Apr 23, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 21, 2019
Happy Easter! It is good to be with you. Holiday services like these always bring together a special congregation. Some of you are visiting for the first time, seeking a religious community. Some of you have come with friends or family, enjoying the sense of connection and fellowship that holidays offer us. Some of you attend our services only occasionally. You are probably here so you can be with your church on this special day. And some of you worship at First Church most Sundays. Whatever brought you here to this beautiful brick sanctuary, I want to extend pause and say welcome.
Since it is Easter, I thought I better talk with you about Jesus. Specifically, I thought I should give you a sense of how Unitarians have historically approached Jesus. For generations, we have focused on his life and teachings rather than his death on the cross. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” It was preached in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819. It was the text that crystalized Unitarianism into a definitive theological position in the United States and prompted the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the forerunners of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
In his sermon, and I apologize for the dated language, Channing made the claim that Jesus’s mission was “the recovery of men to virtue, or holiness.” He further proclaimed “the doctrine of God’s unity.” In this unity God had “infinite perfection and dominion.” Channing maintained that Jesus was “a being distinct from the one God.” He was, in Channing’s words, someone who had a “human mind” whose death on the cross was “real and entire.” In essence, Channing claimed that Jesus was a man who taught that within each of us resides holiness. This holiness connects us to God. The purpose of religion, in this classic Unitarian view, is to awaken in us this sense of holiness and bring us closer to the divine.
This morning I am not going to offer you a recitation or exegesis of Channing’s sermon on “Unitarian Christianity.” Nor am I going to provide you discourse on its historical significance. Instead, I am going to give you a sermon that captures something of the essence of Channing’s theology. Whether we take it literally or metaphorical it contains within it revolutionary and transformative power.
Our sermon has three movements: the infinity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and the divinity within. Before we dive in, I thought I would give you a part. At the conclusion of each movement I invite you to say, “Hallelujah.”
A few weeks ago, I shared that “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” I know that this is a sentiment that makes some of us uncomfortable. Allow me to suggest, just for this morning, that if you are a humanist, as I am, we agree to greet the word God as a symbol. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, life itself.” So, when we say, “Hallelujah” let us think of ourselves praising any or all of those things. Praise God, “Hallelujah.” Praise the ground of being, “Hallelujah.” Praise life itself, “Hallelujah.”
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
The Infinity of God
In the ninetieth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible we find Moses pray:
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being,
before You brought forth the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity You are God.
In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita we discover generous descriptions of the divine:
You are without beginning, middle, or end;
you touch everything with your infinite power.
The sun and moon are your eyes, and your mouth
is fire; your radiance warms the cosmos.
O Lord, your presence fills the heavens and
the earth and reaches in every direction.
In the Quran we read:
...If the ocean were
Ink (wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lod.
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord...
I might continue and point you to words in the Tao Te Ching or from the Buddha or from some indigenous traditions. Whatever we choose, there are numerous texts that teach, as the fourteenth-century theologian Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote, “God is immeasurable and incomprehensible, unattainable and unfathomable.”
God is infinite. Infinity is a difficult concept to grasp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... I could keep counting for the entirety of this sermon and never approach infinity.
The British science fiction writer Douglas Adams offered a humorous approach to infinity in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The book is part of a series called the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the characters wander across space and time. Finite beings in an infinite universe, they struggle to understand their places in the great misorder of things. Fortunately, they have the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to help them. It is Wikipedia if the editors of Wikipedia had a sense of humor. It is also a physical object with “the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Peering into the text Adams’s characters find this description of infinity: “Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself look really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”
The German mathematician David Hilbert attempted to explain infinity with his infinite hotel paradox. A hotel, we all know, has a finite number of rooms. If you have tried to book a popular destination for a holiday you may have discovered this. Maybe you have even been in the situation where the place you wanted to stay ran out of rooms before you managed to secure your vacation.
Relax, Hilbert said, we can avoid this problem. We just need to build an infinite hotel. In the infinite hotel there will be infinite rooms. When you call up the hotel you might discover that it is already full of guests. “No matter,” the manager will tell you. “Whenever a new guest arrives we ask each guest to move to a new room. The guest in room 1 moves to room 2. The guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on. There is always room in the infinite hotel. Because we have infinitely many rooms there is space at the end--even if we already have infinite guests--because infinity goes on forever.”
All of this is obtuse, difficult to understand, maybe a little ponderous and opaque, and, quite possibly, impractical. This is, however, actually the message of this part of the sermon. God is infinite. God is beyond human comprehension. Do such statements, such texts, resonate with your experience?
They resonate with mine. Here is a thing that has happened to me, again and again. I have found myself along the edge of the ocean, at night, wandering the shoreline--that place where the water crashes into the sand. The wind lilts, a soft sound above the rhythmic rush of the tide. My feet are just a little damp, my flesh slightly chill. I look across the waves. They seem to go on without end, white foam crests upon white foam crests upon white foam crests. I look up at the sky, a starry night--not unlike Van Gogh’s luminous swirls and textured white yellow orbs. There is the Milky Way--a thick pointilated band. There is Orion--three stars for a belt, two stars for feet, and three for shoulders and a head. Suddenly, something in me shifts, and I feel conscious of my own temporary smallness among the infinite sea of stars and the ocean that appears to go on forever and forever. The universe feels infinite while I do not.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Humanity of Jesus
It is the infinity of God which brings us to the humanity of Jesus. It is a challenge to relate to the infinity of God. The theologian Karl Barth observed, “no... concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.” Throughout human history many people and many cultures have anthropomorphized the divine--they have made it human--in an attempt to understand it. This is what Trinitarian Christians have done. They have collapsed the infinity of God into the particularity of a human life in an effort to understand the unfathomable. In the Trinitarian Christian story, we come to know the infinite God through the finite Jesus who is the infinite God enfleshed.
In our Unitarian tradition we tell stories about Jesus in which he was a man who came to teach us about an infinite God. Jesus was not uniquely the incarnate God. He taught that God dwells inside each of us. The path to the infinite is found by looking within. Channing called this “the likeness to God.” Jesus was special because he had realized the likeness to God inside of him--the connection to holiness that is available to all of us. By awakening this holiness Jesus was able, in Channing’s words, to share with the world the “unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love” of the divine that resides within waiting to be stirred.
In the Trinitarian tradition, Jesus is God. A man who taught about God becomes God. Channing said, “No error seems to us more pernicious.” The path to spiritual awakening that Jesus lays out for us in the Christian New Testament is lost in a fog when Jesus is equated with God. Those who turn Jesus into God frequently miss the significance of his life and instead focus on his death. They claim that there is redemption to be found in state sanctioned torture--for that is what the crucifixion was--rather than in a life devoted to sharing the transformative power of love. They believe Jesus died on the cross to save all humans from sin and that this was the whole meaning of his life. Such a narrative Channing rejected “as unscriptural and absurd.”
Early Unitarians like Channing found the teachings of Jesus in his parables and sayings. They shared the importance of his lessons in their writings and in their art. The death of Jesus was not that important to them. If you visit a Unitarian church built prior to the early twentieth century you are likely to find the depiction of one of Jesus’s parables in the congregation’s stained glass. The famous Tiffany windows of Boston’s Arlington Street Church contain not a single depiction of Jesus on the cross.
Like those early Unitarians, I have a fondness for the sayings and parables of Jesus. My favorite is found in Luke 17:20-21. There he is asked, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
It is a really radical saying. At least, it is if we understand Jesus to be a human being rather than a God. A learned man of the people, a carpenter, a spiritual teacher, in the Christian New Testament we find him mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He travels with the common working people. He visits the most marginalized. He tells them that the kingdom of God is found among them. It is not found among the rich and powerful. To them Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The connection between the infinite and the human, he suggested, resides primarily among the fishermen and the peasants, the despised and the outcast.
Think about it. This human man, this person born of a human mother and who died a human death, had a unique connection, a unique understanding, of the holiness within. And he taught that holiness is most present among those whose struggle is greatest day-to-day. That, Jesus seemed to teach, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. It is not present in the evangelical church that celebrates a gospel of wealth and prosperity. It is not present with the ministers who proclaim the righteousness of their nation. It might not even be present in this sanctuary today. But it is found among those who come together and little by little work, struggle, and imagine a new way.
Another parable, Luke 13:18-19: “‘What is the kingdom of God like?’ he continued. ‘To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew to be a tree and the birds came to roost among its branches.’”
