such story has been preserved by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber in his collection of Hasidic tales. It is said that on the evening after Yom Kippor, the Jewish New Year, the moon remained hidden behind the clouds. The Baal-Shem could not go outside and say the Blessing of the New Moon. This weighed heavy on him. He concentrated all of his power on the moon hoping that its light would push away the grey cover. It was in vain. No matter how hard he prayed the clouds grew thicker and the moon’s shine more obscure. At last he gave up in despair.

While the Baal-Shem sat in his study praying his followers gathered in the front room of his house and began to dance. They knew nothing of his despair. They only knew that the evening after the New Year was an evening given over to joy and feasting. Their dancing grew more and more ecstatic. At last they could wait for the Baal-Shem no longer. They burst into his chamber dancing and singing. He sank into gloom; his prayers inadequate for the holiday. His followers, oblivious to his misery, whirled round him. As they did someone called from outside. The clouds had disappeared. The curve of the new moon shone more brilliantly than it ever had before.

Buber is one of the theologians who has dealt most directly with our question: What does it mean to be present to each other? In I and Thou, his most famous book, he claims that it is only through knowing the other that we can ever know ourselves. In Buber’s understanding, to be present to each other is to be present to, to discover, ourselves.

The story from the Baal-Shem seems to offer a different lesson. Instead of suggesting that we know ourselves through others, it suggests that the power of the religious community is, at least sometimes, greater than the power of even the most devout individual. The Baal-Shem could not part the clouds, but the whirling ecstatic prayers of his followers could. This story might seem an inadequate answer to our question. If so, I admit that I am being intentionally sloppy in my theology. I am not trying to completely answer my question. Instead I am hoping to provoke you into thinking about it and, in doing so, gently goad you in finding your own answer. My stories are meant as gestures towards answers, not answers themselves.

The story from the Baal-Sheem contains something of what it means to be present to each other but only something. The experience of being present with each other is often an experience that is beyond words. Such experiences frequently do not make good stories. I find them in the mundane moments of family life. A description of the act of playing with my six year old, building a lego castle together or throwing rocks into the river, does not offer a narrative thread. The same is true of intimate moments with my partner or important exchanges with my fourteen year old. It is precisely because such relationships are usually the most important in our lives that they are the most difficult to describe. The self-revelation, the sense of becoming, that is available through them has been for me, and is I suspect for most people, a slow sense of unfolding rather than jolt of self-recognition.

Visual art, particularly photography, can, sometimes, illustrate this unfolding when narrative fails. Consider the work of Czech artist Marketa Luskacova. Trained during the Soviet era as a sociologist, she has spent her career creating intimate images of ordinary, often marginalized, people. Some of her most compelling photographs capture routine moments of becoming, of gaining self-knowledge through the daily encounter with the other. In one, a woman cradles a sleeping child, probably her son. Her legs extended, back straight, and glance off center she appears present to both the child and herself. Behind her sit two more women and another child. The five appear unified, their individual identities related to, and informed by, the identities of each of the others. In a second photograph, three peasant women rest against half-doors, their austere grab of loose fitting dresses and head scarves framed by rough grained wood, aged stone and plaster. All three look out at the camera together, the moment suggesting a long intimacy and a sense of rootedness. One holds a book, maybe a Bible, and appears to have taken a break from reading, probably to the others. Both images suggest that these people know themselves through those who surround them.

Let me now stray from the routine and offer you another story, this time from my own life. I have been involved in the labor movement for close to fifteen years. During that time I have done some union organizing. My experiences organizing unions have been important, in part, because they have challenged me to develop relationships with people who initially I have little in common. Dan McKanan, the Emerson chair at Harvard, describes such relationships as prophetic encounters, interactions which change one or both of the participants understanding of the world and of themselves.

The organizer’s basic tool is what we call the one-on-one. The one-on-one is exactly what it sounds like, a conversation between two people. The objective of the one-on-one is for one person to get the other more involved in the union. The method is that of relationship building. The key to the one-on-one is simply to listen, to learn and to share. Listen to someone share their experiences, learn what troubles them and share something about your own troubles and, maybe, suggest a way forward together.

The most uncomfortable, and transformative, one-on-one I conducted was with someone I will call Frank. I was maybe twenty six. Frank was in his late fifties. We were organizing bike messengers and Frank was one of the oldest, and most respected, messengers in the city. We thought that he was essential to our organizing efforts.

Frank wanted to meet me at a biker bar after work. Bars are the worst place to talk about union business. They are noisy, there are often lots of other people about and there is alcohol. I tried to get Frank to meet at another location but he was insistent. If we were going to meet we were going to meet in the bar.

When I arrived Frank was already there with a couple of other messengers. I placed my order and we grabbed a booth together. Frank and I discussed the union, his reasons for being interested in it and his fears of what it might lead to for a while. His previous experiences with unions had been negative. I listened to his concerns and after about an hour I managed to convince Frank that we were trying to build a different sort of organization. I asked Frank if he would be willing to commit to working with the union. He said yes.

After our business was finished we returned to the other part of the bar and Frank introduced me to his friends. They made some polite chit-chat and then, as I was leaving, they then started to crack sexist and homophobic jokes.

I found Frank’s behavior offensive. His actions made me uncomfortable. It seemed to me at the time, and it seems to me now, that I was being tested. There was a vast cultural and class difference between us. Frank and his friends wanted to know if I would accept them as they were or if I would tell them how they were supposed to behave.

This was not an easy choice. I did not want to stand silent in the face of such commentary. But at the same time I thought that saying something might end all chances for future conversation. I might come off as just another person with more education and privilege telling Frank and his friends what to think and how to behave. So I choose to say nothing. I probably would have reacted differently if a woman or someone from the GLBT community had been present. But they were not.

Some of you may be angry with me for not saying anything. You most likely believe that sexism and homophobia are things that should be confronted whenever and wherever they appear, all else be damned. If so you might argue that I am, after all, a straight white male and the comments were not directed at me. I had the privilege not to speak out. This may be true. But to be present to Frank in that moment meant to accept him as he was rather than I would have him be.

My choice to accept Frank for who he was proved to be a transformative experience for both us. After our night at the bar he became more and more involved with the union. He helped to organize a strike and he was elected by his co-workers to negotiate with his boss. Perhaps most remarkable, he was crucial in getting the dispatcher at his company, a gay man, to support the union. With the dispatcher's support the couriers at the company were able to win the first pay raise anyone in the industry had received in over ten years. The pay raise benefited close to one hundred people.

The question: what does it mean to be present to each other is not a question with easy answers. Sometimes moments of presence bring discomfort; sometimes the possibility of transformation.

Religious communities, like labor unions, contain within them the possibility of a prophetic encounter. James Luther Adams, perhaps the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologian of the later half of the twentieth century, has a story about such an encounter that has become a parable for some. Perhaps you have heard it before. Adams, it seems, was a member of the Board of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago during the late 1940s. At the time, the congregation was intentionally trying to racially integrate. One member of the Board was opposed and spoke out at meetings about the minister preaching too many sermons on integration.

Adams reports that, “One evening at a meeting he opened up again. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about [Jews] and blacks?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’”

Adams queried, “Will you tell us what is the purpose of the church?”

The Board trustee shot back, “I’m no theologian, I don’t know.”

Adams, or perhaps it was the minister, was unrelenting, “But you have ideas… you are a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.”

The argument went on until around one o’clock in the morning. Adams writes that at that point “our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is… Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’”

Adams concludes his story, and his essay, with these words: “Someone, a former evangelical, suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’

There is the vocation of the minister and the church, to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsive to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transformative power.”

Some years ago, Alice Blair Wesley, a student of Adams, gave a series of lectures in which, following her teacher’s lead, she placed the practice covenant at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. As she understands them, covenants are statements that attest that “the member’s loyalty in the church should be only to the spirit of love, working in their own hearts and minds.” This love is not to be directed to some abstract ideal. Instead it is to be given to the other members of the congregation. But it is not given to them only. It is also given to what Adams described as “a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transformative power.” That power is named by some as God. Others might find Buber’s description more compelling, “That before which we live, that in which we live, that out of which and into which we live, the mystery…”

I offered Joy Harjo’s poem “Remember” this morning because it suggests that mystery. The mystery includes “the sky that you were born under” and the whole of the universe. Like Adams’s parable or the story from the Baal-Shem, it suggests that when we are present with each other we are present to more than just each other.

Maybe this is because, on some level, the self we experience, the “I” that observes and acts, is more illusory than real. We humans are social creatures. We live in complicated societies. We are dependent on each other. This can be seen even in basic actions. I, for example, drove here this morning. My car was built and designed by someone else. The road is maintained by state and municipal workers. The gasoline that fueled the car was refined and extracted far from here. Most actions that seem independent, that appear to be individual actions, are actually social actions.

This might be a partial answer to our question: What does it mean to be present to each other? Perhaps being present to each other means being open to the reality of our interconnection rather than living in the illusion of our independence. Perhaps it means that each of us is not alone and that we are on the planet together. Or, as Harjo would put it:

“Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
Remember.”

Let us remember that for each other, for Trayvon Martin, for George Zimmerman and for all the people of the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jul 9, 2013

The Present Now: Video

First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, posts video of their worship services. For the rest of the month I will be posting the videos as they become available. Here is the video from Sunday's service "The Present Now."

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jul 7, 2013

Sermon: The Present Now

preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist, July 7, 2013

This past week has been, more than anything, devoted to picking wild black raspberries. There are two large patches of them near my apartment. Each day I spend at least an hour filling a quart sized plastic yogurt container with the dark purple seedy fruit. It is a laborious process. It requires careful attention. I wear long pants and short sleeves. The pants protect my legs and allow me to step into the middle of a bramble. The short sleeves let me maneuver my arms without getting caught by thorns. Unfortunately, short sleeves offer little protection and this morning I am something of a mess of abrasions.
The effort is worthwhile. When else but during wild berry season can I eat, and feed my family, whole greedy fistfuls of delicate fruit? My mother has a delightful raspberry sauce recipe. I have made and frozen as much of it as possible. When winter comes there will be a sweet tart taste of wild summer waiting.

I am not telling you this to make you jealous. I imagine that there are brambles in abundance here in Milton. I realize that picking wild berries is not everyone’s idea of fun. You have to be seriously dedicated to gathering your own food to brave a maze of thorn induced hash marks on your skin. I am talking about picking wild black raspberries because gathering them is an activity that requires absolute presence of mind. There, through that shaded twist of primrose lie four dozen perfect fruits. How to get to them? How to navigate the rose and then the bramble? Where to put my feet? Where to move my arms? How many to pull from the stem? Is this one ripe? Does that one have mold?

Be present to the moment. It is a cliche. But like most cliches it contains more than a kernel of truth. As the neuroscientist, race car driver, particle physicist, rock star and Buddhist Buckaroo Banzai says in the cult movie of the same name, “Wherever you go, there you are.” This present moment is the only one that we have.

As you may know, I am serving as your summer minister for the next month, leading Sunday services and providing pastoral care coverage. During our time together I am going to explore the idea of Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. By that I mean, Unitarian Universalism is a religion that calls us to be present to the moment, to each other, to justice and to the holy. Each week the service will be organized around a question relating to one of these four kinds of presence. This week I ask: What does it mean to be present to the moment?
I do not intend to fully answer my questions. Instead, I hope to provoke you to think about them. Religious questions are not easy and in the end we must each find our own answers. What it means for me to be present to the moment will be different than what it means for you for the simply reason that we are different people. This is one of the great claims of Unitarian Universalism, that theological reflection begins with personal experience. Since each of our sets of personal experience are different the theologies that we construct out of them are different as well. How we wrestle with this relativist angel and understand that the truth we find is, at least somewhat, subjective without devolving into moral relativism is something I will attend to later in this sermon series. In the meantime I ask that you suspend whatever disbelief you may have and imagine that it is possible.

To aid in this suspension of disbelief, much of my preaching over the next month will take the form of parables. There are two reasons for this. First, people respond better to stories, and parables are a form of story, than they do to more abstract discourse. Second, I think that theology takes place at three levels. The first level is that of personal experience. We have an experience that we need to make sense of; I am confronted with an abundance of wild black raspberries. The second level is that of the parable, the stories we tell each other, and our selves, about our experiences; I describe to you my berry picking activity. The third level is that which theologians call systematics or dogmatics; I compare my narrative and experience of berry picking with the narratives of others and try to distill some religious truth from the resulting mess.

Parables are often more provocative than the systematic theology that they inspire. Parables can be interrupted variously, systematics have a tendency to appear more fixed. There is a Buddhist story that you may know that I find helpful when thinking through the relationship between experience, parable and systematic theology. Many years ago, in some distant land, a young woman came across a group of monks standing on top of a hill. They were all standing with their arms outstretched and their index fingers pointing at the sky. The moon was crystalline; the stars softly brilliant. The woman stared at the monks’ arms for a long time until one of them finally turned to her and said, “Never mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.”

The sight of the moon was the experience. Whatever words the monks might have shared amongst each other or used in their minds to describe it were parables. The finger is like the refined world of systematic theology. It can only point the way to the moon. It must never be mistaken for the moon itself. Words are symbols, they represent something, rather are something. The further we move toward pure language and away from experience itself the easier it becomes to stray from whatever religious truth we seek. This is undoubtedly why so many religious communities spend so much time arguing over the finer points of theological doctrine.

Parables, of course, are not immune to a diversity of interpretations. But because they are stories about experiences they can point us in a direction that more abstract theology cannot. The theologian Sallie McFague suggests that the “parabolic... possibility... is, not ‘do as I do,’ but ‘see what I am’ and then enter into your own soul and discover your prime direction, your master form, your center and focus.” This is undoubtedly why so much of the world’s great religious literature takes the form of parables. Great religious leaders too have long been fond of parables. Jesus was a master parable maker and the gospels—whether canonical or non-canonical—present his life as a form of parable.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well known of Jesus’s parables. Here it is as found in the Gospel of Luke: “A man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, who stripped and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down by the same road, and when he saw him he went past on the other side. So, too a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him went past on the other side. But a Samaritan who was going that way came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved to pity. He went up and bandaged his wounds, bathing them with oil and wine. Then he lifted him on to his own beast, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. Next day he produced two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him; and if you spend more, I will repay you on my way back.’”

All of Jesus’s parables, this one included, have been variously interpreted. The author of Luke suggests an interpretation of it by having Jesus tell it in response to the question, “But who is my neighbor?” Whoever wrote Luke closes the parable with another rhetorical question, “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus’s questioner answered “The one who showed him kindness.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do as he did.”

While the parable is clearly about compassion for the stranger, I suggest that it also contains another layer. It challenges us to be present to the pain of the world that surrounds us. The Samaritan is present to the pain of the world. The priest and the Levite both try to avoid. When they see the man lying on the side of the road they cross over to the other side. The Samaritan chooses not to the ignore the pain. Rather than avoiding it he engages with it. To be present to the moment does not mean only be present to the moments of pleasure in our lives. It means to be present to all of it, the pain, the sorrow, the suffering and the joy and delight.

I would be a liar if I said that I always succeed in being present to pain. I follow the example of the priest and the Levite on an almost daily basis. Harvard Square is filled with people asking for money and other forms of assistance. I rarely engage them. It almost always seems inconvenient to do so. I am in a hurry. I have to get to class. I do not want to give someone money. The parable of the Good Samaritan stands as a rebuke to my own behavior. It reminds me that if I want to be present to the moment then I must be present to the suffering of others. And I must learn to be present even at those times when it is inconvenient.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han is one of the best known contemporary teachers of the practice of being present to the moment. Buddhists in his tradition call the practice mindfulness. Nhat Han encourages us to be mindful not only when confronted with suffering or with joy but when moving through the banal routines of life. He offers this advice about washing dishes: “If while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not 'washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.' What's more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes....If we can't washes the dishes, chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either.”

Occupying a mid-point between Nhat Han’s dish washing advice and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Louis Gluck’s poem “Celestial Music” is about the challenge of recognizing the ordinary suffering of nature, the truth that death and pain are all around us, and then remaining present to beauty. In her poem neither Gluck nor anyone she cares about suffers. She and her friend “sit by the side of the road” and open themselves to the world that surrounds them. Gluck admits that when faced with “a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it” she is “quick to shut my eyes.” Opening her eyes she is rewarded with “watching the sun set; from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.” Being present brings with it the risk of suffering but it also contains the possibility of “clouds, snow, a white business in the trees like brides leaping to a great height.”

Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition encourages us not to shut our eyes. For generations our focus has been on this world rather than on whatever may come next. Our Universalist ancestors, as you might recall, believed that everyone in the end would be reconciled with God. This led them to think, as Gordon McKeeman has put it, “We are all going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well start learning to get along now.” For our Unitarian ancestors the emphasis was slightly different. William Ellery Channing claimed that purpose of religion was to help people grow in what he called the “likeness to God.” He believed that each person is born with that likeness within and the goal of life is not to be found in the afterlife. It is to be found in this life when we come to know “the bright image of God” inside us. Channing thought that one way which we discover that bright image is by learning to be present to what surrounds us. As he put beautiful in his famous sermon “Likeness to God:” “How much of God may be seen in the structure of single leaf, which, though so frail as to tremble in every wind, yet holds connections and living communications with the earth, the air, the clouds, and the distant sun, and through these sympathies with the universe, is itself a revelation of an omnipotent mind.”

The this worldly focus of Unitarian Universalism means that one of the most important roles for Unitarian Universalist clergy like myself, and Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one, is to help people be present to this world. This means encouraging people to unplug from the distractions of the digital world, to revel in each other, to savor what the world offers and to be open to suffering. Many times I have been told by non-Unitarian Universalists that we do funerals and memorial services exceptional well. There is a reason for this. Rather than focusing on the deceased’s journey after life we direct our attention to the pain and the loss of the living.

The call to presence and the present moment is not exclusively, or even primarily, about pain. Nor is it about joy. It is rather to recognize that only moment we have is now and that we must make the most of it whatever it is. In that spirit, as we prepare to close, I invite you to think of a time when you were truly present. What was it like? What did it feel like in your body? Is that moment now? Are you recalling some other moment, some distant moment, brought forth into your consciousness through the fog of memory? How do you know when you are alive to the present? Are your senses more alive? Is your mind still? What do you need to do to be present? To pay attention to your breathing? To feel the air come in? To sense it flowing out?

I know that I am present when I concerned with only what is happening now. When I have been picking raspberries I have only been picking raspberries. I have not worried about what comes next, what I will be doing later in the day or even the topic of my sermon for Sunday. Black raspberry brambles have a delightful trick for helping me stay present. When I slip from the present to the haze of the past or illusion of the future I am rewarded with a small laceration that draws me back into the present. It is a helpful reminder that wherever my mind may wish to be there is only the now.

There is only the now. As Gluck writes, “It’s this moment we’re both trying to explain.” All we really have is this moment. May we each learn to be present to it, whatever it brings: black raspberry brambles, dishes, the suffering of strangers, our own pain, the universe’s reflection in a trembling leaf, ecstasy and joy... So may it be, Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Apr 26, 2013

Unknown Visions of Love (Video)

Earlier this month I preached my sermon "Unknown Visions of Love" at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist. Apparently the congregation records and uploads video of all of their services. If you'd like to see me preaching you can view the video here. Once I'm done with finals I'll probably spend some time analyzing the video to see if I can figure out some ways to improve my preaching by watching it. 

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon

Jan 7, 2013

Let's Make It a Jubilee Year!

as preached at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian, January 6, 2013

This morning I have the rather dubious distinction of being your first sabbatical preacher. Right now, Jeff’s absence is probably almost barely noticeable and my presence seems more like a regularly scheduled break in his preaching schedule than the beginning of his sabbatical. I suspect that for many of you, that means that the presence of a guest in your pulpit does not yet seem grating. It is possible that at some point that might shift. The steady march of guest preachers may begin to wear upon you. You might start to count the Sundays until your regular preacher returns.

That scenario is probably the secret hope of every minister on sabbatical. If that does not happen it should not prevent a sabbatical from being a special time for both congregation and clergy. For a minister, a sabbatical is an opportunity to retool and rejuvenate after several years of the daily grind of ministry. For a congregation, a sabbatical is a chance to engage in the act of re-imagining itself.

Ministry is tough work. It might not seem like it to lay people, but the job of a parish minister can be grueling. We are blessed to share with people some of the most important, and intimate, moments of their lives. We officiate at weddings. We organize child dedications. We provide pastoral care in times of personal and communal crisis. Perhaps most importantly we accompany the dying, and those who survive them, on the journey to death. This is a great honor. There are few other people in our society--perhaps doctors, nurses or funeral directors--whose role in life includes sitting with people in the final hours and contemplating with them, and with their loved ones, the abyss that separates this world from whatever comes, or does not come, next.

“Time and tide wait for no man,” reads one 16th century proverb. Death is much the same and the cost, for a parish minister, of accompanying the dying is that we must always be on call. I see this more clearly now that I am working on my doctorate rather than serving in a parish. When I worked in the parish my time was never entirely my own. If a congregant was dying, or seriously ill, I had to leave the house to be with them no matter the hour. This impacted my family life. It meant that sometimes I had to stop playing with my son, or doing homework with my step-daughter, in order to be with a parishioner. On several occasions it meant interrupting a holiday meal, for some reason it usually seemed to be Thanksgiving, to dash out the door to the Intensive Care Unit.

I do not have to worry about that now and, for next several months, neither does Jeff. Hopefully he will use his time away his regular pastoral duties to refresh himself so that he can return to you equipped with new skills and new ideas. However Jeff uses his sabbatical, his time away can be a time of renewal not just for him but for you as well. You have had the same minister for the last fifteen years. That is close to half of a generation. Some of the children who were in the nursery when Jeff began his time in Salem are now living independently of their parents. People who were middle aged when he arrived are now elders. Many of the elders who greeted him are now gone.

Fifteen years is a significant period in the life of any congregation. It is long enough for a minister and a congregation to become habituated to each other. For some of you it might be difficult to imagine the congregation without your current minister. Even if you can imagine congregational life without him you are almost certainly not used to functioning in his absence. Longer term ministries like Jeff’s bring with them many special gifts. The average tenure of a contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister is seven years. Minister’s who stay longer than that give their congregations the gifts of stability and intimacy. They know their congregations, and the communities in which they are situated, better than their colleagues.

Jeff’s sabbatical, and his accompanying absence, are an opportunity for you to think carefully about the other gifts of his ministry. It is a time for you to ask yourselves: How has Jeff’s ministry changed this congregation? What are things that Jeff does for us that we could do for ourselves? Which of Jeff’s gifts are we underutilizing? What could we do differently to allow him to spend more time using those gifts?

Asking yourselves such questions might help lessen any anxiety you feel about Jeff’s sabbatical. In a congregation like yours, where the minister has served for so long, there is a natural tendency to defer to him. This means that no matter how careful the planning has been the minister’s sabbatical will lead to a certain sense of uncertainty. People may well asks themselves, “How are things going to get done in the minister’s absence?” And the lack of a regular worship leader can also be unsettling. Over the next several months you might find yourselves wondering what worship is going to look like from one week to the next.

That, however, is for the future. This is merely the first Sunday of your minister’s sabbatical. That it falls on the Epiphany and the first Sunday of the New Year makes it the perfect opportunity to think about the religious roots of sabbatical more broadly and the profoundly radical concept of the jubilee with which those roots are intertwined.

The sabbatical, as you may know, is a profoundly biblical idea. It is closely tied to the concept of the sabbath itself. You might remember how the sabbath is first suggested in Genesis, at the close of a creation story, where it is written, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation He had done.” This passage suggests that rest and work are linked. Even God wishes to rest after work. And this insight leads to the setting aside one day out every seven for rest and worship.

The sabbath is mentioned in numerous places throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. The sabbatical is not quite as prevalent but, nonetheless, it does receive generous treatment. In both Deuteronomy and Leviticus it appears as a law given by God. For whoever wrote these texts, the keeping of a sabbatical year was a requirement for living a religious life.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible lived in a largely agricultural society. Their understanding of the sabbatical was closely tied to the land. A passage in Leviticus reads, “But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest...” Many traditional farming techniques require letting land lie fallow every few years in order to maintain its fertility. The sabbatical year was meant to ritualize this practice.

A second aspect of the biblical sabbatical can be found in Deuteronomy. There the sabbatical year is tied to the forgiveness of debts. The text reads, “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.” The anthropologist David Graeber explains, in his recent book Debt; The First 5,000 Years, that such remissions help maintain social balance in agricultural societies. Such societies frequently function on debt. Each year farmers take out loans in advance of the harvest to help their families survive until the crops come in. Social arrangements, in such situations, are precarious. As Graeber describes them in ancient Mesopotamia, “If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the... fringes of urban civilization.”

The sabbatical year, or more likely the legal practice that inspired it, was the solution to this potential chaos. In ancient Mesopotamia, in the civilizations of Sumer and Babylon, the major banking institutions were also the major religious institutions. The large temples at the center of the cities were responsible for loaning farmers what they needed between harvests. These temples were controlled by the royalty. In order to preserve the social fabric it became practice, over time, for a new king to forgive all outstanding debt at the beginning of his reign. Those who reigned long enough might forgive the debt a few times. The sabbatical year, as found in the Hebrew Bible, was probably inspired by this practice.

The jubilee was envisioned as a sort of super sabbatical. It is described in great detail in Leviticus. During the jubilee all members of the various tribes and families were to return to their ancestral lands. Land holdings throughout society were to be broken up and returned to the families who originally possessed it. This reminded people that the land ultimately belonged to God. As the text proclaims, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers, resident with Me.”

The jubilee was, in short, a radical leveling of society. It returned all members to the same level. After it there were no rich and no poor. Each community member, each family, in the community had essentially the same amount of land. During the jubilee captives and slaves were also to be set free and the land was to be given a rest. Fields were not be planted. People were only supposed to eat, as the text put it, “the growth direct from the ground.”

Looked at from a contemporary perspective, the practice probably seems absurd. We live in a society fueled by debt. And most of us live lives very distant from the land. And most of us live far, very far, from the communities of our ancestors. For the people who authored Leviticus and Deuteronomy the practices of the jubilee and the sabbatical may have seemed equally impractical. Neither is mentioned in the various historical texts in the Hebrew Bible. No place in Samuel, Kings or Chronicles, all of which purport to narrate the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, is either a sabbatical or jubilee year described as being practiced.

This observation leads to the question: If the communities that authored Leviticus and Deuteronomy did not practice the jubilee then why should we care about their concept? It is hard to take people’s ethical injunctions seriously when they do not live up to their own standards.

