Mar 27, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, Andover, MA, March 26, 2017
It is nice to be here with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here in Andover two springs ago. I remember your congregation as warm and welcoming. Georgia has been super helpful. I am glad to report that my memories have not been deceptive.
This morning I want to talk with you about God. Specifically, I want us think together about who or what God is and how we imagine God. So, let me start with a question. When I say the word God what image appears? How do you imagine God? Does God have a face? A body? A sweet voice that provides tender inspiration? A stern baritone that rolls like thunder across harsh rebuke? How do you imagine God? Does the very word prompt in you a rising anger? Do you reject any concept of the divine? Do you consider yourself a humanist? Do you put this worldly human concerns over and against any deity’s reality? How do you imagine God?
Our question has perplexed artists, theologians, religious leaders, and, well, really, almost everyone for as long as there has been human culture. In the twentieth-century the theologian Paul Tillich defined God as a symbol for ultimate concern. God represents the thing that matters most to us human beings. That thing is a little different for every person and in every moment of time. Even the most cursory survey of religious history reveals how much our ultimate concern has shifted over the ages.
The most ancient images of the divine are all similar in shape. Paleolithic Venus figurines have been found throughout Europe. Rough carved from a single piece of ivory or stone, they each feature spherical breasts on a spherical body and an exaggerated detailed vulva. No one knows exactly what they mean or how they were used. They were created by a preliterate culture. Most scholars think these millennia old figurines were made for some sacred ritual purpose. Perhaps they used in healing rituals. It might be that they were thought to bring the blessing of fertility. Whatever the case these small statutes of female bodies were created by hands. Someone imagined them. Then that someone patiently chipped and carved and worried the feminine divine from mental image to physical instantiation. Is this aged icon how you imagine God?
Maybe your image of God comes from somewhere else. Perhaps when I say God you envision a dynamic pantheistic cast. Do you see Ganesha, the multi-armed elephant headed Hindu Lord of Obstacles? He places obstacles in the paths of those who grow too haughty. He removes obstacles from others in their times of need. Maybe instead you glimpse beautiful Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. In her bare fleshed perfection, she might be accompanied by another deity from her ancient pantheon. Perhaps she is with her lover Ares, fierce god of war. Maybe your image of the divine is linked to old Egypt. The goddess Bastet, cat headed and woman bodied? Horus with the head of a falcon? Are any these your image of God?
How do you imagine God? Does the word conjure forth visions from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Do you see God reaching forth from a host of angels? His face is bearded and white. He is clad in an off-white robe, almost pink really, and his arm extends to a naked Adam. Adam reclines on a blue green hill. The first man reaches towards God. His finger is slightly crocked. God is struggling to reach him. Adam is just out reach of the divine. He gazes back at divinity with a mixture of laziness and longing. Are these white men frozen in a five hundred year old fresco who you think of when you imagine the divine?
How do you imagine God? It is a question with ethical and political implications. The famous nineteenth-century American agnostic Robert Ingersoll claimed, “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” The divine orderings that we humans imagine are often but celestial reflections of our own earthly concerns. The Venus figurines could have been created because in a Paleolithic community fertility and fecundity, the continuation of the species from one generation to the next, might have been of utmost concern. The complexities of pantheistic hierarchies of deities reflected the emerging complexity of the first urban societies. Michelangelo placed a white man at the pinnacle of the cosmos because his society was ruled by white men. Despite his creative genius he could not imagine, or at least dare to portray, a brown skinned woman or black hued man as his deity.
My own images of God are vague and nondescript. I am ambivalent about theism or the existence of the deity. I suppose as a minister I should have more defined views. But I appreciate that Unitarian Universalism allows us ambiguity. I have had moments of intense connection with something I would call the divine. In a bath of blue, standing before Chagall’s America Windows at the Chicago Art Institute, I see the artist’s fragmented fractal shapes, triangle panes of cobalt, cerulean, cyan, cornflower, sapphire, and turquoise, colliding with magenta and lemon, to form pirouetting figures, candelabrums, an unfolding cityscape of jagged buildings. Blue, Judaism’s color for the divine. One summer Saturday in seminary that bath of blue, washes over me and I feel intrinsically part of the universe, connected to the cool walls, connected to the slapping of shoe soles on the museum’s floor, the whisper of cloth as someone walks past.