Here the kingdom of God begins by accident, by mistake. A man sows a mustard seed, anticipates a mustard plant--an annual that seeds and then perishes. Instead, a tree sprouts--an enduring majesty that lasts beyond the span of a human life. Birds come bringing song and plumed beauty. A man sows a mustard seed and from it comes so much. The smallest action, the littlest kindness, Jesus wished to teach, contains within it the possibility of great transformation. The smallest thing, perhaps, can blossom into the infinite.
The kingdom of God is among us. It is a human opening to the divine. We uncover it through acts of love, small and great.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Divinity Within
This human Jesus taught that we contain within us the likeness to God. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists have rephrased in more humanistic language by claiming that every human being has inherent worth and dignity. It is radical stuff. It means that the likeness to God is to be found within the migrant children and refugees who suffer at our borders. And it means that it found within the people who put them there. The challenge of religion is to awaken the likeness within each of us.
But more than that. The challenge today is even greater than awakening the likeness to God that resides within each of us. It is to recognize that the divinity within connects us to the divinity without. It is to stand on the seashore gaze up at the night sky and see ourselves a part of the great infinity that surrounds us. When we open ourselves thus--when we connect the divinity within to the divinity without--we find ourselves among the kingdom of God. We find that kingdom is here on this Earth, not in some distant heaven.
On this Sunday before Earth Day we are called to recognize that this is the only planet we have got. The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is among you. It is among the live oaks and sea shells. It is among the sunshine and the soft rain. Whatever holiness lies within it involves connecting to the glorious natural world of which we are a part--not subjugating it but learning to live in kinship with it. If we fail to confront the collectively created disaster of climate change then we are discovering the kingdom of God which is among us. Human life is not sustainable. Without course correction there will be no kingdom of God to be found anywhere upon this good green Earth.
This is why we gather--to open our connection to the planet’s beauty; to understand our dependence upon the soil, the sun, and the rain; to work to lead each other to better lives; to stir the holiness within. That is what Channing taught. And it is something I believe. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” was not an Easter sermon. It was an ordination sermon, preached upon the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks into the ministry. Channing took for his text a fragment of a line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
In his closing he said, “Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves.” He was certain that if we did, we would discover that Jesus taught us how to find the spark of the divine within--the spark that leaps from each to each and connects one to the all. He was also certain that it was task of the religious community to awaken the spark that resides inside all of us. Seek proof of such a spark within the text of your own lives.
In my closing to you, I invoke the poet Thylias Moss. Her poem “Fullness” speaks to me of Unitarian Christianity. Reflecting on the ritual of the Eucharist, a ritual meant to commemorate the life of Jesus, she writes:
...You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
Mar 27, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, Andover, MA, March 26, 2017
It is nice to be here with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here in Andover two springs ago. I remember your congregation as warm and welcoming. Georgia has been super helpful. I am glad to report that my memories have not been deceptive.
This morning I want to talk with you about God. Specifically, I want us think together about who or what God is and how we imagine God. So, let me start with a question. When I say the word God what image appears? How do you imagine God? Does God have a face? A body? A sweet voice that provides tender inspiration? A stern baritone that rolls like thunder across harsh rebuke? How do you imagine God? Does the very word prompt in you a rising anger? Do you reject any concept of the divine? Do you consider yourself a humanist? Do you put this worldly human concerns over and against any deity’s reality? How do you imagine God?
Our question has perplexed artists, theologians, religious leaders, and, well, really, almost everyone for as long as there has been human culture. In the twentieth-century the theologian Paul Tillich defined God as a symbol for ultimate concern. God represents the thing that matters most to us human beings. That thing is a little different for every person and in every moment of time. Even the most cursory survey of religious history reveals how much our ultimate concern has shifted over the ages.
The most ancient images of the divine are all similar in shape. Paleolithic Venus figurines have been found throughout Europe. Rough carved from a single piece of ivory or stone, they each feature spherical breasts on a spherical body and an exaggerated detailed vulva. No one knows exactly what they mean or how they were used. They were created by a preliterate culture. Most scholars think these millennia old figurines were made for some sacred ritual purpose. Perhaps they used in healing rituals. It might be that they were thought to bring the blessing of fertility. Whatever the case these small statutes of female bodies were created by hands. Someone imagined them. Then that someone patiently chipped and carved and worried the feminine divine from mental image to physical instantiation. Is this aged icon how you imagine God?
Maybe your image of God comes from somewhere else. Perhaps when I say God you envision a dynamic pantheistic cast. Do you see Ganesha, the multi-armed elephant headed Hindu Lord of Obstacles? He places obstacles in the paths of those who grow too haughty. He removes obstacles from others in their times of need. Maybe instead you glimpse beautiful Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. In her bare fleshed perfection, she might be accompanied by another deity from her ancient pantheon. Perhaps she is with her lover Ares, fierce god of war. Maybe your image of the divine is linked to old Egypt. The goddess Bastet, cat headed and woman bodied? Horus with the head of a falcon? Are any these your image of God?
How do you imagine God? Does the word conjure forth visions from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Do you see God reaching forth from a host of angels? His face is bearded and white. He is clad in an off-white robe, almost pink really, and his arm extends to a naked Adam. Adam reclines on a blue green hill. The first man reaches towards God. His finger is slightly crocked. God is struggling to reach him. Adam is just out reach of the divine. He gazes back at divinity with a mixture of laziness and longing. Are these white men frozen in a five hundred year old fresco who you think of when you imagine the divine?
How do you imagine God? It is a question with ethical and political implications. The famous nineteenth-century American agnostic Robert Ingersoll claimed, “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” The divine orderings that we humans imagine are often but celestial reflections of our own earthly concerns. The Venus figurines could have been created because in a Paleolithic community fertility and fecundity, the continuation of the species from one generation to the next, might have been of utmost concern. The complexities of pantheistic hierarchies of deities reflected the emerging complexity of the first urban societies. Michelangelo placed a white man at the pinnacle of the cosmos because his society was ruled by white men. Despite his creative genius he could not imagine, or at least dare to portray, a brown skinned woman or black hued man as his deity.
My own images of God are vague and nondescript. I am ambivalent about theism or the existence of the deity. I suppose as a minister I should have more defined views. But I appreciate that Unitarian Universalism allows us ambiguity. I have had moments of intense connection with something I would call the divine. In a bath of blue, standing before Chagall’s America Windows at the Chicago Art Institute, I see the artist’s fragmented fractal shapes, triangle panes of cobalt, cerulean, cyan, cornflower, sapphire, and turquoise, colliding with magenta and lemon, to form pirouetting figures, candelabrums, an unfolding cityscape of jagged buildings. Blue, Judaism’s color for the divine. One summer Saturday in seminary that bath of blue, washes over me and I feel intrinsically part of the universe, connected to the cool walls, connected to the slapping of shoe soles on the museum’s floor, the whisper of cloth as someone walks past.
Another moment, sipping tea in the kitchen while talking to a friend. The tea is green, bitter but sweet without sugar. My friend and I are having the same conversation we have had every week for the past three years. It’s spring and the first greens of the year peak in through the window. I feel comforted, blessed, connected, not just to my friend but to everything.
Searching the early autumn broadleaf forest for chanterelles, I look down at the leaf litter and see nothing--no apricot stemmed wrinkles of sweet mushroom flesh just browning crumpled leaf litter. I look up at the maples and oaks casting off summer’s lushness for burnt orange and piercing red. I look down again and suddenly see an almost endless array of edible fungus. As I pick pound after pound of the flaming sweet smelling mushrooms I feel like I have entered another reality, the forest and I are, for more than a moment, one.
Yet looking for God I have encountered absence. I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed for a loved one to recover from their addiction and been met with only silence. I have sought divine solace in the midst of restless nights fraught with worry and found none. I have opened my eyes to the horrors of the day--war, desolation, cruelty, greed--and discovered neither meaning nor love ordering our muddy blue green ball of a planet. And so, I am ambivalent about the divine. I have experienced connection and I have discovered absence. What about you?
Better theologians than I can craft doctrines from all of this mess. Today, let us not worry so much about divine existence. In our pluralistic society, and in our liberal religious tradition, it is a deeply personal question. I suspect each of you might share different stories about connection and absence. I know each of you make different conclusions about the existence or nonexistence of the divine. Yet for all of that we share some kind of reality, some set of common reference points.
