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.
May 9, 2017
as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016
This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.
Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce... condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”
The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.
I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.
To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.
That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.
The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.
When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.
The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.
In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.
Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.
The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.
Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives--books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers--and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.
In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.
This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.
What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.
Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.
I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites... The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.
Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.
White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.
The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.
Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.
Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.
So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.
All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe