Nov 13, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017
The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”
It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.
This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.
This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.
Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.
The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:
“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.
This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”
My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.
When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...
We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.
I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.
One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”
We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”
But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.
This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.
Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.
There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?
In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.
The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.
After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:
May my words,
and our time together,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
Amen and Blessed Be.
Mar 27, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, Andover, MA, March 26, 2017
It is nice to be here with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here in Andover two springs ago. I remember your congregation as warm and welcoming. Georgia has been super helpful. I am glad to report that my memories have not been deceptive.
This morning I want to talk with you about God. Specifically, I want us think together about who or what God is and how we imagine God. So, let me start with a question. When I say the word God what image appears? How do you imagine God? Does God have a face? A body? A sweet voice that provides tender inspiration? A stern baritone that rolls like thunder across harsh rebuke? How do you imagine God? Does the very word prompt in you a rising anger? Do you reject any concept of the divine? Do you consider yourself a humanist? Do you put this worldly human concerns over and against any deity’s reality? How do you imagine God?
Our question has perplexed artists, theologians, religious leaders, and, well, really, almost everyone for as long as there has been human culture. In the twentieth-century the theologian Paul Tillich defined God as a symbol for ultimate concern. God represents the thing that matters most to us human beings. That thing is a little different for every person and in every moment of time. Even the most cursory survey of religious history reveals how much our ultimate concern has shifted over the ages.
The most ancient images of the divine are all similar in shape. Paleolithic Venus figurines have been found throughout Europe. Rough carved from a single piece of ivory or stone, they each feature spherical breasts on a spherical body and an exaggerated detailed vulva. No one knows exactly what they mean or how they were used. They were created by a preliterate culture. Most scholars think these millennia old figurines were made for some sacred ritual purpose. Perhaps they used in healing rituals. It might be that they were thought to bring the blessing of fertility. Whatever the case these small statutes of female bodies were created by hands. Someone imagined them. Then that someone patiently chipped and carved and worried the feminine divine from mental image to physical instantiation. Is this aged icon how you imagine God?
Maybe your image of God comes from somewhere else. Perhaps when I say God you envision a dynamic pantheistic cast. Do you see Ganesha, the multi-armed elephant headed Hindu Lord of Obstacles? He places obstacles in the paths of those who grow too haughty. He removes obstacles from others in their times of need. Maybe instead you glimpse beautiful Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. In her bare fleshed perfection, she might be accompanied by another deity from her ancient pantheon. Perhaps she is with her lover Ares, fierce god of war. Maybe your image of the divine is linked to old Egypt. The goddess Bastet, cat headed and woman bodied? Horus with the head of a falcon? Are any these your image of God?
How do you imagine God? Does the word conjure forth visions from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Do you see God reaching forth from a host of angels? His face is bearded and white. He is clad in an off-white robe, almost pink really, and his arm extends to a naked Adam. Adam reclines on a blue green hill. The first man reaches towards God. His finger is slightly crocked. God is struggling to reach him. Adam is just out reach of the divine. He gazes back at divinity with a mixture of laziness and longing. Are these white men frozen in a five hundred year old fresco who you think of when you imagine the divine?
How do you imagine God? It is a question with ethical and political implications. The famous nineteenth-century American agnostic Robert Ingersoll claimed, “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” The divine orderings that we humans imagine are often but celestial reflections of our own earthly concerns. The Venus figurines could have been created because in a Paleolithic community fertility and fecundity, the continuation of the species from one generation to the next, might have been of utmost concern. The complexities of pantheistic hierarchies of deities reflected the emerging complexity of the first urban societies. Michelangelo placed a white man at the pinnacle of the cosmos because his society was ruled by white men. Despite his creative genius he could not imagine, or at least dare to portray, a brown skinned woman or black hued man as his deity.
My own images of God are vague and nondescript. I am ambivalent about theism or the existence of the deity. I suppose as a minister I should have more defined views. But I appreciate that Unitarian Universalism allows us ambiguity. I have had moments of intense connection with something I would call the divine. In a bath of blue, standing before Chagall’s America Windows at the Chicago Art Institute, I see the artist’s fragmented fractal shapes, triangle panes of cobalt, cerulean, cyan, cornflower, sapphire, and turquoise, colliding with magenta and lemon, to form pirouetting figures, candelabrums, an unfolding cityscape of jagged buildings. Blue, Judaism’s color for the divine. One summer Saturday in seminary that bath of blue, washes over me and I feel intrinsically part of the universe, connected to the cool walls, connected to the slapping of shoe soles on the museum’s floor, the whisper of cloth as someone walks past.
Another moment, sipping tea in the kitchen while talking to a friend. The tea is green, bitter but sweet without sugar. My friend and I are having the same conversation we have had every week for the past three years. It’s spring and the first greens of the year peak in through the window. I feel comforted, blessed, connected, not just to my friend but to everything.
Searching the early autumn broadleaf forest for chanterelles, I look down at the leaf litter and see nothing--no apricot stemmed wrinkles of sweet mushroom flesh just browning crumpled leaf litter. I look up at the maples and oaks casting off summer’s lushness for burnt orange and piercing red. I look down again and suddenly see an almost endless array of edible fungus. As I pick pound after pound of the flaming sweet smelling mushrooms I feel like I have entered another reality, the forest and I are, for more than a moment, one.
