Feb 6, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, February 6, 2018
This may be the first congregation I have ever been to, let alone served, that has its own pizza ovens. I must admit that it seems like a bit of an odd quirk. And yet, I am really glad we have them. The pizza last night was tasty, and the games were fun. It was a pleasure to spend time with some of you outside of the confines of Sunday service. And it was also lovely to meet a few members of the wider community who showed up just to eat pizza and play games. The whole event was a good reminder that church is not just something we do on Sunday morning. Church brings us to together to share our lives. And what is more central to our lives than sharing food and fun?
Our sermon today is about how Unitarian Universalist communities can and do play a vital role in birthing a better world, the one in which peace, justice and liberty are so common that no one talks "about them as far off concepts, but as things such as bread, birds, air, water, like book, and voice."
To get us started, I want to ask you a simple question. Do you believe in magic? I do. And by magic I mean nothing more than act of creating something from nothing. Some years my friend Richard taught me about it. Richard is a distinguished medical doctor and HIV researcher. He is also a proponent of magic.
He explained it to me this way, "Colin, magic is imagining something that does not exist and then bringing that thing into being. It is simple. Imagine that I am hungry and I want a sandwich. I do not have one so I am going to make one. I get a couple of pieces of nice rye bread, a bit of sharp cheese, some good oily tuna, a few capers, a little mayonnaise, and pretty soon I have a sandwich. I have used my imagination to create something that did not exist before in the world, a delicious sandwich. Incidentally, would you mind passing the mustard and pickles?"
Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where we make magic happen. In our religious communities we collectively imagine things or social arrangements that do not presently exist and then we bring them into being. There is a formula, a spell if you will, for this kind of magic. It runs conscience plus imagination plus love equals magic.
Conscience is something we invoke in one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is at the core of our "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." We might think of it as the ability to discern right from wrong. We tap into our conscience when we confront a situation when we are asked to do something that we know to be wrong and we refuse to do it. We also tap into our conscience when we encounter a societal wrong and refuse to participate in it. It is at the root of the practice of civil disobedience. When people commit civil disobedience they intentionally create disruption in the hopes of undermining a law or situation they believe to be unjust.
Conscience tells us something is wrong with the way the world is. Imagination tells us the world can be different. "In our dreams we have seen another world," one of our texts read. In my friend Richard's act of imagination he knew the world he lived in could be different than it was currently, it could be a world in which there was a tasty sandwich. In our Unitarian Universalist communities we often imagine that the world in which we live could be different. We imagine a world without racism, sexism, ablism, classism, a world in which everyone has enough to eat, in which there is clean air and water for all, a world where every child and every adult has access to quality education, a world with adequate shelter and love for everyone, a world with... well, I invite you to use your imagination.
Conscience and imagination are not enough, to make magic happen we need to add one more ingredient, we need to add love. Opening ourselves to love means opening ourselves to the possibility of change. It means making ourselves vulnerable. It means seeking connection with someone, and something, beyond ourselves. It means recognizing that none of us alone is sufficient, that we need each other to survive.
Love is very much a part of our Universalist heritage. Our Universalist ancestors believed that a loving God did not punish sinners with eternal damnation. But more than that, they believed that God's love was not limited. It was unlimited. That might be a good way to summarize their theology: Universalism, the church of God's love, unlimited.
When we combine conscience, imagination, and love we can perform powerful magic. This magic is about creating things that do not yet exist. It is also about making ourselves aware of the things that already exist. Sometimes, the better world hope for is already right here.
One of the places I learned this lesson was from my favorite children's author, Daniel Pinkwater. You might have heard of him, he used to be a regular commentator on NPR. Now, I have been reading a lot of Pinkwater lately. One of the great things about being a parent is that I get to return to the books of my youth when I share them with my kids. In the past couple of years, I have probably read more than a dozen of Pinkwater's books. They have great titles like "The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death," "Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars" or "Yobgorgle, the Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario."
