Mar 25, 2019
This is the third sermon in our series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven principles are not a creed. They are not a statement of belief. One way to understand them is that they are a covenant--an agreement about the promises Unitarian Universalists make to each other about how we will live together. Covenants are at the heart of Unitarian Universalist practice. We use them in the place of a set of beliefs to which all members of the community must subscribe. They are one of the oldest customs among our congregations. In New England there are Unitarian Universalist churches whose covenants date back to the seventeenth century. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker offers a concise description of where covenants lie within our tradition. She writes, “In place of a hierarchical church authorized by tradition and governed by priests, bishops, and popes, [our religious ancestors] ... insisted congregations should be organized by people coming together and making a covenant to ‘walk together’ in their spiritual lives. Covenanted religious communities rest on the authority of their members...” This last point is especially important. The world changes over time. And, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago, the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association--the covenant we promise to keep between our congregations--have changed in response to shifts in society and our understanding of the world around us. We been able to change them because have given ourselves the authority to change them.
This week we are tackling the third principle: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I want to make a deceptively simple claim about this principle. It offers us a basic formula for our life together. As Unitarian Universalists, we promise to accept each other. We promise to encourage each other towards spiritual growth. And we promise to do so as part of a congregation.
My claim about the third principle is deceptively simple. None of these things are easy. If we engage with them we will find ourselves transformed. But then, is that not a purpose of religious life? To transform ourselves and equip each other to transform the world? This morning I want to take us through each part of the formula for life together that the third principle offers us. And I want to suggest to you how following it can be transformative. But before I do, a couple of painfully bad jokes.
In a big elegant Unitarian Universalist church up in New England, a visitor was making a ruckus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke, the visitor shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!”
As the service progressed, an usher approached the visitor and spoke to them quietly. “Uh... excuse me... we just do not do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Well,” the usher said, “You certainly did not get it here.”
One evening, a Unitarian Universalist was at a cocktail party with a bunch of people from other religious traditions. After a little while, the Unitarian Universalist realized that they could tell the religious tradition of the other guests by the first question someone asked them.
The Methodists wanted to know, “Where do you go to church?”
The Congregationalists queried, “Did your family come over on the Mayflower too?”
And the other Unitarian Universalists said, “Where did you go to graduate school?”
Acceptance of one another
Those are pretty bad jokes. I told them to offer to two observations. First, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the kinds of behavior that are appropriate in our churches. Second, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the type of people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism.
First observation... expectations for behavior...
When I speak of behavior I am not talking about the question of ethics. I am not asking, how must we act in the world if we love justice and love goodness? Instead, I am talking about culture: the implicit assumptions people make about how to conduct themselves in certain situations. This brings us back to our first joke.
Unitarian Universalist churches are not known for our ecstatic religious celebrations. Bob Fazakerly, our musician emeritus, told us when he retired that people used to come to First Church for a classical music concert and a lecture. Neither classical music concerts nor lectures are genres known for their ebullient audience participation. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. In symphony halls and lecture venues the audience is supposed to sit quietly and absorb the powerful music or the stimulating message.
When I have preached at various congregations I have tried to shake this up a bit. I have invited people to talk back to me or to each other during the sermon. The results have sometimes been... well... humorous? Responding immediately to the sermon, offering an “Hallelujah” or an “Amen” in reaction to whatever the preacher just said is not something that happens in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A discomfort with saying “Hallelujah” I can understand, at least on a theological level. The word is Hebrew. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” A lot of Unitarian Universalists are humanists or atheists. They are not usually comfortable praising God.
“Amen” is another Hebrew word. It translates to “so be it.” Unitarian Universalists say it fairly often throughout the service. I invite you to say at various points on Sunday morning. When you say it you signify your rough assent or agreement with the offered prayers or sermon. You are not indicating that you agree with every word spoken. Instead, you are indicating your support for the general spirit of the message or prayer.
In a lot of religious contexts, people say “Amen” frequently throughout the service. In some congregations there is even something called the “Amen” corner. That is a group of people who get pretty excited throughout the service and support the preacher by saying “Amen” whenever there’s something they like in the sermon. Shall we try it for a moment? Can I get a quick “Amen”?
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have “Amen” corners. One of the first times someone pointed out to me just how closely this reflected the culture of the classical music concert hall and college lecture when I was serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio.
I invited a Black Baptist friend of mine to come preach the Sunday sermon to my congregation. We part of a network of religious communities and clergy devoted to social justice. We socialized together, and I occasionally attended her church on my Sundays off. Their services were boisterous affairs. There was a big gospel choir, a strong “Amen” corner, lots of clapping during the hymns...
So, my friend came to my congregation and gave her sermon. The congregation appreciated her and the service went well. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought. She said, “It certainly was tranquil. Very nice people. Similar vibe to the Cleveland Symphony.”
Similar vibe to the symphony... In the bad joke the usher was telling the visitor that it was not OK to bring their whole self to the worship service. There were to be no Amens, no Hallelujahs, no ecstatic expressions of religion. The visitor might have accepted--they were no thrown out of the church nor where they theologically condemned. But they were certainly not welcomed.
This leads me to a series of questions for you. Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like you can bring your whole self here? If not, why not? Conversely, are there certain behaviors that you expect on a Sunday morning? What are they? How would you feel if we had an “Amen” corner? It is good to talk about our answers to these questions. It is one way that we clarify our assumptions about what it means to do church together. It allows us to make the invisible visible and to challenge our own assumptions. That, in turns, opens up a space for us to engage in the work of collective transformation.
Second observation... expectations around culture...
In my second bad joke, Unitarian Universalists ask each other the question, “Where did you go to graduate school?” This question surfaces an assumption about Unitarian Universalism that many people have. It is often presumed to the educated person’s religion.
As a denomination one of our greatest struggles is around class diversity. The historian Mark Harris wrote an entire book on classism within Unitarian Universalism. He claims that a preference for a more tranquil worship service is tied to the class orientation that many of our churches had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Back then, New England Unitarianism was the religion of the social elite. They rejected the instant emotional conversion to salvation favored by evangelicals. Instead, they thought that salvation was to be found through an educational process that would last throughout life. This understanding of salvation--the slow and steady, rather than the quick--led them to think that churches were not different from universities.
Even though I am myself Harvard educated, I have experienced my share of class discomfort in Unitarian Universalist congregations. While I was working on my doctorate I regularly did pulpit supply. About twice a month, I preached at a different church. Some of them were small and scrappy. Others were large and elegant.
As some of you know, I am a single parent. When I would go preach someplace I would have to bring my son along with me. When he was little, when it was time for the service to start, my son would want to sit up in the pulpit with me. He did not know anyone else at the congregation. And as a five, six, or seven-year-old he was not comfortable sitting out there, in the pews, by himself.
Now those of you who are parents, or know children at all, can imagine how this sometimes played out. Kids squirm. They do their own thing. He would dutifully go off and join the other children when it was time for religious education classes. But he was very clear he wanted to sit next to his Dad until then.
Those big elegant New England churches have huge pulpits elevated over the entire congregation. There is nowhere to hide in them. You can imagine how the presence of my wiggling child next to me in the pulpit sometimes went over. After preaching, on more than occasion, I received notes or comments about how my sermon was very good but it was inappropriate for me bring my son with me when I went to lead the service somewhere. He was too distracting. The underlying message: we do not want single working parents as our ministers. That is about a classist message as they come.
More questions: Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like your level of education or economic class matters to other members? Do you have certain assumptions about the level of education or the economic class about other members? Again, it is good to talk about our answers to these questions. When we talk about them we can make the invisible visible and challenge our own assumptions. We can raise the questions: Who is really accepted at First Church? Who do we really welcome here? Do we need to change our congregation to live into our universalist theology of radical love and acceptance.
Encouragement to spiritual growth
Asking these questions together can push us towards greater spiritual growth. That is one of principal reasons for our religious life together: to deepen our own religious sensibilities. Or as I put it at the beginning of the sermon: to transform ourselves and our community. We might think of it is as a process. First, someone is welcomed into our religious communion. Second, they are encouraged towards spiritual growth.
The very process of welcoming can be an opportunity for spiritual growth--for personal and collective transformation. In recent weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion in Unitarian Universalist circles around the question of welcoming. How many of you get or read the UU World? It is our association’s quarterly magazine.
