as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, November 13, 2022
This past summer, I had the opportunity to hear the Commoners Choir in concert. The show was part of their Hope & Anger tour. They are a British folk choir that sings all original compositions. Our choir sang one of their pieces, “Hope,” earlier in the service as today’s special music. It was the song’s North American debut.
Hidden in the bluster
Planted in the past
The seeds of our Utopias
Are growing in the cracks
We need a litany
A shout, a chant
A melody for our —
Act upon hope
The lyric offers us the title for today’s service, “Act Upon Hope.” It is always difficult to plan the service for a Sunday following an election. No matter what has happened, there are going to be a variety of feelings in the congregation. Some of you are going to be disappointed. Some of you will likely be satisfied. Some of you are probably just sick of hearing about electoral politics. And more than a few of you might have a mixture of all of those emotions.
Act upon hope… Hope is always a good subject for such a service. It relates well to any of the feelings I named a moment ago. If you are disappointed then you might have hope that things will be different in the next election cycle. If you are excited then you may have hope for the impact of the election on public policy; or simply relieved that all of the election deniers who were running for secretary of state lost. And if you are tired of electoral politics then you could be looking forward to a respite from them; at least, once the results from the House races finally come in.
Hope fits well with our monthly theme as well. All month, we are reflecting on what grounds us. The faith of many Unitarian Universalists rests upon the ground of hope.
This brings me back to our song from the Commoners Choir. While you may not know them, you are almost certainly familiar with their conductor. Boff Whalley was, for many years, one of the primary songwriters for the band Chumbawamba. Even if that name means nothing to you, I suspect that you know their most popular song, “Tubthumping.” The chorus contains words of hope:
I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
I have long been a fan of Chumbawamba. They had one of the greatest ranges of any pop group in the last decades. They made house music, played punk, sang traditional English protest songs, and arranged choral pieces. None of these, as far as I am aware, have been performed by congregational choirs. When I asked Boff if we could change that he was extraordinarily generous. He shared with Dr. Rocke and me pretty much all of their music.
Test out the possibilities
Keep an eye out for the gaps
When things are so uncertain
You can find some room to act
One of the things that I appreciate about the composition is that it accomplishes something I aim for in much of my preaching. It points the way towards the possibility of a better world. It reminds us that, whatever the situation we currently face, there is “a history of victories” to look to and the “seeds” for a more just society are already here.
I will return to that claim momentarily. But first, I want to observe that I saw the Commoners Choir while they were on their Hope & Anger tour. Hope and anger is a pretty good description of a lot of Unitarian Universalist preaching.
The tension between the two even found its way into one of the few recent television depictions of Unitarian Universalist clergy. “This Fool” is a show about a gang rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. In the pilot episode the lead character introduces someone to the center’s founder, a Unitarian Universalist minister.
The minister quickly goes on a rant about the miserliness of a billionaire who has made a modest donation. At the same time the billionaire has given a few thousand dollars to the center, he has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on vanity space flight. Voicing his frustrations, the clergyman declaims, to no one in particular, “please, throw down a few more pennies from the troposphere. Astronaut son of a,” and storms off.
This prompts one character to turn to another and ask, “That fool is a minister?”
“He’s a Unitarian Universalist. Those fools are like hippies, but angry,” comes the reply.
It is not a terrible description of a lot of Unitarian Universalists. In my case, I would probably get described as an old house head rather than a “hippie.” Still, the phrase captures a core move in a lot of our theology. We begin with a description of what is. Then we turn to imagining what should be. The distance between the two can make us angry. And the path that might run from what is to should be can offer us hope.
Hope, it should be remembered, is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism, the theologian Catherine Keller reminds us, knows “the outcome.” The optimist has a sense that no matter what happens things will largely turn out for the best. Their sentiment is based on the opinion that the universe itself is essentially benign.
A cursory glance at the human history of the world suggests that such a position is unwarranted. There has been too much suffering, we humans have done too many horrible things to each other and to the planet, for me to believe everything is going to turn out for the best.
