Choose a Category

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

Mar 25, 2020

Once Upon a Time... We Had Time

as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 22, 2020, online worship

These are strange days. If you are anything like me, you are probably finding that you have to adjust to a new--and rapidly changing--situation. I certainly never imagined myself leading a congregation that is worshipping exclusively online. And I bet that most of you never imagined that you would be participating in worship remotely. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been around for over a hundred years and in all that time the congregation has always met in person for worship, fellowship, and the difficult but vital work of building the beloved community.

But these are strange days, and I find myself missing seeing you and sharing the regular rituals of our worship service. As I preach this sermon, I find myself looking out over an expanse of empty wooden pews. As I preach this sermon, I find myself glancing over to where our choir usually sits and seeing only Mark Vogel, our Music Director. As I preach this sermon, I find myself thinking about our Thoreau campus where some of us regularly gather to worship and watch videos of the sermons. Thoreau has a lovely sanctuary that overlooks a clover filled expanse of greenery. That sanctuary is vacant now. And as I preach this sermon, I find myself wondering who exactly is listening. Are you one of our members, friends, or one of our regular visitors? Did you stumble upon this service online? Are you listening to it in the Third Ward, in Montrose, in Sugarland, or in Richmond? Are you listening from someplace far away?

I imagine you are in your home, sheltering in place. It is what most of us are doing during these strange days. I have been limiting myself to my apartment and trips to the church. Some of you are probably working entirely from home--maybe it has even been a few days since you have been outside. You might be listening to this service on Sunday. You could be seeking solace at the same time this congregation usually gathers in person. Or you may be doing what I did last week when I listened to Scott’s moving sermon. I made dinner while I took comfort from his compassionate words and my cat chirped at my feet, trying to convince me that he deserved an early feeding, and my son played video games in the other room.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope that our service is providing you with a sense of connection and consolation during these strange days. As Scott told us last week, “during troubling times it’s good to be part of a community such as this.” I have been renewed by Mark’s music and Scott’s words. And the exquisite images from the Hubble Telescope and that donna e. perkins and Rania Matar have shared with us have provided me a needed balm. Art, music, poetry, are important reminders that it is always possible for humans to bring more beauty into the world. There has been poetry written during war, and economic depressions, and forced migrations, and unjust imprisonments, and, yes, even bouts of pestilence and plague.

We have words from Julian of Norwich, whom Scott quoted last week, and who pointed towards transcendence within: “I saw the soul as wide as if it were an infinite world, and as if it were a blessed kingdom.”

We have words from Carl Sandburg, who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, and wrote of our shared mortality:

I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.

When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate,
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.

We have words from Mark Doty, who survived the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted us to know:

A bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.

And, now, we have words from Lynn Ungar, who invites us to:

Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

We have words, and paintings, and sculptures, and music, that testify to the power of humanity to bring more beauty into the world even when we humans find ourselves at the end of the world. And that is where we find ourselves now, at the end of the world.

We find ourselves at the end of the world, in our remaining time together, I want to talk with you about three things. First, we need to admit that in some, real, non-metaphorical way, the world has ended. Second, living at the end of the world means that we are living amid an apocalypse. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller tells us. There are many things being unveiled, disclosed, and revealed right now. We should pay careful attention to them. Our human future depends on it. We would do well to heed James Baldwin’s words, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” Third, we should turn to our theme for worship: compassion. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, compassion is what is going to see us through. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, as we peer into the murky cloud of the future we must recognize that today, tomorrow, and each day we collectively struggle with the pandemic, we will be forced to make a choice between compassion and callousness. It is only by choosing compassion that we can learn the lessons of the hour.

We find ourselves at the end of the world. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has changed how we live and interact. The safest thing we can do right now is to avoid as many people as possible. Keeping our distance, sheltering in place, it means that so many things that seemed perfectly normal even a few days ago are foolish and dangerous now.

