Feb 3, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 2, 2020
Today we launch our annual stewardship campaign. It is the season in congregational life when you decide how much money you will pledge to support First Houston in the coming fiscal year. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, churches are owned and governed by their members. Making an annual financial commitment is an affirmation of membership that signals that you have made a personal, spiritual, and monetary commitment to be part of this congregation, build the beloved community, and uplift Unitarian Universalist values.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Some of you might know her. She was on First Houston’s ministerial staff for a couple of years in the early part of the last decade. She moved on to serve a congregation in Austin. She drew inspiration for the phrase from the theology of our Universalist religious ancestors.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
One of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. In the early nineteenth-century, he was a circuit rider who traveled widely spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. One such story was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding, he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it late at night carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by, we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you would not throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing about and spreading the gospel of universalism. This portrayal elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from First Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like First Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was an ancient Christian theologian who lived in North Africa. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived close to two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism. It helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new acquaintance. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.”
You explain. You might tell them that Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. You perhaps share that we offer to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address the climate crisis, and struggling for democracy. It could be that you quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or perhaps it is that you cite Marta Valetin. She reminds us our world contains the good and the holy when she writes:
The golden present ever reaches for you
and wonders if you’ll come
to unwrap its gifts.
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
Now, what comes next? Do you invite your friend to come with you to First Houston?
I wonder what happened next in Ballou’s story. Did the farm family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. And if we serious about heeding that calling, we are called to build and sustain institutions like First Houston that empower us in our efforts to love the Hell out of the world. We cannot love the Hell out of the world by ourselves. We need others to do it with us.
I will return to the subject of the importance of building and sustaining institutions like First Houston at the end of the sermon. But, first, let us be honest, there is a lot of Hell in the world right now. For many of us, the current political situation seems bleak. The last several years have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms. And, as I have told you before, I fear the country to be sliding towards totalitarianism. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality of a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power and projects a totalizing view of society. Totalitarian leaders might gloat, as the current President does, of leading a country with “unmatched power, strength, and glory” and boast to their enemies “if conflict comes—we will dominate the battlefield, and we will, win, win, win.” They might propose, as the President has in reference to immigration courts, “we should get rid of judges.”
Rather than respecting the rule of law, totalitarians concentrate power in the head of state--often following the maxim of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In efforts to consolidate power, pit the populace against itself, and stoke a climate of fear, totalitarian leaders identify a racial or minority group who are cast as representing an existential threat to the social order. They claim this group must be purged from the body politic for the health of the country.
Such logic has been present in the current administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. This past week the federal government extended it to seven new countries as part of the President’s policy of, in his words, creating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has portrayed Muslims as purveyors of terror who threaten the safety of country and who must be excluded to ensure its security.
He has further brutalized this country’s policy towards migrants launching what he has called a “zero tolerance” approach. This has been manifested in a family separation policy that has removed least 5,400 children from their parents--babies, toddlers, and adolescents all torn from their parents’ embracing arms. It has also been manifested in the expansion of what many scholars of totalitarianism have disturbingly named the concentration camps along the border. Concentration camps are not necessarily extermination camps, where people are sent to be killed, they are places where, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody.” They are locations where migrants are put out of sight so that their suffering will remain out of mind. And suffer they do, with more than thirty of them dying in governmental custody since the President took office.
At the same time, white supremacist terrorism has dramatically increased and there have been numerous mass shootings. The situation is a stark reminder that in a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. People who live in a totalitarian society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that it is always possible for them to meet a terrible end at the hands of agents of the state, paramilitaries, or, today, supposedly lone actors whose violence is fueled by a shared white supremacist ideology. Arendt describes the phenomenon this way: in a totalitarian regime, “Terror strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” In such a society, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” It is hard to find better words to describe the epidemic of gun violence. In 2018 firearm deaths reached a fifty-year high, costing almost forty thousand lives. Meanwhile, as mosque shootings, synagogue massacres, temple invasions, and other hate crimes have shown, white supremacist violence has reached historic levels.
All of this has formed the background for what can only be described as an assault on democratic norms. Foreign actors have been invited to interfere with federal elections by the President himself. Ample evidence--including accounts by some of his former advisors--exists that he pressured the Ukrainian government to influence the upcoming election by investigating one of his political opponents. This evidence led to the House passing two articles of impeachment. A Senate trial has now taken place--a trial without evidence or witnesses, a trial whose results appear to be foreordained, a trial in which the President’s acquittal seems to be guaranteed.
The situation could be described as one of permanent emergency. This permanent emergency is a struggle over who shall rule. The coming years may well witness the further undermining of liberal democratic norms, the continuing erosion of the Voting Rights Act, an increase in gerrymandering, the appointment of two more reactionary Supreme Court justices, and the complete the normalization of white supremacist anti-human immigration policies. They might even pose an existential threat to humanity in the form of an administration that is committed to a denial of the climate emergency as the brief window to address it closes. The historical moment is evocative of George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The temptation in such a situation is to prepare, as more than one partisan has suggested, to go “all in” on the upcoming election. Now, I do not want dissuade anyone from mobilizing or participating in voter turnout and registration efforts. In fact, in the coming months I will be urging First Houston to participate in the campaign for the 2020 election that the Unitarian Universalist Association has named UU the Vote. But I also want to remind you that “going ‘all in’ is a gambling term” where, as activist Andrew Sernatinger warns, “you either win big or leave with nothing.”
Whatever happens in the upcoming election, and whatever side of the partisan divide you might fall on, we should not leave 2020 with nothing. Whoever wins the presidential contest the forces of love and justice should complete the year stronger than before.
One of the best ways we can do this is to live into the vision of our Universalist religious ancestors and commit ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world. It is to devote ourselves to building a beloved community that offers a foretaste of the world we dream about, a world where all are accepted and love is the organizing principle of the hour. Love has the power to create communities where isolation is vanquished. Love creates empathic bonds and inspires ideals that prove totalitarian narratives false. Loving bonds and loving communities, along with the loving truth that, to cite William Ellery Channing, we are each a “member of the great family of all souls,” are targeted by the totalitarians’ narratives of fears. But never yet, not in all of human history, have they been fully successful in completely breaking the traditions that foster love.
Khia’s moving testimonial of being welcomed by this congregation as a queer woman of color is a testament to the possibility of First Houston to live out a theology of love. Such a theology of love is why I am asking you to participate in this year’s stewardship campaign and support First Houston. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition churches are owned and governed by their members. Your financial gifts account for more than 75% of our annual income. This year we are hoping to raise $550,000 in pledges at the Museum District campus--a 10% increase from last year--so that we can continue to grow the congregation and our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. Committing to sustain and grow First Houston is one way that you can help ensure that no matter who wins the 2020 Presidential contest, no matter if the country as a whole continues its slide towards totalitarianism, there will continue to be religious communities where we teach that love is more powerful than hate. Where people can dream what historian Robin Kelley calls freedom dreams, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
Just free... the theme of worship this month is imagination. It is imagination that reminds us that however imprisoned we might feel by the historical moment there is always the possibility of casting a larger vision where we might, in the words of our choral anthem, dream of “[s]oaring and spinning and touching the sky” like the “boy who picked up his feet to fly.”
