Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Jun 20, 2018
This is my last sermon with you. It is not my last time in Ashby as your minister. That will be the evening of July seventeenth when I come to enjoy a concert on the green. Nonetheless, this morning is the last time that the collective you, the members and friends of First Parish Church, will listen to me in my current capacity--as your minister. Which is too bad. There is still so much that I would like to say to you and share with you. I cannot say all of it. What I can do is continue our conversation from earlier in the month. It is in some sense the same conversation we have been having all year. It is an attempt to answer the question: What is the purpose of the church? Or, really, as I said before, it is an attempt to answer three interwoven questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
In my last sermon I suggested that one way we might answer these questions is to claim that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. When we learn these skills we can make a difference in our own lives and in the wider world.
Some might argue that this is an answer that comes from the Unitarian part of our tradition. It suggests a certain faith in human nature. It suggests that we can collectively improve our lot and our selves. The claim that we have the ability to improve our selves is one of the claims that was at the heart of the Unitarian controversy in the nineteenth century. That was the conflict between liberal and orthodox Christians that eventually led to the First Parish Church splitting in two. The liberals, who believed that humans have the capacity to improve our selves, became Unitarians and stayed in this building. The orthodox, who claimed that human nature was inherently wicked and could only be redeemed with divine intervention, built the church across the street.
This morning I want to suggest a different purpose for the church than one that comes from the Unitarian tradition. I want to propose a purpose rooted in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. The purpose of the church is to love the Hell out of the world. Yes, we gather to further democratic practice and to build a more democratic society. But we do this because we are called to love the Hell out the world.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He writes about how he once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven.” What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
In New England, one of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. For several years he was a circuit rider who traveled throughout the region spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. You might recall one I have shared with you before. It was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. I imagine it was of the type that many of you live in: a large creaky wooden amalgamation of home and barn with the livestock living not all that far from the people.
Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s eldest son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it when he went out late at night partying and carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. I have used in a couple of sermons. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing through rural New England spreading the gospel of universalism. There is truth to this portrayal but it elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from I Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like I Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian theologian who lived in the second and third centuries of the common era. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived almost two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism because it helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new friend. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point though, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.” You explain. You give them your elevator speech. You might quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or maybe you quote our own Liz Strong, who reflecting on her childhood in Universalist church, wrote: “the center of my religious faith was a powerful belief in the inherent goodness and worth of all life. I believed in a god who loved me and all of creation.”
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
But what comes next? I wonder that about in the story of Ballou and the farm family. Did the family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people someplace in rural New England who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. There is a lot of Hell in the world. And we know by now, from long experience, from all the prophets, is that the only way we can get rid of that Hell is through the power of love. It’s like Kenneth Patchen says in his poem, “The Way Men Live is a Lie:” “There is only one power that can save the world-- / And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.”
There is a lot of Hell in the world right now. This week we learned that since April the United States government has separated 2,000 immigrant children from their parents. 2,000 children. Separated from their parents. That is about as close a definition to Hell as I can find. It comes from the opposite of love. It is built upon the opposite of compassion.
The people who migrate to the United States do so because they have no other choice. It is an unbelievably difficult decision to uproot yourself and your family and travel thousands of miles, not knowing what you will find on the other end, in the hopes of making a better life. It is a decision that people only make when all the other options seem worse. Those options are sometimes to stay home and watch your children starve to death; to stay home and be murdered by paramilitaries; to stay home and be butchered by gangs; to stay home and be killed by an abusive spouse...
Immigrants provide net economic benefits to this country. Ask any honest economist and they will tell you that the United States is a wealthier country because of immigration. Immigrants have brought a wonderful diversity of art, food, and culture to this country. Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and William de Kooning are all iconic American artists. Each one an immigrant. Pizza, a gift from immigrants! St. Patrick’s Day comes from immigrants!
Hate and fear close the borders and try to keep immigrants out. Loving the Hell out of the world demands that we open the borders and let the poor, the marginalized, the frightened, the hungry, and the huddled, in.
Love over hate. This is an actual choice we make. Hate comes from a belief that all of nature can be reduced to the red tooth and claw. There is only so much in the world. You have to compete to get what is yours and damn everyone else. This is a view that turns immigrants into criminals. It prioritizes law over justice. It separates children from their parents. It falsely believes that the United States is worse off with all of the richness that has come from immigrants.
