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May 7, 2020

Sermon: How Can I Keep from Singing?

as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online service for May 3, 2020

This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of perseverance. Today’s sermon is titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The title is a nod to our closing hymn, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” Each verse of the hymn ends with the same question: “How can I keep from singing?”

The question often comes after words juxtaposing the injustices of the world with the promise of better days. The opening verse runs:

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

The hymn tells us that if we listen we will hear strains of “a new creation” sounding above the “earth’s lamentation.” It is a comforting message. It certainly reflects something that I would very much like to be true right now, those old words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

But the news of the hour has me mistrusting such theistic promises. Behind each set of words sits a divine deity who assures us, in the words of great poetry, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And reassures us, in soaring rhetoric, truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.

Now, I love this hymn. It is one of my favorites. But right now I am not finding comfort in such hopeful narratives. I find myself profoundly concerned about our human future. I am straining to catch any hint of “the music ringing.” And so, in this sermon, I do not want to offer you false hope. Nor I do I want to give you metaphysical reassurances that all shall be well. Instead, I want to follow the French philosopher Albert Camus’s injunction to “use plain, clean-cut language” when discussing the pandemic and horrors it has unleashed.

I am going to offer you a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice. It is built around an observation about the impermanence of things. “Cambia todo cambia... Cambia la superficial / cambia tambíen lo profundo / cambia el modo de pensar / cambia todo en este mundo,” sang the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Everything changes. The superficial, the profound, the way we think, everything in the world changes, runs my hackneyed translation.

Everything changes. This leads to two simple claims about the pursuit of justice. First, no victory is forever. Second, defeat is rarely permanent. No victory is forever. Defeat is rarely permanent. Such words lack the melodic comfort of hymns to the new creation. And my challenge--or perhaps it is our challenge--is how do I make such claims and yet still cling to the refrain of our closing hymn: How can I keep from singing?

Before I turn to a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice, I offer two contextual reflections. The first, a discussion of Unitarian Universalism and religious pluralism. It could alternatively be described as a response to the query: Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church? The second, some observations about our political and economic moment. We might name that section a response to a Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s going on?

So, Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church?

I offer this rhetorical question for all of you who are watching this video and are not members or regular attendees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston or another Unitarian Universalist congregation. I know there are a fair number of you. As I mentioned in my welcome, right now we have people from all over who are watching these videos. If this service is anything like our previous online services some of you are listening to me in your homes in places as far away as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. I even know of a family who has been joining us from Brazil and someone else who is connecting with us from Prague.

And, so, for all of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, let me hone on in one particular phrase that we offer each week in our welcome statement, we need not think alike to love alike. It is attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Francis David. He lived in Transylvania which was then situated at the border between the Ottoman Empire and what used to be called Christendom--the lands in Europe that were then under control of political powers affiliated with one kind of Christianity or another.

Transylvania at that time was a religious diverse community. The practice then was that people more-or-less had to follow the religion of the local monarch. If the king or queen was a Catholic, then the people were expected to be Catholic. And if monarch was Protestant then they were supposed to follow the teachings of whatever Protestant church the resident royalty belonged to. Now, this created all kinds of problems. Frankly, it led to all sorts of stupid wars. The advent of a new monarch brought with them the threat of a religious realignment. Crudely put, if the previous monarch was a Protestant and the new one was a Catholic then the new king or queen would expect all of the people who lived in the country they ruled to convert.

Faith is a deeply held. Few people wanted to switch religions just because the palace had a new resident. And so, there were all sorts of horrible conflicts. In the United Kingdom, just as an example, Mary Tudor executed Protestants for their religious beliefs and then her sister, who succeeded her, Elizabeth the First, executed Catholics.

Francis David was a man of peace. He thought all of this religious conflict was ridiculous. The king in Transylvania was then a man named John Sigsmund. Like David, the king was a Unitarian. David had no idea what the religion of Sigsmund’s successor would be. And so, he, and the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, convinced John Sigismund that rather than make Unitarianism the state religion, he should pass a law proclaiming religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and reads, in part: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any... [person’s] soul.”

