May 22, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Church:
Yesterday during the service I let the congregation know that I will not be able to renew my contract with the First Parish Church for a second year. I have accepted a position as the senior interim minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Greater Houston, Texas. I am both excited and disappointed about this opportunity. I am excited to have the chance to serve a large vibrant congregation as they go through the process of seeking a new settled minister. And I am disappointed to have to draw my ministerial relationship with First Parish Church to a close. I have had a truly wonderful year with you all and will be forever grateful for your accompaniment during my last year of graduate school. Thank you so much for everything!
I will be with you for two more Sundays in June. During the first of those services, June 3rd, we will be welcoming new members into the church. At the second, June 17th, we will be celebrating the congregation’s annual flower communion. I look forward to both of them and the end of the year picnic after the June 17th service.
Again, thank you for the wonderful year! I close by offering you not a poem about endings or leave taking but simply one of my favorite texts of all time, Tu Fu’s “By the Winding River I” as translated by Kenneth Rexroth. The last two lines include a question I ask myself most days as I struggle to make sense of all of the beauty and the madness in the world. I will miss you!
“By the Winding River I”
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a litte
While, why should men cross each other?
May 21, 2018
Dear Members of the First Houston Community:
I am thrilled to be joining you this August as your senior interim minister. A time of ministerial transition is a very special time for a congregation. It can bring anxiety and hope as you both celebrate First Houston’s past and imagine its future while you prepare for your next settled ministry. I look forward to accompanying you in your process.
A little bit about me: I bring to your congregation a wealth of experience from my more than ten years as a parish and community minister. Next week I graduate from Harvard University with a PhD in American Studies. I love the ministry and this year I have decided to transition back to the parish ministry following several years in the academy. Prior to my time at Harvard I served as the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. And for the last year, I have served as the minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA. My eleven year-old son Asa will be coming to Houston with me. My nineteen year-old daughter is currently a sophomore at Lewis and Clark in Portland, OR. She was actually in Houston this past March with my parents. My father is one of the judges at Fotofest. You can learn more about me via my website www.colinbossen.com.
One of my core beliefs is we should each work to bring a little bit more beauty into the world. There are many ways we can do this: simple acts of kindness, arranging flowers, sharing a meal, creating a work of art, drawing a brush across a snare drum... I love poetry. I think it makes the world a more beautiful place. And so, I will generally include at least a fragment of a poem in each of my regular newsletter columns. Today I offer you “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change” by the Palestinian-American (and Texan) poet Naimi Shihab Nye:
Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.
Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.
Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.
Nye’s words are ones that give me comfort during times of transition. They remind me that the cliche is true: the only constant is change. Embracing that truism will be part of our work together during my interim ministry. We will work on honoring the past, accepting change, and planning, dreaming, and hoping for the future. I know it will be an exciting time and I am honored to share it with you.
May 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, May 6, 2018
This morning I thought I would offer you a sermon reflecting on some religious texts and stories that I have found to be helpful in my own spiritual practice. I want to share with some lessons I have found in the Chinese religion of Taoism. Or at least, the lessons I have discovered in the interpretations of Taoism offered by European and Euro-American thinkers.
One of the things that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it has an openness that encourages us to explore scriptures and practices from outside of the European cultures. This openness though should also be exercised with a certain amount of humility and respect. Religious practices develop in particular contexts. When we take those practices and place them within a different context then we change them. We change them in ways that sometimes can make people from the cultures that they came from uncomfortable. To offer an example from our own congregational life, the Seder that this congregation hosts each year is quite different than the Seders held in the homes of Orthodox Jews. I have no doubt that many of the orthodox would be quite uncomfortable with the Seder. And yet, for members and friends of Ashby’s liberal Jewish community the Seder is a meaningful ritual that is a highlight of the year.
Religion is not something that is fixed. Even the most conservative of religious traditions changes over time. To give one example, the Roman Catholic church more-or-less permitted the marriage of priests until the eleventh century. And yet, one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalism is the belief that despite the transient nature of religious tradition there is a certain core religious experience that persists across time and culture. There’s a line from the Hindu Rig Veda that in my reading makes a similar point. It states, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher have made a similar point when they have argued that religion stems from our experience of connection to something larger than ourselves. As he put it, we experience “everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite.” The experience of connection is a universal human phenomenon. Exactly how we interpret it is influenced by the particular cultures we find ourselves in.
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that there is wisdom to be gained from each particular expression of the universal experience of connection. I can learn from talking with you about your experience. I suspect that you can learn from talking with me about my experience. And I know that we can gain something by discussing the experiences that others have had in other places and in other times.
There’s a certain way in which I think that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion might be summarized by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know it? A few verses from it read:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
In the poem Stevens offers thirteen different descriptions of the blackbird. Each is different. Each offers a different understanding of the bird. However, despite the different descriptions there’s only one bird.
In the Unitarian Universalist view, religion is a bit like the blackbird. The world’s different traditions are all offering descriptions of something that is ultimately beyond description: our human place in the great disorder of things.
Now with that set of overly long caveats aside, I want to turn our attention to one of some of the Taoist stories that I have found helpful in my own attempt to lead a more faithful religious life and make my way on this confusing, muddy, planet we call Earth.
The first story is perhaps one you have heard before. In one version it reads, “I, Chuang Tzu, once dreamed I was a butterfly--a butterfly fluttering here and there, without worry or desire, unaware of being human. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, again ‘my own self.’ Now this is unclear to me: was I a man who dreaming he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams he is a man? There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.
On first reading, it is a slippery story. The point is difficult to grasp. The Chuang Tzu does not know whether he is man or butterfly. He is, however, one or the other. He is either a man dreaming he is a butterfly or he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. I suspect that the key to the story is found in the last two sentences: “There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.” Chuang Tzu can either be a butterfly or a man. He cannot be both.
The story communicates one of the core ideas of Taoism, at least as it is understood by European and Euro-American scholars. Everything is understood to have its own nature, its own way of being in the world. Butterflies flutter here and there. They lack worry or desire but instead seek milkweed nectar or quest for sunflowers. People worry about whether or not they are butterflies. The Taoist point seems to be that it does not matter which you are as long as you try to uncover your own nature. But then, it is a slippery story. Your interpretation might be somewhat different than my own.
Much of Taoism a bit slippery like that. Unlike a lot of other religious traditions, it lacks a meta-narrative, an overarching story of existence. There is no central text with a creation story like those found in the Hebrew Bible or Hindu scriptures. And there’s no salvation narrative suggesting that we are somehow flawed beings that need to be saved. Such narratives are found in the Christian New Testament or in the life of Buddha. All of this might suggest a challenge to the motto I suggested earlier, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” However, as the Euro-American scholar Thomas Cleary has argued, “Taoism is based... on the experience of... [the] universal Way, the essential reality which all derivative ways might be comprehended.”
This is quite similar to the liberal theological assertion that at the core of religion is the the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. In Clearly’s interpretation of Taoism, we are part of the universal Way (the Tao), the nature of everything. And we each have our own individual ways, or natures, that stem from it. The purpose of Taoism is to uncover or discover our individual way and live in harmony with the greater way of which we are a part.