This is kind of hate is a choice. It is a choice that is sometimes based on a misreading of the Unitarian Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species.” It misunderstands observations such as “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” It bolsters this wrong interpretation of Darwin with false readings of the Christian New Testament like the one offered by the Attorney General this week.
Competition is certainly a factor in nature but in sits in tension with cooperation. Social animals like humans and honeybees cooperate with each other. Social animals survive by working together. The building of roads, the creation of schools, the development of science, the construction of a church, the maintenance of a congregation... All are acts of cooperation. Each comes from an often unarticulated belief that we are better working together, striving together, than we are alone.
Love the Hell Out of the World; we are faced with a choice. We can turn to hate or we can turn to compassion. That is why we Unitarian Universalists gather for community, we encourage each other to turn towards compassion. Competition or cooperation, hate or love, it comes down to a wager. We can choose to believe, like orthodox Christians, God will punish all sinners with eternal fire. The fire is coming for us like it was coming for the ne’er-do-well farmer’s son. The country cannot absorb more immigrants. Or we can bet upon love. That God, the perfect parent, will not condemn us to the inferno. That today, in the richest country in the history of the world, there is enough for all of the frightened, the starving, the poor, who come to our borders seeking sanctuary.
It is a bet on what is at the core of our humanity: love or hate, cooperation or competition. To love the Hell out of the world means to choose cooperation over competition. It means to suggest as, did Kenneth Patchen,
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
What have you chosen? As individuals? As a congregation? To love the Hell out of the world? That peace is more redemptive than violence? That we need to march, not fight, for our lives? That love is more powerful than hate?
I leave you with those rhetorical questions. They suggest answers to our three interlaced questions from the beginning of the sermon: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
Those are your questions. You will have to wrestle with them as long as this congregation remains. But now, I have to go. And before I do, let me say this:
I hope that you will continue to love the Hell out of the world.
I love you.
I will carry you in my heart as long as my pulse continues to beat.
And I am deeply grateful for our year together.
Thank you for everything.
Let us give the final word, again, to the poet, who wrote in his non-gender neutral language:
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Mar 5, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 4, 2018
It is always good to be with you. We had quite the weekend of weather down in Medford. The front door was actually torn off of my apartment building by the wind. It was a not so subtle reminder that no what matter we humans might think, nature is actually in charge.
I hope that the weather was not too bad here. I suspect that since Ashby is not right by the coast you were sheltered from the worst of the Nor'easter. I will admit that I never know exactly what the weather is like out here when I am back in Medford. It is remarkable that even though we are only an hour apart, you are actually in your own microclimate.
Today's sermon is the start of the stewardship season. This year's pledge drive has three stages. First, today, I am offering a sermon to kick it off. Second, early next week you should be receiving a letter from me in the mail asking you to make a pledge to support the congregation. The goal is to have all pledge cards submitted by March 31st, so we can use the pledges to prepare the annual budget. The third thing I will be doing is following up with folks who do not submit their pledge cards by the end of the month to see what their intentions are towards the congregation. If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to ask me during coffee hour.
So, with that process in mind, let us get started with the sermon proper.
The pale polka dot is not unexpected. It sits, dinner plate size, in the center of a weed strewn and crumbling road. The dot's rough paint lies uneasily on decaying asphalt. It is something of a shock. A piece of art, roughhewn but art nonetheless, in the midst of urban decay.
The dot is not alone. Casting my eyes forward I see another dot about twenty feet ahead, washed out yellow instead of faded pink. That dot is followed by another, blue this time, and then another and another. Now I understand what the docent at the Detroit Institute of Art meant when I asked for directions, "follow the polka dot road."
I am driving through one of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods. The blocks I pass are filled with a mixture of the burned-out shells of vacant houses, empty lots, broken bottles, abandoned furniture and occupied, but usually decrepit, dwellings. I am looking for the Heidelberg Project, the artist Tyree Guyton's outsider masterpiece. When I see the first polka dots I know that I am close.
As I travel down the street the polka dots gradually multiple and move. First they are only on the asphalt, barely holding together parts of the disintegrating road. Then they drift onto the broken buckled sidewalks and up the sides of abandoned buildings. The polka dots are everywhere when I finally turn off the main street and onto the side road where Guyton's project is centered.
The project is difficult to describe. It consists of more than a dozen houses stretched over a block and a half, trees decorated with glass bottles of all colors, a painted school bus, piles of shoes and a makeshift playground. Some of the houses are occupied. Several are abandoned. All have been decorated by Guyton and his neighbors in highly unorthodox fashions. One home is carpeted with numbers, big and little, they come from gas station signs, clocks and broken street signs. Another is covered with dozens of words--Oklahoma, people, jury, white, love--and parts from vehicles: hub cabs, doors and steering wheels. A third is painted entirely in polka dots, some the size of a quarter and others bigger than a hula hoop.
Since its advent more than 30 years ago the Heidelberg Project has been a source of both controversy and pride in Detroit. Some people love it. Others hate it. Both mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer tried to destroy it. First Young, and then later Archer, sent in bulldozers to tear down some of the houses.
Whatever people think of Heidelberg, whether they call it piles of trash or brilliant art, there is no debating that its impact is visceral. When I walk through it I feel like I am entering a magic realm. This is certainly Guyton's intention. He said of it, "This block is a very special place. It is like magic-land."
Magic alters reality. It is not supernatural. Instead it is a word for the way in which we use our imagination and will power to change the world around us. When we have an idea for something and then bring that idea to fruition we are committing an act of magic.
Heidelberg is filled with magic. Through his vision, and by nurturing the creativity of others, Guyton's art has transformed a desolate landscape into something wholly new. And that transformation has been more than visual. In the blocks immediately around Heidelberg crime has dropped. The drug dealers have largely left and a greater sense of community has been built. Magic indeed.
There are two lessons that I take from Heidelberg. The first is that art and imagination can overcome ruin. The second is that generosity can be transformative. These lessons are intertwined for art often stems from the generous impulse to make the world more beautiful. That impulse can help us survive when our existence seems painful and ugly.
This is month is the month of our annual stewardship drive. Stewardship is tied to generosity. We want to be good stewards of what we have so that we can leave something behind for future generations. So, stewardship is partially about giving gifts to people we will never know.
We all have received such gifts. This congregation itself is a gift that previous generations gave us. This beautiful meeting house was built long before any of us were born. Much of the money to sustain the church comes from financial gifts to the endowment from members and friends who are no longer with us. If we are good stewards we will give the gift of this religious community to generations to come.
Such gifts can feel risky. They include the giving of part of the self to another. When we give our money, time and skills to a religious community we are giving part of our selves. With this act comes both the possibility of acceptance and rejection. What if our gifts are not enough or not appreciated? What if they are not wanted? How do we feel then?
Now, I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. One of the ways that I express my appreciation of and affection for people is by cooking them nice meals. But when I cook someone a meal there's always a little way in which I am haunted by the fear of rejection. If I make something fancy or unusual I worry that the people I am cooking for will be unhappy with it, despite all of the effort I put in. And every once in awhile, that is the case, and then I feel a little rejected.
In his meditation "Feeding and Being Fed" Robert Walsh reflects on the relationship between feeding others and generosity. He writes, "to feed [someone]-is to give life." There is no more generous act than the gift of life.
Later in his piece Walsh states, "The person who receives the gift of food gives a precious gift as well. It is the gift of trust, an affirmation of the life-giver." The trouble comes when we give a gift and automatically expect to receive one in return.
When it comes to cooking, my fear of rejection is foolish. The important thing is that I am trying to give a gift, trying to do something life sustaining. The outcome is less important than the intention. The giver, after all, cannot control the outcome. But the giver can set his or her intention. And that intention can be to give something that is life sustaining.
It is easy to forget this. Especially at stewardship time when people get anxious about their ability to give. It takes money and generosity to run a congregation. Everything that people give is appreciated. Whether it is a $2,000 pledge or some change in the collection plate every gift helps sustain the life of our religious community.
Just think about all of the gifts that go into a typical Sunday morning. Our worship is truly a collective effort. It requires many acts of generosity to create. Ward sets a friendly tone at the start of the service. Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft offer lively music. Our lay reader helps with the liturgy. And that is not mention all the people who contribute to our fellowship time after the service.
I am sure I am missing someone but that is not the point. The point is that we each give different gifts and that all of those gifts are important. Here I am reminded of a phrase popularized by the ever-controversial Karl Marx, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." We all have gifts to give. We all contribute to the larger whole.
In this way our religious community is not dissimilar to the Heidelberg Project. The project is supported by gifts large and small. The children in Guyton's neighborhood have no money. Yet they are able to give the gift of their imagination and their time when they paint polka dots and figures alongside Guyton. Other people give Heidelberg large financial gifts that allow Guyton to make his living as an artist, the project to employ a modest staff and the surrounding community to benefit from a community center for arts and education.
There are other parallels between Heidelberg and a liberal religious community like ours. The theologian Rebecca Parker identifies several tasks for Unitarian Universalist congregations. Two she lifts up are prophetic witness and the preservation of endangered knowledge. Parker defines a prophet this way, "A prophet is one who is able to name those places in our lives where we are resisting what needs to be known, closing our eyes to what is really happening, silencing what the world is telling us."
When we think of prophets we usually think of the ancient Hebrew figures who went around Judah and Israel in sackcloth and ashes proclaiming gloom and doom. Such prophets are not the only kind. The news of the world, even in troubled times like ours when school children shoot each other in school cafeterias and the President muses about becoming dictator for life, is not all bad. One of the truths that we can forget is that we surrounded by beauty.
This is the prophetic message of Guyton and the Heidelberg Project. His art transforms trash and desolation into unexpectedly magical objects. An abandoned toy is not just a worn-out piece of plastic. It is something that can be incorporated into an artistic vision.
In a Unitarian Universalist religious community, we say this not about found objects but about people instead. In his well-known sermon "Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven," Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the Universalist minister Gordan McKeeman who preached, "...Universalism came to be call 'The Gospel of God's Success,' the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty."
Mark asserts that this image, "the last sinner being dragged, by his collar... into heaven" communicates that ours is "a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal Salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not and cannot consign even a single human being to eternal damnation."
Guyton's art has a similar philosophy behind it. Each gift that is given is something that builds the Heidelberg Project and strengthens the community. Both the little gifts that children bring, and $50,000 foundation grants are essential to the continuing life of the community.
This truth is one of the pieces of endangered knowledge that I suspect that Rebecca Parker calls for religious communities like ours to preserve. Everyone is important. Everyone can give to sustain the life of the community.
At stewardship time the gifts we talk about are primarily financial gifts. This is not to say that other gifts are not important. It is just, as I said earlier, it takes money to run a congregation. This year we will be promoting the idea of fair share giving. Rather than asking people to give a specific amount we will be asking them to give a percentage of their income. In doing so, we are making a theological statement. That statement is that we appreciate the generous intention behind all gifts and recognize the gift of self that they contain. Hopefully that means that the givers of the gifts, experience an affirmation of the self as a result of their generosity.
If, for whatever, reason that affirmation is lacking generosity can still be transformative. It is the intention that matters most. Sometimes in this way we can become an inspiration for others.
Consider the story of Vedran Smailovic, better known as the cellist of Sarajevo. Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1992, there was a long line outside the door of one of the last bakeries in the city of Sarajevo that could still bake bread. At four o'clock in the afternoon a shell struck the bread line and killed twenty-two people.
Smailovic lived nearby and witnessed the event. Prior to the Balkan War he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. As Paul Sullivan wrote in Hope Magazine, "when he saw the carnage outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he could do best... Every day thereafter, at 4:00 p.m., Vedran Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked out of his apartment into the battle that raged around him. He placed a little stool in the blood-stained, glass splattered crater where the shell had landed, and every day, for twenty-two days, he played Albinoni's Agadio as tribute to the twenty-two dead. Snipers fired at him (they missed), mortar shells fell all around him, but he played music to the abandoned streets, the smashed trucks, the burning buildings, and to the terrified people still hiding in the cellars, who heard him..."
It would be hard to argue that the bullets that flew around Smailovic were affirmations of his music. And yet his act of bravery helped strengthen the legacy of beauty in the world. His actions have become part of an inspiring story that reminds others that we never know where acts of generosity will ultimately lead.
This brings me to a concluding point about generosity. It frequently stems from my gratitude. My own generosity is often inspired by the gifts that I have been given. I give to Unitarian Universalist institutions because of all of the gifts that our liberal faith has given me. And I cook for friends and family because I am grateful for all the gifts that I have been given.
In this way I am not so different from Guyton. His efforts in Heidelberg stem from his gratitude for all that his community has given him. He started the project with his grandfather as an art school drop-out. It was his way of saying thank you to the community for encouraging him in his art. And so that gratitude turned to generosity.
Generosity often begins with the spirit of this passage from e. e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
We give because of what we have received. We give as a way of saying thank you. We give seeking affirmation and we give risking our selves. Through the act of giving we say yes to beauty, yes to possibility, yes to life. So that may we all give generously I say, Amen and Blessed Be.