Religious tolerance, the idea that each person’s faith, their relationship to the divine, is their own, gradually expanded in Unitarian Universalist circles to an acceptance of religious pluralism. If the preacher can “preach the gospel according to their understanding” then there is no reason why parishioners should not have their own particular understandings of the gospel. The word gospel essential means good news. I use it here not to offer a particularly Christian account of religion but as a way of speaking of the thing you understand to be most important about your relationship to the whirling dance of mass and light, the earthly mess of water and dirt, that which we might call the cosmos, or gaia, or God, or the spark of human reason, or love or... whatever you might name the all of this which we are each a part of and enmeshed in.

Over time the emphasis on religious tolerance, led Unitarian Universalism to be somewhat unique among the Western religions. It became pluralistic. Its adherents came to understand, we need not think alike to love alike, and realized that what the religious community did together was more important than what its individual members believed.

At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and in other Unitarian Universalist communities, we celebrate people’s ability to uncover their own relationship with the, well, I will just call it all this--the light that filters green through the leaves of trees, the virus that is spreading among us, the lush blues of Henri-Edmond Cross’s canvases, the damn rent that is due at the beginning of the month, the beauty and the horror of existence--and, at the same time, ask each other the question: How shall we live together?

We are a community. We cannot all agree upon what we believe. But, maybe, just maybe, as a community we can figure out how to live together. We need not think alike to love alike. It is the hope, the gospel, the good news, if you will, of Unitarian Universalism.

Our embrace of pluralism is why we have humanists in our churches. Humanism is this a worldly focused tradition. Its adherents argue that there is no transcendental force outside of human history--no God or divine force--that is bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Anthony Pinn, a leading humanist and Unitarian Universalist, suggests that humanists recognize, “we’re dependent upon a world that doesn’t bend to our will and doesn’t prioritize the criteria for our well-being.” We are the ones who make whatever meaning we find in the world. And we are the ones we who will bring whatever justice we find into the world.

Alongside humanists, we have people of a variety of religious perspectives who participate in the life of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. There are theists, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even many atheists and agnostics. Some of our members hold onto multiple religious identities or even belong to multiple religious communities.

For my part, I identify primarily with humanism but I find myself drawn to the symbolism and stories of both Christian gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. This partially due to the fact that I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation by a mother who had been born into a Christian family and a father who had been born into a Jewish one. It is also rooted in an understanding that religious language is metaphorical. We use religious symbols to represent that which is greater than ourselves. Humanist philosophy, gnostic Christian symbols--the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living--, and mystical Jewish parables are all attempts to put into words that which ultimately escapes language--my relationship, and yours, to the all of this of which we are each part and parcel.

Why, humanism in the church? What we do together is more important than what we believe. Why, humanism in the church? We are a pluralistic tradition which invites us to draw upon many sources for our understanding of our relationship with all that is. Why, humanism in the church? We need not think alike to love alike.

And, now, my second contextual reflection, What’s going on?

The state of Texas started to re-open yesterday. I took a walk through my neighborhood. There was more traffic than there had been in weeks. There were people noisily sitting at bars and restaurants. Very few of them were wearing face masks. The day before Texas reported the second highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The pandemic is far from contained. It is only getting started. And, yet, the governor and his allies want people to get back to work and to get the economy moving again. What’s going on?

In my home state of Michigan, the scenes from the state capital this week were chilling. Men with rifles stormed the capital building demanding that the governor “Open the Economy.” One member of the state legislature tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them.” That is right, politicians in Michigan are wearing bulletproof vests for fear of getting shot while deliberating on legislation. What’s going on?

Oh, did, I mention, that the governor of the State of Texas is a white man? And that the men with rifles who invaded Michigan’s state capital were all white men? Excuse me, I must have forgotten. But then, there is a tendency in this country’s culture to take whiteness as the great unspoken norm. What would have happened if the men who had stormed Michigan’s state capital had been black or brown? How would they have been treated? What’s going on?

The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily described whiteness this way: “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” And right now, once again, the consequences of this doctrine appear to being laid bare. The white men with rifles and the governor of the State of Texas are trying to re-assert their ownership, their control, of the world while the viral pandemic rages. I do not think it is a coincidence that the plans and demands to re-open the economy came soon after it was discovered that the virus was disproportionately impacting communities of color. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the people being forced to go back to work right now--and forced is the right term because if the businesses they work for re-open and they stay home then they will be ineligible for unemployment--are people of color. It is the logic of system that has built generations of white wealth off of the exploitation of people with brown and black bodies.

