Nov 19, 2019
as preached on November 9, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, TX
The dedication of a new building for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a momentous occasion. Every community is made better by having a place for Unitarian Universalism within it. Unitarian Universalists have long dedicated themselves to serving the wider community. Large and small our congregations have improved every city and town, village and suburb, in which they have been located.
In many cases our congregations have been the only places where people could freely gather to share their authentic selves and pursue their authentic truths. We have frequently offered the only religious oasis for the GLBTQ community. We have long been a place for political dissidents and critical thinkers who otherwise could not find a comfortable home. We are a non-creedal religious tradition. We welcome into our ranks atheists, humanists, and pagans alongside liberal, non-Trinitarian, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, we have played a vital role in the struggle for justice.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries our forbearers opened their congregations to abolitionists and suffragists. During the Civil War, the first all black regiment from the North was funded by a Unitarian congregation in Massachussets. Some of the earliest women’s rights conventions were led by our co-religionists. In more recent decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations have played crucial roles in launching the public radio movement, sustaining the anti-war movement, confronting the AIDS crisis, fighting for civil rights, queer liberation, and women’s rights, and working for the environmental justice movement. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were started in our churches.
Our orientation to community improvement and building the just society comes from our theology. We are a this-worldly religion. We find this sentiment expressed by this campus’s namesake, Henry David Thoreau. The story is told that when he was on his deathbed a friend leaned near and speculated, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” “One world at a time,” was Thoreau’s reply.
One world at a time; we Unitarian Universalists do not orient ourselves to some distant heaven. Instead, under the starry firmament of this cosmos and with our bodies placed upon the good soil of this planet we commit to journey through life together. Together we seek the truth, love each other and the human family as best can, and work for the just society.
This campus is named for Henry David Thoreau, a man who attempted to embody these principles. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian in Concord, Massachussets. Much debate has taken place over his connection to Unitarianism as an adult. The pertinent facts are these: he spent his entire adult life in the company of Unitarian ministers such as Theodore Parker, former ministers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian feminists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody; his funeral service took place in the Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord, and was presided over by a Unitarian minister; and he resigned his membership from First Parish Concord as a protest against a minister’s unwillingness to speak out against slavery. He was, in other words, an archetypal Unitarian--an individual guided by his conscience and living in tension with a society that failed to meet his ethical standards.
Looking to Thoreau’s life we find four lodestones that we would be well advised to take as our own. These are naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion. Naturalism: Thoreau understood that we humans are part and parcel of the natural world. He counseled that the moral law was to be found by looking to the woods and the rivers. This is wise guidance for our contemporary age when we find ourselves ever more tied to the world of technology. His sense that human wisdom was found in the rushing waters and in the knotty forests led him to observe, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The further we get from our connection to the natural world the further we drift from our own humanness. And so, it is good that this new campus we dedicate today is upon five acres of grass and brush--a space to play, a space to see the lights of the heavens, and a space to consider our connection to the great all of being.
Transcendentalism: Thoreau was part of the generation of Unitarian thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. They believed that religious truth is discovered through intuition. It was not inscribed forever in scripture. It was found by looking within and probing the mind’s infinite fathoms. They understood that the divine resides within each of us. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man,” Thoreau’s great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson taught in the gendered language of his day.
It is difficult to appreciate how radical Transcendentalism was in the nineteenth century United States. It was a religious philosophy that recognized that religious truth was not only found in the Christian New Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It did not point to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was first major religious philosophy to arise in Europe or the United States that taught that the world’s religions all contained wisdom. It opened the way for people of European descent to turn to yoga, meditation, or the poetry of the Sufi teacher Rumi. It is why we Unitarian Universalists use the verses from many traditions in our worship services, such as these from the fifteenth-century Hindu mystic Mirabai: “What is this world? A patch of gooseberry bushes. It catches on the way to the one we love.”
There are echoes of Thoreau’s naturalism and transcendentalism in Mirabai’s words. This is not a coincidence. The Transcendentalists were the first major philosophers of European descent to look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They found beauty within these traditions and, through them, were inspired to connect more deeply with the divine. When we think of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists we should remember that the moral law lies within but can be found in the wilds of the world, the wisdom of the great religious teachers, and among all those who attempt to live lives of conscience.
Community: Thoreau is often portrayed as the great American individualist. He went to Walden woods to experiment with self-reliance and find freedom. He built a cabin and tried to live by his own efforts. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. He felt that the slave holding war making society that he lived in was corrupting and wanted to see if he could live apart from it.
