Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 20, 2019
Recently at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston we've started doing a bilingual reading once a month. It is part of a larger project of using more Spanish in the service. We have a small community in the congregation who are native speakers and Houston has a very large population of who speaks primarily Spanish. Our small effort is an attempt to be a bit more welcoming and inclusive. For our October 20, 2019 we used "Dice Que No Sabe Del Miedo..." by Alejandra Pizarnik. There wasn't an English version available so I did my own translation. Here it is (the orginal version is below for reference):
She Says That She Doesn’t Know Fear...
by Alejandra Pizarnik
She says that she doesn’t know the fear of the death of love
She says she does not have fear of the death of love
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
Dice Que No Sabe Del Miedo...
por Alejandra Pizarnik
dice que no sabe del miedo de la muerte del amor
dice que no tiene miedo de la muerte del amor
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
Oct 10, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 6, 2019
I am a Yankee. Living in Houston has made this aspect of my identity abundantly clear. I move through the world in distinctively non-Texan ways. I do not wear cowboy boots. I cannot two-step. I do not own a car. I root for neither the Houston Texans nor the Dallas Cowboys--though we have been here long enough that Asa is a fan of the Astros and the Rockets. And probably most disconcerting for many of the Texans I have met; I do not eat meat. Barbecue is not part of my regular routine.
Part of my recognition of my own Yankee nature has come from what I might describe as my general sense of disorientation as I wander through the Houston landscape. I grew up in Michigan. I studied in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I am used to different trees, different flowers, and different rivers. But most importantly, I am used to different mushrooms.
You might not know that one of my great passions is foraging for mushrooms. Stick me in a Northeastern forest for a few hours sometime between the beginning of May and the end of October and I am liable to walk out with several pounds of edible mushrooms. Morels--black, yellow, and grey--, chanterelles--flaming red or colored like egg yolk--, oysters, dryad’s saddles, gem studded and giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, reishi, I know them all.
In Texas, I find myself uncertain in my identification of local mushroom species. There are mushrooms here that look deceptively similar to some that I eat confidently up North. They grow throughout the Museum District and in Herman Park. They have red caps and yellow stalks. They are plump, firm to the touch, solid all the way through and have pores rather than gills on the underside. They look and smell exactly like bicolor boletes--a highly prized delicacy quite similar in taste to porcinis.
Imagine my delight when, shortly after I moved here, I found dozens of these mushrooms growing around our building. Of course, I picked a number and brought them back to my office, with the intention of cooking them up that evening.
Unfortunately, the mushrooms were not bicolor boletes. Now, this not a tale of mushroom poisoning. There’s a saying among foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” I practice an abundance of caution when it comes to mushrooms. And so, when I got back to my office I started fiddling with the mushrooms. They began to stain blue. That is a bad sign. Bicolor boletes do not stain blue. I could not positively identify them. One guidebook indicated that they might be lurid boletes. Those are edible but only grow in Europe. Another suggested that they might be boletus speciosus. Those are not found in the South. In a third they appeared to be a variety of devil’s boletes. But those smell unpleasant and these had a pleasant odor.
In the end, I decided that since I couldn’t completely figure out what they were I better not eat them. It was a disheartening experience. It made me feel disconnected, or even alienated, from the land. Normally, my knowledge of mushrooms helps me to feel connected to it.
The experience is one that I have been ruminating on over the last few weeks as we have been exploring the theme of disruption and three of the great crises of the hour. You might recall, that in worship this year we are exploring how we might develop some of the religious resources and spiritual practices to help us in the work of confronting the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the assault on democracy.
The roots of all three of these crises lie in disconnection or alienation. Many people in this country are alienated from the Earth and alienated from each other. The climate crisis has been created because many of us no longer understand that we are people of the Earth. As the planet goes, so goes the human species. The poet Joy Harjo offers us wise counsel when she enjoins us to:
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
I had a taste of that alienation when I found myself unable to properly identify one of the local mushrooms. One of the principal reasons I love mushroom foraging is it helps me to feel connected to, and a part of, the earth whose skin I am.
Sometimes my experiences in the North are a bit like this: I walk the woods and ramble the riverbanks looking for signs of mushrooms. It is midsummer. There has been rain. Not yesterday, the day before. It is supposed to be chanterelle season. Slow growing, densely fleshed, chanterelles have symbiotic relationships with oak trees. They entwine themselves with the roots and share nutrients creating a network of enmeshed fungi and living wood that can stretch for acres.
My eyes are scouring the leaf litter for signs of wrinkled yellow or red caps. Nothing. I walk for another hour, drifting towards that stand of ancient oak or trying my luck nearer the edge of a shallow stream. Nothing. And then, at the edge of my vision, I see a hint of yellow. I investigate. I look down and there’s a mushroom. I look up and suddenly I see hundreds of beautiful fruiting bodies. They range from tiny buttons to unfolding fractal caps the size of my fist. It is as if I have been invited to be a part of the network of mycelium and root mass that runs through the forest. In moments like that I feel part of the Earth, creation, the unnamable all of existence which we might choose to call God or name the sacred and the divine.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
In the liberal theological tradition, of which Unitarian Universalism is one of the boldest expressions, God is understood to be the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described this experience as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” This feeling of connection is at the root of what it means to be religious. The feeling of connection comes first. The words we use to describe it come later. The feeling is universal. It comes from being embodied creatures, traversing a world on which we are dependent. The words we use to describe this feeling are bound by the particularities of culture and tradition.
Contemporary Schleiermacher scholar and Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes the dynamic this way: “The first word that comes to mind to refer to this feeling of absolute dependence--for Christians... is God... For Buddhists, the first word might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.”
The feeling is universal. The words are particular. And our society’s alienation from this unnamable mystery is at the root of the climate crisis. We use words to describe the universal. Words can separate us from each other and our experience of connection. Human and Earth... We can describe ourselves as something other than creatures of the planet. We can pretend it is possible to escape the consequences of our habits of burning fossil fuels, filling the ocean with plastic, and despoiling lands. We use words and begin to imagine this experience of connection to be an experience of disconnection, disembodiment.
We use words and we get caught up in doctrinal differences. Theist versus humanist. Unitarian Christian versus pagan. Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist... We use words and create cleavages between religious communities. The techno musician “Mad” Mike Banks once described the dynamic this way: “categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation.”
In what remains the sermon, I want to suggest a few strategies you might use to cultivate your sense of connection, move beyond words, and overcome alienation. Think of these as spiritual practices that might aid you in fostering a sense of connection during these times of dislocation and crisis.
I offer them with insights from the German Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent scholars of mysticism. He came to understand that humans develop our senses of identity in relation to the other. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” are some his most famous words.
It is only through a connection with someone or something else that we come to know ourselves. Buber called this experience I-Thou. I-Thou is an experience of pure being. I-Thou occurs when we cease to treat something or someone as an ends to a means. We view them not for their utility or use. Instead, we feel enveloped in the other, dependent, joined with, linked to them. Buber wrote, “He is no longer He or She [or They], limited by other Hes and Shes [and Theys], a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.” In some moments, we experience other beings as “seamless” and discover that “everything else lives in [their] light.” Buber’s language is difficult, poetic, dense, and hard to decipher. This is because language fails such experiences. They are experiences and not ideas. Experiences and not words. Yet, sometimes, we can find hints of such experiences in scriptures and sermon, poetry and luminous prose. One is evoked in denise levertov’s masterful poem “The Cat as Cat:”
flex and reflex of claws
gently pricking through sweater to skin
gently sustains their own tune,
not mine. I-Thou, cat, I-Thou.
“I-Thou, cat, I-Thou,” the words only conjure. But yet, I ask you, have you ever had such moments of connection with another being? A pet? A family member? A lover? A friend? A complete stranger? For me they open up when my cat lies on my lap and sings his cat song, when I get enthusiastic hugs from my children, when I sit beneath the foggy city stars and grasp for words to fill a conversation with a friend, when I dance and lose myself in the breaker’s circle or connect soul-to-soul with a tango partner, and when I lie at the salt water’s edge and hear the backwash drag across sand.
Such moments of connection provide, in Buber’s understanding, linkage to God, the grand mystery of the universe. Now, I recognize that God is a word that makes many Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Many of us like to label ourselves atheists, agnostics, and humanists and reject God. It is all words and words divide and fail to describe the indescribable, the unnamable, that I experience, and I suspect you do as well, when I feel connected to something greater than myself.
Sometimes, in my work as a minister, I will have people come to me expressing hesitation about joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They do not believe in God, they will tell me, and therefore, they think, they cannot be part of a liberal religious community. I draw upon advice from the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church and ask them, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. Chances are, I do not believe in that God either.”
We Unitarian Universalists often get too caught up in what theologians call the via negativa. We love to talk about what God is not and express disbelief. God is not an old white man with a beard in the sky. God is not a vengeful deity angrily coming to smite those who have strayed from rigid doctrine. God is not a being that hates anyone who fails to fit into the all too tidy box of heteronormativity. God is none of these things.
What I am suggesting this morning is that one of the religious practices that we can go back, root ourselves in, in times of crisis is to pursue the via postiva. Here Forrest Church offered us advice, “God is not God's name,” he told us. “God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable.” God is present when we feel connected to, and not separated from, the blue green ball of a planet and the great family of all souls of which we are each but a part.
Martin Buber suggested that there were three ways we might encounter this experience of pure being, which he was unafraid to call God. We can find it, first, through nature. Second, through other beings--people and animals. And third, through art.
I offered my experience as a mushroom hunter as an example of finding the sense of connection in nature. Such episodes are important. They remind us that we are dependent upon, not separate from, this planet which is in ecological crisis. You might find them walking through the woods, strolling along a bayou, or rooting in the soil while you work your garden. Maybe you might even find it simply by gazing at a tree, as Buber himself once did. Reflecting on what he felt while communing with a tree he wrote, “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars.”
We can also find the experience of connection with other beings, human and animal. And here I could offer many examples--some rooted in wordless intimacies and others in ecstatic conversations. Holding a newborn baby, grasping the hand of a dying loved one, singing in community, sharing a well-crafted meal, silently coordinating together as we work to refurbish a house, the litany could continue endlessly, could continue as long as we could find new permutations of relation. Buber, denise levertov, and I all apparently find the experience in our cats. Buber wrote, “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat” in the midst of an eloquent passage on his theology of relation.
And finally, there is what Buber called “spiritual beings.” Here he meant not angels or demons but rather art and knowledge. These are things created by human beings that draw other human beings into the realm of I-Thou. To truly gain knowledge, and to understand another’s knowledge, we need be present entirely to what we are attempting to learn. We have to connect to it and let its patterns unfold before us. As an undergraduate I earned a degree in physics. I remember a sense of awe and wonder that would come as I puzzled through line after line of confusing equations. Suddenly, sometimes, the solution would appear--five, six, seven lines in--an expression that represented the classical mechanics of pulleys or the way light bent as it traversed through a series of lenses. It was like a flash that illuminated our relation to the ground of being--which there I might have called the laws of science.
I have long since forsaken my scientific studies. These days I am much more likely to experience connection through art. Have you ever had the experience of being completed subsumed by a piece of art? Where the work opened up a depth of emotion for you that blotted out everything around you? Some afternoon following service I invite you to go down the block and visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Pick a piece, preferably in a quiet side gallery where you are not likely to be interrupted. I might suggest František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale.” It is found on the second floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, in the European painting section.
Commit to spending three minutes looking at the piece. One minute from far away, one minute a bit closer, and the final minute as close you can get. Three minutes can be a long time to look at a piece of art and in that time in might start to open itself up to you. Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” appears to be a self-portrait. The artist reclines upon a wicker chair, one hand resting upon a book, the other grasping a cigarette. He gazes straight out at you. He is awash in a sea of yellow. Only his flesh, hair, cigarette, and chair are other than yellow. The background is textured golden, the oil of the paint forming thin clots that give the painting depth. Kupka’s robe is a brighter yellow, the fabric folding, reflecting, capturing light. Even his book and pillow are yellow. Each minute I move closer to the painting, I find myself more absorbed by its details. Soon there is only the painting and I, I and the painting, a moment of pure being, pure connection, the experience of being part of something larger than myself.
Mushrooms, a tree, cat and human, knowledge and art, Buber claimed “All actual life is encounter.” As we seek the religious tools to help us deal with the great disruptions of the hour, I suggest that we open ourselves up to these experiences of encounter. They can help us understand that we are neither separate from each other nor separate from the Earth. We are not alienated from our planet or the family of all souls. We are all intricately bound together and by opening ourselves to the I-Thou, the experience of mystery, we find strength and reorientation for the struggles ahead.
We can find that sense of connection within the walls of this sanctuary as well. I suspect that it is one reason why so many of us gather together, Sunday after Sunday. Here when we lift our voices together in song, sit together in the wooden pews, or join together in meditation we can encounter the feeling of connection to a community, the feeling of connection to something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of life.
And in the last months, I have found that I can have the experience of connection even in the city of Houston. As I have walked through the streets of Montrose I have seen it there--purslane--a plant I know how to pick, eat and prepare. Small, succulent weed, thick juicy leaves, red creeping stalk, medicinal, edible, a gentle reminder to me that even when I feel alienated, disconnected, from the sweet Earth there is always the possibility of reconnection, of rerooting, of opening myself to the beauty and mystery of the all that surrounds us.
So that such moments of connection, such gentle overcomings of alienation, might be available to all of us, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Oct 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019
Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.
One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.
Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”
Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”
The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.
Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.
Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”
To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.
Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”
Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.
Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.
Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.
One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.
First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.
I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.
Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy.
In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.
Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.
This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.
Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.
We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:
Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.
I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:
I build & build
& someone takes it away.
It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.
If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.
That it may be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Sep 20, 2019
Sep 16, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 15, 2019
In the Christian New Testament, there are a set of words attributed to Jesus that are sometimes called the harshness sayings by scholars. They are called that because, well, they suggest that Jesus was the sort of person who made a lot of other people uncomfortable. He spoke truth to power. And he was not always polite when he did. He told people that if they wanted to achieve the Kingdom of God then they needed to radically change their society and their lives. He suggested that in order to follow his teachings they needed to shift almost everything about what they did.
You might know a couple of the more famous of these harshness sayings. They are phrases like: “...it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And “If your right eye causes your downfall, tear it out and fling it away” And “If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
The harshness sayings suggest that religious practice, as Jesus saw it, was not an easy thing. It required personal sacrifice. It necessitated questioning everything about how people did things. To be faithful, in his view, required a radical confrontation with the reigning world order. It meant uprooting the powers and practices that organized human life and replacing them with something else.
Such a religious view is in no way unique to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, we find prophets like Jeremiah who complain about how difficult it is for people to follow God’s teachings:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem,
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly,
Who seeks integrity,
That I should pardon her.
It was the religious task, the mission, of prophets like Jeremiah to point out to the people of Jerusalem that they were not living in accordance to the will of their God. They needed to change everything they were doing if they were to live in accordance with the divine’s laws. Otherwise, Jeremiah warned, their civilization would face utter destruction.
Again, we see in this prophetic tradition the idea that religious practice is not easy. It is something that requires a fundamental shift in the way that people are doing things. They need to reimagine their relationships with each other and with the divine if they are going to live faithfully.
I have been thinking about the harshness sayings and the prophetic tradition as I have sought a Unitarian Universalist response to the climate crisis. As I mentioned last week, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crises lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. Addressing them, as a religious community, means asking the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
Last week we talked about disrupting white supremacy. This week we are talking about how to respond to the climate emergency. It is a good week for it. This coming Friday there will be a youth-led Global Climate Strike. It is likely to be the largest climate action in history. The Unitarian Universalist Association is inviting Unitarian Universalists across the country to participate. Here in Houston, the staff of First Church is encouraging members and friends to join in these protests. On Friday morning, we will be gathering here at 10:00 a.m., making signs, practicing songs, and then, after a brief worship service led by our Assistant Minister Scott Cooper, traveling as a group to city hall.
I hope that many of you will come. Immediately following the service, we are having a brief meeting to discuss logistics. One of the local organizers, Lia Millar will be joining us. At the meeting, we will be also talking about how you can participate if you are unable to miss a day of work or school. I recognize that skipping work to be part of a protest is a risk that makes some of you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it even endangers your livelihood. We want everyone to be able to be express their distress and concern about the climate emergency. And so, our Membership and Communications Coordinator Alma Viscarra has developed a social media strategy for those of you who will be working on Friday. The more of us that express commitment to do something about the climate emergency, the greater the chances are that we can, collectively, do what needs to be done to confront it.
The coming Global Climate Strike has been largely inspired by Greta Thunberg. Greta is a sixteen-year-old from Sweden. Last year she started skipping school every Friday to protest adult inaction on the climate emergency. Frustrated, angry, and more than a bit terrified, she, by herself, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament and demanded that people start talking about the crisis. Within a few weeks she was joined by other children from throughout Europe. On a regular basis they began to climate strike and skip school. When Greta and those who joined her were criticized for neglecting their education, Greta responded:
“And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
There is a certain resonance between Greta’s words and the harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic words of the great Hebrew prophets. In her speeches, she has repeatedly chastised adults for failing to address what represents a profound threat to our current human civilization and life on Earth. She says, “... on climate change we have to acknowledge that we have failed. All political movements in their present form have … [failed]. And the media has failed to create broad public awareness.” Her words an indictment to all of us who are over the age of about thirty and who have failed to do anything significant to address the climate emergency.
During our lifetimes, the situation has grown more dire. We have known that carbon emissions are causing the Earth to rapidly warm for decades. And yet, over the last thirty years humans have emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our species did over the prior two hundred. If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at this rate then we will have placed our planet on the path to warm by two degrees Celsius within ten years. And that will create a truly dire situation. Island nations will drown. Coastal cities will flood. Millions of people will be displaced. Many millions may starve as drought renders some farm lands unproductive.
It is past time to debate the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations, has repeatedly made clear that there is an overwhelming consensus on the part of scientists about the state of the climate emergency. The author Scott Westerfeld has circulated a meme that summarizes how ridiculous it is debate the science. It reads, “Plot idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.”
Besides, we have already begun to feel the impact of the climate emergency. Hurricanes like Dorian and Harvey have become more frequent and more intense in recent decades as the Earth has warmed. At the same time, as many as a million species on Earth are threatened with extinction due to human action. Every day, as many as two hundred species go extinct.
Let me give you a few words from Greta Thunberg: “We are now at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies.”
She starkly summarizes our situation this way: “Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.”
“Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.” I hear in those words echoes of the harshness sayings. I hear in them echoes of the prophetic teachings. But I want to suggest that there’s a difference. And it is a theological difference.
The harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings have, for the several centuries, been one of the major animating forces behind what we might call the apocalyptic story. The apocalyptic story is a narrative derived from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It is probably familiar to most of you. In apocalyptic stories, the world is caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This struggle will ultimately result in cataclysmic battle in which the forces of good triumph for all time over the forces of evil. Humans will find themselves in the heavenly city after God has vanquished the Devil.
In many versions of the apocalyptic story, humans play little role in bringing about this ultimate victory of good over evil. The tradition of the prophets is often interpreted as meaning that God is the one who will bring about collective salvation. The harshness sayings of Jesus are often read in a similar way.
Apocalyptic stories are rooted in a claim that matter, that the Earth, is itself somehow fallen, corrupt, or sinful. Earthly matter, the material substance of which we are composed, passes away. Bodies age and decay. We have physical suffering. Death comes to all of us.
Apocalyptic stories are predicated on the idea that it is possible to escape material corruption. They rest upon the belief that matter and conscious, body and soul, are two separate entities. They are based in a belief that human beings are somehow different from other animal species. And that the purpose of our existence, our reason for being, our salvation, individual and collective, has little to do with the loam and clay, the sand and stone, the soil and dirt, upon we place our feet. This view is poetically expressed in the words of the old Texas songwriter, Jim Reeves:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue
In the European philosophical and theological tradition this idea goes back a very long way. One place it is found is in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato has been so influential on the European tradition that another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once wrote, “the European philosophical tradition... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato had the idea that the material world is but a shadow of a higher reality. This was the world of forms. He used a famous allegory to explain the distinction between the material world and the world of forms. Perhaps you have heard it, it is called the allegory of the cave.
Imagine, he argued, that there are group of prisoners chained in a cave. They are chained in such a way that they have to look straight ahead at the cave wall. They cannot turn their heads to see behind them. Behind them is a fire. And a group of puppeteers with puppets. The puppeteers use the puppets to cast shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners can only see the shadows, not the objects that are creating them. They mistake the shadows for reality. When, in truth, the shadows were a pale imitation of it.
In his reckoning, the shadows were matter. The things casting the shadows was pure being. Human bodies were matter. They were transient one-dimensional reflections of the pure being of the soul. Bodies died. Souls were immortal.
This division between the body and soul gave philosophy, in Plato’s rendering, much of its purpose. Philosophy was meant to be a discipline whereby its practitioners could move beyond the illusions of materiality and immerse themselves in the contemplation of true reality. Socrates was another Greek philosopher. He was Plato’s teacher and in Plato’s writings he is often cast as the ideal philosopher. He is also frequently described as disassociating himself from his body and matter--choosing the contemplation of the ideal over a direct engagement with the earthly mess of daily living. In one of Plato’s dialogues he’s described as someone who “stands aside from the body insofar as he can.” His alienation from his body is so complete that Plato depicts him as caring almost nothing about clothing, comfort, or even food. He can stay up all night thinking about the soul and not get tired. He is anything but an ordinary human. “Socrates is weird,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes. Plato’s transformed person, the one who has conquered their corruptible, transient, material body is, very little like you or me. Faithful living, in his rendering, is harsh and takes us far from ordinary life.
Plato’s division between the body and the soul was taken up by many ancient Christian theologians. Augustine, who might be thought of as the father of Trinitarian Christianity, took Plato’s idea of the separation between the body and the soul and, combining it his reading of the harshness sayings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, applied it to human history. He thought it was impossible for human beings to achieve God’s vision for justice and salvation. This was because, he reasoned, our material reality made us corrupt and imperfect. God, however, was incorruptible and perfect. There was no point in struggling for justice because humanity’s corrupt nature would ultimately screw things up. The only thing we could do was wait for God to bring about the end of human history. Which God was going to do in fairly short order.
This apocalyptic view of history has been one of the central stories in European theology and philosophy since Augustine. And thinking about it, one might find resonances between apocalyptic stories and the current climate emergency. However, I detect meaningful distinctions. Accepting that we are in the midst of a climate emergency means embracing our material reality, rather than rejecting it. It means recognizing that humans are, collectively, largely the agents of our own historical destiny rather than part of a divine plan.
Last week, I spoke about the need to find new ways of being and new religious narratives. Those new ways of being and new religious narratives are connected to embracing our materiality rather than rejecting it. They require us to recognize that this world is our home. That our treasure is here, not laid up in some cerulean realm. That we recognize that our actions, small and large, have an impact on this Earth and on how the human story will progress or resolve itself.
I had something of an awakening to this over the summer when I was in Paris. My parents, son, and I were there on one of our fairly frequent European quasi-vacations. My father teaches most summers abroad and for most of my life I have joined my parents for at least part of their trip--my father working hard and the rest of us more-or-less on vacation.
The summer heat reached unprecedented levels while were there. For three days in a row, it was over a hundred degrees. One day, it was over 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Paris is not like Houston. It is not a city built with air conditioning. The apartment we were staying in did not have central air. There was nowhere to escape the heat. Inside it was hot. Outside it was even hotter. Walking down the street or just moving was exhausting.
As we suffered through that heat, I thought about the connection between air travel and climate change. I am pescatarian. I do not own a car. I take public transit or walk most places I go. I do not buy a lot of new clothes. But even so, my love of travel has made my carbon footprint, my contribution to climate change, much larger than it should be.