In the most recent issue there was an article on how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome transgender and genderqueer people. It was written by a cis-gender woman and centered on her experience of relating to transgender and genderqueer people. Many transgender and genderqueer Unitarian Universalists were outraged.
CB Beal is a Unitarian Universalist educator who self-describes “as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person.” They wrote an eloquent response centering their experience and the experiences of other transgender and genderqueer people in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to consider who feels most welcome in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to ask the question: What standards of behavior, what kinds of dress, what identities are expected in most Unitarian Universalist congregations? They write, “When we [Unitarian Universalists] ... speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion.”
The President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray has said to us, “our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love.” “However,” she has reminded us, “we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies--and what liberation means.”
In dialogue with this insight, CB Beal suggests three steps towards living into our theology of radical love and building communities of radical welcome. For someone who is relatively privileged like me, they recommend: “First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices. Second, not to decenter them when they say something we... [do not] want to hear. Third, if we hear something we... [do not] want to hear or that we ... [do not] agree with...” commit to staying in the conversation.
We encourage each other towards spiritual growth when we listen to and welcome difference. My identity, my theology, my way of expressing myself might be different from yours. We are each transformed when we learn to communicate and, dare I say, love across these differences.
Further questions: How has your life, your spirituality, been changed by being part of a congregation that contains people who are different from you? How have you grown or been transformed by participating in a religious community where there is no consensus on the nature or presence of the divine? Where our theology includes theists and atheists, believers and doubters, pagans and pantheists, and all seekers after religious truth?
In our congregations
One of the great gifts of Unitarian Universalism is the hybrid nature of our religious communities. The covenantal nature of our communities and our commitment to theological diversity means that among Unitarian Universalists you can find different religious identities. There are Christian Unitarian Universalists. There are Jewish Unitarian Universalists, like my family. There are Muslim Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist pagans. There are Unitarian Universalist humanists. There are Shikh Unitarian Universalists. There are Hindu Unitarian Universalists. I would need to continue my list for a list for long time to effectively include all of our theological diversity. What I am trying to do, in my own awkward way, is to highlight the hybridity of Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a religious tradition that for many years has been open to influence by other religious traditions. Historian Susan Ritchie observes that in the sixteenth century, “European Unitarianism grew up in the soil of a variety of boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe.” That set of our religious ancestors became Unitarian because they sought to reconcile the theologies of three religious communities present in places like Transylvania and Hungary. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they believed, were all children of the same God. By rejecting the divinity of Christ, they thought, it was possible to recognize the family resemblance between the different religions of their lands. This, they hoped, would lead to religious tolerance and, ultimately, peace.
I picked Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” as one of our readings this morning because it is one of my favorite pieces on hybridity--on navigating the challenging, fertile, wonderful, and sometimes dangerous space of living between defined identities. Anzaldúa was a queer Chicana poet from Texas. She wrote her poem to reflect on what means to live as a Chicana in country that stole much of its land from Mexico and seeks to build borders between itself and Latin America. She wrote it reflect on what it means to be LGBTQI in a country that has historically marginalized everyone but straight presenting cis-gendered white men. When she wrote:
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half--both woman and man, neither--
a new gender.
She was not thinking of Unitarian Universalism or our communities at all.
Yet, I think that her poem expresses much truth when it comes to living with a hybrid identity in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you have a hybrid identity, you are never fully one thing or the other. You are something in between. And that something is wonderful. You may not always feel welcome. Your identity may be contested. But you are wonderful and you are loved.
And that, is our challenge, when we hear the third principle of our association: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We are challenged to radically welcome each other. We are challenged to truly accept each other. Regardless of class, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of other human divisor, regardless of education, regardless of worship style, we are called to build a community where all are welcome and all are loved. Our last question: Can we do it together?
And to that, I invite the congregation 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.
Sep 24, 2018
Each autumn we gather to mingle our waters and mark the start of our liturgical year. At each of our three campuses, we gather to share our dreams, to declare our values, to be present to each other, and all that is. Today, across the country, in congregations like this one, Unitarian Universalists are gathering for the same ritual and for the same purpose.
In services such as this, water is often described as the giver of life and bearer of memory. Our mingled waters are said to represent the communion that we aspire to in religious community. Sometimes, the waters take on a richness of meaning: reminding us of the drought of struggle, of the inevitability of change, of the tumult of life, and the hidden wells of awe and wonder that reside in each of us. Rarely, though, do services like this one recognize the sheer destructive power of water.
Water is the life giver. Two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, that is what makes life possible. But water is also the life taker, the destroyer, the thing that can fill lungs and block out the two uncompounded atoms we must have to respire.
I have been thinking about water the life stealer since I learned I would be coming to Houston to serve as your interim senior minister. One friend told me to get an escape kit for my car: hammer to break glass and cutter to slice seat belt. Another advised me not to get a first story apartment. This advice came as, from afar, I read about the destruction of Harvey: the more than eighty dead, the lives broken, the houses ruined, the streets washed away, and the businesses destroyed.
Then I arrived in Houston. And I met one of you who had lost their home to the hurricane. And I met another of you whose car was destroyed. And another of you who no longer lives in their old neighborhood. And I learned of the city’s loss and sorrow. And so, I began to think about water as the stealer of life, water the despoiler.
I realized that we could not have a water ceremony that did not acknowledge the catastrophic power of water. For water has brought a great catastrophe to this city. One of the tasks of religious community is to aid us in the face of the catastrophes of our lives. These can be individual: cancer, death, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job... Or they can be collective: war, political corruption, systematic violence, the endurance of white supremacy, floods and hurricanes...
Some of the most ancient myths attempt to find meaning in waterborne catastrophes. Four thousand years ago the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed in the place we now call Mesopotamia. It tells of a great deluge that destroyed a primordial city.
For a day the gale [winds flattened the country,]
quickly they blew, and [then came] the [Deluge.]
Like a battle [the cataclysm] passed over the people.
One man could not discern another,
nor could people be recognized amid the destruction.
Genesis, the biblical text, recounts:
All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open.
The Greek poet Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses,” describes:
Invade the woods and brush against the oak-trees;
The wolf swims with the lamb; lion and tiger
Are borne along together; the wild boar
Finds all his strength is useless, and the deer
Cannot outspeed that torrent...
These myths share a pattern. The deluge comes after the divine grows frustrated with human wickedness. The gods send the lethal waters to wash away sin and impurity. Cities are drown. The world becomes ocean. Only a handful of the righteous survive. And then the waters recede. The land returns. The world is purified. Humanity finds itself given a divine blessing, a divine healing. Noah is told: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.”
This is not our theology. Our Unitarian Universalist theology is not one of divine destruction and divine healing. We do not believe that God punishes us because we are impure or wicked. Nor do we trust that God, unaided, will bring ultimate justice to the world.
Ours is a tradition of human agency and responsibility. Ours is a tradition which acknowledges that it is humans who have the power to create heaven or hell upon this muddy green Earth. Ours is a tradition that recognizes that so much that is wrong with this world, including the crisis of climate change, has been wrought by human hands. And ours is a tradition that understands that the good that exists in this world comes from love. It is a love, which Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of our association, describes as “a powerful, unconditional, overflowing goodwill for all people.”
It is this love which is the historic, theological, bedrock of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is this love that our Universalist ancestors used to describe as “the sublime and heavenly doctrine of universal grace.” The idea that God so loved the world that all of creation would be eventually blessed with “holiness and happiness.” It is the legacy of our Universalist ancestors who believed that the unconditional love of the divine, in the words of Rebecca Parker, “directs us... toward actions of love and care for each other.” It is this love which teaches us that we have the human power and the human ability to heal each other and to heal this world.
This world, and this city, is in desperate need of healing. Today, more than ever, we are called to be healers. Over the last month as I have listened to your stories I have learned that this congregation has worked to heed this call. Many of you aided each other during and after the hurricane. Many of you have labored to rebuild the city, volunteering your time to recraft homes and assist the injured. Many of you are devoted to the ongoing work of healing. Even as we struggle to survive.
I will admit that I am new to your city and to this congregation. I only know of a fraction of the destruction that the waters brought. And I only know a fraction of the work that you have done. I am eager to learn your stories.