And yet, Thoreau’s individualism is only half of his story. He was always seeking truth through community. He and his friends constantly debated and sought to discover their higher callings together. Even in his retreat in Walden, in the cabin he built himself, he ensured that there was room for others. In his famous text he wrote, “We belong to the community.” Throughout his time at Walden he frequently visited his friend Emerson’s house for discussion and dinner.
Thinking about Thoreau we should remember that the success of the individual is rarely possible without the community. Yes, there is a tension between the community and the individual. But it was Thoreau’s relationship with his Unitarian community, that ultimately allowed him to blossom as an individual. Without the support of Emerson or others in his circle it is likely that he never would have succeeded as a writer or philosopher.
Prophetic Religion: Naming a campus after Henry David Thoreau must be read as an act of bravery. Thoreau is one of the most politically radical figures in European American history. It is possible to claim that he is the most important political philosopher that the country has yet produced. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly called, “Civil Disobedience,” is one of the foundational texts of the theory of non-violent resistance to government. Thoreau’s belief that the moral law lies within led him to believe that when there was a conflict between moral law and human law the only faithful, ethical, course of action was to choose the moral law. He wrote his famous essay after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay war taxes in support of the Mexican-American War, a war that, incidentally, ultimately brought the state of Texas into the Union and was fought primarily to expand slavery.
The influence of Thoreau’s essay can be traced through the great Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the mass movements of civil disobedience against injustice, tyranny, and ecocide today. Echoes of Thoreau’s call to the moral of conscience are found in Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, school striking for climate action, and on the streets in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere as people demand a better world.
Thoreau’s prophetic impulses made many of contemporaries uncomfortable. This is all the more true because in the years following his composition of “Civil Disobedience” he came to believe that slavery in South, including here in the state of Texas, could only be overcome with armed resistance. He was a vocal defender of John Brown. He called the man who led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry, the catalyst to the Civil War, “an angel of light” and compared the executed abolitionist to Jesus, saying, “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”
Thoreau’s endorsement of Brown most likely makes many of us uncomfortable. I have certainly found it challenging to wrestle with. Just as I have found Thoreau’s statement, “The only government that I recognize,--and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small the army,--is that power that establishes justice in the land,” an inspiration in my own attempts to live by my conscience.
What Thoreau’s prophetic postions remind us is that the quest to live accordance with one’s conscience is never an easy one. The path less trod contains many a rock upon which we might stumble. It will often place us as an outlier to the wider society. And we may never know the impact our work for justice will have. Thoreau could not possibly have imagined the influence his essay on “Civil Disobedience” would enjoy across the globe.
Naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion, this campus has been named for Henry David Thoreau. The pillars of his life imply a charge for the gathered congregation as we dedicate this building. We are in era of profound crises: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. Let the namesake of this campus remind its members, all members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and people of good heart everywhere:
that we are part and parcel of the natural world;
that what happens to the green grasses, the rushing rivers, and the singing woods, will, ultimately, happen to our human species;
that there is a moral law within that we must follow in times of crisis if we are to lead lives of authenticity and spiritual honesty;
that there is but one human family and that there is wisdom spread across the planet;
that when we are confronted with injustice we are called to act;
that none of us, ever, is truly alone
and that every individual is stronger for being part of a community.
Oh spirit of love and justice,
that some of us call God,
and others know by many names,
we pray to you that
the Thoreau campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
will make the community of Fort Bend County
better by its presence,
it will provide a space for children to learn to make justice
and love the truth,
for adults to share and find their authentic selves,
and for all who cross its threshold
or hear its name
to know that here in Richmond, Texas,
there is a religious community
that embodies love beyond belief,
nurtures the good heart,
binds up the broken,
and engages in the difficult,
work of building a better world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Feb 6, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, February 6, 2018
This may be the first congregation I have ever been to, let alone served, that has its own pizza ovens. I must admit that it seems like a bit of an odd quirk. And yet, I am really glad we have them. The pizza last night was tasty, and the games were fun. It was a pleasure to spend time with some of you outside of the confines of Sunday service. And it was also lovely to meet a few members of the wider community who showed up just to eat pizza and play games. The whole event was a good reminder that church is not just something we do on Sunday morning. Church brings us to together to share our lives. And what is more central to our lives than sharing food and fun?
Our sermon today is about how Unitarian Universalist communities can and do play a vital role in birthing a better world, the one in which peace, justice and liberty are so common that no one talks "about them as far off concepts, but as things such as bread, birds, air, water, like book, and voice."
To get us started, I want to ask you a simple question. Do you believe in magic? I do. And by magic I mean nothing more than act of creating something from nothing. Some years my friend Richard taught me about it. Richard is a distinguished medical doctor and HIV researcher. He is also a proponent of magic.