When I hear the harshness sayings of Greta Thunberg, I hear her talking to people like me--people of self-declared conscience, people who understand themselves to have empathetic and good hearts. And I hear her saying two things. I hear her saying, you need to do all you can to work to confront this crisis we are in. If we do not resolve it now it will fundamentally change the world we inhabit for the worse. And I hear her saying, you need to reimagine your own habits, your own way of moving through the world.
It is a call to a new way of being. One not based in a rejection of material being, but its embrace. It is a call to hear the words of a poet like Pablo Neruda:
Es una copa llena
The world is
a glass overflowing
It is a call to recognize that the Earth itself is sacred.
The author Naomi Klein has observed that this new way of being changes everything. There is a need, she writes, for “breaking... many rules at once,” for “shifting cultural values,” for changing the way we understand the world, the narratives we have, and the actions we take.
This can only be done through collective sacrifice and collective effort. We have made such sacrifices before. It might be possible to make them again. The people of the United States sacrificed enormously to mobilize to defeat fascism during World War II. They changed their consumer habits. They grew their own food. They even reorganized family structures--sending women into factories while men went off to war.
Such collective sacrifice and collective effort is being called for in legislation like the Green New Deal. Its ten trillion-dollar price tag has been called outrageous by some. Yet, it is within the range of the possible. The United States government spent as much as three or four trillion dollars on bailing out the banks during the recent financial crisis. That same government has spent as much as six trillion dollars on the so-called War on Terror.
I am pretty sure that four plus six still equals ten. So, the question does not appear to be do we have the resources to attempt to quickly shift our society and address the climate emergency. The question rather seems to be, do we have the will make the collective sacrifice and effort to do so. I am not going to pretend that I, or you, or any of us individually has that capacity. I find myself uncertain that I can even give up air travel. My parents and brother live in far-away states, most of my scholarly collaborators gather for academic conferences, and I enjoy seeing distant parts of the world. When I think about radically changing the way I do things, I find myself thinking of a line from Augustine, “Lord make me pure but not yet!”
But I also find myself thinking of words from Greta Thunberg about hope, the possibility of change, and the ways that future generations might view us. Here a few final words from her:
“The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there was still time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.”
After Greta’s words, I close not with a prayer but with an invitation. I invite us to join together on in the pursuit of new ways of being. I invite us to engage in collective action. I invite us to come together and change everything. I invite us to see ourselves as part and parcel of this material reality, this good blue green ball of a planet we call Earth.
Please join me, First Church’s staff, thousands of other Unitarian Universalists throughout the country, and millions of other people across the world on Friday. Join us if you can, in person. Join us virtually if you cannot.
And now, I invite you, the congregation, to say Amen.
Sep 9, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019
Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.
Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.
The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.
The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”
The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.
I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.
I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.
It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.
Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.
Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.
It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.
Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”
In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.
Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.
It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.
The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.
The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.
One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.
Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.
More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.
In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.
An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.
The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.
You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.
This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.
At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.
Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.
Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.
This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.
One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.
We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.
This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.
Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.
Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.
Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.
I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Sep 6, 2019
I am really excited to be with you for another year of interim ministry. I am very much looking forward to what we have coming up! Most of our work together in the next months will revolve around three overlapping tasks. First, we will be preparing for the developmental ministry that will follow my interim ministry. This ministry will last between five and seven years. It will be designed with the explicit intention of addressing long standing issues and patterns that have led to conflict in the past and prevented First Church from realizing its full potential. Over the next few months the Board and I will be leading a number of activities designed to help identify the goals for the developmental ministry.
Second, we will be laying the groundwork for future visioning work. In order to have an impactful future, First Church needs to answer the question: What is the purpose of First Church? The actual task of defining a vision, writing a new vision statement (and possibly a congregational covenant), will most likely occur after my interim ministry. Casting an effective vision for a congregation takes time. It requires a cultural shift within the congregation. That means an interim period is an ideal time to start preparing for future visioning work.
Third, whatever ultimate vision the congregation develops for itself, it is clear that the global crises of the hour demand a Unitarian Universalist response. We are in a period of grave crisis. Much of life on Earth is threatened by the human driven climate emergency. In the United States, we face the intertwined crises of resurgent white supremacy and the potential dissolution of democratic culture and institutions. In order for Unitarian Universalism, and First Church, to matter we must face these crises, recognize that they collectively represent a profound moral and spiritual crisis, and devote ourselves to the task of developing the spiritual practices and theological resources to confront them.
Essentially this means that we must figure out new ways of being in world, both as individuals and as a community. This year in worship and through some of our adult programs and social justice efforts we will be attempting to imagine, and live, these new ways of being. Each month we will focus on a different worship theme that is suggestive of the crises we face and the new ways of being we might develop to face them. Our theme for September is Disruption and over the course of the month we will be exploring each of the three major crises and the disruptions they bring. At the Museum District, our September 8th service will focus on disrupting white supremacy. Our September 15th service ask us to consider the question: What is a religious response to the climate emergency? And on September 29th we will devote ourselves to threats that are disrupting democratic institutions and norms in the United States. The Thoreau campus will be following its own worship schedule during this time. Look for details about it in Scott Cooper’s column and in upcoming newsletters.
Throughout the year we will be bringing exciting guest preachers and programs to help us on our collective path. Paula Cole Jones will be joining us in September to work with the Board and the staff and to offer us a sermon at Museum District on September 22nd. Jones is the founder of ADORE (A Dialogue on Race & Ethnicity), a former president of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and an independent consultant specializing in multicultural competencies and institutional change. She is also a longtime member of All Souls Church Unitarian, in Washington, DC.
Throughout the year we will also be working to integrate more Spanish into our worship services. Spanish is the second most spoken language in Houston and we have a number of members who are native Spanish speakers. In an effort to have a more multiculturally welcoming service we will be including Spanish language choral anthems, hymns, and readings at once a month. We will also be singing our chalice lighting in both English and Spanish. To support this work we plan to purchase sufficient copies of Las Voces del Camino, the UUA’s Spanish hymnal for the congregation. We will be launching a hymnal drive during Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15, 2019). You can underwrite the purchase of a hymnal for $18. Hymnal underwriters will have their contributions memorialized with bookplates in each hymnal that they underwrite.
So, it is going to be a busy year! And I am excited for the work we will do together, the opportunities for personal and collective growth it brings, and possibilities of collective liberation it will open up for us! It wouldn’t a column if I didn’t close with a bit of poetry. Here’s a fragment of “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World” by Martin Espada:
Listen to the bells in a town with a flagpole on Main Street,
a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House,
the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence.
Here the bells rock their heads of bronze as if to say:
Melt the bullets into bells, melt the bullets into bells.
Here the bells raise their heavy heads as if to say:
Melt the cannons into bells, melt the cannons into bells.
Here the bells sing of a world where weapons crumble deep
in the earth, and no one remembers where they were buried.
Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language
of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation
from island to island, the song rippling through the clouds.
Now the bells chime like the muscle beating in every chest,
heal the cracks in the bell of every face listening to the bells.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the moon.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the world.
Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 19, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.
The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.
Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.
1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.
I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.
Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.
Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.
Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”
Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.
And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.
Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag
my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.
The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.
The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.
Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.
This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?
Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.
The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.
Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:
“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
That it may be so,
let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Jul 7, 2019
I will be on vacation and out of the country from July 7th to August 9th. During this time the work of the congregation will continue. It is an important reminder of a central truth of our religious tradition: the congregation belongs to its members and not its ministers.
Reminding you of this truth has been an important part of our work together during the past year. Together we have revitalized lay leadership in the congregation by launching a new Worship Associates program, reimagining and increasing the adult religious education program through our new Connections effort, engaging members of the congregation in the vital work of stewardship and facilities maintenance, forming a new religious education leadership circle, and strengthening our welcoming of visitors. This is only a partial list and elides the significant work consistently done by Board members, the Thoreau Campus Advisory Team, Religious Education teachers, the Care Team, our volunteer A/V techs, and many many others. Singling out individuals or teams for praise is not the point. The point is the strength of First Unitarian Universalist Church lies foremost in its members.
This is something that comes into strongest focus during a transition ministry. But it is a vital lesson to remember even during times of settled ministry. First Unitarian Universalist Church has had many ministers over its more than one hundred years of existence. Its resilience and vibrance throughout the years have in no small part been due to its members. In some very real sense, First Unitarian Universalist Church really is all of you.
While I am gone, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be serving as acting head of staff. He will also be the primary point of contact for pastoral care. I would also like to inform you the Rev. Dr. King is retiring at the end of August. His last two sermons will be in July and his last Sunday with us will be on August 18th. The congregation, the staff, and I all owe the Rev. Dr. King our gratitude for guidance over this summer and over the past many months. The Rev. Dr. King is a talented minister and has served this congregation well. I hope you will join me in a celebration of his ministry after the service on the 18th.
As always, I close with a fragment of a poem. It comes from the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi. He lives in exile in Paris and his words speak to me of the moment in which we live:
I would like
a mythic bird
to snatch me up
fly me across the sky
and set me down in the country
where the valley of roses
has swallowed the valley of tears
PS – During my vacation I will be regularly updating my blog. I will be in Europe with my son and parents visiting friends. If you would like know what I am up please visit www.colinbossen.com.
Jun 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019
Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.
Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.
Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”
“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.
Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.
This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”
What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.
As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.
Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.
In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.
The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.
Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.
Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.
Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.
This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.
I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.
When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.
One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.
YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.
My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.
What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.
We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”
Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day
Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”
And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.
These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.
A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?
In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.
Jun 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, Texas on May 12, 2019
It is good to be with you this morning. The last time I had an opportunity to worship with First Church’s Thoreau campus was back when you were still meeting in rented space in Stafford. Since then, I have come out a couple of times to see this new Richmond site or meet with your campus advisory team. This is the first Sunday that I have been present for worship you. And what a Sunday it is!
This morning’s worship encompasses the holiday Mother’s Day, inspired by the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, and the uniquely Unitarian ceremony of Flower Communion. It is also Thoreau’s Charter Sunday--celebrating the anniversary of the founding of this religious community--and the launch date for a gifts campaign to complete the move-in projects. And, according, to the preaching schedule we have been following, it is also a Sunday when I am supposed to be talking with you about the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association: the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Our task this morning to distill a single message from all of that and to do so in about ten minutes. This is, after all, also an intergenerational service. But that having all ages together actually helps us. All of these disparate themes share a common, intergenerational, thread. They are about sustaining community and life across the generations. And that suggests our message: two of the principal practices in a religious life are gratitude and stewardship. And so, from all this rich mess of differing holidays and liturgical moments, that is what I want to lift up: gratitude and stewardship.
Gratitude, being thankful for what we have been given. Stewardship, passing the gifts we have been given along to the next generation. The two are deeply intertwined. There is a poem by the Lakota musician and activist John Trudell that captures something of the interrelation between gratitude and stewardship:
We are children of Earth and Sky
DNA descendant now ancestor
Human being physical spirit
Bone flesh blood as spirit
Metal mineral water as spirit
Descendant now ancestor, child of Earth and Sky, composed of worldly elements and related to all life, that describes each of us. Descendant now ancestor, we are descended from the generations that came before us: without our foremothers we would not be. Ancestor: generations to come will be descended from us.
Trudell offered his poem as a reminder of the biological connection we have with all life. He wanted to evoke a fundamental fact of human life: “We are literally shapes and forms of the Earth.” Or, as the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, we are part an interdependent web of all existence. We owe our lives to the generations that came before us. Generations after us will owe their lives to us.
It is a profoundly important lesson to hear this week. We have learned that unless we human beings change our actions as many as a million species will go extinct. Butterflies and bird, rodents and reptiles, flowers and ferns, all will be lost because we have failed in a central religious task—stewardship of the Earth. Descendant now ancestor, the words remind us that we are of the generations that have been blessed with the power to act and to change this trajectory. Learning to be better stewards is one reason why we gather together.
Descendant, we need not take this word biologically. We are part of a religious community. Religious communities are institutions that exist across time. As part of a religious community we benefit from the generations that have come before us. They are in some sense our religious ancestors--our liturgical traditions, the way we worship on Sunday morning, and our theology, what we think about religion, are both influenced by them.
Ancestor, future generations will benefit from our efforts to create religious community. Twenty years from now this community will be here, in Fort Bend County, proclaiming Unitarian Universalist values and providing a liberal religious congregation for those who seek one, because of you.
Flower communion is a nice example of this. It was started almost by Unitarians almost a hundred years ago in Prague. Today Unitarian Universalists celebrate it throughout the world. It is a beautiful ceremony. It is something we have received from previous generations. And it is something we will pass onto future ones.
Descendant now ancestor, coming from the Northeast I am not accustomed serving congregations where charter members are still present. The congregation I served last year in Ashby, Massachusetts celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth year while I was with them. No charter members arose from their graves to celebrate the congregation’s anniversary with us!
One of the wonderful things about being part of a relatively young religious community is that you can ask the charter members about Thoreau’s founding. Your charter was signed twenty-three years ago. There are people here who remember Judy Cole and Joanie Havlick leading Thoreau’s first meeting in a Tex-Mex bar. You can ask them about their vision for creating this community. You can also ask them if the margaritas were any good.
But since this Sunday morning we should stick to more sober topics. Gratitude and stewardship. Mother’s Day has had me thinking of both. I am now part of what is called the sandwich generation. My mother took care of me for many years. Now I have kids of my own. And my mother is retired and in ill health. Soon it will be my turn take care of her. I find myself grateful for all that she has given me even as I pass it along to the next generation.
I was reminded of my gratitude for my mother only this past week. When I was a kid she used to make me chicken soup when I was sick--Jewish penicillin is what she called it. It always made me feel better, a special steamy treat when I was under the weather. These days I am not a meat eater but my son is. This past week he was sick for most the week. So I pulled out my mother’s recipe for chicken soup--chicken, carrots, celery, a pinch of turmeric, some bay leaves, garlic, a dash of salt and a splash of love. It seemed to help. And if my son has kids I suspect that he will pass the tradition on.
Passing the tradition on brings us to the launch of the gifts campaign. We are hoping to raise $100,000 to finish the campus move-in. I am pleased to announce that as we start this campaign we already have $31,000 pledged. This money will pay for everything from upgrading the shed so it can serve as a meeting space to building a playground to creating a site plan for future expansion. It will both benefit the Thoreau community today and the community far into the future. Supporting it is an act of gratitude and stewardship. It is a way to express appreciation for what you have received from this community. And it is a way to ensure that a thriving community is here for the next generation.
My friend Vanessa Southern writes of how gardens can serve as a metaphor for stewardship, gratitude, and, well, all that we are celebrating this morning. Since we are surrounded by beautiful greenery I thought I might end with a few words from her. After describing the church garden that she and some children in her congregation planted she observes:
We started this garden to illustrate the biblical parable of the mustard seed, and it has served this purpose well. Strong, proud, and lush plants have grown from tiny, unpretentious seeds. They remind us of the ability of small things to surprise us, and stand in for the faith that begins inconspicuously.
The faith community that begins inconspicuously--over, I imagine, margaritas, in a Tex-Mex bar. A faith community that grows until it is transplanted here on Clayhead Road. A faith community that you have nurtured, like a loving mother, like a gardener watering flowers, across the years. A faith community named for an inspiring environmentalist that may contain small seeds for ecological revival. A faith community that today, in this hour, is breaking into blossom—growing stronger and more beautiful with each breath we take.
And so, let us be grateful and let us be good stewards.
Let us share our flowers of communion.
Amen and Blessed Be.
May 24, 2019
Interim ministry is by its very nature a period of time when a congregation is caught between its past and its future. I have been especially aware of this dynamic over the last few weeks. Recently, the difficult news has come that pending a hearing for misconduct the Rev. Dr. Daniel O’Connell resigned his ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the same time, a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellet has enabled us to hire Alma Viscarra as a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator.
Dr. O’Connell’s resignation from ministerial fellowship means that he is no longer recognized as a Unitarian Universalist minister by our religious association. It is separate from, but related to, the process that led to his leaving First Church. On June 9th, following the service at Museum District, Natalie Briscoe, Connie Goodbread, and I will be holding a listening session. The purpose of this session will be to offer a space for you, the friends and members of the congregation, to share what is on your hearts in the wake of this difficult news. As part of the listening session, Natalie and Connie will also review the sequence of events that led to Dr. O’Connell’s resignation from ministerial fellowship.
Dr. O’Connell’s ministry is now part of the congregation’s history. We are always wrestling with our history. We wrestle with it, in part, because we wonder how our past points the way towards our future. Thanks to the generosity of John Kellet, First Church has the opportunity to invest in its future. After receiving John Kellet’s bequest, the Board decided to fund a new position, a Membership and Communications Coordinator. In this role Alma will be working to lay the foundation for First Church’s future growth. She will be working with the Membership and Welcoming Teams to develop an outreach plan and to figure out how to best welcome visitors and integrate new members into congregational life. I am very excited about the work she will be doing with the congregation.
Over the next couple of months you will be seeing a bit less of me than you have since I arrived in Houston. In May and June I will be giving the second and third of my Minns lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism. One of these will be in San Francisco on May 18th and the other will be at General Assembly in Spokane, Washington on June 20th. I am taking a couple of weeks of study as part of my preparation. The lectures will be live-streamed on Facebook and also available online as videos at www.minnslectures.org.
If you haven’t heard of General Assembly, it is the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is an opportunity to engage in the deliberative work of setting the Association’s agenda, to connect with other Unitarian Universalists, and to deepen your faith. The Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will both be going this year. I highly recommend it. First Church can send up to eight voting delegates. Non-delegates can attend as well. A generous member has offered to underwrite some partial scholarships. If you are interested in attending and serving as a delegate please contact Dr. King at revdanking at firstuu.org.
Since I am headed to San Francisco later this month, I thought I would close with a snatch of verse from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the city’s unofficial poet laureate:
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time
(from Pictures of the Gone World #21)
Apr 29, 2019
I do not own a car. So, I walk a lot. Walking around the Museum District I have noticed how other congregations in the neighborhood present themselves. I have been taken with the presence of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. They have a labyrinth which is available for the public to walk. During the Christian season of Lent they have added the stations of the cross for people to use as part of a meditative prayer practice. And they have banners hanging on lamp posts that share the congregation’s vision statement with the neighborhood. It reads: To be a cathedral for Houston that embodies its diversity, inspires faith, and leads change for the common good of all peoples and communities.
Reading St. Paul’s vision statement prompted me to look for First Church’s. It is on the web site and in the Board policies book. It reads: Firmly grounded in our Unitarian Universalist principles, we join together on the path of spiritual and intellectual growth to promote and celebrate community, diversity, and social justice for a healthier and more equitable world.
I must admit that St. Paul’s vision statement struck me as clearer than First Church’s. Our neighbor congregation’s statement articulates what kind of church they aspire to be: a cathedral. And it states the location of that kind of church: Houston. These aspects of St. Paul’s vision statement give it a particularity and rootedness that seem quite powerful. The congregation aspires to be nothing less than a major center for the city’s religious life.
Contrasting, First Church’s vision statement with St. Paul’s, prompted me to wonder: What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Does your current vision statement reflect that aspiration? One of the tasks during an interim or transitional period is to help a congregation recast its vision. If you were to articulate the vision of First Church today, what would it be? Is it the same vision the members of the congregation had ten years ago? Twenty years ago? Fifty years ago? Is it the same vision the congregation will have ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? How important are the congregation’s two locations to that vision? Does it matter that First Church is a congregation in Houston and Richmond? Or would the congregation’s vision be the same if, for instance, its two campuses were located in Washington DC and suburban Maryland? Finding answers to these questions will help the congregation prepare as it begins to search for the senior minister who comes after me. And it is something we will be working on, together, in the coming months. I look forward to that work.
As always, I close with a poem. This spring poem comes from the ninth-century Japanese poet Ki no Tsurayuki:
The wind that scatters
cherry blossoms from their boughs
is not a cold wind--
and the sky has never known
snow flurries like these.
Apr 23, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 21, 2019
Happy Easter! It is good to be with you. Holiday services like these always bring together a special congregation. Some of you are visiting for the first time, seeking a religious community. Some of you have come with friends or family, enjoying the sense of connection and fellowship that holidays offer us. Some of you attend our services only occasionally. You are probably here so you can be with your church on this special day. And some of you worship at First Church most Sundays. Whatever brought you here to this beautiful brick sanctuary, I want to extend pause and say welcome.
Since it is Easter, I thought I better talk with you about Jesus. Specifically, I thought I should give you a sense of how Unitarians have historically approached Jesus. For generations, we have focused on his life and teachings rather than his death on the cross. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” It was preached in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819. It was the text that crystalized Unitarianism into a definitive theological position in the United States and prompted the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the forerunners of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
In his sermon, and I apologize for the dated language, Channing made the claim that Jesus’s mission was “the recovery of men to virtue, or holiness.” He further proclaimed “the doctrine of God’s unity.” In this unity God had “infinite perfection and dominion.” Channing maintained that Jesus was “a being distinct from the one God.” He was, in Channing’s words, someone who had a “human mind” whose death on the cross was “real and entire.” In essence, Channing claimed that Jesus was a man who taught that within each of us resides holiness. This holiness connects us to God. The purpose of religion, in this classic Unitarian view, is to awaken in us this sense of holiness and bring us closer to the divine.
This morning I am not going to offer you a recitation or exegesis of Channing’s sermon on “Unitarian Christianity.” Nor am I going to provide you discourse on its historical significance. Instead, I am going to give you a sermon that captures something of the essence of Channing’s theology. Whether we take it literally or metaphorical it contains within it revolutionary and transformative power.
Our sermon has three movements: the infinity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and the divinity within. Before we dive in, I thought I would give you a part. At the conclusion of each movement I invite you to say, “Hallelujah.”
A few weeks ago, I shared that “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” I know that this is a sentiment that makes some of us uncomfortable. Allow me to suggest, just for this morning, that if you are a humanist, as I am, we agree to greet the word God as a symbol. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, life itself.” So, when we say, “Hallelujah” let us think of ourselves praising any or all of those things. Praise God, “Hallelujah.” Praise the ground of being, “Hallelujah.” Praise life itself, “Hallelujah.”
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
The Infinity of God
In the ninetieth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible we find Moses pray:
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being,
before You brought forth the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity You are God.
In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita we discover generous descriptions of the divine:
You are without beginning, middle, or end;
you touch everything with your infinite power.
The sun and moon are your eyes, and your mouth
is fire; your radiance warms the cosmos.
O Lord, your presence fills the heavens and
the earth and reaches in every direction.
In the Quran we read:
...If the ocean were
Ink (wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lod.
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord...
I might continue and point you to words in the Tao Te Ching or from the Buddha or from some indigenous traditions. Whatever we choose, there are numerous texts that teach, as the fourteenth-century theologian Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote, “God is immeasurable and incomprehensible, unattainable and unfathomable.”
God is infinite. Infinity is a difficult concept to grasp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... I could keep counting for the entirety of this sermon and never approach infinity.
The British science fiction writer Douglas Adams offered a humorous approach to infinity in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The book is part of a series called the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the characters wander across space and time. Finite beings in an infinite universe, they struggle to understand their places in the great misorder of things. Fortunately, they have the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to help them. It is Wikipedia if the editors of Wikipedia had a sense of humor. It is also a physical object with “the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Peering into the text Adams’s characters find this description of infinity: “Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself look really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”
The German mathematician David Hilbert attempted to explain infinity with his infinite hotel paradox. A hotel, we all know, has a finite number of rooms. If you have tried to book a popular destination for a holiday you may have discovered this. Maybe you have even been in the situation where the place you wanted to stay ran out of rooms before you managed to secure your vacation.
Relax, Hilbert said, we can avoid this problem. We just need to build an infinite hotel. In the infinite hotel there will be infinite rooms. When you call up the hotel you might discover that it is already full of guests. “No matter,” the manager will tell you. “Whenever a new guest arrives we ask each guest to move to a new room. The guest in room 1 moves to room 2. The guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on. There is always room in the infinite hotel. Because we have infinitely many rooms there is space at the end--even if we already have infinite guests--because infinity goes on forever.”