I read the contemporary classic the Tao of Pooh in high school. Have any of you read it? It is a charming book that attempts to communicate the core teachings of Taoism in a fashion that is accessible for those unfamiliar with the tradition. It uses the characters from the Winnie the Pooh children stories to share insights its author has gained from Taoism. It has been criticized by scholars as presenting a European reading of Taoism that strips it of its original cultural context. Nonetheless, I find its core insight appealing. It suggests that the authentic religious life is about being present with the self and present to the world around the self. Or, as the text says, "While Eeyore frets... and Piglet hesitates... and Rabbit calculates... and Owl pontificates... Pooh just is."
Another Euro-American interpreter of Taoism named Alan Watts tried to express the same insight with these words, “What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here.”
Taoism itself is an ancient tradition that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It emerged as a body of written teachings around the fourth century BCE. I say as a body of written teachings because like most traditions it had a lot of sources. If it is about uncovering what is already here then that is something that people have been uncovering and discovering for as long as there have been people.
The first Taoist text is generally thought to be the Tao Te Ching, the book of changes. It was compiled by someone called Lao Tzu, whose name translates into old master. It is debatable as to whether he was a historical figure or a mythical one. Some claim he was a royal librarian in an early Chinese dynasty. He is said to have eventually grown tired of the intrigues of court life. He quit his position and left the kingdom to seek a life of contemplation. On the way out of the kingdom he stopped to spend the night at the last gate before the wilderness. The gatekeeper recognized him and asked him to leave some of his wisdom behind. And that wisdom was the Tao Te Ching.
The other great Taoist teacher was Chuang Tzu. He almost certainly was a real person. There are records of someone with the same name that appear in the second and third centuries BCE. Chuang Tzu’s text bears his name. It is a book of stories. Some, like the butterfly story, are cryptic or enigmatic. Others make their point a bit more clearly.
I have read the Chuang Tzu numerous times and found in its advice about being who we are to be useful. One story suggests that it is good to have a healthy skepticism of technology. The story is about an old gardener and a young engineer. One day the young engineer was walking back to the capital city. As he walked he came across an old gardener, drawing a bucket of water from a well. He watched the old man. The old man walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Then he walked over to his garden, some distance away, and dumped the water on his vegetables. He repeated this process many times. Walking over to the well and returning with the heavy bucket filled with water until his garden was finally watered.
All of this seemed like a lot of effort to the engineer. He approached the gardener and told him, “Hey, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden much better and with a lot less effort. Would you not like that?”
“What is the contraption” replied the gardener.
“It is a wooden lever. It is heavy in the back and light in the front. It draws water from the well, as you do with your bucket, but in a steadily flowing stream. It is called a well sweep.”
The gardener is said to have looked at the young engineer with an expression of annoyance. And then he is said to have laugh and told the young man, “I have heard my teacher say that those who use tricky tools are tricky in their business affairs, and those who are tricky in their business affairs have trickery in their hearts, and those who have trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure and unspoilt, and those who are not pure and unspoilt have a restless spirit, and those who have a restless spirit, in them Tao cannot exist. Not that I am unfamiliar with such a contraption--I would be ashamed to use one.”
Supposedly, the engineer bowed his head in shame and left the gardener to his buckets, well, and garden. The point of the story seems clear enough to me. Technology can distract us from our inner nature, the experience of what it means to be human in this wild world. Now, if that was true in Chuang Tzu’s day, it is certainly true in ours. How easily do we get distracted by all of the technological devices that surround us. I will admit that my cell phone can provide constant distraction. It can take me away from my surroundings and my relationships. It is easy to get immersed in the little rectangular screen. And when I do I frequently find myself feeling disconnected from the world immediately around me. What about you? Do you ever find technology distracting?
One way I remind myself of my connection to something larger than myself is through my own practice of foraging. It is spring and good things to eat are starting to grow everywhere. They can be found in the woods and in the roadside ditches. Collecting mushrooms and wild greens reminds me of how our earliest human ancestors found their sustenance. It gets me a little closer to the early human experience of the world.
Foraging I have learned to see the world as filled with abundance and scarcity. Viewed this way, the world becomes a place where survival depends upon connection to and understanding of the landscape that surrounds us. And this is very different from the way I inhabit the world much of the time. Sometimes when I am not foraging it does not matter if I am distracted by the glow of a screen. When I am foraging it absolutely does. There is no way I could find dandelion greens or fiddlehead ferns or morel mushrooms if I spent my time in the woods gazing at my cell phone.
Foraging helps me to be present in the moment. It reminds me that being present can be its own reward. And that being present requires me to accept what there is rather than what I desire. And that when that when I do that I can discover things that I might not otherwise discover.
I am reminded of this almost every time I go out foraging. I remember one instance when a friend and I went traipsing through the woods looking for morel mushrooms. It was a frustrating experience. We went to our favorite morel patches and found none. We found elm trees but no morels. We found an abandoned apple orchard but no morels. We looked under ash trees. We looked under oak trees. No morels. This went on for several hours. Suddenly my friend yelled, “Ramps!” And there they were, a large patch of ramps, wild leeks. There was enough for dinner, and the next day’s dinner, and dinner for the day after that.
It was a good reminder that when we are present to the moment we might not find what we are looking but we will find something. And that something is often good in and of itself and worth celebrating. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you were looking for one thing and then found something completely different? And that thing was glorious?
This, to me, is the message of Taoism, or at least the message of Taoism seen through its European interpreters. As the scholar Alan Watts tells us, “What we are seeking is... already here.” Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church put it another way, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Let us say that last phrase together, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”
We cannot be both a butterfly and a human. There is some essential nature to both the butterfly and the human that is unique. Let us accept that nature and, in doing so, open ourselves to the present moment in which we are immersed.
May it be so for each of us.
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 14, 2018
as preached at First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, April 1, 2018
It is good to see you all this morning. Last night I was with many of you for the seder the congregation hosted. It was lovely. The company was excellent. The food was delicious. And the afikomen was found quickly. It was also a nice reminder that as Unitarian Universalists we celebrate and draw all of the religious traditions in the world. Indeed, many of us come from interfaith families or have multiple religious identities. My own family background is Jewish and Christian. My parents raised us Unitarian Universalist because they felt Unitarian Universalism was a religious community in which both of their religious traditions would be honored. And I think that the confluence of Passover and Easter this year has been a nice reminder that they were right. We can authentically celebrate both, in part because we have both people of Jewish and Christian identity in our community. We recognize that religion begins with personal experiences of awe and wonder at the great mystery that is life. We all interpret those experiences from different perspectives and different cultural backgrounds. And so while last night we hosted a seder, this morning we are offering an Easter service.
Since it is an Easter service, I thought it appropriate that we take our readings from the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament. The two I picked are traditionally paired together during the Easter season. From all of that text I want to focus on a sentence fragment found at Luke 24:16. We read it as "but their eyes were kept from recognizing him." I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, "but something prevented them from recognizing him."
The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus's disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus's execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement's leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," the text explains.
Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, "but something prevented them from recognizing him." In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, "something prevented them from recognizing him."
Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus's disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.
Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an "idle tale" or "nonsense." Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.
Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.
This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend's favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.
Such encounters are embarrassing. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.
