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.
Mar 31, 2018
as preached at First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 25, 2018
Yesterday, Asa and I attended the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was inspiring to be in a group of tens of thousands walking from Roxbury Crossing to the Common. In a time when it is easy to despair, a movement started by high schoolers against gun violence is inspiring. The leadership of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been an important reminder that no matter how young, or how old, we are we can work to change world.
I understand that here in Ashby the March for Our Lives hosted by the congregation was quite a success. I have been told that over a hundred people turned up and there were moving speeches by several of local high school students. It is wonderful that our social justice group was able to organize such an event.
Before we get started with the sermon proper I thought it would be nice to bring the spirit of the march into our sanctuary and sing a classic protest song from our hymnal. #170 in the grey hymnal "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" is a pretty good expression of the feelings a lot of us have in response to the epidemic of gun violence. We can sing it without accompaniment, a cappella.
Thank you for singing with me. Let me start the sermon proper. When she was very young Margaret Fuller stopped on a staircase in her parents' house and asked herself four questions: "How came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?" These are big, religious, questions about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. I suspect that many of us have asked ourselves similar ones at various times in our lives. Certainly, as a religious community, we are called to ask parallel questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? How did we get to be this way? What shall we do about it?
Our religious tradition encourages us to draw from a variety of different sources when we try answer such questions. As theological liberals the most important source that we draw from has always been personal experience. It is a core principle of religious liberalism that theological reflection begins with our personal experiences. As the official list of our sources begins, we draw upon "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder... which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
Personal experiences are not enough on their own. To find answers we turn to collective wisdom in its various forms. Collective wisdom tempers our experiences and aids us in their interpretation. One of the places we can look to for collective wisdom is in the lives and teachings of our religious ancestors.
We are blessed to number among our religious ancestors some of history's most illustrious names. Several U.S. Presidents, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft were Unitarian. We can claim artists and musicians like the composer Bela Bartok and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Our rolls contain social justice activists such as the leading women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the civil libertarian Roger Baldwin and the pioneering abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; scientists like Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling and the astronomer Maria Mitchell; and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Beatrix Potter.
The lives and actions of such people point the way towards the answers we might find for our big questions. This morning, in honor of Women's History Month, we are going to seek answers to our questions by exploring the lives of some of our liberal religious women ancestors. The contributions that Unitarian Universalist women have made to our movement, and to humanity, are significant. They easily merit several volumes rather than a single sermon. So to help us focus we will hone in on the life of a particular Unitarian woman, Margaret Fuller.
Fuller was a central member of the circle of writers, ministers and activists that we have come to call the transcendentalists. She edited their groundbreaking literary journal the Dial. She was also the first full-time foreign correspondent for a U.S. based newspaper and a pioneering women's rights activist. She wrote "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," a book that has come to be regarded as the foundational text of this country's women's rights movement.
Fuller's life was tragic. She drowned, with her husband and toddler son, off the coast of New York at the age of 40. Emerson, wrote on her death "I have lost in her my audience."
Fuller possessed a mind and an education that was almost unparalleled by any in her generation. She was born into a prominent Boston area Unitarian family. Her father, Timothy, was a congressman and successful lawyer. He sought to give her all of the educational advantages that he might have given a son.
He oversaw her education himself and before she was ten Margaret could read Greek and Latin. As an early adolescent she worked her way through the major works in the Latin canon and read Shakespeare and other English poets. Later she was sent a progressive school where she studied French, Italian, mathematics and the natural sciences. This was at a time when schooling was not available to most girls. The schooling that did exist for them emphasized the development of the skills necessary to manage a household and attract a husband.
New England society in the early 19th century was not structured to give women like Fuller opportunities. She wished to attend Harvard College, but it was only open to men. She wanted to make her own way in the world but all of the professions were closed to women.
She was, however, able to find a position as a teacher in a progressive school run by Bronson Alcott, the father of the writer Louisa May Alcott. She taught there and then briefly at another school for about two years before launching out on her own. Instead of starting a school she developed her own educational model. It was called the conversations and it was only open to women. A conversation differed from a lecture in that it was more participatory. Instead of announcing a topic and then holding forth on it the converser tried to inspire participants to engage in their own reflections.
Alcott, who had launched a co-educational series of conversations, called it a "Ministry of Talking." The hope was to bring the participants into a communion around a shared idea. For Fuller her conversations were essential as they offered, in her words, "a point of union to well-educated and thinking women in a city… boasts at present nothing of the kind..." She wanted her conversations to be a place where women "could state their doubt and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others."