There are a couple of different answers to this question. The first is that it is possible that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were not even authored by the same community that created the historical texts. Therefore, even though we conceive of them as part of single Hebrew Bible, the actual relationship between the texts is complicated. This answer can be viewed as a sort of intellectual dodge. It dismisses the issue by turning to biblical textual criticism. In the process it renders the Hebrew Bible something of an inconsistent mess.

A more satisfying answer is that what is contained in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is a moral vision for a community and what is described in historical texts is a chronicle of that community, usually, failing to live into that vision. The great strength of the Bible--both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament--is that it offers us with an alternate moral vision to the one that dominates mainstream culture. Perhaps rather than describe the laws that were followed by the biblical communities portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy played the same role in ancient times. Certainly the Hebrew prophets seemed to be offering more of an alternative moral vision than proclaiming the mainstream values of the society in which they lived. If you read the prophets you will find that most of the time they went around denouncing the moral failures of their community. In the passage preceding this morning’s text from Isaiah, for example, the prophet listed a litany of sins that his community was guilty of, “Rebellion, faithlessness to the Lord, And turning away from our God, Planning fraud and treachery, Conceiving lies and uttering them with the throat.”

The alternative moral vision found in parts of the Bible is just as useful today as was when recorded in Isaiah, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In order to matter today religious communities must present some sort of alternative moral vision to the one articulated by the dominant institutions in our society. Otherwise, religious communities risk merely becoming social clubs. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann envisions the role of the religious community this way. He writes, “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act.” Brueggemann’s solution to the religious community’s conundrum is to turn to the prophetic tradition, found in the Hebrew Bible, as a source for a counter morality to the prevailing social norms. If religion is to matter in our contemporary society it must do so by calling us to some vision larger than the one present in the glow of our digital devices. The morality as presented in the Bible is one such source for this vision. As Unitarian Universalists we know that it is not the only source. But that does mean it is not important source.

Many of the texts in the Bible are confusing and contradictory. The agricultural society which produced them was hugely different from our modern urban culture. Texts are almost always tied to the contexts that created them. This means that we may never truly understand exactly what was meant by one biblical text or another. That is not so important. The presence of biblical texts in our world is, at the very least, a helpful reminder that there have been, and are, other moral systems than the ones that dominate our culture today.

The anthropologist who I mentioned earlier, David Graeber, makes a similar point. Graeber has used anthropology to deconstruct the philosophical, or better theological, assumptions behind the academic discipline of economics. Much of classical economics is built around something called rational choice theory. This is the idea, coming from the Enlightenment, that human beings are inherently rational actors. As rational actors, the theory goes, we try to get the best terms possible out of any situation--be that profit, pleasure or happiness--for the least amount of effort or investment.

The problem with this theory is that people generally do not act this way. Much of the Western Christian theological tradition is founded on precisely the opposite idea. According to Augustine and his intellectual descendants human beings are inherently irrational. We are dominated by our willful impulses and can only turn to the morality of God through the grace of God.

We Unitarian Universalists have always had a problem with the Augustinian tradition. Our forebears wanted a greater role for reason and for free choice than it seems to allow. Fortunately, we do not need to turn to it to see that rational choice theory is flawed. We can look to many examples from non-Western cultures, and even our own, and see that people within them do not behave in such a way that might be described as rational.

One famous example comes from an anthropological study of the Inuit in Greenland that Graeber recounts. A well known anthropologist spent several years living with the Inuit trying to understand their culture. In order to do so he ate what they and procured in the same manner that they procured food. This meant that he hunted a lot. It appears, however, that he wasn’t very good at it. One day he came home hungry after an unsuccessful walrus hunt only to find one of neighbors, a successful hunter, dropping off several hundred pounds of walrus meat. When the anthropologist tried to thank the man he objected profusely: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts make one slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”

For the hunter, Graeber argues, being truly human meant refusing to try to make the kind of calculations that rational choice theory said he should. Instead of trying to get the best deal out of every situation the hunter instead shared his bounty with his anthropologist neighbor. You could argue that was the rational choice to make since at some point because the anthropologist, and not the hunter, might be successful in the hunt. That might be true but it ignores the reality that the anthropologist was probably a bad hunter. It also ignores the fact that in many instances, and for much of the discipline’s history, anthropologists have served as a sort vanguard for the cultural forces seeking to destroy traditional societies like the Inuit. Sometimes the people they study have been aware of this dynamic and provided sustenance for the anthropologists anyway. It is impossible to know exactly what the hunter was thinking but to ascribe to him purely rational motives is almost certainly not seeing him as a complex human being. As Graeber writes, “In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.”

This has always been an important question. It certainly is now as we find ourselves in the midst of a fractious political debate over the national debt. One of the core assumptions in the debate is that we should behave rationally and pay back the national debt. And that paying this debt is one of the highest obligations that we have to our children.

I am not so sure. I do not take rationality as the foundation of our humanity. I take it as imagination. Albert Einstein, you might remember, said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And I agree with him. You see, I believe that we have imagined, that is created, just about everything in our world and that so many of the things we take for granted, take as products of some natural law, are, in fact, products of the human imagination. The building we are worshiping in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, all began as ideas in someone’s head.

The same is true of debt, especially something as abstract as the national debt. It exists because people believe it exists. It is not that unlike the new Emperor’s clothes. We all agree that it is there. If we were all to agree that it should disappear then it would. It is telling that one of the solutions to the so called debt ceiling being proposed right now is to make up a new form of currency, a platinum coin. It is suggested that the Obama administration should mint a bunch of this coin and keep it in a government vault as surety. The proposal is, in other words, that the government should simply imagine more money to pay for the debt that has been collectively imagined.

Better, I think, to resort to the biblical notion of the jubilee. Instead of continuing with the debt ceiling debate maybe we should agree that most debt is imaginary and, like the Mesopotamian kings of old, forgive it. People affiliated with Occupy Wall St has started to do something like this with what they are calling the rolling jubilee. In this effort they are organizing people to buy up bad consumer debt, credit card and mortgage debt that no expects to be paid, for pennies on the dollar. Instead of then acting like a credit collection agency and making the debtor’s life miserable for years to come they are simply forgiving the debt.

Today is the first Sunday of the New Year. Let’s make this year a jubilee year. What if we were to begin the year by taking the concept of jubilee seriously and forgiving all of our debts? What would that look like? Could we forgive our personal debts? Could we forgive our social and collective debts? Are there small actions each of us could take to begin such a process of forgiveness? What would those actions look like?

As I leave you with those questions, I offer a refrain from Diane di Prima’s poem “Life Chant,” a poem that reminds me that there is more to life that rational choices and seeking maximal gain.

kids laughing on roofs on stoops on the beach in the snow
       may it continue
triumphal shout of the newborn
       may it continue
deep silence of great rainforests
       may it continue

May it continue. Happy New Year. Amen and blessed be.


