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Oct 2, 2018

Sermon: Habits of the Heart

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 30, 2018

We begin this morning’s sermon with a fancy word, soteriology. Soteriology is probably not a term that is familiar to most of you. In theological discourse it signifies the study of salvation. Salvation, that is what I want to talk with you about today.

Salvation, just by mentioning that word I suspect that a few of you are now glancing around for the exits. You might be wondering if you wandered into the wrong church. Salvation is not a word you hear used in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. It might even be a triggering word for those of you who came to Unitarian Universalism from a more conservative evangelical faith.

Salvation is a concept that permeates most other religious communities. Our friends the evangelical Christians have a salvation story. They want you to join their churches so you can be saved from sin through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our Muslim friends teach that you must be believe in God if you wish to enter heaven. Our Jewish friends tell us that God will someday redeem the world. Buddhism and Hinduism, in their various forms, instruct that it is possible to reach an enlightened state and escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus... The philosopher Josiah Royce claimed that salvation narratives are fundamental to the religious community. Writing in the early twentieth-century, using the highly gendered language of his day, he claimed that humanity was in need of salvation based on two ideas. “The first,” he argued, “is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims... The other idea is this: That man as he is now is... in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render his whole life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of his true goal.”

Royce’s convoluted prose might be rephrased as this: There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it.

I want to ask you something: Why are you here? I mean, why are you actually here at the First Unitarian Universalist Church? And why are we here? Why do we gather Sunday after Sunday? Why do we devote our time and our money to maintain this institution? Why do we care about hospitality, the radical act of welcoming the stranger into our community?

I am not going to answer those questions. I am going to tell you a story. It is not my story. It comes from the historian of Christianity Elaine Pagels. Like many scholars of religion, Pagels long had a tenuous relationship with congregational life. Which is to say, despite devoting her life to studying Christianity she did not go to church very often.

This changed “a bright Sunday morning” when she “stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up.” She was “startled” by her response to the service that was underway. The choir moved her. The prayer of “the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments” grounded her. And she thought, “Here is a family that knows how to face death.”

Pagels was in the midst of a deep crisis. Her two-and-a-half-year-old son had just been diagnosed with a fatal illness. She had gone for a morning run and left him in the loving arms of his father. And she found herself in church. She writes, “Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a ... community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”

She continues, “...the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt... In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible.”

Pagels came to church that day because she was in the midst of one of the most profound crises that any of us can face: her child was going to die. She came by accident, not knowing what she was seeking, looking for meaning, for comfort, in an unfriendly universe.

Why did you come here the first Sunday you came? Was it seeking comfort? Hope? Bright uplift from the wallows of despair? Or did something else bring you here? An escape from the weight of human loneliness? A desire for a religious home for your family?

These questions loop back to Josiah Royce’s claim about salvation as the heart of the religious experience. Making sense of despair, or recognizing that despair makes no sense, brushes up against whatever it is that is the purpose behind life.

It could be that there is some great purpose which will allow us to transcend our despair. That, as we read in 1 Peter 3:4, “we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.”

It might be that this purpose is that there and completely undecipherable. Forty-two, that is the answer to the query, “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” found in Douglas Adams’s novel “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” It is an answer. It does not make any sense.

Alternatively, it might be there is no purpose to life, no meaning to despair, beyond what we give it. The ancient Greek Glykon may have been right when he wrote:

Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens.

Or he might have been mistaken. After all, many people--myself, Elaine Pagels...--have had moments in their lives when we have experienced a profound sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. An instant when we find ourselves startled with a realization and exclaim, as did denise levertov,

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.

The dance floor sways. New life comes into being. Glossy orange squash blossoms cast a translucent sparkle on the market table. Rain arrives in an unexpected torrent. That new friend, that other accident of being, stumbles into your life at precisely the perfect time. Or, like Pagels, you find yourself caught at the edge of the desperation, maybe even on the precipice of unbeing. But then something opens up, the purpose of life flickers into view, and we mumble, with Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

When this happens then we might find ourselves agreeing with Royce that there is a purpose to life, and that we are ever in danger of missing it.

Unitarian Universalism has been called a faith without certainty. We gather as a religious community willing to be humble in discerning the purpose of life. The covenant that is our Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles does not promise that there is a purpose to life. It does not offer us a salvation narrative, not even in the Roycean sense. It just binds us together in “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

This statement is an admission that we agree to seek the purpose of life together even if we cannot agree on the nature of that purpose. When we speak of hospitality we mean, in part, that we are a religious home for those who are willing to admit that it might be impossible to ever completely decipher the purpose of life. This is a position of humility. And it allows us to say, with the President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray:

If you are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist,
a theist or an atheist,
you are welcome here.

We can extend hospitality to all these theological viewpoints because we are willing to embrace uncertainty. To rephrase our friend, we say, “The purpose of life you find might be different than the one I find. But we can each gain something from our conversation. So, come, let us seek it together.”

Such a statement summarizes one Unitarian Universalist view of salvation. But it does not offer the totality of our soteriology. Here we might turn to the Unitarian Universalist minister Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley for guidance. She tells, “If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.”

This is a social view of salvation. It suggests that we do not find the purpose of life on our own. We find it, together, in community. You may come here with your pain. And I may bring mine. When we gather we might find it is easier to face pain. Sometimes, we even discover something more than that. Sometimes, we discover that we can do something about the world’s pain. Sometimes, we discover that by coming together we can change the world.

The Unitarian Universalist social view of salvation teaches us that we are collectively stronger than we are on our own. Here I want to share an illustration, perhaps inappropriate to this pulpit, that I learned from an old union buddy of mine. He used it in union organizing campaigns. And he learned from an aged radical, someone who was in their nineties in the 1990s and who had taken part in some of the great labor strikes of the 1930s.

My buddy would go talk to this sage, hoary with the scars of struggle, from time to time. And this old man would share stories. At the conclusion of each one he would turn to my buddy and tell him, “Remember, the working class is like a hand. Each finger is weak by itself. But you unite them and them form a fist.”

I warned you. Maybe not the perfect sermon illustration for your pulpit. But it is a tactile reminder of the point: We are more capable of changing the world when we come together. Indeed, we understand that the only way to change the world is by acting together.

Congregations like this one offer us unique possibilities for uniting in the work of changing the world. There is a story about congregational life that demonstrates this that I learned years ago when I was a member of a congregation that placed social justice at the center of its life. Many of the stalwarts of the community were longtime veterans of justice work. They had participated in the civil rights movement. They had marched against wars. They had been pioneers in the women’s rights movement, in the labor movement, and in the environmental movement.

A couple of the older members had turned civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. It gave their lives a great sense of meaning. This was a small congregation and it practiced joys and concerns. Each Sunday members were invited to get up and share some of the sorrow and some of the gladness in their hearts. One Sunday, one of the civil disobedience practitioners got up in front of the congregation. He wanted to share that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time.

The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin. He had been arrested with another member of the congregation, his longtime friend Elwood. Elwood’s health was precarious. He suffered from Parkinsons. He was then at a point where he was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he had wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put an execution hood of Elwood, strapped him in place, and lifted him into the middle of the street, blocking the entrance of San Quentin.

Sometime, later at Elwood's trial, the judge threw out the charges. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. In the judge’s reasoning, this meant that Elwood could not be held responsible for blocking traffic.

I love this story. It illustrates the Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation at its best. We come together to accomplish things that we cannot do on our own. And we act from a faith that the world could be different than it is. And we do so with a knowledge that our individual actions may never tip the balance but that someday, somehow, our collective efforts might just do the trick. California still practices the death penalty. Hal and Elwood are long gone. But whenever their old state finally ends capital punishment they will have played some small part in the struggle.

Our view of social salvation is not unlike the old union song in our hymnal:

Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none

This understanding of social salvation gives me comfort in difficult times. What about you? Sharing such a message is one way we practice hospitality. I recognize that we live at time when it is easy to give into despair. And that many people are coming to Unitarian Universalist congregations right now for hope. And they are seeking not just hope that their own lives might resonate with some deeper purpose. They are seeking hope that the world could be different than it is. For the news of the week seems ever bleak.

This seems especially true of this past week. And now I am going to talk about something that might be especially upsetting for many of you. The current nominee for the Supreme Court stands accused of a pattern of misogyny. Three separate women have come forward and claimed he tried to sexually assault them. And yet, unless something changes, he appears poised to ascend to the highest court in the land. The shaming of women, the shaming of survivors of sexual assault, the claim that “boys will be boys,” the attacks on the integrity of his primary accuser, the blatant misogyny of one of the major political parties, all collect into a stark reminder that this country has changed little in the last twenty-seven years. And that this country is systematically unsupportive of survivors of sexual assault. And that it values the privileges of powerful, mostly white, men over those of everyone else.

Our Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation tells us that things can be different. We recognize that the world’s problems have their social dimensions. If sexual assault is to be addressed and men like the current Supreme Court nominee held accountable, then the culture must change. We have power to change that culture, even if it takes us beyond my lifetime, beyond your lifetime, beyond the lifetimes of any of our children, to do so.

Almost two centuries ago, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled the United States trying to learn something about this country. The result was a book called “Democracy in America.” One of the core observations that Tocqueville made in his book was that American society is a network of little groups that people join voluntarily. These voluntary associations were, he felt, the root of democratic practice in this country. Participation in religious communities, in civic associations, in professional groups, in labor unions... This was where people learned democratic habits which he called habits of the heart.

Change these habits and you change the country. That is a Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation. And it means that no matter how despairing we might be about the current political landscape we can always work to change our own community. We do so with the knowledge that we are participating in the difficult work of making the world better. We can teach our children about consent knowing that in our actions we are making a small contribution to changing the culture of the next generation. We can ensure that our congregations are safe spaces for women and survivors of sexual assault. We can do so with the knowledge that by opening up one such safe space we can help make room for others. And when we do this we can admit that we are imperfect, caught in the same culture that has offered immunity to men like the potential Supreme Court justice. And that it is by changing ourselves that we can begin to change the world.

This is part of our mission to proclaim to the world a greater love. It falls alongside our obligation to be a community where people can seek the purpose of life. Sharing both forms of salvation—individual and social—is why we practice hospitality.

And whether you pursue both individual and social salvation, or only find that you need one, you are welcome here. Such a vision is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist hospitality and, with it, our understanding of salvation, our soteriology.

In the spirit of welcome,
in pursuit of the higher purpose of life,
gathered for the work of social salvation,
let the congregation say, “Amen.”

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Soteriology Josiah Royce Elaine Pagels 1 Peter 3:4 Glykon Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy denise levertov Susan Frederick-Gray Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley Labor Unions San Quentin Civil Disobedience Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America

Feb 3, 2018

You and I (Ashby)

as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, January 7, 2018

Happy New Year! I am glad I am with you for the first Sunday of 2018. I hope that however bitter the winter, the coming spring and summer will be sweet for all of us. As longtime forager for mushrooms, I think a wet winter augurs well for the spring. I like to imagine that somewhere deep beneath the crusts of frozen snow this year's morels are already stirring. It seems best to find natural hope in the ice during a season like the one we are having. You probably have your own mental tricks for getting through the winter.

The season, for me, is a reminder of a general claim I want to make about our religious life together and what it means to be human. We need each other to survive. We can only make it from one bitter winter to the next because of all of the infrastructures of human society--the collective cleverness that created furnaces, that first cultivated fire, that built heated houses, and crafted warm clothes.

This month during the two services I am leading we will be exploring how we come to know the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. The technologies we use to survive the winter are products of our collective efforts. The same is true of whatever path we might take towards that which is called enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana. That path is not one we travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.

The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:

"If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist."

The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.

This past year we celebrated Thoreau's two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, "I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town." He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, "Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson..."

My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague's assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau's connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.

When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic "Walden:"

"When I wrote the following pages... I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."

"I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself," such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self we are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...

We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.

I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.

One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce "Utah" Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: "You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed."

When I think about Ammon's words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from all of the privileges of economic class and racial caste that I was born into. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and an escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. He rendered salvation as "the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims." He suggested that there is "great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal."

We might put Royce's thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, "lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself."

But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, "Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression." The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world "armed to the teeth" then we must do so together.

This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.

Lorde advises us, "community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist." I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience is my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.

There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we will either achieve together or we will perish as a species like fools. Has that not been the true story of all of the tumultuous news of the last year? Is that not the story of the news of all of the years of our lives? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?

In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.

The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travelers what they are doing. They reply, "making stone soup." The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so, it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.

After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:

May my words,
however imperfect,
and our time together,
however brief,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
achieved together.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsTags First Parish Church Ashby Ralph Waldo Emerson Thich Nat Hahn Stone Soup Josiah Royce Ammon Hennacy Audre Lorde Utah Phillips

Nov 13, 2017

You and I

as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017

The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”

It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.

This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.

This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.

Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.

The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:

“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”

The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.

This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”

My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.

When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”

“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...

We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.

I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.

One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”

When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”

We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”

But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.

This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.

Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.

There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?

In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.

The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.

After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:

May my words,
however imperfect,
and our time together,
however brief,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
achieved together.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Parish Cambridge Adam Dyer Wislawa Szymborska Karl Barth Thich Nhat Hanh Buddhism Henry David Thoreau Ralph Waldo Emerson Margaret Fuller Grucho Marx Howard Dana Walden Utah Phillips Martin Luther King, Jr. Josiah Royce Audre Lorde

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