When police officers murder people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. The police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked "like a demon." That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.
Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we "must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon." She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Trayvon. They both belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and just last week Stephon Clark, the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 313 people they have killed thus far in 2018?
I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.
One of the principal theologians of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within "the likeness to God." Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, "from the frail flower to the everlasting stars." Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment.
This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.
Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus's teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.
Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?
Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in many of our professional lives. As many of you know, in addition to being a minister, I am also an academic. So, let me share some observations from that context. Perhaps they will be familiar to you. A regular feature of academic life is the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except... these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.
Have you witnessed any of the following: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else's query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.
Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague's question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other's work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.
When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. Have you ever done something similar? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?
Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people "who believe that they are white," in Ta-Nehisi Coates's memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.
Most people who believe they are white believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this.
The theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the "Race Game." The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you might tell a friend: "I went to church this morning. The preacher was an articulate white man. He brought with him his eleven-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!"
The "Race Game" can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, "wrote apologetically," she could not complete the game, "though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so."
It might seem a little absurd to play the “Race Game” in a community like Ashby that, according to the last census, is 97% white. But, on some level, that is precise the point. We risk failing to recognize each other when we assume that our own experiences are normal and that the experiences of others are aberrations.
Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: "The preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man." The Social Class Game: "He was an upper middle-class professional." The Ableism Game: "The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity." Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.
But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.
What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world's powers and principalities.
Last week’s March for Our Lives could be interpreted as a cry that we, collectively, as a country learn to recognize the human in every person. It was a statement that human lives must come before the right to own highpower firearms. The Black Lives Matter movement of recent years can be understood as an attempt to prompt our historically white supremacist culture to recognize the human in people of color. The Women’s Marches of the past two years are part of an effort to dismantle patriarchal power and, in doing so, create a society that fully recognizes the human in people of all genders.
The first year of the current President’s regime has been been a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty.
Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, "You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, "Look, here it is," or "There it is! "For the kingdom of God is among you!"
It is the poets who sum this sermon best.
T. S. Eliot:
"Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?"
Jimmy Santiago Baca:
"the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is."
"Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent"
Let us join together in a closing prayer.
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
all that prevents us from recognizing
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.
Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
comforting the afflicted,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.
May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.
Amen and Blessed Be.
May 5, 2018
April was a busy month, both for me and for the congregation. As many of you know, I successfully defended my dissertation on April 26th. I am now officially the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen! The completion of my doctorate was the result of six years of hard work. I am grateful to the many people who have supported me throughout the process including you, the members and friends of First Parish Church. It has been a privilege to serve as your minister during the final year of my process and I really couldn’t have made it across the finish line without the support and encouragement you all have given me.
April was also a busy month for the First Parish Church. The congregation hosted an Earth Day event which was well attended by both members and people who live in town. The annual meeting took place as well. Attendance was better than it has been in the recent past. I think that’s a good sign of the increase in energy that seems to be present in First Parish Church. There’s excitement about the congregation’s social justice and public events. In addition, Sunday morning service attendance is holding steady and the stewardship campaign has been the most successful in several years.
My own personal busyness has meant that I have fallen behind on posting my sermons online. I will rectify that next week. When I post tomorrow’s sermon and April’s sermons online I will send you an email to let you know they are available. I apologize for my delay but in addition to submitting and defending the dissertation I also spent part of last week traveling to consult with a private philanthropic organization about the future of social justice organizing. It was an interesting experience, and one that I will happily discuss with you, but it meant that I fell slightly behind on my work with you.
Tomorrow my sermon is inspired by Taoism and titled “Zhuangzi and the Butterfly.” I will be back in Ashby on May 20 to preach a belated sermon in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is titled “The Most Notorious Liar in America.” In the near future one of our services will also be featuring a new members ceremony. It seems that there are a few people who want to join First Parish Church. I am excited about welcoming them into congregational membership.
This month’s sermons don’t use poems for their readings. And so, rather than offering you a poem that we will read as a part of service, I simply offer you one of my favorite poems:
Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
I hope to see you soon!
Apr 11, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, April 8, 2018
I am grateful for the invitation to fill your pulpit this morning as we pause to reflect upon and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Your minister, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, is a dear friend of mine. She is someone who I knew before she entered seminary. And so, it is a special privilege to be able preach from the pulpit she regularly graces. It is also a particular privilege to be in Philadelphia. My parents are from the civil rights generation. They met here while my mother was a teacher at Kenderton School in North Philly. And I grew up with stories about their involvement in civil rights efforts here, their participation in the teacher's union, and their connections to your city's vibrant arts community. So, in some sense, even though I have never lived in Philadelphia, this city's movements for justice have deeply shaped who I am and my commitments to antiracism and the labor movement.
This week many good-hearted people have paused to honor Dr. King. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, took three days out of her busy schedule to travel down to Memphis, Tennessee so that she could be present with the religious leaders, civil rights veterans, union organizers, and ordinary dreamers of peace and justice who gathered together to remember Dr. King on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. In order to be in Memphis, the Rev. Frederick-Gray turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, DC to participate in the remembrances organized by the National Council of Churches. I think her choice could be interpreted as a statement about the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Our fate as Unitarian Universalists is tied to those who dare to imagine that a world filled with peace and justice is possible. Dr. King taught that if we were not going to perish together as fools we need to dream of and then create a world where the psychic toxins of white supremacy have been purged from this nation and the globe, a world where we have set aside our gross materialism to live in sustainable harmony with our muddy blue ball of a planet, and a world where revolutionary love, rather than stultifying violence, is used to mediate our conflicts and solve our problems. Our collective fate as religious liberals is far more bound up with the fates of the visionaries who dream of such a world than it is with the fates of the mainline denominations or the moderate mainstream of American culture. This why Dr. King considered us friends and once referred to our tradition as "so near and dear" to him. It is why he often visited Arlington Street Church when he was a student in Boston. And it is why he took time on two occasions to directly speak to us as Unitarian Universalists and share with us what he hoped from our movement. He hoped "the church... [would remain] awake during a great revolution."
Now all of that should enough of what a Baptist minister friend of mine calls "throat clearing." I would, however, be remiss if I failed to extend a final note of gratitude to your guest music director, Nate, to Benjamin, who prepared the order of service, and, of course, to Anne. Working with each of them has been a reminder that while I may prepare my sermon alone worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
The title of today's sermon is "The Most Notorious Liar in America." Have you heard these words before? They are a phrase the director of the FBI used to describe Dr. King in 1964. I have chosen this phrase as the title of my sermon for two reasons. First, they are a reminder that Martin King was not always lauded during his lifetime. In his later years, as he turned from working to end segregation to critiquing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, he became increasing unpopular. In 1966 more than two thirds of Americans disapproved of him. That same year, 85 percent of white people said that the civil rights movement hurt African Americans more than it helped them. After he died some 31 percent of whites thought that King brought his assassination on himself. In the last fifty years the earthly powers and principalities have gone from calling him "the most notorious liar in America" to whitewashing him. In the imaginations of many he has become not that the man who told us "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society" but the man who dreamed only "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently observed, "America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages." In his transformation from marcher to martyr Martin King underwent the transmutation from maladjusted prophet to co-opted saint of the status quo.
Second, I choose the FBI director's words because Martin King was not the most notorious liar in America. He was this country's greatest truth teller. He told the truth about racism. It diminishes us all. As he said, "all life is interrelated, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you out to be until I am what I ought to be." He told the truth about militarism. He knew, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." He told the truth about poverty. He reminded us that we lived among "economic conditions... [that] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few..." He told the truth about the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who say that they are for justice but loathe marchers and celebrate martyrs. He said, "I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities than the truth. Their power is rooted in lies. It is watered by falsehoods. It is grounded in fabrications.
We live in era of fake news. We live at a time when the President of the United States could be described as the liar-in-chief. In his first six months in office he told six times as many lies as the previous President told in eight years. The current President lies about migrants. He lies about people of color. He lies about poverty. He lies about women. He lies about climate change. He staffs his administration with liars who lie for him and tell us that violence will bring peace, that trade wars will bring prosperity, that isolation is better than interconnection...
The words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were made for our time:
Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees
and who write unjust judgments which they have prescribed
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to take away the right from the poor of My people,
that widows may be their prey,
and that they may rob the fatherless!"
We can imagine that Isaiah was named the most notorious liar in Judah. The world's powers and principalities have feared the truth for as long as the prophets have spoken it. Perhaps that is why we are reminded in the Gospel of John, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." During his brief thirty-nine years Dr. King gave us the truth that could shatter the lies of those who keep the human family divided, of those who profit from what he named as the triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism, of those who peddle fake news and climate change denial, of those who exploit women and push transphobia and homophobia. That truth is, "We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." The language may be gender limited but the core insight he offered shines through all the same, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. Today, fifty years after Martin King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the truth does not just threaten to disrupt the worldly powers and principalities. The truth remains challenging for many good-hearted people to hear. The truth threatens the comfort of those of who Dr. King called "the white moderate."
Some years I was reminded of just how difficult truth can be for the white moderate. I was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in suburban Boston. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. I took for my text Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." On that Sunday we read the passage where Dr. King takes moderates to task for being conflict adverse for, as he put it, preferring a "negative peace... [with] the absence of tension to a positive peace... [with] the presence of justice."
Now, I admit I was angry. But as the bumper sticker tell us, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." I was upset about living in a society where Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Stephon Clark have all died violent deaths. I was mad about living in a country where, in 2017, 1,193 people were killed by the police. That is five times the number of people who lynched at the height of lynching. I was irate about a country where the median wealth of a white family is seven times that of a black family and five times that of a Latinx family; where the unemployment and poverty rates of most people of color are two to three times those of whites; and where African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
It was near the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. I might have been injudicious with my words. I praised the brave prophetic protestors. I called the police killing of an unarmed man like Stephon Clark a murder. And I celebrated a group of activists who, to support Black Lives Matter, had done what Dr. King had frequently done. They had committed civil disobedience to draw attention to the systematic racism that festers at the heart of American society. They had occupied a major highway for several hours and blocked traffic from flowing into Boston.
Would you like to know what happened after the service? I was not greeted with the normal courtesies extended to the guest preacher. Instead, someone told me how upset they were that I describe the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police as murders. They wanted to know how I could have the knowledge that juries lacked when they acquit police officers after they kill people. That is a perspective that assumes that justice in America is race blind. And yet, we know, that it is anything but race blind.
Another group cornered me to share how much they disapproved of the protestors blocking the highway. They had been inconvenienced on their commutes. They failed to see how that civil disobedience was effective to the cause of racial justice. And they thought that as a minister I should criticize such activists rather than praise them. The next day I received an email from my ministerial colleague who had invited me to preach at the congregation, disinviting me from preaching there in the future.
I share this story not to turn myself into some sort of hero. Perhaps you agree with my colleague and their congregants. If so, that is fine. Disagreement is sometimes necessary for dialogue. But know this, I offer the story as an example of the ways we Unitarian Universalists can find the truth about racism in this country upsetting. It can be hard to recognize the truth that fifty years after the murder of Dr. King this country remains as racially unequal as ever. It can be even harder to realize that many of us have benefitted and participated from the systems perpetuate such racial disparity. And it can terrifying to recognize that changing such systems requires all of us to be maladjusted to the status quo and, for some of us, to risk losing our comforts.
The most notorious liar in America... Dr. King understood that the truth could be terrifying, upsetting, and dangerous. And yet, he gave his life to speak that truth. He shared that truth with us Unitarian Universalists on two occasions. The second time was in 1966, a text from which we have already read. The first time was in 1964 when he delivered a eulogy for the Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian Universalist minister beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama because he marched for civil rights.
In eulogizing Reeb, Martin King urged us not ask the question: "Who killed James Reeb?" Instead, he encouraged us to ask, "What killed James Reeb." And he observed, "When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
Dr. King gave a true answer to his rhetorical question. And it was an answer that all of us might find challenging. He said, and I apologize for the dated racial language:
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every… [black person] who tacitly accepts the evil systems of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
Martin King wanted us to know that James Reeb was, in some sense, killed by all of us. The same might be said of Dr. King himself. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger but there is a larger truth. That larger truth is terrifying. Dr. King he died because this country hates marchers but loves martyrs. Dr. King died because this country was built upon the systematic exploitation of people with black and brown bodies. Dr. King died because he threatened the standing racial order. Dr. King died because someone who spoke the truth to the worldly powers and principalities could be labelled the most notorious liar in America.
In the last two years several prominent leaders of Black Lives Matter have died. Muhiyidin Moye was shot in New Orleans. His murderers remain at large. Erica Garner suffered a fatal heart attack. It was brought on by the stress of trying to achieve justice for her father Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City police. Shall we not say that these modern prophets were killed by the same system that killed Dr. King? As Erica Garner said before she died, "People are dying. This is real."
Facing the truth that the same system that killed Dr. King remains with us today is difficult. I choose as one of our hymns "We Shall Overcome" to try to point us to a different truth, that we shall eventually transform this system, defeat the evil triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, and live together in peace. But today, I have to admit, that fifty years after Martin King's death I am not so certain. What about you? Do you believe deep in your heart that we shall overcome? Or is the hope found in the song actually a lie? What do you think?
The most notorious liar in America... Is the actual lie that there will be victory over the systems that oppress us all? Perhaps, militarism, racism, and poverty will endure forever. Was it not Jesus who said, "The poor you will always have with you." Maybe that is the truth.
But if it is, surely it must lie alongside another truth, a truth that I have not yet mentioned, the truth that was at the core of Dr. King's life, the truth that made him so dangerous to the earthly powers and principalities. That truth is that the most powerful force in the world, the most powerful force for justice, is and has always been love. Dr. King told us this love "is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all… an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, [they love]… a person who does evil while hating the deed."
Speaking the truth is terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities. Living the truth of love is even more threatening to them. I was reminded of this just recently when I received a letter from my friend Keith "Malik" Washington. Malik is a prison abolitionist. He believes that the prison system in the United States is a new form of slavery. And he wants to abolish it, just as we abolished chattel slavery.
