Jan 14, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, January 13, 2019
This is my first Sunday in the pulpit since we began live streaming our sermons to our Tapestry and Thoreau campuses. I want to begin by sharing a greeting to the members of the congregation who are worshipping with us in Richmond, Texas. You will note that I did not extend my greeting to Spring, Texas. You may have heard by now that the Tapestry campus has decided to go its own way. First Church is no longer providing them Sunday morning worship services.
This shift is a significant one for First Church. It means that, once the Board takes action, you will no longer be “one church in three locations.” I think it is a healthy transition. In the five and a half months that I have served as your interim minister, Tapestry has never felt integrated into First Church. They have wanted to maintain their separate identity, including their own logo, web site, and social media. They have not been excited about receiving videos of the sermons from the Museum District campus. It is best to bless them and wish them the best in their efforts to grow as an independent congregation. They might be going their own way but we all remain Unitarian Universalists. We all remain committed to the collective project of building a strong Unitarian Universalism in the Houston area.
My experience of Thoreau has been quite the opposite of my experience with Tapestry. I experience the Museum District and Thoreau campuses as increasingly integrated. The shift to live streaming is further solidifying the connections between the two campuses. For those of you who do not know, live streaming means that at about the same time folks here at Museum District are listening to this sermon another fifty to sixty people are joining us virtually in our new sanctuary in Richmond.
We have live streamed two services in the last four weeks. Both times I have been here at Museum District. And, after each of them, I have interacted with members of the congregation who attend Thoreau. We were able to talk about that week’s sermon. It made me feel more like the minister of both campuses than I had in the past. We shared an immediate common experience, a recent shared experience of worship. A shared experience of worship is at the heart of congregational life. And we can find all sorts of ministers, theologians, and other scholars who tell us this in some fashion or another. The late Harvard Divinity School professor Conrad Wright observed, “a church must have some element or elements of common experience shared by its members, to unite them and make a community out of a collection of individuals.”
The theme we are examining in worship this month is transformation. The process of creating a religious community out of a group of individuals is a transformative process. It changes our individual identities. Together we become Unitarian Universalists. Together we become, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And in this becoming my sense of self shifts. The perceiving I, the Colin that is preaching this sermon, is a different self than I would have if I was part of a different religious community, or if I did not belong to one at all. The same is true for the perceiving you, the each of you, sitting in the pews. Gathering together as a religious community changes each of us.
But that is the point, is it not? Most of us want to be part of a religious community because we feel like our life would not be complete without one. Yesterday, we had a new member class. Like most new member classes I have been involved in over the last decade, we invited people interested in joining First Church to share a little bit about their personal religious journeys. What brought you here, we asked them.
The details of these stories are confidential. I am not going to share them. But I can reflect upon the themes that emerge from them. And one theme stood out, as it does so often when I ask people why they have come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It runs something like this: You felt like something was missing from your life. You were unhappy with the stilted or confining theology of other religious communities you have been part of. Maybe they did not welcome you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. Maybe you did not resonate with their teachings about Hell and damnation. Maybe you wanted a more capacious tradition, one that allowed room for doubt and dissent, one that welcomed you, even encouraged you, after you realized you were an atheist or agnostic. And so, you started doing some research, or you met someone from this congregation, or your friend or relative found Unitarian Universalism, and you discovered that this was a community where you felt like you belonged. “For a long time, I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it,” is not an uncommon thing to hear said when someone shares their journey to Unitarian Universalism.
Occasionally, someone who has raised Unitarian Universalist, like me, participates in such a class. Their story has a slightly different spin. It might go this way: You grew up Unitarian Universalist in another city. Unitarian Universalism has always been an important part of your life. It taught you that critical thinking was essential. It taught you that love is the most powerful force in the world. It taught you that the pursuit of justice, the work of building beloved community, is at the heart of what it is to be a religious person. To paraphrase Rebecca Parker, it provided you with a place where you felt accepted in all of your humanity.
The stories share a common thread. Your participation in a Unitarian Universalist community has changed, is changing you, is helping you become a more authentic person. When you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you enter, as Parker puts it, “a sanctuary for the recovery of soul and a school for the transformation of society.”
Alternatively, when you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you commit to the intertwined projects of individual and collective transformation or, as I sometimes describe it, the work of individual and collective liberation. My sermon title this morning gets to a key tension point in this enterprise: Where to begin? The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras once observed, “There are two sides to every question.” My question might be approached while thinking about his wisdom. When we are seeking transformation should we begin as individuals or should we begin as a collective?
Four observations as we consider this question. The first, transformation requires intentionality. The second, transformation is an individual project. The third, transformation is a collective project. And the fourth, real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives.
Let us start with the first of these observations: transformation requires intentionality. I suspect that this is something you already know. We just rang in the New Year. And what do many of us typically do on New Years? We make resolutions! Show of hands, how many of you made New Years resolution this year? I did. I do every year. In fact, I make some of the same resolutions every year. I am going to spend a little bit more time meditating. I am going to be better about going to the gym. I am going to lose five pounds--do not ask me why it is five pounds. For the past six years I have been trying to lose five pounds. And for the past six years my weight has remained exactly the same. What about you? Do you have resolutions that you make year after year?
If you do, the point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself. The point is to remind us that transformation is difficult work. And that it requires us to be intentional about our actions.
This leads me to my second observation. Transformation is an individual project. It involves me changing my behavior in some way. The best way I know how to do this is to nurture religious discipline, what some of us call a spiritual practice. This might be prayer, meditation, tai chi, or yoga. How many of you have a regular spiritual practice? I do. And if you do not, I highly recommend it. I am a steadfast practitioner of that old Puritan and transcendentalist discipline: journal writing.
I have a regular writing routine. It begins with reading. Most days, I begin the day by reading three things: a sermon or a text on the art of preaching, three to five pages of poetry, and a bit of scripture from one of the world’s religious traditions. Next, I spend a couple of minutes outlining the main argument of the scripture. And then I write in my journal for fifteen minutes.
This week I have been reading Otis Moss III’s “Blue Note Preaching a Post-Soul World,” an anthology of traditional Japanese poetry, and Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible. Each of these has opened up my experience of the world in some small way. Otis Moss III pushes me to remember that preaching and worship, the collective work in which we are now engaged, has to wrestle the tragedies of this world if it is going to be meaningful. At the same time, we need to celebrate beauty and joy. Moss is the senior minister of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest left-leaning black churches in the country. He writes, “Blue Note preaching, or preaching with Blues sensibilities, is prophetic preaching—preaching about tragedy, but refusing to fall into despair.”
When I read this passage, I was reminded that if preaching is to be authentic, if it is to do the work of transformation that it is called to do in the world, it must confront the earthly powers and principalities. It must point out that the federal government shutdown is a manufactured crisis, a temper tantrum, created by a political leader who is not getting his way. He does not care about the eight hundred thousand federal employees who are being harmed by his decision to shutdown the government. And it must point out that real leadership is found in those who care about all people. And that when we remember that we can find beauty and joy in this troubled world. It is not present when we look to the fools who create political crises. It is found in the ways we care for each other and create community in the midst of such crises. And so, I will say again what was said during the announcements. If you are a federal employee, if you are impacted by the shutdown, and if you are having trouble paying your bills because of it, come see me and First Church will do what we can to help you.
The section in Proverbs I have been reading for the past week is devoted to pairing antithetical ideas, much like blue note preaching. Though rather than calling us to find the beauty in tragedy, Proverbs contrasts the wise and the foolish. Some of its verses speak to our present situation, “The tongue of a righteous man is choice silver, / But the mind of the wicked is of little worth” or “What the wicked man plots overtakes him; / What the righteous desire is granted. / When the storm passes the wicked man is gone. / But righteousness is an everlasting foundation.”
I actually left my reflections on traditional Japanese poetry to the end because several of you have asked about my trip to Japan. And, well, my daily spiritual practice figures into a story about my trip. The anthology I have been reading features the work of two of the central figures in the Japanese literary canon: the poets Matsuo Basho and Yosa Buson.
They came to me one night when I was in Kyoto. Well, actually, they opened the world to me a little in Kyoto. I had been wandering the ancient former capital for the whole day. I was tired and slowly wending my way through the dense streets of hyper-neon and tight old buildings to my hotel. And I thought about stopping for a drink. And there it was, a sign in kanji, which I do not read at all, the English word jazz, and an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Art Blakely, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Gregory Porter, Miles Davis fan that I am I followed the sign and found myself in a Japanese jazz bar.
It was not devoted to live music. Rather, it was a place where one could go to listen to jazz vinyl records. There were a few thousand of them crammed in a space that seated maybe sixteen people--ten at the bar and another six in a booth. Sixties bebop was playing. I ordered shoju, a kind of Korean hard alcohol, and opened up a novel I had brought with me: “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami. And then soon after, it happened. A man and a woman came in. They glanced at me suspiciously, asked in English what I was reading, recognized and praised the author, and somehow in their broken English and my non-existent Japanese we constructed a conversation about Japanese literature--a subject I know precious little about.
It was when I mentioned that I had read Basho and Bosun that conversation took its turn. Until then they had viewed me with generous hesitation. But somehow, I could recognize Basho’s frog poem when they recited it to me Japanese. Do you know it?
An old pond —
Of a diving frog.
And they gave me a little Buson, maybe this one?
Fuji all alone--
the one thing left unburied
by new green leaves.
And so, there we were talking about literature and art and jazz and soon about what I needed to do while I was in Kyoto. It turns out that David Bowie’s favorite place was a bit outside of the city, an old Zen temple named Shoden-ji. And they promised me that if I went I would find quiet.
The next day, I found myself taking a bus forty-five minutes outside of the city center. I walked through a bamboo groove. There was practically no one there. The quiet was, well, the quiet was almost all consuming. The leaves barely spoke. The wind did not seem to blow. The sound of no sound.
Up some stairs I climbed, and into the temple I went. I was there for almost two hours. There were maybe ten people who came in during that time: first, sitting on the veranda overlooking the eight-hundred-year-old Zen garden--three groups of perfectly sculpted bushes, three then five then seven, in front of short white wall framed by a mountain; next, wandering through the temple looking at beautiful painted screens of natural scenes; and finally, sitting on the veranda again.
I am not sure if that experience in itself changed me, transformed me. But what I do know is that my daily practice of reading poetry opened up that unexpected temple to me. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen. It renewed my confidence that people can create and sustain beauty.
This brings me to my third observation, tranformation is collective work. My experience in Shoden-ji was my experience alone. But it was actually a significant collective undertaking. The temple had to be maintained for eight hundred years. That’s more than thirty generations. Without the collective efforts of thousands of unknown people across time my own experience would not have been possible. The collective effort formed the opportunity for me to have the experience of renewal that I had at that temple.
It is also a collective effort, this work of worship, that turns us from individuals into the community we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. When we sit in the pews together, when we sing together, when we listen to the sermon or the special music together, it actually does something to us physiologically. It puts us in synch. The pattern of your breath and mine come close to each other.
This is especially true when we sing a hymn. When we sing we find ourselves breathing together. We find ourselves in rhythm together. That creates the shared experience of being in community together. And through that experience we can come to know each other. Actually, our opening hymn, #346 “Come, Sing a Song with Me” makes this argument. Will you turn in your hymnal and sing the first verse with me?
Come, sing a song with me,
come sing a song with me,
that I might know your mind.
And I’ll bring you hope
When hope is hard to find,
and I’ll bring a song of love
and a rose in the wintertime.
I want to think about the words for a moment. It is an invitation to join a community, “come sing a song with me.” It is an invitation to share the self with another, “that I might know your mind.” It is a suggestion that together we can undergo the process of transformation: “I’ll bring you hope / When hope is hard to find.” It is actually a promise about how we might live together. If we join together in song, put ourselves in synch, the song suggests, we can change ourselves and the transform the world. We can find hope even while we feel despair, discover the winter rose, hear the song of love.
Remembering that we can come to a place where we can find hope and a song of love in a world full of turmoil is something that can transform our lives. It can give us the strength to carry on when we cannot otherwise carry on.
This brings me to my final observation about transformation. Real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives. It is the way in which a regular religious discipline or spiritual practice shifts our understanding of the self slowly, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. It is the way in which being part of a religious community changes our weekly habits. Rather than belonging to the church of sleeping-in or early Sunday brunch, we devote ourselves to the project of collective liberation and self-transformation. Instead of making our way alone, we join in a covenant with other members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston to, in Rebecca Parker’s words, “break through silence and in great laughter... [shake] the foundations of this world’s structures of denial and exclusion.” Instead of giving ourselves over to despair, “we struggle,” in the words of the great Santee Dakota and Mexican poet John Trudell,
taking each day
one at a time
the mending and the breaking
creating patterns for our life.
We struggle knowing that transformation is about shifting the patterns of our lives. The patterns that change slowly as we pursue a religious discipline. The patterns that change slowly as we are part of a religious community. The patterns are evident in the ways in which we orient our lives: towards the great projects of self-transformation and collective liberation.
So, where to begin? With individual or collective transformation? I suppose that it matters little. Each is bound up in the other.
Transformation, the work of the religious community. Transformation, a project that requires intention, a commitment to be transformed. Transformation, an individual project, something we pursue on our own seeking to shift, to open up, the self. Transformation, a collective project that requires the work of many. Transformation, a daily project, whose evidence is written in the very flesh of our lives.
Transformation, this Sunday, as we conclude our sermon, let us open ourselves to its possibilities. Let us commit or recommit to keeping a religious discipline. Let us sing together. Let us bring each other hope. Let share the song of love. Let us remember that through such actions we can transform our world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jan 3, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, May 16, 2010
There is at least a segment of you who are wondering what just happened. The order of service shows that before the sermon we were supposed to have a piece of music called 4'33". But instead of playing music Karin sat in front of the piano doing nothing. No notes were played. No melody emerged. Nothing happened. This nothing is the entirety of this piece by the American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage. Yet the very presence of nothing throughout the piece makes 4'33" one of the 20th century's seminal musical compositions. Its central premiss is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a chair, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur is music. 4'33" can, therefore, be understood as expanding music's definition.
Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to make use of an anechoic chamber. The chamber used a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone... There was supposed to be nothing. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear pure silence. Instead he discovered two sounds, a high pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving the chamber he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that what he had heard was the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low ones.
From this experience Cage learned that we are surrounded by sound at all times. "Sounds," Cage wrote, "occur whether intended or not." He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, "an ideal situation, not a real one." When conceiving of a piece of music a composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed listeners hear something different than what the composer intended for them to hear. They hear both the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment's, and his body's, unintended sounds into his music.
4'33" derives from Cage's realization about the constant presence of sound. The only sound in the piece is the unintended sound of the body and the environment. Normally the ambient noise of the environment is the background upon which music unfolds. Cage has reversed the situation. In 4'33" the ambient noise is the music itself.
Changing his listeners' understanding of what art and music are is one of the central tasks of Cage's work. Profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion Cage saw art as having "the function of awakening people to the life around them." One of his teachers, the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, put it slightly differently by telling him, that "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Cage came to understand that the divine is "all things that happen in creation."
Cage's art is useful to a religious community like ours because his works help us to see and hear everyday life as beautiful. His music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what we normally consider music. This is intentional. Cage wanted his music to challenge listeners to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard 'noise' but... then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life."
Heard with Cage's ears music becomes not a matter of composition or performance but the result of an attitude. The rattle of a washing machine is placed on an equal level with a fugue by Beethoven. One is not more beautiful than the other. Both are collections of sounds--the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the metal sides of the machine, the piano's hammers hitting the wires and the bolts jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is a value assigned to them. If we choose we can assign all sounds the value of beautiful. Doing so allows us to take greater pleasure from them. It also opens up the world of experience. If, as Cage said, we "get over our likes and dislikes," then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.
Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of what art is. He is perhaps most famous for his readymades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel and a urinal labeled "Fountain." Duchamp hoped that seeing such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery would cause the viewer to ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?
Duchamp's work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview Cage shared this story about seeing some of the readymades: "his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from--not away, but among--the works of art...the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art."
When I first learned of Duchamp's work it had a similar effect on me. One afternoon a friend and I went to a local grocery store. While there we encountered a clear milk jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.
The bottle of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools and placed in front of me by human hands. The florescent light that shone on it caused the jug to cast a pale green shadow.
When Cage had such experiences they reminded him to celebrate the uniqueness of each object he encountered. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on seeing a soup can in the supermarket: "when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They're only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So, it's worthy of honor..."
In response to Cage's ruminations Retallack replied, "Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can." Sharp quips aside, Cage's point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger moments of insight. Every object encountered is both unique and connected with all other objects in the universe. Considering these facts can turn the most mundane incident into a spiritual experience. Any sound we hear, any article we see or touch is an invitation into deeper connection with the world around us.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han created the word "interbeing" to describe this interrelation of all things. In one of his books he invites his readers to look at the piece of paper on which his words appear. Looking at it closely reveals that it is a connected to all things. "Your mind is in here and mine is also...You cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper," he states.
Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not always easy to obtain. Often we focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage's work is helpful because engaging with it can require a shifting of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine heard for the first time; and the background sounds come to the foreground.
It is possible to cultivate this type of perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground. Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. All spiritual practices serve the same function, to center the self and to point to the possibility of insight.
For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. Cage felt that "personality is a flimsy thing on which to build...art" and sought to transcend it through the use of chance operations in his later pieces. Chance operations are methods of generating art independent of an artist's conscious intentions. They range from simple things like rolling dice or throwing darts to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I-Ching or computer programs. Cage developed a complex methodology for composition using the I-Ching as a base. He would set a certain number of parameters for a piece--its length, the number of performers or the number of instruments--and then flip coins to derive a series of I-Ching hexagrams to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led it, in his view, to more closely mirror the natural world. "What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations," he wrote, reflecting on his composition technique.
Cage's understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got.
Mushroom foraging is a lot like chance operation in composition. You commit to a particular technique--or in the case of mushrooms area--pay attention and see what the world brings you. Sudden shifts in consciousness may occur.
As a frequent forager myself I know how easy it is to slip from a forest bereft of mushrooms to a forest full of them. The chance turning of a leaf reveals a morel. Before there was nothing but early spring May Apples. Now the ground is littered with wrinkled grey caps.
Reflecting on this dynamic Cage once said, "ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking." The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, "a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it's fresh it's like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time."
Cage believed that we are surrounded by beauty, writing "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look." Within this attitude to I hear echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." Cage's work challenges us to directly experience the world that surrounds us. It is not be meditated through symbolic interpretation or given an explanation. It is just to be experienced. Such an openness leads to a constant state of wonder.
If this view has a limitation it is that, perhaps, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his writings and works Cage never seems to seriously wrestle with suffering. Instead he focuses on the possibility of beauty within the world. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful. Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them--the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the harsh stillness of a field before battle--it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world's problems inaction is not a realistic option.
Art only pushes into daily life so far. It may be provocative to quote, as Cage did in his piece "Indeterminacy," the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna by offering the words--"When Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, 'To thicken the plot.'"--but it does little to goad people in action. It is no doubt my own rooting in a religious tradition that's objective is, in the words of one Unitarian Universalist author, "to build the world we dream about" that finds limitations in Cage here. He does not point the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. Yet he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.
Such was not his purpose. Instead Cage's work offers us the invitation to see the world as a blessing. And that is surely the first step towards making it whole. Cage suggests that viewed properly each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each thing we see a thing of wondrous beauty. If we understand the world's beauty how could do anything but cherish it? As Cage himself would say, "Everyday is a beautiful day." Let us make it so.