Sep 16, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 15, 2019
In the Christian New Testament, there are a set of words attributed to Jesus that are sometimes called the harshness sayings by scholars. They are called that because, well, they suggest that Jesus was the sort of person who made a lot of other people uncomfortable. He spoke truth to power. And he was not always polite when he did. He told people that if they wanted to achieve the Kingdom of God then they needed to radically change their society and their lives. He suggested that in order to follow his teachings they needed to shift almost everything about what they did.
You might know a couple of the more famous of these harshness sayings. They are phrases like: “...it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And “If your right eye causes your downfall, tear it out and fling it away” And “If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
The harshness sayings suggest that religious practice, as Jesus saw it, was not an easy thing. It required personal sacrifice. It necessitated questioning everything about how people did things. To be faithful, in his view, required a radical confrontation with the reigning world order. It meant uprooting the powers and practices that organized human life and replacing them with something else.
Such a religious view is in no way unique to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, we find prophets like Jeremiah who complain about how difficult it is for people to follow God’s teachings:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem,
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly,
Who seeks integrity,
That I should pardon her.
It was the religious task, the mission, of prophets like Jeremiah to point out to the people of Jerusalem that they were not living in accordance to the will of their God. They needed to change everything they were doing if they were to live in accordance with the divine’s laws. Otherwise, Jeremiah warned, their civilization would face utter destruction.
Again, we see in this prophetic tradition the idea that religious practice is not easy. It is something that requires a fundamental shift in the way that people are doing things. They need to reimagine their relationships with each other and with the divine if they are going to live faithfully.
I have been thinking about the harshness sayings and the prophetic tradition as I have sought a Unitarian Universalist response to the climate crisis. As I mentioned last week, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crises lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. Addressing them, as a religious community, means asking the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
Last week we talked about disrupting white supremacy. This week we are talking about how to respond to the climate emergency. It is a good week for it. This coming Friday there will be a youth-led Global Climate Strike. It is likely to be the largest climate action in history. The Unitarian Universalist Association is inviting Unitarian Universalists across the country to participate. Here in Houston, the staff of First Church is encouraging members and friends to join in these protests. On Friday morning, we will be gathering here at 10:00 a.m., making signs, practicing songs, and then, after a brief worship service led by our Assistant Minister Scott Cooper, traveling as a group to city hall.
I hope that many of you will come. Immediately following the service, we are having a brief meeting to discuss logistics. One of the local organizers, Lia Millar will be joining us. At the meeting, we will be also talking about how you can participate if you are unable to miss a day of work or school. I recognize that skipping work to be part of a protest is a risk that makes some of you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it even endangers your livelihood. We want everyone to be able to be express their distress and concern about the climate emergency. And so, our Membership and Communications Coordinator Alma Viscarra has developed a social media strategy for those of you who will be working on Friday. The more of us that express commitment to do something about the climate emergency, the greater the chances are that we can, collectively, do what needs to be done to confront it.
The coming Global Climate Strike has been largely inspired by Greta Thunberg. Greta is a sixteen-year-old from Sweden. Last year she started skipping school every Friday to protest adult inaction on the climate emergency. Frustrated, angry, and more than a bit terrified, she, by herself, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament and demanded that people start talking about the crisis. Within a few weeks she was joined by other children from throughout Europe. On a regular basis they began to climate strike and skip school. When Greta and those who joined her were criticized for neglecting their education, Greta responded:
“And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
There is a certain resonance between Greta’s words and the harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic words of the great Hebrew prophets. In her speeches, she has repeatedly chastised adults for failing to address what represents a profound threat to our current human civilization and life on Earth. She says, “... on climate change we have to acknowledge that we have failed. All political movements in their present form have … [failed]. And the media has failed to create broad public awareness.” Her words an indictment to all of us who are over the age of about thirty and who have failed to do anything significant to address the climate emergency.
During our lifetimes, the situation has grown more dire. We have known that carbon emissions are causing the Earth to rapidly warm for decades. And yet, over the last thirty years humans have emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our species did over the prior two hundred. If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at this rate then we will have placed our planet on the path to warm by two degrees Celsius within ten years. And that will create a truly dire situation. Island nations will drown. Coastal cities will flood. Millions of people will be displaced. Many millions may starve as drought renders some farm lands unproductive.