It is the imagination that helps us envision what our congregation and Unitarian Universalism can become: a place where, in the words of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, we can go “when the task feels too great, when life is too much, and it’s all too heavy, we can stop, breathe and lean into each other.”
Imagination is tied to stewardship because it inspire us to envision how we can transform and sustain our religious community across time into a place devoted to loving the Hell out of the world, inspiring collective liberation, and dismantling white supremacy. Where we can come together and constitute here, in the city of Houston, a different sort of vision for the world than the one pedaled by hate mongers and white supremacists, a community where all are loved and welcomed be they migrant, Muslim, transgendered, cis-gendered, white, black, Latinx, indigenous, or any other member of the human family. In such a place we can embody a kind of democracy that inspires the rest of society. Such a vision is not absurd. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams observed our religious ancestors “considered their free church to be a model for a democratic” society. We might foster such an ideal again and love the Hell out of the world.
Is such a vision foolishness or unwarranted? Perhaps the boot that Orwell predicted will soon come grinding down. Perhaps we will prove incapable of imagining our community thus and living as the beloved community. I cannot answer that question. I can only assert that amongst the purposes of religious community is the gifting of hope. And it is my hope that somehow, somewhere, maybe even now, maybe even here, as we consider our annual stewardship drive, a new vision for this country and our world will arise among us. It may grow from the smallest of seeds and in the most unlikely of places: the streets where we mass to protest, the neighborhoods we live in, or in religious communities like ours.
In that spirit, I close with a parable about that old metaphor for the beloved community, for creating a space for loving the Hell out of the world, the Kingdom of God, as attributed to Jesus: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered… Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Whoever has ears, let them love the Hell out of the world.
Let the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 30, 2020
Imagination is the theme for worship in February. February is Black History Month and the month we kick off First Houston’s annual stewardship drive. Imagination is central to both.
First Houston’s initial founding minister was the Universalist circuit rider Quillen Hamilton Shinn. He inspired the people who started First Houston to create a congregation that preached that God loved everyone without exception. It was a bold vision in the 1890s and it remains a bold one today. It provided the spark that started this congregation, a congregation that has done so much to bring Unitarian Universalism to Houston and Fort Bend County. What might our imaginations and our generosity bring in the future?
It is not an easy question to answer. And it is not a question that we can answer by ourselves. Unitarian Universalist congregations provide us with a space to collectively struggle with the question and imagine how we might best answer it. They are unique places where we can both imagine a different world, encounter the spiritual resources necessary to create one, and then come together to work to build one. And that brings me directly to stewardship.
Stewardship is the act of sustaining the community across the generations. We give money and time--sometimes reframed as our talents and treasure--to First Houston because we know that it gives our lives more spiritual depth and increases our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. We give money and time to First Houston because we want to see it continue into the future. We have the congregation because previous generations sustained it so that it might be here for us. Which is to say, they imagined that the congregation would have a future and then they set about creating that future through their generosity.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford who was inspired by the theology of our Universalist ancestors. In the words of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, “Our Universalists ancestors didn’t believe in hell, except for the ones we create here in this life. What would it mean to show up in the places where hell, where suffering and violence, persecution and inhumanity, prevail and to bring an active, powerful form of love that affirms dignity, liberation, and peace?” What would it mean, in other words, if we devoted ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world?
This brings me to the black radical imagination. Writing about the history of African American social movements, the historian Robin Kelley places what he calls the black radical imagination at the center of Black History. Over the course of last several hundred years, as people of color have resisted white supremacy, the black radical imagination has provided, in Kelley’s words, visions of “spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.” Such visions have been a crucial resource for building communities that are different in character and composition than the predominantly white and capitalist society that sustains white supremacy, is fueling the climate crisis and the global assault on democracy. Such visions are necessary if we are to devote ourselves to the great task of collective liberation.
Visions from the black radical imagination are one of the resources I look to when I attempt to imagine a future in which Hell has been loved out of the world. In Kelley’s words, it offers visions “of new social relationships, new ways of living and interacting, new attitudes toward work and leisure and community.” That is exactly what the world needs now and exactly what First Houston, at its very best, can offer. So, I hope you’ll join us throughout the month as we explore the imagination and begin our stewardship campaign.
Aiding us in our efforts this month are outstanding guest preachers. On February 9th Aisha Hauser will be returning to First Houston to preach “Leading with Love and Liberation.” And on February 16th we will be welcoming the Rev. Duncan Teague. He will be preaching on “‘Houston, We Have a Problem,’ When My Imagination Failed Me.”
During her time with us, Ms. Hauser will be leading two important workshops on February 8th. The morning’s workship will be on microagressions and the afternoon’s will be on bystander training. More information about both can be found on our website. I hope you can join us for both!
Sun Ra is a musician whose interstellar free form jazz invites listeners to imagine a universe where the destructive rules that govern our society have been overturned and hell has been loved out of the world. I offer a few of his words as my closing poem:
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any in the sky
If we came from
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Jun 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, Texas on May 12, 2019
It is good to be with you this morning. The last time I had an opportunity to worship with First Church’s Thoreau campus was back when you were still meeting in rented space in Stafford. Since then, I have come out a couple of times to see this new Richmond site or meet with your campus advisory team. This is the first Sunday that I have been present for worship you. And what a Sunday it is!
This morning’s worship encompasses the holiday Mother’s Day, inspired by the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, and the uniquely Unitarian ceremony of Flower Communion. It is also Thoreau’s Charter Sunday--celebrating the anniversary of the founding of this religious community--and the launch date for a gifts campaign to complete the move-in projects. And, according, to the preaching schedule we have been following, it is also a Sunday when I am supposed to be talking with you about the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association: the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Our task this morning to distill a single message from all of that and to do so in about ten minutes. This is, after all, also an intergenerational service. But that having all ages together actually helps us. All of these disparate themes share a common, intergenerational, thread. They are about sustaining community and life across the generations. And that suggests our message: two of the principal practices in a religious life are gratitude and stewardship. And so, from all this rich mess of differing holidays and liturgical moments, that is what I want to lift up: gratitude and stewardship.