All of this is obtuse, difficult to understand, maybe a little ponderous and opaque, and, quite possibly, impractical. This is, however, actually the message of this part of the sermon. God is infinite. God is beyond human comprehension. Do such statements, such texts, resonate with your experience?
They resonate with mine. Here is a thing that has happened to me, again and again. I have found myself along the edge of the ocean, at night, wandering the shoreline--that place where the water crashes into the sand. The wind lilts, a soft sound above the rhythmic rush of the tide. My feet are just a little damp, my flesh slightly chill. I look across the waves. They seem to go on without end, white foam crests upon white foam crests upon white foam crests. I look up at the sky, a starry night--not unlike Van Gogh’s luminous swirls and textured white yellow orbs. There is the Milky Way--a thick pointilated band. There is Orion--three stars for a belt, two stars for feet, and three for shoulders and a head. Suddenly, something in me shifts, and I feel conscious of my own temporary smallness among the infinite sea of stars and the ocean that appears to go on forever and forever. The universe feels infinite while I do not.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Humanity of Jesus
It is the infinity of God which brings us to the humanity of Jesus. It is a challenge to relate to the infinity of God. The theologian Karl Barth observed, “no... concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.” Throughout human history many people and many cultures have anthropomorphized the divine--they have made it human--in an attempt to understand it. This is what Trinitarian Christians have done. They have collapsed the infinity of God into the particularity of a human life in an effort to understand the unfathomable. In the Trinitarian Christian story, we come to know the infinite God through the finite Jesus who is the infinite God enfleshed.
In our Unitarian tradition we tell stories about Jesus in which he was a man who came to teach us about an infinite God. Jesus was not uniquely the incarnate God. He taught that God dwells inside each of us. The path to the infinite is found by looking within. Channing called this “the likeness to God.” Jesus was special because he had realized the likeness to God inside of him--the connection to holiness that is available to all of us. By awakening this holiness Jesus was able, in Channing’s words, to share with the world the “unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love” of the divine that resides within waiting to be stirred.
In the Trinitarian tradition, Jesus is God. A man who taught about God becomes God. Channing said, “No error seems to us more pernicious.” The path to spiritual awakening that Jesus lays out for us in the Christian New Testament is lost in a fog when Jesus is equated with God. Those who turn Jesus into God frequently miss the significance of his life and instead focus on his death. They claim that there is redemption to be found in state sanctioned torture--for that is what the crucifixion was--rather than in a life devoted to sharing the transformative power of love. They believe Jesus died on the cross to save all humans from sin and that this was the whole meaning of his life. Such a narrative Channing rejected “as unscriptural and absurd.”
Early Unitarians like Channing found the teachings of Jesus in his parables and sayings. They shared the importance of his lessons in their writings and in their art. The death of Jesus was not that important to them. If you visit a Unitarian church built prior to the early twentieth century you are likely to find the depiction of one of Jesus’s parables in the congregation’s stained glass. The famous Tiffany windows of Boston’s Arlington Street Church contain not a single depiction of Jesus on the cross.
Like those early Unitarians, I have a fondness for the sayings and parables of Jesus. My favorite is found in Luke 17:20-21. There he is asked, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
It is a really radical saying. At least, it is if we understand Jesus to be a human being rather than a God. A learned man of the people, a carpenter, a spiritual teacher, in the Christian New Testament we find him mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He travels with the common working people. He visits the most marginalized. He tells them that the kingdom of God is found among them. It is not found among the rich and powerful. To them Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The connection between the infinite and the human, he suggested, resides primarily among the fishermen and the peasants, the despised and the outcast.
Think about it. This human man, this person born of a human mother and who died a human death, had a unique connection, a unique understanding, of the holiness within. And he taught that holiness is most present among those whose struggle is greatest day-to-day. That, Jesus seemed to teach, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. It is not present in the evangelical church that celebrates a gospel of wealth and prosperity. It is not present with the ministers who proclaim the righteousness of their nation. It might not even be present in this sanctuary today. But it is found among those who come together and little by little work, struggle, and imagine a new way.
Another parable, Luke 13:18-19: “‘What is the kingdom of God like?’ he continued. ‘To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew to be a tree and the birds came to roost among its branches.’”
Here the kingdom of God begins by accident, by mistake. A man sows a mustard seed, anticipates a mustard plant--an annual that seeds and then perishes. Instead, a tree sprouts--an enduring majesty that lasts beyond the span of a human life. Birds come bringing song and plumed beauty. A man sows a mustard seed and from it comes so much. The smallest action, the littlest kindness, Jesus wished to teach, contains within it the possibility of great transformation. The smallest thing, perhaps, can blossom into the infinite.
The kingdom of God is among us. It is a human opening to the divine. We uncover it through acts of love, small and great.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Divinity Within
This human Jesus taught that we contain within us the likeness to God. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists have rephrased in more humanistic language by claiming that every human being has inherent worth and dignity. It is radical stuff. It means that the likeness to God is to be found within the migrant children and refugees who suffer at our borders. And it means that it found within the people who put them there. The challenge of religion is to awaken the likeness within each of us.
But more than that. The challenge today is even greater than awakening the likeness to God that resides within each of us. It is to recognize that the divinity within connects us to the divinity without. It is to stand on the seashore gaze up at the night sky and see ourselves a part of the great infinity that surrounds us. When we open ourselves thus--when we connect the divinity within to the divinity without--we find ourselves among the kingdom of God. We find that kingdom is here on this Earth, not in some distant heaven.
On this Sunday before Earth Day we are called to recognize that this is the only planet we have got. The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is among you. It is among the live oaks and sea shells. It is among the sunshine and the soft rain. Whatever holiness lies within it involves connecting to the glorious natural world of which we are a part--not subjugating it but learning to live in kinship with it. If we fail to confront the collectively created disaster of climate change then we are discovering the kingdom of God which is among us. Human life is not sustainable. Without course correction there will be no kingdom of God to be found anywhere upon this good green Earth.
This is why we gather--to open our connection to the planet’s beauty; to understand our dependence upon the soil, the sun, and the rain; to work to lead each other to better lives; to stir the holiness within. That is what Channing taught. And it is something I believe. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” was not an Easter sermon. It was an ordination sermon, preached upon the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks into the ministry. Channing took for his text a fragment of a line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
In his closing he said, “Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves.” He was certain that if we did, we would discover that Jesus taught us how to find the spark of the divine within--the spark that leaps from each to each and connects one to the all. He was also certain that it was task of the religious community to awaken the spark that resides inside all of us. Seek proof of such a spark within the text of your own lives.
In my closing to you, I invoke the poet Thylias Moss. Her poem “Fullness” speaks to me of Unitarian Christianity. Reflecting on the ritual of the Eucharist, a ritual meant to commemorate the life of Jesus, she writes:
...You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
Apr 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 14, 2019
This morning’s sermon is about drawing spiritual lessons from the music of Neil Diamond. I will get to that in the moment. But first I want to tell you about one of my favorite artists, the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Do you know his work? He is perhaps most famous for his piece the “Fountain.” He entered it into an art show in New York City in 1917. The show had a simple selection criterion: anyone who paid the entry fee had their piece accepted. Duchamp, cheeky surrealist that he was, submitted a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” This enraged the selection committee. They complained that R. Mutt had not created the piece. It had obviously been produced in a factory. More troubling, the urinal was not art. It was an ordinary object that was used for, shall we say, basic human functions. Its presence in the show debased art. It placed one of the highest expressions of human culture alongside the ordinary, banal, and mundane.
Duchamp responded by publishing an anonymous editorial in an art magazine that he ran with a couple of friends. The relevant section from the editorial reads: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”
The editorial gets at why I like the piece. I think it offers an essential religious lesson: all things contain beauty. It is a religious discipline to open ourselves to that beauty. An “ordinary article of life” viewed through the eye of the artist becomes art, becomes something beautiful. The artist has “a new thought for that object,” they see something new, something that challenges them, when they look at the familiar--perhaps the most familiar.
I invite you to try it. Pick an object in the sanctuary. A brick. A floor tile. A wooden pew. A section of the ceiling. Your shoes. It does not matter. Just pick something. The more ordinary the better. Look at it for a moment. Really look at it. Can see something of the beauty in it?
When I was preparing this sermon, I came down from my office, stood in this pulpit, and tried the exercise myself. I picked that brick. It is ordinary in its brown redness. There are a scattering of dark spots. These attest to the presence of the iron sulphate in the clay used to make the brick. A few of the spots are pock marked--evidence of where air bubbles burst when the brick baked. Some of the spots lack clear edges--they fade into the mass of red brown when the eye inquires for their ends.
As I stood in the pulpit, I watched light play off the brick. The beauty of the brick shifted as the sun’s rays filtered through the sanctuary window that sits above the choir. It had one set of tones when a cloud passed in front of the sun and another when the day star shone uninhibited. Looking at the brick, I thought of the canvases in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Have you seen them? The chapel is under renovation until the end of the year. If you have not been, I hope you will go when it opens again.
Light in the chapel comes through the top skylight. As the earth spins on its access, as water vapor moves through the sky, the amount of light that hits each canvas changes. And with it the richness of the canvas--purple tones fade to black or move against pecan or hickory framing.
The roughness of the brick’s clay contains the same effect--it shifts as the light hits it. Looking at the brick, there is beauty in an “ordinary article of life.” There is “a new thought for that object.” Shall I name it? Perhaps, Seven Stars of Revelation--seven being the number of spots and a mystical number found over and over again in the biblical book of Revelation. That book attests, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” and unfolds one of the grandest mystical visions in the Christian New Testament.
The Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “revelation is not sealed.” These words are to remind us that we can learn something new, something beautiful, from each experience, from each ordinary object, in our lives. When I look carefully at the brick with the seven spots I am reminded of Emerson’s lesson--seven stars which help me open to constant possibility of revelation--of the feeling the sacred--that is around each of us in each moment of our lives.
Another exercise, listen. Not to me. Listen in this pause to the sound that surrounds the silence. When I stop speaking what do you hear? The musician John Cage composed a piece named 4’33”. It consists of a pianist sitting on a piano bench for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The pianist just sits there. They do not play a single note. Cage’s intention with the piece is to prompt the audience to listen to the sounds that are around us at all times--your breath, and mine, the heart’s beat, the passing street car, the rustle of your shirtsleeve. What is music? What is beauty?
A musician friend of mine made a similar point in a piece they composed called “Up Train, Down Train.” For the piece, they rode the commuter rail up and down the San Francisco peninsula. Along the way recorded the sounds of their journey: the ticket collector, the jostling of the passengers, the clatter of rail, doors sliding open, and the rain on window glass. In their recording studio they mixed in a variety of other sounds--fragments from classical music, bits of Beethoven or Brahms, snatches of jazz, spoken threads of poetry. Incidental noise and carefully crafted songs were combined to create a haunting composition that pushed me to open my ears to the ordinary music of life.
The heart can turn any object, any sound, any song, into a prayer. Prayer, in my understanding, is the act of reaching out for connection with that which is greater than any of us, surrounds each of us, and infuses all of us. Prayer need not be theistic--God centered--in its orientation. It only need be the opening of the individual self--the I, the you--to the infinity without and the infinity within. This is an understanding I carry with me as I move through the ordinary world, encountering the ordinary objects of life. And it is a lesson I take with me when I have preaching assignments that are not quite of my choosing.
This year at the church auction, I auctioned off the right to give Mark and me a prompt for a Sunday service. This a well-worn practice in a number of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is one that comes with warning from experienced clergy. One minister I know tells the story about the time they were assigned the Apollo moon landings as a service topic. Well, actually, the person who won the auction item was a conspiracy theorist. They wanted to a have service on why and how NASA’s moon landings had been faked.
My ministerial colleague managed to craft a service that somehow served their congregations from that assignment. Nonetheless, I was a bit worried when this year I decided to auction one of our services. So, I was relieved when I found out our topic was to be the singer songwriter Neil Diamond. I admit that I did not that much about Diamond or his music--or at least I thought I did not. But music is a well-worn path to the spiritual. I knew that if I listened to his music and read something of his life I could find a lesson in it.
When I found out the service topic the first thing, before I even turned to Google, was call my brother Jorin. Jorin, you might know, is a painter who lives in Los Angeles. He is also a fount of information when it comes to popular music.
So, I got him on the phone and asked him, “Jorin, what should I know about Neil Diamond?”
He paused for a moment and then began, “Well, some people call him the Jewish Elvis. You definitely know his music. He wrote, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and ‘America.’ He also wrote the Monkees’ song ‘I’m a Believer.’”
As I listened to my brother I realized that Diamond is one of those musicians who music infuses much of contemporary life. In this country, you are likely to hear a song like “Sweet Caroline” almost anywhere. It has been featured in movies, sung by a contestant on American Idol, and used in television commercials. It is one of those pop songs that it seems like almost everyone knows. The tune might be familiar, Mark. You might recognize the chorus as well:
Good times never seemed so good
I believe they never could
Mark already played the other Diamond song that my brother mentioned, “America.” Diamond’s parents were themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up in Brooklyn listening to family stories about his grandparents journeys from Poland and Russia to the United States. Diamond’s immigrant heritage inspired him to write “America.” Its lyrics suggest two things. First, the United States has represented a land of freedom and opportunity for many people around the world for generations. Second, most people in the United States are the descendants of immigrants. As the song begins:
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream
The intertwined messages of this song are important today when we have a President who praises dictators like North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and maligns liberal democratic political systems such as the European Union. The song is a reminder that the authoritarian values of the current White House occupant are not consistent with liberal democratic values--the values that Diamond celebrates in his tune. The song is also a reminder that immigrants have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy of the United States. The current President should know this. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Two of his three wives have been immigrants as well. I could pause now to make the observation that the President’s comfort with his European immigrant family and his antipathy or even hatred for immigrants from Latin America highlights his ties to white supremacist movements. That, however, is not the subject of this sermon.
Returning to Diamond, I note that like a lot of Jewish America singer songwriters of his generation he got his start writing songs for other people. He wrote four songs for the manufactured British band the Monkees, one of the boy bands of the seventies. They used have a television show that my brother and I watched as reruns in the early nineties. The lyrics of “Believer” suggest of the way that love, that profound and intimate connection with another soul, can spring up unbidden and unexpected:
Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, and I'm a believer
As I researched Diamond I began to see something of myself in him. As I suggested at the opening of the sermon, any object can be seen to contain beauty. Anything around us can open the marvels of the universe. The same might be said of human biography. Each of us has a great deal in common with the rest of us. On some level, all humans need the same things: clean air to breath, clean water to drink, good food to eat, shelter, love, and some work to call honest. This observation is one of the core conceits of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
And so, I was not surprised when I came across words by Diamond describing his own experience as a songwriter and his approach to his music that resonated with me. They are from an interview he did in 1975 with Rolling Stone magazine. There he says that his work is an artist stems from an attempt, “to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self.” My own approach to the craft of preaching is linked to a similar attempt to both find self-knowledge and stir it in others. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Diamond that music and art are not bound by tightly dictated rules. According to the interviewer, he believes that his songs do not “need to be explained. Or even understood.” He just wants people to open to the music and be stirred by it. About the composition of music he says, “There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people don’t really understand.”
The interviewer describes Diamond as “the consummate searcher,” a sentiment that is familiar to many Unitarian Universalists. A sense of that appears in his song “I’ve Been This Way Before” which the choir performed earlier:
I've seen the light
And I've seen the flame
And I've been this way before
The search for meaning that I find in this song resonates with the Unitarian Universalist tradition of a search for truth and meaning. And if there is any message that I have been trying to communicate in this sermon it is this: we can find religious truth, beauty, meaning, in almost anything. It is more about the perspective we bring than it is necessarily the content, the object, that is already there. For Marcel Duchamp, beauty or art could be found in the ordinary objects of life. For my musician friend, it was found in the rocking movement of the train as it travelled up and down the San Francisco peninsula. And for lovers of Neil Diamond’s music, it is found in his songs.
And now, before I close, two brief pointers to our readings and two spiritual suggestions for you. The poems I chose are each about finding the sacred, the beautiful, in ordinary life. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a personal favorite. It connects to the way I tend wander through the world: a head full of poetry and a rather ordinary life of grocery shopping, children’s basketball, and laundry. Like Ginsberg, I often find myself opening to the sacredness of the ordinary in the most banal of places: the Trader Joe’s on Shepherd Street or the HEB on West Alabama. And like Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem, I discover myself going from the most basic questions to the most profound: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” What about you? Do you have similar experiences in your life?
Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas poet and the child of a Palestinian immigrant. Her poem “My Grandmother in the Stars” recounts a similar experience:
Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.
Looking at the night sky, she finds that she carries memory, beauty, art, a sense of the sacred ever within her. It is everywhere. In the stars. In the universe which connects all to all. And in her unnamed companion.
Any object can open us to the divine. Any sound can be music. I conclude with my two spiritual suggestions. This, afternoon, or tomorrow, or anytime, take a few minutes to do two things. First, find an ordinary object from life. It could be a urinal, a brick, a piece of asphalt, a cigarette butt, or the beam on a suspension bridge. It does not matter. Spend five minutes really looking at it. What do you see? Do you find yourself opening a little more to the beauty of the universe when you engage the object.
Second, listen to an familiar sound. Pick a pop song that you do not know or choose the ambient collision of wind upon leaf. What sense of connection to the universe do you find within it? Do you discover that revelation is not sealed? That each of us has an original relationship with the universe?
For I've been released
And I've been regained
And I've sung my song before
And I'm sure to sing my song again
...there is only the sky
tying the universe together.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
Mar 25, 2019
This is the third sermon in our series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven principles are not a creed. They are not a statement of belief. One way to understand them is that they are a covenant--an agreement about the promises Unitarian Universalists make to each other about how we will live together. Covenants are at the heart of Unitarian Universalist practice. We use them in the place of a set of beliefs to which all members of the community must subscribe. They are one of the oldest customs among our congregations. In New England there are Unitarian Universalist churches whose covenants date back to the seventeenth century. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker offers a concise description of where covenants lie within our tradition. She writes, “In place of a hierarchical church authorized by tradition and governed by priests, bishops, and popes, [our religious ancestors] ... insisted congregations should be organized by people coming together and making a covenant to ‘walk together’ in their spiritual lives. Covenanted religious communities rest on the authority of their members...” This last point is especially important. The world changes over time. And, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago, the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association--the covenant we promise to keep between our congregations--have changed in response to shifts in society and our understanding of the world around us. We been able to change them because have given ourselves the authority to change them.
This week we are tackling the third principle: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I want to make a deceptively simple claim about this principle. It offers us a basic formula for our life together. As Unitarian Universalists, we promise to accept each other. We promise to encourage each other towards spiritual growth. And we promise to do so as part of a congregation.
My claim about the third principle is deceptively simple. None of these things are easy. If we engage with them we will find ourselves transformed. But then, is that not a purpose of religious life? To transform ourselves and equip each other to transform the world? This morning I want to take us through each part of the formula for life together that the third principle offers us. And I want to suggest to you how following it can be transformative. But before I do, a couple of painfully bad jokes.
In a big elegant Unitarian Universalist church up in New England, a visitor was making a ruckus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke, the visitor shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!”
As the service progressed, an usher approached the visitor and spoke to them quietly. “Uh... excuse me... we just do not do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Well,” the usher said, “You certainly did not get it here.”
One evening, a Unitarian Universalist was at a cocktail party with a bunch of people from other religious traditions. After a little while, the Unitarian Universalist realized that they could tell the religious tradition of the other guests by the first question someone asked them.
The Methodists wanted to know, “Where do you go to church?”
The Congregationalists queried, “Did your family come over on the Mayflower too?”
And the other Unitarian Universalists said, “Where did you go to graduate school?”
Acceptance of one another
Those are pretty bad jokes. I told them to offer to two observations. First, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the kinds of behavior that are appropriate in our churches. Second, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the type of people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism.
First observation... expectations for behavior...
When I speak of behavior I am not talking about the question of ethics. I am not asking, how must we act in the world if we love justice and love goodness? Instead, I am talking about culture: the implicit assumptions people make about how to conduct themselves in certain situations. This brings us back to our first joke.
Unitarian Universalist churches are not known for our ecstatic religious celebrations. Bob Fazakerly, our musician emeritus, told us when he retired that people used to come to First Church for a classical music concert and a lecture. Neither classical music concerts nor lectures are genres known for their ebullient audience participation. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. In symphony halls and lecture venues the audience is supposed to sit quietly and absorb the powerful music or the stimulating message.
When I have preached at various congregations I have tried to shake this up a bit. I have invited people to talk back to me or to each other during the sermon. The results have sometimes been... well... humorous? Responding immediately to the sermon, offering an “Hallelujah” or an “Amen” in reaction to whatever the preacher just said is not something that happens in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A discomfort with saying “Hallelujah” I can understand, at least on a theological level. The word is Hebrew. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” A lot of Unitarian Universalists are humanists or atheists. They are not usually comfortable praising God.
“Amen” is another Hebrew word. It translates to “so be it.” Unitarian Universalists say it fairly often throughout the service. I invite you to say at various points on Sunday morning. When you say it you signify your rough assent or agreement with the offered prayers or sermon. You are not indicating that you agree with every word spoken. Instead, you are indicating your support for the general spirit of the message or prayer.
In a lot of religious contexts, people say “Amen” frequently throughout the service. In some congregations there is even something called the “Amen” corner. That is a group of people who get pretty excited throughout the service and support the preacher by saying “Amen” whenever there’s something they like in the sermon. Shall we try it for a moment? Can I get a quick “Amen”?
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have “Amen” corners. One of the first times someone pointed out to me just how closely this reflected the culture of the classical music concert hall and college lecture when I was serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio.
I invited a Black Baptist friend of mine to come preach the Sunday sermon to my congregation. We part of a network of religious communities and clergy devoted to social justice. We socialized together, and I occasionally attended her church on my Sundays off. Their services were boisterous affairs. There was a big gospel choir, a strong “Amen” corner, lots of clapping during the hymns...
So, my friend came to my congregation and gave her sermon. The congregation appreciated her and the service went well. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought. She said, “It certainly was tranquil. Very nice people. Similar vibe to the Cleveland Symphony.”
Similar vibe to the symphony... In the bad joke the usher was telling the visitor that it was not OK to bring their whole self to the worship service. There were to be no Amens, no Hallelujahs, no ecstatic expressions of religion. The visitor might have accepted--they were no thrown out of the church nor where they theologically condemned. But they were certainly not welcomed.
This leads me to a series of questions for you. Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like you can bring your whole self here? If not, why not? Conversely, are there certain behaviors that you expect on a Sunday morning? What are they? How would you feel if we had an “Amen” corner? It is good to talk about our answers to these questions. It is one way that we clarify our assumptions about what it means to do church together. It allows us to make the invisible visible and to challenge our own assumptions. That, in turns, opens up a space for us to engage in the work of collective transformation.
Second observation... expectations around culture...
In my second bad joke, Unitarian Universalists ask each other the question, “Where did you go to graduate school?” This question surfaces an assumption about Unitarian Universalism that many people have. It is often presumed to the educated person’s religion.
As a denomination one of our greatest struggles is around class diversity. The historian Mark Harris wrote an entire book on classism within Unitarian Universalism. He claims that a preference for a more tranquil worship service is tied to the class orientation that many of our churches had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Back then, New England Unitarianism was the religion of the social elite. They rejected the instant emotional conversion to salvation favored by evangelicals. Instead, they thought that salvation was to be found through an educational process that would last throughout life. This understanding of salvation--the slow and steady, rather than the quick--led them to think that churches were not different from universities.
Even though I am myself Harvard educated, I have experienced my share of class discomfort in Unitarian Universalist congregations. While I was working on my doctorate I regularly did pulpit supply. About twice a month, I preached at a different church. Some of them were small and scrappy. Others were large and elegant.
As some of you know, I am a single parent. When I would go preach someplace I would have to bring my son along with me. When he was little, when it was time for the service to start, my son would want to sit up in the pulpit with me. He did not know anyone else at the congregation. And as a five, six, or seven-year-old he was not comfortable sitting out there, in the pews, by himself.
Now those of you who are parents, or know children at all, can imagine how this sometimes played out. Kids squirm. They do their own thing. He would dutifully go off and join the other children when it was time for religious education classes. But he was very clear he wanted to sit next to his Dad until then.
Those big elegant New England churches have huge pulpits elevated over the entire congregation. There is nowhere to hide in them. You can imagine how the presence of my wiggling child next to me in the pulpit sometimes went over. After preaching, on more than occasion, I received notes or comments about how my sermon was very good but it was inappropriate for me bring my son with me when I went to lead the service somewhere. He was too distracting. The underlying message: we do not want single working parents as our ministers. That is about a classist message as they come.
More questions: Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like your level of education or economic class matters to other members? Do you have certain assumptions about the level of education or the economic class about other members? Again, it is good to talk about our answers to these questions. When we talk about them we can make the invisible visible and challenge our own assumptions. We can raise the questions: Who is really accepted at First Church? Who do we really welcome here? Do we need to change our congregation to live into our universalist theology of radical love and acceptance.
Encouragement to spiritual growth
Asking these questions together can push us towards greater spiritual growth. That is one of principal reasons for our religious life together: to deepen our own religious sensibilities. Or as I put it at the beginning of the sermon: to transform ourselves and our community. We might think of it is as a process. First, someone is welcomed into our religious communion. Second, they are encouraged towards spiritual growth.
The very process of welcoming can be an opportunity for spiritual growth--for personal and collective transformation. In recent weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion in Unitarian Universalist circles around the question of welcoming. How many of you get or read the UU World? It is our association’s quarterly magazine.
In the most recent issue there was an article on how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome transgender and genderqueer people. It was written by a cis-gender woman and centered on her experience of relating to transgender and genderqueer people. Many transgender and genderqueer Unitarian Universalists were outraged.
CB Beal is a Unitarian Universalist educator who self-describes “as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person.” They wrote an eloquent response centering their experience and the experiences of other transgender and genderqueer people in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to consider who feels most welcome in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to ask the question: What standards of behavior, what kinds of dress, what identities are expected in most Unitarian Universalist congregations? They write, “When we [Unitarian Universalists] ... speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion.”
The President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray has said to us, “our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love.” “However,” she has reminded us, “we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies--and what liberation means.”
In dialogue with this insight, CB Beal suggests three steps towards living into our theology of radical love and building communities of radical welcome. For someone who is relatively privileged like me, they recommend: “First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices. Second, not to decenter them when they say something we... [do not] want to hear. Third, if we hear something we... [do not] want to hear or that we ... [do not] agree with...” commit to staying in the conversation.
We encourage each other towards spiritual growth when we listen to and welcome difference. My identity, my theology, my way of expressing myself might be different from yours. We are each transformed when we learn to communicate and, dare I say, love across these differences.
Further questions: How has your life, your spirituality, been changed by being part of a congregation that contains people who are different from you? How have you grown or been transformed by participating in a religious community where there is no consensus on the nature or presence of the divine? Where our theology includes theists and atheists, believers and doubters, pagans and pantheists, and all seekers after religious truth?
In our congregations
One of the great gifts of Unitarian Universalism is the hybrid nature of our religious communities. The covenantal nature of our communities and our commitment to theological diversity means that among Unitarian Universalists you can find different religious identities. There are Christian Unitarian Universalists. There are Jewish Unitarian Universalists, like my family. There are Muslim Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist pagans. There are Unitarian Universalist humanists. There are Shikh Unitarian Universalists. There are Hindu Unitarian Universalists. I would need to continue my list for a list for long time to effectively include all of our theological diversity. What I am trying to do, in my own awkward way, is to highlight the hybridity of Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a religious tradition that for many years has been open to influence by other religious traditions. Historian Susan Ritchie observes that in the sixteenth century, “European Unitarianism grew up in the soil of a variety of boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe.” That set of our religious ancestors became Unitarian because they sought to reconcile the theologies of three religious communities present in places like Transylvania and Hungary. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they believed, were all children of the same God. By rejecting the divinity of Christ, they thought, it was possible to recognize the family resemblance between the different religions of their lands. This, they hoped, would lead to religious tolerance and, ultimately, peace.
I picked Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” as one of our readings this morning because it is one of my favorite pieces on hybridity--on navigating the challenging, fertile, wonderful, and sometimes dangerous space of living between defined identities. Anzaldúa was a queer Chicana poet from Texas. She wrote her poem to reflect on what means to live as a Chicana in country that stole much of its land from Mexico and seeks to build borders between itself and Latin America. She wrote it reflect on what it means to be LGBTQI in a country that has historically marginalized everyone but straight presenting cis-gendered white men. When she wrote:
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half--both woman and man, neither--
a new gender.
She was not thinking of Unitarian Universalism or our communities at all.
Yet, I think that her poem expresses much truth when it comes to living with a hybrid identity in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you have a hybrid identity, you are never fully one thing or the other. You are something in between. And that something is wonderful. You may not always feel welcome. Your identity may be contested. But you are wonderful and you are loved.
And that, is our challenge, when we hear the third principle of our association: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We are challenged to radically welcome each other. We are challenged to truly accept each other. Regardless of class, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of other human divisor, regardless of education, regardless of worship style, we are called to build a community where all are welcome and all are loved. Our last question: Can we do it together?
And to that, I invite the congregation to say, “Amen.”
Mar 10, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, March 10, 2019
Last week Carol got us started on our spring sermon series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She focused on the first principle of our religious communion--respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person--and how it related to our seventh principle--respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Today we are going to consider the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. The primary claim I am going to make in response to this principle is: If we take our religious tradition seriously we will find ourselves compelled to disrupt the great disorder of things. Or, put differently, if we fully commit to Unitarian Universalism we will engage in the often frustrating, sometimes fruitful, Sisyphean struggle of attempting to transform our human society. Alternatively stated, authentic religious practice ain’t easy. It requires that we work to change ourselves and the world around us.
As we move toward our main message, I want to offer you a smidge of history, a small personal confession, and a bit of critique to help frame our sermon series. Let us start with the history.
The seven principles are a recent creation. They are the heirs to numerous statements about the nature of Unitarianism and Universalism that stretch back to the seventeenth century. But they, themselves, only date to 1985. Their immediate successors were the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These were approved in 1961 when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to form our present association. The six principles included gendered and theocentric statements such as “love to God and love to man,” “the dignity of man,” “brotherhood,” and “men of good will.”
Between 1961 and 1985 something important happened in American culture--second wave feminism. Betty Friedan published her best-selling text The Feminine Mystique challenging the idea that the proper role for middle-income, educated, white women was housewife and mother. The National Organization for Women formed to advocate for women’s rights throughout the country. Feminist activists launched, and won, numerous legislative struggles that greatly expanded women’s legal rights. In the same years, some women of color came to be critical of the predominately white feminist movement. One well remembered group was the Combahee River Collective. They issued a statement challenging the feminist movement to be accountable to people of color and non-heteronormative people. Maybe you lived through this history. Maybe you did not. Either way, I hope that you get the point: there was a profound social shift.
Unitarian Universalist women were active in many of these struggles. And they did not just set their attention on reforming society. Many devoted themselves to transforming our congregations. In 1977 a group of women prompted the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association to pass a resolution on “Women and Religion.” Included in the resolution was a commitment that the association would “avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.”
This soon inspired women throughout the association to examine the 1960 principles. They found them wanting. At a pivotal conference, one group held a workshop organized around the question: “The UUA Principles: Do They Affirm Us as Women?” Their resounding answer: “No!”
Over the next few years the presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, Natalie Gulbrandsen and Denny Davidoff, led the effort to rewrite the principles. The men of Gulbranden’s home congregation told her, “Mankind doesn’t leave you out.” She replied, “we are human beings but not men, and that there are many other terms you could use--humankind, human beings--that include women.” After their terms as presidents of the Women’s Federation, both Gulbrandsen and Davidoff served as moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was during Gulbrandsen’s tenure that Davidoff led a collaborative process that resulted in the seven principles being adopted by the association with only one (male) vote in opposition.
The history of the seven principles is in some sense the history of attempting to live out the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. This principle has been implicit within our liberal religious tradition for hundreds of years. Manifesting it within our association required not just a transformation of language. It necessitated the transformation of our ministry. In 1977 when the “Women and Religion” resolution was passed only about 5% of Unitarian Universalist ministers were women. Today, more than 50%--including the president of our association--are. As I stated at the opening of my sermon, taking our religious tradition seriously requires that we work to transform ourselves and our society.
And now, a personal confession: I have ambivalent feelings about the seven principles. Do any of you feel the same way? These feelings started years ago before I entered seminary. Back then I was spending my time doing solidarity and human rights work with indigenous movements in Southern Mexico. One of my mentors in this work was a well-known Mexican human rights activist and Jesuit priest. I visited my Jesuit friend whenever I passed through Mexico City. Usually we shared a meal together in a diner--me ordering enchiladas verdes stuffed with cheese and he... actually I forget what he used to order.
During these meals my friend would share with me his admiration for the great figures of Latin American liberation theology, some of whom he knew personally. He spoke of Gustavo Gutiérrez, who taught that to be Christian was to work for the fundamental transformation of society. Gutiérrez understood that God was present among the oppressed and marginalized, not the powerful and privileged. “The point is not to survive, but to serve,” he wrote. And my Jesuit friend spoke of Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while serving as the Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero spoke out against his country’s right-wing regime and its supporters killed him. He urged us to recognize, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
My Jesuit friend also encouraged me to listen to what are called the base communities. In Southern Mexico, these are small groups of indigenous peasants that gather for Bible study, worship, and political action. Listening to them, I learned the work of collective liberation includes the centering the voices of the marginalized. When someone like the indigenous leader Comandanta Ester said, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous and because we are women,” she was offering us all a formula for social transformation. Eliminate poverty, eliminate violence against people of color, eliminate patriarchal and heteronormative structures of oppression and a better world will be born.
My Jesuit friend was curious about what I believed. There are not many Unitarian Universalists in Mexico. He knew nothing about our liberal religious tradition. So, one day when we were lunching together I shared with him a folding card that I kept in my wallet. On it were printed the seven principles. Maybe you have a card like the one I am talking about?
My Jesuit friend looked at the card. And then he said, “Hmm... there is not a single thing on here that I do not agree with, reminds me the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
I was shocked by his response. You see, my friend is not a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. He is a deeply devote Catholic who has dedicated his life to his church. His tradition and ours... well, let’s just say that there is supposed to be a lot of daylight between them. Catholics believe in certain creedal statements about the nature of God and the primacy of their church. Unitarian Universalists reject creeds and hold that there are many paths to religious truth. Catholics think that only men can be priests. Unitarian Universalists ordain people of all genders. Catholics believe that God has intervened in human history and will do so again. Humanistically inclined Unitarian Universalists like myself tend to think... umm... good luck with that.
And yet, our two distinct religious traditions had caused us to make similar commitments. My Jesuit friend sought personal transformation--which he would call salvation--through his belief in the saving power of Jesus, his devotion to the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola, and his commitment to his church. I sought after my version--the development of my human potential--through a spiritual discipline of walking, journal writing, and contemplative reading. Gazing through the limited lenses of our particular theological traditions we found ourselves working together to transform society and root out injustice. I called my commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations the second principle. My Jesuit friend called it God’s preferential option for the poor.
Since that conversation, when I am asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, I do not refer to the principles. Instead, I usually say something like: Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. We believe that we need not think alike to love alike. Our communities include atheists and believers in the divine. We offer a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address climate change, and struggling for democracy.
This list of theological positions and prophetic actions contains things that my Jesuit friend would not agree with. My list makes the space between our traditions more visible. It also hints at something I believe: religious truth comes at cost and takes effort to seek. The world’s horrors challenge a belief that there is a seed of goodness in every human heart. The constant emergence and re-emergence of human hatred call into question the power of love. Raw human folly weighs heavily against the force of reason. And yet, looking within my religious tradition, gazing at all of you, cultivating my own spiritual practice, I am willing to make the faithful Unitarian Universalist wager that humans are not innately wicked, that love is the most powerful force on earth, and that rationality is a great gift.
My previous confession leads to a further critique, or, perhaps, observation. I am not alone in finding the seven principles to be insufficient. Many ministers and Unitarian Universalist theologians also find them unsatisfying. A few take such dissatisfaction to the extreme calling the principles the “Seven Banalities or the Seven Dwarves” or claiming that they do not reflect religious values. One (male) minister even went so far as to argue that by adopting the principles “‘God’ became ‘Our Political Liberal, Who Art Us, Writ Large.’”
Most of us, however, take a less brutal approach. If I were invite you up to my office and suggest you read through the several shelves of Unitarian Universalist and liberal religious theology that I keep up there you would find this: None of us ground our theologies in the seven principles. Instead, we debate. We argue. We seek to find a way to articulate a collective center for a tradition that claims that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Some suggest that a deep feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves--which we might call the infinite mysterious universe or God or goddess or otherwise name--is the root of liberal religion. Others claim we are defined by our commitment to the use of reason in religion, our openness to science, and our understanding that revelation is not sealed. Still others claim that the core of liberal religion is found in a recognition that the most powerful force on Earth is love.
Reading, wrestling with, and preaching on these debates over the years I have come to two conclusions. First, the seven principles are not statements about the core of liberal religion. They do not definitively state who we are as Unitarian Universalists or the ultimate nature of liberal religion. Instead, they are observations based on empirical evidence of what the ethical values of Unitarian Universalists have been, when we are at our best, over time. Ethics rest upon foundational principles. They are the actions we are called to take from the religious truths we have found, not the truths themselves. Second, religious wisdom, religious truth, is something that comes through great effort. It is something that we earn, uncover, discover, as we struggle, collectively, to make sense of the rich mess of our lives. When we find religious wisdom, we learn that it calls us to challenge the powers and principalities, the social disorder, of the world.
This is the Sunday following International Women’s Day. I thought I would close by offering you two examples of Unitarian Universalist women who devoted themselves to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations at great personal cost. Their lives suggest what Unitarian Universalist ethics look like when we strive to actualize them. And so, let me speak of Susan B. Anthony and Kay Jorgensen.
Susan B. Anthony is a household name. She was one of the central agitators for women’s rights and suffrage. And she was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester New York. In an 1854 speech she demanded: “justice and equality... the removal of the many customs and laws that prevent the full exercise of all her God given powers, the entire freedom of thought, word & action, that man claims for himself...” She devoted her life to the realization of these propositions.
And when I say devoted her life, I mean spent over fifty years struggling for justice, equity, and compassion for women. She knocked on doors, collected petitions, and spoke to demand that women have the same rights as men when it came to property, employment, and access to the ballot. She founded the National Woman Suffrage Association which worked until 1920 to win the right to vote. She was arrested, tried, and convicted for voting illegally.
She made mistakes. When, following the Civil War, black male leaders like Frederick Douglass pushed for the enfranchisement of black men before white women, she said horribly racist things. (Douglass forgave her shortly before he died.)
She did her imperfect best to transform the world. Along the way, she took on roles--public speaker, political activist, ethical leader--which women were not supposed to hold in the nineteenth century United States. That is to say, she transformed herself. When we look to her life we see that the best of Unitarian Universalism is realized in the pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And we are reminded that the pursuit of such values requires the work of personal and collective transformation.
Unlike Susan B. Anthony, Kay Jorgensen is not a household name. She was a Unitarian Universalist minister who died last year. She was one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. I met her when I was a young adult living in San Francisco. Around the time I moved to that city, Kay and her longtime collaborator Carmen Barsody were starting the Faithful Fools, their street ministry in the city’s Tenderloin District.
The Tenderloin has historically been one of the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods in San Francisco. In opposition to those who say that Unitarian Universalist is inherently a religion of the well-to-do, Kay and Carmen focused their ministerial work on accompanying the poor and marginalized in San Francisco. Theological core of their work was a belief in human “oneness” and an understanding that by getting “acquainted with that which divides us, our own suffering is revealed.” They believed, in a word, in the transformative power of universalism.
The core practice of the Faithful Fools ministry is something they call street retreats. These last somewhere between a few hours and several days. Participants spend their time on the street in the same spaces as homeless people: eating where the homeless eat and sleeping where they sleep.
The Fools use the street retreats to do two things. The first is to be present to and minister to the very poor and homeless without judging them. In other words, the Fools see the Tenderloin’s residents for what they are, human beings, and then treat them as human beings. Second, the retreats are opportunities to breakdown stereotypes that people with various kinds of economic privilege such as myself have about the very poor and homeless. By inviting participants into the same spaces as the residents of the Tenderloin we learn that despite whatever stereotypes we might carry in our heads, the people struggling on the streets are just as human as we are. We all need the same things: food, shelter, love, and a bit of work to call honest.
Kay had a playful sense humor. She had a clown for an alter ego named Oscard. When asked how she was doing she sometimes quoted the Elwood from the movie “The Blues Brothers:” “There's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark out, and we're wearing sunglasses.” It is a good line, though I confess I am still not one hundred percent certain what she meant by it. Perhaps that we make the road by walking, discovering the path as we go?
Kay’s sense of play caused her tweak the noses of San Francisco Unitarian Universalists. Once, to emphasize the plight of the city’s homeless she spent about a week sleeping on the front door step of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. She did this after the senior minister had posted a no trespassing sign to keep away the indigent.
Kay’s willingness to experience personal discomfort is another reminder that living into the values of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations is not easy. She cleaned houses the first several years of her ministry with the Faithful Fools in order to support the organization. Well into her seventies, she spent days at a time sleeping in the streets.
And, yet, is this not one of the reasons why we gather Sunday after Sunday? To find the hope, the power, the joy within ourselves to do the difficult work of transforming ourselves--to living into our full potential--and trying to change the world for the better. It is challenging work. I fail in it all the time--each day. And yet, looking within our tradition, looking around the world, I see that there have been many who--however, imperfectly--have devoted themselves to the proposition of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Let us close in prayer,
Oh, spirit of life,
that some of us call love,
and others name God,
be with us,
as we struggle,
to find the strength,
to pursue the narrow path
towards religious truth
to find the power
to transform ourselves
and our world
so that someday,
the lights of heaven,
might shine down
upon a world
in which justice,
equity, and compassion
have been realized in human relations.
That it may be so, let the congregation say Amen.
Mar 9, 2019
During an interim ministry there are specific tasks that the interim minister and the congregation are supposed to focus on in order to prepare for the success of future ministries. One of these tasks is strengthening the connection between the congregation and the larger Unitarian Universalist Association. In recent months we have been doing this by bringing outstanding denominational leaders such as UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, to lead worship for us. They have led inspiring services on what Unitarian Universalist communities are doing to confront humanity’s profound moral, political, and spiritual crisis. As the Rev. Frederick-Gray told us “this is no time for a casual faith.” It is a time to nurture “a fierce sense of purpose that recognizes how much is on the line.”
In the next months we will be nurturing this sense of purpose and strengthening our connection between First Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association through a series of services on the association’s seven principles. The series will conclude with a service on June 16th focusing on the proposed eighth principle. In current form the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Periods of interim ministry are also times for experimentation. In the next months we will be experimenting with worship by adding, for eight weeks, a 9:00 a.m. contemplative service. The 9:00 a.m. service will feature the same sermon. It will include more space for musical and silent meditation and a little less congregational singing. Nursery care but not religious education will be provided. I am excited about the experiment. Sunday morning attendance has been strong in recent months and adding a second service with a different format will allow us both room to grow and the opportunity imagine the ways that worship can be different.
The theme of my column this month is change. One of the challenges during periods of change is remaining grounded in a sense of self, even as that sense of self shifts. In that light, I offer this selection from Joy Harjo’s “Remember:”
Remember the wind.
Remember her voice.
She knows the origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Feb 12, 2019
as prepared February 12, 2019 for the Harris County Commissioners Court
Commissioners, public servants, and members of the public, I bring you greetings from the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Houston. Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. We believe that we need not think alike to love alike. Our communities include atheists and believers in the divine. Our religious communion contains some of the oldest congregations in the United States. The First Parish of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the congregation founded by the Pilgrims, in 1606, and the First Church in Boston are both members. Here in Houston, First Unitarian Universalist is proud to have been the first congregation to desegregate. We continue to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address climate change, and struggling for democracy.
I invite you into the spirit of prayer.
Close your eyes,
open your ears,
open your minds,
open your hearts.
Oh, spirit of love,
and of justice,
that sometimes lies
and sometimes stirs,
within the human heart,
be with us this morning,
and all the days of our lives.
Help the elected leaders of Harris County,
And all of the political leaders of this country,
and each of us,
remember that we are called to serve the least of these:
refugees fleeing violence,
homeless, gay, lesbian, and transgender youth,
and all those who have no voice in the courts of power.
Help us to remember
that we live in the richest country in the history of the world,
that love calls us to be generous,
that tyranny thrives on inequality,
and that democracy requires equality.
Stir in our hearts,
stir our imaginations,
and open within us the power
to make the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr.
called beloved community
That we may do so
within this generation
I say Amen.
Feb 5, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 17, 2019
Today we kick-off First Church’s annual stewardship drive. My task this morning is to offer you what sometimes gets called “the sermon on the amount.” It is often a difficult sermon to preach. The three topics generally considered taboo to discuss in polite company, are, after all: sex, money, and religion. Stewardship combines two of these: money and religion. It did occur to me that I could bring a discussion of Our Whole Lives into the sermon. Our Whole Lives is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum. If I spoke about it we could then have all three. That might everyone really squirm. But Jonathan Edwards I am not. Today is no occasion for “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Instead, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our life together, the entity we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And giving money to support the congregation is one way we celebrate our life together.
Dan King, our Assistant Minister, likes to say that stewardship works best when we give until it feels good. That is what I am encouraging you to do this morning: to give to the congregation in such a way that you feel good about the level of support you give to First Church. I am not going to get Marxist on you and suggest that we follow old bewhiskered Karl’s adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Instead, I want to encourage you to feel good about your contributions to First Church. Well, actually, I want you to feel good about First Church. And if you feel good about First Church, I think you will feel good about financially supporting the congregation.
Our theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “weaving a tapestry of love and action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.” For Unitarian Universalists stewardship really is about justice. Our institutions, our churches and our Unitarian Universalist Association, allow us to live out our commitment to the transformative power of love in public.
I will talk a more about the theme in a moment. But, first, whether you are here at Museum District or listening to the sermon via livestream in Richmond, I want to pause and make a point of inviting you all to stick around after the service for Souper Bowl Sunday. It is our kick-off event. It is a chance to share a bowl of soup, relax, and celebrate the great community that is First Church. It is just one of the many opportunities to connect that we are offering throughout the month. We have a number of people who have volunteered to serve as visiting stewards. They will be visiting with other members of the congregation and listening to your stories about what First Church means to you. Meeting with one of them is not obligatory. These meetings are opportunities to deepen your connection to First Church by reflecting with other members about the role the congregation plays in your religious life and in the wider world.
Weaving a tapestry of love and action... We say those words each week as we bless and express gratitude for the offering. Well, actually, we say, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.” What I want to offer you this morning is what preachers call an exegesis of the phrase we say each week as we bless the offering. An exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation of a text.
“Weaving a tapestry of love and action,” I want to offer you one more fancy word as we proceed with our exegesis of our much spoken text. That word is hermeneutics. If exegesis is the interpretation of a text then hermeneutics is the method by which we arrive at the interpretation of a text. The exegesis: the meaning. Hermeneutics: how we arrive at the meaning.
