May 7, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online service for May 3, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of perseverance. Today’s sermon is titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The title is a nod to our closing hymn, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” Each verse of the hymn ends with the same question: “How can I keep from singing?”
The question often comes after words juxtaposing the injustices of the world with the promise of better days. The opening verse runs:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The hymn tells us that if we listen we will hear strains of “a new creation” sounding above the “earth’s lamentation.” It is a comforting message. It certainly reflects something that I would very much like to be true right now, those old words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
But the news of the hour has me mistrusting such theistic promises. Behind each set of words sits a divine deity who assures us, in the words of great poetry, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And reassures us, in soaring rhetoric, truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.
Now, I love this hymn. It is one of my favorites. But right now I am not finding comfort in such hopeful narratives. I find myself profoundly concerned about our human future. I am straining to catch any hint of “the music ringing.” And so, in this sermon, I do not want to offer you false hope. Nor I do I want to give you metaphysical reassurances that all shall be well. Instead, I want to follow the French philosopher Albert Camus’s injunction to “use plain, clean-cut language” when discussing the pandemic and horrors it has unleashed.
I am going to offer you a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice. It is built around an observation about the impermanence of things. “Cambia todo cambia... Cambia la superficial / cambia tambíen lo profundo / cambia el modo de pensar / cambia todo en este mundo,” sang the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Everything changes. The superficial, the profound, the way we think, everything in the world changes, runs my hackneyed translation.
Everything changes. This leads to two simple claims about the pursuit of justice. First, no victory is forever. Second, defeat is rarely permanent. No victory is forever. Defeat is rarely permanent. Such words lack the melodic comfort of hymns to the new creation. And my challenge--or perhaps it is our challenge--is how do I make such claims and yet still cling to the refrain of our closing hymn: How can I keep from singing?
Before I turn to a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice, I offer two contextual reflections. The first, a discussion of Unitarian Universalism and religious pluralism. It could alternatively be described as a response to the query: Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church? The second, some observations about our political and economic moment. We might name that section a response to a Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s going on?
So, Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church?
I offer this rhetorical question for all of you who are watching this video and are not members or regular attendees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston or another Unitarian Universalist congregation. I know there are a fair number of you. As I mentioned in my welcome, right now we have people from all over who are watching these videos. If this service is anything like our previous online services some of you are listening to me in your homes in places as far away as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. I even know of a family who has been joining us from Brazil and someone else who is connecting with us from Prague.
And, so, for all of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, let me hone on in one particular phrase that we offer each week in our welcome statement, we need not think alike to love alike. It is attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Francis David. He lived in Transylvania which was then situated at the border between the Ottoman Empire and what used to be called Christendom--the lands in Europe that were then under control of political powers affiliated with one kind of Christianity or another.
Transylvania at that time was a religious diverse community. The practice then was that people more-or-less had to follow the religion of the local monarch. If the king or queen was a Catholic, then the people were expected to be Catholic. And if monarch was Protestant then they were supposed to follow the teachings of whatever Protestant church the resident royalty belonged to. Now, this created all kinds of problems. Frankly, it led to all sorts of stupid wars. The advent of a new monarch brought with them the threat of a religious realignment. Crudely put, if the previous monarch was a Protestant and the new one was a Catholic then the new king or queen would expect all of the people who lived in the country they ruled to convert.
Faith is a deeply held. Few people wanted to switch religions just because the palace had a new resident. And so, there were all sorts of horrible conflicts. In the United Kingdom, just as an example, Mary Tudor executed Protestants for their religious beliefs and then her sister, who succeeded her, Elizabeth the First, executed Catholics.
Francis David was a man of peace. He thought all of this religious conflict was ridiculous. The king in Transylvania was then a man named John Sigsmund. Like David, the king was a Unitarian. David had no idea what the religion of Sigsmund’s successor would be. And so, he, and the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, convinced John Sigismund that rather than make Unitarianism the state religion, he should pass a law proclaiming religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and reads, in part: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any... [person’s] soul.”
Religious tolerance, the idea that each person’s faith, their relationship to the divine, is their own, gradually expanded in Unitarian Universalist circles to an acceptance of religious pluralism. If the preacher can “preach the gospel according to their understanding” then there is no reason why parishioners should not have their own particular understandings of the gospel. The word gospel essential means good news. I use it here not to offer a particularly Christian account of religion but as a way of speaking of the thing you understand to be most important about your relationship to the whirling dance of mass and light, the earthly mess of water and dirt, that which we might call the cosmos, or gaia, or God, or the spark of human reason, or love or... whatever you might name the all of this which we are each a part of and enmeshed in.
Over time the emphasis on religious tolerance, led Unitarian Universalism to be somewhat unique among the Western religions. It became pluralistic. Its adherents came to understand, we need not think alike to love alike, and realized that what the religious community did together was more important than what its individual members believed.
At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and in other Unitarian Universalist communities, we celebrate people’s ability to uncover their own relationship with the, well, I will just call it all this--the light that filters green through the leaves of trees, the virus that is spreading among us, the lush blues of Henri-Edmond Cross’s canvases, the damn rent that is due at the beginning of the month, the beauty and the horror of existence--and, at the same time, ask each other the question: How shall we live together?
We are a community. We cannot all agree upon what we believe. But, maybe, just maybe, as a community we can figure out how to live together. We need not think alike to love alike. It is the hope, the gospel, the good news, if you will, of Unitarian Universalism.
Our embrace of pluralism is why we have humanists in our churches. Humanism is this a worldly focused tradition. Its adherents argue that there is no transcendental force outside of human history--no God or divine force--that is bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Anthony Pinn, a leading humanist and Unitarian Universalist, suggests that humanists recognize, “we’re dependent upon a world that doesn’t bend to our will and doesn’t prioritize the criteria for our well-being.” We are the ones who make whatever meaning we find in the world. And we are the ones we who will bring whatever justice we find into the world.
Alongside humanists, we have people of a variety of religious perspectives who participate in the life of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. There are theists, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even many atheists and agnostics. Some of our members hold onto multiple religious identities or even belong to multiple religious communities.
For my part, I identify primarily with humanism but I find myself drawn to the symbolism and stories of both Christian gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. This partially due to the fact that I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation by a mother who had been born into a Christian family and a father who had been born into a Jewish one. It is also rooted in an understanding that religious language is metaphorical. We use religious symbols to represent that which is greater than ourselves. Humanist philosophy, gnostic Christian symbols--the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living--, and mystical Jewish parables are all attempts to put into words that which ultimately escapes language--my relationship, and yours, to the all of this of which we are each part and parcel.
Why, humanism in the church? What we do together is more important than what we believe. Why, humanism in the church? We are a pluralistic tradition which invites us to draw upon many sources for our understanding of our relationship with all that is. Why, humanism in the church? We need not think alike to love alike.
And, now, my second contextual reflection, What’s going on?
The state of Texas started to re-open yesterday. I took a walk through my neighborhood. There was more traffic than there had been in weeks. There were people noisily sitting at bars and restaurants. Very few of them were wearing face masks. The day before Texas reported the second highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The pandemic is far from contained. It is only getting started. And, yet, the governor and his allies want people to get back to work and to get the economy moving again. What’s going on?
In my home state of Michigan, the scenes from the state capital this week were chilling. Men with rifles stormed the capital building demanding that the governor “Open the Economy.” One member of the state legislature tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them.” That is right, politicians in Michigan are wearing bulletproof vests for fear of getting shot while deliberating on legislation. What’s going on?
Oh, did, I mention, that the governor of the State of Texas is a white man? And that the men with rifles who invaded Michigan’s state capital were all white men? Excuse me, I must have forgotten. But then, there is a tendency in this country’s culture to take whiteness as the great unspoken norm. What would have happened if the men who had stormed Michigan’s state capital had been black or brown? How would they have been treated? What’s going on?
