Jun 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019
Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.
Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.
Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”
“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.
Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.
This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”
What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.
As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.
Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.
In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.
The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.
Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.
Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.
Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.
This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.
I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.
When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.
One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.
YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.
My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.
What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.
We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”
Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day
Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”
And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.
These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.
A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?
In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.
Dec 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018
It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings--not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.
Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.
Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans--products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup... And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.
This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is--it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust--it creates a tender bite.
The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.
It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.
These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels--ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.
I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.
Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”
This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.
This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”
All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.
Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest... And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency--the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.
The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”
Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it--to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.
I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.
This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker.
One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position... [they] had held when... [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”
Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.
The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.
Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.
The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”
It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height
Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.
And now, let the congregation say Amen.
May 15, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, April 29, 2018
Today is bring a friend Sunday. I would like to begin my sermon by extending a special welcome to the guests who are visiting today. I know that visiting a strange religious community--even at the invitation of a friend--can be intimidating. It is hard to know exactly what to expect. I imagine that can be especially true when visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Unitarian Universalism is not a large religious movement. It might seem similar to Protestant Christianity but it is very much its own thing.
Our tradition has deep roots in New England. Here in Ashby, the First Parish Church is thus named precisely because it was the first parish in the town, founded at the same time as the community itself. It was not exactly Unitarian Universalist at the time. Unitarian Universalism as it exists today came about from the merger of two historic Protestant denominations. First Parish was a member of one of them. This congregation historically was Unitarian. The Unitarians believed in the universality of the human family, the power of reason to progressively perfect character, and the humanity of Jesus. The Universalists took a somewhat humbler approach. Instead of lauding human potential, they rejected the Christian idea that God damned sinners to eternal torment. They asserted that a loving God would not damn any of her creations to Hell. One Unitarian minister joked about the two denominations, “The Unitarians believed that they were too good to damn. The Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them.”
Today, drawing on both of these traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, non-creedal, post-Christian religious movement. We are covenantal because in our congregations we make agreements about what we expect from each other as members of a community. This congregation reads its covenant every Sunday. We recited it a little bit earlier. It runs:
We gather to build community, because we know that people need to give and receive love.
We gather to worship, because we hunger for the sacred.
We gather to dedicate ourselves to service, because service is
the active expression of our beliefs and talents.
We gather to celebrate the power and wonder of Mystery.
This covenant suggests that if you are a member here you are expected to work to build community, to take part in worship, to serve the congregation and the wider world, and to celebrate the mystery that lies at the heart of existence.
That last point touches on the non-creedal aspect of our tradition. Our covenant does not require you to hold a particular theological position to participate in a Unitarian Universalist community. You can describe the Mystery as God. Or, if you are an atheist, name it as the marvels of the laws of physics. Alternatively, you can approach it through Buddhist practice or neo-paganism. If you are of Jewish heritage, as I am, you might observe holidays like Passover or Hanukkah. It less important what spiritual path you pursue than it is that you choose to pursue one.
The final words I used to describe Unitarian Universalism were post-Christian. They acknowledge that while Unitarian Universalism came out of Christianity it is no longer explicitly Christian. You can be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. You can also not be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalism retains many of the forms of practice of Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity. We gather for worship on Sunday mornings. We sing hymns. We preach and listen to sermons. We ask for an offering to sustain the life and work of the congregation. We pray.
So, if today is your first time here and you are wondering what the heck this is all about, I hope that my explanation of Unitarian Universalism has been helpful. Please feel free to come talk with me after the service if you have any questions or just to introduce yourself.
The title of today’s sermon is “A Place to Grow Our Souls.” The title is inspired by the life and writing of the late Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee was a Detroiter. She died a couple of years ago at just past the age of one hundred. She was a remarkable woman whose life and activism spanned much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first-century. Born in the middle of World War I, she was one of the first women of color to earn a PhD in philosophy. She was by turns a socialist, a labor activist, a leader in the Northern civil rights movement, and a supporter of the Black Power movement. At the end of her life she was also someone who believed that if the human species is to survive we all, each of us, need to undergo a great moral awakening and transformation. It is that last of aspect Grace Lee’s life that I want to dwell on this morning, the idea that, in her words, “Each of us needs undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation.” This work of transformation is not work that we can achieve individually. It is a collective project, one that is best pursued as part of a community. A Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one is a pretty good place to engage in the difficult work of transformation.