Malik is one of the bravest people I know. He was one of the organizers of 2016 prison strikes that spread across the country. As many as 60,000 prisoners refused to work in protest to their subhuman conditions. It was one of the largest prison strikes in the history of this country. In retaliation for his role in organizing the strike Malik has been placed in the hole, which is to say in solitary confinement, in a jail in Texas. He has sent me letters describing the awful state of his cell, the brutality of the guards, and the, sometimes fatal, plight of his fellow prisoners.
In his most recent letter Malik was reflecting on the legacy of Martin King. He wrote about "the prevalent psyche in Amerikan society." It is that "Prisoners are bad not deserving of attention or love. Prisoners who are subhumans who deserve what they get!" He asked, "So how do we combat this Colin? We combat it with love! We humanize prisoners as much as we can in the public eye!" And then he made what seemed a remarkable statement, "I get angry and frustrated at times--but I have discovered that love is the best weapon I can have in my arsenal." This from a man who regularly suffers what I can only describe as torture. No wonder love is so threatening to the earthly powers and principalities.
You know, in the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday of Easter. And Malik's letter has had me thinking a bit about a truth that relates to Dr. King. That truth is that the love of Dr. King lives on. It is something that we must resurrect in ourselves this morning. If we are to ever overcome, if we are not turn Martin King into the most notorious liar in America, we need to resurrect the love that he taught in our hearts, just as Malik has done.
And Malik's love speaks to yet another truth, the final truth I want to share with you this morning. While Martin King was this country's most articulate purveyor of truth and love, he was not the only one. We risk turning him from a marcher to a martyr if we hold him as the sole example of someone who lived a life dedicated to acting with love and speaking truth. He was part of a movement, a movement that included numerous other brave prophets who struggled for justice. When we honor Dr. King we sometimes elide them. And so, I want to close, not with Dr. King's words but the words of three women who were the backbone of the civil rights generation. Without them there would have been no movement. Without the movement there would have been no Martin King.
Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Coretta Scott King:
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others find unnamable,
be with us this morning,
and every morning,
as we strive towards the truth,
as we learn to love,
so that someday,
in Martin King's words:
"we can sing 'We Shall Overcome'
because somehow we know the arc of moral universe
is long but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right:
'No lie can live forever.'
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right:
'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.'"
Let us have faith
that we shall overcome
not because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the most notorious liar in America
but because he was this country's greatest truth teller
and his truth
and his love can live in all of us.
Let the congregation say "Amen."
Mar 31, 2018
I am looking forward to seeing many of you at the seder the congregation is hosting this evening and during the service tomorrow morning. As you might know, I grew up in an interfaith family that celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays. My parents raised us Unitarian Universalist because they felt Unitarian Universalism offered a community that welcomed both of their religious traditions. When I lived with my parents we observed both Easter and Passover.
I have continued to observe both holidays as an adult and to celebrate them with my children. My theology leans pretty far away from the resurrection narrative or the idea that Jesus was a divine savior. Nonetheless, I find rich meaning in the ways that Easter reminds us love can conquer death. After despair comes the hope of spring.
In my parents’ house, Passover was a time when we lifted up hope for human liberation from oppression. Some years we had a fairly traditional seder. Other times, we used a Haggadah from the civil rights movement that related the Passover story to the long struggle for justice. In both cases, we remembered what previous generations had undergone. We also paused to reflect upon all of the work needed so that next year the world that may be peace.
While I am celebrating Passover tonight, tomorrow, I will be preaching a sermon for Easter titled “Finding Each Other on the Road to Emmaus.” I will be with you all again at the end of the month for "A Place to Grow Our Souls: Bring a Friend Sunday." As the title suggests, the service will be an opportunity to bring a friend to the congregation. Please invite someone so we can share with them a little of the special something that is the First Parish Church! On April 22nd, instead of a regular worship service there will be a service service in which people will gather to mark Earth Day by leading a townwide clean-up. If you’re interested in participating just meet at the congregation at 10:00 a.m. like you would on a regular Sunday.
In case you missed them, the texts from last month’s sermons are available online. The March 4th stewardship service was “For What We Have, For What We Give” and the March 25th service was “Our Foremothers’ Blessing.”
Instead of a poem this month, I offer you a few words from the late Detroit based activist Grace Lee Boggs. She writes:
These are the times that try our souls. Each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation. Each of us needs to be awakened to a personal and compassionate recognition of the inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies, between our physical and psychical well-being, and between our selves and all the other selves in our country and in the world. Each of us needs to stop being a passive observer of the suffering that we know is going on in the world and start identifying with the sufferers. Each of us needs to make a leap that is both practical and philosophical, beyond determinism to self-determination. Each of us has to be true to and enhance our own humanity by embracing and practicing the conviction that as human beings we have free will; that despite the powers and principalities that are bent on objectifying and commodifying us and all our human relationships, the interlocking crises of our time require that we exercise the power within us to make principled choices in our ongoing daily and political lives, choices that will eventually, although not inevitably—there are no guarantees—make a difference.
I hope to see you soon!
as preached at First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 25, 2018
Yesterday, Asa and I attended the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was inspiring to be in a group of tens of thousands walking from Roxbury Crossing to the Common. In a time when it is easy to despair, a movement started by high schoolers against gun violence is inspiring. The leadership of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been an important reminder that no matter how young, or how old, we are we can work to change world.
I understand that here in Ashby the March for Our Lives hosted by the congregation was quite a success. I have been told that over a hundred people turned up and there were moving speeches by several of local high school students. It is wonderful that our social justice group was able to organize such an event.
Before we get started with the sermon proper I thought it would be nice to bring the spirit of the march into our sanctuary and sing a classic protest song from our hymnal. #170 in the grey hymnal "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" is a pretty good expression of the feelings a lot of us have in response to the epidemic of gun violence. We can sing it without accompaniment, a cappella.
Thank you for singing with me. Let me start the sermon proper. When she was very young Margaret Fuller stopped on a staircase in her parents' house and asked herself four questions: "How came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?" These are big, religious, questions about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. I suspect that many of us have asked ourselves similar ones at various times in our lives. Certainly, as a religious community, we are called to ask parallel questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? How did we get to be this way? What shall we do about it?
Our religious tradition encourages us to draw from a variety of different sources when we try answer such questions. As theological liberals the most important source that we draw from has always been personal experience. It is a core principle of religious liberalism that theological reflection begins with our personal experiences. As the official list of our sources begins, we draw upon "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder... which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
Personal experiences are not enough on their own. To find answers we turn to collective wisdom in its various forms. Collective wisdom tempers our experiences and aids us in their interpretation. One of the places we can look to for collective wisdom is in the lives and teachings of our religious ancestors.
We are blessed to number among our religious ancestors some of history's most illustrious names. Several U.S. Presidents, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft were Unitarian. We can claim artists and musicians like the composer Bela Bartok and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Our rolls contain social justice activists such as the leading women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the civil libertarian Roger Baldwin and the pioneering abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; scientists like Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling and the astronomer Maria Mitchell; and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Beatrix Potter.
The lives and actions of such people point the way towards the answers we might find for our big questions. This morning, in honor of Women's History Month, we are going to seek answers to our questions by exploring the lives of some of our liberal religious women ancestors. The contributions that Unitarian Universalist women have made to our movement, and to humanity, are significant. They easily merit several volumes rather than a single sermon. So to help us focus we will hone in on the life of a particular Unitarian woman, Margaret Fuller.