He explained it to me this way, "Colin, magic is imagining something that does not exist and then bringing that thing into being. It is simple. Imagine that I am hungry and I want a sandwich. I do not have one so I am going to make one. I get a couple of pieces of nice rye bread, a bit of sharp cheese, some good oily tuna, a few capers, a little mayonnaise, and pretty soon I have a sandwich. I have used my imagination to create something that did not exist before in the world, a delicious sandwich. Incidentally, would you mind passing the mustard and pickles?"
Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where we make magic happen. In our religious communities we collectively imagine things or social arrangements that do not presently exist and then we bring them into being. There is a formula, a spell if you will, for this kind of magic. It runs conscience plus imagination plus love equals magic.
Conscience is something we invoke in one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is at the core of our "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." We might think of it as the ability to discern right from wrong. We tap into our conscience when we confront a situation when we are asked to do something that we know to be wrong and we refuse to do it. We also tap into our conscience when we encounter a societal wrong and refuse to participate in it. It is at the root of the practice of civil disobedience. When people commit civil disobedience they intentionally create disruption in the hopes of undermining a law or situation they believe to be unjust.
Conscience tells us something is wrong with the way the world is. Imagination tells us the world can be different. "In our dreams we have seen another world," one of our texts read. In my friend Richard's act of imagination he knew the world he lived in could be different than it was currently, it could be a world in which there was a tasty sandwich. In our Unitarian Universalist communities we often imagine that the world in which we live could be different. We imagine a world without racism, sexism, ablism, classism, a world in which everyone has enough to eat, in which there is clean air and water for all, a world where every child and every adult has access to quality education, a world with adequate shelter and love for everyone, a world with... well, I invite you to use your imagination.
Conscience and imagination are not enough, to make magic happen we need to add one more ingredient, we need to add love. Opening ourselves to love means opening ourselves to the possibility of change. It means making ourselves vulnerable. It means seeking connection with someone, and something, beyond ourselves. It means recognizing that none of us alone is sufficient, that we need each other to survive.
Love is very much a part of our Universalist heritage. Our Universalist ancestors believed that a loving God did not punish sinners with eternal damnation. But more than that, they believed that God's love was not limited. It was unlimited. That might be a good way to summarize their theology: Universalism, the church of God's love, unlimited.
When we combine conscience, imagination, and love we can perform powerful magic. This magic is about creating things that do not yet exist. It is also about making ourselves aware of the things that already exist. Sometimes, the better world hope for is already right here.
One of the places I learned this lesson was from my favorite children's author, Daniel Pinkwater. You might have heard of him, he used to be a regular commentator on NPR. Now, I have been reading a lot of Pinkwater lately. One of the great things about being a parent is that I get to return to the books of my youth when I share them with my kids. In the past couple of years, I have probably read more than a dozen of Pinkwater's books. They have great titles like "The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death," "Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars" or "Yobgorgle, the Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario."
Reading these books as an adult, I have realized that they all have a common theme--the world is filled with magic. The trick is finding it. And finding it does not turn out to be all that difficult. It is often just a matter of perceiving things around you a little differently. When you do, you start to notice wonderful things that you hadn't seen before.
Take "The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death." It is novel about three friends who snarkout--that is sneak out of the house late at night to go see the movies. They do not got to any movie theater, they go to the Snark Theater. It is a twenty-four theater that shows all kinds of movies--everything from blockbusters to obscure French or Japanese classics. The Snark isn't just a movie theater, it is a way of life.
Going there allows the kids to enter into a world that they would have never encountered otherwise. They meet a man with a dancing chicken. He keeps the chicken under his hat and takes her out to perform--he accompanies the bird by singing. They find a wonderful bohemian garden filled with art and music. They learn to speak on street corners. They collaborate with the world's greatest detective to solve a case. This magical world already existed. The three friends just had to find it.
My favorite verses in all of the Christian New Testament make a similar point. They are Luke 17:20 to 21. Do you know them? In one version they read, "Once Jesus was asked... when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is! or 'There it is! For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.'"
The Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy titled a book after these verses. His text "The Kingdom of God is Within You" is a pacifist classic. Mahatma Gandhi was so impacted by it that he wrote, it "overwhelmed me." It played a central role in his development of strategies for the non-violent transformation of the world. He even named the intentional community he started in South Africa Tolstoy Farm in honor of Tolstoy and the book's influence on him. For Gandhi, the nonviolence Tolstoy inspired was partially rooted in "the infinite possibilities of love."
Gandhi was a great inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. King called Gandhi "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change." Like Gandhi and Tolstoy before him, King saw nonviolence as based in love and self-transformation. He said, "it is love that will save our world." He also also claimed that nonviolence was not primarily about changing the hearts of the oppressors. Instead, "It... does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had."
Practitioners of the kind of nonviolence advocated by King, Gandhi, and Tolstoy, understand that changing the world has to begin by changing yourself. There is a strange way in which it is a bit like my friend Richard's sandwich. If you want a sandwich you have to make it. If you want to live in a different world you have to start engaging in the world differently. One of the best places we can do this is in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
It was not very long ago that same-sex marriage was illegal, and the idea of marriage equality seemed a fanciful dream. I am just old enough to remember when it seemed that almost every member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities I knew in my hometown was in the closet. Or at least, in the closet everywhere except the Unitarian Universalist congregation I grew up in. In my Unitarian Universalist congregation, we had a diversity sexual orientations and gender identities. Through religious education and in my youth group I was taught that honoring this diversity made our community a freer and more loving place, one in which we could bring the fullness of who we were in a way that was not possible in many other spaces.
The same was true in the congregation I served in Cleveland. It is a small urban church. Cleveland is a somewhat culturally conservative place. We were the only religious community in our neighborhood that performed same sex unions. Same-sex marriage was then illegal in Ohio, but we believed in marriage equality. We believed in celebrating a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities.
I remember one celebration for a same sex union we did. It was for a couple who lived in the neighborhood. The two women did not attend the congregation. I never saw them on Sunday morning. But one day they came up to the church and knocked on our front door.
They were very much in love. They wanted to know if we would do a service to bless their union, to honor their love. They came from very conservative families. They told people that they lived together as roommates. But they were able to share their beautiful truth with us. So, we organized a service in the sanctuary where they could commit to each other and sanctify their bond.
We were just one of hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States that did similar things--performed same-sex unions when same-sex marriage was illegal. But here's the secret, in our congregations we lived as if same-sex marriage was already legal. We lived as if it was perfectly normal for there to be families with two Dads or two Moms. We did this as just we lived as if it was perfectly normal for there to be families with single parents or two heterosexual parents. And because we did that we helped to create a world in which it is possible to celebrate many kinds of families and many kinds of partnerships.
This is how social change happens. A group of people imagine that the world can be different. And then they act as if the world is different. And then the world changes. It is magic. And it is something we can do in our congregations.
This theology runs deep in the collective rafters of our Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many people know that Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" is one of the foundational texts of nonviolent philosophy. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian and many of us like to claim him as one of our own. But less known is a figure named Adin Ballou.
Ballou was by turns a nineteenth-century Unitarian and Universalist minister--there was a lot of that going on before the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. He was a committed abolitionist. He also believed in nonviolence. Ballou taught, "We cannot render evil for evil ... nor do otherwise than 'love our enemies.'"
Ballou was one of the inspirations for Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is Within You." Such as Ballou's influence on the Russian novelist, that when he was asked who he thought was the greatest American writer Tolstoy replied, without hesitation, Adin Ballou.
Ballou taught that the only way to make social change was to start where you live and make the change there. With several friends, he started a utopian community called Hopedale. They believed in women's equality and so in their community women were able to hold office and vote. This was seventy years before women won the right to vote in federal elections. They wanted a fairer economy so they created cooperative business enterprises. They opposed slavery so they refused to buy goods that we created by enslaved people. They questioned many of the ways that things were done in the world and then did things differently. And because of this there's a direct line that can be traced from their work to Tolstoy to Gandhi to the civil rights movement and the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hopedale and Unitarian Universalism's work for marriage equality are but two examples of how our religious communities are places where we make magic happen. Can you think of others? How have Unitarian Universalist congregations stood for reproductive health? How have we stood for the rights of migrants? How have we struggled against racism? How have we fought for gender equality? How have worked towards economic justice?
The challenge, and the question, really is, how can this congregation be a place where we make magic happen? I know that we are small and in a small community but we can still be a place where we imagine a different world and then bring that world into being. In modest ways, we already do. We have a rainbow flag that we are going to hang out front of the church to let the town know that we bless a diversity of genders and sexual orientations. This Wednesday members and friends of the congregation are meeting to plan some social justice events for the spring. Last night, we held a pizza and games party that brought people together for fun and food. In doing so, we did a little to confront one of the most pressing issues of our time: social isolation. The rainbow flag, social justice events, pizza and games, all acts of magic, all bringing something new into the world and into Ashby that would not exist otherwise.
Rather than giving myself the last word. I would like to give it to you. I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, "Neighbor, this congregation is a place where we can make magic happen. Let's make some magic together."
May it Be So and Amen.