CommentsCategories Sermon

Nov 19, 2012

The Infinite and the Finite

as preached at Goddard Chapel, Tufts University, Protestant Student Worship, November 18, 2012

Several years ago, when I lived in Southern California, I went to visit my great aunt Dorothy. Along the way I managed to get lost in Rancho Palos Verdes, a small town perched in the verdant mountains on the edge of the ocean. I zigged when I should have zagged and found myself driving along the coast. It was there that I saw a sign: "Whale Watching Site, Next Right." I had never seen whales before. So I pulled over, parked and walked to the cliff's edge.

And there they were, in the distance, tiny black specks cresting above the waves. I was so excited about seeing the whales that it took me a moment to notice an older man next to me. He was quiet and like me distracted by the whales. After a few moments of shared silence he started to talk. He told me about whales, their migratory patterns and the sixty some years of his life along the coast.

It was a strange moment. We were both caught in the glory of the ocean, its bounty and the wonder that is nature. And then, after the whales had moved on, we parted company without exchanging names.

The best moments of life are often like that interchange. They are moments of wonder in front of those things greater than ourselves--oceans, stars, the twin mysteries of birth and death--shared with loved ones and strangers. We never quite know what they will consist of--a conversation in the grocery store, a hike along a trail, a hand held in the hospital--or when they will happen. But when such moments come they leave us altered, our views of the world changed from what they were before.

Such experiences often leave me aware of my reality as a finite creature in a limitless universe. The ocean that I gazed upon, the mountain that I sat on, the sky that was filled with undulating clouds above me, are all more vast and more ancient than I. The spans of time they encapsulate--the ocean's billion years, the mountains millions--are beyond even the wildest reckoning of my mind's calculations. Such large numbers of years at first mean a lot, then even more than a lot and finally they are but symbols for lengths of time longer than I can comprehend.

It is the human task to make meaning from all of this mess, this richness. We are infinitesimal specks cursed and blessed with an awareness of limited our place in the cosmos. So much happened before we were born. So much will happen after we die. During our brief spans we glimpse but a fragment of what is. As the great American essayist and Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, "We wake and we find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended, there are stairs above us... which go out of sight."

The contemporary folksinger Ani Difranco puts it slightly differently in one of her early songs, "i was a long time coming / i'll be a long time gone," she sings. After this stark observation, Difranco's verse continues with another, "you've got your whole life to do something / and that's not very long."

The questions become: What, precisely, are we to do? If we are to make meaning, what meaning are we to make? How shall we live? What is our place in the world? These are major religious questions. They are asked upon the brink of the void, when we become aware of our limited place in the great order of things. We gaze into the heart of life and see it measured, as T. S. Eliot would have it, in coffee spoons--filled with trivia, slipping away even it as comes.

There are, broadly speaking, three tacks to be taken when searching for the answers to religious questions. The first tack is to embrace some overarching meta-narrative. The second is to find meta-narratives as insufficient and retreat into either nihilism or hedonism. The third is to seek a mid-point between the other two, rejecting the validity of meta-narratives while, at the same time, acknowledging the importance and power of the narrative in life. Let's briefly consider the efficacy of each tack.

A meta-narrative is a grand narrative that describes the structure, purpose and content of reality. Such narratives provide answers when answers are hard to find. They help the individual to understand their place in the world. The meta-narrative provides it adherents an overarching story and a role to play in that overarching story.

A common meta-narrative in our society, and one what that is familiar to most of us, is found in the basic outlines of orthodox Christian theology. God created the world. God created humanity. Humanity turned away from God and fell into sin. God then sent Jesus, his son, to redeem humanity from sin. Through his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus triumphed over both sin and death, the fruit of sin. By accepting Jesus salvation eternal life can be obtained.

The convenient thing about such a meta-narrative is that it provides all of the answers that one could seek in life. The structure, the purpose and the content of reality are all neatly defined. There is no need to look elsewhere. In moments of doubt assurance can be found by referring back to the meta-narrative.

For most of human history meta-narratives have held sway. They are present in all of the great religions of the world and have ordered most of the world's societies. In the 19th century the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and others began to call into question the traditional meta-narrative. The theory of evolution and the geological sciences challenged the idea that God created the world. More recently post-modernist philosophers have rejected meta-narratives as unsatisfactory because they oversimplify life and make claims of universal truth that, upon closer examination, are only the truths of particular communities.

This realization has left some to conclude that life has no meaning. Meta-narratives are found to be unsatisfactory but replaced with nothing. This can lead to our second tack, a sort of nihilism where people either give their lives over to hedonism, seeking pleasure, for example, in consumer goods, or despair. Gazing at the night sky, with its innumerable stars, they feel impossibly small and inadequate.

The third tack that people take when confronted with the reality of finite existence is to seek to make their own meaning. Meta-narratives may be acknowledged to be insufficient but narratives do not need to be. The meaning of life comes from what we either construct individually or construct together.

The essayist Loren Eisley writes eloquently about this in his well known piece "The Star Thrower." Eisley's essay takes place, like my story of the whales, on the ocean's edge. As he walked the "beaches of Costabel" Eisley contemplated the struggle for life and death as it is to be found in the wake of the ocean's tide. "Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms," he wrote.

A scientist and advocate for Darwin's theories, Eisley found life to be a brutal struggle for existence that ended inevitably in death. The great forces of nature give life, the ocean nurtures it, but, ultimately, he wrote, "the sea rejects its offspring." Describing the strength of the waves as they push living matter at the water's edge onto the sand, Eisley wrote that the animals cast out "cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them... upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the... bodies of the unprotected." Tiny creatures, caught by powers greater than themselves are rendered helpless and doomed.

This futile struggle against the brutal onslaught of death is, in Eisley's view, the natural order of things. There's no intrinsic meaning to be found here, just the incessant beat of the cresting water.

Amid this background Eisley found another drama playing out, what he called, the "vulturine activity...of the professional shellers." These are those who scamper the coast line in search of exposed shells and starfish to render into trinkets for tourists. Not content with merely witnessing the death and desolation of the beach's inhabitants the shellers further it through their commercial activity.

Walking the beach at the precipice of dawn, flashlight in his hand, Eisley encountered someone who rebelled against both these tidal dramas. Instead of preying off the dying, collecting them only to preserve their corpses, this man, who Eisley called "the star thrower" sought to prolong the lives of the living. Night after night he flung starfish back into the briny water, helping them to reach such depths and distances from the shore that they might survive.

To Eisley, the naturalist, such actions made no sense. They ran counter to what he described as the "tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death" that comprises life. After meeting the star thrower Eisley spent a sleepless night contemplating, in his words, "in all its overbearing weight, the universe itself." The selflessness of the star thrower should not have existed in the natural order of things. And yet it did.

