Apr 23, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 21, 2019
Happy Easter! It is good to be with you. Holiday services like these always bring together a special congregation. Some of you are visiting for the first time, seeking a religious community. Some of you have come with friends or family, enjoying the sense of connection and fellowship that holidays offer us. Some of you attend our services only occasionally. You are probably here so you can be with your church on this special day. And some of you worship at First Church most Sundays. Whatever brought you here to this beautiful brick sanctuary, I want to extend pause and say welcome.
Since it is Easter, I thought I better talk with you about Jesus. Specifically, I thought I should give you a sense of how Unitarians have historically approached Jesus. For generations, we have focused on his life and teachings rather than his death on the cross. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” It was preached in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819. It was the text that crystalized Unitarianism into a definitive theological position in the United States and prompted the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the forerunners of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
In his sermon, and I apologize for the dated language, Channing made the claim that Jesus’s mission was “the recovery of men to virtue, or holiness.” He further proclaimed “the doctrine of God’s unity.” In this unity God had “infinite perfection and dominion.” Channing maintained that Jesus was “a being distinct from the one God.” He was, in Channing’s words, someone who had a “human mind” whose death on the cross was “real and entire.” In essence, Channing claimed that Jesus was a man who taught that within each of us resides holiness. This holiness connects us to God. The purpose of religion, in this classic Unitarian view, is to awaken in us this sense of holiness and bring us closer to the divine.
This morning I am not going to offer you a recitation or exegesis of Channing’s sermon on “Unitarian Christianity.” Nor am I going to provide you discourse on its historical significance. Instead, I am going to give you a sermon that captures something of the essence of Channing’s theology. Whether we take it literally or metaphorical it contains within it revolutionary and transformative power.
Our sermon has three movements: the infinity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and the divinity within. Before we dive in, I thought I would give you a part. At the conclusion of each movement I invite you to say, “Hallelujah.”
A few weeks ago, I shared that “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” I know that this is a sentiment that makes some of us uncomfortable. Allow me to suggest, just for this morning, that if you are a humanist, as I am, we agree to greet the word God as a symbol. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will: spirit, ground of being, life itself.” So, when we say, “Hallelujah” let us think of ourselves praising any or all of those things. Praise God, “Hallelujah.” Praise the ground of being, “Hallelujah.” Praise life itself, “Hallelujah.”
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
The Infinity of God
In the ninetieth Psalm of the Hebrew Bible we find Moses pray:
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being,
before You brought forth the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity You are God.
In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita we discover generous descriptions of the divine:
You are without beginning, middle, or end;
you touch everything with your infinite power.
The sun and moon are your eyes, and your mouth
is fire; your radiance warms the cosmos.
O Lord, your presence fills the heavens and
the earth and reaches in every direction.
In the Quran we read:
...If the ocean were
Ink (wherewith to write out)
The words of my Lod.
Sooner would the ocean be
Exhausted than would the words
Of my Lord...
I might continue and point you to words in the Tao Te Ching or from the Buddha or from some indigenous traditions. Whatever we choose, there are numerous texts that teach, as the fourteenth-century theologian Jan Van Ruysbroeck wrote, “God is immeasurable and incomprehensible, unattainable and unfathomable.”
God is infinite. Infinity is a difficult concept to grasp. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... I could keep counting for the entirety of this sermon and never approach infinity.
The British science fiction writer Douglas Adams offered a humorous approach to infinity in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The book is part of a series called the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the characters wander across space and time. Finite beings in an infinite universe, they struggle to understand their places in the great misorder of things. Fortunately, they have the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to help them. It is Wikipedia if the editors of Wikipedia had a sense of humor. It is also a physical object with “the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Peering into the text Adams’s characters find this description of infinity: “Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself look really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we’re trying to get across here.”
The German mathematician David Hilbert attempted to explain infinity with his infinite hotel paradox. A hotel, we all know, has a finite number of rooms. If you have tried to book a popular destination for a holiday you may have discovered this. Maybe you have even been in the situation where the place you wanted to stay ran out of rooms before you managed to secure your vacation.
Relax, Hilbert said, we can avoid this problem. We just need to build an infinite hotel. In the infinite hotel there will be infinite rooms. When you call up the hotel you might discover that it is already full of guests. “No matter,” the manager will tell you. “Whenever a new guest arrives we ask each guest to move to a new room. The guest in room 1 moves to room 2. The guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on. There is always room in the infinite hotel. Because we have infinitely many rooms there is space at the end--even if we already have infinite guests--because infinity goes on forever.”
All of this is obtuse, difficult to understand, maybe a little ponderous and opaque, and, quite possibly, impractical. This is, however, actually the message of this part of the sermon. God is infinite. God is beyond human comprehension. Do such statements, such texts, resonate with your experience?
They resonate with mine. Here is a thing that has happened to me, again and again. I have found myself along the edge of the ocean, at night, wandering the shoreline--that place where the water crashes into the sand. The wind lilts, a soft sound above the rhythmic rush of the tide. My feet are just a little damp, my flesh slightly chill. I look across the waves. They seem to go on without end, white foam crests upon white foam crests upon white foam crests. I look up at the sky, a starry night--not unlike Van Gogh’s luminous swirls and textured white yellow orbs. There is the Milky Way--a thick pointilated band. There is Orion--three stars for a belt, two stars for feet, and three for shoulders and a head. Suddenly, something in me shifts, and I feel conscious of my own temporary smallness among the infinite sea of stars and the ocean that appears to go on forever and forever. The universe feels infinite while I do not.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Humanity of Jesus
It is the infinity of God which brings us to the humanity of Jesus. It is a challenge to relate to the infinity of God. The theologian Karl Barth observed, “no... concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.” Throughout human history many people and many cultures have anthropomorphized the divine--they have made it human--in an attempt to understand it. This is what Trinitarian Christians have done. They have collapsed the infinity of God into the particularity of a human life in an effort to understand the unfathomable. In the Trinitarian Christian story, we come to know the infinite God through the finite Jesus who is the infinite God enfleshed.
In our Unitarian tradition we tell stories about Jesus in which he was a man who came to teach us about an infinite God. Jesus was not uniquely the incarnate God. He taught that God dwells inside each of us. The path to the infinite is found by looking within. Channing called this “the likeness to God.” Jesus was special because he had realized the likeness to God inside of him--the connection to holiness that is available to all of us. By awakening this holiness Jesus was able, in Channing’s words, to share with the world the “unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love” of the divine that resides within waiting to be stirred.
In the Trinitarian tradition, Jesus is God. A man who taught about God becomes God. Channing said, “No error seems to us more pernicious.” The path to spiritual awakening that Jesus lays out for us in the Christian New Testament is lost in a fog when Jesus is equated with God. Those who turn Jesus into God frequently miss the significance of his life and instead focus on his death. They claim that there is redemption to be found in state sanctioned torture--for that is what the crucifixion was--rather than in a life devoted to sharing the transformative power of love. They believe Jesus died on the cross to save all humans from sin and that this was the whole meaning of his life. Such a narrative Channing rejected “as unscriptural and absurd.”
Early Unitarians like Channing found the teachings of Jesus in his parables and sayings. They shared the importance of his lessons in their writings and in their art. The death of Jesus was not that important to them. If you visit a Unitarian church built prior to the early twentieth century you are likely to find the depiction of one of Jesus’s parables in the congregation’s stained glass. The famous Tiffany windows of Boston’s Arlington Street Church contain not a single depiction of Jesus on the cross.
Like those early Unitarians, I have a fondness for the sayings and parables of Jesus. My favorite is found in Luke 17:20-21. There he is asked, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
It is a really radical saying. At least, it is if we understand Jesus to be a human being rather than a God. A learned man of the people, a carpenter, a spiritual teacher, in the Christian New Testament we find him mingling with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touches lepers. He travels with the common working people. He visits the most marginalized. He tells them that the kingdom of God is found among them. It is not found among the rich and powerful. To them Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The connection between the infinite and the human, he suggested, resides primarily among the fishermen and the peasants, the despised and the outcast.
Think about it. This human man, this person born of a human mother and who died a human death, had a unique connection, a unique understanding, of the holiness within. And he taught that holiness is most present among those whose struggle is greatest day-to-day. That, Jesus seemed to teach, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. It is not present in the evangelical church that celebrates a gospel of wealth and prosperity. It is not present with the ministers who proclaim the righteousness of their nation. It might not even be present in this sanctuary today. But it is found among those who come together and little by little work, struggle, and imagine a new way.
Another parable, Luke 13:18-19: “‘What is the kingdom of God like?’ he continued. ‘To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew to be a tree and the birds came to roost among its branches.’”
Here the kingdom of God begins by accident, by mistake. A man sows a mustard seed, anticipates a mustard plant--an annual that seeds and then perishes. Instead, a tree sprouts--an enduring majesty that lasts beyond the span of a human life. Birds come bringing song and plumed beauty. A man sows a mustard seed and from it comes so much. The smallest action, the littlest kindness, Jesus wished to teach, contains within it the possibility of great transformation. The smallest thing, perhaps, can blossom into the infinite.
The kingdom of God is among us. It is a human opening to the divine. We uncover it through acts of love, small and great.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
The Divinity Within
This human Jesus taught that we contain within us the likeness to God. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists have rephrased in more humanistic language by claiming that every human being has inherent worth and dignity. It is radical stuff. It means that the likeness to God is to be found within the migrant children and refugees who suffer at our borders. And it means that it found within the people who put them there. The challenge of religion is to awaken the likeness within each of us.
But more than that. The challenge today is even greater than awakening the likeness to God that resides within each of us. It is to recognize that the divinity within connects us to the divinity without. It is to stand on the seashore gaze up at the night sky and see ourselves a part of the great infinity that surrounds us. When we open ourselves thus--when we connect the divinity within to the divinity without--we find ourselves among the kingdom of God. We find that kingdom is here on this Earth, not in some distant heaven.
On this Sunday before Earth Day we are called to recognize that this is the only planet we have got. The kingdom of God, whatever it is, is among you. It is among the live oaks and sea shells. It is among the sunshine and the soft rain. Whatever holiness lies within it involves connecting to the glorious natural world of which we are a part--not subjugating it but learning to live in kinship with it. If we fail to confront the collectively created disaster of climate change then we are discovering the kingdom of God which is among us. Human life is not sustainable. Without course correction there will be no kingdom of God to be found anywhere upon this good green Earth.
This is why we gather--to open our connection to the planet’s beauty; to understand our dependence upon the soil, the sun, and the rain; to work to lead each other to better lives; to stir the holiness within. That is what Channing taught. And it is something I believe. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” was not an Easter sermon. It was an ordination sermon, preached upon the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks into the ministry. Channing took for his text a fragment of a line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
In his closing he said, “Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves.” He was certain that if we did, we would discover that Jesus taught us how to find the spark of the divine within--the spark that leaps from each to each and connects one to the all. He was also certain that it was task of the religious community to awaken the spark that resides inside all of us. Seek proof of such a spark within the text of your own lives.
In my closing to you, I invoke the poet Thylias Moss. Her poem “Fullness” speaks to me of Unitarian Christianity. Reflecting on the ritual of the Eucharist, a ritual meant to commemorate the life of Jesus, she writes:
...You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
Can I get a “Hallelujah?”
Apr 22, 2019
As part of my research for the Minns Lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism I recently stumbled across the following description of Unitarianism by the Rev. Ethelred Brown in Langston Hughes's column "Week by Week," which Hughes wrote regularly for the Chicago Defender. This was published in 1960, about four years after Brown died. I am not certain when Brown wrote his portion of the text.
The Meaning of Faith: Unitarians
Unitarians in the United States number about 100,000. Some of their congregations in the larger urban centers have a number of Negro members. Ethelred Brown, the late minister of Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City, wrote especially for the readers of this column, the following concise statement on the meaning of his faith:
Unitarians are not Trinitarians—that is, they reject the doctrine of the Trinity which states that God is three persons in one. This denial in itself justifies their name. But they also reject every doctrine or teaching claimed by Trinitarians to be "fundamental"—namely, the miraculous birth and deity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Atonement, a material hell and a personal devil, and infallible Bible. But it is important to note that Unitarians deny what they deny because they believe what they believe, and because they are what they are.
Unitarians believe in the reliability of Reason as contrasted with Revelation and Intuition. And a distinctive and significant result growing out of this belief is that the Unitarian Church of is a creedless church. Unitarians are united not by intellectual agreement but by an ethical and spiritual purpose. Therefore they are not to be approached or presented as persons who deny certain things and believe certain other things, but rather as persons with a certain attitude to reality—persons dedicated to a certain form of life. From this attitude there stem the following distinctive characteristics:
1. Unitarians believe that Religion and Science are not contradictory but complementary.
2. They talk Sense and Religion at the same time. Any proposition that insults their intelligence is rejected.
3. They believe that theological statements must square themselves with established truths. Facts must never be tampered with to accommodate our theories—but our theories must be corrected to agree with the facts.
4. Unitarians do not believe in a static but in a progressive mind. Knowledge grows from more to more.
5. They believe in the right of the individual to seek truth for himself. They take Truth for authority and not authority for truth.
6. Climaxing all, and inclusive of all, Unitarians do interpret or present Religion in terms of church and creeds and ceremonies, but as Life — as character and service. This was aptly stated by Dr. George D. Stoddard, former President of the University of Chicago, when he spoke at a corner stone laying of the $200,000 North Shore Unitarian church. "Unitarianism is nothing radical, but quite simply a return to the sense of honesty, directness, fearlessness and self-reliance that characterized the behavior of our forefathers."
This then is the distinctive trait of Unitarianism — it places life and character above forms and ceremonies, and its churches honestly strive to bring together thought and reverence, the fearless mind and the uplifted heart — "That mind and soul according well may make one music as before — but vaster." This explains why Unitarians feel as did Dr. Charles W. Eliot, late president of Harvard University, "To propagate the simple fundamental convictions of our Unitarian Faith is a holy thing, and a sacred duty."
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
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.