Apr 1, 2020
as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.
Mar 25, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 22, 2020, online worship
These are strange days. If you are anything like me, you are probably finding that you have to adjust to a new--and rapidly changing--situation. I certainly never imagined myself leading a congregation that is worshipping exclusively online. And I bet that most of you never imagined that you would be participating in worship remotely. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been around for over a hundred years and in all that time the congregation has always met in person for worship, fellowship, and the difficult but vital work of building the beloved community.
But these are strange days, and I find myself missing seeing you and sharing the regular rituals of our worship service. As I preach this sermon, I find myself looking out over an expanse of empty wooden pews. As I preach this sermon, I find myself glancing over to where our choir usually sits and seeing only Mark Vogel, our Music Director. As I preach this sermon, I find myself thinking about our Thoreau campus where some of us regularly gather to worship and watch videos of the sermons. Thoreau has a lovely sanctuary that overlooks a clover filled expanse of greenery. That sanctuary is vacant now. And as I preach this sermon, I find myself wondering who exactly is listening. Are you one of our members, friends, or one of our regular visitors? Did you stumble upon this service online? Are you listening to it in the Third Ward, in Montrose, in Sugarland, or in Richmond? Are you listening from someplace far away?
I imagine you are in your home, sheltering in place. It is what most of us are doing during these strange days. I have been limiting myself to my apartment and trips to the church. Some of you are probably working entirely from home--maybe it has even been a few days since you have been outside. You might be listening to this service on Sunday. You could be seeking solace at the same time this congregation usually gathers in person. Or you may be doing what I did last week when I listened to Scott’s moving sermon. I made dinner while I took comfort from his compassionate words and my cat chirped at my feet, trying to convince me that he deserved an early feeding, and my son played video games in the other room.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope that our service is providing you with a sense of connection and consolation during these strange days. As Scott told us last week, “during troubling times it’s good to be part of a community such as this.” I have been renewed by Mark’s music and Scott’s words. And the exquisite images from the Hubble Telescope and that donna e. perkins and Rania Matar have shared with us have provided me a needed balm. Art, music, poetry, are important reminders that it is always possible for humans to bring more beauty into the world. There has been poetry written during war, and economic depressions, and forced migrations, and unjust imprisonments, and, yes, even bouts of pestilence and plague.
We have words from Julian of Norwich, whom Scott quoted last week, and who pointed towards transcendence within: “I saw the soul as wide as if it were an infinite world, and as if it were a blessed kingdom.”
We have words from Carl Sandburg, who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, and wrote of our shared mortality:
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate,
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.
We have words from Mark Doty, who survived the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted us to know:
A bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
And, now, we have words from Lynn Ungar, who invites us to:
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
We have words, and paintings, and sculptures, and music, that testify to the power of humanity to bring more beauty into the world even when we humans find ourselves at the end of the world. And that is where we find ourselves now, at the end of the world.
We find ourselves at the end of the world, in our remaining time together, I want to talk with you about three things. First, we need to admit that in some, real, non-metaphorical way, the world has ended. Second, living at the end of the world means that we are living amid an apocalypse. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller tells us. There are many things being unveiled, disclosed, and revealed right now. We should pay careful attention to them. Our human future depends on it. We would do well to heed James Baldwin’s words, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” Third, we should turn to our theme for worship: compassion. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, compassion is what is going to see us through. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, as we peer into the murky cloud of the future we must recognize that today, tomorrow, and each day we collectively struggle with the pandemic, we will be forced to make a choice between compassion and callousness. It is only by choosing compassion that we can learn the lessons of the hour.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has changed how we live and interact. The safest thing we can do right now is to avoid as many people as possible. Keeping our distance, sheltering in place, it means that so many things that seemed perfectly normal even a few days ago are foolish and dangerous now.
We have closed to the church buildings to the public. Most of the staff is working from home. Gustavo is still here, making sure our Museum District is properly maintained--we have a volunteer checking in on our Richmond campus. And Cheryl and Tawanna are coming in some of the time to process the mail, to handle the banking, and to make sure that all the bills get paid. The ministerial and worship staff is here occasionally--to produce this service and, beginning next week, a midweek forum. But, starting Monday, all of our staff meetings will be online. There will be no regular staff lunch, no just dropping by someone’s office when I have an idea I want to share or pastoral matter I want to talk through.
In the last week we have worked hard to take our congregational programs entirely online. In the next days we will be offering some form of almost all our programs through Zoom. We will have small group ministries and religious education programs for children and youth. On Sundays, we will have virtual gatherings for the whole congregation. In April, Scott and I will each be leading spiritual development and support programs for adults. I’m going to offer one on the religious and philosophical classics that might see us through these strange days--we will start with Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” But none of this will take place in person. And most of it will be open to anyone online who wants to register and join with us. Our virtual community will be different than our physical community.
I am hopeful it will be safe for us to regather as a worship community in September. But whenever we do, we will be different. We will have gone through this experience of online worship together. And we will have a different sense of who our community is and what it does. Something will have ended and something else will be beginning. Because we find ourselves at the end of the world.
How has your work life changed? I know a lot of people who are now working from home. Colleges and universities are closed. Most of my academic friends are teaching classes online. Big corporate offices are closed. My friends who are engineers or accountants are almost all now working remotely. What about you? Where are you working? Or are you working?
A lot of people have already lost their jobs. I have friends who are restaurant workers. Many of their workplaces have shutdown. And I have a friend who is a yoga teacher. In the last couple of weeks, she has lost every single one of her paid teaching gigs. Many people are financially vulnerable and scared. Some cannot pay their rent or buy enough food to feed their families. Jobs that seemed solid ten days ago have evaporated.
Middle and upper income people on the verge of retirement--or those who have retired--have lost large sums of money. They are worried that they will not be able to support themselves or return to the workforce. The plans of a lifetime--work for forty years and then retire--appear precarious or threatened. In some real sense, the world has ended for them. They no longer make the economic assumptions that they once did.
It is not just our work lives and economic situations that have changed. Many other things have shifted. Like me, a lot of parents are trying to juggle parenting while working from home. My son’s school has closed. It will not physically reopen until the autumn. He is now mostly at home--except when he goes to the park. It is not safe for him to have friends over. So, he spends a lot of time online--which is something that so many of us are doing now. Will the nature childhood be the same when it safe for him to gather with his friends again? Probably not, for we have reached the end of the world.
A lot of people, like me, have made the wise decision to severely limit their physical contact with others. And, here, I find myself thinking of all the older members this congregation, and of my parents, and of all of those I know and love who are over the age of sixty-five. The virus that causes COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for them. It is not safe for many of them to leave their homes. A lot them are doing what my parents are doing, hunkering down for the unknown duration, not planning on venturing to the grocery store, but having food delivered, truly sheltering in place.
I hope that this service is providing them a sense of connection while they are in self-isolation. As Scott said last week, “We will get through this together.” And we here on the staff of First Houston will help you get through this by reaching out and by helping you reach out to each other.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The global political order of the last seventy-five years has come to crashing end. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant power. The inept bungling of the current President and the federal executive that he decimated mean that the pandemic will have dramatic consequences for this country. Ideological decisions to cut the budget for pandemic management have left the federal government ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly metastasizing situation. The economic damage will be severe. But just as severe will be the political damage. The politics of America First will prompt the government to look inwards, to persecute immigrants, and to expel foreign nationals. None of this will solve anything. In a global health pandemic, the only polity--understanding of who or what is the political community--that makes any sense is a global one. Humanity is all in this together. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Whenever this is over, and it will eventually end, the world will not be the same. Religious communities will not be the same. Friendships will not be the same. Families will not be the same. School will not be the same. Work will not be the same. Global politics will not be the same. We find ourselves at the end of the world.
We are living in apocalyptic times. Apocalypse, the word itself comes from the Greek, by way of the Latin. It means to uncover or to disclose or to reveal. And that is exactly what this virus is doing, it is revealing fundamental truths about our society. Things that appeared solid have proved illusory and I cannot help but think of Karl Marx’s famous line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Whatever you might think of Marx, and there’s a lot to dislike, his words name the dynamic of apocalyptic crisis. In these times, we see what really matters. We learn we need food, shelter, health, and connection--even if can only come through a screen. In these times, we discover whose work really matters.
The health care workers, the farmers, the grocery workers, the food service workers, the transportation workers, the maintenance workers, society cannot function without you. It is you who will keep the rest of us going while we shelter in place. You are the ones who are risking your lives so that the rest of us can get through this viral pandemic. Without your willingness to work, to endanger yourselves, and your families, no one else would have any chance of getting through this.
Your labor is essential. And this unveiling, this bringing into plain sight that which is so often is hidden, should prompt you to recognize how vital you are to society. For I cannot but look at the heroic work you are doing and hear words of the old labor anthem:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong
Those phrases might some members of our regular Sunday morning congregation uncomfortable. But apocalyptic times, and apocalyptic visions, are not easy to bear. When the veil is torn away, we see things we have hidden from ourselves. And this country has hidden the fundamental truth that the labor of food workers, and health care workers, and transport workers, and day care workers, are essential to keeping society functioning. And for too long, so many of you have had to eke out precarious existences, barely paying the rent, working too hard, working too many hours, and now so many of you are being asked to do even more than that. I know grocery workers who are putting in seventy hours a week to food on the shelves. And companies like Whole Foods are telling workers that they will not give them paid sick leave. Instead, they are being told to give their earned time off to their sick co-workers. And I remember the old words, “[W]ithout your brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What you do is essential. The veil has been ripped off.
The veil has been ripped off and the truth is shining through. Low wage workers, Whole Foods workers, Amazon delivery people, you have great power. Our society cannot function without you. In this apocalyptic moment you have the possibility to use that power to organize, to go on strike, to make demands, and to win yourself more pay. No one whose labor is essential should ever have trouble paying their bills, finding a place to live, or affording enough food to feed their family. No one who must take care of others in these strange days, in these apocalyptic times, should worry about whether or not they have health care.
And, now I know that I am making some of my regular congregants uncomfortable. But apocalyptic visions are like fever dreams--perhaps an apt but uncomfortable metaphor--and they can make us squirm. And it the preacher’s job to offer up the prophetic voice, to speak the truth that must be spoken, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And if we are to learn the lessons of the hour, that is precisely what must be done, we must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we do not then society will not change. And if society does not change then I fear we will be unprepared the next time the veil is ripped up away and we face a global crisis.
So, grocery workers, delivery workers, health care workers, if you want to take the lessons of hour and use the opportunity to struggle for better, safer, wages and conditions, here is what you might do. You might find one of your trusted co-workers and ask them the questions: Are you safe at your work? Are people getting sick? Are you being paid enough to live? And then you might suggest that you and your trusted co-worker each meet individually with your other co-workers and ask them the same questions. Get everyone’s email and phone number. Make a plan. Promise to support each other. Set a day and a time. Walk off your job, but keep your social distance, and, as a group, tell your employer you demand better wages and safety condition--you demand adequate masks and gloves so that you won’t get sick and sufficient pay so that you can afford your home and feed your family.
Do not just do it for yourselves. Do it for the rest of us. Because here is the truth, the real unveiling, the lesson of this apocalyptic moment, most of the good things we have in this society--Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, all of the programs that came from the New Deal and ended the Great Depression--came about because people like you in early generations, during the Great Depression, who were performing essential work, refused to work anymore until they could work safely and be paid enough to support themselves and their loved ones.
The federal government is not taking the actions it needs to address the viral pandemic. It is not repurposing industry to build ventilators for sick people, to build hospitals, or take masks. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the Amazon workers said: We will not deliver anything else until the government focuses on building us hospital beds if we get sick. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the grocery workers said: We will not stock the grocery shelves until masks are made for us to safely interact with our customers?
The veil has been lifted. The essential work of society has been revealed. And I hear, echoing in the distance, but perhaps creeping closer, the old question, put into poetry by William Butler Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have reached the end of the world, we are living in apocalyptic times, and now, what beast shall it be? Shall it be a compassionate one or callous one? Yeats’s verse hints at both possibilities--for Bethlehem is where the Christians believe that their messiah was born and, yet, the beast is rough.
So, we come to the final point of our sermon. “Once upon a time we had... time... And now we seem to have lost it,” Catherine Keller observes. And now we must choose between compassion and callousness.
For we are rapidly running out time. The viral outbreak grows ever more dire. And we now must choose between compassion and callousness. The choice cannot be deferred any longer. Deferring the choice to immediately mobilize, to immediately act, means choosing to callousness. Yes, those of us who can, who are not essential workers, need to shelter in place. That is a compassionate act, for it will slow the spread of the virus.
But we need to do more than that we, we need to choose compassion as our guiding principle going forward. And we need to recognize that we are in extraordinary times. We are in a crisis and we should listen to the economist Milton Friedman, “only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change.” Real change is going to come from this crisis. The only question is: will it be compassionate change or callous change?
Already the current President is using the pandemic to pursue the politics of callousness that he has long sought to enact. He is sending asylum seekers back to Mexico. He is undermining the ability of unions to collect dues from federal workers. He is demanding the relaxation of environmental protections. Each action, he claims, is somehow related to fighting the pandemic.
We can choose differently. We can use this crisis to pursue the politics of compassion. We can society’s quick mobilization as lesson that it is possible to act rapidly to address the climate emergency. We can take the truth that all of us are vulnerable to the virus; that our health care system cannot continue in its current form; and that we need universal health care now. We can recognize that we are all dependent upon each other and, so, therefore we must all take care of each other. We can choose the politics of compassion.
We have reached the end of the world. We are living amid an apocalypse. The veil has been lifted. Will we choose the politics of callousness or the politics of compassion? “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise,” said James Baldwin. What shall we choose? What will you choose? How shall we act? How shall we take the lessons of the hour? These are the questions that haunt us in these strange days. And I end not by precisely answering them but by raising them. For truthfully, they are not my questions to answer alone. They are questions we must answer together. We must answer them together, even as we social distance, because we are rapidly running out of time. Let us choose wisely.
The case count is rising. The virus is spreading. Please, take good care, be safe, know that you are loved, and that this congregation is here for you, and now, I invite you to say with me, wherever you are, Amen.
Mar 12, 2020
Dear Members and Friends of First Church:
It is with sadness that I announce that we will not be holding in-person services at neither our Museum District nor Thoreau campuses. The Unitarian Universalist Association has asked that all congregations suspend gatherings of more than 25 people -- including worship and religious education -- effective immediately. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 indicates that proceeding at this time with an abundance of caution is the best response we can have to this global health emergency.
The staff, Board President and Vice President, and I all know that our religious community is a vital source of comfort, healing, sustenance and strength during these difficult and uncertain times. Effective this Sunday, we will be moving our services online so that we can continue our work of caring for each other, bringing more beauty and joy in the world, and providing solace and inspiration to all who wish to join with us. Rev. Scott will be providing the congregation an online sermon titled “Loving Compassion Into the World.” It will be available starting at 5:00 p.m. Sunday via our YouTube channel and website. Links to it will also be sent out via email and social media. Starting on Sunday, March 22nd, we will be offering online services at 10:30 a.m. At that time, we will be posting a video service complete with music from our award-winning, Music Director, Mark Vogel, readings by both our ministers, a visual meditation, and, of course, a sermon. I will be preaching next week’s service, “Once upon a time we had... time,” on how feminist theology can help us through this health crisis. Following the March 22nd service, and going forward, our Director of Religious Education, Carol Burrus, will hosting a virtual gathering for all ages at 11:45 a.m. via Zoom.
We all owe the staff many thanks for their rapid and professional response to this crisis. More information about our virtual gatherings will be available next week.
In the meantime, as of this writing, the Museum District building will remain open during normal hours of operation, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. And our FotoFest exhibition “Now is the Time,” will remain open from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Small groups of less than twenty-five people will be allowed to meet during their regular scheduled times on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. This Sunday small groups will be allowed to meet during their regular times. Starting on March 22nd, the Museum District campus will be closed to everyone on Sundays. Small groups of less than twenty-five people can continue to meet at Thoreau at the discretion of the Campus Advisory Team. If there are further changes about the status of either building we will let people know immediately. Throughout this time, small groups are encouraged to consider meeting via Zoom.
We are in the process of developing plans to provide pastoral care online. Look for more information about online small group meetings and pastoral care in the coming days.
In advising us how best to proceed during this global health emergency, Unitarian Universalist President, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, has told the leaders of member congregations:
Remember that, as we have to adapt quickly and try new things, perfection is never the goal. The goal is to care for one another and live compassionately. Know that your care and intention really makes a difference to your community and to your own well-being. I am enormously grateful for all of you and the leadership you provide our congregations. I love you and I am proud of the way that Unitarian Universalists are taking the situation seriously and responding out of deep care.
Susan’s words are a wise balm for all of us. We need to love each other, live with compassion, and proceed with as much care and caution as we can. You are all on my heart and if you have any concerns or pastoral needs at this time do not hesitate to contact me. I will see you online soon and will live with the hope that I will see you in-person as soon as it safe for us to gather again.
Apr 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 14, 2019
This morning’s sermon is about drawing spiritual lessons from the music of Neil Diamond. I will get to that in the moment. But first I want to tell you about one of my favorite artists, the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Do you know his work? He is perhaps most famous for his piece the “Fountain.” He entered it into an art show in New York City in 1917. The show had a simple selection criterion: anyone who paid the entry fee had their piece accepted. Duchamp, cheeky surrealist that he was, submitted a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” This enraged the selection committee. They complained that R. Mutt had not created the piece. It had obviously been produced in a factory. More troubling, the urinal was not art. It was an ordinary object that was used for, shall we say, basic human functions. Its presence in the show debased art. It placed one of the highest expressions of human culture alongside the ordinary, banal, and mundane.
Duchamp responded by publishing an anonymous editorial in an art magazine that he ran with a couple of friends. The relevant section from the editorial reads: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”
The editorial gets at why I like the piece. I think it offers an essential religious lesson: all things contain beauty. It is a religious discipline to open ourselves to that beauty. An “ordinary article of life” viewed through the eye of the artist becomes art, becomes something beautiful. The artist has “a new thought for that object,” they see something new, something that challenges them, when they look at the familiar--perhaps the most familiar.
I invite you to try it. Pick an object in the sanctuary. A brick. A floor tile. A wooden pew. A section of the ceiling. Your shoes. It does not matter. Just pick something. The more ordinary the better. Look at it for a moment. Really look at it. Can see something of the beauty in it?
When I was preparing this sermon, I came down from my office, stood in this pulpit, and tried the exercise myself. I picked that brick. It is ordinary in its brown redness. There are a scattering of dark spots. These attest to the presence of the iron sulphate in the clay used to make the brick. A few of the spots are pock marked--evidence of where air bubbles burst when the brick baked. Some of the spots lack clear edges--they fade into the mass of red brown when the eye inquires for their ends.
As I stood in the pulpit, I watched light play off the brick. The beauty of the brick shifted as the sun’s rays filtered through the sanctuary window that sits above the choir. It had one set of tones when a cloud passed in front of the sun and another when the day star shone uninhibited. Looking at the brick, I thought of the canvases in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Have you seen them? The chapel is under renovation until the end of the year. If you have not been, I hope you will go when it opens again.
Light in the chapel comes through the top skylight. As the earth spins on its access, as water vapor moves through the sky, the amount of light that hits each canvas changes. And with it the richness of the canvas--purple tones fade to black or move against pecan or hickory framing.
The roughness of the brick’s clay contains the same effect--it shifts as the light hits it. Looking at the brick, there is beauty in an “ordinary article of life.” There is “a new thought for that object.” Shall I name it? Perhaps, Seven Stars of Revelation--seven being the number of spots and a mystical number found over and over again in the biblical book of Revelation. That book attests, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” and unfolds one of the grandest mystical visions in the Christian New Testament.
The Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “revelation is not sealed.” These words are to remind us that we can learn something new, something beautiful, from each experience, from each ordinary object, in our lives. When I look carefully at the brick with the seven spots I am reminded of Emerson’s lesson--seven stars which help me open to constant possibility of revelation--of the feeling the sacred--that is around each of us in each moment of our lives.
Another exercise, listen. Not to me. Listen in this pause to the sound that surrounds the silence. When I stop speaking what do you hear? The musician John Cage composed a piece named 4’33”. It consists of a pianist sitting on a piano bench for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The pianist just sits there. They do not play a single note. Cage’s intention with the piece is to prompt the audience to listen to the sounds that are around us at all times--your breath, and mine, the heart’s beat, the passing street car, the rustle of your shirtsleeve. What is music? What is beauty?
A musician friend of mine made a similar point in a piece they composed called “Up Train, Down Train.” For the piece, they rode the commuter rail up and down the San Francisco peninsula. Along the way recorded the sounds of their journey: the ticket collector, the jostling of the passengers, the clatter of rail, doors sliding open, and the rain on window glass. In their recording studio they mixed in a variety of other sounds--fragments from classical music, bits of Beethoven or Brahms, snatches of jazz, spoken threads of poetry. Incidental noise and carefully crafted songs were combined to create a haunting composition that pushed me to open my ears to the ordinary music of life.
The heart can turn any object, any sound, any song, into a prayer. Prayer, in my understanding, is the act of reaching out for connection with that which is greater than any of us, surrounds each of us, and infuses all of us. Prayer need not be theistic--God centered--in its orientation. It only need be the opening of the individual self--the I, the you--to the infinity without and the infinity within. This is an understanding I carry with me as I move through the ordinary world, encountering the ordinary objects of life. And it is a lesson I take with me when I have preaching assignments that are not quite of my choosing.
This year at the church auction, I auctioned off the right to give Mark and me a prompt for a Sunday service. This a well-worn practice in a number of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is one that comes with warning from experienced clergy. One minister I know tells the story about the time they were assigned the Apollo moon landings as a service topic. Well, actually, the person who won the auction item was a conspiracy theorist. They wanted to a have service on why and how NASA’s moon landings had been faked.
My ministerial colleague managed to craft a service that somehow served their congregations from that assignment. Nonetheless, I was a bit worried when this year I decided to auction one of our services. So, I was relieved when I found out our topic was to be the singer songwriter Neil Diamond. I admit that I did not that much about Diamond or his music--or at least I thought I did not. But music is a well-worn path to the spiritual. I knew that if I listened to his music and read something of his life I could find a lesson in it.
When I found out the service topic the first thing, before I even turned to Google, was call my brother Jorin. Jorin, you might know, is a painter who lives in Los Angeles. He is also a fount of information when it comes to popular music.
So, I got him on the phone and asked him, “Jorin, what should I know about Neil Diamond?”
He paused for a moment and then began, “Well, some people call him the Jewish Elvis. You definitely know his music. He wrote, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and ‘America.’ He also wrote the Monkees’ song ‘I’m a Believer.’”
As I listened to my brother I realized that Diamond is one of those musicians who music infuses much of contemporary life. In this country, you are likely to hear a song like “Sweet Caroline” almost anywhere. It has been featured in movies, sung by a contestant on American Idol, and used in television commercials. It is one of those pop songs that it seems like almost everyone knows. The tune might be familiar, Mark. You might recognize the chorus as well:
Good times never seemed so good
I believe they never could
Mark already played the other Diamond song that my brother mentioned, “America.” Diamond’s parents were themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up in Brooklyn listening to family stories about his grandparents journeys from Poland and Russia to the United States. Diamond’s immigrant heritage inspired him to write “America.” Its lyrics suggest two things. First, the United States has represented a land of freedom and opportunity for many people around the world for generations. Second, most people in the United States are the descendants of immigrants. As the song begins:
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream
The intertwined messages of this song are important today when we have a President who praises dictators like North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and maligns liberal democratic political systems such as the European Union. The song is a reminder that the authoritarian values of the current White House occupant are not consistent with liberal democratic values--the values that Diamond celebrates in his tune. The song is also a reminder that immigrants have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy of the United States. The current President should know this. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Two of his three wives have been immigrants as well. I could pause now to make the observation that the President’s comfort with his European immigrant family and his antipathy or even hatred for immigrants from Latin America highlights his ties to white supremacist movements. That, however, is not the subject of this sermon.
Returning to Diamond, I note that like a lot of Jewish America singer songwriters of his generation he got his start writing songs for other people. He wrote four songs for the manufactured British band the Monkees, one of the boy bands of the seventies. They used have a television show that my brother and I watched as reruns in the early nineties. The lyrics of “Believer” suggest of the way that love, that profound and intimate connection with another soul, can spring up unbidden and unexpected:
Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, and I'm a believer
As I researched Diamond I began to see something of myself in him. As I suggested at the opening of the sermon, any object can be seen to contain beauty. Anything around us can open the marvels of the universe. The same might be said of human biography. Each of us has a great deal in common with the rest of us. On some level, all humans need the same things: clean air to breath, clean water to drink, good food to eat, shelter, love, and some work to call honest. This observation is one of the core conceits of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
And so, I was not surprised when I came across words by Diamond describing his own experience as a songwriter and his approach to his music that resonated with me. They are from an interview he did in 1975 with Rolling Stone magazine. There he says that his work is an artist stems from an attempt, “to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self.” My own approach to the craft of preaching is linked to a similar attempt to both find self-knowledge and stir it in others. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Diamond that music and art are not bound by tightly dictated rules. According to the interviewer, he believes that his songs do not “need to be explained. Or even understood.” He just wants people to open to the music and be stirred by it. About the composition of music he says, “There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people don’t really understand.”
The interviewer describes Diamond as “the consummate searcher,” a sentiment that is familiar to many Unitarian Universalists. A sense of that appears in his song “I’ve Been This Way Before” which the choir performed earlier:
I've seen the light
And I've seen the flame
And I've been this way before
The search for meaning that I find in this song resonates with the Unitarian Universalist tradition of a search for truth and meaning. And if there is any message that I have been trying to communicate in this sermon it is this: we can find religious truth, beauty, meaning, in almost anything. It is more about the perspective we bring than it is necessarily the content, the object, that is already there. For Marcel Duchamp, beauty or art could be found in the ordinary objects of life. For my musician friend, it was found in the rocking movement of the train as it travelled up and down the San Francisco peninsula. And for lovers of Neil Diamond’s music, it is found in his songs.
And now, before I close, two brief pointers to our readings and two spiritual suggestions for you. The poems I chose are each about finding the sacred, the beautiful, in ordinary life. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a personal favorite. It connects to the way I tend wander through the world: a head full of poetry and a rather ordinary life of grocery shopping, children’s basketball, and laundry. Like Ginsberg, I often find myself opening to the sacredness of the ordinary in the most banal of places: the Trader Joe’s on Shepherd Street or the HEB on West Alabama. And like Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem, I discover myself going from the most basic questions to the most profound: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” What about you? Do you have similar experiences in your life?
Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas poet and the child of a Palestinian immigrant. Her poem “My Grandmother in the Stars” recounts a similar experience:
Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.
Looking at the night sky, she finds that she carries memory, beauty, art, a sense of the sacred ever within her. It is everywhere. In the stars. In the universe which connects all to all. And in her unnamed companion.
Any object can open us to the divine. Any sound can be music. I conclude with my two spiritual suggestions. This, afternoon, or tomorrow, or anytime, take a few minutes to do two things. First, find an ordinary object from life. It could be a urinal, a brick, a piece of asphalt, a cigarette butt, or the beam on a suspension bridge. It does not matter. Spend five minutes really looking at it. What do you see? Do you find yourself opening a little more to the beauty of the universe when you engage the object.
Second, listen to an familiar sound. Pick a pop song that you do not know or choose the ambient collision of wind upon leaf. What sense of connection to the universe do you find within it? Do you discover that revelation is not sealed? That each of us has an original relationship with the universe?
For I've been released
And I've been regained
And I've sung my song before
And I'm sure to sing my song again
...there is only the sky
tying the universe together.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.
Let the congregation say Amen.