Exegesis, hermeneutics... These words are two of the central tools we use in the collective religious exercise we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He often followed this definition with this series of observations, “Knowing we must die, we question what life means. ...the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious question: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life purpose? What does this all signify?”
We come together to interpret the texts of our lives--to infuse them with meaning. Unitarian Universalism offers a set of hermeneutics to do so. As a religious community, we interpret the texts of our lives using a specific set of principles. I am not talking about the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Those date to the middle of twentieth-century. Our liberal religious tradition is much older than that. What I am talking about is the principles behind the principles.
The twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur described the primary principles of our religious tradition as: freedom, reason, and tolerance. In making meaning from the rich mess of our lives, he believed, our tradition called for “complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds... the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition... generous tolerance of differing religious views... rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship, or polity.” Freedom, reason, and tolerance... We are free to believe what we must believe. We are called to put our beliefs to a rational test. Tolerance, the beliefs that I hold need not be the beliefs that you hold.
My friend Gary Dorrien is one of greatest living interpreters of liberal theology. He makes the claim that the distinction between theological liberals and theological conservatives is that we insist that religion “should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” If religion is to matter, we say, then it must relate to our lives today. It must help us live in this world. It must not be antithetical to the findings of science.
Building off the work of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has long argued that all of these intellectual statements are good and well but they leave our tradition without a foundation. They do not tell us where our beliefs come from. They do not describe the ground on which we stand. And that is a mistake. Because, Thandeka argues, our theology does have a foundation. It is founded on love. Specifically, it is founded on the experience of connection that each of us has to the all. The experience of connection between the self and the all is the fundamental religious experience. Liberal religion begins, she observes, not with rational arguments but with the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Thandeka is careful to observe that this feeling of connection escapes clear religious labels. She writes, “for Christians... [it] is God... For Buddhists... Sunyata... For Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.” But however we describe it, it comes to each of us.
I have noticed that the moments in my sermons that people connect with the most are often the sections in which I narrate such an experience of connection--whether it is my own or someone else’s. This might be because the deepest truth of Unitarian Universalism is that the text we are trying to interpret is the text of our own lives.
When I talk about finding meaning in the joy of dancing or discovering it while sitting in a Zen temple in Japan, I suspect that many of you connect with the ways in which you have made meaning out of similar experiences. The meaning I find in the unadulterated beauty of a flowing flock of birds over a parking lot sunrise might be different than yours. Maybe I encounter meaning, connection, deep emotion in the rough notes of a Latin jazz album as needle scrapes across vinyl and you do not.
But somewhere, each day, there is some experience, some series of experiences that you have where you connect with something--or someone--other than yourself. Perhaps you find that experience through your family. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps it is mostly among the moss-covered oaks. Perhaps it is in the hum of the train tracks as the streetcar slips by on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is on your bicycle as ride you along the road, the wind, the push of the peddles, the spin of the wheels, offering a sense of exhilarating motion.
Wherever you find connection, I suspect that if you regularly come to First Church it is because of you have found a community that helps you make meaning of it all. A community that helps you weave your life into the larger tapestry that is First Church. I suspect that this is true whether you sit on the cool wooden pews of this sanctuary or amid the lush greenery of our Richmond campus.
Such meaning making is why we ritually celebrate life’s passages as a religious community: child dedications, weddings, and memorial services. Child dedications--the celebration of what a new life means to a family and to the community, a celebration of the enduring possibility of human existence. Weddings, a celebration of two people coming together, attesting to the deep connection they feel, and promising to each other that their lives will be more meaningful together than separate. Memorial services, the great summing-up--the celebration of the life that has been, the meaning it offered, and the ways we who continue can find meaning and inspiration.
Unitarian Universalist minister Kristen Harper describes the daily unfolding of our meaning this way:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
When we say, we are “weaving a tapestry of love and action” what we are really saying is that we are collectively making meaning out of our lives. And that each day in our life together we have the opportunity to make further meaning. That meaning can be found in each experience, each moment, we share.
Our exegesis does not end quite there because really we have just covered the words “weaving a tapestry of love.” We have not talked much about justice. I started our sermon with a claim from Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And each week we dedicate ourselves to action. That is, we dedicate ourselves to living out our commitment to love in public.
This is what we are called to do today and all of the days of our lives. We all know that the human species is in the midst of a grave existential crisis. As I wrote in this month’s newsletter column:
Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested?
Our ability to make meaning together has equipped us to do this work for justice in the world. And, today, it is the work that we Unitarian Universalists are called to do.
And now, I need to be real with you. I do not often talk with you about the specific work of being the interim minister of your congregation following the negotiated resignation of your previous senior minister. Since I arrived in August, there has been too much to do. We have been working on launching our Richmond campus. We have been working on making First Church be one worshipping community in two locations. We have been working on winding down our relationship with the Tapestry congregation, our former campus in Spring. The Board and I have been working on governance. There have been multiple staff transitions. Nikki Steele our much loved Congregational Administrator is moving to Virginia. The congregation’s devoted long serving organist Bob Fazakerly is retiring. And so is the Rev. Dr. Dan King. There has been a lot going on.
But now, on stewardship Sunday, for the sermon on the amount, for just a few minutes, I want to talk with you about my interim work. One of my primary tasks is to hold up a mirror to the congregation and ask you to look at yourselves. Such work can quite uncomfortable. This is one reason why interim ministries are intentionally only a couple of years and why congregations are generally happy to see the interims go when their ministries end.
One thing I want you to see when you, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, look at yourselves is the way that the staff have been treated. It is true that your previous senior minister’s negotiated resignation was over his treatment of staff. But once I got here and started to look into it the picture became more complicated. The issue was not only that he engaged in bullying of staff. The issue was that the congregation was not abiding by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Salaries were being paid sort of according to guidelines. Everyone was paid at least the minimum level recommended by the UUA. Few people were paid according to their level of experience or tenure with the congregation.
Far more problematically was the benefits situation. It was not uniform. It was out of whack with UUA’s standards for fair compensation. Some people got benefits and some did not. I brought this situation to the Board’s attention shortly after the congregation received a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellett. And the Board took action, committing the congregation to follow the UUA’s fair compensation guidelines going forward. This has meant ensuring that all qualifying employees receive appropriate benefits--health insurance, life insurance, pension, disability insurance, dental insurance, and the like. It has also meant making some progress on adjusting staff salaries so people are paid according to their level of experience. All of this is costly and there is more ground to be gained in the issue in justice for the staff’s compensation. The total annual bill for fixing the situation is $72,000 a year. The money from the Kellett bequest is not enough to make this sustainable without an increase in pledge income.
There are some of you who will want to understand how this situation came about. And I willing be talking with you about it elsewhere. But the most important thing for you to know is that the Board is committed to making sure it does not happen again. They have hired a consultant to work with them, and by extension the entire congregation, on reimagining First Church’s governance so there is more appropriate oversight going forward. I have recommended that the Board conduct an annual audit of employee records and compensation to ensure future justice for the staff.
Now, I promised you at the outset that this was not going to be a modern rendition of Jonathan Edwards’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I believe with James Baldwin, “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished.” Which is to say, we cannot rewrite history. What has been done has been done. But we can change things going forward. We have that power. Indeed, we are committed to that proposition as a community weaving a tapestry of love and action.
And what I really want you to do is to feel good about your connection to First Church. This is a wonderful community that does much good in the world. You were the first historically white congregation in Houston to desegregate. You launched Hatch Youth in the midst of the AIDS crisis to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied youth. You provided important services to the wider community through your Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. You have supported more than fifty first generation college students with your Thoreau Scholarship program. You have been a beacon for speaking out against injustice, for speaking up for the oppressed, for binding up the broken, for transforming lives for the better. There is so much to be proud of.
And today, in this historic moment, when humanity faces one of its gravest crises. Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in confronting it. For First Church, this means the opportunity to grow, not for growth’s sake but because the way we Unitarian Universalists make meaning is vitally important to the world. There is an opportunity to grow both here at the Museum District and out in Richmond. The Board has also committed to making the Assistant Minister position full-time and to transitioning one of the Administrative Assistant positions to a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator. The Kellett bequest is also being used to honor these commitments as well as to help pay for some long-deferred maintenance on the Museum District campus--including fixing the elevator, the roof, and replacing carpet and stucco that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
This opportunity to grow is an opportunity to help more people weave their lives into our meaningful tapestry of love and action. In order for it to be realized we need to remember that building justice in the wider world requires that we treat our staff equitably. Indeed, I might suggest we carry our exegesis of “weaving a tapestry of love and action” a little further. If we did so we might observe that the lives of the members of the congregation are the threads that form the tapestry that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. But the building and staff provide a portion of the loom on which you weave. Without each the work of all would not be possible.
And so, when I say I would like you to give until it feels good, that means I would like you to give so that you feel good about the tapestry of love and action that First Church is weaving. I want you to feel good about First Church as a religious community. And I want you to feel good about the work that First Church does in the world.
In that spirit, I would like to close not with my own words but with yours. I invite you to say with me the words that we find in our order of service and repeat week after week, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.”
Let the congregation say Amen.
Feb 1, 2019
This month our congregation launches our annual stewardship campaign, “Weaving a Tapestry of Love and Action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Your financial gifts to our congregation are essential to sustain it and position First Church to share our values and extend our collective impact in the community. Now is a critical time to support both the congregation and Unitarian Universalism. Because the congregation is in the midst of multiple transitions in ministry and staff, it is even more important to ensure that the congregation is on firm financial footing. With your support, First Church will be better prepared to begin the next phase of our long history of innovative ministry to the community.
It is all too clear we are at a critical turning point in human history. Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested? This moral and spiritual crisis can only be addressed by building beloved communities that, locally and globally, change lives, transform culture, and craft transnational networks devoted to human liberation. Unitarian Universalism’s foundational commitment to the transformative power of love and theological openness mean that First Church has the potential to be one of these beloved communities. Your contributions supply the essential fabric from which the congregation can truly weave a tapestry of love and action.
To emphasize the mutual connections of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we are pleased to welcome my friend and dear colleague, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray to our pulpit on February 10th. Her sermon will focus on how Unitarian Universalism can realize its potential to build beloved community. Throughout the month the Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will also be leading services on stewardship which will emphasize our collective opportunities for tangible support for this community. Our stewardship team has recruited volunteer interviewers (“visiting stewards”) who will offer to talk with you about your personal connection to First Church and the work our congregation does in the world. The conversations are designed to be an opportunity to for deeper spiritual reflection, whether one-on-one or in a small group. I hope that you will choose to take advantage of their offer to listen to you.
This month is also Black History Month. Each of our services will feature music from Africa and the African diaspora. My sermon on the 24th will celebrate the life and work of the Reverend Ethelred Brown, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Harlem and a foundational figure in the tradition of black humanism. Portions of this sermon will be incorporated into a lecture I have been invited to prepare, “The Social Question: Unitarian Social Ethics in the Progressive Era.” I will be delivering in San Francisco on May 18th. I hope to see you on the 24th and throughout the month!
A brief personal note before I close, at the end of last month I was recently named an African American Religious Studies Forum Affiliate of Rice University’s for Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.
The appointment comes with an invitation to present two public lectures at Rice in the 2019-2020 academic year. They will be an opportunity to emphasize the longstanding connections between First Church and Rice.
And finally, a poem:
“Each Day” by lifelong Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Kristen Harper, longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, Massachusetts:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last,
Except... Maybe today, maybe now,
Among friends and fellow journeyers,
Maybe for the first time, maybe silently,
We can share ourselves.
Jan 24, 2019
The theme for worship in January is transformation. This is a particularly apt theme for a period of interim ministry. The departure of one senior minister and the arrival of another is always a significant time of transformation in congregational life. The first month of the year is also a time when people naturally think about the past and imagine the future.
Thinking about the past and imagining the future are central tasks of the interim ministry. They are transformative work and in our worship services throughout the month we’ll be exploring how the work of transforming our religious community can be work that transforms us as individuals. The Rev. Dr. Joanne Braxton will be leading a service on January 6th in this vein on the 8th Principle Project, an effort to add an explicit commitment to anti-racism to the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. My own services for the month will challenge us to examine how by changing ourselves we can be each become agents for transformation of the larger whole.
January marks a big month for transformation in the life of First Church. On January 6th we will begin live-streaming the sermons from Museum District to Tapestry. We had a successful launch of live-streaming to Thoreau on December 16th when Mary Katherine Morn was in the pulpit. I suspect that all listening to the same sermon on Sunday morning will help make First Church feel more like one church in three locations. I am excited about it and I hope that you are as well!
On a personal note, I will be on vacation in Japan from December 25th to January 4th. The Rev. Dr. Dan King will be stepping into the role of head of staff in my absence. I am looking forward to an exciting trip and returning with full of new inspiration. Because of my travel destination and the time of year I think it is appropriate to end with two winter poems from the Japanese tradition:
Starting, then stopping,
the hail moves through my garden
all at a slant;
shining banks of cloud
darken in the sky above. ~ Kyogoku Tamekane
As a rule, I hate
crows--but, ah, not on such a
snowy morning! ~ Matsuo Basho
Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.
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.
Dec 23, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
December is a busy time. Thanksgiving is quickly followed by the winter holidays. Growing up in an inter-religious household we celebrated in what always felt like rapid succession Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years. In my home we still do. Alongside all of the work of the season my month will be filled with lights, snatches of Hebrew, Christmas music, latkes--fried in olive oil and served with sour cream and apple sauce, and, sometimes, chopped red onion, smoked salmon, and capers--and family time.
Despite the celebrations of the holidays, I know from both personal and professional experience that the season can be difficult for many people. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston offers a place for you, however you experience the holidays. This year’s holiday services include space for the celebratory and the somber alike. We have Music Sunday on December 9th and on December 16th we will have a special guest in the pulpit, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In addition, we will be holding a special solstice service on December 21 at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of December 23rd, and a Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols at 7:00 p.m. on the 24th.
In the spirit of the season, I close with two poems, one from each of my family’s traditions. The first is “Season of Skinny Candles” by Marge Piercy. The second is T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.”
Season of Skinny Candles by Marge Piercy.
A row of tall skinny candles burns
quickly into the night
air, the shames raised
over the rest
for its hard work.
Darkness rushes in
after the sun sinks
like a bright plug pulled.
Our eyes drown in night
thick as ink pudding.
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
A time to eat fat
and oil, a time to gamble
for pennies and gambol
“The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” by T. S. Eliot.
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish - which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By "eightieth" meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
Dec 5, 2018
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
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.
Nov 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 11, 2018
“Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Those words about the United States are attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They are apocryphal. He did not actually say them. But it is a good quote. And sometimes it feels like an accurate assessment of this country.
Today might be a day when many of us resonate with Churchill’s apocryphal assessment. The midterm elections were on Tuesday. They returned the federal government to mixed rule. The group of people who have just been elected to Congress includes the largest number of women ever. There will now be more than one hundred Congresswomen. Many of them are left-leaning and opposed to the current presidential administration. This may put a check on the President’s more autocratic and totalitarian tendencies. At the same time, the firing of the Attorney General and the appointment of an Acting Attorney General appear to be pushing the country closer to a constitutional crisis. If that comes then we will see how many people in this country are really interested in doing the right thing: struggling against rising totalitarianism and for the project of collective liberation.
At the same time there has been another mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks California. These events have become so common that there are now people who have lived through two gun massacres. They have become so common that they are in danger of no longer being news. They have become so common that the writer Roxane Gay felt moved to pen a column pleading, “Be shocked by the massacre at a bar. It’s not normal.” They have become so common a few days after Gay’s column was published news of the massacre has largely disappeared. They have become so common that few politicians seem to even feel the need to make cursory gestures to finding solutions to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence.
All of this takes place at a time when scientists are warning us that we may have only two years to address the existential threat of climate change. And, as this week’s news has made clear, it is an existential threat. California is burning. More than twenty-five people are dead. Billions of dollars of damage has been done. Forests are wrecked for the coming generations. But despite this horror there appears to be no collective will to address this profound crisis.
I picked today’s sermon topic, “Democracy in Crisis,” knowing that no matter which party won the midterm elections democracy, and the human species, would continue to be in crisis.
I also picked today’s sermon topic with the knowledge that this Sunday marks the anniversaries of two great crises in democracy. Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. World War I was great crisis in democracy. During and immediately after the war the administration of President Woodrow Wilson waged an all out assault on this country’s grassroots democratic movements. Thousands of political dissenters and antiwar activists were jailed. Dozens of them were killed. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were effectively outlawed. The great Socialist Party of Eugene Debs was all but destroyed. At the same time, a dramatic rise in white supremacist violence unleashed epidemics of race riots and lynchings. The regime of Jim Crow and white supremacy were effectively solidified throughout most of the country for several decades--a crisis in democracy if there ever was one.
This weekend also marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht--the Night of Broken Glass. The name comes from the smashing of the windows of Jewish places of worship, homes, and shops. It signaled that the remnants of liberal democracy in Germany had been destroyed. It signaled that the country had fully become committed to a policy of anti-semitic genocide. It was the start of the Holocaust. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by speaking out against it. And Roosevelt’s administration responded by doing nothing to aid the thousands of Jews who were trying to flee to safety. The ascent of totalitarianism, the closing of borders to its refugees--crises in democracy.
And so, I picked the topic of “Democracy in Crisis” for today because I understood that whatever happened this week there would be a need to talk about the crises of democracy. Maybe this is because democracy seems to be perpetually in crisis. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed that contemporary “politics is civil war by other means.” There are no ultimate resolution to political questions. No one ever wins, not really. This group is dominant and then that. Totalitarianism seems to be defeated in one generation but comes back in the next. Political liberalism appears to offer the most stable form of contemporary government and then it seems to dissolve before waves of demagoguery. Democratic socialism, syndicalism, all the forms of the grass roots democracy surge then and disappear in a generation. There is no final outcome, only ever shifting sands.
We can see this in the United States when we look at the current political situation. As the great baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” The writer Rebecca Solnit recently published a piece in the Guardian arguing that the Civil War never ended. She wrote, “In the 158th year of the American Civil War, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” Other writers and scholars, myself included, have made similar claims.
We can also see the same dynamic at play when we look to Europe. Today Poland’s elected leaders are joining with avowed nationalists, anti-semites, and even Nazi admirers in a march in Warsaw. More than hundred thousand people are expected to attend. The anti-fascist counter protest will be much smaller. The alliance of the government of Poland with fascists is a reminder that the crisis of democracy is global.
Increasing global inequality is another reminder that the crisis of democracy transcends this country. Here in the United States more than forty years of assaults on labor rights, widespread automation, and the advent of a global integrated economy where workers from different countries directly compete against each other have had their toll. Today the richest three people in this country have more wealth than the poorest fifty percent of the population. Similar dynamics can be seen across the world. Such economic inequality is directly tied to the overall crisis of democracy.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked with you about some of the other contours of the present crisis of democracy. We spoke about how this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Last week we spoke about the possibility of the tradition of virtue ethics to help us find a way out of the crisis. Today I want to share with you another resource as we struggle to confront the crisis. It is the radical imagination.
The radical imagination... Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “Imagination is a very high sort of seeing...” The eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley asked, “Imagination! who can sing thy force?” So it should be no wonder that the contemporary poet Diane di Prima has warned us, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Even as she urged us to remember, “every man / every woman carries a firmament inside / & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky.”
The radical imagination... I want to tell you something very important. Every struggle for justice, every social movement, every attempt to make the world a better place, starts with an act of imagination. It begins with some group of people who are bold enough to imagine that the things can be different than they are.
Such imaginings can be acts of bravery. As di Prima put it, “the ground of imagination is fearlessness.” We are often told that things are what they are, they cannot be changed. And yet, things have changed. And when they have it has been because people have been willing to say, as the indigenous movement the Zapatistas have said, “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The Zapatistas represent some of the poorest of the Mexican people. Many of them live on less than a dollar a day. And yet, over the past twenty-five years they have been able to articulate a vision of a different world where “peace, justice and liberty” are common, concrete, and not abstract concepts.
The abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until their victories slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. The ancients Greek had it. Europeans enslaved each other throughout the middle ages. Slavery was practiced in Africa, in Asia, and among the indigenous nations of the Americas as well. Until 1865 slavery formed the bedrock of the United States’s economy. And yet, men and women like Frederick Douglass could imagine a day “When the accursed slave system shall once be abolished.”
Generations later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King's words, "the audacity to believe" that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of Jim Crow, the disgusting claim of “separate but equal,” have been overturned.
Susan B. Anthony and other nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminists could imagine a world in which women had equal rights with men. She could declare, “there will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Using their imagination, they were able to organize and struggle to win voting rights for women. And that at a time when many men could not imagine women as doctors, or lawyers, or religious leaders.
I could go on. I suspect that you get the point. Every struggle for justice begins with the radical imagination, the audacity to believe that the supposedly impossible will become the possible. And so, today, as democracy is in crisis, I want to give you gift. I want to give you a space to unleash your own radical imagination. I want to ask you the question, What is your vision for a just world? My friend Chris Crass has developed an exercise to help people imagine the world they would like to create.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your vision for a society where democracy is no longer in crisis? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you woke up tomorrow and democracy was no longer in crisis what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to work a month from now and found that climate change was no longer a crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Poland?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your vision. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it.
With that invitation to share your vision in mind, I close our sermon with these of words commission from our tradition:
Go out into the highways and by-ways,
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light
to the hearts and minds of all people.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage.
May it be so,
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 7, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
November is a big month for First Church. It will begin with the move of the Thoreau campus to Richmond. The campus’s new building is located on a lovely five-acre plot immediately across the street from a new housing development. It represents a real opportunity for the congregation to grow a voice for Unitarian Universalism in Fort Bend County.
The project has taken more than a year to complete. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the Rev. Dr. Dan King, Jan Elias, and Betty Johnson. Together they served as the staff and volunteer project managers. They have modeled shared ministry: staff and volunteers collaborating in service of a common vision.
The move comes at the same time that we have launched a new website and started a YouTube channel. If you haven’t seen the site yet go to http://firstuu.org/ and check it out! You’ll find a link to our YouTube channel once you get there. We’re still tweaking the website. If you find something that needs to be fixed or you think should be changed please email firstname.lastname@example.org with you comments. The website is another great example of shared ministry. Special thanks go to Betty Johnson, Ben Ochoa, and Nikki Steele for bringing the project to fruition.
My own work over the last month has largely focused on goal setting for this year of transitional ministry with the Board and the staff. I have participated in retreats with each group. The goals the Board and I set together are: work on governance; build trust within the congregation; and improve staff morale, structure, and supervision. Bob Miller has more extensive reflections on these goals in his President’s letter.
I share them because increasing communication and transparency are important parts of building trust throughout the congregation. Good communication is also essential for effective work together. Over the next few months we are hoping that the new website, as well as new social media initiatives on Twitter and Instagram, will help us to improve communication across campuses.
The biggest news on the communication front is that starting in January we will be live-streaming the sermons from Museum District to Tapestry and Thoreau. I am pretty excited about this shift. I am hoping it will allow First Church to feel like one church with three campuses rather than three separate worshipping communities as I am afraid it sometimes feels.
Writing this column has been a reminder that much of the work of an interim is internally focused on the life of the congregation. It is the work that is necessary to lay the groundwork for the ministry you will do in the future, ministry that is desperately needed to help heal our world. I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve you as you both live in this moment and prepare for what will come next.
As always, I close with a fragment of poetry, this one from Wislawa Szymborska’s “No Title Required”:
It turns out that I am, and am looking.
Above me a white butterfly flits about in the air,
his wings belonging only to him,
and through my hands, a shadow flies,
none other, no one else’s, than his own.
Facing such a view always leaves me uncertain
that the important
is more important than the unimportant.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.
Oct 29, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 29, 2018
This morning I find myself needing to give a rather different sermon than I had planned. Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the week’s bomb threats by would-be a right-wing terrorist, and the current presidential administration’s ongoing assault on truth, decency, and democratic norms require it.
Today, we need to stop and recognize where we are. Today, we need to stop and articulate who we are. Today, we need to stop and talk about what we must do.
I am going to begin my sermon by doing something that might seem a little odd to you all. I am going to take off my stole. I wear this stole as a symbol of my religious office. In our tradition it means that I am an ordained minister.
I am taking off my stole right now because I want to address you for a few minutes as something other than your minister. I recognize that is not fully possible. I am in the pulpit and, right now, I am religious leader of this congregation.
But for a little while, I want to consciously address you from another place--from another role I inhabit. I am not just a parish minister. I also a scholar. I have a PhD from Harvard University. And one of the things I specialize in is the study of white supremacist and white nationalist movements and totalitarian regimes. Just last month I gave a talk at San Francisco State University on the political ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.
And so, I want to be clear that what I about to say is not something I say lightly. I want to be clear that I say it with the full authority of someone who has spent years of his life studying the dynamics of terror, authoritarianism, and white supremacy.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. More precisely, this country is on the verge of becoming ruled by a neo-Confederate regime. In many ways, it already is one. The country has become what’s called a mixed regime. It already exhibits aspects of a totalitarianism even while it remains, formally, a liberal democracy.
I am going to talk with you about each of those claims. I want to be clear about where we are right now in the arc of human history. We cannot live authentically as a religious community if we do not recognize the context within which we live, the moment of history that we inhabit. We need to recognize where we are if we are to live our faith authentically.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality for a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power. A totalitarian state seeks global domination and total subjugation of all who live within its borders. Its leaders identify a racial or minority group who must be purged from the body politic in order for their vision of society to thrive. Totalitarian states have no respect for the rule of law. Instead, they concentrate power in the head of state.
The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt described this last dynamic most clearly when he argued, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” By this he meant, that the sovereign, the person who holds power, is inherently above the law because he is the law. Therefore, the sovereign can do nothing illegal. Since he is the law, any action he takes is fundamentally legal. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. There are clear parallels between Schmitt’s views and those of the man just confirmed as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. The newest Justice appears to believe that the President cannot be subpoenaed by employees of the Justice Department because they work for him.
This is not the only parallel to be found among right-wing partisans and totalitarian philosophers and politicians. The philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out that in order to function, totalitarian regimes have a deliberately loose relationship with the truth. She wrote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” Let me repeat that quote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” The constant cries of fake news and attacks on the press by the man who currently holds the nation’s highest office should make the dynamics Arendt describes seem familiar.
Arendt has much to teach us about what totalitarianism is and how it comes about. In her classic text, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt makes two further observations about totalitarianism. First, it is based in the politics of terror. Second, that its origins lie in antisemitism.
In a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. The threat of arbitrary violence haunts every waking. People who live under a totalitarian regime never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that regardless of who they are or what they have done they may meet a terrible end. Arendt tells us, in totalitarian regime, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” “Terror,” she warns, “strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” As I offer you those words, I want you to think about this country’s epidemic of gun violence. And I want us to pause and hold in our hearts yesterday’s eleven victims of antisemitic gun violence at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Yesterday’s attack on a synagogue would not have surprised Arendt. She understood that antisemitism was an essential element of totalitarianism. Totalitarians gain power by identifying a societal enemy, a scapegoat, on whom they can lay the blame for society’s ills. They then target those people for violent excision from society. Jews are often the scapegoats. For hundreds of years there have been those who blame a secret conspiracy of Jews for the world’s ills. This idea was at the root of Nazism. And it is present in the discourse of those contemporary politicians who seem to aspire to totalitarianism.
The Hungarian philanthropist and investment banker George Soros comes from a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust. Today, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and the current President of the United States have all attacked him for supporting progressive causes. Soros was one of the targets of this past weeks bomb threats. During the contentious struggle over the appointment of the most recent Supreme Court Justice, the President tweeted that protesters against the then nominee were “‘professionals’ who were ‘paid by (George) Soros and others.’” Yesterday, the President laughed when someone at one his rallies shouted out the word “Soros” when he “attacked ‘globalists’ who are ‘cheating’ American workers.” The word globalist, alongside the word cosmopolitan, has a history of being used as a codeword by antisemites to describe Jews.
Globalists, in totalitarian regimes, and in the narratives of men like Orban and the current US President, are in league with another enemy. For them, that enemy is migrants, the Mexicans who many fear are coming to take their jobs. Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that such narratives serve the powerful, not the weak. He writes,
I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.
Totalitarians divide society in order to preserve the privilege of the powerful. That is exactly what is happening when men like the current President attack migrants. It is also what is happening when he attacks transgender people, another favorite target of totalitarians.
When I say that this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state I have all of these dynamics in mind. A charismatic leader who feels he is above the rule of law, widespread campaigns of lies, terror, antisemitism... all of these are present in our society today.
The totalitarian state that I fear is emerging is not a generic totalitarian state. It is one rooted deeply in American culture. It is an aspiring neo-Confederate regime. Let me explain, since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.
The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.
When I label the presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The President’s most recent choice for a Supreme Court Justice and his appointment of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else.
I use the label neo-Confederate to place the presidential administration within the context of American history. I use it to remind us that this country’s rising forces of reaction are not a foreign threat. They represent a cultural and political tradition that is deeply embedded in this country. I use it to remind us that the struggle against it is not the struggle of our generation alone. It is a struggle that has been going on since the abolitionists were brave enough to imagine that this country could offer citizenship to all: black, white, male, female, transgender... It is a struggle that was at the root of the civil rights movement. And it is a struggle that continues today.
Finally, I want to turn to the claim that this country has become a mixed-regime. In some ways, the state is already functioning as a full-blown totalitarian regime. We have seen this in the caging of children at the border. We have seen it in the attack on transgender rights. We have seen it in the impunity that police officers often receive when they kill people of color. We have seen it in the way the President attacks the press as the enemy of the people. We have seen it in the way he attacks private citizens who disagree with him.
In a mixed-regime elements of multiple kinds of political systems are present. For many people of color, for many immigrants, for many transgender people, the United States is already essentially a totalitarian regime. And yet, it maintains aspects of a liberal democracy. Many of us, especially people with what one of my friends likes to call “the complexion connection,” still have the right to vote. We still have freedom of speech. We still can tell the truth. We can denounce lies. We can still feel safe in our own homes and in our places of work. Such privileges are not true for all of us. And to name that dynamic is to recognize that for many people totalitarianism has already come to the United States.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. It is on the verge of transforming into a neo-Confederate regime. For many people, it already is one.
I admit, all of this political philosophy and history is dense material for a Sunday morning. And it is not exactly a sermon fare.
And so, now, I am going to put my stole back on. And I am going to read a letter that Bob Miller and I sent this morning to the Congregation Jewish Community North, where our Tapestry campus rents space. And then I am going to invite Mark and the choir to sing to us. And then I am going to offer you a brief homily on who we are and what we must do.
Dear Rabbi Siger and Members of the Congregation Jewish Community North:
Like people of good faith everywhere, we are distressed to learn of yesterday’s attacks on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Antisemitism is a vile form of hatred. We mourn this week’s dead in Pittsburgh. We mourn all of the millions who have lost their lives over the centuries to antisemitism. We join our voices with those who denounce it. We join our hands with those who work against it. We join our hearts with those who weep at the devastation that it continues to cause.
Our Tapestry campus is honored to share space with your congregation. If there is anything we do for you please let us. This includes working with you to support any existing or future plans around security.
On behalf of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, we offer a prayer for a peaceful world free from hatred and violence.
The Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, Interim Senior Minister
Bob Miller, Board President
I would like to now invite Mark and the choir up to sing us a song they sang last week, “Al Shlosha D'varim.” As Mark told us last week, the Hebrew of this song translates, “The world is sustained by three things: by truth, by justice, and by peace.” There are no better words for times like these.
The world is sustained by truth, by justice, and by peace. Originally, I was going to offer you a sermon specifically tailored to the last days of the month and first days of next month. The end of October and the beginning of November are home to a host of holidays: Samhain, Halloween, the Day of the Dead, All Souls Day... Neo-pagan theologian Starhawk describes this time of year as when “the veils between the worlds begin to thin.” Across different cultures and religions people gather to remember ancestors, to mourn the dead, to reflect upon mortality, and consider each of our places within the cycle of life.
I do not think we need, or have time for, a full sermon in light of all I have just said. Instead, I want to relate the season’s holidays to the events of the hour. Earlier I said, it is important to recognize where we are. But that is not enough. We also need to articulate who we are and what we must do.
These are tasks for the religious community. As the President of our Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray has told us “this is no time for a casual faith or a casual commitment to your values, your community, your congregation, your soul, and your faith.” When we articulate who are and what we must do we become anything but a casual faith.
Out of respect for the season’s holidays, I want to hone in on a single aspect of who are we and what we must do. We are a community of memory. This is one of the gifts of religious community. It offers us the opportunity to take part in conversations that stretch beyond a single generation. It gives us the chance to be part of something that will survive us. It lets us find hope and wisdom in those who were here before us. In doing so, it enables us to connect to something greater than ourselves: the great flow of human history. When we do we are reminded that our own lives are transitory. Yet at the same time we are also reminded that when we die we leave much behind on this Earth. This is true for us no matter how humble or haughty we were while we trod across this muddy blue ball of a planet.
As a community of memory we describe what is and what has been. This truth telling is one of the most important functions of a religious community in these times. We are reminded of this when we read the works of someone like Anna Akhmatova, the magnificent poet who survived Stalin’s terror. In her great poem “Requiem” she reminds us that simply describing the what is of the horrors of the world is a profound act of resistance. Writing of her time in a gulag, she recounts a conversation she had with another inmate:
“‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered - ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.”
As a community of memory our church exists across time, across the generations. There is a story that preachers like to tell about how participating in such a community can draw us out of the private pains of our own lives and connect with us the justice, the peace, and the truth that sustain the world.
The story is about the Cathedral of Chartes. It is in France, located a bit South of Paris. It is considered one of the true treasures of the world, the sort of thing that inspires flights of poetry and stirrings of the soul. The stained glass, I have read, is particularly beautiful. Edith Warton captured something of it in her poem “Chartes:”
Immense, august, like some Titanic bloom,
The mighty choir unfolds its lithic core,
Petalled with panes of azure, gules and or,
Splendidly lambent in the Gothic gloom,
And stamened with keen flamelets that illume
The pale high-altar.
Like many a medieval cathedral, it took years to build. Many of the people who started building it died before it was completed. Or they began working on the church when they were young adults and finished when they were grandparents.
One day, in the middle of the construction, the story goes, a traveler came to Chartes. She went to the site as the day was winding down. She asked one worker, covered in dust, what he did. He was a stonemason. She asked the next. He said he was a glassblower. She asked another, a blacksmith.
As the traveler walked into the cathedral’s interior she encountered a woman with a broom. She was sweeping up the chips of stone from the stonemason. She was cleaning up the cast aside incandescent filaments from the glassblower. She was picking up fragments of iron left behind by the blacksmith. The traveler asked the woman what she was doing. She paused. She leaned on her broom. She looked around her at the columns without roofs, at the windows without panes, at the floors without flagstones, and said, “Me? I’m building a cathedral for the Glory of God Almighty.”*
Unitarian Universalists do not generally build cathedrals for the Glory of God Almighty. There are a few exceptions: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple outside of Chicago; Albert Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester; Universalist Memorial Church in Washington, DC... The best parts of our tradition have done something else. They have sought to maintain the human in the face of the demonic. They have struggled against the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. They have sought to build the better world, the world that is always almost come but never quite here. Women and men like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Ellen Watkins, James Luther Adams, and, today, Mark Morrison-Reed, and Susan Frederick-Gray have repeatedly called out from the depths of our tradition to remind us that we are at our most human when we are seekers of truth, peace, and justice.
Their teachings are a gift we have given the world. It is the cathedral we have sought to build, generation-to-generation, metaphoric stone by metaphoric stone. It is incomplete. What we are called to do today is to do our part, contribute our bit, to this great work of sustaining the world through truth, justice, and peace. On a day like today, we honor the ancestors, the Theodore Parkers and Elizabeth Peabodys, the Sophia Fahses and the Clarence Skinners, who have gone before. We remember the dead of this congregation. The women and men who sustained it in previous generations. They sustained it, in part, so that we could contribute our own bricks to the great cathedral of justice. Adorn Strambler, Sarah Nelson Crawford, and John Kellet, none of whom I knew, helped to make this community what it is: a community of devoted to love and justice sustained across time in pursuit of peace and truth. When we gather we honor them. When we gather we unite with many who have gone before and contributed to the great struggles that we now find ourselves engaged in.
Now, the scholar in me wants to offer a footnote about how this is not all of our tradition, or even the majority of it. I could point that out the white supremacist John C. Calhoun, the man who the historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the Marx of the master class,” was a Unitarian. But I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to again say that this is the best part of our tradition. It is the part of the tradition that we are called to honor. And it is a tradition that teaches that one of our most radical acts is simply to assert our own humanity in the face of dehumanizing totalitarianism.
Friends, in times like these, we are called to speak truth,
we are called to work for justice,
to sit down,
to be cogs in the wheels of the machine
that would crush the human from the earth.
But we are called to much more than that,
we are called to be human,
to delight in the unseasonal sun,
to laugh with our friends,
to celebrate vegetable gardens,
to pet dogs,
to love each other.
it is this common human decency,
that will save us from all of the terror
that we face.
It is common human decency,
the sense that we are all part of the same human family,
that each of us deserves respect,
that each of us is worthy of love,
that we strive to protect
in these difficult times.
And so, I say, today,
if you feel overwhelmed,
as I do,
by the rising madness of it all,
let us remember
that it is important to march,
but it is more important
to simply embrace the human in each other
to see the pain and the joy
in each other’s faces.
It is by being human with each other
that we will ultimately live into a world
where truth, justice, and peace,
and the terror of totalitarianism
has become but a memory,
echoing in the past.
As I close I invite you to join with me a simple prayer:
Oh, spirit of life,
that some call God,
and others name,
be with each of us,
as we struggle to see the human in each other,
and remind us,
that in our human hands
and our human hearts
lies the power
and the hope that we are looking for,
the power to embrace our loves
and the power to change the world for the better.
And before the congregation says Amen,
I invite you into a minute of silence,
to honor the dead,
to consider our own place in the work
of building the cathedral of justice,
and to contemplate all that has been said.
We descend into silence with the hope that our sermon,
with all its many imperfections,
has done its own small work in building
the cathedral of justice.
There will now be a minute of silence.
Now, let the congregation say Amen.
* This version of the story is partially drawn from Robert Fulghum, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It” (New York: Random House, 1988), 74-75.
Oct 24, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 21, 2018
It has been a little while since I have been with you all. It is good to be back in this pulpit. The last couple of weeks I have been off leading worship at First Church’s smaller campuses: Tapestry and Thoreau. Ministering to a multi-site congregation is new experience for me. And it is still something that I am trying to figure out. My sense is that you are also uncertain about what it means to be one church in three locations.
Visiting Spring, where Tapestry is, Stafford, where Thoreau is right now, and Richmond, where Thoreau is moving to, has helped me to get a better sense of the individual needs, cultures, and aspirations of your campuses. My visits with the other two Houston area campuses suggested to me that as a congregation you are collectively struggling with the question: Who are we?
Who are we? It is not an unexpected question during a period of ministerial transition. A lot of congregational identity is formed around a congregation’s senior minister. And the departure of one often brings congregations to struggle with their identities, to ask, who are we?
Who are we? is a deeply religious question. Rephrased as who am I or who are you it is probably the most fundamental question there is. And it is a far from an easy question to answer. There are scriptures recording both the Buddha and Jesus kind of dodging the question.
In the Dona Sutta the Buddha and a brahman, or priest, engage in a discourse over the Buddha’s identity. The brahman asks the Buddha if he is one of the various kinds of divine beings that inhabit Hindu cosmology. You will have to excuse my Pali I as reconstruct the dialogue.
“Master,” say brahman, “are you a deva?”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva,” replies the Buddha.
“Are you a gandhabba?”
“... a yakkha?”
“... a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
Clearly growing frustrated, the brahman queries, “Then what sort of being are you?”
To this question the Buddha gives the sort of long answer that you might anticipate from a prophet or great teacher. He explains why he is not this or that. He gives a discourse on how he has overcome the world. And then finally, he gives his answer:
Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
In the Christian New Testament Jesus is even more cryptic than the Buddha. Instead of answering the question himself he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” His disciples answer the Messiah. He then says that he’s the son of man. Elsewhere he gives different information saying that he is the son of God or the Christ. But he’s never really clear on his answer to the question, Who are you?
He is so unclear that for the last two millennium people have been debating Jesus’s answer to the question: Who are you? The Jesus that many people think they know comes a specific set of texts that were culled from much larger set. The canonical gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are often interpreted as portraying Jesus as Lord and Savior in a unique way. The non-canonical gospels, texts like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary, are more easily interpreted as portraying differently Jesus. Scholar Elaine Pagels advises us that “these texts speak of illusion and enlightenment... Instead of coming to save us from sin, [Jesus] comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.”
Who are you? When it came to Jesus, at first the early Christian church permitted people to have many answers to the question. And they argued about their answers fiercely. Three hundred years after Jesus’s execution, Gregory of Nyssa recorded that these disputes were all consuming:
Ask the price of bread today and the baker tells you: “The son is subordinate to the father.” Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he makes an answer: “The son arose out of nothing.”
Theologically orthodox Christians eventually settled the debate by proclaiming Jesus the son of God and inventing the trinity. They then kicked everyone out of the church who did not agree with them.
In giving his ambiguous answer to the question, Who are you?, I rather suspect that Jesus was intentionally being slippery. He probably would have been disappointed to learn that the church had fixed his identity and required people to believe certain things about him. He might have also hinted that asking the question, Who are you?, is more productive than coming up with a permanent answer to it. We humans change a lot over the course of our lives. I am a different person today than I was at seven, or fourteen, or twenty-eight. When I moved out of my parents house, I became a somewhat different person. When I became a parent, I changed. The same is true for you. The place you are in the cycle of life shapes will shape your answer to the question. So will your family of origin, your occupation, the city in which you live... The same is true for religious communities as well. And I will talk about that more in a bit.
Right now, let me say, I am not surprised about the Buddha and Jesus’s evasive approaches to the question of identity for it resonates with me on a personal level. Who are you?, is a question we ministers do not like. Robert Fulghum is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the author of the well-known, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He has a whole shtick about how he has answered this question when approached by strangers on planes. He has told them he was a janitor and a neurosurgeon. Once he refused to answer the question at all but invited his seatmate to play a game with him. They would each make up what they did for a living and then play pretend. Fulghum’s seatmate declared he was a spy. Fulghum decided to be a nun.
Eventually, Fulghum admits, he grew somewhat frustrated with the question. He started responding by invoking the great artist Marcel Duchamp. When asked who he was Duchamp would reply, “I am a respirateur (a breather).” Breathing is what he spent most of his time doing so he figured it defined who he was. Plus, Fulghum points out, breathing is more about being a human and less about being defined by what you do for a living. And so often when we ask someone who they are we anticipate an answer that is closely tied to their occupation.
I will admit that when asked who I am, I sometimes try to avoid the question too. Telling people that you are a minister can make for fairly awkward, or intense, conversation at parties. People usually want to skip the small talk and get straight to something serious. What do I think about the nature of God? Does the good really exist? Do I have thoughts on the Arminian controversy? I imagine that last one is something I probably won’t be asked outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, still, sometimes I just want to talk about my kids, or my cat, or the fact that I am really excited that the farmers market near my house has squash blossoms and they’re one of my favorite foods and I couldn’t get them the entire six years I lived in Boston. Or mushrooms... I really like mushrooms. Actually, I once preached a whole sermon on how much I like mushrooms.
Who are you? When religious communities try to answer this question, it can make them uncomfortable for all of the same reasons why it makes us as individuals uncomfortable. We do not like to be fixed, defined, as this or that. And we change. The way members of First Church answer our question will be somewhat different today than it was ten years ago or twenty years or fifty years ago.
In answering this question, I think First Church has a particular challenge. After having visited all three of your Houston area campuses I rather suspect that if I asked the members of each campus, Who are you?, I would get different sets of answers.
This is reflected in the reality that all three of your campuses have different histories. If I was to ask the members at Thoreau who their most important ministers had been they would probably tell me: Leonora Montgomery, Bill Clark, Paul Beedle, and Bonnie Vegiard. Tapestry has been largely lay-led. Its members would likely tell me Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Here at Museum District, I suspect you might name Bob Schaibly, Gail Marriner, Jose Ballaster, and Daniel O’Connell. Maybe someone would mention Webster Kitchell or Horace Westwood.
There is no simple through line that unites all of the histories of your campuses. Is there a clear through line that unites your cultures? My visits to Tapestry and to Thoreau have given me the impression that both have the feel of small lay led fellowships. Museum District here has been on the cusp of becoming a large church for many years.
Who are you? is probably hard for you to answer in part because your model is unique within Unitarian Universalism. There are only about four other congregations that practice multi-site ministry. And they each practice it differently.
The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, for example, has two campuses are separated by about ten minutes. Each week they hold an identical service at each campus. The services are two hours apart. Shortly after completing the first the minister gets into a car, sometimes followed by the choir, and dashes from one campus to the other.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego also has two campuses. The majority of the congregation gathers at their downtown campus for English language services. Another group gathers at their second campus for bilingual English and Spanish services. The congregation has three full-time ministers. They take turns leading the worship at the two campuses.
The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque calls their smaller campuses branches. They livestream their sermons to small groups of Unitarian Universalists throughout New Mexico who do not have a congregation nearby.
Only the First Unitarian Church of Rochester has a model somewhat similar to yours. They provide the staff for a nearby smaller congregation. Unlike your model, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua have remained separate legal entities.
Who are you? One of your challenges as a congregation is trying to figure out if you want to answer this question as individual campuses or as a collective entity. Maybe you want to answer the question as both individual campuses and as a united congregation. Maybe not. Maybe you need a single answer that stretches across all of your campuses.
It is not for me to tell you. As your interim senior minister, it is my job to help you ask the right questions so that you can chart your path forward as you prepare for your next ministry. By raising these questions, I hope to help you get some clarity about where you have been and where you might go. I want them to be the right questions, the kind of questions that generate thoughtful conversation and deep reflection about that essential question, Who are you?
My approach to this question is mirrored in our poem from earlier this morning, an untitled piece by the Spaniard Antonio Machado:
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.
The poem suggests that life is a path upon which we trod with no direction, no meaning, except the one we give it. The road we travel is not something someone else has laid before us. It is our road and we create it as we move, leaving only the echo, only the wake, behind us, not a clear map for someone else to follow.
The poem inspired a famous dialogue between the two educators Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Horton was a civil rights hero who taught figures like Rosa Parks, Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, Septima Clark, and John Lewis something about organizing. Freire was a Brazilian teacher who spent many years working on adult literacy for his country’s poor and disenfranchised. They both believed that education, and life, is not a process which leads to final answers. Instead, they thought education is a collaborative process between student and teacher where each is a learner co-creating knowledge with the other.
They adapted the phrase “we make the road by walking” from Machado poem’s because it suggested to them that the journey, the process, was the destination. No one is ever finished with their education. Just as, if we are honest, no congregation, and no person, should ever have a permanent answer to the question, Who are you?
As members of a congregation, we commit to travel along the metaphoric road of life together. And as members of an experiment in multi-site ministry, you have committed to traveling together not just as not as a single community but as three commingled communities. This is not all that different from the life of other large congregations. In fact, it is not that different from what we find here at the Museum District if we looked within. The choir and the religious education program each form their own distinct communities within the larger tapestry that is the life of the Museum District campus.
Museum District’s choir, its religious education program, Tapestry, Thoreau... each community within the congregation is going to have different answers to the question: Who are we? The challenge you face is finding answers to the question that unite all of your communities.