Fuller was a central member of the circle of writers, ministers and activists that we have come to call the transcendentalists. She edited their groundbreaking literary journal the Dial. She was also the first full-time foreign correspondent for a U.S. based newspaper and a pioneering women's rights activist. She wrote "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," a book that has come to be regarded as the foundational text of this country's women's rights movement.
Fuller's life was tragic. She drowned, with her husband and toddler son, off the coast of New York at the age of 40. Emerson, wrote on her death "I have lost in her my audience."
Fuller possessed a mind and an education that was almost unparalleled by any in her generation. She was born into a prominent Boston area Unitarian family. Her father, Timothy, was a congressman and successful lawyer. He sought to give her all of the educational advantages that he might have given a son.
He oversaw her education himself and before she was ten Margaret could read Greek and Latin. As an early adolescent she worked her way through the major works in the Latin canon and read Shakespeare and other English poets. Later she was sent a progressive school where she studied French, Italian, mathematics and the natural sciences. This was at a time when schooling was not available to most girls. The schooling that did exist for them emphasized the development of the skills necessary to manage a household and attract a husband.
New England society in the early 19th century was not structured to give women like Fuller opportunities. She wished to attend Harvard College, but it was only open to men. She wanted to make her own way in the world but all of the professions were closed to women.
She was, however, able to find a position as a teacher in a progressive school run by Bronson Alcott, the father of the writer Louisa May Alcott. She taught there and then briefly at another school for about two years before launching out on her own. Instead of starting a school she developed her own educational model. It was called the conversations and it was only open to women. A conversation differed from a lecture in that it was more participatory. Instead of announcing a topic and then holding forth on it the converser tried to inspire participants to engage in their own reflections.
Alcott, who had launched a co-educational series of conversations, called it a "Ministry of Talking." The hope was to bring the participants into a communion around a shared idea. For Fuller her conversations were essential as they offered, in her words, "a point of union to well-educated and thinking women in a city… boasts at present nothing of the kind..." She wanted her conversations to be a place where women "could state their doubt and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others."
In this way Fuller's conversations combined emotional support with intellectual stimulation. At a time when she could neither teach at a university nor preach from a pulpit Fuller was able to create a space where she and other women could further their education and deepen their spiritual lives. It was a safe space to explore matters that were largely regarded as the domain of men.
Her conversations proved to popular. They attracted many of the leading women of Boston, a number of whom were Unitarian. Women from as far away as New York came to participate.
It was not enough for Fuller. She wanted a larger audience and after running her conversations for a few years gradually stopped to concentrate on her editing and writing. Over the next few years she published two books, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" and "Summer on the Lakes," edited the Dial and, ultimately, secured a position on the New York Tribune.
She worked in New York for close to two years before, in her mid-thirties, accepting an offer to travel to Europe. The newspaper did not want to let her go and so made her what at the time was a remarkable offer. It would continue to pay her as long as she wrote about her travels for its readership.
Prior to Fuller's offer no newspaper in the country had a full-time correspondent in Europe. When she accepted the Tribune's offer she made journalistic history. She also created a remarkable record of mid-19th century Europe. She met with, and wrote about, many of the leading literary, political and artistic figures of the continent. She visited the poet William Wordsworth, befriended the French writer George Sand, Sand's lover the composer Frederic Chopin, and the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.
Mazzini was to a play an important role in both Fuller and Italy's future. In a Tribune column about him she wrote words that ultimately might be taken for a summation of both her personal justice philosophy and Unitarian moral theology. They read, "there can be no genuine happiness, no salvation for any, unless the same can be secured for all."
This sentiment was certainly present in her "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." In it she argued that human development and liberty would never be complete until both men and women enjoyed the freedom to develop their full human potential. In this she was partially inspired by her own Unitarian tradition, particularly the teachings of William Ellery Channing and the pioneering British feminist Mary Wolstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."
Fuller noted that Channing's claim that all souls contained within the likeness of God extended to women as well as men. Wolstonecraft's call for women's rights inspired Fuller but it was her achievements as a writer in general, and not her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in particular, that was important. Someone like Wolstonecraft, who was both successful and, because of her gender marginalized, demonstrated to Fuller both the women's potential and the sad reality that that potential went largely untapped.
The intellectual and religious relationship between Channing, Fuller and Wolstonecraft suggests how exploring the life of one of our foremothers is related to our annual stewardship campaign, which runs the month of March. We have a religious tradition because of those who came before us. Fuller's work built off of the teachings and writings of other religious liberals like Channing and Wolstonecraft. Our religious community benefits from the heritage Fuller and others like her have bequeathed us.
That bequest is a generous gift. It is a gift that we can repay by preserving and, if possible, improving our community for the next generation. This is the very definition of stewardship, preserving what we have been given so that it might be passed on. Such stewardship is rooted in both gratitude and generosity. We do it because we are grateful for the gifts that we have been given. We are generous because the generosity of previous generations has ensured that we have a tradition to inherit.
As stewards of a tradition we are also tasked with its guardianship. I am reminded of this each election season when politicians and religious leaders on the right try to co-opt our liberal religious tradition for their own purposes. An example of this which you may be aware of is an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List. The list creates voting guides to anti-abortion politicians. It claims that in doing so it is working "in the spirit and tradition of the original suffragettes."
Such claims are revisionist history. Anthony's opinions about abortion are not particularly clear. The quotes that the List uses to bolster its claim are ambiguous. One for instance, seems to point more to a critique of a male dominated society than an attack on abortion. Anthony observed, "The statutes for marriage and divorce, for adultery, breach of promise, seduction, rape, bigamy, abortion, infanticide-all were made by men." Another comes from a diary entry written after she visited her brother and found her sister-in-law sick in bed after an abortion. She wrote, "She will rue the day she forces nature."
Even if these quotes represented an anti-abortion sentiment on Anthony's part it is difficult to use them to suggest that she would have been part of the so-called pro-life movement. Abortion in the nineteenth-century was something different from abortion in the twenty-first century. Abortions, like most medical procedures then, were risky and pregnancy itself was frequently life threatening. Just as importantly, children often did not survive childhood so attitudes towards the importance and value of a child's life were different than they are today.
These differences remind us of one of the most important lines separating religious liberals from religious conservatives. As religious liberals we hold truth to be mutable and changeable. What is true for one generation might not be true for the next because human culture is always changing and human knowledge is always expanding.
We believe, in other words, that revelation is ongoing and continuos. As Fuller's good friend Emerson preached in his famous "Divinity School Address," we are charged to "speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation."
This is not true of religious conservatives. In contrast to us they belief that the truth is unchanging and that religious knowledge is fixed. In their minds, a quote taken from a scripture written three thousand years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Likewise a passage from a diary written a hundred years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Because of this lack of critical sophistication, Emerson described conservative's belief about revelation this way, they understand that "the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead."
It is not our tradition to believe that revelation was given once for all time. If it was women like Anthony and Fuller would have accepted the roles society assigned for them. Instead, Anthony and Fuller believed that social norms and society change over time. If those were unjust people could struggle to change them.
In evaluating whether a group like the Susan B. Anthony List can claim to be the stewards of the tradition they say they represent we must ask two questions: Are they comfortable with the changing nature of society and a changing understanding of truth? Or do they seek to preserve the current social order and social understandings? If the answer is that they are comfortable with social change then they can rightly claim their role as stewards. If not, then not.
At the core of the tradition that Fuller and Anthony represent is the conscience; the idea that within us we each have the ability to make moral decisions. The way Fuller cultivated this ability suggests that most elusive of beasts, the Unitarian mystic and spiritual tradition. It is often lamented that we Unitarian Universalists do not have a tradition of spiritual practice of our own. The majority of us who engage in spiritual practice borrow it from another tradition. We practice yoga or meditation, we engage in prayer. But when asked what sort of spiritual practice we have within our tradition we are frequently at a loss.
The life of Margaret Fuller, and her transcendentalist contemporaries, suggests that there is an authentic Unitarian spiritual practice. The purpose of that practice is to nurture the conscience. Its discipline is three-fold. It begins with contemplative journal keeping. In the journal a person regularly records his or her daily interactions with others and struggles with the wider world. One of the reasons we know so much about people like Fuller and Emerson is because we have access to their journals.
Journal keeping is supplemented by engagement with the natural world. Each of the transcendentalists wrestled with humanity's relationship with nature. In "Summer on the Lakes," for instance, Fuller sought to understand how the Great Lakes region was being transformed as it was settled by Europeans. She wanted to know what was being lost in that process and what was being gained. Additionally, throughout her life she regularly took three or four hour daily walks to center herself.
The third part of the discipline is putting the conscience into action. As the conscience is discovered through the journal and stimulated in the natural world it leads one to act. For most of the transcendentalists these actions were taken as individuals. Henry David Thoreau famously went off into the woods and committed civil disobedience on his own.
Ideally, this spiritual practice all takes place within a community where people are free to dialogue about their discoveries. The community can offer support when the struggle of conscience becomes difficult. It can also offer correction and guidance when one appears to act counter to the conscience.
Fuller's time in Europe led her to put her conscience in action not as an individual but as part of a reform movement. In the late 1840s she moved to Italy and supported the efforts to unify the Italian peninsula under a single democratic government. At the time Italy was broken into nine different states, each ruled by a monarch or despot.
Inspired by her friend Mazzini, Fuller became part of the movement to change that. In doing so she met and married a young Italian aristocrat. The two had a child and when the Italian revolution of 1848 collapsed they fled to the United States together. They did not to make it. Their ship sank, and the entire family drown, within sight of the shore.
But after her death Fuller's legacy has lived on. Looking to her life we find some possible answers to our questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? We are a justice seeking people called to follow our consciences. How did we get to be this way? Through a rich tradition that reminds us that truth is ever changing and knowledge ever expanding. What shall we do about it? Be good stewards and carry that tradition forward.
That it may be so we close with these words from another liberal religious leader, Loretta Williams:
We, bearers of the dream, affirm that a new vision of hope is emerging.
We pledge to work for that community in which justice will be actively present.
We affirm that there is struggle yet ahead.
Yet we know that in the struggle is the hope for the future.
We affirm that we are co-creators of the future, not passive pawns.
So may it be
Mar 5, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 4, 2018
It is always good to be with you. We had quite the weekend of weather down in Medford. The front door was actually torn off of my apartment building by the wind. It was a not so subtle reminder that no what matter we humans might think, nature is actually in charge.
I hope that the weather was not too bad here. I suspect that since Ashby is not right by the coast you were sheltered from the worst of the Nor'easter. I will admit that I never know exactly what the weather is like out here when I am back in Medford. It is remarkable that even though we are only an hour apart, you are actually in your own microclimate.
Today's sermon is the start of the stewardship season. This year's pledge drive has three stages. First, today, I am offering a sermon to kick it off. Second, early next week you should be receiving a letter from me in the mail asking you to make a pledge to support the congregation. The goal is to have all pledge cards submitted by March 31st, so we can use the pledges to prepare the annual budget. The third thing I will be doing is following up with folks who do not submit their pledge cards by the end of the month to see what their intentions are towards the congregation. If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to ask me during coffee hour.
So, with that process in mind, let us get started with the sermon proper.
The pale polka dot is not unexpected. It sits, dinner plate size, in the center of a weed strewn and crumbling road. The dot's rough paint lies uneasily on decaying asphalt. It is something of a shock. A piece of art, roughhewn but art nonetheless, in the midst of urban decay.
The dot is not alone. Casting my eyes forward I see another dot about twenty feet ahead, washed out yellow instead of faded pink. That dot is followed by another, blue this time, and then another and another. Now I understand what the docent at the Detroit Institute of Art meant when I asked for directions, "follow the polka dot road."
I am driving through one of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods. The blocks I pass are filled with a mixture of the burned-out shells of vacant houses, empty lots, broken bottles, abandoned furniture and occupied, but usually decrepit, dwellings. I am looking for the Heidelberg Project, the artist Tyree Guyton's outsider masterpiece. When I see the first polka dots I know that I am close.
As I travel down the street the polka dots gradually multiple and move. First they are only on the asphalt, barely holding together parts of the disintegrating road. Then they drift onto the broken buckled sidewalks and up the sides of abandoned buildings. The polka dots are everywhere when I finally turn off the main street and onto the side road where Guyton's project is centered.
The project is difficult to describe. It consists of more than a dozen houses stretched over a block and a half, trees decorated with glass bottles of all colors, a painted school bus, piles of shoes and a makeshift playground. Some of the houses are occupied. Several are abandoned. All have been decorated by Guyton and his neighbors in highly unorthodox fashions. One home is carpeted with numbers, big and little, they come from gas station signs, clocks and broken street signs. Another is covered with dozens of words--Oklahoma, people, jury, white, love--and parts from vehicles: hub cabs, doors and steering wheels. A third is painted entirely in polka dots, some the size of a quarter and others bigger than a hula hoop.
Since its advent more than 30 years ago the Heidelberg Project has been a source of both controversy and pride in Detroit. Some people love it. Others hate it. Both mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer tried to destroy it. First Young, and then later Archer, sent in bulldozers to tear down some of the houses.
Whatever people think of Heidelberg, whether they call it piles of trash or brilliant art, there is no debating that its impact is visceral. When I walk through it I feel like I am entering a magic realm. This is certainly Guyton's intention. He said of it, "This block is a very special place. It is like magic-land."
Magic alters reality. It is not supernatural. Instead it is a word for the way in which we use our imagination and will power to change the world around us. When we have an idea for something and then bring that idea to fruition we are committing an act of magic.
Heidelberg is filled with magic. Through his vision, and by nurturing the creativity of others, Guyton's art has transformed a desolate landscape into something wholly new. And that transformation has been more than visual. In the blocks immediately around Heidelberg crime has dropped. The drug dealers have largely left and a greater sense of community has been built. Magic indeed.
There are two lessons that I take from Heidelberg. The first is that art and imagination can overcome ruin. The second is that generosity can be transformative. These lessons are intertwined for art often stems from the generous impulse to make the world more beautiful. That impulse can help us survive when our existence seems painful and ugly.
