Mar 25, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 22, 2020, online worship
These are strange days. If you are anything like me, you are probably finding that you have to adjust to a new--and rapidly changing--situation. I certainly never imagined myself leading a congregation that is worshipping exclusively online. And I bet that most of you never imagined that you would be participating in worship remotely. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been around for over a hundred years and in all that time the congregation has always met in person for worship, fellowship, and the difficult but vital work of building the beloved community.
But these are strange days, and I find myself missing seeing you and sharing the regular rituals of our worship service. As I preach this sermon, I find myself looking out over an expanse of empty wooden pews. As I preach this sermon, I find myself glancing over to where our choir usually sits and seeing only Mark Vogel, our Music Director. As I preach this sermon, I find myself thinking about our Thoreau campus where some of us regularly gather to worship and watch videos of the sermons. Thoreau has a lovely sanctuary that overlooks a clover filled expanse of greenery. That sanctuary is vacant now. And as I preach this sermon, I find myself wondering who exactly is listening. Are you one of our members, friends, or one of our regular visitors? Did you stumble upon this service online? Are you listening to it in the Third Ward, in Montrose, in Sugarland, or in Richmond? Are you listening from someplace far away?
I imagine you are in your home, sheltering in place. It is what most of us are doing during these strange days. I have been limiting myself to my apartment and trips to the church. Some of you are probably working entirely from home--maybe it has even been a few days since you have been outside. You might be listening to this service on Sunday. You could be seeking solace at the same time this congregation usually gathers in person. Or you may be doing what I did last week when I listened to Scott’s moving sermon. I made dinner while I took comfort from his compassionate words and my cat chirped at my feet, trying to convince me that he deserved an early feeding, and my son played video games in the other room.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope that our service is providing you with a sense of connection and consolation during these strange days. As Scott told us last week, “during troubling times it’s good to be part of a community such as this.” I have been renewed by Mark’s music and Scott’s words. And the exquisite images from the Hubble Telescope and that donna e. perkins and Rania Matar have shared with us have provided me a needed balm. Art, music, poetry, are important reminders that it is always possible for humans to bring more beauty into the world. There has been poetry written during war, and economic depressions, and forced migrations, and unjust imprisonments, and, yes, even bouts of pestilence and plague.
We have words from Julian of Norwich, whom Scott quoted last week, and who pointed towards transcendence within: “I saw the soul as wide as if it were an infinite world, and as if it were a blessed kingdom.”
We have words from Carl Sandburg, who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, and wrote of our shared mortality:
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate,
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.
We have words from Mark Doty, who survived the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted us to know:
A bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
And, now, we have words from Lynn Ungar, who invites us to:
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
We have words, and paintings, and sculptures, and music, that testify to the power of humanity to bring more beauty into the world even when we humans find ourselves at the end of the world. And that is where we find ourselves now, at the end of the world.
We find ourselves at the end of the world, in our remaining time together, I want to talk with you about three things. First, we need to admit that in some, real, non-metaphorical way, the world has ended. Second, living at the end of the world means that we are living amid an apocalypse. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller tells us. There are many things being unveiled, disclosed, and revealed right now. We should pay careful attention to them. Our human future depends on it. We would do well to heed James Baldwin’s words, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” Third, we should turn to our theme for worship: compassion. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, compassion is what is going to see us through. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, as we peer into the murky cloud of the future we must recognize that today, tomorrow, and each day we collectively struggle with the pandemic, we will be forced to make a choice between compassion and callousness. It is only by choosing compassion that we can learn the lessons of the hour.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has changed how we live and interact. The safest thing we can do right now is to avoid as many people as possible. Keeping our distance, sheltering in place, it means that so many things that seemed perfectly normal even a few days ago are foolish and dangerous now.
We have closed to the church buildings to the public. Most of the staff is working from home. Gustavo is still here, making sure our Museum District is properly maintained--we have a volunteer checking in on our Richmond campus. And Cheryl and Tawanna are coming in some of the time to process the mail, to handle the banking, and to make sure that all the bills get paid. The ministerial and worship staff is here occasionally--to produce this service and, beginning next week, a midweek forum. But, starting Monday, all of our staff meetings will be online. There will be no regular staff lunch, no just dropping by someone’s office when I have an idea I want to share or pastoral matter I want to talk through.
In the last week we have worked hard to take our congregational programs entirely online. In the next days we will be offering some form of almost all our programs through Zoom. We will have small group ministries and religious education programs for children and youth. On Sundays, we will have virtual gatherings for the whole congregation. In April, Scott and I will each be leading spiritual development and support programs for adults. I’m going to offer one on the religious and philosophical classics that might see us through these strange days--we will start with Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” But none of this will take place in person. And most of it will be open to anyone online who wants to register and join with us. Our virtual community will be different than our physical community.
I am hopeful it will be safe for us to regather as a worship community in September. But whenever we do, we will be different. We will have gone through this experience of online worship together. And we will have a different sense of who our community is and what it does. Something will have ended and something else will be beginning. Because we find ourselves at the end of the world.
How has your work life changed? I know a lot of people who are now working from home. Colleges and universities are closed. Most of my academic friends are teaching classes online. Big corporate offices are closed. My friends who are engineers or accountants are almost all now working remotely. What about you? Where are you working? Or are you working?
A lot of people have already lost their jobs. I have friends who are restaurant workers. Many of their workplaces have shutdown. And I have a friend who is a yoga teacher. In the last couple of weeks, she has lost every single one of her paid teaching gigs. Many people are financially vulnerable and scared. Some cannot pay their rent or buy enough food to feed their families. Jobs that seemed solid ten days ago have evaporated.
Middle and upper income people on the verge of retirement--or those who have retired--have lost large sums of money. They are worried that they will not be able to support themselves or return to the workforce. The plans of a lifetime--work for forty years and then retire--appear precarious or threatened. In some real sense, the world has ended for them. They no longer make the economic assumptions that they once did.
It is not just our work lives and economic situations that have changed. Many other things have shifted. Like me, a lot of parents are trying to juggle parenting while working from home. My son’s school has closed. It will not physically reopen until the autumn. He is now mostly at home--except when he goes to the park. It is not safe for him to have friends over. So, he spends a lot of time online--which is something that so many of us are doing now. Will the nature childhood be the same when it safe for him to gather with his friends again? Probably not, for we have reached the end of the world.
A lot of people, like me, have made the wise decision to severely limit their physical contact with others. And, here, I find myself thinking of all the older members this congregation, and of my parents, and of all of those I know and love who are over the age of sixty-five. The virus that causes COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for them. It is not safe for many of them to leave their homes. A lot them are doing what my parents are doing, hunkering down for the unknown duration, not planning on venturing to the grocery store, but having food delivered, truly sheltering in place.
I hope that this service is providing them a sense of connection while they are in self-isolation. As Scott said last week, “We will get through this together.” And we here on the staff of First Houston will help you get through this by reaching out and by helping you reach out to each other.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The global political order of the last seventy-five years has come to crashing end. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant power. The inept bungling of the current President and the federal executive that he decimated mean that the pandemic will have dramatic consequences for this country. Ideological decisions to cut the budget for pandemic management have left the federal government ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly metastasizing situation. The economic damage will be severe. But just as severe will be the political damage. The politics of America First will prompt the government to look inwards, to persecute immigrants, and to expel foreign nationals. None of this will solve anything. In a global health pandemic, the only polity--understanding of who or what is the political community--that makes any sense is a global one. Humanity is all in this together. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Whenever this is over, and it will eventually end, the world will not be the same. Religious communities will not be the same. Friendships will not be the same. Families will not be the same. School will not be the same. Work will not be the same. Global politics will not be the same. We find ourselves at the end of the world.
We are living in apocalyptic times. Apocalypse, the word itself comes from the Greek, by way of the Latin. It means to uncover or to disclose or to reveal. And that is exactly what this virus is doing, it is revealing fundamental truths about our society. Things that appeared solid have proved illusory and I cannot help but think of Karl Marx’s famous line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Whatever you might think of Marx, and there’s a lot to dislike, his words name the dynamic of apocalyptic crisis. In these times, we see what really matters. We learn we need food, shelter, health, and connection--even if can only come through a screen. In these times, we discover whose work really matters.
The health care workers, the farmers, the grocery workers, the food service workers, the transportation workers, the maintenance workers, society cannot function without you. It is you who will keep the rest of us going while we shelter in place. You are the ones who are risking your lives so that the rest of us can get through this viral pandemic. Without your willingness to work, to endanger yourselves, and your families, no one else would have any chance of getting through this.
Your labor is essential. And this unveiling, this bringing into plain sight that which is so often is hidden, should prompt you to recognize how vital you are to society. For I cannot but look at the heroic work you are doing and hear words of the old labor anthem:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong
Those phrases might some members of our regular Sunday morning congregation uncomfortable. But apocalyptic times, and apocalyptic visions, are not easy to bear. When the veil is torn away, we see things we have hidden from ourselves. And this country has hidden the fundamental truth that the labor of food workers, and health care workers, and transport workers, and day care workers, are essential to keeping society functioning. And for too long, so many of you have had to eke out precarious existences, barely paying the rent, working too hard, working too many hours, and now so many of you are being asked to do even more than that. I know grocery workers who are putting in seventy hours a week to food on the shelves. And companies like Whole Foods are telling workers that they will not give them paid sick leave. Instead, they are being told to give their earned time off to their sick co-workers. And I remember the old words, “[W]ithout your brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What you do is essential. The veil has been ripped off.
The veil has been ripped off and the truth is shining through. Low wage workers, Whole Foods workers, Amazon delivery people, you have great power. Our society cannot function without you. In this apocalyptic moment you have the possibility to use that power to organize, to go on strike, to make demands, and to win yourself more pay. No one whose labor is essential should ever have trouble paying their bills, finding a place to live, or affording enough food to feed their family. No one who must take care of others in these strange days, in these apocalyptic times, should worry about whether or not they have health care.
And, now I know that I am making some of my regular congregants uncomfortable. But apocalyptic visions are like fever dreams--perhaps an apt but uncomfortable metaphor--and they can make us squirm. And it the preacher’s job to offer up the prophetic voice, to speak the truth that must be spoken, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And if we are to learn the lessons of the hour, that is precisely what must be done, we must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we do not then society will not change. And if society does not change then I fear we will be unprepared the next time the veil is ripped up away and we face a global crisis.
So, grocery workers, delivery workers, health care workers, if you want to take the lessons of hour and use the opportunity to struggle for better, safer, wages and conditions, here is what you might do. You might find one of your trusted co-workers and ask them the questions: Are you safe at your work? Are people getting sick? Are you being paid enough to live? And then you might suggest that you and your trusted co-worker each meet individually with your other co-workers and ask them the same questions. Get everyone’s email and phone number. Make a plan. Promise to support each other. Set a day and a time. Walk off your job, but keep your social distance, and, as a group, tell your employer you demand better wages and safety condition--you demand adequate masks and gloves so that you won’t get sick and sufficient pay so that you can afford your home and feed your family.
Do not just do it for yourselves. Do it for the rest of us. Because here is the truth, the real unveiling, the lesson of this apocalyptic moment, most of the good things we have in this society--Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, all of the programs that came from the New Deal and ended the Great Depression--came about because people like you in early generations, during the Great Depression, who were performing essential work, refused to work anymore until they could work safely and be paid enough to support themselves and their loved ones.
The federal government is not taking the actions it needs to address the viral pandemic. It is not repurposing industry to build ventilators for sick people, to build hospitals, or take masks. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the Amazon workers said: We will not deliver anything else until the government focuses on building us hospital beds if we get sick. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the grocery workers said: We will not stock the grocery shelves until masks are made for us to safely interact with our customers?
The veil has been lifted. The essential work of society has been revealed. And I hear, echoing in the distance, but perhaps creeping closer, the old question, put into poetry by William Butler Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have reached the end of the world, we are living in apocalyptic times, and now, what beast shall it be? Shall it be a compassionate one or callous one? Yeats’s verse hints at both possibilities--for Bethlehem is where the Christians believe that their messiah was born and, yet, the beast is rough.
So, we come to the final point of our sermon. “Once upon a time we had... time... And now we seem to have lost it,” Catherine Keller observes. And now we must choose between compassion and callousness.
For we are rapidly running out time. The viral outbreak grows ever more dire. And we now must choose between compassion and callousness. The choice cannot be deferred any longer. Deferring the choice to immediately mobilize, to immediately act, means choosing to callousness. Yes, those of us who can, who are not essential workers, need to shelter in place. That is a compassionate act, for it will slow the spread of the virus.
But we need to do more than that we, we need to choose compassion as our guiding principle going forward. And we need to recognize that we are in extraordinary times. We are in a crisis and we should listen to the economist Milton Friedman, “only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change.” Real change is going to come from this crisis. The only question is: will it be compassionate change or callous change?
Already the current President is using the pandemic to pursue the politics of callousness that he has long sought to enact. He is sending asylum seekers back to Mexico. He is undermining the ability of unions to collect dues from federal workers. He is demanding the relaxation of environmental protections. Each action, he claims, is somehow related to fighting the pandemic.
We can choose differently. We can use this crisis to pursue the politics of compassion. We can society’s quick mobilization as lesson that it is possible to act rapidly to address the climate emergency. We can take the truth that all of us are vulnerable to the virus; that our health care system cannot continue in its current form; and that we need universal health care now. We can recognize that we are all dependent upon each other and, so, therefore we must all take care of each other. We can choose the politics of compassion.
We have reached the end of the world. We are living amid an apocalypse. The veil has been lifted. Will we choose the politics of callousness or the politics of compassion? “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise,” said James Baldwin. What shall we choose? What will you choose? How shall we act? How shall we take the lessons of the hour? These are the questions that haunt us in these strange days. And I end not by precisely answering them but by raising them. For truthfully, they are not my questions to answer alone. They are questions we must answer together. We must answer them together, even as we social distance, because we are rapidly running out of time. Let us choose wisely.