We have closed to the church buildings to the public. Most of the staff is working from home. Gustavo is still here, making sure our Museum District is properly maintained--we have a volunteer checking in on our Richmond campus. And Cheryl and Tawanna are coming in some of the time to process the mail, to handle the banking, and to make sure that all the bills get paid. The ministerial and worship staff is here occasionally--to produce this service and, beginning next week, a midweek forum. But, starting Monday, all of our staff meetings will be online. There will be no regular staff lunch, no just dropping by someone’s office when I have an idea I want to share or pastoral matter I want to talk through.

In the last week we have worked hard to take our congregational programs entirely online. In the next days we will be offering some form of almost all our programs through Zoom. We will have small group ministries and religious education programs for children and youth. On Sundays, we will have virtual gatherings for the whole congregation. In April, Scott and I will each be leading spiritual development and support programs for adults. I’m going to offer one on the religious and philosophical classics that might see us through these strange days--we will start with Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” But none of this will take place in person. And most of it will be open to anyone online who wants to register and join with us. Our virtual community will be different than our physical community.

I am hopeful it will be safe for us to regather as a worship community in September. But whenever we do, we will be different. We will have gone through this experience of online worship together. And we will have a different sense of who our community is and what it does. Something will have ended and something else will be beginning. Because we find ourselves at the end of the world.

How has your work life changed? I know a lot of people who are now working from home. Colleges and universities are closed. Most of my academic friends are teaching classes online. Big corporate offices are closed. My friends who are engineers or accountants are almost all now working remotely. What about you? Where are you working? Or are you working?

A lot of people have already lost their jobs. I have friends who are restaurant workers. Many of their workplaces have shutdown. And I have a friend who is a yoga teacher. In the last couple of weeks, she has lost every single one of her paid teaching gigs. Many people are financially vulnerable and scared. Some cannot pay their rent or buy enough food to feed their families. Jobs that seemed solid ten days ago have evaporated.

Middle and upper income people on the verge of retirement--or those who have retired--have lost large sums of money. They are worried that they will not be able to support themselves or return to the workforce. The plans of a lifetime--work for forty years and then retire--appear precarious or threatened. In some real sense, the world has ended for them. They no longer make the economic assumptions that they once did.

It is not just our work lives and economic situations that have changed. Many other things have shifted. Like me, a lot of parents are trying to juggle parenting while working from home. My son’s school has closed. It will not physically reopen until the autumn. He is now mostly at home--except when he goes to the park. It is not safe for him to have friends over. So, he spends a lot of time online--which is something that so many of us are doing now. Will the nature childhood be the same when it safe for him to gather with his friends again? Probably not, for we have reached the end of the world.

A lot of people, like me, have made the wise decision to severely limit their physical contact with others. And, here, I find myself thinking of all the older members this congregation, and of my parents, and of all of those I know and love who are over the age of sixty-five. The virus that causes COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for them. It is not safe for many of them to leave their homes. A lot them are doing what my parents are doing, hunkering down for the unknown duration, not planning on venturing to the grocery store, but having food delivered, truly sheltering in place.

I hope that this service is providing them a sense of connection while they are in self-isolation. As Scott said last week, “We will get through this together.” And we here on the staff of First Houston will help you get through this by reaching out and by helping you reach out to each other.

We find ourselves at the end of the world. The global political order of the last seventy-five years has come to crashing end. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant power. The inept bungling of the current President and the federal executive that he decimated mean that the pandemic will have dramatic consequences for this country. Ideological decisions to cut the budget for pandemic management have left the federal government ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly metastasizing situation. The economic damage will be severe. But just as severe will be the political damage. The politics of America First will prompt the government to look inwards, to persecute immigrants, and to expel foreign nationals. None of this will solve anything. In a global health pandemic, the only polity--understanding of who or what is the political community--that makes any sense is a global one. Humanity is all in this together. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Whenever this is over, and it will eventually end, the world will not be the same. Religious communities will not be the same. Friendships will not be the same. Families will not be the same. School will not be the same. Work will not be the same. Global politics will not be the same. We find ourselves at the end of the world.

We are living in apocalyptic times. Apocalypse, the word itself comes from the Greek, by way of the Latin. It means to uncover or to disclose or to reveal. And that is exactly what this virus is doing, it is revealing fundamental truths about our society. Things that appeared solid have proved illusory and I cannot help but think of Karl Marx’s famous line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Whatever you might think of Marx, and there’s a lot to dislike, his words name the dynamic of apocalyptic crisis. In these times, we see what really matters. We learn we need food, shelter, health, and connection--even if can only come through a screen. In these times, we discover whose work really matters.

The health care workers, the farmers, the grocery workers, the food service workers, the transportation workers, the maintenance workers, society cannot function without you. It is you who will keep the rest of us going while we shelter in place. You are the ones who are risking your lives so that the rest of us can get through this viral pandemic. Without your willingness to work, to endanger yourselves, and your families, no one else would have any chance of getting through this.

Your labor is essential. And this unveiling, this bringing into plain sight that which is so often is hidden, should prompt you to recognize how vital you are to society. For I cannot but look at the heroic work you are doing and hear words of the old labor anthem:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong

Those phrases might some members of our regular Sunday morning congregation uncomfortable. But apocalyptic times, and apocalyptic visions, are not easy to bear. When the veil is torn away, we see things we have hidden from ourselves. And this country has hidden the fundamental truth that the labor of food workers, and health care workers, and transport workers, and day care workers, are essential to keeping society functioning. And for too long, so many of you have had to eke out precarious existences, barely paying the rent, working too hard, working too many hours, and now so many of you are being asked to do even more than that. I know grocery workers who are putting in seventy hours a week to food on the shelves. And companies like Whole Foods are telling workers that they will not give them paid sick leave. Instead, they are being told to give their earned time off to their sick co-workers. And I remember the old words, “[W]ithout your brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What you do is essential. The veil has been ripped off.

The veil has been ripped off and the truth is shining through. Low wage workers, Whole Foods workers, Amazon delivery people, you have great power. Our society cannot function without you. In this apocalyptic moment you have the possibility to use that power to organize, to go on strike, to make demands, and to win yourself more pay. No one whose labor is essential should ever have trouble paying their bills, finding a place to live, or affording enough food to feed their family. No one who must take care of others in these strange days, in these apocalyptic times, should worry about whether or not they have health care.

And, now I know that I am making some of my regular congregants uncomfortable. But apocalyptic visions are like fever dreams--perhaps an apt but uncomfortable metaphor--and they can make us squirm. And it the preacher’s job to offer up the prophetic voice, to speak the truth that must be spoken, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And if we are to learn the lessons of the hour, that is precisely what must be done, we must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we do not then society will not change. And if society does not change then I fear we will be unprepared the next time the veil is ripped up away and we face a global crisis.

So, grocery workers, delivery workers, health care workers, if you want to take the lessons of hour and use the opportunity to struggle for better, safer, wages and conditions, here is what you might do. You might find one of your trusted co-workers and ask them the questions: Are you safe at your work? Are people getting sick? Are you being paid enough to live? And then you might suggest that you and your trusted co-worker each meet individually with your other co-workers and ask them the same questions. Get everyone’s email and phone number. Make a plan. Promise to support each other. Set a day and a time. Walk off your job, but keep your social distance, and, as a group, tell your employer you demand better wages and safety condition--you demand adequate masks and gloves so that you won’t get sick and sufficient pay so that you can afford your home and feed your family.

Do not just do it for yourselves. Do it for the rest of us. Because here is the truth, the real unveiling, the lesson of this apocalyptic moment, most of the good things we have in this society--Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, all of the programs that came from the New Deal and ended the Great Depression--came about because people like you in early generations, during the Great Depression, who were performing essential work, refused to work anymore until they could work safely and be paid enough to support themselves and their loved ones.

The federal government is not taking the actions it needs to address the viral pandemic. It is not repurposing industry to build ventilators for sick people, to build hospitals, or take masks. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the Amazon workers said: We will not deliver anything else until the government focuses on building us hospital beds if we get sick. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the grocery workers said: We will not stock the grocery shelves until masks are made for us to safely interact with our customers?

The veil has been lifted. The essential work of society has been revealed. And I hear, echoing in the distance, but perhaps creeping closer, the old question, put into poetry by William Butler Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

We have reached the end of the world, we are living in apocalyptic times, and now, what beast shall it be? Shall it be a compassionate one or callous one? Yeats’s verse hints at both possibilities--for Bethlehem is where the Christians believe that their messiah was born and, yet, the beast is rough.

So, we come to the final point of our sermon. “Once upon a time we had... time... And now we seem to have lost it,” Catherine Keller observes. And now we must choose between compassion and callousness.

For we are rapidly running out time. The viral outbreak grows ever more dire. And we now must choose between compassion and callousness. The choice cannot be deferred any longer. Deferring the choice to immediately mobilize, to immediately act, means choosing to callousness. Yes, those of us who can, who are not essential workers, need to shelter in place. That is a compassionate act, for it will slow the spread of the virus.

But we need to do more than that we, we need to choose compassion as our guiding principle going forward. And we need to recognize that we are in extraordinary times. We are in a crisis and we should listen to the economist Milton Friedman, “only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change.” Real change is going to come from this crisis. The only question is: will it be compassionate change or callous change?

Already the current President is using the pandemic to pursue the politics of callousness that he has long sought to enact. He is sending asylum seekers back to Mexico. He is undermining the ability of unions to collect dues from federal workers. He is demanding the relaxation of environmental protections. Each action, he claims, is somehow related to fighting the pandemic.

We can choose differently. We can use this crisis to pursue the politics of compassion. We can society’s quick mobilization as lesson that it is possible to act rapidly to address the climate emergency. We can take the truth that all of us are vulnerable to the virus; that our health care system cannot continue in its current form; and that we need universal health care now. We can recognize that we are all dependent upon each other and, so, therefore we must all take care of each other. We can choose the politics of compassion.

We have reached the end of the world. We are living amid an apocalypse. The veil has been lifted. Will we choose the politics of callousness or the politics of compassion? “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise,” said James Baldwin. What shall we choose? What will you choose? How shall we act? How shall we take the lessons of the hour? These are the questions that haunt us in these strange days. And I end not by precisely answering them but by raising them. For truthfully, they are not my questions to answer alone. They are questions we must answer together. We must answer them together, even as we social distance, because we are rapidly running out of time. Let us choose wisely.

The case count is rising. The virus is spreading. Please, take good care, be safe, know that you are loved, and that this congregation is here for you, and now, I invite you to say with me, wherever you are, Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston COVID-19 Mark Vogel Thoreau Richmond Third Ward Montrose Sugarland D. Scott Cooper Hubble Telescope Rania Matar donna e. perkins Julian of Norwich Carl Sandburg Mark Doty Lynn Ungar Apocalypse Catherine Keller James Baldwin Cheryl Rivers Tawanna Grice Gustavo Hernandez Albert Camus Economics Donald Trump China Martin Luther King, Jr. Karl Marx Work Workers Labor Solidarity Forever Whole Foods Amazon Great Depression New Deal Social Security Medicaid Medicare William Butler Yeats Milton Friedman Immigration Climate Crisis

Mar 9, 2020

Sermon: Now is the Time

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 8, 2020

This month in worship we are focusing on compassion. Rev. Scott got us started last week with a sermon in which he affirmed the psychotherapist David Richo’s claim, “Compassion is love’s response to pain.”

“Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain,” Rev. Scott told us. “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.

Compassion is a core Unitarian Universalist value. Our tradition claims that love is the most powerful force in human life. Love beats hate. In theist terms, we argue, God is love. Love is God. God loves everyone, no exceptions. In humanist terms, we recognize that love, more than anything else, is what knits human life together. And as Unitarian Universalists we strive we be a loving community, instantiating among ourselves what Josiah Royce, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, called the beloved community. We struggle to be a space where everyone, without exception, can find their place and be encouraged, and supported, in living into their full human potential. And then we work to take that vision of the beloved community into the wider world.

Compassion, having sympathetic thoughts and feelings for others and then seeking to put those thoughts and feelings into action. Compassion, love’s response to pain. Compassion, it is something I suspect we are all going to be called to exercise in significant amounts in the coming weeks. The coronavirus is spreading throughout all of humanity. It is here in the United States. It has reached Houston. And our religious tradition calls us to be compassionate as we, collectively, respond to the viral outbreak.

This compassion should take several forms. We should demand that our public officials allocate adequate resources and take shift appropriate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should not stigmatize or shun particular groups of people--people of Asian descent, for instance--because we irrationally blame them for the virus. The virus has the potential to impact everyone and people of all ages and ethnicities have been infected with it.

And we should each do our part to limit the rate at which the virus propagates. Wash your hands frequently, with hot water and ample soap--hum Happy Birthday twice the way through. Do not shake hands, I have been encouraging people to bump forearms instead. Cover your cough with a kleenex and then throw that kleenex away. If you feel ill stay at home--we offer paid sick leave to our employees here at First Church, if your workplace does not and you are sick and worried about missing a paycheck contact me or Rev. Scott and we will see how we can help you. Clean surfaces like doorknobs that people frequently touch. And hardest of all, avoid touching your face.

They might seem banal, but these are compassionate actions. They are ways we put our concerns for others--concerns that they might be stricken by the virus--into action. If the viral outbreak reaches epidemic portions here in Houston the staff and I are prepared to continue to offer Sunday services and pastoral counseling online as part of our compassionate efforts to help the community weather the viral storm.

Compassion, looking around our sanctuary am I sure you have noticed that it looks a bit different this morning. We have close to sixty photographs on our walls here and in the Fireside room because of my belief that art can stir sympathy, empathy, and, ultimately, compassion within us.

This year our congregation is part of FotoFest. FotoFest is the longest-running international Biennial of photography and lens-based art in the United States. It is one of the largest photography festivals in the world. It has an audience of around 275,000. We are serving as a Participating Space. That means that we are one of about eighty venues from around the city who have chosen to be part of FotoFest and exhibit art throughout the festival. Some of the other venues include the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and the Houston Center for Photography. So, we are in pretty good company.

FotoFest opened yesterday. That is why, I should note, that we are focusing on it today and not Women’s History. We will observing Women’s History throughout the month by drawing our readings exclusively from women. With the exception of today, when Zsófia invited us to support the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, we will be supporting Planned Parenthood through our shared offering for most of the month. And at the end of the month, I will give the sermon drawing explicitly from feminist and womanist theology that I would normally have given on the Sunday nearest March 8th.

Our exhibition is called “Now is the Time: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of South Africa’s 1994 Election.” My father, Dr. Howard Bossen, and I curated it together. My Dad is with us this morning. And I would like to thank him and my Mom, Kathy, for their tireless efforts to make this exhibit happen. I would also like to thank First Church’s fine staff. Alex, Alma, Carol, Gustavo, Jon, and Scott all put in--and continue to put in--an extraordinary amount of work for “Now is the Time.” Tawanna, our wonderful Business Administrator, deserves special mention since, on top of all of her other duties, she served as project manager. We also had help from the staff at the Libraries of Michigan State University, CrateWorks Fine Art Services, and Artists Framing Resource. We owe Bill Harrison thanks. Bill printed the images and then he did a rush job to print a second set after UPS lost the first one. And we owe Justin Griswold from CrateWorks particular gratitude. He was here until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening hanging the show. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our funders: Michigan State University, Thorpe Butler and Rita Saylors, and Lindley Doran and Charles Holman. And showing the exhibit would not continue to be possible without the assistance of all our volunteer docents. We have a lot of shifts to cover and if you have not volunteered to be a docent there is certainly still the opportunity to do so.

Before we move into the rest of the sermon I want to tell you how the show came about. A key part of FotoFest is its portfolio review program. This is where artists and curators, editors, gallery owners, publishers and other industry professional meet with photographers to look at the artists’ work. My father is a Professor of Photography and Visual Communication at Michigan State University. He has been one of FotoFest’s reviewers for close to twenty years. When I moved to Houston, FotoFest’s Executive Director, Steven Evans, asked my Dad if he would ask me if we would be willing to serve as Participating Space. Apparently, the folks at FotoFest have been interested in partnering with our congregation for many years. My Dad put us in touch and Steven paired First Church with a curator.

This was back in June of last year. We spent about five months working with this curator. And then in late November, I got a call from that curator. They had been unable to raise the money they needed for the exhibit that they were planning. They were backing out. I asked Steven what to do. He told me it was way too late to pair us with another curator. All of the deadlines for Participating Spaces are in early autumn. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do something with your Dad? We would really like First Church to be part of FotoFest. I can give you a week to figure something out.” A week is not a long time to come up with a plan for an exhibit. But, I called my Dad, and well, here we are.

I am excited that are we able to be a venue for “Now is the Time.” Leonard Freed, whose work we are featuring, was a major American photographer. He was a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photography collective, and for more than fifty years he travelled the world documenting major events. He used his art to stir sympathy and compassion and, during the 1950s and 1960s, break the “almost complete isolation between the races.” His work is in the collections of places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.

Freed is best known for his photographs of the civil rights movement, particularly the set of images that were included in his 1968 “Black in White America.” It is a beautiful book. It documents African American life in the last days of Jim Crow. And it documents African American life right after the end of legal segregation.

There are lot of powerful pictures in that book. One of the most effecting is of a line of eight or nine African Americans standing in line to vote in a federal election for the first time in Washington, DC. They are in one those utilitarian spaces that often serve as polling places--I imagine it is a school gym or cafeteria or, maybe, a church basement. They are all ages. There is a tall distinguished gentleman wearing what looks like a tweed jacket, well pressed slacks, and perfectly shined shoes. There is a young woman in a long coat and knee length skirt with a large purse under her right arm. In her right hand she is grasping a white slip of paper, presumably documenting that she is eligible to vote. Everyone in the photograph looks like they have been waiting a long time--which, of course, they have been. They have been waiting however long they have been waiting in that line. And they have been waiting however long they have been alive. For this is the first that any of them have been able to vote in a national election. It does not matter that the man is probably over eighty and that the woman is most likely under thirty. They have both been waiting precisely the same amount of time: their whole lives. And they look tired--because I bet that line is a long one--and they look determined--because winning the right to vote was not easy.

Viewed from the vantage of Houston, Texas in the year 2020, the photograph is actual quite disturbing. It could have been taken on Tuesday. It could have been taken here in the Fourth Ward. It could have been taken in Third Ward. It could have been taken in almost any community of color in the state of Texas. Since 2012, the state’s Republican leadership has worked to close 750 polling places throughout the state. The vast majority of them have been closed in communities of color.

On Tuesday, I voted in polling place near Montrose in River Oaks. There were about a half dozen polling places for me to choose from in easy reach of my apartment. Now, I live in an affluent and predominately white area. And when I went to a polling place, I waited about fifteen minutes in line. I have a friend who lives in the Fourth Ward. She waited over an hour and a half to vote. And some people who voted at Texas Southern University--a historically black university--had to wait as many as six hours in line.

Compassion is not just having sympathy for those people who had to wait for hours and hours to vote. It is putting that sympathy into action and organizing to demand that people have easy access to voting.