“[H]ope … ‘a hazardous business,” Keller claims. It is the possibility of a different future, not its guarantee. It acknowledges what is and then points to what should be and argues that there is a chance, be it ever so thin, that there might be a path from here to there.
The opposite of hope is expressed in the words of George Orwell, found in his famous novel 1984. There one of his characters states, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.”
Just as the optimism that all things will be well is not testified to by the course of history, the pessimism of Orwell’s statement is equally unwarranted. Hope reminds us that there is almost always some chance before us to bring more beauty and kindness into the world, that even when we are surrounded by hate we can choose to act from love.
One of the most powerful stories about hope that I know comes from the Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it your friend.”
Klein’s story is not about the grand triumph of good over evil. It is not an assurance that suffering will end or that better days are coming. It is a tale of how even amid the depths of human horror people can still, sometimes, share beauty–and there are few things more beautiful than a wild raspberry–and act from love and offer each other friendship.
This is what hope is. It is acknowledging what is, awful as it might be. It is naming what should be, lovely as it could be. And it is making a gesture to bridge the gap. Holocaust–the height of human cruelty. Sharing a raspberry–an expression of the human solidarity that reflects the best within us. The tension between the two, hope.
Hope provides a ground for our Unitarian Universalist faith. In the classical Unitarian theology of the nineteenth century, figures like William Ellery Channing used to speak of the “likeness to God.” You might have heard some of my reflections on their theology in the past. In a famous sermon, Channing set forth an essential assertion about the nature of our tradition. He preached, “true religion consists in proposing as our great end a growing likeness to the Supreme Being.”
This sentiment rests upon the belief that within each of us resides something that theists, or someone prone to religious metaphor such as myself, describe as the spark of the divine. We are each born with potential. The purpose of religious community should be to help us uncover and live into that potential. Yes, there will be human cruelty. Yes, there will be human failure. But yes, there is a chance that we can each blossom.
Such hope is not necessarily an assurance of permanent victory. Sometimes, it is just the interruption of the awful with the beautiful. A smile, a raspberry, a kind word, a reminder that love exists, these little acts of hope are available in many circumstances.
Think of your own life. If it is anything like mine, it has had its periods of disappointment, defeat, and despair. I have certainly had my dark nights of the soul, when it felt like the odds were stacked against me and there was little chance that things would get better. It has not always gotten better. But even when it has not there have always been those things, those cracks in the sidewalk, that have reminded me, to invoke Dr. King, “no lie can live forever.” Things change. There is human kindness and flowers to be found in unexpected places.
I wonder if this has been your experience. Your heart feels like it is breaking. There is so much heaviness. The strain between what is and what should be is profound. And then, a stranger smiles or you look up at a tree’s canopied complexity or you savor a sip of tea or… There is some small thing that happens which calls you beyond the difficulty of the hour and reminds that the future is unwritten and there is something good still to be found.
The sentiment is rich within Shervin Hajipur’s song “Barāye.” It is the anthem of the protest movement currently in Iran. Hajipur composed it from the tweets of those in the streets and those who support them. It reflects the reasons why, more than forty years into a theocratic regime, many Iranian people continue to strive for a better country.
The song contains many statements about the awfulness that people experience living under the regime. There is “economic based despair,” “tears that spill so endlessly,” and “households collapsed because of faulty parts.” But there is also “footloose dancing in the streets” and “the warmth of sunrise when the new day starts.” Overall, what I find in “Barāye” is a testament to how is it possible, even in the brutality of the hour, to both find hope and act upon it.
It is not a simple matter, to act upon hope. Awful regimes thrive on making us imagine that the future is fixed and that there is nothing we can do to change its course. Orwell’s adage ends with the word “forever.”
“Forever” is probably the most unrealistic word in the English language. Not even stars last forever. It is a mistake to cast hope as a belief that the victories we can point to are permanent. The greatest failure of the political imagination is the thought that way society is arranged now is either how it has been in the past or how it will be in the future. In both our personal lives, and in our society, hope should be found in the assurance that we are all moving in the river of time. Any moment might contain delight or difficulty but our lives, and our world, will be different in some other moment.