The case count is rising. The virus is spreading. Please, take good care, be safe, know that you are loved, and that this congregation is here for you, and now, I invite you to say with me, wherever you are, Amen.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Feb 5, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 17, 2019
Today we kick-off First Church’s annual stewardship drive. My task this morning is to offer you what sometimes gets called “the sermon on the amount.” It is often a difficult sermon to preach. The three topics generally considered taboo to discuss in polite company, are, after all: sex, money, and religion. Stewardship combines two of these: money and religion. It did occur to me that I could bring a discussion of Our Whole Lives into the sermon. Our Whole Lives is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum. If I spoke about it we could then have all three. That might everyone really squirm. But Jonathan Edwards I am not. Today is no occasion for “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Instead, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our life together, the entity we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And giving money to support the congregation is one way we celebrate our life together.
Dan King, our Assistant Minister, likes to say that stewardship works best when we give until it feels good. That is what I am encouraging you to do this morning: to give to the congregation in such a way that you feel good about the level of support you give to First Church. I am not going to get Marxist on you and suggest that we follow old bewhiskered Karl’s adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Instead, I want to encourage you to feel good about your contributions to First Church. Well, actually, I want you to feel good about First Church. And if you feel good about First Church, I think you will feel good about financially supporting the congregation.
Our theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “weaving a tapestry of love and action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.” For Unitarian Universalists stewardship really is about justice. Our institutions, our churches and our Unitarian Universalist Association, allow us to live out our commitment to the transformative power of love in public.
I will talk a more about the theme in a moment. But, first, whether you are here at Museum District or listening to the sermon via livestream in Richmond, I want to pause and make a point of inviting you all to stick around after the service for Souper Bowl Sunday. It is our kick-off event. It is a chance to share a bowl of soup, relax, and celebrate the great community that is First Church. It is just one of the many opportunities to connect that we are offering throughout the month. We have a number of people who have volunteered to serve as visiting stewards. They will be visiting with other members of the congregation and listening to your stories about what First Church means to you. Meeting with one of them is not obligatory. These meetings are opportunities to deepen your connection to First Church by reflecting with other members about the role the congregation plays in your religious life and in the wider world.
Weaving a tapestry of love and action... We say those words each week as we bless and express gratitude for the offering. Well, actually, we say, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.” What I want to offer you this morning is what preachers call an exegesis of the phrase we say each week as we bless the offering. An exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation of a text.
“Weaving a tapestry of love and action,” I want to offer you one more fancy word as we proceed with our exegesis of our much spoken text. That word is hermeneutics. If exegesis is the interpretation of a text then hermeneutics is the method by which we arrive at the interpretation of a text. The exegesis: the meaning. Hermeneutics: how we arrive at the meaning.
Exegesis, hermeneutics... These words are two of the central tools we use in the collective religious exercise we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He often followed this definition with this series of observations, “Knowing we must die, we question what life means. ...the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious question: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life purpose? What does this all signify?”
We come together to interpret the texts of our lives--to infuse them with meaning. Unitarian Universalism offers a set of hermeneutics to do so. As a religious community, we interpret the texts of our lives using a specific set of principles. I am not talking about the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Those date to the middle of twentieth-century. Our liberal religious tradition is much older than that. What I am talking about is the principles behind the principles.
The twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur described the primary principles of our religious tradition as: freedom, reason, and tolerance. In making meaning from the rich mess of our lives, he believed, our tradition called for “complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds... the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition... generous tolerance of differing religious views... rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship, or polity.” Freedom, reason, and tolerance... We are free to believe what we must believe. We are called to put our beliefs to a rational test. Tolerance, the beliefs that I hold need not be the beliefs that you hold.
My friend Gary Dorrien is one of greatest living interpreters of liberal theology. He makes the claim that the distinction between theological liberals and theological conservatives is that we insist that religion “should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” If religion is to matter, we say, then it must relate to our lives today. It must help us live in this world. It must not be antithetical to the findings of science.
Building off the work of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has long argued that all of these intellectual statements are good and well but they leave our tradition without a foundation. They do not tell us where our beliefs come from. They do not describe the ground on which we stand. And that is a mistake. Because, Thandeka argues, our theology does have a foundation. It is founded on love. Specifically, it is founded on the experience of connection that each of us has to the all. The experience of connection between the self and the all is the fundamental religious experience. Liberal religion begins, she observes, not with rational arguments but with the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Thandeka is careful to observe that this feeling of connection escapes clear religious labels. She writes, “for Christians... [it] is God... For Buddhists... Sunyata... For Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.” But however we describe it, it comes to each of us.
I have noticed that the moments in my sermons that people connect with the most are often the sections in which I narrate such an experience of connection--whether it is my own or someone else’s. This might be because the deepest truth of Unitarian Universalism is that the text we are trying to interpret is the text of our own lives.
When I talk about finding meaning in the joy of dancing or discovering it while sitting in a Zen temple in Japan, I suspect that many of you connect with the ways in which you have made meaning out of similar experiences. The meaning I find in the unadulterated beauty of a flowing flock of birds over a parking lot sunrise might be different than yours. Maybe I encounter meaning, connection, deep emotion in the rough notes of a Latin jazz album as needle scrapes across vinyl and you do not.
But somewhere, each day, there is some experience, some series of experiences that you have where you connect with something--or someone--other than yourself. Perhaps you find that experience through your family. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps it is mostly among the moss-covered oaks. Perhaps it is in the hum of the train tracks as the streetcar slips by on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is on your bicycle as ride you along the road, the wind, the push of the peddles, the spin of the wheels, offering a sense of exhilarating motion.
Wherever you find connection, I suspect that if you regularly come to First Church it is because of you have found a community that helps you make meaning of it all. A community that helps you weave your life into the larger tapestry that is First Church. I suspect that this is true whether you sit on the cool wooden pews of this sanctuary or amid the lush greenery of our Richmond campus.
Such meaning making is why we ritually celebrate life’s passages as a religious community: child dedications, weddings, and memorial services. Child dedications--the celebration of what a new life means to a family and to the community, a celebration of the enduring possibility of human existence. Weddings, a celebration of two people coming together, attesting to the deep connection they feel, and promising to each other that their lives will be more meaningful together than separate. Memorial services, the great summing-up--the celebration of the life that has been, the meaning it offered, and the ways we who continue can find meaning and inspiration.
Unitarian Universalist minister Kristen Harper describes the daily unfolding of our meaning this way:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
When we say, we are “weaving a tapestry of love and action” what we are really saying is that we are collectively making meaning out of our lives. And that each day in our life together we have the opportunity to make further meaning. That meaning can be found in each experience, each moment, we share.
Our exegesis does not end quite there because really we have just covered the words “weaving a tapestry of love.” We have not talked much about justice. I started our sermon with a claim from Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And each week we dedicate ourselves to action. That is, we dedicate ourselves to living out our commitment to love in public.
This is what we are called to do today and all of the days of our lives. We all know that the human species is in the midst of a grave existential crisis. As I wrote in this month’s newsletter column:
Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested?
Our ability to make meaning together has equipped us to do this work for justice in the world. And, today, it is the work that we Unitarian Universalists are called to do.
And now, I need to be real with you. I do not often talk with you about the specific work of being the interim minister of your congregation following the negotiated resignation of your previous senior minister. Since I arrived in August, there has been too much to do. We have been working on launching our Richmond campus. We have been working on making First Church be one worshipping community in two locations. We have been working on winding down our relationship with the Tapestry congregation, our former campus in Spring. The Board and I have been working on governance. There have been multiple staff transitions. Nikki Steele our much loved Congregational Administrator is moving to Virginia. The congregation’s devoted long serving organist Bob Fazakerly is retiring. And so is the Rev. Dr. Dan King. There has been a lot going on.
But now, on stewardship Sunday, for the sermon on the amount, for just a few minutes, I want to talk with you about my interim work. One of my primary tasks is to hold up a mirror to the congregation and ask you to look at yourselves. Such work can quite uncomfortable. This is one reason why interim ministries are intentionally only a couple of years and why congregations are generally happy to see the interims go when their ministries end.
One thing I want you to see when you, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, look at yourselves is the way that the staff have been treated. It is true that your previous senior minister’s negotiated resignation was over his treatment of staff. But once I got here and started to look into it the picture became more complicated. The issue was not only that he engaged in bullying of staff. The issue was that the congregation was not abiding by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Salaries were being paid sort of according to guidelines. Everyone was paid at least the minimum level recommended by the UUA. Few people were paid according to their level of experience or tenure with the congregation.
Far more problematically was the benefits situation. It was not uniform. It was out of whack with UUA’s standards for fair compensation. Some people got benefits and some did not. I brought this situation to the Board’s attention shortly after the congregation received a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellett. And the Board took action, committing the congregation to follow the UUA’s fair compensation guidelines going forward. This has meant ensuring that all qualifying employees receive appropriate benefits--health insurance, life insurance, pension, disability insurance, dental insurance, and the like. It has also meant making some progress on adjusting staff salaries so people are paid according to their level of experience. All of this is costly and there is more ground to be gained in the issue in justice for the staff’s compensation. The total annual bill for fixing the situation is $72,000 a year. The money from the Kellett bequest is not enough to make this sustainable without an increase in pledge income.
There are some of you who will want to understand how this situation came about. And I willing be talking with you about it elsewhere. But the most important thing for you to know is that the Board is committed to making sure it does not happen again. They have hired a consultant to work with them, and by extension the entire congregation, on reimagining First Church’s governance so there is more appropriate oversight going forward. I have recommended that the Board conduct an annual audit of employee records and compensation to ensure future justice for the staff.
Now, I promised you at the outset that this was not going to be a modern rendition of Jonathan Edwards’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I believe with James Baldwin, “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished.” Which is to say, we cannot rewrite history. What has been done has been done. But we can change things going forward. We have that power. Indeed, we are committed to that proposition as a community weaving a tapestry of love and action.
And what I really want you to do is to feel good about your connection to First Church. This is a wonderful community that does much good in the world. You were the first historically white congregation in Houston to desegregate. You launched Hatch Youth in the midst of the AIDS crisis to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied youth. You provided important services to the wider community through your Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. You have supported more than fifty first generation college students with your Thoreau Scholarship program. You have been a beacon for speaking out against injustice, for speaking up for the oppressed, for binding up the broken, for transforming lives for the better. There is so much to be proud of.
And today, in this historic moment, when humanity faces one of its gravest crises. Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in confronting it. For First Church, this means the opportunity to grow, not for growth’s sake but because the way we Unitarian Universalists make meaning is vitally important to the world. There is an opportunity to grow both here at the Museum District and out in Richmond. The Board has also committed to making the Assistant Minister position full-time and to transitioning one of the Administrative Assistant positions to a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator. The Kellett bequest is also being used to honor these commitments as well as to help pay for some long-deferred maintenance on the Museum District campus--including fixing the elevator, the roof, and replacing carpet and stucco that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
This opportunity to grow is an opportunity to help more people weave their lives into our meaningful tapestry of love and action. In order for it to be realized we need to remember that building justice in the wider world requires that we treat our staff equitably. Indeed, I might suggest we carry our exegesis of “weaving a tapestry of love and action” a little further. If we did so we might observe that the lives of the members of the congregation are the threads that form the tapestry that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. But the building and staff provide a portion of the loom on which you weave. Without each the work of all would not be possible.
And so, when I say I would like you to give until it feels good, that means I would like you to give so that you feel good about the tapestry of love and action that First Church is weaving. I want you to feel good about First Church as a religious community. And I want you to feel good about the work that First Church does in the world.
In that spirit, I would like to close not with my own words but with yours. I invite you to say with me the words that we find in our order of service and repeat week after week, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.”
Let the congregation say Amen.
Mar 5, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 4, 2018
It is always good to be with you. We had quite the weekend of weather down in Medford. The front door was actually torn off of my apartment building by the wind. It was a not so subtle reminder that no what matter we humans might think, nature is actually in charge.
I hope that the weather was not too bad here. I suspect that since Ashby is not right by the coast you were sheltered from the worst of the Nor'easter. I will admit that I never know exactly what the weather is like out here when I am back in Medford. It is remarkable that even though we are only an hour apart, you are actually in your own microclimate.
Today's sermon is the start of the stewardship season. This year's pledge drive has three stages. First, today, I am offering a sermon to kick it off. Second, early next week you should be receiving a letter from me in the mail asking you to make a pledge to support the congregation. The goal is to have all pledge cards submitted by March 31st, so we can use the pledges to prepare the annual budget. The third thing I will be doing is following up with folks who do not submit their pledge cards by the end of the month to see what their intentions are towards the congregation. If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to ask me during coffee hour.
So, with that process in mind, let us get started with the sermon proper.
The pale polka dot is not unexpected. It sits, dinner plate size, in the center of a weed strewn and crumbling road. The dot's rough paint lies uneasily on decaying asphalt. It is something of a shock. A piece of art, roughhewn but art nonetheless, in the midst of urban decay.
The dot is not alone. Casting my eyes forward I see another dot about twenty feet ahead, washed out yellow instead of faded pink. That dot is followed by another, blue this time, and then another and another. Now I understand what the docent at the Detroit Institute of Art meant when I asked for directions, "follow the polka dot road."
I am driving through one of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods. The blocks I pass are filled with a mixture of the burned-out shells of vacant houses, empty lots, broken bottles, abandoned furniture and occupied, but usually decrepit, dwellings. I am looking for the Heidelberg Project, the artist Tyree Guyton's outsider masterpiece. When I see the first polka dots I know that I am close.
As I travel down the street the polka dots gradually multiple and move. First they are only on the asphalt, barely holding together parts of the disintegrating road. Then they drift onto the broken buckled sidewalks and up the sides of abandoned buildings. The polka dots are everywhere when I finally turn off the main street and onto the side road where Guyton's project is centered.
The project is difficult to describe. It consists of more than a dozen houses stretched over a block and a half, trees decorated with glass bottles of all colors, a painted school bus, piles of shoes and a makeshift playground. Some of the houses are occupied. Several are abandoned. All have been decorated by Guyton and his neighbors in highly unorthodox fashions. One home is carpeted with numbers, big and little, they come from gas station signs, clocks and broken street signs. Another is covered with dozens of words--Oklahoma, people, jury, white, love--and parts from vehicles: hub cabs, doors and steering wheels. A third is painted entirely in polka dots, some the size of a quarter and others bigger than a hula hoop.
Since its advent more than 30 years ago the Heidelberg Project has been a source of both controversy and pride in Detroit. Some people love it. Others hate it. Both mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer tried to destroy it. First Young, and then later Archer, sent in bulldozers to tear down some of the houses.
Whatever people think of Heidelberg, whether they call it piles of trash or brilliant art, there is no debating that its impact is visceral. When I walk through it I feel like I am entering a magic realm. This is certainly Guyton's intention. He said of it, "This block is a very special place. It is like magic-land."
Magic alters reality. It is not supernatural. Instead it is a word for the way in which we use our imagination and will power to change the world around us. When we have an idea for something and then bring that idea to fruition we are committing an act of magic.
Heidelberg is filled with magic. Through his vision, and by nurturing the creativity of others, Guyton's art has transformed a desolate landscape into something wholly new. And that transformation has been more than visual. In the blocks immediately around Heidelberg crime has dropped. The drug dealers have largely left and a greater sense of community has been built. Magic indeed.
There are two lessons that I take from Heidelberg. The first is that art and imagination can overcome ruin. The second is that generosity can be transformative. These lessons are intertwined for art often stems from the generous impulse to make the world more beautiful. That impulse can help us survive when our existence seems painful and ugly.
This is month is the month of our annual stewardship drive. Stewardship is tied to generosity. We want to be good stewards of what we have so that we can leave something behind for future generations. So, stewardship is partially about giving gifts to people we will never know.
We all have received such gifts. This congregation itself is a gift that previous generations gave us. This beautiful meeting house was built long before any of us were born. Much of the money to sustain the church comes from financial gifts to the endowment from members and friends who are no longer with us. If we are good stewards we will give the gift of this religious community to generations to come.
Such gifts can feel risky. They include the giving of part of the self to another. When we give our money, time and skills to a religious community we are giving part of our selves. With this act comes both the possibility of acceptance and rejection. What if our gifts are not enough or not appreciated? What if they are not wanted? How do we feel then?
Now, I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. One of the ways that I express my appreciation of and affection for people is by cooking them nice meals. But when I cook someone a meal there's always a little way in which I am haunted by the fear of rejection. If I make something fancy or unusual I worry that the people I am cooking for will be unhappy with it, despite all of the effort I put in. And every once in awhile, that is the case, and then I feel a little rejected.
In his meditation "Feeding and Being Fed" Robert Walsh reflects on the relationship between feeding others and generosity. He writes, "to feed [someone]-is to give life." There is no more generous act than the gift of life.
Later in his piece Walsh states, "The person who receives the gift of food gives a precious gift as well. It is the gift of trust, an affirmation of the life-giver." The trouble comes when we give a gift and automatically expect to receive one in return.
When it comes to cooking, my fear of rejection is foolish. The important thing is that I am trying to give a gift, trying to do something life sustaining. The outcome is less important than the intention. The giver, after all, cannot control the outcome. But the giver can set his or her intention. And that intention can be to give something that is life sustaining.
It is easy to forget this. Especially at stewardship time when people get anxious about their ability to give. It takes money and generosity to run a congregation. Everything that people give is appreciated. Whether it is a $2,000 pledge or some change in the collection plate every gift helps sustain the life of our religious community.
Just think about all of the gifts that go into a typical Sunday morning. Our worship is truly a collective effort. It requires many acts of generosity to create. Ward sets a friendly tone at the start of the service. Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft offer lively music. Our lay reader helps with the liturgy. And that is not mention all the people who contribute to our fellowship time after the service.
I am sure I am missing someone but that is not the point. The point is that we each give different gifts and that all of those gifts are important. Here I am reminded of a phrase popularized by the ever-controversial Karl Marx, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." We all have gifts to give. We all contribute to the larger whole.
In this way our religious community is not dissimilar to the Heidelberg Project. The project is supported by gifts large and small. The children in Guyton's neighborhood have no money. Yet they are able to give the gift of their imagination and their time when they paint polka dots and figures alongside Guyton. Other people give Heidelberg large financial gifts that allow Guyton to make his living as an artist, the project to employ a modest staff and the surrounding community to benefit from a community center for arts and education.
There are other parallels between Heidelberg and a liberal religious community like ours. The theologian Rebecca Parker identifies several tasks for Unitarian Universalist congregations. Two she lifts up are prophetic witness and the preservation of endangered knowledge. Parker defines a prophet this way, "A prophet is one who is able to name those places in our lives where we are resisting what needs to be known, closing our eyes to what is really happening, silencing what the world is telling us."
When we think of prophets we usually think of the ancient Hebrew figures who went around Judah and Israel in sackcloth and ashes proclaiming gloom and doom. Such prophets are not the only kind. The news of the world, even in troubled times like ours when school children shoot each other in school cafeterias and the President muses about becoming dictator for life, is not all bad. One of the truths that we can forget is that we surrounded by beauty.
This is the prophetic message of Guyton and the Heidelberg Project. His art transforms trash and desolation into unexpectedly magical objects. An abandoned toy is not just a worn-out piece of plastic. It is something that can be incorporated into an artistic vision.
In a Unitarian Universalist religious community, we say this not about found objects but about people instead. In his well-known sermon "Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven," Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the Universalist minister Gordan McKeeman who preached, "...Universalism came to be call 'The Gospel of God's Success,' the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty."
Mark asserts that this image, "the last sinner being dragged, by his collar... into heaven" communicates that ours is "a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal Salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not and cannot consign even a single human being to eternal damnation."
Guyton's art has a similar philosophy behind it. Each gift that is given is something that builds the Heidelberg Project and strengthens the community. Both the little gifts that children bring, and $50,000 foundation grants are essential to the continuing life of the community.
This truth is one of the pieces of endangered knowledge that I suspect that Rebecca Parker calls for religious communities like ours to preserve. Everyone is important. Everyone can give to sustain the life of the community.
At stewardship time the gifts we talk about are primarily financial gifts. This is not to say that other gifts are not important. It is just, as I said earlier, it takes money to run a congregation. This year we will be promoting the idea of fair share giving. Rather than asking people to give a specific amount we will be asking them to give a percentage of their income. In doing so, we are making a theological statement. That statement is that we appreciate the generous intention behind all gifts and recognize the gift of self that they contain. Hopefully that means that the givers of the gifts, experience an affirmation of the self as a result of their generosity.
If, for whatever, reason that affirmation is lacking generosity can still be transformative. It is the intention that matters most. Sometimes in this way we can become an inspiration for others.
Consider the story of Vedran Smailovic, better known as the cellist of Sarajevo. Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1992, there was a long line outside the door of one of the last bakeries in the city of Sarajevo that could still bake bread. At four o'clock in the afternoon a shell struck the bread line and killed twenty-two people.
Smailovic lived nearby and witnessed the event. Prior to the Balkan War he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. As Paul Sullivan wrote in Hope Magazine, "when he saw the carnage outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he could do best... Every day thereafter, at 4:00 p.m., Vedran Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked out of his apartment into the battle that raged around him. He placed a little stool in the blood-stained, glass splattered crater where the shell had landed, and every day, for twenty-two days, he played Albinoni's Agadio as tribute to the twenty-two dead. Snipers fired at him (they missed), mortar shells fell all around him, but he played music to the abandoned streets, the smashed trucks, the burning buildings, and to the terrified people still hiding in the cellars, who heard him..."
It would be hard to argue that the bullets that flew around Smailovic were affirmations of his music. And yet his act of bravery helped strengthen the legacy of beauty in the world. His actions have become part of an inspiring story that reminds others that we never know where acts of generosity will ultimately lead.
This brings me to a concluding point about generosity. It frequently stems from my gratitude. My own generosity is often inspired by the gifts that I have been given. I give to Unitarian Universalist institutions because of all of the gifts that our liberal faith has given me. And I cook for friends and family because I am grateful for all the gifts that I have been given.
In this way I am not so different from Guyton. His efforts in Heidelberg stem from his gratitude for all that his community has given him. He started the project with his grandfather as an art school drop-out. It was his way of saying thank you to the community for encouraging him in his art. And so that gratitude turned to generosity.
Generosity often begins with the spirit of this passage from e. e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
We give because of what we have received. We give as a way of saying thank you. We give seeking affirmation and we give risking our selves. Through the act of giving we say yes to beauty, yes to possibility, yes to life. So that may we all give generously I say, Amen and Blessed Be.