And I trust that as I learn about them I will discover in them, as I have discovered in every community I have served, the radical healing power of love. For it is radical love, powerful, unconditional, overflowing goodwill for all people, that teaches us that we can heal each other and the world. And it is radical love that I see now as I look at our mingled water. Water might be destructive but in our service, it can also be a symbol of our collective love for humanity and our planetary home. It can be a symbol of our ability to heal.
As I close I reminded of these words from Wayne Arnason, may we find the love they represent in our mingled water:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 12, 2018
It is good to be with you this morning. And it is good to be in Houston. The opening words of our sermon come from the Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia’s wrenching break-up song “Torn.”
I’m all out of faith.
This is how I feel, I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor.
Perhaps these words sound familiar. Perhaps you have been there yourself. All out of faith, heart sick, dreams ruptured, the once neatly woven fabric of your life torn into jagged pieces that cannot neatly be stitched back together.
Maybe you were there just this morning. And maybe today, somehow, someway, you got up off the floor. You put on your bright yellow summer dress, your favorite black t-shirt and jeans, or your linen coat and tie, and you made it here. I do not your story. But I know this: if we love the world we will be wounded. And if we want to continue to love the world then we must do the work of healing. It is like the words from one of our earlier songs, “every scar I see / A place where love is trying to break in.” Or as the writer Alice Walker put it, “healing begins where the wound was made.”
The title of our sermon is “The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.” It is inspired by Alice Walker. She wrote a book with the same title. I chose the title to acknowledge that I begin my interim ministry with you following the resignation of your previous senior minister. Some of you might be upset at him, at other members of the congregation, or about all that has passed in the last year within your religious community. I do not know. I am just beginning to learn your stories. But I know this: the health of your congregation depends in part at looking at the ways you have been wounded in the past, at the ways you might have wounded each other in the past, and then collectively engaging in the work of healing. Since healing begins where the wound was made this will require us to be honest with each other about how we have been hurt in the past. It is only by acknowledging the wounds that we experienced, and the pain we feel, that we can begin to find the way forward. And that way forward is with a broken heart.
But then world is heart breaking, is not? How often does your heart break? It seems I encounter something heart breaking almost every day. What about you? I am new to Houston. I arrived about a week ago. Already, I found that homelessness is an endemic problem where I live in Montrose. Just Friday I passed near someone whose story I am sure is heart breaking.
I am unpacking my apartment. And if you are anything like me, part of unpacking is the process of discovering all of things you do not need. Why are there two cuisinarts? Where did Biscuit, our cat, get twelve catnip mice from? Who packed them? How is it that I am still carrying around my tax records from 1999? And so, if you are anything like me, moving always involves trips to the Goodwill.
There I was. Standing in the Goodwill parking lot, convincing the manager that he should take all eight of my old folding bookcases, when a young man pulled up on a bicycle. He was shirtless. He was carrying a backpack. He opened it and took out a half case of beer. He sat down on the asphalt. The manager asked him to leave. He yelled back, “call the cops. I ain’t going anywhere.” Again, he was asked to leave. Again, he yelled, “call the cops.” I do not know how the story ended. The folks from Goodwill graciously accepted my collection of miscellaneous, and mysterious, kitchen implements. And I left with the certain knowledge that whatever happened next would be heart breaking. The police would come and forcibly remove the young man from Goodwill’s property. Or he would leave and spend the day’s heat somewhere else, drinking his way through twelve cans of beer.
Children in cages; endless cruelty to refugees in Europe; the violence of white supremacists in the United States; the rising, building, gathering crisis of climate change; endemic misogyny; the deaths of countless people of color at the hands of the police; uncivil discourse; gloating tyrants; war, war, and war... We only need to turn on the television, look online, or glance in a newspaper to discover things that can break our hearts. It is like Susan Sontag once wrote of the New York Times, “An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
And yet, amid all of this horror and heart break there is joy and beauty to be found. Maybe not for all us. Maybe not all the time. But it is there: a delicate blue weed flower cracking through the gaps in concrete. The joyous warmth of children. The spaces between dancing salsa beats. Ochre oil clotted on taut canvas. The common tenderness we might share with each other on Sunday morning once the service has ended. I find wisdom in one of the most popular readings in our grey hymnal, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese:”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have 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.