It is past time to debate the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations, has repeatedly made clear that there is an overwhelming consensus on the part of scientists about the state of the climate emergency. The author Scott Westerfeld has circulated a meme that summarizes how ridiculous it is debate the science. It reads, “Plot idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.”
Besides, we have already begun to feel the impact of the climate emergency. Hurricanes like Dorian and Harvey have become more frequent and more intense in recent decades as the Earth has warmed. At the same time, as many as a million species on Earth are threatened with extinction due to human action. Every day, as many as two hundred species go extinct.
Let me give you a few words from Greta Thunberg: “We are now at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies.”
She starkly summarizes our situation this way: “Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.”
“Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.” I hear in those words echoes of the harshness sayings. I hear in them echoes of the prophetic teachings. But I want to suggest that there’s a difference. And it is a theological difference.
The harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings have, for the several centuries, been one of the major animating forces behind what we might call the apocalyptic story. The apocalyptic story is a narrative derived from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It is probably familiar to most of you. In apocalyptic stories, the world is caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This struggle will ultimately result in cataclysmic battle in which the forces of good triumph for all time over the forces of evil. Humans will find themselves in the heavenly city after God has vanquished the Devil.
In many versions of the apocalyptic story, humans play little role in bringing about this ultimate victory of good over evil. The tradition of the prophets is often interpreted as meaning that God is the one who will bring about collective salvation. The harshness sayings of Jesus are often read in a similar way.
Apocalyptic stories are rooted in a claim that matter, that the Earth, is itself somehow fallen, corrupt, or sinful. Earthly matter, the material substance of which we are composed, passes away. Bodies age and decay. We have physical suffering. Death comes to all of us.
Apocalyptic stories are predicated on the idea that it is possible to escape material corruption. They rest upon the belief that matter and conscious, body and soul, are two separate entities. They are based in a belief that human beings are somehow different from other animal species. And that the purpose of our existence, our reason for being, our salvation, individual and collective, has little to do with the loam and clay, the sand and stone, the soil and dirt, upon we place our feet. This view is poetically expressed in the words of the old Texas songwriter, Jim Reeves:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue
In the European philosophical and theological tradition this idea goes back a very long way. One place it is found is in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato has been so influential on the European tradition that another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once wrote, “the European philosophical tradition... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato had the idea that the material world is but a shadow of a higher reality. This was the world of forms. He used a famous allegory to explain the distinction between the material world and the world of forms. Perhaps you have heard it, it is called the allegory of the cave.
Imagine, he argued, that there are group of prisoners chained in a cave. They are chained in such a way that they have to look straight ahead at the cave wall. They cannot turn their heads to see behind them. Behind them is a fire. And a group of puppeteers with puppets. The puppeteers use the puppets to cast shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners can only see the shadows, not the objects that are creating them. They mistake the shadows for reality. When, in truth, the shadows were a pale imitation of it.
In his reckoning, the shadows were matter. The things casting the shadows was pure being. Human bodies were matter. They were transient one-dimensional reflections of the pure being of the soul. Bodies died. Souls were immortal.
This division between the body and soul gave philosophy, in Plato’s rendering, much of its purpose. Philosophy was meant to be a discipline whereby its practitioners could move beyond the illusions of materiality and immerse themselves in the contemplation of true reality. Socrates was another Greek philosopher. He was Plato’s teacher and in Plato’s writings he is often cast as the ideal philosopher. He is also frequently described as disassociating himself from his body and matter--choosing the contemplation of the ideal over a direct engagement with the earthly mess of daily living. In one of Plato’s dialogues he’s described as someone who “stands aside from the body insofar as he can.” His alienation from his body is so complete that Plato depicts him as caring almost nothing about clothing, comfort, or even food. He can stay up all night thinking about the soul and not get tired. He is anything but an ordinary human. “Socrates is weird,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes. Plato’s transformed person, the one who has conquered their corruptible, transient, material body is, very little like you or me. Faithful living, in his rendering, is harsh and takes us far from ordinary life.