Two illustrations from national politics. First, we have the President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to remain open. This move is accompanied by two refusals. The first is a refusal to offer any national regulation on the safety standards that businesses are to follow during the pandemic. Instead businesses are to employ whatever safety regime business managers and owners think best. Business managers and owners do not have a particular interest in keeping employees safe--at least not big business owners and managers--they have an obligation to make the most money possible. That’s the core logic of capitalism. So, in refusing to provide national safety regulations during this time of pandemic the President is basically telling working people that they had better keep working and that they are at the mercy of their employers.

The second refusal is the President’s decision to not invoke the Defense Production Act to produce either personal protective equipment or ventilators. He is willing to invoke it to force people to work under unsafe conditions. He is not willing to invoke it to make sufficient equipment to save people’s lives. Perhaps I should mention that the vast majority of workers at meatpacking plants are migrants and people of color? White wealth built upon the bodies of black and brown people.

My second illustration from national politics comes from the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any significant emergency funding to state governments. This is an effort to bankrupt state governments and destroy many of the gains that working people have made over the last generations. If state governments are forced into bankruptcy then they will not be able to pay unemployment benefits. They will not be able to honor the pensions of public workers. Should I mention here that unemployment is disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or that the path for many people of color into what gets called the middle class has been through public service jobs? Or that it has been an objective of Southern white supremacists since before the Civil War to weaken the federal government so that they could have greater ability to exploit black and brown bodies?

What’s going on? The President of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, and the white men who invaded the Michigan state capital believe that black and brown lives do not matter. What’s going on? White wealth is once again being built off the bodies of black and brown people. What’s going on? Maybe should we take out the old Marvin Gaye track--I recommend the vinyl if you’ve got it--and listen to the words: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today.”

What’s going on? I may have offered too much of the political for those of you who turned to this service for a bit of comfort and connection. However, I told you that I would be offering a humanist account of the pursuit of justice. And that pursuit is an earthly pursuit. It rejects the claim that we should only hope for Heaven when we are dead. Let us now move towards to my humanist account of the pursuit of justice.

Justice is not best understood in the abstract. It is about the actual lives of actual people. And right now, being real about justice means recognizing that the United States has long been a racialized order. And right now, it also means listening to the words of Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and so-called sage of Omaha. A few years ago, he said, “There’s class warfare... but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

My humanist account of justice draws from these real dynamics. No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. Instead, there is constant struggle between all the different communities in society. In a society that has historically been white supremacist, that struggle is partially between those who wish to proclaim that whiteness is mastery of the earth forever and forever Amen and those who have more multi-racial vision. And it is also between those who wish to maximize profit and those who work so that they can simply provide for themselves and their families.

It is a somewhat crude analysis but certainly it seems to be borne out by the struggles of the hour. On the hand, we have those, who appear to be demanding that the lives of working people, particularly those with brown and black bodies, be sacrificed so that they can continue to make profit and have comfort. And on the other, well, Friday was May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers struggle for justice. It was marked by strikes or sick-outs--that is people calling into work sick as a form of protest--at many of the largest companies employing so-called essential workers--who, in many cases, are being treated as expendable workers.

In the last several weeks, the wealth of richest people in the country--Jeff Bezos particularly comes to mind--has been increased at dizzying rate. At the same time, many working families are in a state of complete crisis. More people are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. And the solution is not, as the governor of Texas would have it, to get back to work. It is provide them, as many other countries are doing around the world, with the necessary resources to safely shelter in place. But that would impact the ability of the richest amongst us to make profit.

No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I offer this humanist account of the pursuit of justice as a way to remind you that almost all the good things in life that have come to the majority of working people have come through struggle. The New Deal is under assault right now via Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments. It was not granted on high by the largess of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It came about because in the midst of crisis of the Great Depression working people organized, went on strike, withheld rent, refused to participate in an economy that was not working for them, and put enormous pressure on politicians and business leaders to make sure that the economy actually provided them with something.