The poet Wislawa [we slava] Szymborska made a humanist statement that might sum the major argument of this sermon:
We call it a grain of sand
But it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does fine without a name
mistaken, or apt.
Whatever ultimate reality there is in this universe is seen through human eyes and narrated through human stories. We take all of this rough and glorious mess, all of this absence and connection, and cast it into words and symbols. That is the only way we can share with each other something about what it all is and what it all means. The word sand is not quite sand. It is a symbol, a representation, an abstraction both calling to mind the general idea of sand and a particular grain of sand.
So too with God. The word God represents whatever it is we most value, we hold highest in our lives. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used to say: “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”
How do you imagine God? My own academic research of late has been into how people have represented God. Close to a hundred years ago Marcus Garvey was troubled by white images of God. Garvey is not a name usually uttered in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. In the 1920s he was the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It was the largest mass movement in African American history. It claimed a membership of millions and influenced not only the black freedom struggle in the United States but the struggle against colonialism throughout the globe.
The 1920s were a period of blatant white supremacy. There were race riots throughout country in which whites killed blacks. Lynching was an epidemic. The Ku Klux Klan was a dominant force in American society. It claimed millions of members. In response, Garvey preached what later would be called black pride. He wanted black people not be ashamed of the color of their skin. One of his strategies was to attack white symbols of the divine. He told his followers to reject a white Jesus and a white Mary. Instead, he encouraged them to worship the Black Man of Sorrows and a Black Madonna.
Though he is best remembered as bombastic and egotistical, Garvey could be a remarkably subtle thinker. After encouraging his followers to worship a black Christ he told them, “Christ was not black. Christ was not white, Christ was not completely red--Christ was the embodiment of all humanity. To be Christ he must have an equal part of all mankind in Him.” The Christian New Testament offers no physical description of Jesus. Garvey thought white people had a white Jesus because their ultimate concern was for whites. He wanted black people to have a black Jesus to express that their ultimate concern was for blacks.
What do such racially charged images do for your imaginings of God? Fill you with pride? Trouble with you? Appear irrelevant? In raising these images of God this morning I am trying to make three interwoven gestures. First, whatever the reality of the divine, our images of the sacred are human constructions. Second, the pictures we create of the holy matter. A white male God in heaven justifies white male rule on earth. Any honest student of history can tell you that white male rule on earth means a society organized for the benefit of white men. Different images of God lend their authority to different kinds of social structures. Third, whatever it is that these images represent is ultimately beyond human language. For me, God is best understood as an experience of transcendental connection, an experience of being a part of something greater, vaster, than myself. Your understanding of God might be different. But whatever the case, words will fail to help us reach agreement about the nature of the divine. If they could we as a human species would have long ago settled on who and what God is. But we haven’t.
Please do not understand these three gestures as a call for iconoclasm. I am not suggesting that we destroy our images of the sacred. Art provides one of the paths to connection with whatever it is that finally lies beyond about our ability to describe.
Our Puritan ancestors were suspicious of images of the holy. They took the Hebrew Bible’s third commandment of making no graven images quite seriously. Many a New England meeting house lacks stained glass, features white washed walls, and contains not a hint of representation.
We need not embrace such iconoclasm. Instead, I suggest that we approach our religious symbols with humility. Let us remember that they are but representations of the divine. They are not God, just as God is not God’s name. If we find that these symbols help us to connect to each other and to the transcendent mystery and wonder of which we are all a part then let us celebrate them. If, instead, we discover that they separate us from each other or justify a tyrant on earth then maybe we should hold our images of God to be idolatrous. Such images are not worthy of destruction but they are not worthy of worship either.
How do you imagine God? The late poet Derek Walcott translated his experience of connection:
A fish breaks the Sabbath
With a silvery leap.
The scales fall from him
In a tinkle of church-bells;
The town streets are orange
With the week-ripened sunlight
Do such words help you commune with whatever it is that lies beyond all human language? There is beauty in them for me. When I read them I feel connected to something beyond my myself.
This fine morning, may you find beauty and a sense of connection in all of the words and symbols you use to describe that which cannot be described. May you share that beauty with others. In doing so, you might find a richer sense of connection. Again, Walcott:
Of sunlight and pigeons,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.