Reading these books as an adult, I have realized that they all have a common theme--the world is filled with magic. The trick is finding it. And finding it does not turn out to be all that difficult. It is often just a matter of perceiving things around you a little differently. When you do, you start to notice wonderful things that you hadn't seen before.
Take "The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death." It is novel about three friends who snarkout--that is sneak out of the house late at night to go see the movies. They do not got to any movie theater, they go to the Snark Theater. It is a twenty-four theater that shows all kinds of movies--everything from blockbusters to obscure French or Japanese classics. The Snark isn't just a movie theater, it is a way of life.
Going there allows the kids to enter into a world that they would have never encountered otherwise. They meet a man with a dancing chicken. He keeps the chicken under his hat and takes her out to perform--he accompanies the bird by singing. They find a wonderful bohemian garden filled with art and music. They learn to speak on street corners. They collaborate with the world's greatest detective to solve a case. This magical world already existed. The three friends just had to find it.
My favorite verses in all of the Christian New Testament make a similar point. They are Luke 17:20 to 21. Do you know them? In one version they read, "Once Jesus was asked... when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "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 within you.'"
The Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy titled a book after these verses. His text "The Kingdom of God is Within You" is a pacifist classic. Mahatma Gandhi was so impacted by it that he wrote, it "overwhelmed me." It played a central role in his development of strategies for the non-violent transformation of the world. He even named the intentional community he started in South Africa Tolstoy Farm in honor of Tolstoy and the book's influence on him. For Gandhi, the nonviolence Tolstoy inspired was partially rooted in "the infinite possibilities of love."
Gandhi was a great inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. King called Gandhi "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change." Like Gandhi and Tolstoy before him, King saw nonviolence as based in love and self-transformation. He said, "it is love that will save our world." He also also claimed that nonviolence was not primarily about changing the hearts of the oppressors. Instead, "It... does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had."
Practitioners of the kind of nonviolence advocated by King, Gandhi, and Tolstoy, understand that changing the world has to begin by changing yourself. There is a strange way in which it is a bit like my friend Richard's sandwich. If you want a sandwich you have to make it. If you want to live in a different world you have to start engaging in the world differently. One of the best places we can do this is in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
It was not very long ago that same-sex marriage was illegal, and the idea of marriage equality seemed a fanciful dream. I am just old enough to remember when it seemed that almost every member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities I knew in my hometown was in the closet. Or at least, in the closet everywhere except the Unitarian Universalist congregation I grew up in. In my Unitarian Universalist congregation, we had a diversity sexual orientations and gender identities. Through religious education and in my youth group I was taught that honoring this diversity made our community a freer and more loving place, one in which we could bring the fullness of who we were in a way that was not possible in many other spaces.
The same was true in the congregation I served in Cleveland. It is a small urban church. Cleveland is a somewhat culturally conservative place. We were the only religious community in our neighborhood that performed same sex unions. Same-sex marriage was then illegal in Ohio, but we believed in marriage equality. We believed in celebrating a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities.
I remember one celebration for a same sex union we did. It was for a couple who lived in the neighborhood. The two women did not attend the congregation. I never saw them on Sunday morning. But one day they came up to the church and knocked on our front door.
They were very much in love. They wanted to know if we would do a service to bless their union, to honor their love. They came from very conservative families. They told people that they lived together as roommates. But they were able to share their beautiful truth with us. So, we organized a service in the sanctuary where they could commit to each other and sanctify their bond.
We were just one of hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States that did similar things--performed same-sex unions when same-sex marriage was illegal. But here's the secret, in our congregations we lived as if same-sex marriage was already legal. We lived as if it was perfectly normal for there to be families with two Dads or two Moms. We did this as just we lived as if it was perfectly normal for there to be families with single parents or two heterosexual parents. And because we did that we helped to create a world in which it is possible to celebrate many kinds of families and many kinds of partnerships.
This is how social change happens. A group of people imagine that the world can be different. And then they act as if the world is different. And then the world changes. It is magic. And it is something we can do in our congregations.
