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Apr 13, 2020

Sermon: No Respecter of Persons

as preached online for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 12, 2020

You might remember that our theme for worship for April is renewal. This is our Easter service. I am scheduled to be talking with you about renewal and rebirth. And in this sermon, we are going to be focusing on something that might be called the resurrection of the living. The inspiration for it comes from two scriptural lines. The first is found in a text in the Christian New Testament known as The Acts of the Apostles. In the old King James version it reads, “God is no respecter of persons.” The second comes from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” a gnostic Christian text from the early second century. There we find this description of the answer to the question, “What is the resurrection” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”

God is no respecter of persons, an ancient idea that bespeaks the truth that we are alike to the divine. Each person, the rich and the poor, will go the way of all flesh. The living resurrection, a transition into freshness. Taken together these texts teach us that we all share a common fate and all contain within us the possibility of awakening into a “revelation of what is.”

The lesson is echoed in the words of William Ellery Channing, the principal nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian. He said, in an Easter sermon, “here on earth the influence of Christ’s character is seen in awakening an active, self-sacrificing goodness” in the heart of each; taught that the purpose of religion was to rouse the “likeness to God” that lies within all; and claimed that heaven might be found on Earth. “A new sense, a new eye, might show the spiritual world compassing on every side,” he preached.

The living resurrection, my sermon, with its central message drawn from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” might be divided into two parts. The first, a bit of context and some theological exposition. The second, a confession about our contemporary struggle.

Most of you have probably never heard of “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” Some of you self-identify as liberal Christians or come from Christian families. If this is the first time listening to one of our services marking the Christian high holidays, you might be surprised to hear a text read that deviates from the standard lectionary. You might have been expecting Acts and one of the Psalms or a reading from the canonical gospels of John or Matthew. But certainly not a passage from “The Treatise on the Resurrection.”

Here at First Unitarian Universalist, I always include a reading from the gnostic tradition in our holiday offerings. Unitarian Universalism has its roots in two heretical Christian traditions. Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing, believe that Jesus is best understood as a great moral teacher. They rejected the idea of what is called atonement theology, summarized best in the statement, “Jesus died for your sins.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” “The importance of Jesus,” she writes elsewhere, “is not that he paid the price for sin. Jesus is important because he embodied loving concern for others and called people to love their neighbors.” Jesus pointed to the possibility of what other great religious leaders--the Buddha or mystic Rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov--and have pointed to as well, religion should awaken us to the beauty of the world around us and the compassion within us.

Universalism is the other heretical Christian tradition that inspires us. Universalists celebrate the love of God for all. They believe that God loves everyone, without exception. “The scriptures declare that God is love, that he is a good Being, that he is no respecter of persons, but is good to all, and that his tender mercies are over all his works,” wrote the nineteenth-century Universalist Lucy Barns. Such a good and loving deity, Universalists think, cannot damn her creations to an eternity of suffering. Instead, they understand, death brings us humans a common fate. They know that whatever Hell we find, we make for ourselves in our earthly realm. The theological sentiment of the Universalists is captured well in a fragment of the singer Bobby McFerrin’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm. McFerrin speaks of his faith in the feminine divine:

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won't forsake me,
I'm in her hand.

Unitarianism, the knowledge that we can each open ourselves to the glory unfolding around us and the compassion within us. Universalism, the wisdom that we all share a common fate and that power of the divine is found in love. These are ancient heresies, teachings rejected by the powers and principalities of ancient Rome for their subversive nature. Each year during the high Christian holidays we read from texts like “The Treatise on the Resurrection” to remind ourselves that the core of our Unitarian Universalist theology is as old as the Christian tradition itself. It is just that we happen to be the heirs of those people who refused what the philosopher Cornel West and others have called Constantinian Christianity, the marriage between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Constantinian Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus without really asking questions: Why was he killed by the greatest Empire of his day? What did he teach that made him so threatening? The heretical Christians who wrote “The Treatise of the Resurrection” believed in resurrection of the living, “a transition into a new freshness.”

Constainian Christians instead preach of the resurrection of the dead. They sing the beautiful hymn, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through / My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” The old heretical Christian asked instead, in the words of the labor hymn, “Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?” Or shall we imagine the possibility that here, in our earthly realm, there might be, “joy and peace for all”? The resurrection of the living or the resurrection of the dead?

“The Treatise on the Resurrection,” this morning’s text, comes from heretical tradition called gnosticism. The teachings of William Ellery Channing resemble those of the gnostics. Contemporary scholar Elaine Pagels has distilled gnostic thought into three primary gestures. First, it taught that the resurrection of the living was the discovery that “self-knowledge is knowledge of God.” There is a flicker of the divine--what humanists might call the spark that leaps from each-to-each in times of common crisis--within each of us. We are resurrected to life when feed that spark.

Second, they claimed that Jesus was “a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.” Following teachings such as those found in “The Treatise on the Resurrection” or the better known “Gospel of Thomas” offers us advice on how we might each kindle our own flame. Much of that teaching might be captured in the advice of the prophet Micah who rhetorically asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” The resurrection of the living, the gnostics believed, was available to all who opened themselves to the “revelation of what is” and sought “the transformation of things” and “transition into freshness.”

Third, they saw Jesus as a human being who pointed the way to the resurrection of the living, not someone who was the “Son of God in a unique way,” as Pagels puts it. Instead, those who underwent the resurrection of the living could become like Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas relates, “Jesus said, I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out... He who will drink from my mouth will become like as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” The likeness of God, claimed William Ellery Channing, resides within each of us.

The resurrection of the living, here is where we reach my confession. I am having more than a little trouble believing in it this morning. As I speak to you, the words of the poet T. S. Eliot lie somewhere in the background, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

It is hard to preach about the resurrection of the living, to offer you a sense of renewal and the hope of rebirth, in this cruel month of April. Like a lot of people, I am struggling. I am blessed to continue to have a job and good health. But I am a single parent of a thirteen-year-old boy. We are sheltering in place together, in our 1,200 square foot apartment. Like a lot of parents, I am finding it difficult to stay home all day--with the exception of an hour walk in the evening--with a kid who has to attend school online, complete his homework, cannot see his friends, and who is not able to go outside all that often, to be hard. It is almost unbearable. Which is not to say that I do not love my son. It is more that juggling work--this sermon was written in a series of snatches between vain attempts to get schoolwork completed in a timely fashion--and having to do all the cooking and well, everything, else is more than a little hard. Most days I go to bed simply grateful to have made it through the day without entirely losing my mind.

I do not tell you this elicit your sympathy. Rather, I tell you this to join my voice to the chorus of others making statements like, “It is OK not to be OK” or “Parents are not OK.” Voices from around the world tell us that they are not OK. From Italy, Sylvia Poggioli writes of “the grimmest [ritual]: the 6 o’clock televised press conference at which... the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count” are announced. Hari Kunzru describes how the unrelenting deaths in Brooklyn are bringing “a rapid disintegration of all social and economic life [that] has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system.” Nicole Rudick observes from New Jersey that during this cruel April, “boring is the best you can hope for.” Staying in Oxford, England, Merve Emre, experiences “isolation,” walking “the empty aisles of the supermarket--no pasta, no beans, no peanut butter,” and learning of a “nurse who had worked for forty-eight hours straight crying in her car because she couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables after her shift ended.” In New Mexico, Danny Lyon meditates upon the impending death of a friend and asks the question: “When this horror passes, and it will, will the survivors accept a new way to live? The party is over... Is this the turning point? Will we emerge into a new and better world?”

The survivors... I pray that all who are watching this service, and all of your loved ones, will be among them. For this is likely to be one of the most difficult months that many of us have lived through. To date, more than a hundred thousand people have died from COVID-19, more than twenty thousand of them in the United States. In this country alone there are over five hundred thousand infected. The true number could be ten times that since testing has been such an abysmal failure. That would mean five million infected, one out of every sixty-six people living in the United States.

Epidemiologists are reporting that over the course of the pandemic at least sixty thousand people in this country will die. Some forecasts are much higher. The national death rate is supposed to reach its greatest height in the next weeks--suggesting that April will live up to its reputation for cruelty.

The cruel month of April is bringing massive job losses. Close to ten million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. Another ten million will probably lose their jobs by the end of the month. Somewhere close to fifty percent of people under the age of forty-five have are now unemployed and huge numbers of people without healthcare. In most states, the unemployment system is overwhelmed and benefits have been slow in coming. Rent was due at the beginning of the month. Many families were forced to make the choice between paying it, buying food, and, in some cases, paying for medicine.

The cruelty of the month suggests that at least a few of you who are watching have experienced illness, are suffering from the virus, or have recently lost your job. If that describes you, I hope you will reach out to us here at First Unitarian Universalist. One of the purposes of a religious community is to take care of its members. The congregation is here for you during this time of pandemic. We will what we can to provide you with comfort and relief.

In the midst of such of a cruel month, it is difficult to preach a sermon on the resurrection of the living. I suspect it is difficult to preach an Easter sermon today from any tradition. Easter is supposed to be a grand and joyous holiday. Here at First Unitarian Universalist, we typically celebrate it with: magisterial organ music; an exuberant choir performance; bright, voluminous, bouquets of flowers; a few Easter bonnets; and our annual Easter parade. Each year, for more than twenty years, this congregation’s children have celebrated the holiday by marching down Fannin Street to the Emergency Aid Coalition with a rather sizable donation of canned goods.

None of that is happening. Instead, I find myself preaching again to an empty sanctuary--prerecording a message that I hope will provide you with a sense of connection, a bit of uplift, and perhaps some clarity during these strange days. It is Easter and the emptiness of the sanctuary provides us with the temptation to choose the theological analogy of the resurrection of the dead. For it is on Easter that Jesus’s disciples, the scriptures in the Christian New Testament claim, found the empty tomb. And it is on Easter that they became convinced he had been brought back to life--the resurrection of the dead.

The story is recounted that Jesus, the young peasant revolutionary from Nazareth, was executed on Friday. Jesus, the story says, a young peasant with brown skin--for any peasant born two thousand years ago in the town of Bethlehem would have brown skin--was put to death by the officials and soldiers of an imperial state. Jesus, the radical who, the Gospel of John tells us, “made a whip of cords and... upset the tables of the money-changers” and drove them from the Temple, and “whom,” the Acts of the Apostles in the old King James claims, “they slew and hanged on a tree,” and who, when his friends and loved ones went to reclaim his corpse, was discovered not to be in his tomb. Jesus--who, in a more contemporary translation of the Gospel of Luke, warned, “But alas for you who are rich; / you have had your time of happiness, / Alas for you who are well fed now; / you will go hungry / Alas for you who laugh now; / you will mourn and weep. / Alas for you when all speak well of you; / that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”--was not moldering in his grave. Instead, the Christian scripture declares, “God raised him to life on the third day.”

The empty tomb; God raised him to life on the third day, that is the story of the resurrection of the dead. The empty sanctuary; the suggestion that God will cause us to rise up again, after this pandemic, a non-heretical Easter metaphor. God will cause us to rise up again, the claim, the belief, the message that everything is going to be fine in the end, that we will return to the way things used to be, to “normal,” that stock market will resume its endless rise, that employment will come roaring back.

The resurrection of the dead... Last week Rev. Scott urged us to reframe hope. He quoted the writer David Whyte, “Hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.” Hoping that the world will return to “normal” after the pandemic ends or that we will all quickly return to work and profit making is hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Literally, it will require that some of us die so that others might resume making money--a wish that Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has expressed. But it will also mean that we, as a society, have learned nothing from this pandemic and all the suffering it has brought.

Instead of hoping things will return to the way they were, instead of seeking the resurrection of the dead, I think, this Easter, as hard as it is, we must choose the resurrection of the living. The resurrection of the living, what does it mean for us in this moment? It is hard me to preach about it or seek it, as I struggle amid the chaos of an upended world to compose these words, but I suspect I know what it means: take pleasure in living and pursue the politics of the living.

Taking pleasure in living, awakening to the “revelation of what is.” The other night, I went for a late walk over by the Menil Collection. The museum was shuttered. The streets near empty. The darkness as dark as it gets in the middle of Houston. Live oak trees lined the sidewalks. Sculptures interrupted, as they always do, the symmetry of the Menil’s lawn--a lush and neat expanse surrounding the rectangular building with its inviting porches and columns. A flutter interrupted the sculptures, the trees, the lawn, the columns, the porch. A flutter and then flash of wings and legs, tufted feathers, the observant, silent, head of a tricolor heron. Never had I seen such a bird before--let alone in the midnight of the city. There it was: nature’s beauty, revealing to me how life continues, thrives, in the midst of a pandemic. A spark of the resurrection of the living.

You can awaken yourself to the resurrection of the living no matter where you are during this pandemic. The beauty of the world surrounds us. There are always complex patterns and unexpected openings--no matter how cramped we might be and no matter how much we suffer. And here I could offer a learned discourse on all of those who have found beauty among misery and horror. But instead, I will just quote the survivor of World War II, Sami Rosenstock, who wrote during that moment of terror, “Salt and fire await you on the mineral hill of the incandescence of living.”

The incandescence of living, if we are to experience the resurrection of the living we must pursue the politics of the living. This is what Jesus did. And this is why he died. The politics of the living follow the injunction that God is no respecter of persons. They urge us to remember the most vulnerable among us. They challenge us--be we white or black, Asian or Latinx, poor or rich--to recognize that the grave injustice of the disproportionate death rate among African Americans is a result of the politics of white supremacy. It is not an accident that black people are dying from the virus at a higher rate than white people. It is the result of a system that has spent generations creating riches for wealthy whites at the expense of people of color. Pursuing the politics of the living means heeding the call of Anthony Fauci who reminds us that the unequal death rate is a result of “health disparities [that] have always existed for the African American community.”

Again, there is much I could say about the politics of the living. But instead, since this is Easter, I will just quote Jesus who said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you did for me.” The politics of the living come from the resurrection of the living. They challenge us to ask ourselves the question--most especially in the midst of a pandemic--what shall we do to make the world more beautiful for all?

The resurrection of the dead; the resurrection of the living... I confess to you, my friends, absent in body, though present in spirit, that this Easter I having trouble choosing the resurrection of the living. April is cruel. It will get crueler. I do not anticipate that sheltering in place will get easier. I do not believe that any of this will end soon.

But I will make what small movement I can towards the resurrection of the living. I will leave this place and go for a walk with my son. We will wear masks. We will keep our social distance from others. And, perhaps, we will see a tricolor heron or a flower or some other spark of beauty to awaken us to the “revelation of what is.” And it will remind us that no matter how difficult the hour, the glory of life is ever present.

And I will leave this place and do what I can to remember that God is no respecter of persons. I will speak out and demand that our society care for the least of these--which in this time of pandemic could become all of us. I will do what small things I can. Write my words. Call those who are struggling. And remember the rhetorical question, from the ancient prophet Micah, who called for the resurrection of the living when he asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

“Why do I seem to shout?” the ancient text inquires. “What is the resurrection?” it asks. Didactically it answers:

“It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”

This Easter may each of us, no matter how along we might feel, no how matter vulnerable we are, no matter how much we are struggling, begin to undergo the resurrection of the living. For, “These are the symbols and images of resurrection. They establish its goodness.”

The goodness of the resurrection of the living is established. Hear those ancient words and remember that truth, my friends. And now, I invite you to remember that truth, hear my words, and present in spirit say, Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Acts 10:34 The Treatise on the Resurrection King James Bible Christian New Testament Christianity Acts of the Apostles Gnosticism Resurrection Easter William Ellery Channing Unitarianism Universalism Atonement Theology Rebecca Parker Buddha Baal Shem Tov Lucy Barns Bobby McFerrin Psalm 23 Constantinian Christianity Cornel West Commonwealth of Toil Albert Brumley Ralph Chaplin This World is Not My Home Elaine Pagels The Gospel of Thomas Micah 6:8 T. S. Eliot COVID-19 Sylvia Poggioli Italy Hari Kunzru Brooklyn Nicole Rudick New Jersey Oxford, England Merve Emre Danny Lyon New Mexico New York Review of Books Emergency Aid Coalition Jesus Nazareth John 2:15 Acts 10:39 Luke 6:24-26 D. Scott Cooper David Whyte Dan Patrick Texas Menil Collection Tricolor Heron Sami Rosenstock Anthony Fauci White Supremacy Matthew 25:40

Apr 1, 2020

Sermon: Illness is Not a Metaphor

as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020

I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.

In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.

I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.

We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.

Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.

We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.

The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.

It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.

After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.

The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”

Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.

And we can hope that it is sufficient.

Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.

But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.

For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.

The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.

What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.

That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.

There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.

Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.

Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.

Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”

Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.

Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.

Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.

The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.

Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.

Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.

And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.

Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.

At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.

The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”

Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.

Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.

At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.

It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.

These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston NPR Metaphor Aristotle Edna St. Vincent Millay Derek Walcott Amanda Berenguer Alma Viscarra D. Scott Cooper Mark Vogel Houston Richmond Baal Shem Tov Giorgio Agamben Gershom Scholem Illness COVID-19 Boris Johnson Rita Wilson Tom Hanks Kevin Durant Terrence McNally Paul Galatians 3:28 Acts 10:34 Unitarian Universalist Association New York Italy China William Ellery Channing Black Death Plague Antisemitism AIDS HIV Susan Sontag Cancer Wuhan Compassion Matthew 25:40-44 Houston Independent School District Abortion Reproductive Health

Dec 5, 2018

Sermon: Candles of Hope

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018

It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings--not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.

Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.

Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans--products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup... And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.

This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is--it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust--it creates a tender bite.

The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”

When even the moon
starves to a sliver
of quicksilver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.

The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.

It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.

These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels--ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.

I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.

Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”

This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.

This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”

All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.

Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest... And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”

Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency--the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.

The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”

Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it--to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.

I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.

This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker. 

One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position... [they] had held when... [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”

Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.

The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.

Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.

The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”

It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.

You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height

Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.

And now, let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Thanksgiving Pecan Pie Lyle's Golden Syrup Marge Piercy Christmas Unitarian Universalism Unitarianism Universalism Arius Origen of Alexandria William Sinkford Transylvania Susan Ritchie Hanukkah Judaism Assimilation Talmud Arthur Waskow Pinchas of Koretz Paul Mendes-Flohr Baal Shem Tov Howard Bossen Lorraine Bossen Louise Gluck

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