Meanwhile the world goes on. I have said little of our private pains. There are the wounds of the world. There are whatever wounds exist in this congregation. And then there are the wounds that we have suffered in our lives. The loss of a parent. The loss of a spouse. The loss of a child. The end of a marriage. Struggles with addiction. Poverty. Bullies for bosses. All of the disappointments and disillusions that cast shadows upon our lives. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet.
The way forward is with a broken heart, Alice Walker tells us. But is it? I have been cold, shamed, and on the floor. And when I have been it has seemed that there was no way forward at all--heart sick, wounded, whole, or otherwise. What about you? To believe that the way forward is with a broken heart is an act of faith. It is not a rationale claim. It is a statement, sometimes against much evidence, that there is hope yet to be found in the world. And sometimes it seems like we should be all out of faith. And yet... and yet... there is a way forward. The sun in early morn will crack across mountain tops and bring the morrow. Spanish moss will continue to hang from ancient oaks. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,” advises Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Walker wrote the book twenty years after the end of her marriage. It is a thinly fictionalized series of accounts about how she made her way forward after a divorce that left her bewildered, heart sick, and lonely. The world that she thought she was going to create, to build, was forever gone. She is someone now who her young self could never have imagined. In the opening paragraphs, she tells her readers, “You do not talk to me now, a fate I could not have imagined twenty years ago.”
“[A] fate I could not have imagined,” there are few better words that capture loss. Walker’s marriage did not begin with the imagination that it would end in bitter discord, “[y]ou do not talk to me now.” When it begins, few imagine a ministry ending in disappointment. And yet, marriages and ministries both sometimes finish in sorrow.
The way forward is with a broken heart. We continue after life’s disappointments. In Walker’s book she weaves the torn fabric of ruptured lives into healing quilts. In one story, the narrator finds joy in “the woman I love now.” In another, two sisters encounter comfort, peace, and a modicum of delight when they travel back to their family’s old home. In a third, a father and a daughter discover solace in each other after years of difficulty. “[T]he world cannot be healed in abstract,” Walker informs us.
I suspect that if you are like me, you have been wounded in particular ways. I imagine that if this religious community is like other religious communities, it has been wounded in particular ways. It is only by addressing our specific injuries that we can begin to heal from them. And that healing is not something we can do alone, as isolated individuals. It is something that can only be accomplished together. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” counsels Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Learning how to make our way forward, yours and mine, with a broken heart is deeply religious work. It might even be the central task of the religious community. There are few other places in our lives where we can be honest about despair. Again, and again, I have learned this during my ministry. The newcomer who tells me he’s visiting the church because his parents have just died. The transgender woman who shares that after years of alienation she has finally found a religious tradition that will love her without exception. The refugee who speaks almost no English and needs a place where she does not feel alone on a Sunday morning. A religious community like this one must be a place of love and healing.
That is the message our Universalist religious ancestors gave us to give the world. They said we were the church of “God’s love unlimited.” God’s love unlimited. No matter who you are, no matter the depths of your despair, no matter who you love, as members of this faith community we are called to love each other, to love the world, to face despair, and to collectively find our way forward with broken hearts.
This is deeply religious work. It requires the faith that somehow, someway, love will find us when we are shamed and on the floor. And that faith is not always easy to find. Sometimes it seems we cannot find it at all. But it is there, in the midst of heart sickness. There is always the possibility that we can learn to love again, that we can be gentle enough with each other to commit to the loving work of healing. There is always the chance that we can find a way forward.
Early Christianity was organized around finding a way forward with a broken heart. It began as a religious movement of those who continued after the heart-breaking loss of their beloved rabbi Jesus. Our second reading, the Epistula Apostolorum, was offered to remind us of this. It is a heretical text from the early second century of the Common Era. In it, the members of the early Christian church try to move forward after almost unimaginable disappointment. They had experienced great love in the person of their teacher. They had hoped for divine justice in the face of cruel empire. And their love and hope had ended in their leader’s death.
They reminded each other that love remained. They urged the members of their community to follow their master’s teaching: “But look, a new commandment I give you, that you love one another and obey each other and (that) continual peace reign among you. Love your enemies, and what you do not want done to you, that do to no one else.” They believed that if they had faith, somehow, someway, they could learn to love again. And through their love, they knew, they could heal each other and the world.
