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Oct 10, 2019

Sermon: The Unnamable All

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 6, 2019

I am a Yankee. Living in Houston has made this aspect of my identity abundantly clear. I move through the world in distinctively non-Texan ways. I do not wear cowboy boots. I cannot two-step. I do not own a car. I root for neither the Houston Texans nor the Dallas Cowboys--though we have been here long enough that Asa is a fan of the Astros and the Rockets. And probably most disconcerting for many of the Texans I have met; I do not eat meat. Barbecue is not part of my regular routine.

Part of my recognition of my own Yankee nature has come from what I might describe as my general sense of disorientation as I wander through the Houston landscape. I grew up in Michigan. I studied in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I am used to different trees, different flowers, and different rivers. But most importantly, I am used to different mushrooms.

You might not know that one of my great passions is foraging for mushrooms. Stick me in a Northeastern forest for a few hours sometime between the beginning of May and the end of October and I am liable to walk out with several pounds of edible mushrooms. Morels--black, yellow, and grey--, chanterelles--flaming red or colored like egg yolk--, oysters, dryad’s saddles, gem studded and giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, reishi, I know them all.

In Texas, I find myself uncertain in my identification of local mushroom species. There are mushrooms here that look deceptively similar to some that I eat confidently up North. They grow throughout the Museum District and in Herman Park. They have red caps and yellow stalks. They are plump, firm to the touch, solid all the way through and have pores rather than gills on the underside. They look and smell exactly like bicolor boletes--a highly prized delicacy quite similar in taste to porcinis.

Imagine my delight when, shortly after I moved here, I found dozens of these mushrooms growing around our building. Of course, I picked a number and brought them back to my office, with the intention of cooking them up that evening.

Unfortunately, the mushrooms were not bicolor boletes. Now, this not a tale of mushroom poisoning. There’s a saying among foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” I practice an abundance of caution when it comes to mushrooms. And so, when I got back to my office I started fiddling with the mushrooms. They began to stain blue. That is a bad sign. Bicolor boletes do not stain blue. I could not positively identify them. One guidebook indicated that they might be lurid boletes. Those are edible but only grow in Europe. Another suggested that they might be boletus speciosus. Those are not found in the South. In a third they appeared to be a variety of devil’s boletes. But those smell unpleasant and these had a pleasant odor.

In the end, I decided that since I couldn’t completely figure out what they were I better not eat them. It was a disheartening experience. It made me feel disconnected, or even alienated, from the land. Normally, my knowledge of mushrooms helps me to feel connected to it.

The experience is one that I have been ruminating on over the last few weeks as we have been exploring the theme of disruption and three of the great crises of the hour. You might recall, that in worship this year we are exploring how we might develop some of the religious resources and spiritual practices to help us in the work of confronting the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the assault on democracy.

The roots of all three of these crises lie in disconnection or alienation. Many people in this country are alienated from the Earth and alienated from each other. The climate crisis has been created because many of us no longer understand that we are people of the Earth. As the planet goes, so goes the human species. The poet Joy Harjo offers us wise counsel when she enjoins us to:

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.

I had a taste of that alienation when I found myself unable to properly identify one of the local mushrooms. One of the principal reasons I love mushroom foraging is it helps me to feel connected to, and a part of, the earth whose skin I am.

Sometimes my experiences in the North are a bit like this: I walk the woods and ramble the riverbanks looking for signs of mushrooms. It is midsummer. There has been rain. Not yesterday, the day before. It is supposed to be chanterelle season. Slow growing, densely fleshed, chanterelles have symbiotic relationships with oak trees. They entwine themselves with the roots and share nutrients creating a network of enmeshed fungi and living wood that can stretch for acres.

My eyes are scouring the leaf litter for signs of wrinkled yellow or red caps. Nothing. I walk for another hour, drifting towards that stand of ancient oak or trying my luck nearer the edge of a shallow stream. Nothing. And then, at the edge of my vision, I see a hint of yellow. I investigate. I look down and there’s a mushroom. I look up and suddenly I see hundreds of beautiful fruiting bodies. They range from tiny buttons to unfolding fractal caps the size of my fist. It is as if I have been invited to be a part of the network of mycelium and root mass that runs through the forest. In moments like that I feel part of the Earth, creation, the unnamable all of existence which we might choose to call God or name the sacred and the divine.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.

In the liberal theological tradition, of which Unitarian Universalism is one of the boldest expressions, God is understood to be the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described this experience as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” This feeling of connection is at the root of what it means to be religious. The feeling of connection comes first. The words we use to describe it come later. The feeling is universal. It comes from being embodied creatures, traversing a world on which we are dependent. The words we use to describe this feeling are bound by the particularities of culture and tradition.

Contemporary Schleiermacher scholar and Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes the dynamic this way: “The first word that comes to mind to refer to this feeling of absolute dependence--for Christians... is God... For Buddhists, the first word might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.”

The feeling is universal. The words are particular. And our society’s alienation from this unnamable mystery is at the root of the climate crisis. We use words to describe the universal. Words can separate us from each other and our experience of connection. Human and Earth... We can describe ourselves as something other than creatures of the planet. We can pretend it is possible to escape the consequences of our habits of burning fossil fuels, filling the ocean with plastic, and despoiling lands. We use words and begin to imagine this experience of connection to be an experience of disconnection, disembodiment.

We use words and we get caught up in doctrinal differences. Theist versus humanist. Unitarian Christian versus pagan. Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist... We use words and create cleavages between religious communities.  The techno musician “Mad” Mike Banks once described the dynamic this way: “categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation.”

In what remains the sermon, I want to suggest a few strategies you might use to cultivate your sense of connection, move beyond words, and overcome alienation. Think of these as spiritual practices that might aid you in fostering a sense of connection during these times of dislocation and crisis.

I offer them with insights from the German Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent scholars of mysticism. He came to understand that humans develop our senses of identity in relation to the other. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” are some his most famous words.

It is only through a connection with someone or something else that we come to know ourselves. Buber called this experience I-Thou. I-Thou is an experience of pure being. I-Thou occurs when we cease to treat something or someone as an ends to a means. We view them not for their utility or use. Instead, we feel enveloped in the other, dependent, joined with, linked to them. Buber wrote, “He is no longer He or She [or They], limited by other Hes and Shes [and Theys], a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.” In some moments, we experience other beings as “seamless” and discover that “everything else lives in [their] light.” Buber’s language is difficult, poetic, dense, and hard to decipher. This is because language fails such experiences. They are experiences and not ideas. Experiences and not words. Yet, sometimes, we can find hints of such experiences in scriptures and sermon, poetry and luminous prose. One is evoked in denise levertov’s masterful poem “The Cat as Cat:”

           Likewise   
flex and reflex of claws
gently pricking through sweater to skin
gently sustains their own tune,
not mine. I-Thou, cat, I-Thou.

“I-Thou, cat, I-Thou,” the words only conjure. But yet, I ask you, have you ever had such moments of connection with another being? A pet? A family member? A lover? A friend? A complete stranger? For me they open up when my cat lies on my lap and sings his cat song, when I get enthusiastic hugs from my children, when I sit beneath the foggy city stars and grasp for words to fill a conversation with a friend, when I dance and lose myself in the breaker’s circle or connect soul-to-soul with a tango partner, and when I lie at the salt water’s edge and hear the backwash drag across sand.

Such moments of connection provide, in Buber’s understanding, linkage to God, the grand mystery of the universe. Now, I recognize that God is a word that makes many Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Many of us like to label ourselves atheists, agnostics, and humanists and reject God. It is all words and words divide and fail to describe the indescribable, the unnamable, that I experience, and I suspect you do as well, when I feel connected to something greater than myself.

Sometimes, in my work as a minister, I will have people come to me expressing hesitation about joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They do not believe in God, they will tell me, and therefore, they think, they cannot be part of a liberal religious community. I draw upon advice from the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church and ask them, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. Chances are, I do not believe in that God either.”

We Unitarian Universalists often get too caught up in what theologians call the via negativa. We love to talk about what God is not and express disbelief. God is not an old white man with a beard in the sky. God is not a vengeful deity angrily coming to smite those who have strayed from rigid doctrine. God is not a being that hates anyone who fails to fit into the all too tidy box of heteronormativity. God is none of these things.

What I am suggesting this morning is that one of the religious practices that we can go back, root ourselves in, in times of crisis is to pursue the via postiva. Here Forrest Church offered us advice, “God is not God's name,” he told us. “God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable.” God is present when we feel connected to, and not separated from, the blue green ball of a planet and the great family of all souls of which we are each but a part.

Martin Buber suggested that there were three ways we might encounter this experience of pure being, which he was unafraid to call God. We can find it, first, through nature. Second, through other beings--people and animals. And third, through art.

I offered my experience as a mushroom hunter as an example of finding the sense of connection in nature. Such episodes are important. They remind us that we are dependent upon, not separate from, this planet which is in ecological crisis. You might find them walking through the woods, strolling along a bayou, or rooting in the soil while you work your garden. Maybe you might even find it simply by gazing at a tree, as Buber himself once did. Reflecting on what he felt while communing with a tree he wrote, “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars.”

We can also find the experience of connection with other beings, human and animal. And here I could offer many examples--some rooted in wordless intimacies and others in ecstatic conversations. Holding a newborn baby, grasping the hand of a dying loved one, singing in community, sharing a well-crafted meal, silently coordinating together as we work to refurbish a house, the litany could continue endlessly, could continue as long as we could find new permutations of relation. Buber, denise levertov, and I all apparently find the experience in our cats. Buber wrote, “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat” in the midst of an eloquent passage on his theology of relation.

And finally, there is what Buber called “spiritual beings.” Here he meant not angels or demons but rather art and knowledge. These are things created by human beings that draw other human beings into the realm of I-Thou. To truly gain knowledge, and to understand another’s knowledge, we need be present entirely to what we are attempting to learn. We have to connect to it and let its patterns unfold before us. As an undergraduate I earned a degree in physics. I remember a sense of awe and wonder that would come as I puzzled through line after line of confusing equations. Suddenly, sometimes, the solution would appear--five, six, seven lines in--an expression that represented the classical mechanics of pulleys or the way light bent as it traversed through a series of lenses. It was like a flash that illuminated our relation to the ground of being--which there I might have called the laws of science.

I have long since forsaken my scientific studies. These days I am much more likely to experience connection through art. Have you ever had the experience of being completed subsumed by a piece of art? Where the work opened up a depth of emotion for you that blotted out everything around you? Some afternoon following service I invite you to go down the block and visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Pick a piece, preferably in a quiet side gallery where you are not likely to be interrupted. I might suggest František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale.” It is found on the second floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, in the European painting section.

Commit to spending three minutes looking at the piece. One minute from far away, one minute a bit closer, and the final minute as close you can get. Three minutes can be a long time to look at a piece of art and in that time in might start to open itself up to you. Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” appears to be a self-portrait. The artist reclines upon a wicker chair, one hand resting upon a book, the other grasping a cigarette. He gazes straight out at you. He is awash in a sea of yellow. Only his flesh, hair, cigarette, and chair are other than yellow. The background is textured golden, the oil of the paint forming thin clots that give the painting depth. Kupka’s robe is a brighter yellow, the fabric folding, reflecting, capturing light. Even his book and pillow are yellow. Each minute I move closer to the painting, I find myself more absorbed by its details. Soon there is only the painting and I, I and the painting, a moment of pure being, pure connection, the experience of being part of something larger than myself.

Mushrooms, a tree, cat and human, knowledge and art, Buber claimed “All actual life is encounter.” As we seek the religious tools to help us deal with the great disruptions of the hour, I suggest that we open ourselves up to these experiences of encounter. They can help us understand that we are neither separate from each other nor separate from the Earth. We are not alienated from our planet or the family of all souls. We are all intricately bound together and by opening ourselves to the I-Thou, the experience of mystery, we find strength and reorientation for the struggles ahead.

We can find that sense of connection within the walls of this sanctuary as well. I suspect that it is one reason why so many of us gather together, Sunday after Sunday. Here when we lift our voices together in song, sit together in the wooden pews, or join together in meditation we can encounter the feeling of connection to a community, the feeling of connection to something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of life.

And in the last months, I have found that I can have the experience of connection even in the city of Houston. As I have walked through the streets of Montrose I have seen it there--purslane--a plant I know how to pick, eat and prepare. Small, succulent weed, thick juicy leaves, red creeping stalk, medicinal, edible, a gentle reminder to me that even when I feel alienated, disconnected, from the sweet Earth there is always the possibility of reconnection, of rerooting, of opening myself to the beauty and mystery of the all that surrounds us.

So that such moments of connection, such gentle overcomings of alienation, might be available to all of us, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Food Ministry Sermon Techno Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Houston Texans Dallas Cowboys Houston Astros Houston Rockets Mushrooms Alienation Mysticism Chanterelles Bicolor Boletes Lurid Boletes Boletus Speciosus Devil's Boletes Climate Crisis White Supremacy Joy Harjo Friedrich Schleiermacher Thandeka Paganism Buddhism Underground Resistance "Mad" Mike Banks Martin Buber denise levertov Cats Unitarian Universalism God Forrest Church via negativa via postiva FrantiĊĦek Kupka The Yellow Scale Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Montrose Purslane

Nov 5, 2018

Sermon: The Virtues of Conservatism

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018

This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.

One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.

People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.

Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.

Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.

Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.

Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.

This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.

We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:

If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...

There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*

Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.

Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.

It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.

The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.

And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.

Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”

Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.

Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.

Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”

But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.

Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.

A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.

One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”

Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.

The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.

But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.

I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.

I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.

But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.

Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.

Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:

You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.

May those words be true for each of us.

Amen and Blessed.

* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston 2018 Election Montrose Halloween Conservatism Donald Trump Gun Control Abortion Sappho White Supremacy Totalitarianism Tree of Life Congregation Daniel Patrick Moynihan Virtue Ethics David Brooks William Bennett Thomas Sanders William Ellery Channing Malcolm X W. E. B. Du Bois Thylias Moss

Aug 13, 2018

The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 12, 2018

It is good to be with you this morning. And it is good to be in Houston. The opening words of our sermon come from the Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia’s wrenching break-up song “Torn.”

I’m all out of faith.
This is how I feel, I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor.

Perhaps these words sound familiar. Perhaps you have been there yourself. All out of faith, heart sick, dreams ruptured, the once neatly woven fabric of your life torn into jagged pieces that cannot neatly be stitched back together.

Maybe you were there just this morning. And maybe today, somehow, someway, you got up off the floor. You put on your bright yellow summer dress, your favorite black t-shirt and jeans, or your linen coat and tie, and you made it here. I do not your story. But I know this: if we love the world we will be wounded. And if we want to continue to love the world then we must do the work of healing. It is like the words from one of our earlier songs, “every scar I see / A place where love is trying to break in.” Or as the writer Alice Walker put it, “healing begins where the wound was made.”

The title of our sermon is “The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.” It is inspired by Alice Walker. She wrote a book with the same title. I chose the title to acknowledge that I begin my interim ministry with you following the resignation of your previous senior minister. Some of you might be upset at him, at other members of the congregation, or about all that has passed in the last year within your religious community. I do not know. I am just beginning to learn your stories. But I know this: the health of your congregation depends in part at looking at the ways you have been wounded in the past, at the ways you might have wounded each other in the past, and then collectively engaging in the work of healing. Since healing begins where the wound was made this will require us to be honest with each other about how we have been hurt in the past. It is only by acknowledging the wounds that we experienced, and the pain we feel, that we can begin to find the way forward. And that way forward is with a broken heart.

But then world is heart breaking, is not? How often does your heart break? It seems I encounter something heart breaking almost every day. What about you? I am new to Houston. I arrived about a week ago. Already, I found that homelessness is an endemic problem where I live in Montrose. Just Friday I passed near someone whose story I am sure is heart breaking.

I am unpacking my apartment. And if you are anything like me, part of unpacking is the process of discovering all of things you do not need. Why are there two cuisinarts? Where did Biscuit, our cat, get twelve catnip mice from? Who packed them? How is it that I am still carrying around my tax records from 1999? And so, if you are anything like me, moving always involves trips to the Goodwill.

There I was. Standing in the Goodwill parking lot, convincing the manager that he should take all eight of my old folding bookcases, when a young man pulled up on a bicycle. He was shirtless. He was carrying a backpack. He opened it and took out a half case of beer. He sat down on the asphalt. The manager asked him to leave. He yelled back, “call the cops. I ain’t going anywhere.” Again, he was asked to leave. Again, he yelled, “call the cops.” I do not know how the story ended. The folks from Goodwill graciously accepted my collection of miscellaneous, and mysterious, kitchen implements. And I left with the certain knowledge that whatever happened next would be heart breaking. The police would come and forcibly remove the young man from Goodwill’s property. Or he would leave and spend the day’s heat somewhere else, drinking his way through twelve cans of beer.

Children in cages; endless cruelty to refugees in Europe; the violence of white supremacists in the United States; the rising, building, gathering crisis of climate change; endemic misogyny; the deaths of countless people of color at the hands of the police; uncivil discourse; gloating tyrants; war, war, and war... We only need to turn on the television, look online, or glance in a newspaper to discover things that can break our hearts. It is like Susan Sontag once wrote of the New York Times, “An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”

And yet, amid all of this horror and heart break there is joy and beauty to be found. Maybe not for all us. Maybe not all the time. But it is there: a delicate blue weed flower cracking through the gaps in concrete. The joyous warmth of children. The spaces between dancing salsa beats. Ochre oil clotted on taut canvas. The common tenderness we might share with each other on Sunday morning once the service has ended. I find wisdom in one of the most popular readings in our grey hymnal, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese:”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the world goes on. I have said little of our private pains. There are the wounds of the world. There are whatever wounds exist in this congregation. And then there are the wounds that we have suffered in our lives. The loss of a parent. The loss of a spouse. The loss of a child. The end of a marriage. Struggles with addiction. Poverty. Bullies for bosses. All of the disappointments and disillusions that cast shadows upon our lives. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet.

The way forward is with a broken heart, Alice Walker tells us. But is it? I have been cold, shamed, and on the floor. And when I have been it has seemed that there was no way forward at all--heart sick, wounded, whole, or otherwise. What about you? To believe that the way forward is with a broken heart is an act of faith. It is not a rationale claim. It is a statement, sometimes against much evidence, that there is hope yet to be found in the world. And sometimes it seems like we should be all out of faith. And yet... and yet... there is a way forward. The sun in early morn will crack across mountain tops and bring the morrow. Spanish moss will continue to hang from ancient oaks. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,” advises Mary Oliver.

The way forward is with a broken heart. Walker wrote the book twenty years after the end of her marriage. It is a thinly fictionalized series of accounts about how she made her way forward after a divorce that left her bewildered, heart sick, and lonely. The world that she thought she was going to create, to build, was forever gone. She is someone now who her young self could never have imagined. In the opening paragraphs, she tells her readers, “You do not talk to me now, a fate I could not have imagined twenty years ago.”

“[A] fate I could not have imagined,” there are few better words that capture loss. Walker’s marriage did not begin with the imagination that it would end in bitter discord, “[y]ou do not talk to me now.” When it begins, few imagine a ministry ending in disappointment. And yet, marriages and ministries both sometimes finish in sorrow.

The way forward is with a broken heart. We continue after life’s disappointments. In Walker’s book she weaves the torn fabric of ruptured lives into healing quilts. In one story, the narrator finds joy in “the woman I love now.” In another, two sisters encounter comfort, peace, and a modicum of delight when they travel back to their family’s old home. In a third, a father and a daughter discover solace in each other after years of difficulty. “[T]he world cannot be healed in abstract,” Walker informs us.

I suspect that if you are like me, you have been wounded in particular ways. I imagine that if this religious community is like other religious communities, it has been wounded in particular ways. It is only by addressing our specific injuries that we can begin to heal from them. And that healing is not something we can do alone, as isolated individuals. It is something that can only be accomplished together. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” counsels Mary Oliver.

The way forward is with a broken heart. Learning how to make our way forward, yours and mine, with a broken heart is deeply religious work. It might even be the central task of the religious community. There are few other places in our lives where we can be honest about despair. Again, and again, I have learned this during my ministry. The newcomer who tells me he’s visiting the church because his parents have just died. The transgender woman who shares that after years of alienation she has finally found a religious tradition that will love her without exception. The refugee who speaks almost no English and needs a place where she does not feel alone on a Sunday morning. A religious community like this one must be a place of love and healing.

That is the message our Universalist religious ancestors gave us to give the world. They said we were the church of “God’s love unlimited.” God’s love unlimited. No matter who you are, no matter the depths of your despair, no matter who you love, as members of this faith community we are called to love each other, to love the world, to face despair, and to collectively find our way forward with broken hearts.

This is deeply religious work. It requires the faith that somehow, someway, love will find us when we are shamed and on the floor. And that faith is not always easy to find. Sometimes it seems we cannot find it at all. But it is there, in the midst of heart sickness. There is always the possibility that we can learn to love again, that we can be gentle enough with each other to commit to the loving work of healing. There is always the chance that we can find a way forward.

Early Christianity was organized around finding a way forward with a broken heart. It began as a religious movement of those who continued after the heart-breaking loss of their beloved rabbi Jesus. Our second reading, the Epistula Apostolorum, was offered to remind us of this. It is a heretical text from the early second century of the Common Era. In it, the members of the early Christian church try to move forward after almost unimaginable disappointment. They had experienced great love in the person of their teacher. They had hoped for divine justice in the face of cruel empire. And their love and hope had ended in their leader’s death.

They reminded each other that love remained. They urged the members of their community to follow their master’s teaching: “But look, a new commandment I give you, that you love one another and obey each other and (that) continual peace reign among you. Love your enemies, and what you do not want done to you, that do to no one else.” They believed that if they had faith, somehow, someway, they could learn to love again. And through their love, they knew, they could heal each other and the world.

Let us forget for today that their message somehow became confused by the theologically orthodox over the centuries. Instead, let us hear in the words of the Epistula Apostolorum the expression of the church of God’s love unlimited. The theistic language may not resonate with you. Even if you need to translate it, I hope you will feel the transformative, healing, vision of love captured in those ancient words. They plead with us to find a forward way with a broken heart.

All this morning, I have suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. I have invoked Walker’s wisdom, “healing begins where the wound was made.” But I have said almost nothing of the work of healing. It is early yet. I do not know your stories. All I know is that whatever healing work must be done, in our lives, in this religious community, and in our beautiful, fractured, world, is work that we are called to do together.

I am here, during this interim time, to do that work with you as best I can. During this transitional moment in your congregation’s life I promise to be as tender with you as I can. I will as honest with you about the wounds in your congregation, and in the world, as I can. I will be as honest with you about my own struggles and wounds as is appropriate. Throughout this period, I pledge to love you as best I can. I only ask that you have the merest glimmer of faith that whatever wounds there are in your lives, in this congregation, and in our luminous world we can find a way forward with broken hearts.

That it may be so, I invite you to join me in that spirit that some call prayer and others call meditation:

Oh, great spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others call the goodness to be found
in human life,
or name not at all,
be with me,
be with this congregation,
its members and friends,
its children and elders,
and all the people of this religious community,
as we engage in the work of healing
together.

There is so much pain,
so much hurt,
to be found,
addiction, disappointment, war, loss,
greed, grief...

None of us need suffer alone when we remember
that love can heal.
Let us remember that each human
is born with a beating heart
and the capacity to love.

Let us learn to awaken
that love within
and reach out to each other
so that we might heal each other
and this glorious world.

So that we may do good work together,
let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston Museum District Natalie Imbruglia Alice Walker Houston Montrose Mary Oliver Universalism Epistula Apostolorum

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