Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.
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.