The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily described whiteness this way: “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” And right now, once again, the consequences of this doctrine appear to being laid bare. The white men with rifles and the governor of the State of Texas are trying to re-assert their ownership, their control, of the world while the viral pandemic rages. I do not think it is a coincidence that the plans and demands to re-open the economy came soon after it was discovered that the virus was disproportionately impacting communities of color. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the people being forced to go back to work right now--and forced is the right term because if the businesses they work for re-open and they stay home then they will be ineligible for unemployment--are people of color. It is the logic of system that has built generations of white wealth off of the exploitation of people with brown and black bodies.
Two illustrations from national politics. First, we have the President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to remain open. This move is accompanied by two refusals. The first is a refusal to offer any national regulation on the safety standards that businesses are to follow during the pandemic. Instead businesses are to employ whatever safety regime business managers and owners think best. Business managers and owners do not have a particular interest in keeping employees safe--at least not big business owners and managers--they have an obligation to make the most money possible. That’s the core logic of capitalism. So, in refusing to provide national safety regulations during this time of pandemic the President is basically telling working people that they had better keep working and that they are at the mercy of their employers.
The second refusal is the President’s decision to not invoke the Defense Production Act to produce either personal protective equipment or ventilators. He is willing to invoke it to force people to work under unsafe conditions. He is not willing to invoke it to make sufficient equipment to save people’s lives. Perhaps I should mention that the vast majority of workers at meatpacking plants are migrants and people of color? White wealth built upon the bodies of black and brown people.
My second illustration from national politics comes from the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any significant emergency funding to state governments. This is an effort to bankrupt state governments and destroy many of the gains that working people have made over the last generations. If state governments are forced into bankruptcy then they will not be able to pay unemployment benefits. They will not be able to honor the pensions of public workers. Should I mention here that unemployment is disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or that the path for many people of color into what gets called the middle class has been through public service jobs? Or that it has been an objective of Southern white supremacists since before the Civil War to weaken the federal government so that they could have greater ability to exploit black and brown bodies?
What’s going on? The President of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, and the white men who invaded the Michigan state capital believe that black and brown lives do not matter. What’s going on? White wealth is once again being built off the bodies of black and brown people. What’s going on? Maybe should we take out the old Marvin Gaye track--I recommend the vinyl if you’ve got it--and listen to the words: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today.”
What’s going on? I may have offered too much of the political for those of you who turned to this service for a bit of comfort and connection. However, I told you that I would be offering a humanist account of the pursuit of justice. And that pursuit is an earthly pursuit. It rejects the claim that we should only hope for Heaven when we are dead. Let us now move towards to my humanist account of the pursuit of justice.
Justice is not best understood in the abstract. It is about the actual lives of actual people. And right now, being real about justice means recognizing that the United States has long been a racialized order. And right now, it also means listening to the words of Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and so-called sage of Omaha. A few years ago, he said, “There’s class warfare... but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
My humanist account of justice draws from these real dynamics. No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. Instead, there is constant struggle between all the different communities in society. In a society that has historically been white supremacist, that struggle is partially between those who wish to proclaim that whiteness is mastery of the earth forever and forever Amen and those who have more multi-racial vision. And it is also between those who wish to maximize profit and those who work so that they can simply provide for themselves and their families.
It is a somewhat crude analysis but certainly it seems to be borne out by the struggles of the hour. On the hand, we have those, who appear to be demanding that the lives of working people, particularly those with brown and black bodies, be sacrificed so that they can continue to make profit and have comfort. And on the other, well, Friday was May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers struggle for justice. It was marked by strikes or sick-outs--that is people calling into work sick as a form of protest--at many of the largest companies employing so-called essential workers--who, in many cases, are being treated as expendable workers.
In the last several weeks, the wealth of richest people in the country--Jeff Bezos particularly comes to mind--has been increased at dizzying rate. At the same time, many working families are in a state of complete crisis. More people are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. And the solution is not, as the governor of Texas would have it, to get back to work. It is provide them, as many other countries are doing around the world, with the necessary resources to safely shelter in place. But that would impact the ability of the richest amongst us to make profit.
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I offer this humanist account of the pursuit of justice as a way to remind you that almost all the good things in life that have come to the majority of working people have come through struggle. The New Deal is under assault right now via Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments. It was not granted on high by the largess of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It came about because in the midst of crisis of the Great Depression working people organized, went on strike, withheld rent, refused to participate in an economy that was not working for them, and put enormous pressure on politicians and business leaders to make sure that the economy actually provided them with something.
Unemployment, Social Security, workplace protections, they are all under threat right now. No victory is permanent. And defeat is rarely forever. Following the Civil War there was an effort to build something like the New Deal. It was called Reconstruction. And it turned back the tide, for a time, of white supremacy and built much of the country’s public-school system and offered both black and white people some protections and provisions. These looked a bit like those found in the New Deal and that were later won by the civil rights movement. Those victories were worn away over the decades until the crisis of the Great Depression and then World War II provided an opportunity to rebuild and build upon them. And now... What’s going on? Will the pandemic bring about further destruction of those gains? Or will folks organize to lay the groundwork for working people to have more of the good things of life?
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I am afraid that through this sermon I may have focused too much on a narrative of social salvation for some of your tastes. Where is the song in all of this, you might be asking? You might not be an essential worker. You might be someone who has the resources to continue to shelter in place. You might hear your life reflected in the words of Dorothy Dow’s poem “Waiting,” written shortly after the 1918 flu pandemic:
If you should walk in the park and not find me,
Or go in the market-place and not see me,
Would you not search further?
Does not your heart tell you I am somewhere?
Go out on the long roads--I may be at the end of one.
You might simply be sitting at home safely, waiting for all of this to end so that life might return to something like it once was. You might be wanting a more hope filled message. If you are, I invite you to listen to me as we turn to the end of the sermon and a reflection on Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. It is a novel that I am inviting you to read with me this month as part of my discussion group Texts for Troubled Times.
Camus’s novel is set in an Algerian town immediately following World War II. The book centers on the question: In the midst of a pandemic how shall we, as individuals, pursue justice? It is often read as a parable about life under totalitarianism. Camus was a committed anti-fascist. He fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis. When he wrote the book, he was more concerned about the rise of totalitarianism via the Soviet Union than he was about plagues. But then, he argued, through his book, that totalitarian regimes--those who organize the world around the politics of the dead and seek to marginalize the lives of working people for their own ends--are a lot like plagues. They come on slowly and then blossom in full force. They are endured. They are resisted. And then, when the necessary immunity has been built up, they begin to go away. That, at least, is what Camus thought.
In his novel, he offers advice on how we might live when no victory is permanent, and defeat is rarely forever. He does not suggest that justice will reign forever. “[T]here are pestilences and there are victims,” he tells us. Humans are not able to fully control the natural world. Plagues will come and go and come again. Tyrants and dictators might be restrained for a time but they, like plagues, continue to re-emerge and reassert themselves. That is what happening now, in this time of pandemic, across the globe. How shall we live, then, Camus asks?
By “not to join[ing] forces with pestilences” he answers. By pursuing, what I have called in other sermons, the politics of the living. Choosing, through our individual actions, the things we can do to slow the spread of pestilences of COVID-19 and white supremacy. We should not act, Camus, suggests with the assurance that our actions will bring about an end to the plague. We should persist because we can and because in doing so we might make things better for ourselves and for everyone else.
Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, we can continue to practice social distancing. We can be in solidarity with essential workers. Or, if we are working, we can strike in demand of safe working conditions. It is clear the federal government is not going to provide them to working people and that safe conditions will only be won through struggle. We can boycott the big chains that are making money while small businesses starve. If you look online you can alternatives sources for almost anything that Amazon sells. But most all, we can each ourselves the simple question: What can I do to not join forces with pestilences?
That question may unexpectedly lead to another. Camus found joy in life. He sought to bring more beauty into the world through his novels and stories. In his reading of Camus’s novel, humanist Anthony Pinn, suggests that its lesson is that there is joy in the struggle. He closes some recent reflections on Camus and COVID-19 with these words:
We struggle with our own task, work against the threat of this virus… simply because we can. COVID-19, some day, will withdraw--and we will leave our homes again, gather with family and friends. But the virus won’t be gone, the threat is ever present. Things are “well” not because the threat has been tamed, but because we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves... happy.
I close my reflections with a gesture towards our closing hymn. I find greater truth in its final verse than in its first:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near,
how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?
If we persist in our efforts to be in solidarity with each other and not cooperate with the virus then we will look back on these times without shame. If we persist in the struggle for justice, knowing that no victory is forever, and defeat is rarely permanent, we will be able to make tyrants tremble with the bells of freedom. The tyrants might win and they might not but our peals of liberty will cause them to quake. If we do what we can to slow the spread and to help, and dare I say love, each other then, we will look back on these times, these strange days, with the question: How can I keep from singing?
I have spoken. You have heard. And, as Francis David and I both would have you do, ask yourself: Does this humanist gospel speak to your heart? How can I keep from singing?
May the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, 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 9, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 8, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on compassion. Rev. Scott got us started last week with a sermon in which he affirmed the psychotherapist David Richo’s claim, “Compassion is love’s response to pain.”
“Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain,” Rev. Scott told us. “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.
Compassion is a core Unitarian Universalist value. Our tradition claims that love is the most powerful force in human life. Love beats hate. In theist terms, we argue, God is love. Love is God. God loves everyone, no exceptions. In humanist terms, we recognize that love, more than anything else, is what knits human life together. And as Unitarian Universalists we strive we be a loving community, instantiating among ourselves what Josiah Royce, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, called the beloved community. We struggle to be a space where everyone, without exception, can find their place and be encouraged, and supported, in living into their full human potential. And then we work to take that vision of the beloved community into the wider world.
Compassion, having sympathetic thoughts and feelings for others and then seeking to put those thoughts and feelings into action. Compassion, love’s response to pain. Compassion, it is something I suspect we are all going to be called to exercise in significant amounts in the coming weeks. The coronavirus is spreading throughout all of humanity. It is here in the United States. It has reached Houston. And our religious tradition calls us to be compassionate as we, collectively, respond to the viral outbreak.
This compassion should take several forms. We should demand that our public officials allocate adequate resources and take shift appropriate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should not stigmatize or shun particular groups of people--people of Asian descent, for instance--because we irrationally blame them for the virus. The virus has the potential to impact everyone and people of all ages and ethnicities have been infected with it.
And we should each do our part to limit the rate at which the virus propagates. Wash your hands frequently, with hot water and ample soap--hum Happy Birthday twice the way through. Do not shake hands, I have been encouraging people to bump forearms instead. Cover your cough with a kleenex and then throw that kleenex away. If you feel ill stay at home--we offer paid sick leave to our employees here at First Church, if your workplace does not and you are sick and worried about missing a paycheck contact me or Rev. Scott and we will see how we can help you. Clean surfaces like doorknobs that people frequently touch. And hardest of all, avoid touching your face.
They might seem banal, but these are compassionate actions. They are ways we put our concerns for others--concerns that they might be stricken by the virus--into action. If the viral outbreak reaches epidemic portions here in Houston the staff and I are prepared to continue to offer Sunday services and pastoral counseling online as part of our compassionate efforts to help the community weather the viral storm.
Compassion, looking around our sanctuary am I sure you have noticed that it looks a bit different this morning. We have close to sixty photographs on our walls here and in the Fireside room because of my belief that art can stir sympathy, empathy, and, ultimately, compassion within us.
This year our congregation is part of FotoFest. FotoFest is the longest-running international Biennial of photography and lens-based art in the United States. It is one of the largest photography festivals in the world. It has an audience of around 275,000. We are serving as a Participating Space. That means that we are one of about eighty venues from around the city who have chosen to be part of FotoFest and exhibit art throughout the festival. Some of the other venues include the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and the Houston Center for Photography. So, we are in pretty good company.
FotoFest opened yesterday. That is why, I should note, that we are focusing on it today and not Women’s History. We will observing Women’s History throughout the month by drawing our readings exclusively from women. With the exception of today, when Zsófia invited us to support the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, we will be supporting Planned Parenthood through our shared offering for most of the month. And at the end of the month, I will give the sermon drawing explicitly from feminist and womanist theology that I would normally have given on the Sunday nearest March 8th.
Our exhibition is called “Now is the Time: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of South Africa’s 1994 Election.” My father, Dr. Howard Bossen, and I curated it together. My Dad is with us this morning. And I would like to thank him and my Mom, Kathy, for their tireless efforts to make this exhibit happen. I would also like to thank First Church’s fine staff. Alex, Alma, Carol, Gustavo, Jon, and Scott all put in--and continue to put in--an extraordinary amount of work for “Now is the Time.” Tawanna, our wonderful Business Administrator, deserves special mention since, on top of all of her other duties, she served as project manager. We also had help from the staff at the Libraries of Michigan State University, CrateWorks Fine Art Services, and Artists Framing Resource. We owe Bill Harrison thanks. Bill printed the images and then he did a rush job to print a second set after UPS lost the first one. And we owe Justin Griswold from CrateWorks particular gratitude. He was here until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening hanging the show. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our funders: Michigan State University, Thorpe Butler and Rita Saylors, and Lindley Doran and Charles Holman. And showing the exhibit would not continue to be possible without the assistance of all our volunteer docents. We have a lot of shifts to cover and if you have not volunteered to be a docent there is certainly still the opportunity to do so.
Before we move into the rest of the sermon I want to tell you how the show came about. A key part of FotoFest is its portfolio review program. This is where artists and curators, editors, gallery owners, publishers and other industry professional meet with photographers to look at the artists’ work. My father is a Professor of Photography and Visual Communication at Michigan State University. He has been one of FotoFest’s reviewers for close to twenty years. When I moved to Houston, FotoFest’s Executive Director, Steven Evans, asked my Dad if he would ask me if we would be willing to serve as Participating Space. Apparently, the folks at FotoFest have been interested in partnering with our congregation for many years. My Dad put us in touch and Steven paired First Church with a curator.
This was back in June of last year. We spent about five months working with this curator. And then in late November, I got a call from that curator. They had been unable to raise the money they needed for the exhibit that they were planning. They were backing out. I asked Steven what to do. He told me it was way too late to pair us with another curator. All of the deadlines for Participating Spaces are in early autumn. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do something with your Dad? We would really like First Church to be part of FotoFest. I can give you a week to figure something out.” A week is not a long time to come up with a plan for an exhibit. But, I called my Dad, and well, here we are.
I am excited that are we able to be a venue for “Now is the Time.” Leonard Freed, whose work we are featuring, was a major American photographer. He was a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photography collective, and for more than fifty years he travelled the world documenting major events. He used his art to stir sympathy and compassion and, during the 1950s and 1960s, break the “almost complete isolation between the races.” His work is in the collections of places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.
Freed is best known for his photographs of the civil rights movement, particularly the set of images that were included in his 1968 “Black in White America.” It is a beautiful book. It documents African American life in the last days of Jim Crow. And it documents African American life right after the end of legal segregation.
There are lot of powerful pictures in that book. One of the most effecting is of a line of eight or nine African Americans standing in line to vote in a federal election for the first time in Washington, DC. They are in one those utilitarian spaces that often serve as polling places--I imagine it is a school gym or cafeteria or, maybe, a church basement. They are all ages. There is a tall distinguished gentleman wearing what looks like a tweed jacket, well pressed slacks, and perfectly shined shoes. There is a young woman in a long coat and knee length skirt with a large purse under her right arm. In her right hand she is grasping a white slip of paper, presumably documenting that she is eligible to vote. Everyone in the photograph looks like they have been waiting a long time--which, of course, they have been. They have been waiting however long they have been waiting in that line. And they have been waiting however long they have been alive. For this is the first that any of them have been able to vote in a national election. It does not matter that the man is probably over eighty and that the woman is most likely under thirty. They have both been waiting precisely the same amount of time: their whole lives. And they look tired--because I bet that line is a long one--and they look determined--because winning the right to vote was not easy.
Viewed from the vantage of Houston, Texas in the year 2020, the photograph is actual quite disturbing. It could have been taken on Tuesday. It could have been taken here in the Fourth Ward. It could have been taken in Third Ward. It could have been taken in almost any community of color in the state of Texas. Since 2012, the state’s Republican leadership has worked to close 750 polling places throughout the state. The vast majority of them have been closed in communities of color.
On Tuesday, I voted in polling place near Montrose in River Oaks. There were about a half dozen polling places for me to choose from in easy reach of my apartment. Now, I live in an affluent and predominately white area. And when I went to a polling place, I waited about fifteen minutes in line. I have a friend who lives in the Fourth Ward. She waited over an hour and a half to vote. And some people who voted at Texas Southern University--a historically black university--had to wait as many as six hours in line.
Compassion is not just having sympathy for those people who had to wait for hours and hours to vote. It is putting that sympathy into action and organizing to demand that people have easy access to voting.
Compassion, you can find images of people waiting to vote almost anywhere online. And these days, we are inundated by visual images at almost all times. They can overwhelm us. How many of you have a smartphone? And how many of you use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? I have them all on my phone. They have a common feature called endless scroll. Endless scroll is what repopulates your phone with images as you move your finger down the screen. No matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook or “followers” you have on Twitter, the social media companies constantly refresh your account so that you never run out of images. Endless scroll is just that--a string that seemingly goes on forever that you can never reach the end of, that is always presenting you with new content, new images, new videos, new sources of stimulation.
Endless scroll can be entrancing. I do not know about you, but I sometimes have the experience of scrolling from image to image on Instagram without even knowing that I am doing it. Sometimes I look up and realize that fifteen minutes have passed. It would be difficult for me to tell you what images I saw or engaged with during that time. They all went by in a catatonic blur.
The social media accounts that I follow come from all over the world. I follow news sources like the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, and La Jornada--a very fine daily out of Mexico City. I follow a painter from Japan, anarchist labor union activists from Spain, organizers from Northern Syria, photographers from the Czech Republic, historians, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders, from well, really, almost anywhere. And then there are my actual friends, who, in our highly connected global society, live on every continent except Antartica.
One of the wonderful things about social media is that is it actually can link people from throughout the world together. I have, through my smart phone or computer, access to the words, sounds, and images from people who live in bustling cities and in remote villages. If I want to, I can actually communicate directly with them and find out something more about their human experience. I share with them some of mine. And maybe our digital interaction can open us up to being compassionate towards each other and help us recognize that truth about the human experience--lifted up in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association--we are all connected, we are all part of the great web of being, we are all members of the great family of all souls, and what happens to you, in some way, minor or major, happens to me also.
One of the terrible things about social media is that it can make people numb to what is going on throughout the world. I have had this experience myself. I look at my phone and there are images of people dying under Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. I look at my phone and there are images of people suffering from the coronavirus first in China, then in Italy, and now, well, here in the United States. I look at my phone and there’s an image of a young African American man who has been killed by the police. I look at my phone and there’s images of the children who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have placed in cages. There are images of people who have been deported back to Central America and killed by gangs. There are images of... Well, there are a lot of awful images out there--images that provide a testament to just how terrible we humans can be to each other.
And you know what, I usually think to myself, “I cannot deal with this right now.” And scroll past the world’s horrors to look at pictures of a friend’s dog’s birthday party, a friend drinking beer at the cutest graffiti coated bar I have ever seen, a very nice looking breaking competition, a couple’s anniversary--one partner in a striking red dress, the other in an elegant tuxedo--, a delicious meal of fresh brilliant colored market vegetables, and, of course, cats. Like a whole lot of the world, I like images of cats--running, sleeping, or playing with some kind of improbable object. Cats are cute. Cats are goofy. Cats can easily bring a smile to my face. Cats can help me forgot the brutal things we do to each other.
Do you ever have the same experience? Where you look at the difficult news of the world and think to yourself, “I just can’t?” A bit more than a decade ago, when she was trying to grapple with the constant barrage of images of the Bush regime’s torture policies that were appearing in the New York Times and other places in the then dominant print media, the philosopher Susan Sontag observed, “An ample reserve 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.”
I suspect that the constant barrage of graphic images induces compassion fatigue in a lot of us. Compassion fatigue is the anger, dissociation, anxiety, and even nightmares that we experience from feeling powerless to change the world’s ills. It comes from what Sontag called “a quintessential modern experience,” “[b]eing a spectator of calamities taking place in another” place.
Endless scroll offers us the opportunity to spectate endless and exhausting calamities. It can dilute the power of the image to open us to compassion. And that is one reason why I think exhibits like “Now is the Time” and social documentary photography remain important even when we are constantly inundated with images. The framed image, mounted on the wall, allows us, offers us, the chance to stop and consider the human experience--or the natural world--in a moment of time.
Now, of course, all photographs are curated representations of reality. There is always something outside of the frame. The image is always partial and seen through the lens of the photographer. The photographer’s aesthetics and ethics--their choice of what they represent and how they represent it--is always shaping the image. When they produce an image, they are indicating that this transitory moment in time, this flitting bit of consciousness, matter, and experience, is worth preserving.
Freed’s work in “Now is the Time” preserves impressions of an historic shift, the end of apartheid in South Africa. He travelled there for three weeks to document the country’s first multi-racial election. As a white Jewish man from the United States, a white Jewish man who knew about the Holocaust and Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, he created his curated representations of the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.
His images are not the images that would have been made by someone with a different social location--they are not the images of a black South African who participated in the struggle to end apartheid. And they are not the images of a person who had suffered the social stigma of apartheid or Jim Crow. Nonetheless, they are designed to open their viewers to the fullness of the human experience--to remind us that there is joy and friendship and wonder. That human society can shift. That apartheid ended.
The title of the exhibit comes from one of the African National Congress’s slogans during the 1994 election, “Now is the Time.” The slogan is evocative of Freed’s photograph of the people waiting in line to vote. Now is the time for change. It has finally come, after all these years of suffering and struggling and waiting and waiting. Now is the time, it has arrived. Now is the time to be compassionate towards each other and act together. Now is the time, if you want to learn more about the exhibit, my father will be offering a lecture about it next Sunday at 7:00 p.m. And I will be doing at least one gallery talk between now and when the exhibit closes at the end of April.
I hope that you will take time after the service or during the exhibit’s hours to study the photographs. There are a few that we have placed behind a curtain because they are not appropriate for Sunday mornings. But all them will offer you an opportunity to interrupt the endless scroll of visual imagery and look carefully at transitory moments of time, constructed representations, that, will do a little to help you with whatever compassion fatigue you might be experiencing. As you do, I invite you to remember words from Nikki Giovanni that we heard earlier in the service:
we must believe in each other’s dreams
i’m told and i dream
of me accepting you and you accepting yourself
Such words remind us of the possibility of compassion.
As you view Freed’s images, I invite you to consider these words by Nelson Mandela, words that he offered in his inaugural address as President of South Africa:
“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.
We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
We would do well to hear Mandela’s word. They challenge us to be compassionate--to take our sympathy and empathy for others, sympathy and empathy that are rooted in our shared human experience, and transform them into the action of compassion.
We would also do well to pause, and look, and see if we can be stirred to compassion by all the rich visual imagery on display throughout the city of Houston during FotoFest. Our faith calls us to be compassionate. And the art which surrounds during these festival months has the possibility of inspiring us to greater depths of compassion--to transform our sympathy and empathy into action.
We are one human family, one world community, whether we like it or not. If we are to survive and thrive we must be compassionate towards each other. Let us remember that and, in doing so, let us recognize that now is the time to act--to work for voting rights, to do what we can to combat the coronavirus (no shaking hands after the service), to seek justice, and to build the beloved community.
Now is the time.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Oct 10, 2019
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:”
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.
Nov 5, 2018
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
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.
Aug 13, 2018
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
There is so much pain,
so much hurt,
to be found,
addiction, disappointment, war, loss,
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.