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 email@example.com 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.