Compassion, you can find images of people waiting to vote almost anywhere online. And these days, we are inundated by visual images at almost all times. They can overwhelm us. How many of you have a smartphone? And how many of you use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? I have them all on my phone. They have a common feature called endless scroll. Endless scroll is what repopulates your phone with images as you move your finger down the screen. No matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook or “followers” you have on Twitter, the social media companies constantly refresh your account so that you never run out of images. Endless scroll is just that--a string that seemingly goes on forever that you can never reach the end of, that is always presenting you with new content, new images, new videos, new sources of stimulation.

Endless scroll can be entrancing. I do not know about you, but I sometimes have the experience of scrolling from image to image on Instagram without even knowing that I am doing it. Sometimes I look up and realize that fifteen minutes have passed. It would be difficult for me to tell you what images I saw or engaged with during that time. They all went by in a catatonic blur.

The social media accounts that I follow come from all over the world. I follow news sources like the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, and La Jornada--a very fine daily out of Mexico City. I follow a painter from Japan, anarchist labor union activists from Spain, organizers from Northern Syria, photographers from the Czech Republic, historians, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders, from well, really, almost anywhere. And then there are my actual friends, who, in our highly connected global society, live on every continent except Antartica.

One of the wonderful things about social media is that is it actually can link people from throughout the world together. I have, through my smart phone or computer, access to the words, sounds, and images from people who live in bustling cities and in remote villages. If I want to, I can actually communicate directly with them and find out something more about their human experience. I share with them some of mine. And maybe our digital interaction can open us up to being compassionate towards each other and help us recognize that truth about the human experience--lifted up in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association--we are all connected, we are all part of the great web of being, we are all members of the great family of all souls, and what happens to you, in some way, minor or major, happens to me also.

One of the terrible things about social media is that it can make people numb to what is going on throughout the world. I have had this experience myself. I look at my phone and there are images of people dying under Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. I look at my phone and there are images of people suffering from the coronavirus first in China, then in Italy, and now, well, here in the United States. I look at my phone and there’s an image of a young African American man who has been killed by the police. I look at my phone and there’s images of the children who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have placed in cages. There are images of people who have been deported back to Central America and killed by gangs. There are images of... Well, there are a lot of awful images out there--images that provide a testament to just how terrible we humans can be to each other.

And you know what, I usually think to myself, “I cannot deal with this right now.” And scroll past the world’s horrors to look at pictures of a friend’s dog’s birthday party, a friend drinking beer at the cutest graffiti coated bar I have ever seen, a very nice looking breaking competition, a couple’s anniversary--one partner in a striking red dress, the other in an elegant tuxedo--, a delicious meal of fresh brilliant colored market vegetables, and, of course, cats. Like a whole lot of the world, I like images of cats--running, sleeping, or playing with some kind of improbable object. Cats are cute. Cats are goofy. Cats can easily bring a smile to my face. Cats can help me forgot the brutal things we do to each other.

Do you ever have the same experience? Where you look at the difficult news of the world and think to yourself, “I just can’t?” A bit more than a decade ago, when she was trying to grapple with the constant barrage of images of the Bush regime’s torture policies that were appearing in the New York Times and other places in the then dominant print media, the philosopher Susan Sontag observed, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”

I suspect that the constant barrage of graphic images induces compassion fatigue in a lot of us. Compassion fatigue is the anger, dissociation, anxiety, and even nightmares that we experience from feeling powerless to change the world’s ills. It comes from what Sontag called “a quintessential modern experience,” “[b]eing a spectator of calamities taking place in another” place.

Endless scroll offers us the opportunity to spectate endless and exhausting calamities. It can dilute the power of the image to open us to compassion. And that is one reason why I think exhibits like “Now is the Time” and social documentary photography remain important even when we are constantly inundated with images. The framed image, mounted on the wall, allows us, offers us, the chance to stop and consider the human experience--or the natural world--in a moment of time.

Now, of course, all photographs are curated representations of reality. There is always something outside of the frame. The image is always partial and seen through the lens of the photographer. The photographer’s aesthetics and ethics--their choice of what they represent and how they represent it--is always shaping the image. When they produce an image, they are indicating that this transitory moment in time, this flitting bit of consciousness, matter, and experience, is worth preserving.

Freed’s work in “Now is the Time” preserves impressions of an historic shift, the end of apartheid in South Africa. He travelled there for three weeks to document the country’s first multi-racial election. As a white Jewish man from the United States, a white Jewish man who knew about the Holocaust and Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, he created his curated representations of the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.

His images are not the images that would have been made by someone with a different social location--they are not the images of a black South African who participated in the struggle to end apartheid. And they are not the images of a person who had suffered the social stigma of apartheid or Jim Crow. Nonetheless, they are designed to open their viewers to the fullness of the human experience--to remind us that there is joy and friendship and wonder. That human society can shift. That apartheid ended.

The title of the exhibit comes from one of the African National Congress’s slogans during the 1994 election, “Now is the Time.” The slogan is evocative of Freed’s photograph of the people waiting in line to vote. Now is the time for change. It has finally come, after all these years of suffering and struggling and waiting and waiting. Now is the time, it has arrived. Now is the time to be compassionate towards each other and act together. Now is the time, if you want to learn more about the exhibit, my father will be offering a lecture about it next Sunday at 7:00 p.m. And I will be doing at least one gallery talk between now and when the exhibit closes at the end of April.

I hope that you will take time after the service or during the exhibit’s hours to study the photographs. There are a few that we have placed behind a curtain because they are not appropriate for Sunday mornings. But all them will offer you an opportunity to interrupt the endless scroll of visual imagery and look carefully at transitory moments of time, constructed representations, that, will do a little to help you with whatever compassion fatigue you might be experiencing. As you do, I invite you to remember words from Nikki Giovanni that we heard earlier in the service:

we must believe in each other’s dreams
i’m told and i dream
of me accepting you and you accepting yourself

Such words remind us of the possibility of compassion.

As you view Freed’s images, I invite you to consider these words by Nelson Mandela, words that he offered in his inaugural address as President of South Africa:

“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.

We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”

We would do well to hear Mandela’s word. They challenge us to be compassionate--to take our sympathy and empathy for others, sympathy and empathy that are rooted in our shared human experience, and transform them into the action of compassion.

We would also do well to pause, and look, and see if we can be stirred to compassion by all the rich visual imagery on display throughout the city of Houston during FotoFest. Our faith calls us to be compassionate. And the art which surrounds during these festival months has the possibility of inspiring us to greater depths of compassion--to transform our sympathy and empathy into action.

We are one human family, one world community, whether we like it or not. If we are to survive and thrive we must be compassionate towards each other. Let us remember that and, in doing so, let us recognize that now is the time to act--to work for voting rights, to do what we can to combat the coronavirus (no shaking hands after the service), to seek justice, and to build the beloved community.

Now is the time.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Museum District D. Scott Cooper David Richo Compassion Sympathy Empathy Universalism Unitarian Universalism Martin Luther King, Jr. Josiah Royce COVID-19 FotoFest Leonard Freed Howard Bossen Tawanna Grice Justin Griswold Michigan State University Michigan State University Libraries Artists Framing Resource CrateWorks Fine Art Services Bill Harrison Thorpe Butler Rita Saylors Lindley Doran Charles Holman Steven Evans Magnum Photos Black in White America Photography 2020 Primaries 2020 Election Republican Party Texas Houston Third Ward Fourth Ward Jim Crow Montrose River Oaks Instagram Twitter Facebook Endless Scroll Syria China Italy Immigration and Customs Enforcement Cats Susan Sontag Nelson Mandela African National Congress Nikki Giovanni

Tumblr