Jan 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 24, 2018
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
to all good will.”
These words were penned by the great Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote them on Christmas Day in 1863. He wrote them in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after his son had joined the Union Army without his permission. He wrote them two years after his wife died. He wrote them when this country was in the midst of a profound crisis and when he was caught in his own personal crisis.
“And in despair I bowed my head,” these are good verses for tonight. Christmas 2018 finds this country and our world again in severe crisis. The federal government is shutdown. Migrants are dying at the border. Climate change continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Turkey threatens genocide against the Kurds of Syria. I do not have it within me to offer you a light and cheery Christmas homily.
Perhaps that is alright. Christmas is a complicated holiday. When we turn to the ancient texts we find much in them to suggest that the world was not right two thousand years ago. There is Caesar Augustus organizing a census to count the people of the Roman Empire. He did so not to aid the poor but to benefit the wealthy. There is Herod flying into a rage massacring “all the boys aged two years or under” because one of them might have threatened his rule. The names may have changed but the story has not. We can replace Caesar Augustus with the current President of the United States and the narrative will not be all that different. We can swap Herod with Basar al-Assad or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and our discussion of executed or planned massacres will mirror the gospel texts.
The fundamental conceit of the Christmas holiday is that two thousand years ago a child was born who threatened this great disorder of things. We are supposed to be celebrating the advent of a messiah whose birth meant that God was going to bring about peace and joy to the whole world. We are supposed to celebrating the coming of the kingdom and the reign of the divine. For Christians this event is so important that it actually divides time in two. First there was the era known as B.C., Before Christ. And now there is the era of Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.
For Unitarian Universalists, the holiday is more convoluted. Most of us do not believe that Jesus was the messiah. A few of us wonder if he existed at all. And yet, we celebrate the holiday.
Sometimes this prompts people to tell jokes at our expense. A few of these are jokes are quite mean spirited. Others a bit more gentle, “What’s the Unitarians favorite Christmas movie? Coincidence on 34th street.”
Occasionally the holiday prompts us to poke fun at ourselves. One of my favorite bits along these lines is the late Unitarian minister Christopher Raible’s holiday hymn, “God Rest Ye, Unitarians.” Appealing to the hardcore rationalists among us it begins:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
A rationalist reading of the Christmas story would examine other aspects of the ancient texts as well. It would point out that their references to a census by Caesar Augustus and Herod’s massacre of the innocents are metaphoric at best. There seems to be little historical evidence that either occurred.
And yet, in 2018, Christian readings of the Christmas story that celebrates Jesus as the world saving of messiah and rationalist readings that offer “Glad tidings of reason and fact” both miss an essential point. The Christmas story, whether metaphor or fact, suggests something crucial about what we are called to do when in despair we bow our heads. It is a lesson of where we are supposed to look for hope.
When we read the story carefully we discover that the invention of Caesar Augustus’s census and Herod’s massacre of the innocents turn Jesus not only into a messiah. They turn him into a child of migrants fleeing political persecution. They turn him into a child of the least of these. The great messiah is not born to the high and mighty. He is born to outcasts so poor they must take shelter in a cave or a stable because they cannot find room in an inn.
This story suggests that we are to look for hope on the margins of society. We will not to find it by looking to the powerful. We will not find it by turning to Caesar Augustus or Herod or the President of the United States or Assad or Erdoğan. We will to find it by looking to the prisoners, the migrants, the refugees, the civilians who endure the horrors of war... all of those who bravely insist that there is another way.
I have been thinking of this dimension of the Christmas story over the past weeks as my heart has been burdened by the death of seven-year-old Jacklin Caal. She was the young Guatemalan migrant who died in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being denied medical attention. If Jesus existed he was born into a family like Jacklin’s, a family that was fleeing violence and death.
And let me tell you, that is exactly what Jacklin’s family was fleeing. The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are some of the most violent in the world. They routinely have murder rates that mirror those of countries at war. I have gone to El Salvador and interviewed the victims of that violence. I spent years doing human rights work in southern Mexico and spoke with migrants who passed through that country on their way to the United States. I could recount their stories and on this Christmas Eve push you to despair.