An embrace of the lack of permanent victory, a hope based in the reality of ever changing, ever shifting, ever altering, universe, is core to Unitarian Universalism. Returning to Channing’s famous sermon, in it he does not promise everlasting salvation. Instead, he holds out the chance that there will be times in our lives when “a ray of the Infinite Light … may yet break forth and ‘shine as the sun.’” We might grow this hour in the likeness of God and in the next discover that we have done some ill. Yet there always remain some odds, great or small, that we might be “touched by kindness, [and] generosity.”
Channing’s words are almost two hundred years old. They may seem antiquated to you. Human hope is a deeply personal matter. Each generation expresses it in different words. Catherine Keller wrote her reflections on hope in a work trying to make theological sense of the climate crisis. The reality that we humans might destroy the capacity for our planet to sustain us, and the hope that as a species we might escape such destruction, is not something earlier generations had to put into the language of hope. The hopes listed in “Barāye” contain several items that are similarly bound to the time and place of early twenty-first century Iran.
A Unitarian Universalist approach to theology, as I said earlier, is to name what is, imagine what should be, and attempt to travel the path–to act upon hope–between the two. What was yesterday differs from what is today. What will be tomorrow is not going to be the same as what exists now. My imaginings, and yours, are in some ways other than those of our ancestors and, likewise, might seem strange to future generations. Even if much is the same–continuing desires for clean air, clean water, shelter, good food, companionship, and some work to call honest–there is also much that is different.
The least difference might be the language. My family has not always spoken English. Generations ago my ancestors named their imaginings in Yiddish, Ladino, German, and many other tongues. Is this true for your family as well.
I mention language because we are at a moment in the life of this congregation when we are trying to put our hopes into words of the generations now living. As you might know, we are currently in the process of drafting a new mission, vision, and covenant for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. This is a process designed to help us better live out our theology. We are figuring out what we aspire to, our mission. We are envisioning how we will bring about our aspirations, our vision. And we telling each other how we promise to treat other as we work together, our covenant.
Today, you have an important opportunity to help us articulate our collective hopes and imagine how we might act upon them. Our Vision, Mission, and Covenant Committee has been gathering your input through a series of focus groups and in an online form. Their intention is to make sure that everyone who wants to have a voice in naming the hopes of this community has the opportunity to do so. In your order of service, you will find a QR code that will take you to the committee’s online form. And after the second service, they are offering a final opportunity to participate in a focus group so that your voice might be heard.
So far, more than 130 people have shared their thoughts with the committee. We have a goal of hearing from at least 150 people, roughly half the membership of the congregation, before the committee begins the work of crafting a new mission, vision, and covenant. If you have not yet participated, please do and help us reach that level of engagement. Our hopes are so much easier to act upon when we share them with each other.
I would be remiss if I did not mention another opportunity to share your hopes for this community and act upon them. Today, between the two services and then on Tuesday online, the Building Task Force will be presenting the work that they have identified both needs to be done and might be done as part of a prospective capital campaign. A capital campaign is a time when we name our hopes and then commit to bring them into being. There is a lot that is being considered: everything from attending to much deferred maintenance and greening and beautifying our campus.
Final decisions about what will be included in the campaign will not be made until December. The draft texts of the mission, vision, and covenant will be shared next month too. Now is the time for you to let your hopes for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston be known.
I close with these references to the work of the church because they are, once again, illustrative of a Unitarian Universalist theology of hope. They begin with what is: the desire for new a mission, vision, and covenant; and the need to address critical issues in buildings. But then they offer us the opportunity to name what should be: a mission, vision, and covenant cast in the language, and embodying the aspirations, of present generations; and a physical plant that meets our needs and reflects our values. And they suggest a path between–a way to act upon hope–the what is and the what should be.
We need a litany
A shout, a chant
A melody for our —
Act upon hope
May this community be a place for each of us,
for all of us,
be the times easy or hard
to act upon.
That it might be so,
I invite the congregation to say