Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 1, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, October 29, 2017
It is rare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of something. We celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this congregation a few weeks back. Were you there for the ecumenical camp meeting? It was a memorable affair. The sun, bright and hot, the bandstand filled with representatives of the diversity of the local faith community; I said a few words about Unitarian Universalism. I shared with the gathering the sentiments of our Universalists ancestors who believed that a loving God does not punish his or her creations with eternal damnation. And I offered a blessing for Ashby’s next two hundred and fifty years. Members from our congregation collaborated with the congregationalist church across the street in a moving performance of bluegrass gospel. There were prayers and hymns to Mary by Father Jeremy St. Martin, the local Catholic priest. The local pentecostal church closed the event with an electrified praise band.
However rare it is to have a two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it is even rarer to have a five hundredth anniversary. And, yet, here we are, marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Today we fill our pulpit with talk of a religious revolution. Thousands, no tens of thousands, no perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries contain, this Sunday, similar words.
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to the sultry Sunday afternoon of the ecumenical camp meeting. In the four participating congregations, we can see four of the major strains of religion that emerged after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ashby Congregational Church could be taken to represent what scholars call the Magisterial Reformation. This is the mainstream of Protestantism. It finds within the Bible divine sanction for earthly authorities.
St. John the Evangelist might stand for the reforms sparked within the Roman Catholic Church as a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The very fact that Father St. Martin spoke and prayed in English rather than Latin should remind us that the Protestant Reformation dramatically reshaped the Catholic Church. A major complaint of Luther and many of the reformers who proceeded him was that the church did not speak to people in their own languages. Some even argue that Luther’s greatest accomplishment was translating the Bible into German.
Crossroads Community Church may symbolize the nineteenth and twentieth-century Protestant reactions to rigorous biblical criticism. These have coalesced in more recent decades into pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. Such congregations often take the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, only scripture, to the extreme and insist that the Bible contains literal truths that contemporary science and biblical scholarship have shown to be empirically untrue.
Our own First Parish Church embodies what has been called the Radical Reformation. The great Unitarian Universalist historian George Huntston Williams described the Radical Reformation as a “a radical break from the existing institutions and theologies” of its times. He claimed it was driven by a desire “to restore primitive Christianity and to prepare for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of Christ.” The radical break that the Radical Reformation represented remains familiar to many of us, even if the forces that drove it seem less so. None of us, I imagine, want to go back to the religion described in the Christian New Testament or anticipate the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God. Most of us, I suspect, are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because it proclaims theological views that are still held suspect by the larger culture. One of these is that a loving God does not offer eternal punishment.
The Magisterial Reformation, a reformed Roman Catholicism, pentecostalism, the Radical Reformation... with his apocryphal bang, bang, bang, Luther did not intend to hammer the sixteenth-century Catholic Church into separate pieces. He intended to reform it, to purge it of corrupting elements. None of his ninety-five theses called for the creation of a new church. He sought instead to repair an existing one, to help call it back to, in his view, the true theology and practice of Christianity.
Yet, Luther’s ninety-five theses broke the Catholic Church into a thousand pieces. Today there are Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and, well, the list could go on and on to encompass another hundred, nay another two hundred, variants of Christianity and Post-Christian traditions. This mosaic of religious belief and practice could not have been imagined by Luther when he perceptively declared, “There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.” Nor could have even a shadow of it passed across his eyes when he complained, “those who preach indulgences are in error.”
The great variety of found in world Christianity offers perhaps the single most important, and obvious, lesson from the Protestant Reformation. Our actions have unintended consequences. These words may appear trite. They may seem the wrong lesson to lift-up as we mark the beginning of the articulation of the five great solas of Protestant life. You might think it would be better to focus this morning’s sermon on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria--only scripture, only faith, only grace, only Christ, and Glory to God Alone--as we remember the bang, bang, bang of Luther’s theses.
And, yet, what is more applicable to our lives, debates about the finer points of Protestant theology or considering how our choices can have unintended consequences? The later is really one of the great moral questions. Especially, when we consider the question the issue of accountability. Are you responsible if you intend good but cause harm? Are you responsible if your actions have unexpected benefits?
Think about it. We can imagine examples from the mundane, sublime, and grotesque. Ever buy a squash and scoop out the insides when you prepare to cook it? I remember doing so in a house I lived in some years back. We had a compost pile. I dutifully put the stringy squash bits, rind, and seeds in it. Next year, squash vines growing from the compost pile! Was I responsible for planting the squash?
There are entire schools of aesthetics devoted to appreciating the unexpected, unanticipated, or unintended. The great jazz artists knew this. Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum... Each has been quoted as saying some variant of, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” “There are no mistakes in jazz.” Or “do not fear mistakes. There are none.” For these musicians, the unexpected consequence of an action was to expand the range of possibilities, to increase the amount of beauty in the world.
My favorite these jazz aphorisms comes from Herbie Hancock by way of Miles Davis. It seems that as a young musician Hancock was frustrated with his progress. He felt stuck in a rut. All of the choices he made resulted in obvious, and therefore uninteresting, melodies. So, he went to Davis for advice. Davis cryptically told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Which he took to mean, don’t make the choices that will result in the obvious melodies. Open yourself to unintended and see what happens. Hancock did this and, reportedly, experienced a breakthrough.
Chance and the unintended do not just haunt beauty or the compost pile, they can have dire impacts on our lives. The very term accident has gruesome connotations. A truck hits a bicyclist who is in the driver’s blind spot. An airplane breaks apart due to a defective part. A building burns after the insulation on wires fails and an electrical blaze erupts. In such situations, we struggle to explain who is responsible for dire outcomes. Sometimes, the answers are obvious and it is possible to hold an individual or entity to account. The electrical company skimped on materials for the wires. The airplane part was rushed into service even though the manufacturer knew it might not be entirely reliable. Other times it is much more difficult to discern who is responsible. Sometimes accidents, no matter how awful, are just that, accidents: black ice on the road can cause the most careful driver to lose control; a knife can slip from the hands of the most experienced chef and result in bloody injury.
We live in a world derived from the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions. Perhaps this gives him far too much credit. There is certainly a school of historical thought that the Reformation would have happened without him. Efforts to transform the Catholic church were well underway before he issued his Wittenberg theses. When she was growing up, my mother’s family belonged to the Moravian Church, a denomination founded by the followers of Jan Hus some fifty years before Luther found himself in conflict with the papal authorities. One of the professors at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries, is Waldensian. This is a Christian movement that split from the Catholic Church in the twelfth-century, some four hundred years before Luther was even born.
And yet, there some truth to the great man of history theory found in Luther. At the very least, if he had not bang, bang, banged on the castle door in Wittenberg then we would be talking about some other event that precipitated the Protestant Reformation this morning. What that would be or who it would involve we cannot know.
And so, here we are, in this world created by Luther’s unintended consequences. Should he be held accountable for them? Luther himself believed that our human actions were such that whatever we did we were more likely to cause ill than good. This is at the center of his theology. He thought we humans were too prone to error, too incapable of making good choices, too thoughtless to understand the consequences of our actions to achieve salvation on our own. It was only through the grace of God, meditated through Christ, that we might earn eternal assurance and escape damnation. He believed that faith was the path to secure this grace and that only a limited number of people would find it. The rest of us were damned.
The subsequent history of Protestant Christianity could be cast as a long argument over who is to be damned and who is to be saved. Most Christians seem to agree that only some are worthy of salvation. Which is to say, only some can fully escape the unintended consequences of their actions.
Our Universalist ancestors thought different. They believed that God loved everyone. If no one could escape the unintended consequences of their actions then everyone must be loved. There are great and folksy stories about how the early Universalist theologian and evangelist Hosea Ballou explained this doctrine. Linda Stowell relates one of these tales:
Ballou was [out] riding... when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. "All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it." The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!"
The spirit of stories like this are encapsulated in the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that we believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever the consequences of our actions, each human life has worth and dignity. It really is a radical statement and one that runs counter to almost every dominant trend in our society. It suggests we question the criminal justice system, the distribution of wealth, the use of force in solving conflicts... If each human life has worth and dignity then our society needs to think about punishment, economic equality, and violence differently.
Luther would certainly have disapproved. As the leading representative of the Magisterial Reformation the one thing he did not want to do was question the earthly organization of power. And that really is, in the end, what makes us Unitarian Universalists the heirs to the Radical Reformation. We question the powers and principalities. We do not hold that governments have been divinely sanctioned or that the social order in sacrosanct.
This an uncomfortable position. To declare that all are loved, or that each human life is important, is truly an act of faith. To do so and suggest that we should question the power and principalities, the major institutions of our world, is, well, subversive. Even today, in 2017, five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it remains a radical act.
Let us return to the ecumenical camp meeting. There were four churches present, all heirs in some way to the Protestant Reformation. The congregationalists, upholding the mainstream Magisterial legacy; the Catholics, with their largely English language liturgy; the pentecostals, with their particular version of sola scriptura... In a technical, theological, sense none of these traditions truly proclaim a divine universal love for all of humanity. Each argues that the path to salvation, or true religious expression, lies through them alone. In contrast, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all, not all Christians, not all Americans, but all across the planet. A radical doctrine and, perhaps, an unintended consequence of Luther’s splintering bang, bang, bang.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we consider all of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, let us remember the radical love at the heart of our own faith. It remains ever subversive. We close with words attributed to our Universalist ancestor, John Murray:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
May it be so, Amen and Blessed Be.