There are many ways you might seek the answers to this question. You might, as we will be doing during our time together, ask other questions, questions that prompt you to explore your deepest values. What do you love? Why are you here? What is your mission to the world? What values do you want to pass along to the next generation?
You might also seek counsel from others. In some sense, that is my role as your interim, to offer you my perspective, my advice, on ways to pursue the question, Who are you? during your time of ministerial transition. You may seek guidance from the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association or from other congregations that have experimented with multi-site ministry.
Marilyn Sewell was the senior minister of First Unitarian Portland for close to twenty years. During her time there the congregation grew to be well over a thousand members. She advises however we answer the question, Who are you? we ground ourselves “in love and service.” For this is what Unitarian Universalism ultimately has to offer the world: A message that we are called to love everyone--that is extend universal goodwill to all--and labor together and make our society, and our planet, better.
That message is an important one in the challenging days in which we find ourselves. The midterm elections are upon us. They are time when voters collectively attempt to answer the question, Who are we? as a country. This is not a question with final answers. It is one that shifts over time. This should be a comfort to us as we face the disappointment and the horrors of recent years. Our religious tradition tells us that is no one fixed answer to who a country, a religious community, or a person--be they First Church, the United States, Jesus or Buddha, you or I--are across time. Instead, it suggests that our answers are ever changing. We travel along in the path of life seeking justice, and creating a shared congregational life, uncertain of our exact answers because that is the only thing that has ever happened. The road is always made as we travel. We answer the question, Who are we? as we go.
As we close, I invite you to join with me in prayer:
Oh spirit of life,
that some of us call God,
and others name simply
as the force that drives life forward,
be with us in times of uncertainty,
remind us that while the path
may be unclear,
the road uncertain,
it is still our path
our track to travel,
and that we travel it better
where we are,
as a community of seekers
united in a quest
for truth and justice,
joy and beauty.
That it might be so, let the congregation say Amen.
Oct 23, 2018
as offered at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 21, 2018
This past week,
the Catholic Church,
canonized Oscar Romero,
the Archbishop of El Salvador,
who was gunned down for speaking out
against his society’s violence
and the violence of right-wing death squads.
Romero reminded us,
“There are many things that can
only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
He reminded us,
that religious communities are at their best
not when they serve the rich and powerful,
but when they listen to the voices
at the margins:
the poor, the oppressed, migrants,
refugees, the targets of police violence,
the children who suffer from war,
anyone targeted by societal violence
for who they are
or who they love,
anyone who suffers from the devastation of climate change.
My prayer for us this morning,
my prayer for us this day,
as we live in a world
where authoritarian regimes
murder journalists in consulates,
where climate change denial is practiced by the powerful,
where people seeking hope
and enough food for their families
are turned away
from the richest country
that has ever existed in human history,
my prayer for us,
is that we will see through eyes that have cried
and that one day,
and the world’s leaders will do so as well.
In the hopes that
we all learn to see the pain
in each other’s eyes,
I say Amen.
Oct 8, 2018
As part of my work with the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, I am helping with their social media strategy. So, we've expanded the congregation's presence to YouTube. A podcast of sermons from the Museum District should be coming soon as well. In the meantime, you can watch me, the Rev. Dr. Dan King, and all our guest preachers on YouTube!
Oct 3, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
The past couple of months I have enjoyed getting to know many of you and getting a sense of the culture of your congregation. Thus far, I have spent my time at the Museum District campus. That’s going to change in October. I’ll be leading worship at the Thoreau and Tapestry campuses as well. I will be preaching at Thoreau on October 7th and at Tapestry on October 14th. I will be back in the Museum District pulpit on October 21st and then preaching there again on October 28th when we celebrate the combined holidays of Halloween, Samhain, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
The theme for the month of October is spiritual practices. October is also the month leading up to the election. My services for the month will revolve around equipping us as a religious community to weather what is already proving to be an incredibly contentious political season. The service I will be leading at all three campuses is called “We Make The Road By Walking.” Its title comes from a dialogue between the great practitioners of liberation education Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. It will be a chance to reflect upon how we can collectively engage in spiritual practices to nourish us as we struggle for social change. My October 28th Museum District service is called “Collective Memory.” In it we will examine how the development of a shared story is a form of spiritual practice that helps to maintain our families and our institutions across time.
Over the next several months some of my work as your interim will focus on congregational assessment. I plan to help give you a sense of where, as a religious community, you have been, where you are now, and where you might go. My work on congregational assessment will culminate in an assessment report that I will share with you after the congregational meeting. As part of my assessment work, I am interviewing members of the congregation. I will be conducting interviews between now and the end of March. I am approaching some of you directly about being interviewed. If I don’t approach you and you would like to be interviewed please contact Jon Naylor. He will arrange an appointment for us.
Another thing I will be doing in the coming months is working to strengthen your connection to the broader Unitarian Universalist movement. To that end, I am excited to announce three guests who will be gracing the Museum District pulpit between now and the end of January. On October 7th, the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith will lead worship. He is a member of the Southern Region staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Then on December 16th, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, will be with us. And, on January 6th, the Rev. Dr. Joanne Braxton is coming. Dr. Braxton is currently serving as a minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC and was, for many years, the founding director of the College of William and Mary Africana Studies Program’s Middle Passage Project.
I want to share with you that as part of my own service to the Unitarian Universalist movement, I continue to be an active scholar. This past month I gave at talk at San Francisco State University on “The Constitution in the Imagination of the Second Ku Klux Klan.” This spring I will be giving the 2019 Minns lectures on Unitarian Universalism and American Populism. The Minns lectures are a longstanding annual series in Boston that serve “as a source of creative theological and religious advancement.” Over the years some of the most significant thinkers within our movement have delivered them. These include names that might be familiar to some of you such as Rosemarie Bray-McNatt, A. Powell Davies, James Luther Adams, and Mark Morrison-Reed. While I am here in Houston I hope to have the opportunity to share some of my scholarly work with all of you.
I close with two brief poems from Japan. In keeping with this month’s worship theme, they each reflect something of own spiritual practices:
The fireflies’ light.
How easily it goes on
How easily it goes out again.
While I meditated
on that theme
~ Fukuda Chiyo-ni
Oct 2, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 30, 2018
We begin this morning’s sermon with a fancy word, soteriology. Soteriology is probably not a term that is familiar to most of you. In theological discourse it signifies the study of salvation. Salvation, that is what I want to talk with you about today.
Salvation, just by mentioning that word I suspect that a few of you are now glancing around for the exits. You might be wondering if you wandered into the wrong church. Salvation is not a word you hear used in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. It might even be a triggering word for those of you who came to Unitarian Universalism from a more conservative evangelical faith.
Salvation is a concept that permeates most other religious communities. Our friends the evangelical Christians have a salvation story. They want you to join their churches so you can be saved from sin through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our Muslim friends teach that you must be believe in God if you wish to enter heaven. Our Jewish friends tell us that God will someday redeem the world. Buddhism and Hinduism, in their various forms, instruct that it is possible to reach an enlightened state and escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus... The philosopher Josiah Royce claimed that salvation narratives are fundamental to the religious community. Writing in the early twentieth-century, using the highly gendered language of his day, he claimed that humanity was in need of salvation based on two ideas. “The first,” he argued, “is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims... The other idea is this: That man as he is now is... in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render his whole life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of his true goal.”
Royce’s convoluted prose might be rephrased as this: There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it.
I want to ask you something: Why are you here? I mean, why are you actually here at the First Unitarian Universalist Church? And why are we here? Why do we gather Sunday after Sunday? Why do we devote our time and our money to maintain this institution? Why do we care about hospitality, the radical act of welcoming the stranger into our community?
I am not going to answer those questions. I am going to tell you a story. It is not my story. It comes from the historian of Christianity Elaine Pagels. Like many scholars of religion, Pagels long had a tenuous relationship with congregational life. Which is to say, despite devoting her life to studying Christianity she did not go to church very often.
This changed “a bright Sunday morning” when she “stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up.” She was “startled” by her response to the service that was underway. The choir moved her. The prayer of “the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments” grounded her. And she thought, “Here is a family that knows how to face death.”
Pagels was in the midst of a deep crisis. Her two-and-a-half-year-old son had just been diagnosed with a fatal illness. She had gone for a morning run and left him in the loving arms of his father. And she found herself in church. She writes, “Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a ... community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”
She continues, “...the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt... In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible.”
Pagels came to church that day because she was in the midst of one of the most profound crises that any of us can face: her child was going to die. She came by accident, not knowing what she was seeking, looking for meaning, for comfort, in an unfriendly universe.
Why did you come here the first Sunday you came? Was it seeking comfort? Hope? Bright uplift from the wallows of despair? Or did something else bring you here? An escape from the weight of human loneliness? A desire for a religious home for your family?
These questions loop back to Josiah Royce’s claim about salvation as the heart of the religious experience. Making sense of despair, or recognizing that despair makes no sense, brushes up against whatever it is that is the purpose behind life.
It could be that there is some great purpose which will allow us to transcend our despair. That, as we read in 1 Peter 3:4, “we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.”
It might be that this purpose is that there and completely undecipherable. Forty-two, that is the answer to the query, “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” found in Douglas Adams’s novel “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” It is an answer. It does not make any sense.
Alternatively, it might be there is no purpose to life, no meaning to despair, beyond what we give it. The ancient Greek Glykon may have been right when he wrote:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens.
Or he might have been mistaken. After all, many people--myself, Elaine Pagels...--have had moments in their lives when we have experienced a profound sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. An instant when we find ourselves startled with a realization and exclaim, as did denise levertov,
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
The dance floor sways. New life comes into being. Glossy orange squash blossoms cast a translucent sparkle on the market table. Rain arrives in an unexpected torrent. That new friend, that other accident of being, stumbles into your life at precisely the perfect time. Or, like Pagels, you find yourself caught at the edge of the desperation, maybe even on the precipice of unbeing. But then something opens up, the purpose of life flickers into view, and we mumble, with Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
When this happens then we might find ourselves agreeing with Royce that there is a purpose to life, and that we are ever in danger of missing it.
Unitarian Universalism has been called a faith without certainty. We gather as a religious community willing to be humble in discerning the purpose of life. The covenant that is our Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles does not promise that there is a purpose to life. It does not offer us a salvation narrative, not even in the Roycean sense. It just binds us together in “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
This statement is an admission that we agree to seek the purpose of life together even if we cannot agree on the nature of that purpose. When we speak of hospitality we mean, in part, that we are a religious home for those who are willing to admit that it might be impossible to ever completely decipher the purpose of life. This is a position of humility. And it allows us to say, with the President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray:
If you are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist,
a theist or an atheist,
you are welcome here.
We can extend hospitality to all these theological viewpoints because we are willing to embrace uncertainty. To rephrase our friend, we say, “The purpose of life you find might be different than the one I find. But we can each gain something from our conversation. So, come, let us seek it together.”
Such a statement summarizes one Unitarian Universalist view of salvation. But it does not offer the totality of our soteriology. Here we might turn to the Unitarian Universalist minister Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley for guidance. She tells, “If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.”
This is a social view of salvation. It suggests that we do not find the purpose of life on our own. We find it, together, in community. You may come here with your pain. And I may bring mine. When we gather we might find it is easier to face pain. Sometimes, we even discover something more than that. Sometimes, we discover that we can do something about the world’s pain. Sometimes, we discover that by coming together we can change the world.
The Unitarian Universalist social view of salvation teaches us that we are collectively stronger than we are on our own. Here I want to share an illustration, perhaps inappropriate to this pulpit, that I learned from an old union buddy of mine. He used it in union organizing campaigns. And he learned from an aged radical, someone who was in their nineties in the 1990s and who had taken part in some of the great labor strikes of the 1930s.
My buddy would go talk to this sage, hoary with the scars of struggle, from time to time. And this old man would share stories. At the conclusion of each one he would turn to my buddy and tell him, “Remember, the working class is like a hand. Each finger is weak by itself. But you unite them and them form a fist.”
I warned you. Maybe not the perfect sermon illustration for your pulpit. But it is a tactile reminder of the point: We are more capable of changing the world when we come together. Indeed, we understand that the only way to change the world is by acting together.
Congregations like this one offer us unique possibilities for uniting in the work of changing the world. There is a story about congregational life that demonstrates this that I learned years ago when I was a member of a congregation that placed social justice at the center of its life. Many of the stalwarts of the community were longtime veterans of justice work. They had participated in the civil rights movement. They had marched against wars. They had been pioneers in the women’s rights movement, in the labor movement, and in the environmental movement.
A couple of the older members had turned civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. It gave their lives a great sense of meaning. This was a small congregation and it practiced joys and concerns. Each Sunday members were invited to get up and share some of the sorrow and some of the gladness in their hearts. One Sunday, one of the civil disobedience practitioners got up in front of the congregation. He wanted to share that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time.
The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin. He had been arrested with another member of the congregation, his longtime friend Elwood. Elwood’s health was precarious. He suffered from Parkinsons. He was then at a point where he was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he had wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put an execution hood of Elwood, strapped him in place, and lifted him into the middle of the street, blocking the entrance of San Quentin.
Sometime, later at Elwood's trial, the judge threw out the charges. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. In the judge’s reasoning, this meant that Elwood could not be held responsible for blocking traffic.
I love this story. It illustrates the Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation at its best. We come together to accomplish things that we cannot do on our own. And we act from a faith that the world could be different than it is. And we do so with a knowledge that our individual actions may never tip the balance but that someday, somehow, our collective efforts might just do the trick. California still practices the death penalty. Hal and Elwood are long gone. But whenever their old state finally ends capital punishment they will have played some small part in the struggle.
Our view of social salvation is not unlike the old union song in our hymnal:
Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
This understanding of social salvation gives me comfort in difficult times. What about you? Sharing such a message is one way we practice hospitality. I recognize that we live at time when it is easy to give into despair. And that many people are coming to Unitarian Universalist congregations right now for hope. And they are seeking not just hope that their own lives might resonate with some deeper purpose. They are seeking hope that the world could be different than it is. For the news of the week seems ever bleak.
This seems especially true of this past week. And now I am going to talk about something that might be especially upsetting for many of you. The current nominee for the Supreme Court stands accused of a pattern of misogyny. Three separate women have come forward and claimed he tried to sexually assault them. And yet, unless something changes, he appears poised to ascend to the highest court in the land. The shaming of women, the shaming of survivors of sexual assault, the claim that “boys will be boys,” the attacks on the integrity of his primary accuser, the blatant misogyny of one of the major political parties, all collect into a stark reminder that this country has changed little in the last twenty-seven years. And that this country is systematically unsupportive of survivors of sexual assault. And that it values the privileges of powerful, mostly white, men over those of everyone else.
Our Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation tells us that things can be different. We recognize that the world’s problems have their social dimensions. If sexual assault is to be addressed and men like the current Supreme Court nominee held accountable, then the culture must change. We have power to change that culture, even if it takes us beyond my lifetime, beyond your lifetime, beyond the lifetimes of any of our children, to do so.
Almost two centuries ago, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled the United States trying to learn something about this country. The result was a book called “Democracy in America.” One of the core observations that Tocqueville made in his book was that American society is a network of little groups that people join voluntarily. These voluntary associations were, he felt, the root of democratic practice in this country. Participation in religious communities, in civic associations, in professional groups, in labor unions... This was where people learned democratic habits which he called habits of the heart.
Change these habits and you change the country. That is a Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation. And it means that no matter how despairing we might be about the current political landscape we can always work to change our own community. We do so with the knowledge that we are participating in the difficult work of making the world better. We can teach our children about consent knowing that in our actions we are making a small contribution to changing the culture of the next generation. We can ensure that our congregations are safe spaces for women and survivors of sexual assault. We can do so with the knowledge that by opening up one such safe space we can help make room for others. And when we do this we can admit that we are imperfect, caught in the same culture that has offered immunity to men like the potential Supreme Court justice. And that it is by changing ourselves that we can begin to change the world.
This is part of our mission to proclaim to the world a greater love. It falls alongside our obligation to be a community where people can seek the purpose of life. Sharing both forms of salvation—individual and social—is why we practice hospitality.
And whether you pursue both individual and social salvation, or only find that you need one, you are welcome here. Such a vision is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist hospitality and, with it, our understanding of salvation, our soteriology.
In the spirit of welcome,
in pursuit of the higher purpose of life,
gathered for the work of social salvation,
let the congregation say, “Amen.”
Oct 1, 2018
Over the last couple of years, in quite different contexts, I have heard the claim that the average length of a Unitarian Universalist ministry is now about seven years. I am not sure where this number comes from, but I have heard from search committee members, members of congregations that I am serving, academics, and UUA staff. My gut has told me that it is a meaningless number. That it might be true that the average length of a ministry is seven years across congregations of all sizes but that the claim would not hold up under a more fine-grained analysis. Comparing congregations of all sizes, I thought, is probably comparing apples to oranges rather than apples to apples. And so, I decided to dig into the data a bit to see what I could come up with. It turns at that the claim that the average length of ministry is seven years across all congregations is a good example of the old truism, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It is probably a true statement, but it doesn’t actually give us any useful information.
I am currently serving as the interim senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston. It is a congregation of, as of today, 449 members. It is a multi-site congregation with 353 members at its largest campus, the Museum District, and 37 and 59 members at each of its smaller two campuses (Tapestry and Thoreau, respectively). So, I thought a good test of the claim that the average ministry lasts seven years could be done by looking at four different data sets. The first was of the ten congregations nearest in size to all of First Church. The second was of the ten congregations nearest in size to the Museum District campus. The third was of the ten congregations nearest in size to Thoreau (the larger of the two smaller campuses). And the last, an additional point of interest, was looking at the ten largest congregations within the Association. Here’s what I found*:
Data Set 1 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to First Church)
This data set begins with the First Unitarian Church of Providence and ends with the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, MA. The average ministerial tenure for this set of congregations is at least 14 years. The longest tenure of a minister still serving is 35 years (Baton Rouge, LA). The shortest recent tenure of a completed ministry is 4 years (Burlington, VT). The median tenure for a ministry is at least 13 years.
Data Set 2 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to the Museum District Campus)
This data set begins with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair and ends with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa. It should end with the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. However, I wasn’t able to find information on the ministerial tenure of the last minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo and so I had to expand the data set by one. Three of these congregations are currently being served by developmental ministers. Several of them have also recently undergone ministerial transitions.
Among these congregations the average ministerial tenure is at least 11 years. The longest tenure of a minister of a minister still serving is 13 years (Morristown, NJ). The shortest recent tenure is 5 years (San Francisco and Greenville, SC). The median tenure is at least 11 years.
Data Set 3 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to the Thoreau Campus)
This data set begins with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Idaho Falls and ends with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Norway (Maine). Three of these congregations are lay led. Of the remaining seven, the average ministerial tenure is 9 years and the median tenure is 7 years. Almost all of these congregations have gone through ministerial transitions recently and so the longest serving minister currently at one of them has only been there for six years. The recently retired minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine (Maine) left after 22 years.
Data Set 4 (Ten Largest Congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association)
This data set begins with All Souls, Tulsa and ends with the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque. Several of these congregations are in the middle of long-term ministries. I decided not to go back and research all of their ministerial histories. When the tenure of the senior was less than ten years I used the tenure of the previous minister instead of the tenure of the current minister.
The average ministerial tenure is 21 years and the median tenure is 19 years. The longest ministry of someone currently serving one of these congregations is 19 years (University Unitarian (Seattle)) although the senior minister of First Madison just retired after 30 years. The shortest recent tenure I could find was 9 years. In addition, the average tenure of ministers in these congregations is almost certainly significantly longer than 21 years since the ministers of two the tenures I included (Tulsa and Washington, DC) are both in their late forties or early fifties.
The only congregations that I looked in which the median ministerial tenure is seven years are those with about 60 members. Congregations of larger sizes all had significantly longer ministerial tenures. This suggests to me that when I am in conversations with people about ministerial tenure I will be careful to suggest they think about the tenure of a ministry at a similarly sized congregation rather than making a more generalized statement. Congregational systems theory has long claimed that congregations of different sizes behavior differently. An examination of ministerial tenure of congregations of different sizes is further evidence for that claim.
*A note on my method
All of my data is derived from the UUA’s list of certified congregations for 2018 and its directory of religious professionals. The exception to this is the membership statistics for First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston. The length of tenure is for most cases the tenure of either the current minister or, in the case where the congregation is in transition, the tenure of the most recently departed minister. The exception to this is where the current minister has been at the congregation for less than five years. In those instances, I have gone with the tenure of the prior ministry.
Sep 25, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 23, 2018
This month our theme in worship is hospitality. For Unitarian Universalists hospitality, or radical inclusivity, is at the core of our theological vision. This congregation’s decision to desegregate in 1954 was a decision to be radically inclusive. You were the first historically white church in Houston to make such a decision. More recently, your decision to become a Welcoming Congregation was an act of radical inclusivity. You made an intentional choice to be a religious home for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
The decisions to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation were not political decisions. Instead, they came from the radical love found at the core of our universalist heritage. Universalism is a form of dissident Christianity that claims that God so loves the world that she cannot condemn any person to eternal suffering in Hell. Not one single person. Not you. Not me. Not anyone. Universalism teaches that God loves everyone, no exceptions.
There’s a fragment of a poem from the poet Edwin Markham that captures something of Universalism’s sentiment of radical inclusivity. It reads:
He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.
The second circle is the wider circle. The wider circle is the circle of care and concern, the circle of love, that somehow, impossibly, is so wide that it takes in even the enemy. It takes in even the person who sought to cast the speaker out. The wider circle is a wonderful metaphor for the theology that inspired your commitments to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. These were acts of radical inclusivity.
Radical inclusivity might sound like an intimidating phrase. It need not be. At its core it is a simple idea. It is creating a community to welcome the stranger. It is getting to know each other. It is recognizing the human in the other. It is like “The Rabbi’s Gift,” our story from earlier. Something profound happens when we realize that each person in the world, you, and me, and all the people outside of this sanctuary, is equally a child of universe. We all contain “the likeness to God,” as foundational Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing told us. We all have something to teach each other about living amid the maddening rush of abrupt rain, piercing sunlight, and generative ground that form life’s tapestry.
Radical inclusivity is a recognition of this truth. It need not be hard. It can be something as simple as introducing yourself to someone else. There used to be a button floating around Unitarian Universalist communities that made this point. “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another,” it read. Today, after the service, you can commit this radical act. You can walk up to someone you do not know and say, “Hello.” Who knows what marvels you might open up by meeting someone not already in your circle?
Meeting someone not already in your circle... Here is an odd thing about interim ministry: When a congregation calls a settled minister the congregation and the minister take time getting to know each other. The minister meets with the search committee for a full weekend. The search committee agrees upon a candidate. And then the candidate comes and spends an entire week with the congregation. At the end of the week, the congregation holds a vote to decide on whether or not they want to call the minister.
The process that led to my coming to Houston was more abbreviated. It was facilitated through the Unitarian Universalist Association’s interim matchmaking process. I was hired by the Board rather than called by the congregation. This is a drawn-out admission that you did not have much of an opportunity to get to know me before I appeared in your pulpit at the beginning of August. We should fix that. If I am going to suggest that you introduce yourselves to people you do not know then I should let you get to know me a bit better. I should say, “Hello.”
There is a meme floating around the internet that is popular in my circles. I thought it would serve as a nice introduction. It is on the front of your order of service. It is a Venn Diagram of the ways preachers, DJs, and bank robbers overlap. They each urge people to “put your hands up.” This Venn Diagram encapsulates some of the communities that have taught me about radical inclusivity: preachers, DJs, and bank robbers. I am a preacher. I came of age in the DJ culture of hip hop, house, and techno. And, well.... I have something to say about bank robbers.
Put your hands up.
We begin with DJ culture.
I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, hip hop, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:
Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”
Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape have something to teach us about radical inclusivity. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?