Let us forget for today that their message somehow became confused by the theologically orthodox over the centuries. Instead, let us hear in the words of the Epistula Apostolorum the expression of the church of God’s love unlimited. The theistic language may not resonate with you. Even if you need to translate it, I hope you will feel the transformative, healing, vision of love captured in those ancient words. They plead with us to find a forward way with a broken heart.
All this morning, I have suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. I have invoked Walker’s wisdom, “healing begins where the wound was made.” But I have said almost nothing of the work of healing. It is early yet. I do not know your stories. All I know is that whatever healing work must be done, in our lives, in this religious community, and in our beautiful, fractured, world, is work that we are called to do together.
I am here, during this interim time, to do that work with you as best I can. During this transitional moment in your congregation’s life I promise to be as tender with you as I can. I will as honest with you about the wounds in your congregation, and in the world, as I can. I will be as honest with you about my own struggles and wounds as is appropriate. Throughout this period, I pledge to love you as best I can. I only ask that you have the merest glimmer of faith that whatever wounds there are in your lives, in this congregation, and in our luminous world we can find a way forward with broken hearts.
That it may be so, I invite you to join me in that spirit that some call prayer and others call meditation:
Oh, great spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others call the goodness to be found
in human life,
or name not at all,
be with me,
be with this congregation,
its members and friends,
its children and elders,
and all the people of this religious community,
as we engage in the work of healing
There is so much pain,
so much hurt,
to be found,
addiction, disappointment, war, loss,
None of us need suffer alone when we remember
that love can heal.
Let us remember that each human
is born with a beating heart
and the capacity to love.
Let us learn to awaken
that love within
and reach out to each other
so that we might heal each other
and this glorious world.
So that we may do good work together,
let the congregation say Amen.
Jun 20, 2018
This is my last sermon with you. It is not my last time in Ashby as your minister. That will be the evening of July seventeenth when I come to enjoy a concert on the green. Nonetheless, this morning is the last time that the collective you, the members and friends of First Parish Church, will listen to me in my current capacity--as your minister. Which is too bad. There is still so much that I would like to say to you and share with you. I cannot say all of it. What I can do is continue our conversation from earlier in the month. It is in some sense the same conversation we have been having all year. It is an attempt to answer the question: What is the purpose of the church? Or, really, as I said before, it is an attempt to answer three interwoven questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
In my last sermon I suggested that one way we might answer these questions is to claim that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. When we learn these skills we can make a difference in our own lives and in the wider world.
Some might argue that this is an answer that comes from the Unitarian part of our tradition. It suggests a certain faith in human nature. It suggests that we can collectively improve our lot and our selves. The claim that we have the ability to improve our selves is one of the claims that was at the heart of the Unitarian controversy in the nineteenth century. That was the conflict between liberal and orthodox Christians that eventually led to the First Parish Church splitting in two. The liberals, who believed that humans have the capacity to improve our selves, became Unitarians and stayed in this building. The orthodox, who claimed that human nature was inherently wicked and could only be redeemed with divine intervention, built the church across the street.
This morning I want to suggest a different purpose for the church than one that comes from the Unitarian tradition. I want to propose a purpose rooted in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. The purpose of the church is to love the Hell out of the world. Yes, we gather to further democratic practice and to build a more democratic society. But we do this because we are called to love the Hell out the world.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He writes about how he once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven.” What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
In New England, one of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. For several years he was a circuit rider who traveled throughout the region spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. You might recall one I have shared with you before. It was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. I imagine it was of the type that many of you live in: a large creaky wooden amalgamation of home and barn with the livestock living not all that far from the people.
Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s eldest son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it when he went out late at night partying and carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. I have used in a couple of sermons. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing through rural New England spreading the gospel of universalism. There is truth to this portrayal but it elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from I Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like I Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian theologian who lived in the second and third centuries of the common era. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived almost two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism because it helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new friend. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point though, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.” You explain. You give them your elevator speech. You might quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or maybe you quote our own Liz Strong, who reflecting on her childhood in Universalist church, wrote: “the center of my religious faith was a powerful belief in the inherent goodness and worth of all life. I believed in a god who loved me and all of creation.”