Yet looking for God I have encountered absence. I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed for a loved one to recover from their addiction and been met with only silence. I have sought divine solace in the midst of restless nights fraught with worry and found none. I have opened my eyes to the horrors of the day--war, desolation, cruelty, greed--and discovered neither meaning nor love ordering our muddy blue green ball of a planet. And so, I am ambivalent about the divine. I have experienced connection and I have discovered absence. What about you?
Better theologians than I can craft doctrines from all of this mess. Today, let us not worry so much about divine existence. In our pluralistic society, and in our liberal religious tradition, it is a deeply personal question. I suspect each of you might share different stories about connection and absence. I know each of you make different conclusions about the existence or nonexistence of the divine. Yet for all of that we share some kind of reality, some set of common reference points.
The poet Wislawa [we slava] Szymborska made a humanist statement that might sum the major argument of this sermon:
We call it a grain of sand
But it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does fine without a name
mistaken, or apt.
Whatever ultimate reality there is in this universe is seen through human eyes and narrated through human stories. We take all of this rough and glorious mess, all of this absence and connection, and cast it into words and symbols. That is the only way we can share with each other something about what it all is and what it all means. The word sand is not quite sand. It is a symbol, a representation, an abstraction both calling to mind the general idea of sand and a particular grain of sand.
So too with God. The word God represents whatever it is we most value, we hold highest in our lives. The Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used to say: “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable which I am now content to call my God.”
How do you imagine God? My own academic research of late has been into how people have represented God. Close to a hundred years ago Marcus Garvey was troubled by white images of God. Garvey is not a name usually uttered in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. In the 1920s he was the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It was the largest mass movement in African American history. It claimed a membership of millions and influenced not only the black freedom struggle in the United States but the struggle against colonialism throughout the globe.
The 1920s were a period of blatant white supremacy. There were race riots throughout country in which whites killed blacks. Lynching was an epidemic. The Ku Klux Klan was a dominant force in American society. It claimed millions of members. In response, Garvey preached what later would be called black pride. He wanted black people not be ashamed of the color of their skin. One of his strategies was to attack white symbols of the divine. He told his followers to reject a white Jesus and a white Mary. Instead, he encouraged them to worship the Black Man of Sorrows and a Black Madonna.
Though he is best remembered as bombastic and egotistical, Garvey could be a remarkably subtle thinker. After encouraging his followers to worship a black Christ he told them, “Christ was not black. Christ was not white, Christ was not completely red--Christ was the embodiment of all humanity. To be Christ he must have an equal part of all mankind in Him.” The Christian New Testament offers no physical description of Jesus. Garvey thought white people had a white Jesus because their ultimate concern was for whites. He wanted black people to have a black Jesus to express that their ultimate concern was for blacks.
What do such racially charged images do for your imaginings of God? Fill you with pride? Trouble with you? Appear irrelevant? In raising these images of God this morning I am trying to make three interwoven gestures. First, whatever the reality of the divine, our images of the sacred are human constructions. Second, the pictures we create of the holy matter. A white male God in heaven justifies white male rule on earth. Any honest student of history can tell you that white male rule on earth means a society organized for the benefit of white men. Different images of God lend their authority to different kinds of social structures. Third, whatever it is that these images represent is ultimately beyond human language. For me, God is best understood as an experience of transcendental connection, an experience of being a part of something greater, vaster, than myself. Your understanding of God might be different. But whatever the case, words will fail to help us reach agreement about the nature of the divine. If they could we as a human species would have long ago settled on who and what God is. But we haven’t.
Please do not understand these three gestures as a call for iconoclasm. I am not suggesting that we destroy our images of the sacred. Art provides one of the paths to connection with whatever it is that finally lies beyond about our ability to describe.
Our Puritan ancestors were suspicious of images of the holy. They took the Hebrew Bible’s third commandment of making no graven images quite seriously. Many a New England meeting house lacks stained glass, features white washed walls, and contains not a hint of representation.
We need not embrace such iconoclasm. Instead, I suggest that we approach our religious symbols with humility. Let us remember that they are but representations of the divine. They are not God, just as God is not God’s name. If we find that these symbols help us to connect to each other and to the transcendent mystery and wonder of which we are all a part then let us celebrate them. If, instead, we discover that they separate us from each other or justify a tyrant on earth then maybe we should hold our images of God to be idolatrous. Such images are not worthy of destruction but they are not worthy of worship either.
How do you imagine God? The late poet Derek Walcott translated his experience of connection:
A fish breaks the Sabbath
With a silvery leap.
The scales fall from him
In a tinkle of church-bells;
The town streets are orange
With the week-ripened sunlight
Do such words help you commune with whatever it is that lies beyond all human language? There is beauty in them for me. When I read them I feel connected to something beyond my myself.
This fine morning, may you find beauty and a sense of connection in all of the words and symbols you use to describe that which cannot be described. May you share that beauty with others. In doing so, you might find a richer sense of connection. Again, Walcott:
Of sunlight and pigeons,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.