Another moment, sipping tea in the kitchen while talking to a friend. The tea is green, bitter but sweet without sugar. My friend and I are having the same conversation we have had every week for the past three years. It’s spring and the first greens of the year peak in through the window. I feel comforted, blessed, connected, not just to my friend but to everything.
Searching the early autumn broadleaf forest for chanterelles, I look down at the leaf litter and see nothing--no apricot stemmed wrinkles of sweet mushroom flesh just browning crumpled leaf litter. I look up at the maples and oaks casting off summer’s lushness for burnt orange and piercing red. I look down again and suddenly see an almost endless array of edible fungus. As I pick pound after pound of the flaming sweet smelling mushrooms I feel like I have entered another reality, the forest and I are, for more than a moment, one.
Yet looking for God I have encountered absence. I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed for a loved one to recover from their addiction and been met with only silence. I have sought divine solace in the midst of restless nights fraught with worry and found none. I have opened my eyes to the horrors of the day--war, desolation, cruelty, greed--and discovered neither meaning nor love ordering our muddy blue green ball of a planet. And so, I am ambivalent about the divine. I have experienced connection and I have discovered absence. What about you?
Better theologians than I can craft doctrines from all of this mess. Today, let us not worry so much about divine existence. In our pluralistic society, and in our liberal religious tradition, it is a deeply personal question. I suspect each of you might share different stories about connection and absence. I know each of you make different conclusions about the existence or nonexistence of the divine. Yet for all of that we share some kind of reality, some set of common reference points.
The poet Wislawa [we slava] Szymborska made a humanist statement that might sum the major argument of this sermon:
We call it a grain of sand
But it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does fine without a name
mistaken, or apt.
Whatever ultimate reality there is in this universe is seen through human eyes and narrated through human stories. We take all of this rough and glorious mess, all of this absence and connection, and cast it into words and symbols. That is the only way we can share with each other something about what it all is and what it all means. The word sand is not quite sand. It is a symbol, a representation, an abstraction both calling to mind the general idea of sand and a particular grain of sand.
So too with God. The word God represents whatever it is we most value, we hold highest in our lives. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used to say: “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”
How do you imagine God? My own academic research of late has been into how people have represented God. Close to a hundred years ago Marcus Garvey was troubled by white images of God. Garvey is not a name usually uttered in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. In the 1920s he was the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It was the largest mass movement in African American history. It claimed a membership of millions and influenced not only the black freedom struggle in the United States but the struggle against colonialism throughout the globe.
The 1920s were a period of blatant white supremacy. There were race riots throughout country in which whites killed blacks. Lynching was an epidemic. The Ku Klux Klan was a dominant force in American society. It claimed millions of members. In response, Garvey preached what later would be called black pride. He wanted black people not be ashamed of the color of their skin. One of his strategies was to attack white symbols of the divine. He told his followers to reject a white Jesus and a white Mary. Instead, he encouraged them to worship the Black Man of Sorrows and a Black Madonna.
Though he is best remembered as bombastic and egotistical, Garvey could be a remarkably subtle thinker. After encouraging his followers to worship a black Christ he told them, “Christ was not black. Christ was not white, Christ was not completely red--Christ was the embodiment of all humanity. To be Christ he must have an equal part of all mankind in Him.” The Christian New Testament offers no physical description of Jesus. Garvey thought white people had a white Jesus because their ultimate concern was for whites. He wanted black people to have a black Jesus to express that their ultimate concern was for blacks.