In this way Fuller's conversations combined emotional support with intellectual stimulation. At a time when she could neither teach at a university nor preach from a pulpit Fuller was able to create a space where she and other women could further their education and deepen their spiritual lives. It was a safe space to explore matters that were largely regarded as the domain of men.
Her conversations proved to popular. They attracted many of the leading women of Boston, a number of whom were Unitarian. Women from as far away as New York came to participate.
It was not enough for Fuller. She wanted a larger audience and after running her conversations for a few years gradually stopped to concentrate on her editing and writing. Over the next few years she published two books, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" and "Summer on the Lakes," edited the Dial and, ultimately, secured a position on the New York Tribune.
She worked in New York for close to two years before, in her mid-thirties, accepting an offer to travel to Europe. The newspaper did not want to let her go and so made her what at the time was a remarkable offer. It would continue to pay her as long as she wrote about her travels for its readership.
Prior to Fuller's offer no newspaper in the country had a full-time correspondent in Europe. When she accepted the Tribune's offer she made journalistic history. She also created a remarkable record of mid-19th century Europe. She met with, and wrote about, many of the leading literary, political and artistic figures of the continent. She visited the poet William Wordsworth, befriended the French writer George Sand, Sand's lover the composer Frederic Chopin, and the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.
Mazzini was to a play an important role in both Fuller and Italy's future. In a Tribune column about him she wrote words that ultimately might be taken for a summation of both her personal justice philosophy and Unitarian moral theology. They read, "there can be no genuine happiness, no salvation for any, unless the same can be secured for all."
This sentiment was certainly present in her "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." In it she argued that human development and liberty would never be complete until both men and women enjoyed the freedom to develop their full human potential. In this she was partially inspired by her own Unitarian tradition, particularly the teachings of William Ellery Channing and the pioneering British feminist Mary Wolstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."
Fuller noted that Channing's claim that all souls contained within the likeness of God extended to women as well as men. Wolstonecraft's call for women's rights inspired Fuller but it was her achievements as a writer in general, and not her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in particular, that was important. Someone like Wolstonecraft, who was both successful and, because of her gender marginalized, demonstrated to Fuller both the women's potential and the sad reality that that potential went largely untapped.
The intellectual and religious relationship between Channing, Fuller and Wolstonecraft suggests how exploring the life of one of our foremothers is related to our annual stewardship campaign, which runs the month of March. We have a religious tradition because of those who came before us. Fuller's work built off of the teachings and writings of other religious liberals like Channing and Wolstonecraft. Our religious community benefits from the heritage Fuller and others like her have bequeathed us.
That bequest is a generous gift. It is a gift that we can repay by preserving and, if possible, improving our community for the next generation. This is the very definition of stewardship, preserving what we have been given so that it might be passed on. Such stewardship is rooted in both gratitude and generosity. We do it because we are grateful for the gifts that we have been given. We are generous because the generosity of previous generations has ensured that we have a tradition to inherit.
As stewards of a tradition we are also tasked with its guardianship. I am reminded of this each election season when politicians and religious leaders on the right try to co-opt our liberal religious tradition for their own purposes. An example of this which you may be aware of is an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List. The list creates voting guides to anti-abortion politicians. It claims that in doing so it is working "in the spirit and tradition of the original suffragettes."
Such claims are revisionist history. Anthony's opinions about abortion are not particularly clear. The quotes that the List uses to bolster its claim are ambiguous. One for instance, seems to point more to a critique of a male dominated society than an attack on abortion. Anthony observed, "The statutes for marriage and divorce, for adultery, breach of promise, seduction, rape, bigamy, abortion, infanticide-all were made by men." Another comes from a diary entry written after she visited her brother and found her sister-in-law sick in bed after an abortion. She wrote, "She will rue the day she forces nature."
Even if these quotes represented an anti-abortion sentiment on Anthony's part it is difficult to use them to suggest that she would have been part of the so-called pro-life movement. Abortion in the nineteenth-century was something different from abortion in the twenty-first century. Abortions, like most medical procedures then, were risky and pregnancy itself was frequently life threatening. Just as importantly, children often did not survive childhood so attitudes towards the importance and value of a child's life were different than they are today.
These differences remind us of one of the most important lines separating religious liberals from religious conservatives. As religious liberals we hold truth to be mutable and changeable. What is true for one generation might not be true for the next because human culture is always changing and human knowledge is always expanding.
We believe, in other words, that revelation is ongoing and continuos. As Fuller's good friend Emerson preached in his famous "Divinity School Address," we are charged to "speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation."
This is not true of religious conservatives. In contrast to us they belief that the truth is unchanging and that religious knowledge is fixed. In their minds, a quote taken from a scripture written three thousand years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Likewise a passage from a diary written a hundred years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Because of this lack of critical sophistication, Emerson described conservative's belief about revelation this way, they understand that "the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead."
It is not our tradition to believe that revelation was given once for all time. If it was women like Anthony and Fuller would have accepted the roles society assigned for them. Instead, Anthony and Fuller believed that social norms and society change over time. If those were unjust people could struggle to change them.
In evaluating whether a group like the Susan B. Anthony List can claim to be the stewards of the tradition they say they represent we must ask two questions: Are they comfortable with the changing nature of society and a changing understanding of truth? Or do they seek to preserve the current social order and social understandings? If the answer is that they are comfortable with social change then they can rightly claim their role as stewards. If not, then not.
At the core of the tradition that Fuller and Anthony represent is the conscience; the idea that within us we each have the ability to make moral decisions. The way Fuller cultivated this ability suggests that most elusive of beasts, the Unitarian mystic and spiritual tradition. It is often lamented that we Unitarian Universalists do not have a tradition of spiritual practice of our own. The majority of us who engage in spiritual practice borrow it from another tradition. We practice yoga or meditation, we engage in prayer. But when asked what sort of spiritual practice we have within our tradition we are frequently at a loss.
The life of Margaret Fuller, and her transcendentalist contemporaries, suggests that there is an authentic Unitarian spiritual practice. The purpose of that practice is to nurture the conscience. Its discipline is three-fold. It begins with contemplative journal keeping. In the journal a person regularly records his or her daily interactions with others and struggles with the wider world. One of the reasons we know so much about people like Fuller and Emerson is because we have access to their journals.
Journal keeping is supplemented by engagement with the natural world. Each of the transcendentalists wrestled with humanity's relationship with nature. In "Summer on the Lakes," for instance, Fuller sought to understand how the Great Lakes region was being transformed as it was settled by Europeans. She wanted to know what was being lost in that process and what was being gained. Additionally, throughout her life she regularly took three or four hour daily walks to center herself.
The third part of the discipline is putting the conscience into action. As the conscience is discovered through the journal and stimulated in the natural world it leads one to act. For most of the transcendentalists these actions were taken as individuals. Henry David Thoreau famously went off into the woods and committed civil disobedience on his own.
Ideally, this spiritual practice all takes place within a community where people are free to dialogue about their discoveries. The community can offer support when the struggle of conscience becomes difficult. It can also offer correction and guidance when one appears to act counter to the conscience.
Fuller's time in Europe led her to put her conscience in action not as an individual but as part of a reform movement. In the late 1840s she moved to Italy and supported the efforts to unify the Italian peninsula under a single democratic government. At the time Italy was broken into nine different states, each ruled by a monarch or despot.
Inspired by her friend Mazzini, Fuller became part of the movement to change that. In doing so she met and married a young Italian aristocrat. The two had a child and when the Italian revolution of 1848 collapsed they fled to the United States together. They did not to make it. Their ship sank, and the entire family drown, within sight of the shore.
But after her death Fuller's legacy has lived on. Looking to her life we find some possible answers to our questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? We are a justice seeking people called to follow our consciences. How did we get to be this way? Through a rich tradition that reminds us that truth is ever changing and knowledge ever expanding. What shall we do about it? Be good stewards and carry that tradition forward.
That it may be so we close with these words from another liberal religious leader, Loretta Williams:
We, bearers of the dream, affirm that a new vision of hope is emerging.
We pledge to work for that community in which justice will be actively present.
We affirm that there is struggle yet ahead.
Yet we know that in the struggle is the hope for the future.
We affirm that we are co-creators of the future, not passive pawns.
So may it be
Mar 4, 2018
The Nor’easter hit our neighborhood in Medford pretty hard. We didn’t lose power and no one, as far as I know, was injured but one of the big trees in the next door neighbor’s yard came crashing down and ruined another neighbor’s fence. The front door also blew off our apartment building. I hope that nothing similar happened to any of you out in Ashby and its environs. Such a storm was a humble reminder that we humans only have so much control over our lives. Much of the time we’re subjected to fickle winds.
Community is one of the things that helps us bear such storms. When the winds of life batten us down it is often our communities that help us endure. Unitarian Universalism has always been a vital community in my life and if you’re a friend or member of First Parish Church I suspect it has been a vital community for you as well.
This month, in an effort to sustain the communities that sustain us, the congregation will be conducting its annual stewardship campaign. As part of the campaign those of you who are pledging members and friends should receive a pledge card and a stewardship letter in the mail next week. Tomorrow, I will be preaching a sermon titled “For What We Have, For What We Give” to kick off the campaign. Here’s a brief description: “Robert Walsh writes, ‘We are the feeders, and we are those who are fed.’ In this sermon on stewardship we’ll consider how giving and receiving gifts is a spiritual practice.” At the end of the month I’ll be following up with people who haven’t made their pledges to make sure you’ve gotten pledge letters and to learn what your intentions are towards the congregation.
March is women’s history month and I will be back in the pulpit on March 25th to offer a service centered on Margaret Fuller, one of our most famous Unitarian ancestors. She has much teach us about what it means to live a life that is intentionally devoted to beauty and justice.
The text from last month’s sermons are available online, in case you missed them. “Intangible Dreams” is the service from February 6th. “A Black Christ” is the service from February 18th. On my blog you’ll also find a tribute to the late Rev. Kay Jorgensen, one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. Last month I also had the opportunity to preach at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, one of the largest congregations in our denomination. There’s a video of the service on YouTube if you’re interested.
Finally, the social justice group met and I understand that there are a number of exciting things potentially in the works. I am sure that the Parish Committee and the social justice group will be updating everyone soon. In the meantime, friend of the congregation Emily Fine has started a petition to thank Dick’s Sporting Goods for deciding to stop selling assault rifles and limit gun sales to those 21 years of age and older. You can sign it here.
As is my practice, I would like to close with a few verses of poetry. Since we’ll be having a service devoted to Margaret Fuller at the end of the month it seems fitting to share one of her poems:
We deemed the secret lost, the spirit gone,
Which spake in Greek simplicity of thought,
And in the forms of gods and heroes wrought
Eternal beauty from the sculptured stone,—
A higher charm than modern culture won
With all the wealth of metaphysic lore,
Gifted to analyze, dissect, explore.
A many-colored light flows from one sun;
Art, ’neath its beams, a motley thread has spun;
The prism modifies the perfect day;
But thou hast known such mediums to shun,
And cast once more on life a pure, white ray.
Absorbed in the creations of thy mind,
Forgetting daily self, my truest self I find.
I hope to see you soon!
Feb 3, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, January 21, 2018
This week marked the year anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump. Shortly before he was inaugurated, I preached a sermon to a different congregation in which I said that one of our most important tasks for the coming years was to nurture the spiritual practices that would sustain us through difficult times. Today, as part of my two-sermon series on the self as social creature, I want us to consider one of those spiritual practices: the practice of friendship.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, "What was the name of my best friend?" is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, "I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again." For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay "Self-Reliance" he claimed, "Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members." He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community "the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself."
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, "I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know." Margaret Fuller's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him to write, "I have lost my audience." Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, "more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles..." Of him she wrote, "that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind." Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, "...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, "Friendship demands a religious treatment."
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, hustling through Boston, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through Mumbai's mazing streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called "the great family of all souls." If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, "We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables." Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, "the solidest thing we know." Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were almost always similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, "I come to this congregation because I love the community."
"That's it?," my internal dialogue would run. "You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure as minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!"
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, "Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude," but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. Just a few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making is a pretty powerful common center.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. "From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey," said one. "Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart," said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, "The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one." I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, "I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else."
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits: I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and reminds me I should try to make the world a better place. I recommit to justice work and march to oppose white supremacy and racial hatred.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, "What was the name of my best friend?" was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: "We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying." Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, "Hello, I would like to get to know you." Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, "I have my greatest gift to give you, my self." Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights.
Nov 13, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017
The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”
It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.
This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.
This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.
Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.
The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:
“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.
This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”
My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.
When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...
We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.
I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.
One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”
We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”
But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.
This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.
Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.
There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?
In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.
The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.
After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:
May my words,
and our time together,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
Amen and Blessed Be.