Most days when I turn on the radio, open a magazine, or make the mistake of glancing at my social media feed, it seems like we as a human species and as a country are in the midst of a series of great crises. The climate is warming. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. There is a dramatic epidemic of gun violence. There is a dramatic epidemic of opioid abuse. Economic inequality is rising. Democratic institutions and norms are declining. White supremacy is resurgent. Sexual violence is rampant. I feel exhausted just reciting this list. And it is incomplete. What about you? Do you find the news of the world overwhelming? At this moment in human history it is easy to feel hopeless, alone, powerless, and isolated in despair. And, indeed, in our increasingly atomized society more people feel alone today than ever before. Family ties have frayed. Friendships are harder to make as many of us retreat from public activities. As Grace Lee wrote, “These are the times that try our souls.”
Grace Lee was, as I mentioned earlier, a Detroiter. Now, I am from Michigan and I have a particular affinity for Detroit. Have you been there? It is like nothing in New England. Over the last seventy years it has steadily lost population as a combination of white flight and deindustrialization have hollowed out large segments of the city. In 1950 there were close to two million people living in Detroit. Today there are less than seven hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the city’s economic base has collapsed. One out of every three residents lives in poverty. There are whole neighborhoods that have essentially been abandoned. You can see blocks upon blocks of collapsing red brick apartment buildings and burned out single family homes. You can even find deserted factory complexes. I suspect words might not capture the scale of the devastation.
Maybe it would help to describe one site, the Packard Plant. An automobile factory built in the early twentieth century, it is a mass of concrete, steel, and brick. The windows are all broken out. In the winter, snow drifts and ice invade the buildings. In the summer, the sun comes inside. Vegetation is everywhere. There are trees, and not small ones, growing on the roof. In the month of May the former parking lots are filled with the weed flowers of spring. Roots from dandelions, myrtle, milkweed, and garlic mustard, all break down old asphalt. The buildings themselves are cavernous. Walking through them can feel like walking through ancient caves--some of the concrete has even degenerated in stalactites. It can also feel like traveling through the remains of an ancient civilization, a sensation made all the more palpable after the Packard was plundered for its copper and anything else of value that could be pried loose. This whole site is almost twice the size of the Harvard yard. If we brought it to Ashby it would enclose the Common and stretch down to about the elementary school in one direction and Glenwood Cemetery in another.
Some years ago, someone on the radio show The American Life described the city this way, “Whatever civilization is, Detroit is what comes after.” I tell you all this because I want you to understand a little about the place that Grace Lee spent most of her life and to give you a feel for the crises which surrounded her. The neighborhood Grace Lee lived in is not far from the Packard Plant. And near her house are several buildings that had been partially burned out and left to rot. There are also some vacant lots that have turned to what can only be described as urban prairie--large spaces were native plants and wildlife are returning.
Thinking of Detroit and Grace Lee, I am reminded of the work of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker. She encourages us to imagine that we live after the apocalypse. The great catastrophe has already happened. The world has, in some way, already ended. She reminds us: “We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and meaningless war mark our bodies.” And she asks, “How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?”
Like Parker, Grace Lee was someone who recognized that we live after the apocalypse. She once wrote, “there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land.” Our task is to grow our souls knowing that there will never be a perfect world, that human struggle might be endless, that whatever victories we achieve will only lay the ground for further struggle. The philosophical and spiritual awakening that we need is one that recognizes that whatever successes we have in our efforts to build a better world will only be partial victories.
And yet, this is not cause for despair. It is reason to continue because every ending brings with it the possibility of another beginning. Grace Lee moved to Detroit in the early 1950s as part of an effort to radicalize autoworkers. Automation, global competition, and outsourcing decimated Detroit’s industrial workforce and cityscape, Grace Lee realized that the work ahead was different than she had imagined. Urban decline created the space for new forms of community to blossom.
And so, in the midst of desolation she began to dream of what might come after the collapse of a city, in the spaces abandoned by capitalism. She became a pioneer in the urban gardening movement claiming, “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living--ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.” She saw the city as a place where people might begin to pursue a new way of living and she helped to organize hundreds, or maybe thousands, of urban gardens throughout the city. Taking inspiration from a network of black farmers, she told people, “we cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” And the urban gardens that she helped to start in many cases became places of renewal, where community began to come back, and flowers and vegetables grew on what had once been crumbling concrete.
When I lived in Cleveland some members of the congregation and I looked to Grace Lee and her work in Detroit as an inspiration. We started a community garden on the church’s grounds and experienced a small revitalization in the local neighborhood. We got to know people who we would have never met otherwise. My favorite may have been Esther, a Filipino woman then in her sixties who had immigrated to the United States only a few years prior. She had been a peasant farmer her in native country. And she brought her farming traditions to our urban garden--constructing out of the sticks and cast-off bits of metal she found an elaborate lattice on which to grow a multilayered cornucopia of beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs. Somehow out of her two eight by four plots in the garden she was able to grow almost enough food to live on for the year.
Esther and her vegetables, our community garden in Cleveland, the work of Grace Lee, point to the lesson that I am trying to offer. Every space contains the possibility of revitalization. The times may be difficult but if we think creatively, open ourselves to possibility, we can grow our souls. A desolate urban landscape does not have to be a symbol of collapse. It contains new ways of organizing ourselves or new possibilities for growing communities.
We can find similar possibilities wherever we live. And one of the best ways to find those possibilities is to be part of a liberal religious congregation like this one. The non-creedal and covenantal nature of our tradition means that we can flexibly open ourselves to collaboration and service with others. It also means that we understand that the work of growing our souls or undergoing a philosophical and spiritual transformation is not merely an activity for quiet contemplation. It might begin with the ability to see new possibilities in existing spaces, but it is best expressed through action. And that action is something that we do collectively. We need not be a large group to take collective action. Even a small congregation like First Parish Ashby can make a difference and help us to grow our souls. The Earth Day clean-up and the local organizing that the congregation did for March for Our Lives are great examples of this.
Grace Lee knew this. She was not a Unitarian Universalist. And yet, she could be described as a fellow traveler. She had a close relationship with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit. The funeral of her husband was held there and for many years she used it as an organizing site. She even mentioned it in her final book. That congregation, it is worth telling you, is not a large one. It has declined significantly in membership as the city has declined. And yet, it continues to make a difference, to be a place where people can grow their souls by creatively serving the community.
The times may be challenging. We may find ourselves often on the edge of despair. And yet, these are the times to grow our souls. And this is a good place to do it, by working together to imagine how our world and this town can be different. We can undergo a spiritual and philosophical transformation if we are willing to see the possibilities that open themselves after catastrophes, to seek, together, the hope that can follow despair.
May it be so, blessed be, and Amen.
Apr 11, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, April 8, 2018
I am grateful for the invitation to fill your pulpit this morning as we pause to reflect upon and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Your minister, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, is a dear friend of mine. She is someone who I knew before she entered seminary. And so, it is a special privilege to be able preach from the pulpit she regularly graces. It is also a particular privilege to be in Philadelphia. My parents are from the civil rights generation. They met here while my mother was a teacher at Kenderton School in North Philly. And I grew up with stories about their involvement in civil rights efforts here, their participation in the teacher's union, and their connections to your city's vibrant arts community. So, in some sense, even though I have never lived in Philadelphia, this city's movements for justice have deeply shaped who I am and my commitments to antiracism and the labor movement.
This week many good-hearted people have paused to honor Dr. King. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, took three days out of her busy schedule to travel down to Memphis, Tennessee so that she could be present with the religious leaders, civil rights veterans, union organizers, and ordinary dreamers of peace and justice who gathered together to remember Dr. King on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. In order to be in Memphis, the Rev. Frederick-Gray turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, DC to participate in the remembrances organized by the National Council of Churches. I think her choice could be interpreted as a statement about the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Our fate as Unitarian Universalists is tied to those who dare to imagine that a world filled with peace and justice is possible. Dr. King taught that if we were not going to perish together as fools we need to dream of and then create a world where the psychic toxins of white supremacy have been purged from this nation and the globe, a world where we have set aside our gross materialism to live in sustainable harmony with our muddy blue ball of a planet, and a world where revolutionary love, rather than stultifying violence, is used to mediate our conflicts and solve our problems. Our collective fate as religious liberals is far more bound up with the fates of the visionaries who dream of such a world than it is with the fates of the mainline denominations or the moderate mainstream of American culture. This why Dr. King considered us friends and once referred to our tradition as "so near and dear" to him. It is why he often visited Arlington Street Church when he was a student in Boston. And it is why he took time on two occasions to directly speak to us as Unitarian Universalists and share with us what he hoped from our movement. He hoped "the church... [would remain] awake during a great revolution."
Now all of that should enough of what a Baptist minister friend of mine calls "throat clearing." I would, however, be remiss if I failed to extend a final note of gratitude to your guest music director, Nate, to Benjamin, who prepared the order of service, and, of course, to Anne. Working with each of them has been a reminder that while I may prepare my sermon alone worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
The title of today's sermon is "The Most Notorious Liar in America." Have you heard these words before? They are a phrase the director of the FBI used to describe Dr. King in 1964. I have chosen this phrase as the title of my sermon for two reasons. First, they are a reminder that Martin King was not always lauded during his lifetime. In his later years, as he turned from working to end segregation to critiquing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, he became increasing unpopular. In 1966 more than two thirds of Americans disapproved of him. That same year, 85 percent of white people said that the civil rights movement hurt African Americans more than it helped them. After he died some 31 percent of whites thought that King brought his assassination on himself. In the last fifty years the earthly powers and principalities have gone from calling him "the most notorious liar in America" to whitewashing him. In the imaginations of many he has become not that the man who told us "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society" but the man who dreamed only "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently observed, "America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages." In his transformation from marcher to martyr Martin King underwent the transmutation from maladjusted prophet to co-opted saint of the status quo.
Second, I choose the FBI director's words because Martin King was not the most notorious liar in America. He was this country's greatest truth teller. He told the truth about racism. It diminishes us all. As he said, "all life is interrelated, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you out to be until I am what I ought to be." He told the truth about militarism. He knew, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." He told the truth about poverty. He reminded us that we lived among "economic conditions... [that] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few..." He told the truth about the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who say that they are for justice but loathe marchers and celebrate martyrs. He said, "I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities than the truth. Their power is rooted in lies. It is watered by falsehoods. It is grounded in fabrications.
We live in era of fake news. We live at a time when the President of the United States could be described as the liar-in-chief. In his first six months in office he told six times as many lies as the previous President told in eight years. The current President lies about migrants. He lies about people of color. He lies about poverty. He lies about women. He lies about climate change. He staffs his administration with liars who lie for him and tell us that violence will bring peace, that trade wars will bring prosperity, that isolation is better than interconnection...
The words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were made for our time:
Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees
and who write unjust judgments which they have prescribed
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to take away the right from the poor of My people,
that widows may be their prey,
and that they may rob the fatherless!"
We can imagine that Isaiah was named the most notorious liar in Judah. The world's powers and principalities have feared the truth for as long as the prophets have spoken it. Perhaps that is why we are reminded in the Gospel of John, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." During his brief thirty-nine years Dr. King gave us the truth that could shatter the lies of those who keep the human family divided, of those who profit from what he named as the triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism, of those who peddle fake news and climate change denial, of those who exploit women and push transphobia and homophobia. That truth is, "We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." The language may be gender limited but the core insight he offered shines through all the same, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. Today, fifty years after Martin King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the truth does not just threaten to disrupt the worldly powers and principalities. The truth remains challenging for many good-hearted people to hear. The truth threatens the comfort of those of who Dr. King called "the white moderate."
Some years I was reminded of just how difficult truth can be for the white moderate. I was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in suburban Boston. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. I took for my text Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." On that Sunday we read the passage where Dr. King takes moderates to task for being conflict adverse for, as he put it, preferring a "negative peace... [with] the absence of tension to a positive peace... [with] the presence of justice."
Now, I admit I was angry. But as the bumper sticker tell us, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." I was upset about living in a society where Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Stephon Clark have all died violent deaths. I was mad about living in a country where, in 2017, 1,193 people were killed by the police. That is five times the number of people who lynched at the height of lynching. I was irate about a country where the median wealth of a white family is seven times that of a black family and five times that of a Latinx family; where the unemployment and poverty rates of most people of color are two to three times those of whites; and where African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
It was near the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. I might have been injudicious with my words. I praised the brave prophetic protestors. I called the police killing of an unarmed man like Stephon Clark a murder. And I celebrated a group of activists who, to support Black Lives Matter, had done what Dr. King had frequently done. They had committed civil disobedience to draw attention to the systematic racism that festers at the heart of American society. They had occupied a major highway for several hours and blocked traffic from flowing into Boston.
Would you like to know what happened after the service? I was not greeted with the normal courtesies extended to the guest preacher. Instead, someone told me how upset they were that I describe the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police as murders. They wanted to know how I could have the knowledge that juries lacked when they acquit police officers after they kill people. That is a perspective that assumes that justice in America is race blind. And yet, we know, that it is anything but race blind.
Another group cornered me to share how much they disapproved of the protestors blocking the highway. They had been inconvenienced on their commutes. They failed to see how that civil disobedience was effective to the cause of racial justice. And they thought that as a minister I should criticize such activists rather than praise them. The next day I received an email from my ministerial colleague who had invited me to preach at the congregation, disinviting me from preaching there in the future.
I share this story not to turn myself into some sort of hero. Perhaps you agree with my colleague and their congregants. If so, that is fine. Disagreement is sometimes necessary for dialogue. But know this, I offer the story as an example of the ways we Unitarian Universalists can find the truth about racism in this country upsetting. It can be hard to recognize the truth that fifty years after the murder of Dr. King this country remains as racially unequal as ever. It can be even harder to realize that many of us have benefitted and participated from the systems perpetuate such racial disparity. And it can terrifying to recognize that changing such systems requires all of us to be maladjusted to the status quo and, for some of us, to risk losing our comforts.
The most notorious liar in America... Dr. King understood that the truth could be terrifying, upsetting, and dangerous. And yet, he gave his life to speak that truth. He shared that truth with us Unitarian Universalists on two occasions. The second time was in 1966, a text from which we have already read. The first time was in 1964 when he delivered a eulogy for the Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian Universalist minister beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama because he marched for civil rights.
In eulogizing Reeb, Martin King urged us not ask the question: "Who killed James Reeb?" Instead, he encouraged us to ask, "What killed James Reeb." And he observed, "When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
Dr. King gave a true answer to his rhetorical question. And it was an answer that all of us might find challenging. He said, and I apologize for the dated racial language:
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every… [black person] who tacitly accepts the evil systems of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
Martin King wanted us to know that James Reeb was, in some sense, killed by all of us. The same might be said of Dr. King himself. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger but there is a larger truth. That larger truth is terrifying. Dr. King he died because this country hates marchers but loves martyrs. Dr. King died because this country was built upon the systematic exploitation of people with black and brown bodies. Dr. King died because he threatened the standing racial order. Dr. King died because someone who spoke the truth to the worldly powers and principalities could be labelled the most notorious liar in America.
In the last two years several prominent leaders of Black Lives Matter have died. Muhiyidin Moye was shot in New Orleans. His murderers remain at large. Erica Garner suffered a fatal heart attack. It was brought on by the stress of trying to achieve justice for her father Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City police. Shall we not say that these modern prophets were killed by the same system that killed Dr. King? As Erica Garner said before she died, "People are dying. This is real."
Facing the truth that the same system that killed Dr. King remains with us today is difficult. I choose as one of our hymns "We Shall Overcome" to try to point us to a different truth, that we shall eventually transform this system, defeat the evil triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, and live together in peace. But today, I have to admit, that fifty years after Martin King's death I am not so certain. What about you? Do you believe deep in your heart that we shall overcome? Or is the hope found in the song actually a lie? What do you think?
The most notorious liar in America... Is the actual lie that there will be victory over the systems that oppress us all? Perhaps, militarism, racism, and poverty will endure forever. Was it not Jesus who said, "The poor you will always have with you." Maybe that is the truth.
But if it is, surely it must lie alongside another truth, a truth that I have not yet mentioned, the truth that was at the core of Dr. King's life, the truth that made him so dangerous to the earthly powers and principalities. That truth is that the most powerful force in the world, the most powerful force for justice, is and has always been love. Dr. King told us this love "is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all… an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, [they love]… a person who does evil while hating the deed."
Speaking the truth is terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities. Living the truth of love is even more threatening to them. I was reminded of this just recently when I received a letter from my friend Keith "Malik" Washington. Malik is a prison abolitionist. He believes that the prison system in the United States is a new form of slavery. And he wants to abolish it, just as we abolished chattel slavery.
Malik is one of the bravest people I know. He was one of the organizers of 2016 prison strikes that spread across the country. As many as 60,000 prisoners refused to work in protest to their subhuman conditions. It was one of the largest prison strikes in the history of this country. In retaliation for his role in organizing the strike Malik has been placed in the hole, which is to say in solitary confinement, in a jail in Texas. He has sent me letters describing the awful state of his cell, the brutality of the guards, and the, sometimes fatal, plight of his fellow prisoners.
In his most recent letter Malik was reflecting on the legacy of Martin King. He wrote about "the prevalent psyche in Amerikan society." It is that "Prisoners are bad not deserving of attention or love. Prisoners who are subhumans who deserve what they get!" He asked, "So how do we combat this Colin? We combat it with love! We humanize prisoners as much as we can in the public eye!" And then he made what seemed a remarkable statement, "I get angry and frustrated at times--but I have discovered that love is the best weapon I can have in my arsenal." This from a man who regularly suffers what I can only describe as torture. No wonder love is so threatening to the earthly powers and principalities.
You know, in the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday of Easter. And Malik's letter has had me thinking a bit about a truth that relates to Dr. King. That truth is that the love of Dr. King lives on. It is something that we must resurrect in ourselves this morning. If we are to ever overcome, if we are not turn Martin King into the most notorious liar in America, we need to resurrect the love that he taught in our hearts, just as Malik has done.
And Malik's love speaks to yet another truth, the final truth I want to share with you this morning. While Martin King was this country's most articulate purveyor of truth and love, he was not the only one. We risk turning him from a marcher to a martyr if we hold him as the sole example of someone who lived a life dedicated to acting with love and speaking truth. He was part of a movement, a movement that included numerous other brave prophets who struggled for justice. When we honor Dr. King we sometimes elide them. And so, I want to close, not with Dr. King's words but the words of three women who were the backbone of the civil rights generation. Without them there would have been no movement. Without the movement there would have been no Martin King.
Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Coretta Scott King:
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others find unnamable,
be with us this morning,
and every morning,
as we strive towards the truth,
as we learn to love,
so that someday,
in Martin King's words:
"we can sing 'We Shall Overcome'
because somehow we know the arc of moral universe
is long but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right:
'No lie can live forever.'
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right:
'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.'"
Let us have faith
that we shall overcome
not because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the most notorious liar in America
but because he was this country's greatest truth teller
and his truth
and his love can live in all of us.
Let the congregation say "Amen."
Jan 6, 2018
I have been invited to give the 2019 Spring Minns Lectures. The Minns lectures are an annual lecture series in Boston that date to 1942. They are designed to be “an innovative force in Unitarian Universalist thought.” In recent years, lecturers have included: the author of Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, Mark Morrison-Reed; the President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rosemary Bray McNatt; best-selling author Kate Braestrup; and past Presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens and William Sinkford. James Luther Adams and George Huntston Williams, professors at Harvard Divinity School and the towering figures in Unitarian, and later Unitarian Universalist, theology in the mid-twentieth-century. The 2018 Autumn lecturer will be Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College.
My lectures are tentatively titled “American Populism and Unitarian Universalism.” Here is their two paragraph summary:
This three-part lecture series is organized around the question: How should Unitarian Universalists respond to populism? In recent years, populist movements have been on the rise in the United States and throughout the globe. Apocalyptic in outlook, dividing the world into a righteous people and a corrupt elite, and often organized around solidarities of nation and race, there is much about populism that makes most Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Yet in its left-wing forms populism can also be a socially regenerative force, pushing institutions to be more accountable to the many rather than the few. What can Unitarian Universalists learn from populism? How does populism relate to liberalism and progressivism—political traditions with which many Unitarian Universalists are more comfortable? Is populism a force that can be used to build a broad religious left? Or does it contain flaws that doom populist movements to create greater social division?
This lecture series aims to provide Unitarian Universalists with some of the analytical and historical tools necessary to foster more effective social engagement. It will begin by examining the social and theological roots of populism before turning to two case studies. The first will explore the tensions between Francis Greenwood Peabody and late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century populists. The second will focus on the relationship between the Pan-African populist leader Marcus Garvey and the black liberal religionists and humanists affiliated with Egbert Ethelred Brown’s Harlem Unitarian Church. The series will conclude with reflections on how Unitarian Universalists are being called to act during a time when white right-wing populism is a dominant force in American politics.
Jun 21, 2017
I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal:
This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.
After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?
The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.
Jan 25, 2017
My preaching date at Bell St. Chapel in Providence, RI has been changed. I am now leading worship there on Feb. 26. Here's the service blurb:
The Great Family of All Souls
William Ellery Channing’s claim “I am a living member of the great family of all souls” is central to our Unitarian Universalist theology. In this service, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist today and how Channing’s words are both a call for us to be our most authentic selves and be compassionate to those around us.
Jun 1, 2016
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, May 30, 2016
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Starr King School for the Ministry on the challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. Starr King is, as you know, one of the two explicitly Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the United States. Located in Berkley, California, it is a center for training both future ministers and social justice activists. Over the last few decades it has been at the forefront of theological education by serving as a multi-religious training ground. In addition to training Unitarian Universalists, it has a commitment to training liberal Islamic religious leaders.
Since, I am a both a historian and a theologian I opened my talk at Starr King with nod to the past as a way of setting us on the path to the future. I gave them the same reading we just had, Mark Belletini’s “Reading for the Day.” Belletini is a Starr King graduate and he has been a transformative figure for liberal religion. He was the first openly gay man called to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He is grounded in a multi-religious practice. Raised a Catholic, he has been profoundly influenced by Jewish liturgy and Islamic poetry. He channels the sacred through the fine arts and the human art of connection. He is devoted to teaching and cultivating the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It is a tradition which, in the words of Marilyn Sewell, teaches “that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth.”
Mark retired this past year. In many ways, his forty year ministry has been a testament to why Unitarian Universalism was able to grow steadily over the last several decades. For the majority of the later half of the twentieth-century we have been at the forefront of proclaiming that our religious communities are open to everyone. For a long time we were one of the few places where people who not heterosexual could bring their whole selves to worship. At a time of rising interest in religions other than Christianity, we have since the middle of the nineteenth century affirmed that there are multiple paths to the divine.
Today, Unitarian Universalism is at a turning point. While we grew in numbers steadily between 1980 and 2012 for the last few years our membership growth has either been stagnant or slightly declining. What I am going to do this morning is lay out three interrelated challenges that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. I am going to interweave these challenges with autobiographical illustrations and some cursory reflections on how we might meet those challenges.
Before I continue let me say that each of these challenges takes place within the framework of what we could call the great challenge. The great challenge is the question of whether or not we as a society and a human species will be able to manage the ecological catastrophe that we have created. This catastrophe emerges from our economic system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism, the wealth of the world has been built off a dual exploitation. The raw resources of the planet--magnificent forests of pin straight pine and whale large redwoods, pitch coal, or tarry oil--are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the basis of mostly white wealth. To confront the great challenge of our rising ecological catastrophe we will have to confront the system that has created it. This means, as Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker would have it, that we have to learn to live after the apocalypse. There are great catastrophes behind us and there may be great ones ahead of us. We need to learn with the present resources at hand, as Parker says, we need to engage in “salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” All this, however, is something of another sermon. So, rather than focusing on the great challenge this morning, let us instead focus on some particular challenges that face our faith.
As an introduction to each challenge, a verse from Mark’s poem: “You are alive, here and now. / Love boldly and always tell the truth.”
I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling old buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:
Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”
Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape offer two important lessons. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?
We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, on Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary, just past the mid-point of spring. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time… no longer constrained by fears that us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”
We live in a period of ever increasing modes of religiosity. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. These two observations present the first challenge that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. Traditional religious institutions have to re-imagine themselves to remain culturally relevant. We all know this. For those who care about congregational life, the statistics are grim. Sunday morning worship attendance is shrinking. Churches are closing. Seminaries are closing.
In the coming years, Unitarian Universalists will increasingly have to figure out how to offer guidance, inspiration, and prophetic vision to a society where there is no reigning religious norm. We will have ground our efforts to understand and transcend the great challenge in a desire to teach and explore both emerging forms of religious expression and long established ones.
“Your heart beats now, / not tomorrow or yesterday. / Love the gift of your life and do no harm.”
I left the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to return to academia in the autumn of 2012. Since then I have been doing pulpit supply throughout New England. New England is the historical heartland of American Unitarian Universalism and my itinerant wanderings throughout the region have made me feel, at times, like an old-fashioned circuit rider. In the last years, I have led worship at the some of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations and some of the smallest. Some of the smallest congregations in our tradition are quite small. This is a recent phenomenon for many of them.
Last year, I was invited to preach at a historic Universalist congregation in the center of a small Massachusetts city. Two centuries ago, the congregation had been served by Hosea Ballou, one the founders of American Universalism. During Ballou’s ministry, the congregation had numbered as many as a couple of thousand. The sanctuary was huge--walls with white paint, wooden pews with glistening varnish, a balcony that wrapped around the edges of the room and sat at least three hundred, a gigantic old fashioned New England pulpit that was way up there--just beautiful. It could easily accommodate fifteen hundred hardy souls. Anyone want to guess how many people were there on my Sunday morning? Anyone? Less than ten. That number includes me, my son, and my parents who were visiting from out of town.
The presence of only ten people in that cavernous sanctuary did not make the gathered congregation’s needs any less real. The struggles and aspirations of the community are present no matter how large or small the group. No matter how big or small the congregation we have bring ourselves fully to whatever religious community we enter. This instant we have together is all we have. We must make the most of it and remember that the beloved the community, that sense of the spark of the divine within each, can erupt at any moment.
No matter the size of the congregation, it can serve as an important voice for justice in its community. I was reminded of this recently when I led worship at another tiny little New England congregation in an old mill town. They asked me ahead of time what I planned to preach on. I told them the lasting impact of global white supremacy. It is a topic on which I preach frequently. It was notable enough in that town that the congregation made the local newspaper. Two full paragraphs. Page three. When Sunday morning came round the sanctuary was the fullest it had been in a long while. Afterwards, several people came up and told me that it was the first time they had heard white supremacy denounced from a historically white pulpit.
There is a truth that I am grasping for here. Even if some of our liberal religious institutions are declining they can still make an impact. In this country, movements for social transformation have always had a religious component. Re-imaging liberal religion for the twenty-first century means recognizing that it needs to continue serve the people well, no matter how few or how many. Whatever the size of a congregation we must remember that it can be a space for collective liberation. In some sense this just means remembering the truth of that well-worn quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“Life is struggle and loss, and also / tenderness and joy. / Live all of your life, not just part of it.”
I come from a long line of troublemakers, political malcontents, social agitators and religious dissidents. My grandparents, on my Mom’s side, have a connection to the Amana colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. Many people on my father’s side are or were secular Jewish socialists. I was raised on stories of family members who fled this country or that to avoid fighting in another bloody capitalist war.
It is should not be a surprise that I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the project of collective liberation. This has taken me to a number places that most people who have my privileged class background do not normally end up. Over the years, I have helped organize an independent union of bike couriers and a wildcat strike that involved over twenty thousand workers. I have gone to jail for civil disobedience and spent about seven years working with indigenous communities, including the Zapatistas, in Mexico.
It is one of the lessons that I learned from the Zapatistas that I want to lift up to you this morning. The Zapatistas, you might remember, originated as a guerilla movement in Southern Mexico. It January 1994 they seized control of about one third of the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. A movement of indigenous Mayan peasants, among them I found remarkable resonances with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. Consider these words from Commandante Ester, a Zapatista leader, describing her community’s decision making process. She said, that her community tried to make decisions “without losing what makes each individual different, [in doing so] unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.” That sounds a fair bit like the approach to community life found in our congregations.
Indeed, one of most remarkable things that I witnessed in Chiapas was the processes of community decision making. I visited a village where there was a discussion on whether or not to renounce Catholicism in favor of non-Christian indigenous religion. For several days, from morning until late into the evening, all of the community members stood around a basketball court and debated the theological merits of Catholicism and of their Mayan religion. Which did they believe was the true? Which would guide their community best in the project of collective liberation?
On other occasions, I had conversations with Zapatista educators about their educational model. They told me that its goal was to enable people to become more fully human. That sounds an awful lot like Sophia Lyon Fahs writing that the goal of religious education is “to become one’s true self.”
We have to recognize that our theological tradition has a power that extends far beyond the white and professionally classed enclaves that have been liberal religions historic strongholds. The challenge, remember I promised I was going to get to a challenge, is that for liberal religion to grow in the twenty-first century those of us who are white have to recognize our theological solidarity with a host of communities of color that articulate theologies similar to our own. This means cracking open Unitarian Universalist culture in its stuck places. This means confronting the culture of whiteness that prevents many amongst us from seeing kinds of Unitarian and universalist theologies outside of our congregations. It means expanding our conception of our religious tradition and, in doing so, meeting the challenges we collectively face in the twenty-first century.
Rising modes of religious expression; shrinking institutions; and opening ourselves to Unitarianism and Universalism outside of our historic congregations. These challenges, within the broader context of the great challenge, are some we face. Let us collectively continue upon the path of re-imagining liberal religion and liberal theology for the twenty-first century. In doing so, let us have the faith that our efforts will serve all of humanity.
And remember that every single human word is
finally and divinely cradled in the strong and secure
arms of Silence.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 22, 2014
My friend Rev. Ian White Maher stirred up a bit of conversation when I published his guest post "A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy." In addition to substantive conversation on Facebook, Rev. Tom Schade over at The Lively Tradition and Rev. Cynthia Kane at Captain Reverend Mother posted responses. I am still formulating my own thoughts on the comments Ian and I have received from Kane, Schade and others and plan to write something in response to their responses in the next week or two. In the meantime, I hope people will continue to reflect on Ian's important piece and the conversation it has started. If anyone knows of other bloggers who have written in response to it please contact me so I can post links to their pieces.
Nov 19, 2014
Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:
My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.
The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.
There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.
Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.
Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.
I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] ...is important...
Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”
Nov 10, 2014
Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/98ZLCLK