This is month is the month of our annual stewardship drive. Stewardship is tied to generosity. We want to be good stewards of what we have so that we can leave something behind for future generations. So, stewardship is partially about giving gifts to people we will never know.
We all have received such gifts. This congregation itself is a gift that previous generations gave us. This beautiful meeting house was built long before any of us were born. Much of the money to sustain the church comes from financial gifts to the endowment from members and friends who are no longer with us. If we are good stewards we will give the gift of this religious community to generations to come.
Such gifts can feel risky. They include the giving of part of the self to another. When we give our money, time and skills to a religious community we are giving part of our selves. With this act comes both the possibility of acceptance and rejection. What if our gifts are not enough or not appreciated? What if they are not wanted? How do we feel then?
Now, I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. One of the ways that I express my appreciation of and affection for people is by cooking them nice meals. But when I cook someone a meal there's always a little way in which I am haunted by the fear of rejection. If I make something fancy or unusual I worry that the people I am cooking for will be unhappy with it, despite all of the effort I put in. And every once in awhile, that is the case, and then I feel a little rejected.
In his meditation "Feeding and Being Fed" Robert Walsh reflects on the relationship between feeding others and generosity. He writes, "to feed [someone]-is to give life." There is no more generous act than the gift of life.
Later in his piece Walsh states, "The person who receives the gift of food gives a precious gift as well. It is the gift of trust, an affirmation of the life-giver." The trouble comes when we give a gift and automatically expect to receive one in return.
When it comes to cooking, my fear of rejection is foolish. The important thing is that I am trying to give a gift, trying to do something life sustaining. The outcome is less important than the intention. The giver, after all, cannot control the outcome. But the giver can set his or her intention. And that intention can be to give something that is life sustaining.
It is easy to forget this. Especially at stewardship time when people get anxious about their ability to give. It takes money and generosity to run a congregation. Everything that people give is appreciated. Whether it is a $2,000 pledge or some change in the collection plate every gift helps sustain the life of our religious community.
Just think about all of the gifts that go into a typical Sunday morning. Our worship is truly a collective effort. It requires many acts of generosity to create. Ward sets a friendly tone at the start of the service. Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft offer lively music. Our lay reader helps with the liturgy. And that is not mention all the people who contribute to our fellowship time after the service.
I am sure I am missing someone but that is not the point. The point is that we each give different gifts and that all of those gifts are important. Here I am reminded of a phrase popularized by the ever-controversial Karl Marx, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." We all have gifts to give. We all contribute to the larger whole.
In this way our religious community is not dissimilar to the Heidelberg Project. The project is supported by gifts large and small. The children in Guyton's neighborhood have no money. Yet they are able to give the gift of their imagination and their time when they paint polka dots and figures alongside Guyton. Other people give Heidelberg large financial gifts that allow Guyton to make his living as an artist, the project to employ a modest staff and the surrounding community to benefit from a community center for arts and education.
There are other parallels between Heidelberg and a liberal religious community like ours. The theologian Rebecca Parker identifies several tasks for Unitarian Universalist congregations. Two she lifts up are prophetic witness and the preservation of endangered knowledge. Parker defines a prophet this way, "A prophet is one who is able to name those places in our lives where we are resisting what needs to be known, closing our eyes to what is really happening, silencing what the world is telling us."
When we think of prophets we usually think of the ancient Hebrew figures who went around Judah and Israel in sackcloth and ashes proclaiming gloom and doom. Such prophets are not the only kind. The news of the world, even in troubled times like ours when school children shoot each other in school cafeterias and the President muses about becoming dictator for life, is not all bad. One of the truths that we can forget is that we surrounded by beauty.
This is the prophetic message of Guyton and the Heidelberg Project. His art transforms trash and desolation into unexpectedly magical objects. An abandoned toy is not just a worn-out piece of plastic. It is something that can be incorporated into an artistic vision.
In a Unitarian Universalist religious community, we say this not about found objects but about people instead. In his well-known sermon "Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven," Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the Universalist minister Gordan McKeeman who preached, "...Universalism came to be call '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 asserts that this image, "the last sinner being dragged, by his collar... into heaven" communicates that ours is "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 being to eternal damnation."
Guyton's art has a similar philosophy behind it. Each gift that is given is something that builds the Heidelberg Project and strengthens the community. Both the little gifts that children bring, and $50,000 foundation grants are essential to the continuing life of the community.
This truth is one of the pieces of endangered knowledge that I suspect that Rebecca Parker calls for religious communities like ours to preserve. Everyone is important. Everyone can give to sustain the life of the community.
At stewardship time the gifts we talk about are primarily financial gifts. This is not to say that other gifts are not important. It is just, as I said earlier, it takes money to run a congregation. This year we will be promoting the idea of fair share giving. Rather than asking people to give a specific amount we will be asking them to give a percentage of their income. In doing so, we are making a theological statement. That statement is that we appreciate the generous intention behind all gifts and recognize the gift of self that they contain. Hopefully that means that the givers of the gifts, experience an affirmation of the self as a result of their generosity.
If, for whatever, reason that affirmation is lacking generosity can still be transformative. It is the intention that matters most. Sometimes in this way we can become an inspiration for others.
Consider the story of Vedran Smailovic, better known as the cellist of Sarajevo. Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1992, there was a long line outside the door of one of the last bakeries in the city of Sarajevo that could still bake bread. At four o'clock in the afternoon a shell struck the bread line and killed twenty-two people.
Smailovic lived nearby and witnessed the event. Prior to the Balkan War he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera. As Paul Sullivan wrote in Hope Magazine, "when he saw the carnage outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to absorb and endure any more. He resolved to do the thing he could do best... Every day thereafter, at 4:00 p.m., Vedran Smailovic put on his full, formal concert attire, took up his cello, and walked out of his apartment into the battle that raged around him. He placed a little stool in the blood-stained, glass splattered crater where the shell had landed, and every day, for twenty-two days, he played Albinoni's Agadio as tribute to the twenty-two dead. Snipers fired at him (they missed), mortar shells fell all around him, but he played music to the abandoned streets, the smashed trucks, the burning buildings, and to the terrified people still hiding in the cellars, who heard him..."
It would be hard to argue that the bullets that flew around Smailovic were affirmations of his music. And yet his act of bravery helped strengthen the legacy of beauty in the world. His actions have become part of an inspiring story that reminds others that we never know where acts of generosity will ultimately lead.
This brings me to a concluding point about generosity. It frequently stems from my gratitude. My own generosity is often inspired by the gifts that I have been given. I give to Unitarian Universalist institutions because of all of the gifts that our liberal faith has given me. And I cook for friends and family because I am grateful for all the gifts that I have been given.
In this way I am not so different from Guyton. His efforts in Heidelberg stem from his gratitude for all that his community has given him. He started the project with his grandfather as an art school drop-out. It was his way of saying thank you to the community for encouraging him in his art. And so that gratitude turned to generosity.
Generosity often begins with the spirit of this passage from e. e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
We give because of what we have received. We give as a way of saying thank you. We give seeking affirmation and we give risking our selves. Through the act of giving we say yes to beauty, yes to possibility, yes to life. So that may we all give generously I say, Amen and Blessed Be.