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
But what comes next? I wonder that about in the story of Ballou and the farm family. Did the family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people someplace in rural New England who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. There is a lot of Hell in the world. And we know by now, from long experience, from all the prophets, is that the only way we can get rid of that Hell is through the power of love. It’s like Kenneth Patchen says in his poem, “The Way Men Live is a Lie:” “There is only one power that can save the world-- / And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.”
There is a lot of Hell in the world right now. This week we learned that since April the United States government has separated 2,000 immigrant children from their parents. 2,000 children. Separated from their parents. That is about as close a definition to Hell as I can find. It comes from the opposite of love. It is built upon the opposite of compassion.
The people who migrate to the United States do so because they have no other choice. It is an unbelievably difficult decision to uproot yourself and your family and travel thousands of miles, not knowing what you will find on the other end, in the hopes of making a better life. It is a decision that people only make when all the other options seem worse. Those options are sometimes to stay home and watch your children starve to death; to stay home and be murdered by paramilitaries; to stay home and be butchered by gangs; to stay home and be killed by an abusive spouse...
Immigrants provide net economic benefits to this country. Ask any honest economist and they will tell you that the United States is a wealthier country because of immigration. Immigrants have brought a wonderful diversity of art, food, and culture to this country. Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and William de Kooning are all iconic American artists. Each one an immigrant. Pizza, a gift from immigrants! St. Patrick’s Day comes from immigrants!
Hate and fear close the borders and try to keep immigrants out. Loving the Hell out of the world demands that we open the borders and let the poor, the marginalized, the frightened, the hungry, and the huddled, in.
Love over hate. This is an actual choice we make. Hate comes from a belief that all of nature can be reduced to the red tooth and claw. There is only so much in the world. You have to compete to get what is yours and damn everyone else. This is a view that turns immigrants into criminals. It prioritizes law over justice. It separates children from their parents. It falsely believes that the United States is worse off with all of the richness that has come from immigrants.
This is kind of hate is a choice. It is a choice that is sometimes based on a misreading of the Unitarian Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species.” It misunderstands observations such as “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” It bolsters this wrong interpretation of Darwin with false readings of the Christian New Testament like the one offered by the Attorney General this week.
Competition is certainly a factor in nature but in sits in tension with cooperation. Social animals like humans and honeybees cooperate with each other. Social animals survive by working together. The building of roads, the creation of schools, the development of science, the construction of a church, the maintenance of a congregation... All are acts of cooperation. Each comes from an often unarticulated belief that we are better working together, striving together, than we are alone.
Love the Hell Out of the World; we are faced with a choice. We can turn to hate or we can turn to compassion. That is why we Unitarian Universalists gather for community, we encourage each other to turn towards compassion. Competition or cooperation, hate or love, it comes down to a wager. We can choose to believe, like orthodox Christians, God will punish all sinners with eternal fire. The fire is coming for us like it was coming for the ne’er-do-well farmer’s son. The country cannot absorb more immigrants. Or we can bet upon love. That God, the perfect parent, will not condemn us to the inferno. That today, in the richest country in the history of the world, there is enough for all of the frightened, the starving, the poor, who come to our borders seeking sanctuary.
It is a bet on what is at the core of our humanity: love or hate, cooperation or competition. To love the Hell out of the world means to choose cooperation over competition. It means to suggest as, did Kenneth Patchen,
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
What have you chosen? As individuals? As a congregation? To love the Hell out of the world? That peace is more redemptive than violence? That we need to march, not fight, for our lives? That love is more powerful than hate?
I leave you with those rhetorical questions. They suggest answers to our three interlaced questions from the beginning of the sermon: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
Those are your questions. You will have to wrestle with them as long as this congregation remains. But now, I have to go. And before I do, let me say this:
I hope that you will continue to love the Hell out of the world.
I love you.
I will carry you in my heart as long as my pulse continues to beat.
And I am deeply grateful for our year together.
Thank you for everything.
Let us give the final word, again, to the poet, who wrote in his non-gender neutral language:
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
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.
May 9, 2017
as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016
This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.
Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce... condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”
The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.
I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.
To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.
That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.
The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.
When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.
The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.
In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.
Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.
The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.
Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives--books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers--and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.
In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.
This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.
What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.
Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.
I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites... The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.
Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.
White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.
The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.
Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.
Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.
So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.
All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe