Oct 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019
Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.
One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.
Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”
Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”
The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.
Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.
Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”
To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.
Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”
Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.
Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.
Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.
One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.
First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.
I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.
Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy.
In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.
Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.
This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.
Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.
We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:
Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.
I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:
I build & build
& someone takes it away.
It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.
If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.
That it may be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Sep 16, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 15, 2019
In the Christian New Testament, there are a set of words attributed to Jesus that are sometimes called the harshness sayings by scholars. They are called that because, well, they suggest that Jesus was the sort of person who made a lot of other people uncomfortable. He spoke truth to power. And he was not always polite when he did. He told people that if they wanted to achieve the Kingdom of God then they needed to radically change their society and their lives. He suggested that in order to follow his teachings they needed to shift almost everything about what they did.
You might know a couple of the more famous of these harshness sayings. They are phrases like: “...it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And “If your right eye causes your downfall, tear it out and fling it away” And “If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
The harshness sayings suggest that religious practice, as Jesus saw it, was not an easy thing. It required personal sacrifice. It necessitated questioning everything about how people did things. To be faithful, in his view, required a radical confrontation with the reigning world order. It meant uprooting the powers and practices that organized human life and replacing them with something else.
Such a religious view is in no way unique to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, we find prophets like Jeremiah who complain about how difficult it is for people to follow God’s teachings:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem,
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly,
Who seeks integrity,
That I should pardon her.
It was the religious task, the mission, of prophets like Jeremiah to point out to the people of Jerusalem that they were not living in accordance to the will of their God. They needed to change everything they were doing if they were to live in accordance with the divine’s laws. Otherwise, Jeremiah warned, their civilization would face utter destruction.
Again, we see in this prophetic tradition the idea that religious practice is not easy. It is something that requires a fundamental shift in the way that people are doing things. They need to reimagine their relationships with each other and with the divine if they are going to live faithfully.
I have been thinking about the harshness sayings and the prophetic tradition as I have sought a Unitarian Universalist response to the climate crisis. As I mentioned last week, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crises lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. Addressing them, as a religious community, means asking the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
Last week we talked about disrupting white supremacy. This week we are talking about how to respond to the climate emergency. It is a good week for it. This coming Friday there will be a youth-led Global Climate Strike. It is likely to be the largest climate action in history. The Unitarian Universalist Association is inviting Unitarian Universalists across the country to participate. Here in Houston, the staff of First Church is encouraging members and friends to join in these protests. On Friday morning, we will be gathering here at 10:00 a.m., making signs, practicing songs, and then, after a brief worship service led by our Assistant Minister Scott Cooper, traveling as a group to city hall.
I hope that many of you will come. Immediately following the service, we are having a brief meeting to discuss logistics. One of the local organizers, Lia Millar will be joining us. At the meeting, we will be also talking about how you can participate if you are unable to miss a day of work or school. I recognize that skipping work to be part of a protest is a risk that makes some of you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it even endangers your livelihood. We want everyone to be able to be express their distress and concern about the climate emergency. And so, our Membership and Communications Coordinator Alma Viscarra has developed a social media strategy for those of you who will be working on Friday. The more of us that express commitment to do something about the climate emergency, the greater the chances are that we can, collectively, do what needs to be done to confront it.
The coming Global Climate Strike has been largely inspired by Greta Thunberg. Greta is a sixteen-year-old from Sweden. Last year she started skipping school every Friday to protest adult inaction on the climate emergency. Frustrated, angry, and more than a bit terrified, she, by herself, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament and demanded that people start talking about the crisis. Within a few weeks she was joined by other children from throughout Europe. On a regular basis they began to climate strike and skip school. When Greta and those who joined her were criticized for neglecting their education, Greta responded:
“And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
There is a certain resonance between Greta’s words and the harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic words of the great Hebrew prophets. In her speeches, she has repeatedly chastised adults for failing to address what represents a profound threat to our current human civilization and life on Earth. She says, “... on climate change we have to acknowledge that we have failed. All political movements in their present form have … [failed]. And the media has failed to create broad public awareness.” Her words an indictment to all of us who are over the age of about thirty and who have failed to do anything significant to address the climate emergency.
During our lifetimes, the situation has grown more dire. We have known that carbon emissions are causing the Earth to rapidly warm for decades. And yet, over the last thirty years humans have emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our species did over the prior two hundred. If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at this rate then we will have placed our planet on the path to warm by two degrees Celsius within ten years. And that will create a truly dire situation. Island nations will drown. Coastal cities will flood. Millions of people will be displaced. Many millions may starve as drought renders some farm lands unproductive.
It is past time to debate the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations, has repeatedly made clear that there is an overwhelming consensus on the part of scientists about the state of the climate emergency. The author Scott Westerfeld has circulated a meme that summarizes how ridiculous it is debate the science. It reads, “Plot idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.”
Besides, we have already begun to feel the impact of the climate emergency. Hurricanes like Dorian and Harvey have become more frequent and more intense in recent decades as the Earth has warmed. At the same time, as many as a million species on Earth are threatened with extinction due to human action. Every day, as many as two hundred species go extinct.
Let me give you a few words from Greta Thunberg: “We are now at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies.”
She starkly summarizes our situation this way: “Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.”
“Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.” I hear in those words echoes of the harshness sayings. I hear in them echoes of the prophetic teachings. But I want to suggest that there’s a difference. And it is a theological difference.
The harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings have, for the several centuries, been one of the major animating forces behind what we might call the apocalyptic story. The apocalyptic story is a narrative derived from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It is probably familiar to most of you. In apocalyptic stories, the world is caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This struggle will ultimately result in cataclysmic battle in which the forces of good triumph for all time over the forces of evil. Humans will find themselves in the heavenly city after God has vanquished the Devil.
In many versions of the apocalyptic story, humans play little role in bringing about this ultimate victory of good over evil. The tradition of the prophets is often interpreted as meaning that God is the one who will bring about collective salvation. The harshness sayings of Jesus are often read in a similar way.
Apocalyptic stories are rooted in a claim that matter, that the Earth, is itself somehow fallen, corrupt, or sinful. Earthly matter, the material substance of which we are composed, passes away. Bodies age and decay. We have physical suffering. Death comes to all of us.
Apocalyptic stories are predicated on the idea that it is possible to escape material corruption. They rest upon the belief that matter and conscious, body and soul, are two separate entities. They are based in a belief that human beings are somehow different from other animal species. And that the purpose of our existence, our reason for being, our salvation, individual and collective, has little to do with the loam and clay, the sand and stone, the soil and dirt, upon we place our feet. This view is poetically expressed in the words of the old Texas songwriter, Jim Reeves:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue
In the European philosophical and theological tradition this idea goes back a very long way. One place it is found is in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato has been so influential on the European tradition that another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once wrote, “the European philosophical tradition... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato had the idea that the material world is but a shadow of a higher reality. This was the world of forms. He used a famous allegory to explain the distinction between the material world and the world of forms. Perhaps you have heard it, it is called the allegory of the cave.
Imagine, he argued, that there are group of prisoners chained in a cave. They are chained in such a way that they have to look straight ahead at the cave wall. They cannot turn their heads to see behind them. Behind them is a fire. And a group of puppeteers with puppets. The puppeteers use the puppets to cast shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners can only see the shadows, not the objects that are creating them. They mistake the shadows for reality. When, in truth, the shadows were a pale imitation of it.
In his reckoning, the shadows were matter. The things casting the shadows was pure being. Human bodies were matter. They were transient one-dimensional reflections of the pure being of the soul. Bodies died. Souls were immortal.
This division between the body and soul gave philosophy, in Plato’s rendering, much of its purpose. Philosophy was meant to be a discipline whereby its practitioners could move beyond the illusions of materiality and immerse themselves in the contemplation of true reality. Socrates was another Greek philosopher. He was Plato’s teacher and in Plato’s writings he is often cast as the ideal philosopher. He is also frequently described as disassociating himself from his body and matter--choosing the contemplation of the ideal over a direct engagement with the earthly mess of daily living. In one of Plato’s dialogues he’s described as someone who “stands aside from the body insofar as he can.” His alienation from his body is so complete that Plato depicts him as caring almost nothing about clothing, comfort, or even food. He can stay up all night thinking about the soul and not get tired. He is anything but an ordinary human. “Socrates is weird,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes. Plato’s transformed person, the one who has conquered their corruptible, transient, material body is, very little like you or me. Faithful living, in his rendering, is harsh and takes us far from ordinary life.
Plato’s division between the body and the soul was taken up by many ancient Christian theologians. Augustine, who might be thought of as the father of Trinitarian Christianity, took Plato’s idea of the separation between the body and the soul and, combining it his reading of the harshness sayings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, applied it to human history. He thought it was impossible for human beings to achieve God’s vision for justice and salvation. This was because, he reasoned, our material reality made us corrupt and imperfect. God, however, was incorruptible and perfect. There was no point in struggling for justice because humanity’s corrupt nature would ultimately screw things up. The only thing we could do was wait for God to bring about the end of human history. Which God was going to do in fairly short order.
This apocalyptic view of history has been one of the central stories in European theology and philosophy since Augustine. And thinking about it, one might find resonances between apocalyptic stories and the current climate emergency. However, I detect meaningful distinctions. Accepting that we are in the midst of a climate emergency means embracing our material reality, rather than rejecting it. It means recognizing that humans are, collectively, largely the agents of our own historical destiny rather than part of a divine plan.
Last week, I spoke about the need to find new ways of being and new religious narratives. Those new ways of being and new religious narratives are connected to embracing our materiality rather than rejecting it. They require us to recognize that this world is our home. That our treasure is here, not laid up in some cerulean realm. That we recognize that our actions, small and large, have an impact on this Earth and on how the human story will progress or resolve itself.
I had something of an awakening to this over the summer when I was in Paris. My parents, son, and I were there on one of our fairly frequent European quasi-vacations. My father teaches most summers abroad and for most of my life I have joined my parents for at least part of their trip--my father working hard and the rest of us more-or-less on vacation.
The summer heat reached unprecedented levels while were there. For three days in a row, it was over a hundred degrees. One day, it was over 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Paris is not like Houston. It is not a city built with air conditioning. The apartment we were staying in did not have central air. There was nowhere to escape the heat. Inside it was hot. Outside it was even hotter. Walking down the street or just moving was exhausting.
As we suffered through that heat, I thought about the connection between air travel and climate change. I am pescatarian. I do not own a car. I take public transit or walk most places I go. I do not buy a lot of new clothes. But even so, my love of travel has made my carbon footprint, my contribution to climate change, much larger than it should be.
When I hear the harshness sayings of Greta Thunberg, I hear her talking to people like me--people of self-declared conscience, people who understand themselves to have empathetic and good hearts. And I hear her saying two things. I hear her saying, you need to do all you can to work to confront this crisis we are in. If we do not resolve it now it will fundamentally change the world we inhabit for the worse. And I hear her saying, you need to reimagine your own habits, your own way of moving through the world.
It is a call to a new way of being. One not based in a rejection of material being, but its embrace. It is a call to hear the words of a poet like Pablo Neruda:
Es una copa llena
The world is
a glass overflowing
It is a call to recognize that the Earth itself is sacred.
The author Naomi Klein has observed that this new way of being changes everything. There is a need, she writes, for “breaking... many rules at once,” for “shifting cultural values,” for changing the way we understand the world, the narratives we have, and the actions we take.
This can only be done through collective sacrifice and collective effort. We have made such sacrifices before. It might be possible to make them again. The people of the United States sacrificed enormously to mobilize to defeat fascism during World War II. They changed their consumer habits. They grew their own food. They even reorganized family structures--sending women into factories while men went off to war.
Such collective sacrifice and collective effort is being called for in legislation like the Green New Deal. Its ten trillion-dollar price tag has been called outrageous by some. Yet, it is within the range of the possible. The United States government spent as much as three or four trillion dollars on bailing out the banks during the recent financial crisis. That same government has spent as much as six trillion dollars on the so-called War on Terror.
I am pretty sure that four plus six still equals ten. So, the question does not appear to be do we have the resources to attempt to quickly shift our society and address the climate emergency. The question rather seems to be, do we have the will make the collective sacrifice and effort to do so. I am not going to pretend that I, or you, or any of us individually has that capacity. I find myself uncertain that I can even give up air travel. My parents and brother live in far-away states, most of my scholarly collaborators gather for academic conferences, and I enjoy seeing distant parts of the world. When I think about radically changing the way I do things, I find myself thinking of a line from Augustine, “Lord make me pure but not yet!”
But I also find myself thinking of words from Greta Thunberg about hope, the possibility of change, and the ways that future generations might view us. Here a few final words from her:
“The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there was still time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.”
After Greta’s words, I close not with a prayer but with an invitation. I invite us to join together on in the pursuit of new ways of being. I invite us to engage in collective action. I invite us to come together and change everything. I invite us to see ourselves as part and parcel of this material reality, this good blue green ball of a planet we call Earth.
Please join me, First Church’s staff, thousands of other Unitarian Universalists throughout the country, and millions of other people across the world on Friday. Join us if you can, in person. Join us virtually if you cannot.
And now, I invite you, the congregation, to say Amen.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
That it may be so,
let the congregation say Amen.
Apr 23, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 21, 2019
Happy Easter! It is good to be with you. Holiday services like these always bring together a special congregation. Some of you are visiting for the first time, seeking a religious community. Some of you have come with friends or family, enjoying the sense of connection and fellowship that holidays offer us. Some of you attend our services only occasionally. You are probably here so you can be with your church on this special day. And some of you worship at First Church most Sundays. Whatever brought you here to this beautiful brick sanctuary, I want to extend pause and say welcome.
Since it is Easter, I thought I better talk with you about Jesus. Specifically, I thought I should give you a sense of how Unitarians have historically approached Jesus. For generations, we have focused on his life and teachings rather than his death on the cross. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” It was preached in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819. It was the text that crystalized Unitarianism into a definitive theological position in the United States and prompted the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the forerunners of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
In his sermon, and I apologize for the dated language, Channing made the claim that Jesus’s mission was “the recovery of men to virtue, or holiness.” He further proclaimed “the doctrine of God’s unity.” In this unity God had “infinite perfection and dominion.” Channing maintained that Jesus was “a being distinct from the one God.” He was, in Channing’s words, someone who had a “human mind” whose death on the cross was “real and entire.” In essence, Channing claimed that Jesus was a man who taught that within each of us resides holiness. This holiness connects us to God. The purpose of religion, in this classic Unitarian view, is to awaken in us this sense of holiness and bring us closer to the divine.
This morning I am not going to offer you a recitation or exegesis of Channing’s sermon on “Unitarian Christianity.” Nor am I going to provide you discourse on its historical significance. Instead, I am going to give you a sermon that captures something of the essence of Channing’s theology. Whether we take it literally or metaphorical it contains within it revolutionary and transformative power.
Our sermon has three movements: the infinity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and the divinity within. Before we dive in, I thought I would give you a part. At the conclusion of each movement I invite you to say, “Hallelujah.”
A few weeks ago, I shared that “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” I know that this is a sentiment that makes some of us uncomfortable. Allow me to suggest, just for this morning, that if you are a humanist, as I am, we agree to greet the word God as a symbol. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, life itself.” So, when we say, “Hallelujah” let us think of ourselves praising any or all of those things. Praise God, “Hallelujah.” Praise the ground of being, “Hallelujah.” Praise life itself, “Hallelujah.”
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
The Infinity of God
In the ninetieth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible we find Moses pray:
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being,
before You brought forth the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity You are God.
In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita we discover generous descriptions of the divine:
You are without beginning, middle, or end;
you touch everything with your infinite power.
The sun and moon are your eyes, and your mouth
is fire; your radiance warms the cosmos.
O Lord, your presence fills the heavens and
the earth and reaches in every direction.
In the Quran we read:
...If the ocean were
Ink (wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lod.
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord...
I might continue and point you to words in the Tao Te Ching or from the Buddha or from some indigenous traditions. Whatever we choose, there are numerous texts that teach, as the fourteenth-century theologian Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote, “God is immeasurable and incomprehensible, unattainable and unfathomable.”
God is infinite. Infinity is a difficult concept to grasp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... I could keep counting for the entirety of this sermon and never approach infinity.
The British science fiction writer Douglas Adams offered a humorous approach to infinity in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The book is part of a series called the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the characters wander across space and time. Finite beings in an infinite universe, they struggle to understand their places in the great misorder of things. Fortunately, they have the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to help them. It is Wikipedia if the editors of Wikipedia had a sense of humor. It is also a physical object with “the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Peering into the text Adams’s characters find this description of infinity: “Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself look really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”
The German mathematician David Hilbert attempted to explain infinity with his infinite hotel paradox. A hotel, we all know, has a finite number of rooms. If you have tried to book a popular destination for a holiday you may have discovered this. Maybe you have even been in the situation where the place you wanted to stay ran out of rooms before you managed to secure your vacation.
Relax, Hilbert said, we can avoid this problem. We just need to build an infinite hotel. In the infinite hotel there will be infinite rooms. When you call up the hotel you might discover that it is already full of guests. “No matter,” the manager will tell you. “Whenever a new guest arrives we ask each guest to move to a new room. The guest in room 1 moves to room 2. The guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on. There is always room in the infinite hotel. Because we have infinitely many rooms there is space at the end--even if we already have infinite guests--because infinity goes on forever.”
All of this is obtuse, difficult to understand, maybe a little ponderous and opaque, and, quite possibly, impractical. This is, however, actually the message of this part of the sermon. God is infinite. God is beyond human comprehension. Do such statements, such texts, resonate with your experience?
They resonate with mine. Here is a thing that has happened to me, again and again. I have found myself along the edge of the ocean, at night, wandering the shoreline--that place where the water crashes into the sand. The wind lilts, a soft sound above the rhythmic rush of the tide. My feet are just a little damp, my flesh slightly chill. I look across the waves. They seem to go on without end, white foam crests upon white foam crests upon white foam crests. I look up at the sky, a starry night--not unlike Van Gogh’s luminous swirls and textured white yellow orbs. There is the Milky Way--a thick pointilated band. There is Orion--three stars for a belt, two stars for feet, and three for shoulders and a head. Suddenly, something in me shifts, and I feel conscious of my own temporary smallness among the infinite sea of stars and the ocean that appears to go on forever and forever. The universe feels infinite while I do not.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Humanity of Jesus
It is the infinity of God which brings us to the humanity of Jesus. It is a challenge to relate to the infinity of God. The theologian Karl Barth observed, “no... concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.” Throughout human history many people and many cultures have anthropomorphized the divine--they have made it human--in an attempt to understand it. This is what Trinitarian Christians have done. They have collapsed the infinity of God into the particularity of a human life in an effort to understand the unfathomable. In the Trinitarian Christian story, we come to know the infinite God through the finite Jesus who is the infinite God enfleshed.
In our Unitarian tradition we tell stories about Jesus in which he was a man who came to teach us about an infinite God. Jesus was not uniquely the incarnate God. He taught that God dwells inside each of us. The path to the infinite is found by looking within. Channing called this “the likeness to God.” Jesus was special because he had realized the likeness to God inside of him--the connection to holiness that is available to all of us. By awakening this holiness Jesus was able, in Channing’s words, to share with the world the “unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love” of the divine that resides within waiting to be stirred.
In the Trinitarian tradition, Jesus is God. A man who taught about God becomes God. Channing said, “No error seems to us more pernicious.” The path to spiritual awakening that Jesus lays out for us in the Christian New Testament is lost in a fog when Jesus is equated with God. Those who turn Jesus into God frequently miss the significance of his life and instead focus on his death. They claim that there is redemption to be found in state sanctioned torture--for that is what the crucifixion was--rather than in a life devoted to sharing the transformative power of love. They believe Jesus died on the cross to save all humans from sin and that this was the whole meaning of his life. Such a narrative Channing rejected “as unscriptural and absurd.”
Early Unitarians like Channing found the teachings of Jesus in his parables and sayings. They shared the importance of his lessons in their writings and in their art. The death of Jesus was not that important to them. If you visit a Unitarian church built prior to the early twentieth century you are likely to find the depiction of one of Jesus’s parables in the congregation’s stained glass. The famous Tiffany windows of Boston’s Arlington Street Church contain not a single depiction of Jesus on the cross.
Like those early Unitarians, I have a fondness for the sayings and parables of Jesus. My favorite is found in Luke 17:20-21. There he is asked, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
It is a really radical saying. At least, it is if we understand Jesus to be a human being rather than a God. A learned man of the people, a carpenter, a spiritual teacher, in the Christian New Testament we find him mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He travels with the common working people. He visits the most marginalized. He tells them that the kingdom of God is found among them. It is not found among the rich and powerful. To them Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The connection between the infinite and the human, he suggested, resides primarily among the fishermen and the peasants, the despised and the outcast.
Think about it. This human man, this person born of a human mother and who died a human death, had a unique connection, a unique understanding, of the holiness within. And he taught that holiness is most present among those whose struggle is greatest day-to-day. That, Jesus seemed to teach, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. It is not present in the evangelical church that celebrates a gospel of wealth and prosperity. It is not present with the ministers who proclaim the righteousness of their nation. It might not even be present in this sanctuary today. But it is found among those who come together and little by little work, struggle, and imagine a new way.
Another parable, Luke 13:18-19: “‘What is the kingdom of God like?’ he continued. ‘To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew to be a tree and the birds came to roost among its branches.’”
Here the kingdom of God begins by accident, by mistake. A man sows a mustard seed, anticipates a mustard plant--an annual that seeds and then perishes. Instead, a tree sprouts--an enduring majesty that lasts beyond the span of a human life. Birds come bringing song and plumed beauty. A man sows a mustard seed and from it comes so much. The smallest action, the littlest kindness, Jesus wished to teach, contains within it the possibility of great transformation. The smallest thing, perhaps, can blossom into the infinite.
The kingdom of God is among us. It is a human opening to the divine. We uncover it through acts of love, small and great.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Divinity Within
This human Jesus taught that we contain within us the likeness to God. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists have rephrased in more humanistic language by claiming that every human being has inherent worth and dignity. It is radical stuff. It means that the likeness to God is to be found within the migrant children and refugees who suffer at our borders. And it means that it found within the people who put them there. The challenge of religion is to awaken the likeness within each of us.
But more than that. The challenge today is even greater than awakening the likeness to God that resides within each of us. It is to recognize that the divinity within connects us to the divinity without. It is to stand on the seashore gaze up at the night sky and see ourselves a part of the great infinity that surrounds us. When we open ourselves thus--when we connect the divinity within to the divinity without--we find ourselves among the kingdom of God. We find that kingdom is here on this Earth, not in some distant heaven.
On this Sunday before Earth Day we are called to recognize that this is the only planet we have got. The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is among you. It is among the live oaks and sea shells. It is among the sunshine and the soft rain. Whatever holiness lies within it involves connecting to the glorious natural world of which we are a part--not subjugating it but learning to live in kinship with it. If we fail to confront the collectively created disaster of climate change then we are discovering the kingdom of God which is among us. Human life is not sustainable. Without course correction there will be no kingdom of God to be found anywhere upon this good green Earth.
This is why we gather--to open our connection to the planet’s beauty; to understand our dependence upon the soil, the sun, and the rain; to work to lead each other to better lives; to stir the holiness within. That is what Channing taught. And it is something I believe. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” was not an Easter sermon. It was an ordination sermon, preached upon the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks into the ministry. Channing took for his text a fragment of a line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
In his closing he said, “Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves.” He was certain that if we did, we would discover that Jesus taught us how to find the spark of the divine within--the spark that leaps from each to each and connects one to the all. He was also certain that it was task of the religious community to awaken the spark that resides inside all of us. Seek proof of such a spark within the text of your own lives.
In my closing to you, I invoke the poet Thylias Moss. Her poem “Fullness” speaks to me of Unitarian Christianity. Reflecting on the ritual of the Eucharist, a ritual meant to commemorate the life of Jesus, she writes:
...You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
Oct 24, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 21, 2018
It has been a little while since I have been with you all. It is good to be back in this pulpit. The last couple of weeks I have been off leading worship at First Church’s smaller campuses: Tapestry and Thoreau. Ministering to a multi-site congregation is new experience for me. And it is still something that I am trying to figure out. My sense is that you are also uncertain about what it means to be one church in three locations.
Visiting Spring, where Tapestry is, Stafford, where Thoreau is right now, and Richmond, where Thoreau is moving to, has helped me to get a better sense of the individual needs, cultures, and aspirations of your campuses. My visits with the other two Houston area campuses suggested to me that as a congregation you are collectively struggling with the question: Who are we?
Who are we? It is not an unexpected question during a period of ministerial transition. A lot of congregational identity is formed around a congregation’s senior minister. And the departure of one often brings congregations to struggle with their identities, to ask, who are we?
Who are we? is a deeply religious question. Rephrased as who am I or who are you it is probably the most fundamental question there is. And it is a far from an easy question to answer. There are scriptures recording both the Buddha and Jesus kind of dodging the question.
In the Dona Sutta the Buddha and a brahman, or priest, engage in a discourse over the Buddha’s identity. The brahman asks the Buddha if he is one of the various kinds of divine beings that inhabit Hindu cosmology. You will have to excuse my Pali I as reconstruct the dialogue.
“Master,” say brahman, “are you a deva?”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva,” replies the Buddha.
“Are you a gandhabba?”
“... a yakkha?”
“... a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
Clearly growing frustrated, the brahman queries, “Then what sort of being are you?”
To this question the Buddha gives the sort of long answer that you might anticipate from a prophet or great teacher. He explains why he is not this or that. He gives a discourse on how he has overcome the world. And then finally, he gives his answer:
Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
In the Christian New Testament Jesus is even more cryptic than the Buddha. Instead of answering the question himself he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” His disciples answer the Messiah. He then says that he’s the son of man. Elsewhere he gives different information saying that he is the son of God or the Christ. But he’s never really clear on his answer to the question, Who are you?
He is so unclear that for the last two millennium people have been debating Jesus’s answer to the question: Who are you? The Jesus that many people think they know comes a specific set of texts that were culled from much larger set. The canonical gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are often interpreted as portraying Jesus as Lord and Savior in a unique way. The non-canonical gospels, texts like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary, are more easily interpreted as portraying differently Jesus. Scholar Elaine Pagels advises us that “these texts speak of illusion and enlightenment... Instead of coming to save us from sin, [Jesus] comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.”
Who are you? When it came to Jesus, at first the early Christian church permitted people to have many answers to the question. And they argued about their answers fiercely. Three hundred years after Jesus’s execution, Gregory of Nyssa recorded that these disputes were all consuming:
Ask the price of bread today and the baker tells you: “The son is subordinate to the father.” Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he makes an answer: “The son arose out of nothing.”
Theologically orthodox Christians eventually settled the debate by proclaiming Jesus the son of God and inventing the trinity. They then kicked everyone out of the church who did not agree with them.
In giving his ambiguous answer to the question, Who are you?, I rather suspect that Jesus was intentionally being slippery. He probably would have been disappointed to learn that the church had fixed his identity and required people to believe certain things about him. He might have also hinted that asking the question, Who are you?, is more productive than coming up with a permanent answer to it. We humans change a lot over the course of our lives. I am a different person today than I was at seven, or fourteen, or twenty-eight. When I moved out of my parents house, I became a somewhat different person. When I became a parent, I changed. The same is true for you. The place you are in the cycle of life shapes will shape your answer to the question. So will your family of origin, your occupation, the city in which you live... The same is true for religious communities as well. And I will talk about that more in a bit.
Right now, let me say, I am not surprised about the Buddha and Jesus’s evasive approaches to the question of identity for it resonates with me on a personal level. Who are you?, is a question we ministers do not like. Robert Fulghum is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the author of the well-known, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He has a whole shtick about how he has answered this question when approached by strangers on planes. He has told them he was a janitor and a neurosurgeon. Once he refused to answer the question at all but invited his seatmate to play a game with him. They would each make up what they did for a living and then play pretend. Fulghum’s seatmate declared he was a spy. Fulghum decided to be a nun.
Eventually, Fulghum admits, he grew somewhat frustrated with the question. He started responding by invoking the great artist Marcel Duchamp. When asked who he was Duchamp would reply, “I am a respirateur (a breather).” Breathing is what he spent most of his time doing so he figured it defined who he was. Plus, Fulghum points out, breathing is more about being a human and less about being defined by what you do for a living. And so often when we ask someone who they are we anticipate an answer that is closely tied to their occupation.
I will admit that when asked who I am, I sometimes try to avoid the question too. Telling people that you are a minister can make for fairly awkward, or intense, conversation at parties. People usually want to skip the small talk and get straight to something serious. What do I think about the nature of God? Does the good really exist? Do I have thoughts on the Arminian controversy? I imagine that last one is something I probably won’t be asked outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, still, sometimes I just want to talk about my kids, or my cat, or the fact that I am really excited that the farmers market near my house has squash blossoms and they’re one of my favorite foods and I couldn’t get them the entire six years I lived in Boston. Or mushrooms... I really like mushrooms. Actually, I once preached a whole sermon on how much I like mushrooms.
Who are you? When religious communities try to answer this question, it can make them uncomfortable for all of the same reasons why it makes us as individuals uncomfortable. We do not like to be fixed, defined, as this or that. And we change. The way members of First Church answer our question will be somewhat different today than it was ten years ago or twenty years or fifty years ago.
In answering this question, I think First Church has a particular challenge. After having visited all three of your Houston area campuses I rather suspect that if I asked the members of each campus, Who are you?, I would get different sets of answers.
This is reflected in the reality that all three of your campuses have different histories. If I was to ask the members at Thoreau who their most important ministers had been they would probably tell me: Leonora Montgomery, Bill Clark, Paul Beedle, and Bonnie Vegiard. Tapestry has been largely lay-led. Its members would likely tell me Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Here at Museum District, I suspect you might name Bob Schaibly, Gail Marriner, Jose Ballaster, and Daniel O’Connell. Maybe someone would mention Webster Kitchell or Horace Westwood.
There is no simple through line that unites all of the histories of your campuses. Is there a clear through line that unites your cultures? My visits to Tapestry and to Thoreau have given me the impression that both have the feel of small lay led fellowships. Museum District here has been on the cusp of becoming a large church for many years.
Who are you? is probably hard for you to answer in part because your model is unique within Unitarian Universalism. There are only about four other congregations that practice multi-site ministry. And they each practice it differently.
The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, for example, has two campuses are separated by about ten minutes. Each week they hold an identical service at each campus. The services are two hours apart. Shortly after completing the first the minister gets into a car, sometimes followed by the choir, and dashes from one campus to the other.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego also has two campuses. The majority of the congregation gathers at their downtown campus for English language services. Another group gathers at their second campus for bilingual English and Spanish services. The congregation has three full-time ministers. They take turns leading the worship at the two campuses.