Gratitude, being thankful for what we have been given. Stewardship, passing the gifts we have been given along to the next generation. The two are deeply intertwined. There is a poem by the Lakota musician and activist John Trudell that captures something of the interrelation between gratitude and stewardship:
We are children of Earth and Sky
DNA descendant now ancestor
Human being physical spirit
Bone flesh blood as spirit
Metal mineral water as spirit
Descendant now ancestor, child of Earth and Sky, composed of worldly elements and related to all life, that describes each of us. Descendant now ancestor, we are descended from the generations that came before us: without our foremothers we would not be. Ancestor: generations to come will be descended from us.
Trudell offered his poem as a reminder of the biological connection we have with all life. He wanted to evoke a fundamental fact of human life: “We are literally shapes and forms of the Earth.” Or, as the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, we are part an interdependent web of all existence. We owe our lives to the generations that came before us. Generations after us will owe their lives to us.
It is a profoundly important lesson to hear this week. We have learned that unless we human beings change our actions as many as a million species will go extinct. Butterflies and bird, rodents and reptiles, flowers and ferns, all will be lost because we have failed in a central religious task—stewardship of the Earth. Descendant now ancestor, the words remind us that we are of the generations that have been blessed with the power to act and to change this trajectory. Learning to be better stewards is one reason why we gather together.
Descendant, we need not take this word biologically. We are part of a religious community. Religious communities are institutions that exist across time. As part of a religious community we benefit from the generations that have come before us. They are in some sense our religious ancestors--our liturgical traditions, the way we worship on Sunday morning, and our theology, what we think about religion, are both influenced by them.
Ancestor, future generations will benefit from our efforts to create religious community. Twenty years from now this community will be here, in Fort Bend County, proclaiming Unitarian Universalist values and providing a liberal religious congregation for those who seek one, because of you.
Flower communion is a nice example of this. It was started almost by Unitarians almost a hundred years ago in Prague. Today Unitarian Universalists celebrate it throughout the world. It is a beautiful ceremony. It is something we have received from previous generations. And it is something we will pass onto future ones.
Descendant now ancestor, coming from the Northeast I am not accustomed serving congregations where charter members are still present. The congregation I served last year in Ashby, Massachusetts celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth year while I was with them. No charter members arose from their graves to celebrate the congregation’s anniversary with us!
One of the wonderful things about being part of a relatively young religious community is that you can ask the charter members about Thoreau’s founding. Your charter was signed twenty-three years ago. There are people here who remember Judy Cole and Joanie Havlick leading Thoreau’s first meeting in a Tex-Mex bar. You can ask them about their vision for creating this community. You can also ask them if the margaritas were any good.
But since this Sunday morning we should stick to more sober topics. Gratitude and stewardship. Mother’s Day has had me thinking of both. I am now part of what is called the sandwich generation. My mother took care of me for many years. Now I have kids of my own. And my mother is retired and in ill health. Soon it will be my turn take care of her. I find myself grateful for all that she has given me even as I pass it along to the next generation.
I was reminded of my gratitude for my mother only this past week. When I was a kid she used to make me chicken soup when I was sick--Jewish penicillin is what she called it. It always made me feel better, a special steamy treat when I was under the weather. These days I am not a meat eater but my son is. This past week he was sick for most the week. So I pulled out my mother’s recipe for chicken soup--chicken, carrots, celery, a pinch of turmeric, some bay leaves, garlic, a dash of salt and a splash of love. It seemed to help. And if my son has kids I suspect that he will pass the tradition on.
Passing the tradition on brings us to the launch of the gifts campaign. We are hoping to raise $100,000 to finish the campus move-in. I am pleased to announce that as we start this campaign we already have $31,000 pledged. This money will pay for everything from upgrading the shed so it can serve as a meeting space to building a playground to creating a site plan for future expansion. It will both benefit the Thoreau community today and the community far into the future. Supporting it is an act of gratitude and stewardship. It is a way to express appreciation for what you have received from this community. And it is a way to ensure that a thriving community is here for the next generation.
My friend Vanessa Southern writes of how gardens can serve as a metaphor for stewardship, gratitude, and, well, all that we are celebrating this morning. Since we are surrounded by beautiful greenery I thought I might end with a few words from her. After describing the church garden that she and some children in her congregation planted she observes:
We started this garden to illustrate the biblical parable of the mustard seed, and it has served this purpose well. Strong, proud, and lush plants have grown from tiny, unpretentious seeds. They remind us of the ability of small things to surprise us, and stand in for the faith that begins inconspicuously.
The faith community that begins inconspicuously--over, I imagine, margaritas, in a Tex-Mex bar. A faith community that grows until it is transplanted here on Clayhead Road. A faith community that you have nurtured, like a loving mother, like a gardener watering flowers, across the years. A faith community named for an inspiring environmentalist that may contain small seeds for ecological revival. A faith community that today, in this hour, is breaking into blossom—growing stronger and more beautiful with each breath we take.
And so, let us be grateful and let us be good stewards.
Let us share our flowers of communion.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Feb 5, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 17, 2019
Today we kick-off First Church’s annual stewardship drive. My task this morning is to offer you what sometimes gets called “the sermon on the amount.” It is often a difficult sermon to preach. The three topics generally considered taboo to discuss in polite company, are, after all: sex, money, and religion. Stewardship combines two of these: money and religion. It did occur to me that I could bring a discussion of Our Whole Lives into the sermon. Our Whole Lives is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum. If I spoke about it we could then have all three. That might everyone really squirm. But Jonathan Edwards I am not. Today is no occasion for “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Instead, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our life together, the entity we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And giving money to support the congregation is one way we celebrate our life together.
Dan King, our Assistant Minister, likes to say that stewardship works best when we give until it feels good. That is what I am encouraging you to do this morning: to give to the congregation in such a way that you feel good about the level of support you give to First Church. I am not going to get Marxist on you and suggest that we follow old bewhiskered Karl’s adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Instead, I want to encourage you to feel good about your contributions to First Church. Well, actually, I want you to feel good about First Church. And if you feel good about First Church, I think you will feel good about financially supporting the congregation.
Our theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “weaving a tapestry of love and action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.” For Unitarian Universalists stewardship really is about justice. Our institutions, our churches and our Unitarian Universalist Association, allow us to live out our commitment to the transformative power of love in public.
I will talk a more about the theme in a moment. But, first, whether you are here at Museum District or listening to the sermon via livestream in Richmond, I want to pause and make a point of inviting you all to stick around after the service for Souper Bowl Sunday. It is our kick-off event. It is a chance to share a bowl of soup, relax, and celebrate the great community that is First Church. It is just one of the many opportunities to connect that we are offering throughout the month. We have a number of people who have volunteered to serve as visiting stewards. They will be visiting with other members of the congregation and listening to your stories about what First Church means to you. Meeting with one of them is not obligatory. These meetings are opportunities to deepen your connection to First Church by reflecting with other members about the role the congregation plays in your religious life and in the wider world.
Weaving a tapestry of love and action... We say those words each week as we bless and express gratitude for the offering. Well, actually, we say, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.” What I want to offer you this morning is what preachers call an exegesis of the phrase we say each week as we bless the offering. An exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation of a text.
“Weaving a tapestry of love and action,” I want to offer you one more fancy word as we proceed with our exegesis of our much spoken text. That word is hermeneutics. If exegesis is the interpretation of a text then hermeneutics is the method by which we arrive at the interpretation of a text. The exegesis: the meaning. Hermeneutics: how we arrive at the meaning.
Exegesis, hermeneutics... These words are two of the central tools we use in the collective religious exercise we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He often followed this definition with this series of observations, “Knowing we must die, we question what life means. ...the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious question: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life purpose? What does this all signify?”
We come together to interpret the texts of our lives--to infuse them with meaning. Unitarian Universalism offers a set of hermeneutics to do so. As a religious community, we interpret the texts of our lives using a specific set of principles. I am not talking about the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Those date to the middle of twentieth-century. Our liberal religious tradition is much older than that. What I am talking about is the principles behind the principles.
The twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur described the primary principles of our religious tradition as: freedom, reason, and tolerance. In making meaning from the rich mess of our lives, he believed, our tradition called for “complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds... the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition... generous tolerance of differing religious views... rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship, or polity.” Freedom, reason, and tolerance... We are free to believe what we must believe. We are called to put our beliefs to a rational test. Tolerance, the beliefs that I hold need not be the beliefs that you hold.
My friend Gary Dorrien is one of greatest living interpreters of liberal theology. He makes the claim that the distinction between theological liberals and theological conservatives is that we insist that religion “should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” If religion is to matter, we say, then it must relate to our lives today. It must help us live in this world. It must not be antithetical to the findings of science.
Building off the work of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has long argued that all of these intellectual statements are good and well but they leave our tradition without a foundation. They do not tell us where our beliefs come from. They do not describe the ground on which we stand. And that is a mistake. Because, Thandeka argues, our theology does have a foundation. It is founded on love. Specifically, it is founded on the experience of connection that each of us has to the all. The experience of connection between the self and the all is the fundamental religious experience. Liberal religion begins, she observes, not with rational arguments but with the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Thandeka is careful to observe that this feeling of connection escapes clear religious labels. She writes, “for Christians... [it] is God... For Buddhists... Sunyata... For Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.” But however we describe it, it comes to each of us.
I have noticed that the moments in my sermons that people connect with the most are often the sections in which I narrate such an experience of connection--whether it is my own or someone else’s. This might be because the deepest truth of Unitarian Universalism is that the text we are trying to interpret is the text of our own lives.
When I talk about finding meaning in the joy of dancing or discovering it while sitting in a Zen temple in Japan, I suspect that many of you connect with the ways in which you have made meaning out of similar experiences. The meaning I find in the unadulterated beauty of a flowing flock of birds over a parking lot sunrise might be different than yours. Maybe I encounter meaning, connection, deep emotion in the rough notes of a Latin jazz album as needle scrapes across vinyl and you do not.
But somewhere, each day, there is some experience, some series of experiences that you have where you connect with something--or someone--other than yourself. Perhaps you find that experience through your family. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps it is mostly among the moss-covered oaks. Perhaps it is in the hum of the train tracks as the streetcar slips by on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is on your bicycle as ride you along the road, the wind, the push of the peddles, the spin of the wheels, offering a sense of exhilarating motion.
Wherever you find connection, I suspect that if you regularly come to First Church it is because of you have found a community that helps you make meaning of it all. A community that helps you weave your life into the larger tapestry that is First Church. I suspect that this is true whether you sit on the cool wooden pews of this sanctuary or amid the lush greenery of our Richmond campus.
Such meaning making is why we ritually celebrate life’s passages as a religious community: child dedications, weddings, and memorial services. Child dedications--the celebration of what a new life means to a family and to the community, a celebration of the enduring possibility of human existence. Weddings, a celebration of two people coming together, attesting to the deep connection they feel, and promising to each other that their lives will be more meaningful together than separate. Memorial services, the great summing-up--the celebration of the life that has been, the meaning it offered, and the ways we who continue can find meaning and inspiration.
Unitarian Universalist minister Kristen Harper describes the daily unfolding of our meaning this way:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
When we say, we are “weaving a tapestry of love and action” what we are really saying is that we are collectively making meaning out of our lives. And that each day in our life together we have the opportunity to make further meaning. That meaning can be found in each experience, each moment, we share.
Our exegesis does not end quite there because really we have just covered the words “weaving a tapestry of love.” We have not talked much about justice. I started our sermon with a claim from Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And each week we dedicate ourselves to action. That is, we dedicate ourselves to living out our commitment to love in public.
This is what we are called to do today and all of the days of our lives. We all know that the human species is in the midst of a grave existential crisis. As I wrote in this month’s newsletter column:
Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested?
Our ability to make meaning together has equipped us to do this work for justice in the world. And, today, it is the work that we Unitarian Universalists are called to do.
And now, I need to be real with you. I do not often talk with you about the specific work of being the interim minister of your congregation following the negotiated resignation of your previous senior minister. Since I arrived in August, there has been too much to do. We have been working on launching our Richmond campus. We have been working on making First Church be one worshipping community in two locations. We have been working on winding down our relationship with the Tapestry congregation, our former campus in Spring. The Board and I have been working on governance. There have been multiple staff transitions. Nikki Steele our much loved Congregational Administrator is moving to Virginia. The congregation’s devoted long serving organist Bob Fazakerly is retiring. And so is the Rev. Dr. Dan King. There has been a lot going on.
But now, on stewardship Sunday, for the sermon on the amount, for just a few minutes, I want to talk with you about my interim work. One of my primary tasks is to hold up a mirror to the congregation and ask you to look at yourselves. Such work can quite uncomfortable. This is one reason why interim ministries are intentionally only a couple of years and why congregations are generally happy to see the interims go when their ministries end.
One thing I want you to see when you, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, look at yourselves is the way that the staff have been treated. It is true that your previous senior minister’s negotiated resignation was over his treatment of staff. But once I got here and started to look into it the picture became more complicated. The issue was not only that he engaged in bullying of staff. The issue was that the congregation was not abiding by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Salaries were being paid sort of according to guidelines. Everyone was paid at least the minimum level recommended by the UUA. Few people were paid according to their level of experience or tenure with the congregation.
Far more problematically was the benefits situation. It was not uniform. It was out of whack with UUA’s standards for fair compensation. Some people got benefits and some did not. I brought this situation to the Board’s attention shortly after the congregation received a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellett. And the Board took action, committing the congregation to follow the UUA’s fair compensation guidelines going forward. This has meant ensuring that all qualifying employees receive appropriate benefits--health insurance, life insurance, pension, disability insurance, dental insurance, and the like. It has also meant making some progress on adjusting staff salaries so people are paid according to their level of experience. All of this is costly and there is more ground to be gained in the issue in justice for the staff’s compensation. The total annual bill for fixing the situation is $72,000 a year. The money from the Kellett bequest is not enough to make this sustainable without an increase in pledge income.
There are some of you who will want to understand how this situation came about. And I willing be talking with you about it elsewhere. But the most important thing for you to know is that the Board is committed to making sure it does not happen again. They have hired a consultant to work with them, and by extension the entire congregation, on reimagining First Church’s governance so there is more appropriate oversight going forward. I have recommended that the Board conduct an annual audit of employee records and compensation to ensure future justice for the staff.
Now, I promised you at the outset that this was not going to be a modern rendition of Jonathan Edwards’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I believe with James Baldwin, “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished.” Which is to say, we cannot rewrite history. What has been done has been done. But we can change things going forward. We have that power. Indeed, we are committed to that proposition as a community weaving a tapestry of love and action.
And what I really want you to do is to feel good about your connection to First Church. This is a wonderful community that does much good in the world. You were the first historically white congregation in Houston to desegregate. You launched Hatch Youth in the midst of the AIDS crisis to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied youth. You provided important services to the wider community through your Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. You have supported more than fifty first generation college students with your Thoreau Scholarship program. You have been a beacon for speaking out against injustice, for speaking up for the oppressed, for binding up the broken, for transforming lives for the better. There is so much to be proud of.
And today, in this historic moment, when humanity faces one of its gravest crises. Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in confronting it. For First Church, this means the opportunity to grow, not for growth’s sake but because the way we Unitarian Universalists make meaning is vitally important to the world. There is an opportunity to grow both here at the Museum District and out in Richmond. The Board has also committed to making the Assistant Minister position full-time and to transitioning one of the Administrative Assistant positions to a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator. The Kellett bequest is also being used to honor these commitments as well as to help pay for some long-deferred maintenance on the Museum District campus--including fixing the elevator, the roof, and replacing carpet and stucco that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
This opportunity to grow is an opportunity to help more people weave their lives into our meaningful tapestry of love and action. In order for it to be realized we need to remember that building justice in the wider world requires that we treat our staff equitably. Indeed, I might suggest we carry our exegesis of “weaving a tapestry of love and action” a little further. If we did so we might observe that the lives of the members of the congregation are the threads that form the tapestry that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. But the building and staff provide a portion of the loom on which you weave. Without each the work of all would not be possible.
And so, when I say I would like you to give until it feels good, that means I would like you to give so that you feel good about the tapestry of love and action that First Church is weaving. I want you to feel good about First Church as a religious community. And I want you to feel good about the work that First Church does in the world.
In that spirit, I would like to close not with my own words but with yours. I invite you to say with me the words that we find in our order of service and repeat week after week, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.”
Let the congregation say Amen.
Feb 1, 2019
This month our congregation launches our annual stewardship campaign, “Weaving a Tapestry of Love and Action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Your financial gifts to our congregation are essential to sustain it and position First Church to share our values and extend our collective impact in the community. Now is a critical time to support both the congregation and Unitarian Universalism. Because the congregation is in the midst of multiple transitions in ministry and staff, it is even more important to ensure that the congregation is on firm financial footing. With your support, First Church will be better prepared to begin the next phase of our long history of innovative ministry to the community.
It is all too clear we are at a critical turning point in human history. Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested? This moral and spiritual crisis can only be addressed by building beloved communities that, locally and globally, change lives, transform culture, and craft transnational networks devoted to human liberation. Unitarian Universalism’s foundational commitment to the transformative power of love and theological openness mean that First Church has the potential to be one of these beloved communities. Your contributions supply the essential fabric from which the congregation can truly weave a tapestry of love and action.
To emphasize the mutual connections of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we are pleased to welcome my friend and dear colleague, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray to our pulpit on February 10th. Her sermon will focus on how Unitarian Universalism can realize its potential to build beloved community. Throughout the month the Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will also be leading services on stewardship which will emphasize our collective opportunities for tangible support for this community. Our stewardship team has recruited volunteer interviewers (“visiting stewards”) who will offer to talk with you about your personal connection to First Church and the work our congregation does in the world. The conversations are designed to be an opportunity to for deeper spiritual reflection, whether one-on-one or in a small group. I hope that you will choose to take advantage of their offer to listen to you.
This month is also Black History Month. Each of our services will feature music from Africa and the African diaspora. My sermon on the 24th will celebrate the life and work of the Reverend Ethelred Brown, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Harlem and a foundational figure in the tradition of black humanism. Portions of this sermon will be incorporated into a lecture I have been invited to prepare, “The Social Question: Unitarian Social Ethics in the Progressive Era.” I will be delivering in San Francisco on May 18th. I hope to see you on the 24th and throughout the month!
A brief personal note before I close, at the end of last month I was recently named an African American Religious Studies Forum Affiliate of Rice University’s for Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.
The appointment comes with an invitation to present two public lectures at Rice in the 2019-2020 academic year. They will be an opportunity to emphasize the longstanding connections between First Church and Rice.
And finally, a poem:
“Each Day” by lifelong Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Kristen Harper, longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, Massachusetts:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last,
Except... Maybe today, maybe now,
Among friends and fellow journeyers,
Maybe for the first time, maybe silently,
We can share ourselves.
Mar 5, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 4, 2018
It is always good to be with you. We had quite the weekend of weather down in Medford. The front door was actually torn off of my apartment building by the wind. It was a not so subtle reminder that no what matter we humans might think, nature is actually in charge.
I hope that the weather was not too bad here. I suspect that since Ashby is not right by the coast you were sheltered from the worst of the Nor'easter. I will admit that I never know exactly what the weather is like out here when I am back in Medford. It is remarkable that even though we are only an hour apart, you are actually in your own microclimate.
Today's sermon is the start of the stewardship season. This year's pledge drive has three stages. First, today, I am offering a sermon to kick it off. Second, early next week you should be receiving a letter from me in the mail asking you to make a pledge to support the congregation. The goal is to have all pledge cards submitted by March 31st, so we can use the pledges to prepare the annual budget. The third thing I will be doing is following up with folks who do not submit their pledge cards by the end of the month to see what their intentions are towards the congregation. If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to ask me during coffee hour.
So, with that process in mind, let us get started with the sermon proper.
The pale polka dot is not unexpected. It sits, dinner plate size, in the center of a weed strewn and crumbling road. The dot's rough paint lies uneasily on decaying asphalt. It is something of a shock. A piece of art, roughhewn but art nonetheless, in the midst of urban decay.
The dot is not alone. Casting my eyes forward I see another dot about twenty feet ahead, washed out yellow instead of faded pink. That dot is followed by another, blue this time, and then another and another. Now I understand what the docent at the Detroit Institute of Art meant when I asked for directions, "follow the polka dot road."
I am driving through one of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods. The blocks I pass are filled with a mixture of the burned-out shells of vacant houses, empty lots, broken bottles, abandoned furniture and occupied, but usually decrepit, dwellings. I am looking for the Heidelberg Project, the artist Tyree Guyton's outsider masterpiece. When I see the first polka dots I know that I am close.
As I travel down the street the polka dots gradually multiple and move. First they are only on the asphalt, barely holding together parts of the disintegrating road. Then they drift onto the broken buckled sidewalks and up the sides of abandoned buildings. The polka dots are everywhere when I finally turn off the main street and onto the side road where Guyton's project is centered.
The project is difficult to describe. It consists of more than a dozen houses stretched over a block and a half, trees decorated with glass bottles of all colors, a painted school bus, piles of shoes and a makeshift playground. Some of the houses are occupied. Several are abandoned. All have been decorated by Guyton and his neighbors in highly unorthodox fashions. One home is carpeted with numbers, big and little, they come from gas station signs, clocks and broken street signs. Another is covered with dozens of words--Oklahoma, people, jury, white, love--and parts from vehicles: hub cabs, doors and steering wheels. A third is painted entirely in polka dots, some the size of a quarter and others bigger than a hula hoop.
Since its advent more than 30 years ago the Heidelberg Project has been a source of both controversy and pride in Detroit. Some people love it. Others hate it. Both mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer tried to destroy it. First Young, and then later Archer, sent in bulldozers to tear down some of the houses.
Whatever people think of Heidelberg, whether they call it piles of trash or brilliant art, there is no debating that its impact is visceral. When I walk through it I feel like I am entering a magic realm. This is certainly Guyton's intention. He said of it, "This block is a very special place. It is like magic-land."
Magic alters reality. It is not supernatural. Instead it is a word for the way in which we use our imagination and will power to change the world around us. When we have an idea for something and then bring that idea to fruition we are committing an act of magic.
Heidelberg is filled with magic. Through his vision, and by nurturing the creativity of others, Guyton's art has transformed a desolate landscape into something wholly new. And that transformation has been more than visual. In the blocks immediately around Heidelberg crime has dropped. The drug dealers have largely left and a greater sense of community has been built. Magic indeed.
There are two lessons that I take from Heidelberg. The first is that art and imagination can overcome ruin. The second is that generosity can be transformative. These lessons are intertwined for art often stems from the generous impulse to make the world more beautiful. That impulse can help us survive when our existence seems painful and ugly.
This is month is the month of our annual stewardship drive. Stewardship is tied to generosity. We want to be good stewards of what we have so that we can leave something behind for future generations. So, stewardship is partially about giving gifts to people we will never know.
We all have received such gifts. This congregation itself is a gift that previous generations gave us. This beautiful meeting house was built long before any of us were born. Much of the money to sustain the church comes from financial gifts to the endowment from members and friends who are no longer with us. If we are good stewards we will give the gift of this religious community to generations to come.
Such gifts can feel risky. They include the giving of part of the self to another. When we give our money, time and skills to a religious community we are giving part of our selves. With this act comes both the possibility of acceptance and rejection. What if our gifts are not enough or not appreciated? What if they are not wanted? How do we feel then?
Now, I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. One of the ways that I express my appreciation of and affection for people is by cooking them nice meals. But when I cook someone a meal there's always a little way in which I am haunted by the fear of rejection. If I make something fancy or unusual I worry that the people I am cooking for will be unhappy with it, despite all of the effort I put in. And every once in awhile, that is the case, and then I feel a little rejected.
In his meditation "Feeding and Being Fed" Robert Walsh reflects on the relationship between feeding others and generosity. He writes, "to feed [someone]-is to give life." There is no more generous act than the gift of life.
Later in his piece Walsh states, "The person who receives the gift of food gives a precious gift as well. It is the gift of trust, an affirmation of the life-giver." The trouble comes when we give a gift and automatically expect to receive one in return.
When it comes to cooking, my fear of rejection is foolish. The important thing is that I am trying to give a gift, trying to do something life sustaining. The outcome is less important than the intention. The giver, after all, cannot control the outcome. But the giver can set his or her intention. And that intention can be to give something that is life sustaining.
It is easy to forget this. Especially at stewardship time when people get anxious about their ability to give. It takes money and generosity to run a congregation. Everything that people give is appreciated. Whether it is a $2,000 pledge or some change in the collection plate every gift helps sustain the life of our religious community.
Just think about all of the gifts that go into a typical Sunday morning. Our worship is truly a collective effort. It requires many acts of generosity to create. Ward sets a friendly tone at the start of the service. Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft offer lively music. Our lay reader helps with the liturgy. And that is not mention all the people who contribute to our fellowship time after the service.
I am sure I am missing someone but that is not the point. The point is that we each give different gifts and that all of those gifts are important. Here I am reminded of a phrase popularized by the ever-controversial Karl Marx, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." We all have gifts to give. We all contribute to the larger whole.
In this way our religious community is not dissimilar to the Heidelberg Project. The project is supported by gifts large and small. The children in Guyton's neighborhood have no money. Yet they are able to give the gift of their imagination and their time when they paint polka dots and figures alongside Guyton. Other people give Heidelberg large financial gifts that allow Guyton to make his living as an artist, the project to employ a modest staff and the surrounding community to benefit from a community center for arts and education.
There are other parallels between Heidelberg and a liberal religious community like ours. The theologian Rebecca Parker identifies several tasks for Unitarian Universalist congregations. Two she lifts up are prophetic witness and the preservation of endangered knowledge. Parker defines a prophet this way, "A prophet is one who is able to name those places in our lives where we are resisting what needs to be known, closing our eyes to what is really happening, silencing what the world is telling us."
When we think of prophets we usually think of the ancient Hebrew figures who went around Judah and Israel in sackcloth and ashes proclaiming gloom and doom. Such prophets are not the only kind. The news of the world, even in troubled times like ours when school children shoot each other in school cafeterias and the President muses about becoming dictator for life, is not all bad. One of the truths that we can forget is that we surrounded by beauty.
This is the prophetic message of Guyton and the Heidelberg Project. His art transforms trash and desolation into unexpectedly magical objects. An abandoned toy is not just a worn-out piece of plastic. It is something that can be incorporated into an artistic vision.
In a Unitarian Universalist religious community, we say this not about found objects but about people instead. In his well-known sermon "Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven," Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the Universalist minister Gordan McKeeman who preached, "...Universalism came to be call 'The Gospel of God's Success,' the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty."
Mark asserts that this image, "the last sinner being dragged, by his collar... into heaven" communicates that ours is "a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal Salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not and cannot consign even a single human being to eternal damnation."
Guyton's art has a similar philosophy behind it. Each gift that is given is something that builds the Heidelberg Project and strengthens the community. Both the little gifts that children bring, and $50,000 foundation grants are essential to the continuing life of the community.
This truth is one of the pieces of endangered knowledge that I suspect that Rebecca Parker calls for religious communities like ours to preserve. Everyone is important. Everyone can give to sustain the life of the community.
At stewardship time the gifts we talk about are primarily financial gifts. This is not to say that other gifts are not important. It is just, as I said earlier, it takes money to run a congregation. This year we will be promoting the idea of fair share giving. Rather than asking people to give a specific amount we will be asking them to give a percentage of their income. In doing so, we are making a theological statement. That statement is that we appreciate the generous intention behind all gifts and recognize the gift of self that they contain. Hopefully that means that the givers of the gifts, experience an affirmation of the self as a result of their generosity.
If, for whatever, reason that affirmation is lacking generosity can still be transformative. It is the intention that matters most. Sometimes in this way we can become an inspiration for others.
Consider the story of Vedran Smailovic, better known as the cellist of Sarajevo. Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1992, there was a long line outside the door of one of the last bakeries in the city of Sarajevo that could still bake bread. At four o'clock in the afternoon a shell struck the bread line and killed twenty-two people.
Smailovic lived nearby and witnessed the event. Prior to the Balkan War he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. As Paul Sullivan wrote in Hope Magazine, "when he saw the carnage outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he could do best... Every day thereafter, at 4:00 p.m., Vedran Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked out of his apartment into the battle that raged around him. He placed a little stool in the blood-stained, glass splattered crater where the shell had landed, and every day, for twenty-two days, he played Albinoni's Agadio as tribute to the twenty-two dead. Snipers fired at him (they missed), mortar shells fell all around him, but he played music to the abandoned streets, the smashed trucks, the burning buildings, and to the terrified people still hiding in the cellars, who heard him..."
It would be hard to argue that the bullets that flew around Smailovic were affirmations of his music. And yet his act of bravery helped strengthen the legacy of beauty in the world. His actions have become part of an inspiring story that reminds others that we never know where acts of generosity will ultimately lead.
This brings me to a concluding point about generosity. It frequently stems from my gratitude. My own generosity is often inspired by the gifts that I have been given. I give to Unitarian Universalist institutions because of all of the gifts that our liberal faith has given me. And I cook for friends and family because I am grateful for all the gifts that I have been given.
In this way I am not so different from Guyton. His efforts in Heidelberg stem from his gratitude for all that his community has given him. He started the project with his grandfather as an art school drop-out. It was his way of saying thank you to the community for encouraging him in his art. And so that gratitude turned to generosity.
Generosity often begins with the spirit of this passage from e. e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
We give because of what we have received. We give as a way of saying thank you. We give seeking affirmation and we give risking our selves. Through the act of giving we say yes to beauty, yes to possibility, yes to life. So that may we all give generously I say, Amen and Blessed Be.
Jan 7, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 10, 2009
This morning I am going to talk about stewardship. Stewardship is the way in which we pass gifts from generation to generation. It is the act of preserving and maintaining the community so that the gifts that we receive from it might be available to future generations. Stewardship has four interrelated and interlocking aspects: love, money, values and tradition. The four facets of stewardship are related to each other and to our spiritual lives.
Money is the part of stewardship we talk about least often during our Sunday services. Love, values and tradition frequently appear in the Society's other sermons and services throughout the year. Money, however, generally only gets mentioned during the annual stewardship campaign. I suspect that this is because money often stands in tension with religion.
Money is, after all, one of the major ordering forces of the material world. For many of us it determines what kind home we have, what kind of food we eat, what type of clothes we wear and what forms of entertainment we can seek. Our society consistently broadcasts the message that an individual's self-worth is related to how much money he or she has.
Consumer culture has been built by trying to convince people that they will be happier if only the own certain products. Commercials promise happiness by offering us younger skin, new cars, trendier clothes, exciting food and better homes. The message is always clear. Transformation and personal fulfillment are possible through the consumption of products. What we have defines who we are.
Religion usually posits one of two oppositional messages to this gospel of consumerism. Religious communities suggest that we are either defined by what we believe or what we do. What we have is secondary to who we are. Anyone, regardless of their material possessions, can be a member of a religious community. In fact, someone's material possessions can stand in the way of their ability to participate in a religious community.
There are plenty of stories about how those with few material possessions and little money have a better chance at having a rich spiritual life. Many of you are probably familiar with a story called the rich young man found in the Christian tradition.
Once when Jesus was sitting with his disciples a rich young man came up to him and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied that in order to have eternal life all the young man had to do was keep the commandments. He should refrain from murder. He should not steal or commit adultery. He should love his neighbor as himself.
The young man was not satisfied with this answer and so he asked Jesus "I have kept all the commandments what do I still lack?" Jesus replied "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor..."
The young man was shocked and retreated in confusion. Jesus told his disciples "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God."
This story suggests that to be a member of Jesus's community you had to eschew material goods. They actually prevented one from being a full member of the community. Jesus favored the poor and the outcast more than he favored the wealthy or even the middle class.
Christianity is not the only religion to suggest that there is a tension between the material and the spiritual world. There is a Taoist story, for example, about the encounter between a Taoist gardener and a disciple of Confucius named Zi-gong.
One day Zi-gong was traveling through the country side when he saw an old man digging a ditch to connect a vegetable garden with a well. Slowly and painstakingly the gardener would draw a bucket of water from the well and pour it into the ditch.
Zi-gong approached him and said, "You know, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden faster and with less effort. Wouldn't you like that?"
"What type of contraption?" the gardener asked.
"It's called a well sweep. It is really just a wooden lever that is light in back and heavy in front. You pull on it and it allows you to draw water from the well in a steady flowing stream," Zi-gong replied.
The gardener was not impressed. In fact, he started to laugh at Zi-gong. Then he said to Zi-gong, "My teacher says that those with tricky tools have tricky business affairs. Those with tricky business affairs have trickery in their hearts. Those with trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure. Without purity they will have restless spirits and for them Dao cannot exist. I would be ashamed to use the sort of tricky tool you suggest."
In this story there is a clear scorn for material things. What is simplest is best. Any tool more complex than the most basic one might get in the way of an individual's spiritual life. To be a member of the gardener's spiritual community one must seek simplicity and avoid significant entanglements with the material world.
There is a certain usefulness and richness to such teachings. Our material lives should not define us. When we enter into a religious community or embark upon a spiritual path what we own and how much money we make should not limit us or even be particularly relevant.
Yet our physical beings and our communities are located in the material world. It is true that when we focus too much on money and material things our spiritual lives can be distorted. It is equally true that if we do not focus on the material world enough our spiritual lives will become distorted.
We Unitarian Universalists should be particularly cognizant of this. Unlike a lot of religious traditions most Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical about a realm of pure spirit. The contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka, for example, argues that we can best understand our human nature by understanding our physiology. While we might have religious lives and spiritual experiences those lives and experiences are, for a large part, shaped by the material world we inhabit. Neglecting the material world can mean that we neglect the realm of the spirit. Our spiritual experiences are shaped by that material world.
"The Magic Penny" is a story that illustrates the connection between the material and spiritual realms. The story suggests that the more we give to others the more, in turn, we receive. You might remember it from the folk song by the same name.
A long time ago, a little girl found a magic penny. She and her family were poor and so she was delighted to have found some money for her own. She thought that, perhaps, she could buy herself a piece of penny candy.
That afternoon when she got home she was excited and told her father about what she had found. She told him that she was hoping to buy a lollypop. That evening her dad had to ask her for the penny. They were almost out of food and he needed the penny to buy a bag of beans so that everyone in the family could have something to eat. He told her he would repay her as soon as he could.
The little girl was crestfallen but she gave her father the penny and, filled with sorrow, went to bed. The next morning she woke-up and under her pillow were two pennies. She told her father and thanked him for giving her two pennies. He said that he didn't know where they came from.
Later that day she went to the candy store and bought her little brother a piece of candy. The next morning she discovered that her pennies had multiplied again. She continued to lend out her pennies or spend them on gifts for others. With each gift given or loan made her pennies came back to her, more than before.
After awhile she started to horde her pennies. Within a few days she noticed that her pile was decreasing in size. Every day that she went without lending out a penny or using a penny to buy a gift for someone her pile would get a little smaller.
The folk song compares the magic penny to love. The chorus and first verse of the song read:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.
Love is like the magic penny because the more love we give the more we receive. If we hold ourselves in, are afraid to engage with others, and fail to share we will end up alone and unloved. It is only by loving others and seeking love that we can find it.
The song and the story capture the spirit of congregational stewardship perfectly. The more you give the more you receive. And stewardship is not just about giving money. It is about sharing our love, our values and passing along our tradition. The song reflects this. It is part of our tradition. It was written by Malvina Reynolds, a Unitarian Universalist folk singer who lived in Berkeley, California.
I first heard the song not as child but as an adult when I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Even though she died in the late 1970s Reynolds was still a presence within that congregation's life. People sang her songs and her family--Unitarian Universalists who attended other congregations in the Bay Area--came to do a program about her every few years.
The song was created by Reynolds as an expression of her love for her daughter Nancy. It is one way that Reynolds passed her love and her values down to the next generation. So, not only does the song provide a nice metaphor for stewardship it actually reflects the practice. Stewardship is not just about money. It is about how we pass along and share what is most important to us.
Passing along gifts between generations was a topic this past week in the Unitarian Universalist parenting group that Sara and I facilitate. As part of the class we the read the poem by Antoine de St. Exupery "Generation to Generation." The poem is about how values are passed from one generation to the next. It ends with the lines: "We live, not by things, but by the meanings / of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords / from generation to generation."
After reading the poem participants took a little time to reflect upon and share the passwords that had been handed down to them from a previous generation. Passwords help us gain entrance into secret or closed places. In the sense of the poem they are the keys that unlock our identities. They help us define who we are and what means to be a member of particular community or family.
In the class, people shared words like justice, spirit or love. These were often key concepts that had ordered their lives. Such things are worth sharing with the following generations.
The conversation was about being stewards of our religious and familial values. As members of families and a religious community we are inheritors of traditions. It falls upon us to continue those traditions.
Stewardship is the act of preserving and nurturing the tradition for those who will come next. You may not know but anyone sitting in this room is the beneficiary of the stewardship of previous generations.
Those previous generations were filled with love. They proclaimed that all of humanity is worthy of God's love and wanted to share that message with others. They believed that love was transformative and that one of the purposes of religious community was to teach us to love better.
They sought to nurture a tradition that expressed and articulated that love. A tradition that provided an alternative to more orthodox religious movements that taught that the love of God and the humanity community are both limited.
This tradition and that love gave them the values to proclaim that women and men should have equal rights, that people of all colors and creeds are full members of the human and that sexual orientation should not limit one's right to have a partner or a family. This love and tradition called them to create a religious community where there is room for many different beliefs so that we might have a congregation which includes atheists, pagans, theists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people with other religious understandings.
And in order to share their love, nurture their tradition and spread their values they gave time and money to support Unitarian Universalism. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a place to worship on Sunday. Without them we would not be able to broadcast the message that all of humanity is one family and that everyone is welcome--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or other human divisor--in our community. Without that dedication and sacrifice we would not have a community from which to reach out to refugees, advocate for peace, emphasize the importance of our connection to the natural world, speak out in favor of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and work for justice.
Think of all of these gifts you have received. Surely they are worth nurturing and passing down to the next generation. One of the ways we pass these gifts down is through the act of financial giving. It is just one part of stewardship but it is an important part.The money that we give to our Unitarian Universalist congregation is an expression of the love we have for each other, the tradition we hold sacred and the values that we seek to promote. Giving money to the congregation sustains it and allows us to continue spreading and sharing our tradition of love.
This year as we launch our annual canvass we are trying something new. We are shifting to something called fair share giving. With fair share giving each person or family is asked to give a percentage of their income, rather than a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving allows you to self-identify how important this congregation and Unitarian Universalism are to your life. You can call yourself a supporter and give 3% of your income, a sustainer and give 4%, a visionary and give 5% or offer a full tithe of 10%. The goal of fair share giving is to have everyone give a meaningful amount rather than raise a specific dollar amount. Fair share giving recognizes that everyone's circumstances and different and that for some even giving at the 3% level can be a stretch. The hope is even if you cannot make a commitment to fair sharing this year you might be able to work towards it next year.
Fair share giving is like the magic penny. In the end it is not the amount that is given that is not as important as the commitment. If everyone gives their fair share we will have more than enough for all of the congregation's needs and ministries.
John Wolf said, "There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin or sexual orientation."
I hope that agree that this congregation and this tradition are worth supporting. If you do I am certain you will receive more than you give and find, like the magic penny, your love and your pledge multiplied many times over.
May be it so. Amen.