We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time... no longer constrained by fears that keep us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”
These experiences of beloved community are experiences of radical inclusivity. They are experiences we can foster in church. We can foster them through the creation of worship that makes space for everyone, that proclaims that all are welcome, and all are loved. There are few other spaces in American society that have the potential for people to gather across the dividing lines of race and class.
Years ago, amid the shambling concrete of abandoned factories, I witnessed that music could bring people together in the country’s most divided cities. Black, white, gay, straight, suburbanite, loft dweller, drag queen in fabulous silver go go boots, baggy jeans wearing break dancing trickster, everyone united in “One Nation Under a Groove,” just as rgw original funkster George Clinton told us to. Our Universalist theology of radical inclusion challenges us to build religious communities that are capable of drawing such wide circles. Later, in some other sermon, we can talk about how difficult and challenging this work can be. But this morning I want to offer you a simple truth. Radical inclusivity begins with saying, “Hello,” to someone you do not know and inviting them into your circle.
Put your hands up.
The bank robber Willie Sutton was once supposedly asked, “Willie why do you rob banks?” “Because that is where the money is,” he’s alleged to have replied.
I first heard Sutton’s words when I was in my early twenties and living in San Francisco. While I was there I got to know the folk singer Bruce Phillips, whose stage name was Utah. By the time I met him, Utah Phillips had been a Unitarian Universalist for more than fifty years.
He had a weekly radio show on KPFA, KPFT’s sister station in Berkeley, and occasionally did concerts at Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Bay Area. Over the course of our conversations, listening to his radio show, and attending his concerts, I discovered that Utah had a particular affinity for bank robbers. “Working-class heroes,” he used to call them.
He often quoted Willie Sutton. And he liked to talk about Kid Pharaoh, a minor criminal from Chicago. In an interview, Kid Pharaoh had confessed that he had a political philosophy. He said, “I’m dedicated to one principle: taking money away from unqualified dilettantes who earn it through nepotism... Take it away from... [them]. Hook, crook, slingshot, canoe, we must shaft [these fellows]...”
In my conversations with Utah, I learned he praised bank robbers for three reasons. The first: his praise provided a radical critique of society. The second: it was an act of drawing the circle wider: reminding his audience that everyone, even the criminal element, has something to teach the rest of us. The third: he admired their clarity and honesty of purpose. They went to the place where the money was and took it.
Utah did not advocate robbing banks. But he did urge people to be clear about who they were and why they did what they did. That was the way he lived. He had been a critic of American society, the military, and our economic system ever since he returned to the United States after fighting in the Korea War. Part of his critique was that changing the world began by listening to the voices at society’s margin.
Parallels to his position can be found in the words of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, our friend Susan Frederick-Gray. She tells us, “the circle never gets drawn wider from the center. The circle grows wider because the people who live at the margins, at the edges, who see how exclusion is happening, are leading and organizing and working to break down those walls. So we all have to be standing in the margins, pushing for greater liberation for all people. That is the way we make the circle wide.”
In Susan’s vision, we Unitarian Universalists engage in radical inclusivity when we listen to the voices at the margins of our society, are clear about our theological vision, tell the truth in the public square, and invite the disenfranchished and disempowered into our circle. It is really not that different from Utah’s more controversial invocation of bank robbers. He told stories about them to be funny. But he also told stories about them to provoke his audiences to think about who in society we should be listening. By suggesting that even a criminal element has something to teach us he was being radically inclusive and drawing the circle wider.
Put your hands up.
You may have figured out by now that I am something of a Saturday evening juke joint Sunday morning choir kind of guy. I have learned an extraordinary amount about radical inclusivity from my participation in communities outside of the church. I have learned an equal amount from lifelong engagement with Unitarian Universalist communities. Otherwise, I would not be a preacher.
And now, we come to the part of the sermon where I make a confession. Everything I have learned in church and all of my sermons can really be distilled to a single message. It is found in the twentieth and twenty first verses of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There we find Jesus in conversation with a group of Rabbis. The Rabbis asked him, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is!” For the kingdom of God is among you!”
Other translations read, “the kingdom of God is within you!” Either way, the point is this, we Unitarian Universalists believe we can create the beloved community here on this good green Earth. Indeed, we understand that is the only the thing that has ever happened. It is not up to someone else. God is not going to do it for us. It is not going to happen somewhere or somewhen else. This luminous now is all we have been given.
That is a core message of our tradition. I know this because I spent my formative years in Unitarian Universalist religious education. I know this because I have studied and taught Unitarian Universalism in our seminaries. And I know this because it is what I constantly catch glimpses of as preacher and religious leader of Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Right now, our fourth through sixth grade youth are participating in Our Whole Lives. OWL, as it is called, is Unitarian Universalism’s sexual education program. That is correct, we teach sex education in church. And we do not teach it in the abstinence only fashion found in Texas public schools. Such an approach suggests that there is something wrong with the human body and our natural, embodied, need for physical connection. We Unitarian Universalists take a different view. We hold that we humans are embodied creatures and that being sexual is part of what it means to be embodied. We do not teach that abstinence until marriage is the only way to be responsible. Instead we teach that as creatures with bodies and hormones we need to learn to be responsible, respectful, and loving with our partners. We teach about consent. We teach about birth control. And we teach that there is nothing wrong with living in a world with a multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender expressions.
Note that this is not the explicit content of the fourth to sixth grade OWL program. That is much more focused on helping children understand their changing bodies and changing hormones as they go through puberty. But the messages I just shared are those we will eventually communicate to them when they reach high school OWL. And those messages are just a practical, embodied, recognition of the truth found in Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
That is a truth that encourages us to practice radical inclusivity. It is the theological principle which inspired you to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. It is why so many of you give money to support this congregation and the work of its three campuses. And it is a theological principle which can sometimes be realized with a simple introduction, a “Hello” that begins to draw the circle wider.
Are you with me? Put your hands up.
Would that I could end on that precise high note. But the phrase, “Put your hands up,” requires a closing coda. I need to acknowledge that it is a phrase sometimes used by the police. For some people, particularly some people of color, it invokes the specter of state violence rather than celebration, the voices on the margins, or church.
Committing ourselves to radical inclusivity means we are called to recognize that, despite our best intentions, our very words and actions can contain traces of the brutalizing violence which are endemic throughout society. Rather than flee from this truth it is better to confront it. Each of us sometimes turns away from the wider circle and seeks to push people out. But that is why we gather, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. We gather to recognize our own human frailty, the ways in which we have failed our higher vision, and encourage each other to continue to try to live into it. The spirit of such actions were found in the Jewish Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which just passed. They were reflected in our story this morning, our responsive reading, and they are in the words from Markham’s poem which we return to as I close:
He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.
Let the congregation say, “Amen.”
Sep 24, 2018
Each autumn we gather to mingle our waters and mark the start of our liturgical year. At each of our three campuses, we gather to share our dreams, to declare our values, to be present to each other, and all that is. Today, across the country, in congregations like this one, Unitarian Universalists are gathering for the same ritual and for the same purpose.
In services such as this, water is often described as the giver of life and bearer of memory. Our mingled waters are said to represent the communion that we aspire to in religious community. Sometimes, the waters take on a richness of meaning: reminding us of the drought of struggle, of the inevitability of change, of the tumult of life, and the hidden wells of awe and wonder that reside in each of us. Rarely, though, do services like this one recognize the sheer destructive power of water.
Water is the life giver. Two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, that is what makes life possible. But water is also the life taker, the destroyer, the thing that can fill lungs and block out the two uncompounded atoms we must have to respire.
I have been thinking about water the life stealer since I learned I would be coming to Houston to serve as your interim senior minister. One friend told me to get an escape kit for my car: hammer to break glass and cutter to slice seat belt. Another advised me not to get a first story apartment. This advice came as, from afar, I read about the destruction of Harvey: the more than eighty dead, the lives broken, the houses ruined, the streets washed away, and the businesses destroyed.
Then I arrived in Houston. And I met one of you who had lost their home to the hurricane. And I met another of you whose car was destroyed. And another of you who no longer lives in their old neighborhood. And I learned of the city’s loss and sorrow. And so, I began to think about water as the stealer of life, water the despoiler.
I realized that we could not have a water ceremony that did not acknowledge the catastrophic power of water. For water has brought a great catastrophe to this city. One of the tasks of religious community is to aid us in the face of the catastrophes of our lives. These can be individual: cancer, death, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job... Or they can be collective: war, political corruption, systematic violence, the endurance of white supremacy, floods and hurricanes...
Some of the most ancient myths attempt to find meaning in waterborne catastrophes. Four thousand years ago the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed in the place we now call Mesopotamia. It tells of a great deluge that destroyed a primordial city.
For a day the gale [winds flattened the country,]
quickly they blew, and [then came] the [Deluge.]
Like a battle [the cataclysm] passed over the people.
One man could not discern another,
nor could people be recognized amid the destruction.
Genesis, the biblical text, recounts:
All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open.
The Greek poet Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses,” describes:
Invade the woods and brush against the oak-trees;
The wolf swims with the lamb; lion and tiger
Are borne along together; the wild boar
Finds all his strength is useless, and the deer
Cannot outspeed that torrent...
These myths share a pattern. The deluge comes after the divine grows frustrated with human wickedness. The gods send the lethal waters to wash away sin and impurity. Cities are drown. The world becomes ocean. Only a handful of the righteous survive. And then the waters recede. The land returns. The world is purified. Humanity finds itself given a divine blessing, a divine healing. Noah is told: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.”
This is not our theology. Our Unitarian Universalist theology is not one of divine destruction and divine healing. We do not believe that God punishes us because we are impure or wicked. Nor do we trust that God, unaided, will bring ultimate justice to the world.
Ours is a tradition of human agency and responsibility. Ours is a tradition which acknowledges that it is humans who have the power to create heaven or hell upon this muddy green Earth. Ours is a tradition that recognizes that so much that is wrong with this world, including the crisis of climate change, has been wrought by human hands. And ours is a tradition that understands that the good that exists in this world comes from love. It is a love, which Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of our association, describes as “a powerful, unconditional, overflowing goodwill for all people.”
It is this love which is the historic, theological, bedrock of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is this love that our Universalist ancestors used to describe as “the sublime and heavenly doctrine of universal grace.” The idea that God so loved the world that all of creation would be eventually blessed with “holiness and happiness.” It is the legacy of our Universalist ancestors who believed that the unconditional love of the divine, in the words of Rebecca Parker, “directs us... toward actions of love and care for each other.” It is this love which teaches us that we have the human power and the human ability to heal each other and to heal this world.
This world, and this city, is in desperate need of healing. Today, more than ever, we are called to be healers. Over the last month as I have listened to your stories I have learned that this congregation has worked to heed this call. Many of you aided each other during and after the hurricane. Many of you have labored to rebuild the city, volunteering your time to recraft homes and assist the injured. Many of you are devoted to the ongoing work of healing. Even as we struggle to survive.
I will admit that I am new to your city and to this congregation. I only know of a fraction of the destruction that the waters brought. And I only know a fraction of the work that you have done. I am eager to learn your stories.
And I trust that as I learn about them I will discover in them, as I have discovered in every community I have served, the radical healing power of love. For it is radical love, powerful, unconditional, overflowing goodwill for all people, that teaches us that we can heal each other and the world. And it is radical love that I see now as I look at our mingled water. Water might be destructive but in our service, it can also be a symbol of our collective love for humanity and our planetary home. It can be a symbol of our ability to heal.
As I close I reminded of these words from Wayne Arnason, may we find the love they represent in our mingled water:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Sep 5, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
It is great to be with you and to be in the city of Houston. I am looking forward to my time with you as the congregation moves through its transitional period. I anticipate that our time together will be one of exploration, healing, and visioning. During the next several months we will be asking questions about the past, present, and, most importantly, the future of First Unitarian Universalist Church.
Of course, there may be changes. One question to be answered is when and how services should be structured. Until we reach a decision on the answer to that question, we plan to continue with one service at Museum District for the month of September. We will be examining how best to be together as a worshiping community dedicated to joy, the project of human liberation, personal growth, and building collective power to be a healing force in battered world.
So, I want to invite you to choose how you would like to commit or to recommit your time, energy, and skills and to be part of the Sunday Celebration, religious education, small groups, community service, and social justice actions that form the rich tapestry that is First Unitarian Universalist Church. And I want to invite you to reflect, give feedback and share your thoughts and needs as we go forward. It is going to be an exciting time!
This year our annual water communion will be held September 9th. All three campuses will offer similar services. These will include a ritual observation of the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and a blessing of healing waters. I will be leading the Museum District service and two other services at Museum District for the month. The first, on September 23rd, Put Your Hands Up will include some autobiographical reflections on my own spiritual practices and the various communities I have found to be welcoming. The second, on September 30th, Habits of the Heart, will tend to ways Unitarian Universalist communities can be places of welcome and sanctuary during periods of crisis and transition. Each of these services will be made available via video to the Thoreau campus and by presenters to the Tapestry campus in the coming weeks.
In that spirit, the closing poem I offer you is presented in the spirit of being held during a time of transition. It comes from denise levertov. The theological language of her “Suspended” may not resonate with you. Even if it does not, I hope that her words at least echo the possibility contained within each religious community, and most especially within First Unitarian Universalist Church, that we can care for each other whatever we face.
“Suspended” by denise levertov
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Aug 22, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum district campus, August 19, 2018
The course is set on hope.
The course is set on hope.
Our second reading comes from the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. By turns an anarchist, a Bolshevik, and a dissident Communist--always a radical--he finished his life an impoverished exile in Mexico. He bore witness to many of the grand tragedies of the twentieth-century. He saw his dreams of a democratic socialist republic die in Russia. He watched his friends, his “constellation of dead brothers,” die under Stalin. He was there when Nazism smashed its way across Europe. And after all of that he could write, “the course is set on hope.”
The course is set on hope. Last week, I suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. If we love the world, we will be wounded, I proposed. And I argued that one of the central tasks of this religious community was the work of healing: healing the wounds in our individual lives, healing the wounds of First Church, and healing the wounds of the world. This morning, I want to talk with you about the context in which this healing work must take place. I want to talk with you about the permanent emergency. And I want to talk with you about the role Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one might play in addressing it.
Rising populist nationalism in Europe; a President in the United States who echoes classic totalitarian language by calling the press “the enemy of the people;” hatred of migrants; bodies washed up on shores; heat drying out the great sequoias of the redwoods; the seemingly unstoppable horror of global warming; increasing inequality... We live in a time of profound economic, ecological, moral, and political crisis. I could turn every sermon into a litany of woes if I followed the injunction to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
What good would a constant litany of despair do you? Or me? Or any of us? We are in midst of a permanent emergency. The task is not to denounce the state of the world. It is find hope amongst all of the heart break. It is find some small honest joy while claiming a healing place in the great disorder of things. It is to say, yes, the world is full of tragedy, the world is in the midst of a permanent emergency, but maybe, just maybe, there is a way forward, there is hope to be found.
Doing so requires that we penetrate deep into the dynamics of the permanent emergency we face. By understanding it we might discover its true causes and stumble our way forward. In our effort to do so, you will forgive me, I hope, if I momentarily divert our sermon from the grave crises of the world to the more banal matter of my move to Houston.
Moving to a new place requires integration into the local governmental infrastructure. I have to get a new drivers license. I have to register my son for school. I have to register to vote. In my attempts to do so, I have come to the conclusion that Texans love their bureaucracy. Why else would you spend so much time with it? Monday, I attempted to get a Texas drivers license. I drove out to the Department of Public Safety on Dacoma. I discovered a line, a line that stretched all the way around the block in the humid, roasting, heat. Without the day to wait, I left, no Texas state id in hand.
Thursday, I took my son to register for Middle School. It took four hours. Four hours. Four hours in an uncomfortable auditorium where the air conditioning was turned so high the wooden chairs shivered. Four hours. Four hours with wiggling middle schoolers, bored, unhappy summer was ending, and anxious about a new school year.
You know, four hours is a long time. It turned my liturgical mind to thinking. “My son and I undergoing a bureaucratic rite of passage,” I thought. First, came the ritual of humiliation. We entered the ritual chamber, the auditorium, and divested ourselves of our individual identity. We became not people with names but numbers. Then we had to wait, and wait, and wait, as the clock ticked in the corner and number, after number, after number, not ours, was gradually called.
We were powerless to enter the community ourselves. We needed the help of a guide who finally summoned us to a folding table, “number 35, number 35.” And we were there, at the threshold, a folder thick of papers that had to be shuffled, stamped, photocopied, indexed, and stapled before our guide ended our ritual of humiliation and let us begin the process of entering the community of middle school.
Next, we endured the ritual of purification. We had to show the school nurse, a helpful, humorous, but harried woman, that my son had the correct vacations--that he had undergone the proper rites of purification--to be fully admitted into the middle school community. She marked this piece of paper. She marked that piece of paper. She deemed my son clean enough to be incorporated into the community. She sent us out of the auditorium into the attendance office. There we underwent one final ritual, the ritual of acceptance.
More pieces of paper were marked. More photocopies were made. My son was given a new name; a seven-digit number. It is how his new community, the Houston Independent School District, will refer to him in its internal documents. “Welcome to Middle School,” the kindly registrar said. We had completed the ritual of acceptance. He was now enrolled in middle school.
This is the permanent emergency. It is the process by which your humanity, and mine, is stripped away. It is the process by which we become not primarily people but numbers wending our way through databases and disheveled stacks of paper. It is the process by which we render our muddy blue ball of plant--the only Earth on which we have to survive--into tables of extractive resources and sums of profits and loss. It is the process by which we learn to treat the people, the animals, the world, around us as things we can use instead of entities with which we are in relation.
The permanent emergency is at the root of all of the emergencies that we, as country, as a human species, collectively face. Let us consider one example: racism. Like all of the ills that face us--the crisis of democracy, the ecological crisis, misogyny--it is a crisis with a history. It comes from somewhere.
Race is not a natural category. It is not something that exists independently in the world. It is something that we humans have created. If we ask any honest scientist, they will tell us that race has little genetic basis in reality. They will tell us that race is a social construction. It is even possible to pinpoint the precise moments when race as we think of it was created. And those moments have everything to do with treating other people as things, as numbers, as tools, rather than as people.
The idea that black people and white people are somehow different races begins on August 8, 1444. That was the day Prince Henry of Portugal arrived at the port of Lagos with a human cargo of 235 slaves. Until that moment human with black flesh had not been described by European thinkers as inherently different or inferior. The arrival of a large group of African slaves to the European continent marks the beginning of European ideas of racial difference. And it comes from the desire of wealthy Europeans to create a category of people whose lives can be reduced to the sums on balance sheets: profits, losses, income, and expenses. It is followed by other moments that we can identify. There is 1662, when Virginia passed a law that race was a legal category someone inherited from their mother. There is 1787, when the United States Constitution was adopted with its infamous three fifths clause. There is the 1857 Dred Scott case, when the United States Supreme Court decided no black person could be a citizen. Each of these instances was an effort to reduce a human life to something other than a human life: a number, a sum, an abstraction to be tracked across ledger sheets.
The permanent emergency... As Martin King told us, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” The permanent emergency will continue until we collectively can effectuate the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one. This shift is something Unitarian Universalist communities like this one are well poised to address. The first principle of our Association: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The seventh principle of our Association: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Unitarian Universalism was born amid the permanent emergency. Consider our friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our tradition’s great theologians. He wrote his essays as attempts to find a way forward as a person in an increasingly thing-oriented society. Like us today, he lived in a period of profound social displacement, strife, and heart break. Like us today, he objected to much of it. He objected to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America writing, “Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy, were never heard of in times of peace.” He objected to chattel slavery, telling his audiences, it was as “evil, as cholera or typhus.”
Emerson’s words from yesterday might well be applied to the crises of today. The crimes of the United States government at this state’s border could easily be described in the same terms he used to described equally awful crimes two hundred years ago. But Emerson was wise enough to recognize that the crises of the moment were but expressions of a deeper crisis, a profound crisis, the treatment of human beings as things rather than as people, the alienation of each human soul from the other, the permanent emergency.
Let us briefly turn to the essays he wrote in his attempt to find his way forward as a person in a thing-oriented society. In them he speaks of the sense of dislocation that it is so easy to feel, “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” And in them, he offers two solutions to the permanent emergency: to unleash our imaginations and to form real friendships. Calling imagination genius, he tells us, “In the thought of genius there is always a surprise; and the moral sentiment is well called ‘the newness,’ for it is never other.” He advises us on friendship, “When they are real... [friends] are the solidest thing we know.”
Unleashing the imagination, forming real friendships, these I suggest are what provides paths forward in the permanent emergency. What better to pursue in our Unitarian Universalist community? So many of us come to church seeking community and hope. What is hope but the imagination that life can be different than it is? What is community but a place in which to find abiding friendships?
Unleashing the imagination, all the crises that we face were imagined into being. Racism, I suggested earlier, is a product of the imagination. We can imagine alternatives. Indeed, we have imagined alternatives and we have struggled to bring those alternatives into being. The movement to abolish chattel slavery originated when abolitionists imagined society could exist without slavery. The feminist movement began when women imagined that they could live in a society where they were treated as people rather than as objects. Each movement for liberation has begun with a vision that the world can be different.
If you lived in a person-oriented society what would it look like? How would your home be different? How would your neighborhood be different? How would this church be different? How would Houston be different? How would this country be different? How would our world be different? These are questions we can pursue, together, in this religious community.
Forming real friendships, like the imagination, friendships are at the core of moving towards a person-oriented society. When we are friends with someone we focus our universal claim that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person on a particular individual. We encounter them not as a thing first but as a person first.
And here, I want to invite you to do something with me. I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor and tell them something. Now, I recognize this is something you might not have done before in your congregation. So, I apologize if it makes you uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable you can always decline my invitation. I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Try it, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of particular people, that is where friendship starts. Recognizing the inherent worth dignity of particular people, that is one part of the way we move from thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one.
Imagination and friendship, I will have much to talk with you about both during our time together. But less you think that all of this talk of hope amid the permanent emergency is merely my preacherly penchant for abstraction let me close with a story and an observation.
The story is about Grace Lee Boggs. She was an activist and a philosopher who lived in Detroit for much of the twentieth-century and well into the early twenty-first century. Like Martin King, she understood that the crises we face are not primarily economic, political, or even social, they are moral.
Grace Lee witnessed the desolation of Detroit. She saw the city shrink from two million to less than seven hundred thousand. She lived among the abandoned factories and the burned out homes that stretched block upon block, mile upon mile. And she saw a new vision for the city, a greener vision, a vision in which her task was “planting the seeds of Hope.”
And plant she did. Working with others, she led a movement to regreen the city. She helped organize the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community gardens across Detroit. That ruined block became a vegetable garden. That one was turned over to flowers. Did her work completely transform the city? No, but it did create human connections amid isolation. It led to friendships across racial and economic lines. It generated new community organizations. It enabled thousands of impoverished people who would not otherwise have access to fresh fruit and vegetables to grow their own food. And it began with an act of imagination that vacant lots were not blight but “opportunities to develop urban agriculture and build a new society from the ground up.” It came from a recognition that there is an “inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies.” It originated with a vision that her city could be different than it was.
My closing observation is about Victor Serge. After all of the horrors of the first half the twentieth-century he was able to claim, “The course is set on hope.” Why? Because he experienced real, deep, friendship amid all of it. This gave him the knowledge that, however horrible humans can be to each other, we still retain the ability to recognize the inherent worth and dignity that resides in each of us. And through it all, he remained ever aware of the possibility of the imagination to uncover a better world. The last word of his last poem, found upon him after he died: “dazzling.” Dazzling, the last word of someone who had seen all of the crises of his age. Dazzling, the last word of someone who refused to let his imagination be stifled or forget power of friendship to save our world. Dazzling... the course is set on hope.
So that we may unleash our imaginations, build real friendships, and, together, as a religious community, confront the permanent emergency, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.