What do such racially charged images do for your imaginings of God? Fill you with pride? Trouble with you? Appear irrelevant? In raising these images of God this morning I am trying to make three interwoven gestures. First, whatever the reality of the divine, our images of the sacred are human constructions. Second, the pictures we create of the holy matter. A white male God in heaven justifies white male rule on earth. Any honest student of history can tell you that white male rule on earth means a society organized for the benefit of white men. Different images of God lend their authority to different kinds of social structures. Third, whatever it is that these images represent is ultimately beyond human language. For me, God is best understood as an experience of transcendental connection, an experience of being a part of something greater, vaster, than myself. Your understanding of God might be different. But whatever the case, words will fail to help us reach agreement about the nature of the divine. If they could we as a human species would have long ago settled on who and what God is. But we haven’t.
Please do not understand these three gestures as a call for iconoclasm. I am not suggesting that we destroy our images of the sacred. Art provides one of the paths to connection with whatever it is that finally lies beyond about our ability to describe.
Our Puritan ancestors were suspicious of images of the holy. They took the Hebrew Bible’s third commandment of making no graven images quite seriously. Many a New England meeting house lacks stained glass, features white washed walls, and contains not a hint of representation.
We need not embrace such iconoclasm. Instead, I suggest that we approach our religious symbols with humility. Let us remember that they are but representations of the divine. They are not God, just as God is not God’s name. If we find that these symbols help us to connect to each other and to the transcendent mystery and wonder of which we are all a part then let us celebrate them. If, instead, we discover that they separate us from each other or justify a tyrant on earth then maybe we should hold our images of God to be idolatrous. Such images are not worthy of destruction but they are not worthy of worship either.
How do you imagine God? The late poet Derek Walcott translated his experience of connection:
A fish breaks the Sabbath
With a silvery leap.
The scales fall from him
In a tinkle of church-bells;
The town streets are orange
With the week-ripened sunlight
Do such words help you commune with whatever it is that lies beyond all human language? There is beauty in them for me. When I read them I feel connected to something beyond my myself.
This fine morning, may you find beauty and a sense of connection in all of the words and symbols you use to describe that which cannot be described. May you share that beauty with others. In doing so, you might find a richer sense of connection. Again, Walcott:
Of sunlight and pigeons,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.
Jan 7, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 10, 2009
This morning I am going to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the way in which we pass gifts from generation to generation. It is the act of preserving and maintaining the community so that the gifts that we receive from it might be available to future generations. Stewardship has four interrelated and interlocking aspects: love, money, values and tradition. The four facets of stewardship are related to each other and to our spiritual lives.
Money is the part of stewardship we talk about least often during our Sunday services. Love, values and tradition frequently appear in the Society's other sermons and services throughout the year. Money, however, generally only gets mentioned during the annual stewardship campaign. I suspect that this is because money often stands in tension with religion.
Money is, after all, one of the major ordering forces of the material world. For many of us it determines what kind home we have, what kind of food we eat, what type of clothes we wear and what forms of entertainment we can seek. Our society consistently broadcasts the message that an individual's self-worth is related to how much money he or she has.
Consumer culture has been built by trying to convince people that they will be happier if only the own certain products. Commercials promise happiness by offering us younger skin, new cars, trendier clothes, exciting food and better homes. The message is always clear. Transformation and personal fulfillment are possible through the consumption of products. What we have defines who we are.
Religion usually posits one of two oppositional messages to this gospel of consumerism. Religious communities suggest that we are either defined by what we believe or what we do. What we have is secondary to who we are. Anyone, regardless of their material possessions, can be a member of a religious community. In fact, someone's material possessions can stand in the way of their ability to participate in a religious community.
There are plenty of stories about how those with few material possessions and little money have a better chance at having a rich spiritual life. Many of you are probably familiar with a story called the rich young man found in the Christian tradition.
Once when Jesus was sitting with his disciples a rich young man came up to him and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied that in order to have eternal life all the young man had to do was keep the commandments. He should refrain from murder. He should not steal or commit adultery. He should love his neighbor as himself.
The young man was not satisfied with this answer and so he asked Jesus "I have kept all the commandments what do I still lack?" Jesus replied "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor..."
The young man was shocked and retreated in confusion. Jesus told his disciples "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God."