This theology runs deep in the collective rafters of our Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many people know that Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" is one of the foundational texts of nonviolent philosophy. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian and many of us like to claim him as one of our own. But less known is a figure named Adin Ballou.
Ballou was by turns a nineteenth-century Unitarian and Universalist minister--there was a lot of that going on before the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. He was a committed abolitionist. He also believed in nonviolence. Ballou taught, "We cannot render evil for evil ... nor do otherwise than 'love our enemies.'"
Ballou was one of the inspirations for Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is Within You." Such as Ballou's influence on the Russian novelist, that when he was asked who he thought was the greatest American writer Tolstoy replied, without hesitation, Adin Ballou.
Ballou taught that the only way to make social change was to start where you live and make the change there. With several friends, he started a utopian community called Hopedale. They believed in women's equality and so in their community women were able to hold office and vote. This was seventy years before women won the right to vote in federal elections. They wanted a fairer economy so they created cooperative business enterprises. They opposed slavery so they refused to buy goods that we created by enslaved people. They questioned many of the ways that things were done in the world and then did things differently. And because of this there's a direct line that can be traced from their work to Tolstoy to Gandhi to the civil rights movement and the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hopedale and Unitarian Universalism's work for marriage equality are but two examples of how our religious communities are places where we make magic happen. Can you think of others? How have Unitarian Universalist congregations stood for reproductive health? How have we stood for the rights of migrants? How have we struggled against racism? How have we fought for gender equality? How have worked towards economic justice?
The challenge, and the question, really is, how can this congregation be a place where we make magic happen? I know that we are small and in a small community but we can still be a place where we imagine a different world and then bring that world into being. In modest ways, we already do. We have a rainbow flag that we are going to hang out front of the church to let the town know that we bless a diversity of genders and sexual orientations. This Wednesday members and friends of the congregation are meeting to plan some social justice events for the spring. Last night, we held a pizza and games party that brought people together for fun and food. In doing so, we did a little to confront one of the most pressing issues of our time: social isolation. The rainbow flag, social justice events, pizza and games, all acts of magic, all bringing something new into the world and into Ashby that would not exist otherwise.
Rather than giving myself the last word. I would like to give it to you. I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, "Neighbor, this congregation is a place where we can make magic happen. Let's make some magic together."
May it Be So and Amen.
Feb 3, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, January 21, 2018
This week marked the year anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump. Shortly before he was inaugurated, I preached a sermon to a different congregation in which I said that one of our most important tasks for the coming years was to nurture the spiritual practices that would sustain us through difficult times. Today, as part of my two-sermon series on the self as social creature, I want us to consider one of those spiritual practices: the practice of friendship.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, "What was the name of my best friend?" is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, "I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again." For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay "Self-Reliance" he claimed, "Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members." He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community "the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself."
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, "I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know." Margaret Fuller's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him to write, "I have lost my audience." Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, "more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles..." Of him she wrote, "that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind." Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, "...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, "Friendship demands a religious treatment."
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, hustling through Boston, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through Mumbai's mazing streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called "the great family of all souls." If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, "We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables." Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, "the solidest thing we know." Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were almost always similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, "I come to this congregation because I love the community."
"That's it?," my internal dialogue would run. "You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure as minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!"
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, "Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude," but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. Just a few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making is a pretty powerful common center.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. "From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey," said one. "Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart," said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, "The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one." I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, "I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else."
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits: I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and reminds me I should try to make the world a better place. I recommit to justice work and march to oppose white supremacy and racial hatred.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, "What was the name of my best friend?" was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: "We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying." Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, "Hello, I would like to get to know you." Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, "I have my greatest gift to give you, my self." Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights.
Nov 13, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017
The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”
It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.
This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.
This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.
Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.
The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:
“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.
This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”
My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.
When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...
We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.
I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.
One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”
We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”
But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.
This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.
Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.
There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?
In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.
The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.
After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:
May my words,
and our time together,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
Amen and Blessed Be.