In the curved arcs of the thrown stars Eisley saw meaning being made. Value was placed on the continuation of the lives of the starfish. This value was not intrinsic to the starfish from the naturalist's perspective. It was created by the star thrower himself. "The act was...an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero. A little whirlwind of commingling molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe," Eisley wrote. No inherent narrative existed. The star thrower and Eisley created one that offered a modicum of meaning, of purpose, the continuation of life for life's sake against "the insatiable waters of death." This narrative and these needless acts of compassion left them tinged with joy.

Like many of you, I imagine, I am like Eisley and the star thrower. Confronted with the gaping maw of the infinite I do not seek comfort in an all encompassing cosmic meta-narrative. Instead I look for meaning where I think it can be more honestly found, in the moment to moment, in the experience of connection that occurs when the finite brushes the infinite.

I had a series of such brushes the summer between my first and second years in seminary. As part of my ministerial training I was required to do a ten week internship as a hospital chaplain. I went into the experience terrified. Our society hides death and terminal illness in the corridors of sterilized medical facilities and somnambulant hospice centers. At twenty seven I had never experienced the loss of a close relative or seen a corpse anywhere other than a funeral home. I did not understand how I, with such scant experience, could provide comfort to the dying or solace to the grieving. I was frightened of how I would react when I stood next to someone crossing the threshold between life and death.

For these reasons internships as hospital chaplains are described by some as "boot camp for ministers." In a few short weeks they force the untested to confront their known and unknown baggage about mortality and suffering.

The tests and confrontations began almost as soon as I started. My internship supervisor believed that one learned by doing and reflecting. Within two days he had me and the other interns--almost all untried seminarians like myself--visiting patients by ourselves. After our visits we would check-in with him and describe our encounters. Consistently he would gently berate us for everything that we did wrong.

My own mistakes often revolved around my efforts at information gathering. Entering a room with the sick or the dying I wanted to know about them. I would ask them a series of questions that provided basic information about who they were. These conversations never really went anywhere. I was more an annoyance than a balm. It was as if the star thrower had stopped to identify the starfish--discern their scientific name and perhaps their place in the ecosystem--without ever throwing them back into the water. Such information gathering might net information but it did not produce a genuine connection.

And that was what I could offer. Not trained as a medical professional, any information that I gathered about person was really irrelevant. My gift to give was merely myself and what I represented as a member of the clergy. A human presence in a hospital room coupled with an invitation to consider the divine or the ultimate, whatever that might mean.

Compared with the care of the nurses and doctors it did not seem like much of a gift. But sometimes it appeared sufficient. With a few words of prayer or meditation or the offer of a hand to hold I would sit with a dying person or a family about to lose a loved one and my presence would bring comfort. It was not the words I offered but the connection that I brought that mattered. On the very edge of death my being there brought a sense to someone that they were not alone.

And, of course, it was not my unique presence that really mattered. It was the presence of another human being to witness suffering and pain that was important. Anyone, not just a minister, can provide connection and grounding in the finite when one's fellows face the infinite. In its own way, my experience as a intern hospital chaplain was about learning my finite place in an infinite world. There was a particular role I could play, there were things I could do and could not do.

Offering a moment of connection is my way of finding a purpose, constructing a narrative, when confronted with the infinite mysteries of pain and death. Others might find different purposes or construct different narratives. Indeed for society to function it is necessary that, at least in some times and places, they do. It is probably best that medical professionals in a hospital find a different purpose than simply offering connection.

Yet when confronted with the infinite any one of us might offer another the opportunity for connection. There's a parallel here with my experience on the ocean shore witnessing the whales. That anonymous other, that man whose name I never learned, provided me with a deeper connection to what surrounded me than I would have had on my own. We shared in the wonder that was the whales. In its own way that was enough.

Looking into the infinite we are often made aware of our own finitude. The mortal facts of existence come into contrast against the ordinary veneer of the everyday. We become aware of our own beginnings and endings.

This is why we celebrate during the holiday season. Day by day, the light lessens, the Earth grows cold and the year dies. Then at the darkest moment, on the darkest night, light begins to increase again and the year is reborn. Every solstice marks the death of the old year, the narrowing in on the time of our own oblivion. Yet every solstice also brings with it the promise of new life, a new spring. We are finite but the Earth stretches out infinitely before us. Waiting for us to connect with it, to make meaning, to find some purpose to help order our lives.

And so, when we gaze into the yawning void and are aware of our own limited natures let us be wise enough to hear these words from T.S. Eliot, "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from."

Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Nov 17, 2012

This Land is Your Land?

preached at the First Parish of Sudbury, Unitarian Universalist on November 4, 2012

At the heart of my sermon this morning is a theological concept called the Doctrine of Discovery. As this is a term I imagine that many of you are unfamiliar with I want to begin by explaining it. If you can hang with me for a couple of moments I promise we will move quickly away from the didactic.

The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a responsive resolution this June repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. The assembly passed the resolution at the request of the organizations we have been working with in Arizona to oppose that state’s racist anti-immigrant laws. When we began to work with them in 2010 we discovered something surprising, they viewed Arizona’s laws as part of a continual process of colonization that stretched back to Christopher Columbus.

Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas prompted European political and religious leaders to develop what indigenous activists refer to as the "Christian Doctrine of Discovery." This is the belief that because the lands of the Western Hemisphere were without Christians prior to 1492 they were free for the taking upon "discovery." For indigenous activists in Arizona the issues at stake in the state’s racist laws are as much political as theological.

The history of Christian Doctrine of Discovery can be traced to a series of 15th century papal bulls and treaties between Spain and Portugal. These documents created a theological and legal framework that justified the expropriation and division of indigenous lands by Spain and Portugal.

What is especially upsetting about the doctrine is that the framework it created to facilitate the seizure of indigenous lands continues to form the core of much of federal property law today. This is particularly true as it relates to indigenous property claims. A recently as 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the doctrine in their decisions.

To aid us in our reflection on the doctrine I offer Woody Guthrie's song “This Land is Your Land” as a text. You are probably familiar with the song’s first verses:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

This is, on the surface, a problematic text to take as a starting point for a discussion about the doctrine. Guthrie was a European American. His song almost sounds like a celebration of conquest. It makes no acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of the land that European Americans call the United States and our indigenous brethren call by various names including Abya Yala. The song references California and New York Island but not the tribal nations, be they the Ohlone or the Algonquian, that are the original inhabitants of those lands. It could be argued that Guthrie’s “you and me” unconsciously excludes indigenous peoples and asserts European dominance over indigenous lands and communities.

There are, however, others verses of the text. One towards the end usually gets forgotten. I certainly did not learn it in school:

As I was walking — I saw a sign there
And that sign said — private property
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In thinking about the doctrine I want to suggest that for those of us who are primarily of European descent the task is two-fold. First, we need to move from thinking about the side of the sign with the words “private property” to thinking about the other side. Second, we need to enter into right relationship with the land and her original inhabitants, our indigenous brethren. The first step is about learning to erase the borders that we have created within our minds and understanding how those borders were created. The second step is working to reconcile ourselves to our mother earth and all of her peoples who our ancestors harmed, and who we continue to harm, through the ongoing process of colonialism.

We should not engage in this work out of some sort of pity for the oppressed and marginalized peoples of the world. Instead, we should engage in it with the understanding that all of us, whatever our ethnicity or race are victims of colonialism. The borders that the United States government and our ancestors have inflicted upon the Earth afflict us as well.

I was reminded of this past summer when, with two of my friends, I was detained crossing the border between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Our passports were in order, we were not in possession of illegal substances and we are not terrorists. Nonetheless, we were detained.

Now, I do not know how many of you have ever been detained but I can tell you that the experience is not pleasant. The entire process is designed to dehumanize, even if you are a United States citizen and have what one of my friends jokingly refer to as the “complexion connection.”

From the time the border agents ordered us out of our car to the time they gave us back the keys we were treated more like things being processed than human beings. The guards did not smile. The guards did not make conversation. The guards did not use our names. The guards either snapped orders, “You, take everything out of your pockets and go through that door,” or ignored us entirely.

Our detention ended relatively quickly. Within a little less than an hour they were able to set a drug dog on our car, interrogate us briefly about our activities in Canada and Detroit and send us on our way.

Such an experience is mild, almost not worth mentioning, in comparison to the horrors that the United States government inflicts upon so-called undocumented immigrants. We were not separated from our families. We were not deported. We were not directly threatened with violence.

I say directly because the threat of violence was always present. If we had refused to stop our car we probably would have been shot. If we had declined to enter the door when we were told to enter we most likely would have been beaten. The entire system of border creation and enforcement is predicated upon violence. If we do not go along with that system, it does not matter who we are, we will suffer its violence.

The conversation that we Unitarian Universalists have entered into about the Doctrine of Discovery will help us to understand our complicated relationship to the system of borders. Most of us comply with the system for a mixture of reasons: we benefit from it in some way; we cannot imagine another system; or we are afraid of the violence that will be inflicted upon us if we rebel against it.

Unitarian Universalist religious communities like this one can play a role in helping us as individuals and stewards of institutions untangle our complicity with the system of borders. It is my hope that by beginning to untangle our own complicity we can ultimately be part of the process of undermining that system.

The great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist James Luther Adams envisioned our religious communities playing such a role when he suggested a “vocation of the church and of the minister.” That vocation is, in his words, “to reveal the hidden, to point to the hidden realities of human suffering, and also... to point hidden realities that offer release and surcease.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is one of those hidden sources of human suffering that needs to be revealed. It is not something that is mentioned in most school books. I did not learn about it in elementary school, high school, college or seminary. I have heard no mention of it in the mass media. But despite this in remains present within United States case law and, more importantly, within the way most European Americans think about our relationship to the land.

Waking up to the Doctrine of Discovery is like the character Neo taking the red pill in the movie “Matrix.” Maybe you remember the scene. Neo is a hacker on the run from what appears to be black suited government agents. He is rescued by another hacker and taken to a safe house. There he is told that everything he knows about the world is wrong and offered two choices. He can take a blue pill and wake up back in his own home safe, his whole experience of flight and his new knowledge merely a feverish dream. Or he can take a red pill and wake up to true reality. Neo chooses the red pill and discovers that the world he inhabits is an illusion and that human beings are not free, they are an energy source for a society of autonomous intelligent machines.

Waking up to the Doctrine of Discovery is a similarly radical experience. As I have learned about it I have come to understand that it structures the world which I inhabit. Consider the issue of immigration. The whole debate around immigration is predicated upon the belief that the United States government is the legitimate sovereign of a large part of what is now called the North American continent, the Hawaiian islands and an assortment of Atlantic and Pacific territories. This government has demarcated particular borders and then decided who can and cannot cross those borders. It then uses violence and artificial physical barriers, which are a form of violence on the land, to enforce those borders.

Many of the people who the United States government seeks to keep from crossing the borders are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land. To give an example, the state of Arizona is part of the Uto-Aztecan lingual region which stretches from parts of Oregon to Honduras. For thousands of years members of the Uto-Aztecan lingual group moved freely throughout the region. The borders of the United States now prevent that movement. Those borders were established through the Doctrine of Discovery when Europeans claimed that land as their own. The descendants of the original inhabitants of the land are now labeled as immigrants while descendants of European colonizers claim to be its legitimate inhabitants.

The hidden reality that needs to be uncovered about the Doctrine of Discovery and the border system is that they are products of the human imagination. They are not real in the same way that a rock, a river or a human being is real. They were created in human minds and they can be uncreated in human minds. We all, no matter who our ancestors are, can imagine a world where they do not exist.

This is a task for our religious communities, to open up the human imagination to vistas beyond the Doctrine of Discovery. To return to the lesser known verses of Guthrie’s song, it is realize that the sign and the words on the sign are both human creations.

As we engage in this work of re-imagining we Unitarian Universalists can reach out to begin to enter into right relationship with our indigenous brethren. We Unitarian Universalists are the institutional descendants of the original religious institutions of the colonizers of Massachusetts. The Unitarian church in Plymouth started out as the church of the Mayflower pilgrims. Many of our congregations throughout the Boston area, including this one, began as churches of the Puritan colonizers.

I am not sure what right relationship with the indigenous peoples who our religious ancestors forcibly removed from their lands will ultimately look like. I do know that we have begun the process. We took an important step when we passed our Responsive Resolution repudiating the doctrine. Our Unitarian Universalist Association is taking another by advocating for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples by the United States government. These actions are parts of a conversation with our indigenous brethren about what is necessary for healing the ancient and festering wounds of colonization.

A congregation like this one can attempt to do this by reaching out to the indigenous peoples whose land your inhabit. This may not be easy. It will require self-reflection and wrestling with the ways in which we who are the descendants of the European colonizers have ourselves been colonized by the border system and the Doctrine of Discovery.

Still, it can begin with something as simple as phone call. There are indigenous communities and community centers throughout the continent. Here in Massachusetts there is a state-wide organization, the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, that represents many of the area’s tribal nations. You can call them up and ask to meet with one of their representatives. If you enter into the relationship with good intentions, and the commitment from our religious association to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and support indigenous rights, an opportunity to make your relationship right will, perhaps, eventually present itself.

Meanwhile, we Unitarian Universalists can continue to work to rid our imaginations of the imprint of the Doctrine of Discovery and the border system. In doing so we may cease to think people as immigrants but understand that we are all human beings journeying through the same lands together. The land then will not be your land or my land. Instead we will we understand that we are not owners of the land but its children. All of us, no matter what our ancestry is, draw sustenance from the same Earth, are blessed by the same sun, are nurtured by the same air and sustained by the same water. And that truth is more powerful than any border or doctrine. It is what unites us all whether we will it or not.

Amen and Blessed Be!

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon

Tumblr