This story suggests that to be a member of Jesus's community you had to eschew material goods. They actually prevented one from being a full member of the community. Jesus favored the poor and the outcast more than he favored the wealthy or even the middle class.
Christianity is not the only religion to suggest that there is a tension between the material and the spiritual world. There is a Taoist story, for example, about the encounter between a Taoist gardener and a disciple of Confucius named Zi-gong.
One day Zi-gong was traveling through the country side when he saw an old man digging a ditch to connect a vegetable garden with a well. Slowly and painstakingly the gardener would draw a bucket of water from the well and pour it into the ditch.
Zi-gong approached him and said, "You know, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden faster and with less effort. Wouldn't you like that?"
"What type of contraption?" the gardener asked.
"It's called a well sweep. It is really just a wooden lever that is light in back and heavy in front. You pull on it and it allows you to draw water from the well in a steady flowing stream," Zi-gong replied.
The gardener was not impressed. In fact, he started to laugh at Zi-gong. Then he said to Zi-gong, "My teacher says that those with tricky tools have tricky business affairs. Those with tricky business affairs have trickery in their hearts. Those with trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure. Without purity they will have restless spirits and for them Dao cannot exist. I would be ashamed to use the sort of tricky tool you suggest."
In this story there is a clear scorn for material things. What is simplest is best. Any tool more complex than the most basic one might get in the way of an individual's spiritual life. To be a member of the gardener's spiritual community one must seek simplicity and avoid significant entanglements with the material world.
There is a certain usefulness and richness to such teachings. Our material lives should not define us. When we enter into a religious community or embark upon a spiritual path what we own and how much money we make should not limit us or even be particularly relevant.
Yet our physical beings and our communities are located in the material world. It is true that when we focus too much on money and material things our spiritual lives can be distorted. It is equally true that if we do not focus on the material world enough our spiritual lives will become distorted.
We Unitarian Universalists should be particularly cognizant of this. Unlike a lot of religious traditions most Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical about a realm of pure spirit. The contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, for example, argues that we can best understand our human nature by understanding our physiology. While we might have religious lives and spiritual experiences those lives and experiences are, for a large part, shaped by the material world we inhabit. Neglecting the material world can mean that we neglect the realm of the spirit. Our spiritual experiences are shaped by that material world.
"The Magic Penny" is a story that illustrates the connection between the material and spiritual realms. The story suggests that the more we give to others the more, in turn, we receive. You might remember it from the folk song by the same name.
A long time ago, a little girl found a magic penny. She and her family were poor and so she was delighted to have found some money for her own. She thought that, perhaps, she could buy herself a piece of penny candy.
That afternoon when she got home she was excited and told her father about what she had found. She told him that she was hoping to buy a lollypop. That evening her dad had to ask her for the penny. They were almost out of food and he needed the penny to buy a bag of beans so that everyone in the family could have something to eat. He told her he would repay her as soon as he could.
The little girl was crestfallen but she gave her father the penny and, filled with sorrow, went to bed. The next morning she woke-up and under her pillow were two pennies. She told her father and thanked him for giving her two pennies. He said that he didn't know where they came from.
Later that day she went to the candy store and bought her little brother a piece of candy. The next morning she discovered that her pennies had multiplied again. She continued to lend out her pennies or spend them on gifts for others. With each gift given or loan made her pennies came back to her, more than before.
After awhile she started to horde her pennies. Within a few days she noticed that her pile was decreasing in size. Every day that she went without lending out a penny or using a penny to buy a gift for someone her pile would get a little smaller.
The folk song compares the magic penny to love. The chorus and first verse of the song read:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
Love is like the magic penny because the more love we give the more we receive. If we hold ourselves in, are afraid to engage with others, and fail to share we will end up alone and unloved. It is only by loving others and seeking love that we can find it.
The song and the story capture the spirit of congregational stewardship perfectly. The more you give the more you receive. And stewardship is not just about giving money. It is about sharing our love, our values and passing along our tradition. The song reflects this. It is part of our tradition. It was written by Malvina Reynolds, a Unitarian Universalist folk singer who lived in Berkeley, California.