Unemployment, Social Security, workplace protections, they are all under threat right now. No victory is permanent. And defeat is rarely forever. Following the Civil War there was an effort to build something like the New Deal. It was called Reconstruction. And it turned back the tide, for a time, of white supremacy and built much of the country’s public-school system and offered both black and white people some protections and provisions. These looked a bit like those found in the New Deal and that were later won by the civil rights movement. Those victories were worn away over the decades until the crisis of the Great Depression and then World War II provided an opportunity to rebuild and build upon them. And now... What’s going on? Will the pandemic bring about further destruction of those gains? Or will folks organize to lay the groundwork for working people to have more of the good things of life?

No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I am afraid that through this sermon I may have focused too much on a narrative of social salvation for some of your tastes. Where is the song in all of this, you might be asking? You might not be an essential worker. You might be someone who has the resources to continue to shelter in place. You might hear your life reflected in the words of Dorothy Dow’s poem “Waiting,” written shortly after the 1918 flu pandemic:

If you should walk in the park and not find me,
Or go in the market-place and not see me,
Would you not search further?
Does not your heart tell you I am somewhere?
Go out on the long roads--I may be at the end of one.

You might simply be sitting at home safely, waiting for all of this to end so that life might return to something like it once was. You might be wanting a more hope filled message. If you are, I invite you to listen to me as we turn to the end of the sermon and a reflection on Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. It is a novel that I am inviting you to read with me this month as part of my discussion group Texts for Troubled Times.

Camus’s novel is set in an Algerian town immediately following World War II. The book centers on the question: In the midst of a pandemic how shall we, as individuals, pursue justice? It is often read as a parable about life under totalitarianism. Camus was a committed anti-fascist. He fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis. When he wrote the book, he was more concerned about the rise of totalitarianism via the Soviet Union than he was about plagues. But then, he argued, through his book, that totalitarian regimes--those who organize the world around the politics of the dead and seek to marginalize the lives of working people for their own ends--are a lot like plagues. They come on slowly and then blossom in full force. They are endured. They are resisted. And then, when the necessary immunity has been built up, they begin to go away. That, at least, is what Camus thought.

In his novel, he offers advice on how we might live when no victory is permanent, and defeat is rarely forever. He does not suggest that justice will reign forever. “[T]here are pestilences and there are victims,” he tells us. Humans are not able to fully control the natural world. Plagues will come and go and come again. Tyrants and dictators might be restrained for a time but they, like plagues, continue to re-emerge and reassert themselves. That is what happening now, in this time of pandemic, across the globe. How shall we live, then, Camus asks?

By “not to join[ing] forces with pestilences” he answers. By pursuing, what I have called in other sermons, the politics of the living. Choosing, through our individual actions, the things we can do to slow the spread of pestilences of COVID-19 and white supremacy. We should not act, Camus, suggests with the assurance that our actions will bring about an end to the plague. We should persist because we can and because in doing so we might make things better for ourselves and for everyone else.

Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, we can continue to practice social distancing. We can be in solidarity with essential workers. Or, if we are working, we can strike in demand of safe working conditions. It is clear the federal government is not going to provide them to working people and that safe conditions will only be won through struggle. We can boycott the big chains that are making money while small businesses starve. If you look online you can alternatives sources for almost anything that Amazon sells. But most all, we can each ourselves the simple question: What can I do to not join forces with pestilences?

That question may unexpectedly lead to another. Camus found joy in life. He sought to bring more beauty into the world through his novels and stories. In his reading of Camus’s novel, humanist Anthony Pinn, suggests that its lesson is that there is joy in the struggle. He closes some recent reflections on Camus and COVID-19 with these words:

We struggle with our own task, work against the threat of this virus… simply because we can. COVID-19, some day, will withdraw--and we will leave our homes again, gather with family and friends. But the virus won’t be gone, the threat is ever present. Things are “well” not because the threat has been tamed, but because we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves... happy.

I close my reflections with a gesture towards our closing hymn. I find greater truth in its final verse than in its first:

When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near,
how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?

If we persist in our efforts to be in solidarity with each other and not cooperate with the virus then we will look back on these times without shame. If we persist in the struggle for justice, knowing that no victory is forever, and defeat is rarely permanent, we will be able to make tyrants tremble with the bells of freedom. The tyrants might win and they might not but our peals of liberty will cause them to quake. If we do what we can to slow the spread and to help, and dare I say love, each other then, we will look back on these times, these strange days, with the question: How can I keep from singing?

I have spoken. You have heard. And, as Francis David and I both would have you do, ask yourself: Does this humanist gospel speak to your heart? How can I keep from singing?

May the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston How Can I Keep from Singing? Robert Wadsworth Lowry Julian of Norwich COVID-19 Albert Camus Humanism Mercedes Sosa Justice Unitarian Universalism MIchigan Francis David Transylvania Ottoman Empire Mary Tudor Elizabeth I John Sigsmund Queen Isabella Edict of Torda Henri-Edmond Cross Anthony Pinn Tony Pinn Gnosticism Judaism Mysticism Texas Montrose Houston White Supremacy W. E. B. Du Bois Donald Trump Defense Production Act Meat Packing Labor Capitalism Greg Abbott Mitch McConnell Civil War Reconstruction Marvin Gaye What's Going On? Warren Buffett May Day Great Depression New Deal Franklin Delano Roosevelt Dorothy Dow 1918 Flu Pandemic The Plague Algeria AntiFacism French Resistance Totalitarianism

Apr 27, 2020

Sermon: Renewal and Regeneration

as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online worship service, April 26, 2020

The theme of today’s service is renewal and regeneration. And in this sermon I invite us to consider the most pressing question immediately before us: What comes next?

The Governor of Texas has begun the process of re-opening the state. He has appointed a task force to get non-essential workers back to work and businesses back in business. The state, national, and world economy, meanwhile, are currently in a greater freefall than the one experienced during the Great Depression. Many people are hungry. Many people are scared. Many people are tired. And almost everyone is asking, what comes next?

But before I get to that vital question, I have to admit that I almost titled my sermon: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?

The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. Like many other families, my own continues to struggle to make it through the everyday. Now, normally, I avoid too much of a focus on my own quotidian challenges in my preaching. This is especially true when it comes to my children. Neither of them signed up to be preacher’s kids. I do not think it is appropriate to turn their lives into sermon illustrates.

However, in the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the primary job of the preacher was to “convert life into truth.” He charged Unitarian ministers to offer up “life passed through the fire of thought.” And I think that I am not burdening my son with some unasked-for narrative by sharing that it is not easy trying to get him to engage with his schoolwork. Out experience is, after all, one shared by many families. The primary truth I can offer, from my own life, today, is demonstrated by the tension between the question at the heart of my sermon and my alternative sermon title. We need to ask: What comes next? And, at the same time, most of us are wrestling with our own variants of: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?

The tension between our question and my alternative sermon title is not a new one. It might be reframed as another question: How do we look to the future when we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy? And to ask that question is essentially to ask, how shall we mourn?

It might seem counter-intuitive, but mourning is essentially a future oriented activity. When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. We admit that we are suffering. And then we try to ask ourselves the difficult question: What comes next? What comes next itself contains two questions: How shall we remember those we have lost? And how shall we live without them?

This past week the COVID-19 death count in the United States passed fifty thousand. I suspect that most of you have been impacted by the virus. I know someone listening to this sermon is ill. I know someone hearing me preach has lost family or friends. I know someone considering my words has lost their job or their business. I know that almost everyone who is playing this video has been affected by this pandemic. We are all mourning.

As a historian, political philosopher, and a theologian, not to mention a parish minister, I have been finding it increasingly unhelpful to think of the situation we are in as unprecedented. There have been plagues and pandemics before. There have been tyrants before. The wealthy and powerful have feigned compassion for the poor before. There has been mass economic disruption before. And people have mourned before.

One of the central functions of a religious community is to help people mourn. We hold funerals and memorial services. We offer prayers and condolences. We write eulogies. We make meaning through mourning. We ask the question, through tears, what comes next?

For most of us, our primary experience of mourning has been mourning the deaths of individuals. Our grandparents or parents or partners or friends or even children have died. Their deaths might have been swift and tragic. They might have come at the end of a long illness. They might have arrived when those we loved were old, in their middle years, or when they were young. Whenever it has come, we, the mourners, who have survived have needed to ask the questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next?

I have lost my grandparents to old age and heart disease. I have lost friends to drug overdoses, violence, and suicide. I have had loved ones die of cancer. I have known people who were killed in car crashes and bicycle accidents. In each instance, the same questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next? How shall I mourn?

Right now, many of us feel like the writer Edith Sitwell when she was asked why she wore black. She replied that she was in mourning. “For whom are you in mourning?” came the response. “For the world,” she answered.

We are mourning the world. There is a sense of mourning the world in June Jordan’s poem, “Nobody Riding the Roads Today.” It was written long before COVID-19 blighted the globe. And yet, it captures much of the experience of isolation that I know many of us are feeling:

Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness

...Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone

The world empty, the world split, the world twisted; we are mourning the world. We are asking ourselves, what did the way of life we had before the pandemic mean? We are asking, what comes next? And we, are doing this all, as all mourners must, in the midst of our ordinary, unaccustomed, struggles: illness, fear of illness, deaths of loved ones, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger and want, and, in the case of many an exasperated parent, the cry of, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork? Each struggle connecting to an aspect of what we have lost, of what we are mourning: health, the illusion of safety, economic security, work, and the school community. They each meant something different to us before the pandemic. And their meanings have changed now that we find ourselves living amid a worldwide pestilence.

The anthropologist David Graeber has written perceptively about mourning and the function of religion. Controversially, but correctly, Graeber believes that a central purpose of religion is, in his words, “the production of people.” In religious community, he writes, we “are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles... constantly being attended to and care for.” In community, we are “implicated in processes of transformation.”

It is a statement that I am sure rankles many of my more libertarian or individualistically oriented friends. One of the great myths of the United States is that we are self-made individuals. It is a myth that lies at the heart of the country’s economic system. It animates much of economic discourse and influential economists like F. A. Hayek have claimed “the individualistic tradition... has created Western civilization.”

Individualism sits at the core of the salvation narrative of conventional Christianity. After our deaths, we are promised, if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will ascend to Heaven and enjoy life eternal. The emphasis is on what happens to your individual soul and to mine. It is not on what happens to us together.

Graeber’s anthropological understanding of religion suggests, instead, that we are social creatures and that in community we create each other. Mourning offers an illustration of this dynamic. “Rarely,” he argues, “do the political careers of important individuals end in death. Often political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” What is true of political figures, can be true for all us. Our legacies, our contributions to the commonweal, last beyond our mortal shells.

Some years ago, I asked my friend, the now deceased Spanish Civil War veteran, anarchist, and union organizer Federico Arcos, what he thought about life after death. Federico was a militant atheist. He had little use for organized religion--though he greatly admired both Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I assumed he would simply tell me that it the idea of life after death was absurd.

Instead, he surprised me. “We are immortal,” he told me. “We live on the stories we are part of and in the things we create.” “You see this road,” we were driving, “the working people who built it will live on in it as long as it continues to exist. My dead friends,” he had lost most of his loved ones during the war, “live on in me through the stories I tell. And they will on in you because I am telling you their stories. And if you share their stories,” and I have, “they will continue. That is our immortality.”

We are narrative creatures. We tell the stories of our own lives to each other to make meaning from them. And other people tell stories about our lives to understand our social roles. A religious community is a community of memory. And, “it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge,” wrote twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. “It is only through a disciplined memory of the past,” he continued, “that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly.”

We are mourning. We are asking what our stories have meant. And we are asking, what comes next? Since, we are in the Easter season, and because we are a religious community, I might point out that Christianity is, in many ways, a religion of mourning.

Jesus, the poor man, the rebel Rabbi, the overturner of the money changers’ tables, the preacher of the power of community and the living presence of the Kingdom of God, was put to death by the greatest empire of his day for suggesting that love was the most powerful earthly force. Jesus’s followers believed him to be the messiah, the individual who God had sent to proclaim, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, “let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”

Instead of bringing about the reign of the divine, peace to the cottages, and plenty to the tables, the story is told, Jesus was executed as a common criminal. He was nailed to a cross and placed between two thieves to die a humiliating and excruciating death.

Die he did. And his community had to ask the questions, amid pain and suffering, amid their experiences of grief and loss: What did his life mean? What comes next?

We might read the Christian New Testament and the non-canonical Christian texts, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as a series of arguments about how to answer these questions. In my Easter sermon, I suggested that one answer people found within these texts was a belief in the resurrection of dead--we shall only hope for heaven when we are dead. And I suggested that another answer was the resurrection of the living--opening ourselves to savoring what is and building the just community where we can. And I argued that the resurrection of the dead led to the politics of the dead. And that the resurrection of the living led to the politics of the living.

We can find debates about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living scattered throughout Christian texts. We can read Jesus proclaiming the politics of the living in the words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” And we can read Paul proclaiming the politics of the dead in the words, “I have been crucified with Christ.”

In the texts, Paul can never quite seem to decide whether he believes in the politics of the living or the politics of the dead. In his Letter to the Galatians he makes one of the most forceful statements of the politics of living in any Christian text--canonical or otherwise. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are words that a humanist and a theological universalist such as myself, might re-interpret as saying, we all part of the same human family. The lesson of this pandemic, the story we should be telling while we mourn, is that we are all interconnected and what impacts one of us, impacts all of us.

In the Letter of the Galatians, Paul also provides words that have formed the theological basis of the politics of the dead: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement was used by generations of later theologians--Augustine and Martin Luther in particular--to craft the idea that salvation is individual, it occurs in the next world, and it happens because of what we believe, not because of what we do. Such a focus on individual otherworldliness has often justified the negligence of earthly justice and the exploitation of the poor. It is behind Augustine counsel that obedience to the earthly authorities is obedience to God. It is in Martin Luther’s text, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he denounces those who rebel against the world’s powers and principalities. Those who look for heaven in this world, who seek justice among the living, are, he claims, “the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”

I mention Paul, his influence on Augustine and Luther, and his confusion about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living, because his presence in the communities that eventually became Christian offers important lessons for us as we mourn the world. Paul was the one of primary evangelists of religion that became Christianity. Much of the Christian New Testament consists of letters he wrote emerging Christian communities. And in them we can read of a struggle over who will determine how Jesus was to be mourned.

In Galatians, again, we find a revealing passage. Towards the beginning of the letter Paul wrote, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim.” This text, which continues and from which I shall not read in full, provides an account of a struggle for power within the emerging Christian community. The struggle was about who would determine how Jesus was to be mourned.

On one side, stood Paul, and, presumably, Barnabas and Titus. On the other side, was “the acknowledged leaders.” There were theological differences between these two groups. We do not actually know what “the acknowledged leaders” believed. The theological polemics that have come down to us, that is the letters in the Christian New Testament, are from Paul’s faction, not theirs. I suspect that the acknowledged leaders beliefs might have been more in line with the gnostic teachings, the resurrection of the living and the politics of life, found in the non-canonical gospels and attested to in portions of the canonical gospels, than the resurrection of the dead.

That is not important. What is important is that they included “James the Lord’s brother,” and other disciples who claimed to have known Jesus when he was alive. Paul, in contrast, never met the living Jesus. Instead, he “received... a revelation through Jesus Christ” and, that he stated, made him equal in authority to the authority Jesus had granted his friends while he was still alive.

Much of the debate in Galatians is over whether or not Paul’s revelation granted him this equal authority. He claims it did. And he claims that the “acknowledged leaders” “recognized the grace that had been given to me.” We have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. We have only Paul’s account of the argument. We have only him telling us how Jesus was to be mourned and how the community was to answer the question: What comes next?

And that elision, the silence of James the Lord’s brother and his friends, should speak us to across the centuries and provide a crucial warning as we go about mourning the world, as we struggle to make meaning of what we have lost and answer the question: What comes next? The warning is this: those who are closest to the levers of power, those who are the most privileged, will be the ones who will determine how we mourn unless we struggle for the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living.

The silence of James the Lord’s brother is not accidental. It is a product of who James was and who Paul was. James was like Jesus, a poor man, an outcast, a Jew in a pagan Empire who proclaimed that Caesar’s power was less than God’s, an undocumented brown skinned workingman, struggling to make it through the day--as so many people are struggling today. James almost certainly struggled to find housing, to find work, and to get enough to eat. James was persecuted for his beliefs.

Paul, on the other hand, was an educated Roman citizen. Unlike presumably James, for there is no authentic text from James, Paul could read, and he could write. He was trained in Greek philosophy and Jewish theology. He had been educated in rhetoric. He even had a career persecuting men like James before he had his revelation. And yet, it is his letters, his theological treatises, that form the major corpus of Christian epistles and not those of James or his friends. He is the one who has determined so much of how Jesus is to be mourned. He answered the question: What comes next?

It is there, in the Letter of the Galatians, an account of the rich and powerful determining how the poor and marginalized shall mourn. It is there, the replacement of the politics of the living--which Paul sometimes believed--with the politics of the dead--which Paul left as the major part of his legacy.

And that, in this age of pandemic, on this Sunday a few weeks after Easter, as we mourn, is a central issue we must wrestle with as we attempt to answer the question: What comes next? Who will determine the narrative we make, the story we tell, the meaning we create about the pandemic? Will it be the most privileged and powerful among us, for that is who Paul was, or will be it those like James, who are suffering the most?

Will we, like Paul, choose the politics of the dead, with their emphasis on individual salvation, individual economic activity, and claim that we are self-made? Our we will choose the politics of the living, found in Jesus’s words that the Kingdom of God is among you? Not among one of you, not only inside of me, but among all of us, and present, possible, here, now, in this world. That salvation is social, and not individual, that we must build the commonwealth if we are to recover from the pandemic and prevent the next one.

I could close here by offering policy prescriptions and prophetic denouncements drawn from the politics of the living. I could argue that the President’s refusal to heed the warnings and possibilities found within science are part of the politics of the dead. I could take Texas’s Lieutenant Governor to task for his belief that we should be willing die for the economy. I could offer an analysis of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments during this pandemic as an attempt to destroy unions for civil servants by destroying the state pension systems. I could criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for their constant refrain that real help for families “will be the centerpiece of our next legislation.” And I could claim that we need massive income redistribution and the creation of new social infrastructure if our country and our world is to emerge from the pandemic and prevent the next one.

But instead of offering such a lengthy discourse, I will close with turns to two texts that suggest the politics of the living. The first comes from the speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. In her novel “Always Coming Home,” she imagines what comes next, after our present society experiences a collapse, and how the people of the future will mourn the world we have today. They discover new ways to live sustainably. At peace with each other, they do not fear or target the other. They not do not target immigrants or migrants but instead recognize that all are part of the same human family and invite travelers to: “Please bring strange things, / Please come bringing new things.” And welcome them with the words: “Return with us, return to us / be always coming home.”

In the future she invites us to imagine, the future that comes after whatever it is we have now, people come to recognize their interconnection with each other and with all that is. Her vision is a promise of what might be if we learn the lessons of the hour and reject the myth of individualism in favor of the truth that we are social creatures. Our salvation is social.

And finally, I turn to what is perhaps the greatest statement of the politics of the living from the twentieth century. It comes from Charlie Chaplin. At the close of his film “The Great Dictator” his character, the little tramp, his stand-in for the poor and marginalized, his cipher for James the Lords brother, makes a speech denouncing the fascists and fools, the powers and principalities, of his day, that were then hurtling the world into war and desolation:

“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...

To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people...

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security...”

These are words that speak of the politics of life. Let them teach us how to mourn, how to make meaning from all that we have lost. And let them help us to answer the question: What comes next?

And, also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork.

Let the congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, say Amen.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Greg Abbott Texas COVID-19 Great Depression Economics Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalism Mourning Edith Sitwell June Jordan David Graeber F. A. Hayek Individualism Christianity Jesus Christ Federico Arcos Spanish Civil War James Luther Adams Amos 5:24 Gnosticism Resurrection Gospel of Thomas Luke 17:20-21 Galatians 2:20 Galatians 3:28 Humanism Universalism Galatians 2:16 Augustine Martin Luther Paul Galatians 2:1-2 Titus Barnabas Galatians 1:19 James the Lord's Brother Galatians 1:12 Galatians 2:9 Donald Trump Dan Patrick Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Chuck Schumer Ursula Le Guin Charlie Chaplin The Great Dictator

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