If were to do so, I might tell you that the violence found in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala was produced by the powerful in this country. Their histories of instability are a result of the United States government’s systematic undermining of their movements for democracy. Their recent spikes in violence a result of our government deporting Central American gang members back their home countries in the nineties. Addressing their widespread poverty would do more to stem the flow of migrants than Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall. The budget for building a wall is almost the same as the entire budget of the government of Honduras. The budget of the US Customs and Border Patrol is about five times the budget of El Salvador. Imagine how different the lives of people in Central America would be if the money spent keeping them out of this country was spent to improve their countries instead.
But I digress. The Christmas story does not just remind us that the powerful are so often responsible for the violence of the world. It reminds us that hope is to be found at the margins of society. It is to found amongst those who have the most at stake in changing the world: the migrants who flee violent lands with a dream of peace in their hearts; the prisoners who are bold enough to imagine a world without prisons; the labor militants who believe that it is possible build a world where there is prosperity for all; the peace activists who dream of the end of war; the ecological activists who hope that there is way that we might yet live in harmony with the earth... When the world changes for the better it will be because of the work of those on the margins.
When we remember that we can go beyond the third verse of Longfellow’s hymn, “And in despair I bowed my head:” and hear the bells of the fourth:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”
My prayer for us this Christmas is simple:
May we hear the deeper peals of the bells
and, rationalist or believer,
remember that the story tells us to look for hope
not among the powerful--
the architects of wars
and government shutdowns--
but at the margins of society.
It is there
that we might find hope
just as it was there
that the ancient texts
found hope in the birth
of a child
fleeing political persecution
some two thousand years ago.
Much love to all of you,
have a wonderful holiday
Jan 14, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, January 13, 2019
This is my first Sunday in the pulpit since we began live streaming our sermons to our Tapestry and Thoreau campuses. I want to begin by sharing a greeting to the members of the congregation who are worshipping with us in Richmond, Texas. You will note that I did not extend my greeting to Spring, Texas. You may have heard by now that the Tapestry campus has decided to go its own way. First Church is no longer providing them Sunday morning worship services.
This shift is a significant one for First Church. It means that, once the Board takes action, you will no longer be “one church in three locations.” I think it is a healthy transition. In the five and a half months that I have served as your interim minister, Tapestry has never felt integrated into First Church. They have wanted to maintain their separate identity, including their own logo, web site, and social media. They have not been excited about receiving videos of the sermons from the Museum District campus. It is best to bless them and wish them the best in their efforts to grow as an independent congregation. They might be going their own way but we all remain Unitarian Universalists. We all remain committed to the collective project of building a strong Unitarian Universalism in the Houston area.
My experience of Thoreau has been quite the opposite of my experience with Tapestry. I experience the Museum District and Thoreau campuses as increasingly integrated. The shift to live streaming is further solidifying the connections between the two campuses. For those of you who do not know, live streaming means that at about the same time folks here at Museum District are listening to this sermon another fifty to sixty people are joining us virtually in our new sanctuary in Richmond.
We have live streamed two services in the last four weeks. Both times I have been here at Museum District. And, after each of them, I have interacted with members of the congregation who attend Thoreau. We were able to talk about that week’s sermon. It made me feel more like the minister of both campuses than I had in the past. We shared an immediate common experience, a recent shared experience of worship. A shared experience of worship is at the heart of congregational life. And we can find all sorts of ministers, theologians, and other scholars who tell us this in some fashion or another. The late Harvard Divinity School professor Conrad Wright observed, “a church must have some element or elements of common experience shared by its members, to unite them and make a community out of a collection of individuals.”
The theme we are examining in worship this month is transformation. The process of creating a religious community out of a group of individuals is a transformative process. It changes our individual identities. Together we become Unitarian Universalists. Together we become, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And in this becoming my sense of self shifts. The perceiving I, the Colin that is preaching this sermon, is a different self than I would have if I was part of a different religious community, or if I did not belong to one at all. The same is true for the perceiving you, the each of you, sitting in the pews. Gathering together as a religious community changes each of us.
But that is the point, is it not? Most of us want to be part of a religious community because we feel like our life would not be complete without one. Yesterday, we had a new member class. Like most new member classes I have been involved in over the last decade, we invited people interested in joining First Church to share a little bit about their personal religious journeys. What brought you here, we asked them.
The details of these stories are confidential. I am not going to share them. But I can reflect upon the themes that emerge from them. And one theme stood out, as it does so often when I ask people why they have come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It runs something like this: You felt like something was missing from your life. You were unhappy with the stilted or confining theology of other religious communities you have been part of. Maybe they did not welcome you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. Maybe you did not resonate with their teachings about Hell and damnation. Maybe you wanted a more capacious tradition, one that allowed room for doubt and dissent, one that welcomed you, even encouraged you, after you realized you were an atheist or agnostic. And so, you started doing some research, or you met someone from this congregation, or your friend or relative found Unitarian Universalism, and you discovered that this was a community where you felt like you belonged. “For a long time, I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it,” is not an uncommon thing to hear said when someone shares their journey to Unitarian Universalism.
Occasionally, someone who has raised Unitarian Universalist, like me, participates in such a class. Their story has a slightly different spin. It might go this way: You grew up Unitarian Universalist in another city. Unitarian Universalism has always been an important part of your life. It taught you that critical thinking was essential. It taught you that love is the most powerful force in the world. It taught you that the pursuit of justice, the work of building beloved community, is at the heart of what it is to be a religious person. To paraphrase Rebecca Parker, it provided you with a place where you felt accepted in all of your humanity.
The stories share a common thread. Your participation in a Unitarian Universalist community has changed, is changing you, is helping you become a more authentic person. When you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you enter, as Parker puts it, “a sanctuary for the recovery of soul and a school for the transformation of society.”
Alternatively, when you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you commit to the intertwined projects of individual and collective transformation or, as I sometimes describe it, the work of individual and collective liberation. My sermon title this morning gets to a key tension point in this enterprise: Where to begin? The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras once observed, “There are two sides to every question.” My question might be approached while thinking about his wisdom. When we are seeking transformation should we begin as individuals or should we begin as a collective?
Four observations as we consider this question. The first, transformation requires intentionality. The second, transformation is an individual project. The third, transformation is a collective project. And the fourth, real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives.
Let us start with the first of these observations: transformation requires intentionality. I suspect that this is something you already know. We just rang in the New Year. And what do many of us typically do on New Years? We make resolutions! Show of hands, how many of you made New Years resolution this year? I did. I do every year. In fact, I make some of the same resolutions every year. I am going to spend a little bit more time meditating. I am going to be better about going to the gym. I am going to lose five pounds--do not ask me why it is five pounds. For the past six years I have been trying to lose five pounds. And for the past six years my weight has remained exactly the same. What about you? Do you have resolutions that you make year after year?
If you do, the point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself. The point is to remind us that transformation is difficult work. And that it requires us to be intentional about our actions.
This leads me to my second observation. Transformation is an individual project. It involves me changing my behavior in some way. The best way I know how to do this is to nurture religious discipline, what some of us call a spiritual practice. This might be prayer, meditation, tai chi, or yoga. How many of you have a regular spiritual practice? I do. And if you do not, I highly recommend it. I am a steadfast practitioner of that old Puritan and transcendentalist discipline: journal writing.
I have a regular writing routine. It begins with reading. Most days, I begin the day by reading three things: a sermon or a text on the art of preaching, three to five pages of poetry, and a bit of scripture from one of the world’s religious traditions. Next, I spend a couple of minutes outlining the main argument of the scripture. And then I write in my journal for fifteen minutes.
This week I have been reading Otis Moss III’s “Blue Note Preaching a Post-Soul World,” an anthology of traditional Japanese poetry, and Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible. Each of these has opened up my experience of the world in some small way. Otis Moss III pushes me to remember that preaching and worship, the collective work in which we are now engaged, has to wrestle the tragedies of this world if it is going to be meaningful. At the same time, we need to celebrate beauty and joy. Moss is the senior minister of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest left-leaning black churches in the country. He writes, “Blue Note preaching, or preaching with Blues sensibilities, is prophetic preaching—preaching about tragedy, but refusing to fall into despair.”
When I read this passage, I was reminded that if preaching is to be authentic, if it is to do the work of transformation that it is called to do in the world, it must confront the earthly powers and principalities. It must point out that the federal government shutdown is a manufactured crisis, a temper tantrum, created by a political leader who is not getting his way. He does not care about the eight hundred thousand federal employees who are being harmed by his decision to shutdown the government. And it must point out that real leadership is found in those who care about all people. And that when we remember that we can find beauty and joy in this troubled world. It is not present when we look to the fools who create political crises. It is found in the ways we care for each other and create community in the midst of such crises. And so, I will say again what was said during the announcements. If you are a federal employee, if you are impacted by the shutdown, and if you are having trouble paying your bills because of it, come see me and First Church will do what we can to help you.
The section in Proverbs I have been reading for the past week is devoted to pairing antithetical ideas, much like blue note preaching. Though rather than calling us to find the beauty in tragedy, Proverbs contrasts the wise and the foolish. Some of its verses speak to our present situation, “The tongue of a righteous man is choice silver, / But the mind of the wicked is of little worth” or “What the wicked man plots overtakes him; / What the righteous desire is granted. / When the storm passes the wicked man is gone. / But righteousness is an everlasting foundation.”
I actually left my reflections on traditional Japanese poetry to the end because several of you have asked about my trip to Japan. And, well, my daily spiritual practice figures into a story about my trip. The anthology I have been reading features the work of two of the central figures in the Japanese literary canon: the poets Matsuo Basho and Yosa Buson.
They came to me one night when I was in Kyoto. Well, actually, they opened the world to me a little in Kyoto. I had been wandering the ancient former capital for the whole day. I was tired and slowly wending my way through the dense streets of hyper-neon and tight old buildings to my hotel. And I thought about stopping for a drink. And there it was, a sign in kanji, which I do not read at all, the English word jazz, and an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Art Blakely, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Gregory Porter, Miles Davis fan that I am I followed the sign and found myself in a Japanese jazz bar.
It was not devoted to live music. Rather, it was a place where one could go to listen to jazz vinyl records. There were a few thousand of them crammed in a space that seated maybe sixteen people--ten at the bar and another six in a booth. Sixties bebop was playing. I ordered shoju, a kind of Korean hard alcohol, and opened up a novel I had brought with me: “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami. And then soon after, it happened. A man and a woman came in. They glanced at me suspiciously, asked in English what I was reading, recognized and praised the author, and somehow in their broken English and my non-existent Japanese we constructed a conversation about Japanese literature--a subject I know precious little about.
It was when I mentioned that I had read Basho and Bosun that conversation took its turn. Until then they had viewed me with generous hesitation. But somehow, I could recognize Basho’s frog poem when they recited it to me Japanese. Do you know it?
An old pond —
Of a diving frog.
And they gave me a little Buson, maybe this one?
Fuji all alone--
the one thing left unburied
by new green leaves.
And so, there we were talking about literature and art and jazz and soon about what I needed to do while I was in Kyoto. It turns out that David Bowie’s favorite place was a bit outside of the city, an old Zen temple named Shoden-ji. And they promised me that if I went I would find quiet.
The next day, I found myself taking a bus forty-five minutes outside of the city center. I walked through a bamboo groove. There was practically no one there. The quiet was, well, the quiet was almost all consuming. The leaves barely spoke. The wind did not seem to blow. The sound of no sound.
Up some stairs I climbed, and into the temple I went. I was there for almost two hours. There were maybe ten people who came in during that time: first, sitting on the veranda overlooking the eight-hundred-year-old Zen garden--three groups of perfectly sculpted bushes, three then five then seven, in front of short white wall framed by a mountain; next, wandering through the temple looking at beautiful painted screens of natural scenes; and finally, sitting on the veranda again.
I am not sure if that experience in itself changed me, transformed me. But what I do know is that my daily practice of reading poetry opened up that unexpected temple to me. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen. It renewed my confidence that people can create and sustain beauty.
This brings me to my third observation, tranformation is collective work. My experience in Shoden-ji was my experience alone. But it was actually a significant collective undertaking. The temple had to be maintained for eight hundred years. That’s more than thirty generations. Without the collective efforts of thousands of unknown people across time my own experience would not have been possible. The collective effort formed the opportunity for me to have the experience of renewal that I had at that temple.
It is also a collective effort, this work of worship, that turns us from individuals into the community we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. When we sit in the pews together, when we sing together, when we listen to the sermon or the special music together, it actually does something to us physiologically. It puts us in synch. The pattern of your breath and mine come close to each other.
This is especially true when we sing a hymn. When we sing we find ourselves breathing together. We find ourselves in rhythm together. That creates the shared experience of being in community together. And through that experience we can come to know each other. Actually, our opening hymn, #346 “Come, Sing a Song with Me” makes this argument. Will you turn in your hymnal and sing the first verse with me?
Come, sing a song with me,
come sing a song with me,
that I might know your mind.
And I’ll bring you hope
When hope is hard to find,
and I’ll bring a song of love
and a rose in the wintertime.
I want to think about the words for a moment. It is an invitation to join a community, “come sing a song with me.” It is an invitation to share the self with another, “that I might know your mind.” It is a suggestion that together we can undergo the process of transformation: “I’ll bring you hope / When hope is hard to find.” It is actually a promise about how we might live together. If we join together in song, put ourselves in synch, the song suggests, we can change ourselves and the transform the world. We can find hope even while we feel despair, discover the winter rose, hear the song of love.
Remembering that we can come to a place where we can find hope and a song of love in a world full of turmoil is something that can transform our lives. It can give us the strength to carry on when we cannot otherwise carry on.
This brings me to my final observation about transformation. Real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives. It is the way in which a regular religious discipline or spiritual practice shifts our understanding of the self slowly, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. It is the way in which being part of a religious community changes our weekly habits. Rather than belonging to the church of sleeping-in or early Sunday brunch, we devote ourselves to the project of collective liberation and self-transformation. Instead of making our way alone, we join in a covenant with other members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston to, in Rebecca Parker’s words, “break through silence and in great laughter... [shake] the foundations of this world’s structures of denial and exclusion.” Instead of giving ourselves over to despair, “we struggle,” in the words of the great Santee Dakota and Mexican poet John Trudell,
taking each day
one at a time
the mending and the breaking
creating patterns for our life.
We struggle knowing that transformation is about shifting the patterns of our lives. The patterns that change slowly as we pursue a religious discipline. The patterns that change slowly as we are part of a religious community. The patterns are evident in the ways in which we orient our lives: towards the great projects of self-transformation and collective liberation.
So, where to begin? With individual or collective transformation? I suppose that it matters little. Each is bound up in the other.
Transformation, the work of the religious community. Transformation, a project that requires intention, a commitment to be transformed. Transformation, an individual project, something we pursue on our own seeking to shift, to open up, the self. Transformation, a collective project that requires the work of many. Transformation, a daily project, whose evidence is written in the very flesh of our lives.
Transformation, this Sunday, as we conclude our sermon, let us open ourselves to its possibilities. Let us commit or recommit to keeping a religious discipline. Let us sing together. Let us bring each other hope. Let share the song of love. Let us remember that through such actions we can transform our world.
Let the congregation say Amen.