I first heard the song not as child but as an adult when I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Even though she died in the late 1970s Reynolds was still a presence within that congregation's life. People sang her songs and her family--Unitarian Universalists who attended other congregations in the Bay Area--came to do a program about her every few years.
The song was created by Reynolds as an expression of her love for her daughter Nancy. It is one way that Reynolds passed her love and her values down to the next generation. So, not only does the song provide a nice metaphor for stewardship it actually reflects the practice. Stewardship is not just about money. It is about how we pass along and share what is most important to us.
Passing along gifts between generations was a topic this past week in the Unitarian Universalist parenting group that Sara and I facilitate. As part of the class we the read the poem by Antoine de St. Exupery "Generation to Generation." The poem is about how values are passed from one generation to the next. It ends with the lines: "We live, not by things, but by the meanings / of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords / from generation to generation."
After reading the poem participants took a little time to reflect upon and share the passwords that had been handed down to them from a previous generation. Passwords help us gain entrance into secret or closed places. In the sense of the poem they are the keys that unlock our identities. They help us define who we are and what means to be a member of particular community or family.
In the class, people shared words like justice, spirit or love. These were often key concepts that had ordered their lives. Such things are worth sharing with the following generations.
The conversation was about being stewards of our religious and familial values. As members of families and a religious community we are inheritors of traditions. It falls upon us to continue those traditions.
Stewardship is the act of preserving and nurturing the tradition for those who will come next. You may not know but anyone sitting in this room is the beneficiary of the stewardship of previous generations.
Those previous generations were filled with love. They proclaimed that all of humanity is worthy of God's love and wanted to share that message with others. They believed that love was transformative and that one of the purposes of religious community was to teach us to love better.
They sought to nurture a tradition that expressed and articulated that love. A tradition that provided an alternative to more orthodox religious movements that taught that the love of God and the humanity community are both limited.
This tradition and that love gave them the values to proclaim that women and men should have equal rights, that people of all colors and creeds are full members of the human and that sexual orientation should not limit one's right to have a partner or a family. This love and tradition called them to create a religious community where there is room for many different beliefs so that we might have a congregation which includes atheists, pagans, theists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people with other religious understandings.
And in order to share their love, nurture their tradition and spread their values they gave time and money to support Unitarian Universalism. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a place to worship on Sunday. Without them we would not be able to broadcast the message that all of humanity is one family and that everyone is welcome--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or other human divisor--in our community. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a community from which to reach out to refugees, advocate for peace, emphasize the importance of our connection to the natural world, speak out in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and work for justice.
Think of all of these gifts you have received. Surely they are worth nurturing and passing down to the next generation. One of the ways we pass these gifts down is through the act of financial giving. It is just one part of stewardship but it is an important part.The money that we give to our Unitarian Universalist congregation is an expression of the love we have for each other, the tradition we hold sacred and the values that we seek to promote. Giving money to the congregation sustains it and allows us to continue spreading and sharing our tradition of love.
This year as we launch our annual canvass we are trying something new. We are shifting to something called fair share giving. With fair share giving each person or family is asked to give a percentage of their income, rather than a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving allows you to self-identify how important this congregation and Unitarian Universalism are to your life. You can call yourself a supporter and give 3% of your income, a sustainer and give 4%, a visionary and give 5% or offer a full tithe of 10%. The goal of fair share giving is to have everyone give a meaningful amount rather than raise a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving recognizes that everyone's circumstances and different and that for some even giving at the 3% level can be a stretch. The hope is even if you cannot make a commitment to fair sharing this year you might be able to work towards it next year.
Fair share giving is like the magic penny. In the end it is not the amount that is given that is not as important as the commitment. If everyone gives their fair share we will have more than enough for all of the congregation's needs and ministries.
John Wolf said, "There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin or sexual orientation."
I hope that agree that this congregation and this tradition are worth supporting. If you do I am certain you will receive more than you give and find, like the magic penny, your love and your pledge multiplied many times over.
May be it so. Amen.