The First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque calls their smaller campuses branches. They livestream their sermons to small groups of Unitarian Universalists throughout New Mexico who do not have a congregation nearby.
Only the First Unitarian Church of Rochester has a model somewhat similar to yours. They provide the staff for a nearby smaller congregation. Unlike your model, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua have remained separate legal entities.
Who are you? One of your challenges as a congregation is trying to figure out if you want to answer this question as individual campuses or as a collective entity. Maybe you want to answer the question as both individual campuses and as a united congregation. Maybe not. Maybe you need a single answer that stretches across all of your campuses.
It is not for me to tell you. As your interim senior minister, it is my job to help you ask the right questions so that you can chart your path forward as you prepare for your next ministry. By raising these questions, I hope to help you get some clarity about where you have been and where you might go. I want them to be the right questions, the kind of questions that generate thoughtful conversation and deep reflection about that essential question, Who are you?
My approach to this question is mirrored in our poem from earlier this morning, an untitled piece by the Spaniard Antonio Machado:
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.
The poem suggests that life is a path upon which we trod with no direction, no meaning, except the one we give it. The road we travel is not something someone else has laid before us. It is our road and we create it as we move, leaving only the echo, only the wake, behind us, not a clear map for someone else to follow.
The poem inspired a famous dialogue between the two educators Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Horton was a civil rights hero who taught figures like Rosa Parks, Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, Septima Clark, and John Lewis something about organizing. Freire was a Brazilian teacher who spent many years working on adult literacy for his country’s poor and disenfranchised. They both believed that education, and life, is not a process which leads to final answers. Instead, they thought education is a collaborative process between student and teacher where each is a learner co-creating knowledge with the other.
They adapted the phrase “we make the road by walking” from Machado poem’s because it suggested to them that the journey, the process, was the destination. No one is ever finished with their education. Just as, if we are honest, no congregation, and no person, should ever have a permanent answer to the question, Who are you?
As members of a congregation, we commit to travel along the metaphoric road of life together. And as members of an experiment in multi-site ministry, you have committed to traveling together not just as not as a single community but as three commingled communities. This is not all that different from the life of other large congregations. In fact, it is not that different from what we find here at the Museum District if we looked within. The choir and the religious education program each form their own distinct communities within the larger tapestry that is the life of the Museum District campus.
Museum District’s choir, its religious education program, Tapestry, Thoreau... each community within the congregation is going to have different answers to the question: Who are we? The challenge you face is finding answers to the question that unite all of your communities.
There are many ways you might seek the answers to this question. You might, as we will be doing during our time together, ask other questions, questions that prompt you to explore your deepest values. What do you love? Why are you here? What is your mission to the world? What values do you want to pass along to the next generation?
You might also seek counsel from others. In some sense, that is my role as your interim, to offer you my perspective, my advice, on ways to pursue the question, Who are you? during your time of ministerial transition. You may seek guidance from the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association or from other congregations that have experimented with multi-site ministry.
Marilyn Sewell was the senior minister of First Unitarian Portland for close to twenty years. During her time there the congregation grew to be well over a thousand members. She advises however we answer the question, Who are you? we ground ourselves “in love and service.” For this is what Unitarian Universalism ultimately has to offer the world: A message that we are called to love everyone--that is extend universal goodwill to all--and labor together and make our society, and our planet, better.
That message is an important one in the challenging days in which we find ourselves. The midterm elections are upon us. They are time when voters collectively attempt to answer the question, Who are we? as a country. This is not a question with final answers. It is one that shifts over time. This should be a comfort to us as we face the disappointment and the horrors of recent years. Our religious tradition tells us that is no one fixed answer to who a country, a religious community, or a person--be they First Church, the United States, Jesus or Buddha, you or I--are across time. Instead, it suggests that our answers are ever changing. We travel along in the path of life seeking justice, and creating a shared congregational life, uncertain of our exact answers because that is the only thing that has ever happened. The road is always made as we travel. We answer the question, Who are we? as we go.
As we close, I invite you to join with me in prayer:
Oh spirit of life,
that some of us call God,
and others name simply
as the force that drives life forward,
be with us in times of uncertainty,
remind us that while the path
may be unclear,
the road uncertain,
it is still our path
our track to travel,
and that we travel it better
where we are,
as a community of seekers
united in a quest
for truth and justice,
joy and beauty.
That it might be so, let the congregation say Amen.