Plato’s division between the body and the soul was taken up by many ancient Christian theologians. Augustine, who might be thought of as the father of Trinitarian Christianity, took Plato’s idea of the separation between the body and the soul and, combining it his reading of the harshness sayings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, applied it to human history. He thought it was impossible for human beings to achieve God’s vision for justice and salvation. This was because, he reasoned, our material reality made us corrupt and imperfect. God, however, was incorruptible and perfect. There was no point in struggling for justice because humanity’s corrupt nature would ultimately screw things up. The only thing we could do was wait for God to bring about the end of human history. Which God was going to do in fairly short order.
This apocalyptic view of history has been one of the central stories in European theology and philosophy since Augustine. And thinking about it, one might find resonances between apocalyptic stories and the current climate emergency. However, I detect meaningful distinctions. Accepting that we are in the midst of a climate emergency means embracing our material reality, rather than rejecting it. It means recognizing that humans are, collectively, largely the agents of our own historical destiny rather than part of a divine plan.
Last week, I spoke about the need to find new ways of being and new religious narratives. Those new ways of being and new religious narratives are connected to embracing our materiality rather than rejecting it. They require us to recognize that this world is our home. That our treasure is here, not laid up in some cerulean realm. That we recognize that our actions, small and large, have an impact on this Earth and on how the human story will progress or resolve itself.
I had something of an awakening to this over the summer when I was in Paris. My parents, son, and I were there on one of our fairly frequent European quasi-vacations. My father teaches most summers abroad and for most of my life I have joined my parents for at least part of their trip--my father working hard and the rest of us more-or-less on vacation.
The summer heat reached unprecedented levels while were there. For three days in a row, it was over a hundred degrees. One day, it was over 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Paris is not like Houston. It is not a city built with air conditioning. The apartment we were staying in did not have central air. There was nowhere to escape the heat. Inside it was hot. Outside it was even hotter. Walking down the street or just moving was exhausting.
As we suffered through that heat, I thought about the connection between air travel and climate change. I am pescatarian. I do not own a car. I take public transit or walk most places I go. I do not buy a lot of new clothes. But even so, my love of travel has made my carbon footprint, my contribution to climate change, much larger than it should be.
When I hear the harshness sayings of Greta Thunberg, I hear her talking to people like me--people of self-declared conscience, people who understand themselves to have empathetic and good hearts. And I hear her saying two things. I hear her saying, you need to do all you can to work to confront this crisis we are in. If we do not resolve it now it will fundamentally change the world we inhabit for the worse. And I hear her saying, you need to reimagine your own habits, your own way of moving through the world.
It is a call to a new way of being. One not based in a rejection of material being, but its embrace. It is a call to hear the words of a poet like Pablo Neruda:
Es una copa llena
The world is
a glass overflowing
It is a call to recognize that the Earth itself is sacred.
The author Naomi Klein has observed that this new way of being changes everything. There is a need, she writes, for “breaking... many rules at once,” for “shifting cultural values,” for changing the way we understand the world, the narratives we have, and the actions we take.
This can only be done through collective sacrifice and collective effort. We have made such sacrifices before. It might be possible to make them again. The people of the United States sacrificed enormously to mobilize to defeat fascism during World War II. They changed their consumer habits. They grew their own food. They even reorganized family structures--sending women into factories while men went off to war.
Such collective sacrifice and collective effort is being called for in legislation like the Green New Deal. Its ten trillion-dollar price tag has been called outrageous by some. Yet, it is within the range of the possible. The United States government spent as much as three or four trillion dollars on bailing out the banks during the recent financial crisis. That same government has spent as much as six trillion dollars on the so-called War on Terror.
I am pretty sure that four plus six still equals ten. So, the question does not appear to be do we have the resources to attempt to quickly shift our society and address the climate emergency. The question rather seems to be, do we have the will make the collective sacrifice and effort to do so. I am not going to pretend that I, or you, or any of us individually has that capacity. I find myself uncertain that I can even give up air travel. My parents and brother live in far-away states, most of my scholarly collaborators gather for academic conferences, and I enjoy seeing distant parts of the world. When I think about radically changing the way I do things, I find myself thinking of a line from Augustine, “Lord make me pure but not yet!”
But I also find myself thinking of words from Greta Thunberg about hope, the possibility of change, and the ways that future generations might view us. Here a few final words from her:
“The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there was still time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.”
After Greta’s words, I close not with a prayer but with an invitation. I invite us to join together on in the pursuit of new ways of being. I invite us to engage in collective action. I invite us to come together and change everything. I invite us to see ourselves as part and parcel of this material reality, this good blue green ball of a planet we call Earth.
Please join me, First Church’s staff, thousands of other Unitarian Universalists throughout the country, and millions of other people across the world on Friday. Join us if you can, in person. Join us virtually if you cannot.
And now, I invite you, the congregation, to say Amen.
Jun 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019
Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.
Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.
Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”
“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.
Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.
This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”
What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.
As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.
Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.
In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.
The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.
Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.
Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.
Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.
This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.
I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.
When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.
One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.
YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.
My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.
What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.
We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”
Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day
Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”
And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.
These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.
A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?
In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.
Apr 23, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 21, 2019
Happy Easter! It is good to be with you. Holiday services like these always bring together a special congregation. Some of you are visiting for the first time, seeking a religious community. Some of you have come with friends or family, enjoying the sense of connection and fellowship that holidays offer us. Some of you attend our services only occasionally. You are probably here so you can be with your church on this special day. And some of you worship at First Church most Sundays. Whatever brought you here to this beautiful brick sanctuary, I want to extend pause and say welcome.
Since it is Easter, I thought I better talk with you about Jesus. Specifically, I thought I should give you a sense of how Unitarians have historically approached Jesus. For generations, we have focused on his life and teachings rather than his death on the cross. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” It was preached in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819. It was the text that crystalized Unitarianism into a definitive theological position in the United States and prompted the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the forerunners of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
In his sermon, and I apologize for the dated language, Channing made the claim that Jesus’s mission was “the recovery of men to virtue, or holiness.” He further proclaimed “the doctrine of God’s unity.” In this unity God had “infinite perfection and dominion.” Channing maintained that Jesus was “a being distinct from the one God.” He was, in Channing’s words, someone who had a “human mind” whose death on the cross was “real and entire.” In essence, Channing claimed that Jesus was a man who taught that within each of us resides holiness. This holiness connects us to God. The purpose of religion, in this classic Unitarian view, is to awaken in us this sense of holiness and bring us closer to the divine.
This morning I am not going to offer you a recitation or exegesis of Channing’s sermon on “Unitarian Christianity.” Nor am I going to provide you discourse on its historical significance. Instead, I am going to give you a sermon that captures something of the essence of Channing’s theology. Whether we take it literally or metaphorical it contains within it revolutionary and transformative power.
Our sermon has three movements: the infinity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and the divinity within. Before we dive in, I thought I would give you a part. At the conclusion of each movement I invite you to say, “Hallelujah.”
A few weeks ago, I shared that “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” I know that this is a sentiment that makes some of us uncomfortable. Allow me to suggest, just for this morning, that if you are a humanist, as I am, we agree to greet the word God as a symbol. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, life itself.” So, when we say, “Hallelujah” let us think of ourselves praising any or all of those things. Praise God, “Hallelujah.” Praise the ground of being, “Hallelujah.” Praise life itself, “Hallelujah.”
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
The Infinity of God
In the ninetieth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible we find Moses pray:
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being,
before You brought forth the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity You are God.
In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita we discover generous descriptions of the divine:
You are without beginning, middle, or end;
you touch everything with your infinite power.
The sun and moon are your eyes, and your mouth
is fire; your radiance warms the cosmos.
O Lord, your presence fills the heavens and
the earth and reaches in every direction.
In the Quran we read:
...If the ocean were
Ink (wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lod.
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord...
I might continue and point you to words in the Tao Te Ching or from the Buddha or from some indigenous traditions. Whatever we choose, there are numerous texts that teach, as the fourteenth-century theologian Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote, “God is immeasurable and incomprehensible, unattainable and unfathomable.”
God is infinite. Infinity is a difficult concept to grasp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... I could keep counting for the entirety of this sermon and never approach infinity.
The British science fiction writer Douglas Adams offered a humorous approach to infinity in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The book is part of a series called the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the characters wander across space and time. Finite beings in an infinite universe, they struggle to understand their places in the great misorder of things. Fortunately, they have the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to help them. It is Wikipedia if the editors of Wikipedia had a sense of humor. It is also a physical object with “the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Peering into the text Adams’s characters find this description of infinity: “Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself look really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”
The German mathematician David Hilbert attempted to explain infinity with his infinite hotel paradox. A hotel, we all know, has a finite number of rooms. If you have tried to book a popular destination for a holiday you may have discovered this. Maybe you have even been in the situation where the place you wanted to stay ran out of rooms before you managed to secure your vacation.
Relax, Hilbert said, we can avoid this problem. We just need to build an infinite hotel. In the infinite hotel there will be infinite rooms. When you call up the hotel you might discover that it is already full of guests. “No matter,” the manager will tell you. “Whenever a new guest arrives we ask each guest to move to a new room. The guest in room 1 moves to room 2. The guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on. There is always room in the infinite hotel. Because we have infinitely many rooms there is space at the end--even if we already have infinite guests--because infinity goes on forever.”
All of this is obtuse, difficult to understand, maybe a little ponderous and opaque, and, quite possibly, impractical. This is, however, actually the message of this part of the sermon. God is infinite. God is beyond human comprehension. Do such statements, such texts, resonate with your experience?
They resonate with mine. Here is a thing that has happened to me, again and again. I have found myself along the edge of the ocean, at night, wandering the shoreline--that place where the water crashes into the sand. The wind lilts, a soft sound above the rhythmic rush of the tide. My feet are just a little damp, my flesh slightly chill. I look across the waves. They seem to go on without end, white foam crests upon white foam crests upon white foam crests. I look up at the sky, a starry night--not unlike Van Gogh’s luminous swirls and textured white yellow orbs. There is the Milky Way--a thick pointilated band. There is Orion--three stars for a belt, two stars for feet, and three for shoulders and a head. Suddenly, something in me shifts, and I feel conscious of my own temporary smallness among the infinite sea of stars and the ocean that appears to go on forever and forever. The universe feels infinite while I do not.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Humanity of Jesus
It is the infinity of God which brings us to the humanity of Jesus. It is a challenge to relate to the infinity of God. The theologian Karl Barth observed, “no... concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.” Throughout human history many people and many cultures have anthropomorphized the divine--they have made it human--in an attempt to understand it. This is what Trinitarian Christians have done. They have collapsed the infinity of God into the particularity of a human life in an effort to understand the unfathomable. In the Trinitarian Christian story, we come to know the infinite God through the finite Jesus who is the infinite God enfleshed.
In our Unitarian tradition we tell stories about Jesus in which he was a man who came to teach us about an infinite God. Jesus was not uniquely the incarnate God. He taught that God dwells inside each of us. The path to the infinite is found by looking within. Channing called this “the likeness to God.” Jesus was special because he had realized the likeness to God inside of him--the connection to holiness that is available to all of us. By awakening this holiness Jesus was able, in Channing’s words, to share with the world the “unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love” of the divine that resides within waiting to be stirred.
In the Trinitarian tradition, Jesus is God. A man who taught about God becomes God. Channing said, “No error seems to us more pernicious.” The path to spiritual awakening that Jesus lays out for us in the Christian New Testament is lost in a fog when Jesus is equated with God. Those who turn Jesus into God frequently miss the significance of his life and instead focus on his death. They claim that there is redemption to be found in state sanctioned torture--for that is what the crucifixion was--rather than in a life devoted to sharing the transformative power of love. They believe Jesus died on the cross to save all humans from sin and that this was the whole meaning of his life. Such a narrative Channing rejected “as unscriptural and absurd.”
Early Unitarians like Channing found the teachings of Jesus in his parables and sayings. They shared the importance of his lessons in their writings and in their art. The death of Jesus was not that important to them. If you visit a Unitarian church built prior to the early twentieth century you are likely to find the depiction of one of Jesus’s parables in the congregation’s stained glass. The famous Tiffany windows of Boston’s Arlington Street Church contain not a single depiction of Jesus on the cross.
Like those early Unitarians, I have a fondness for the sayings and parables of Jesus. My favorite is found in Luke 17:20-21. There he is asked, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
It is a really radical saying. At least, it is if we understand Jesus to be a human being rather than a God. A learned man of the people, a carpenter, a spiritual teacher, in the Christian New Testament we find him mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He travels with the common working people. He visits the most marginalized. He tells them that the kingdom of God is found among them. It is not found among the rich and powerful. To them Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The connection between the infinite and the human, he suggested, resides primarily among the fishermen and the peasants, the despised and the outcast.
Think about it. This human man, this person born of a human mother and who died a human death, had a unique connection, a unique understanding, of the holiness within. And he taught that holiness is most present among those whose struggle is greatest day-to-day. That, Jesus seemed to teach, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. It is not present in the evangelical church that celebrates a gospel of wealth and prosperity. It is not present with the ministers who proclaim the righteousness of their nation. It might not even be present in this sanctuary today. But it is found among those who come together and little by little work, struggle, and imagine a new way.
Another parable, Luke 13:18-19: “‘What is the kingdom of God like?’ he continued. ‘To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew to be a tree and the birds came to roost among its branches.’”
Here the kingdom of God begins by accident, by mistake. A man sows a mustard seed, anticipates a mustard plant--an annual that seeds and then perishes. Instead, a tree sprouts--an enduring majesty that lasts beyond the span of a human life. Birds come bringing song and plumed beauty. A man sows a mustard seed and from it comes so much. The smallest action, the littlest kindness, Jesus wished to teach, contains within it the possibility of great transformation. The smallest thing, perhaps, can blossom into the infinite.
The kingdom of God is among us. It is a human opening to the divine. We uncover it through acts of love, small and great.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Divinity Within
This human Jesus taught that we contain within us the likeness to God. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists have rephrased in more humanistic language by claiming that every human being has inherent worth and dignity. It is radical stuff. It means that the likeness to God is to be found within the migrant children and refugees who suffer at our borders. And it means that it found within the people who put them there. The challenge of religion is to awaken the likeness within each of us.
But more than that. The challenge today is even greater than awakening the likeness to God that resides within each of us. It is to recognize that the divinity within connects us to the divinity without. It is to stand on the seashore gaze up at the night sky and see ourselves a part of the great infinity that surrounds us. When we open ourselves thus--when we connect the divinity within to the divinity without--we find ourselves among the kingdom of God. We find that kingdom is here on this Earth, not in some distant heaven.
On this Sunday before Earth Day we are called to recognize that this is the only planet we have got. The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is among you. It is among the live oaks and sea shells. It is among the sunshine and the soft rain. Whatever holiness lies within it involves connecting to the glorious natural world of which we are a part--not subjugating it but learning to live in kinship with it. If we fail to confront the collectively created disaster of climate change then we are discovering the kingdom of God which is among us. Human life is not sustainable. Without course correction there will be no kingdom of God to be found anywhere upon this good green Earth.
This is why we gather--to open our connection to the planet’s beauty; to understand our dependence upon the soil, the sun, and the rain; to work to lead each other to better lives; to stir the holiness within. That is what Channing taught. And it is something I believe. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” was not an Easter sermon. It was an ordination sermon, preached upon the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks into the ministry. Channing took for his text a fragment of a line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
In his closing he said, “Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves.” He was certain that if we did, we would discover that Jesus taught us how to find the spark of the divine within--the spark that leaps from each to each and connects one to the all. He was also certain that it was task of the religious community to awaken the spark that resides inside all of us. Seek proof of such a spark within the text of your own lives.
In my closing to you, I invoke the poet Thylias Moss. Her poem “Fullness” speaks to me of Unitarian Christianity. Reflecting on the ritual of the Eucharist, a ritual meant to commemorate the life of Jesus, she writes:
...You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”