Gather the Spirit


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, July 11, 2021

It is so good to see you! For the last sixteen months, I have been standing in this pulpit, missing you and trying to imagine you. As I prepared and delivered my word, I have found myself wondering how you have been navigating the pandemic, what you have been doing, and where, and even if, you have been listening to the services. Occasionally, the text of the 42nd Psalm has made its way into my head:

Like a deer crying for water,
my soul cries for You, O God;
my soul thirsts for God, the living God!
My tears have been my food day and night;
I am ever taunted with, “Where is your God?”
When I think of this, I pour out my soul;
how I walked with the crowd, moved with them,
the festive throng, to the House of God
with joyous shouts of praise.

The text is very old. It dates back at least 2,500 years. It contains two ancient sentiments, both of which, if you are anything like me, you might have struggled with in these last difficult months. The first is a cry, a thirst, a longing for connection with “the living God!” The second is the belief that longing can be met sometimes among “the festive throng” in “the House of God” where voices are joined together “with joyous shouts of praise.”

Before I continue, can I get, right now, maybe a bit of a joyous shout of praise? Clap, stamp your feet, maybe yell a little, let everyone else know that you are glad to be here! Did that feel good? I hope so.

Returning to the psalmist’s text, we find the words, “the living God.” …now as Unitarian Universalists I recognize that some of you might not be comfortable with the word God. Here, as I often do, I think of Forrest Church’s adage, “God is not God’s name. It’s our name for that which is greater than all, and yet present in each.” Greater than all, yet present in each, God is but a symbol. If you like you can substitute the word God for something that is more meaningful for you. You could speak instead of your experience of connection with what our hymn names “the chorus of life” or maybe, instead, of what our Unitarian Universalist sources call “transcending mystery and wonder.”

Whatever language you choose to use, it is a basic tenet of our religious tradition, and core claim of psalmist, that we humans long for connection with something greater than ourselves. Put differently, we are social creatures. We are dependent on a creation and communities far larger than ourselves for our very existence. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber named this dynamic simply when he wrote of how every person, every I, requires a You to know themselves. His words, “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.”

I require you. Life is encounter. Thirsting after a connection with something greater than ourselves. Shall we admit that one of the greatest difficulties of the last months has been the sense of isolation and disconnection that so many of us have felt? I have been lonely. I have been isolated. There were times when I felt like the little world of the pandemic was collapsing in on me–where I saw no one in-person for days on end except for my son, my partner, and her son.

Like a deer crying for water…

Those were hard days. The circumscribed rhythm of pandemic prescribed physical distancing beat me like a drum with its incessant relentlessness. Time, time, time, felt formless. Days were not linear. They had no clear beginnings and distinct endings. Instead, they felt like unmoored grey lumps, indistinct and indistinguishable from each other. If “All actual life is encounter” then some weeks there did not seem to be that much of it.

My soul thirsts…

I have spent much of the last sixteen months thirsting for connection with community. The ancient psalmist describes a basic human need, a need that is strong as the need we each have on a hot day, like today, for a cool drink. It is not a need that disappeared in when the scribe’s ink dried on parchment. I detect a similar need in Patricia Spears Jones words.

been running through these streets
looking for a coolness/a coolness
been running through these streets
looking for your face/your face/that
soft smile…

…i been thirsty so long that my mouth feels
like parchment…

Have you been thirsty for community and connection? Does what I have just described seem similar to your own experience? Feel free to answer, “yes” if it does. There is gathered community in the sanctuary again. Those of you who are present with me can respond to the sermon. You can offer up a “Yes” or an “Amen” or a clap or a “that’s right,” if you like. You can even offer up a joyous shout of praise.

Today is a good day. Preaching to a congregation that has been absent in body but present in spirit has been a difficult experience. In truth, I am not even sure what Rev. Scott and I, and our occasional guests, have been doing for the last months should be labelled preaching at all.

Sermons, as I understand them, are conversations between multiple partners. There’s the minister. There’s the congregation. There’s our shared tradition. There’s whatever it is that is greater than all and yet within each that we long to connect with… A good sermon is a polyphonic experience in which the minister just contributes their part. Manuals on preaching and scholars of homiletics–that’s the fancy word for the study of preaching–are unanimous on this point. One describes what I am doing now as “a partnership between clergy and laity.” Another argues, “a sermon is not a sermon without a congregation.” “A good sermon begins… with the people in the pews,” third enjoins.

The people in the pews…

I have spent a great deal of time over the last months, almost certainly too much of those indistinguishable days, wondering if what I was doing when we recorded the service was preaching. Since March 2020, I have even questioned whether I have serving as your minister. I have had a joke with the staff–which like a lot of my jokes is not actually funny–ever since we have had to take the services online.

When people ask me, I would tell the staff, when people ask me, “What do you do?” I no longer respond, “I am a minister.” Instead, I tell them, “I am the executive producer of a television show.”

Like I said, it is not a funny joke.

When I think of this, I pour out my soul;
how I walked with the crowd, moved with them,
the festive throng, to the House of God
with joyous shouts of praise.

Whatever it is that we have been doing, what I am doing now certainly is preaching. While some of you are watching this at home, a good number of you are sitting in the pews in front of me. After the service has ended you will tell me whether or not my word moved you. I will stand on the breezeway and talk with more than a few of you about your worship experience and your lives. You will share with me something of what has passed. And I will listen. And my listening will inform what I talk with you about when we regather next Sunday.

It is good to have you here. I am so glad that are able to resume the long established rhythms of the dialogue that is congregational life. The philosopher William James may have defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual[s] … in their solitude … in relation to … the divine” but he was wrong. Religion, these past difficult months have made clear to me, is something we do together. I am not a minister without you. You are not a congregation without each other. We are not Unitarian Universalists by ourselves. We are Unitarian Universalists together.

We are Unitarian Universalists together… “the crowd… the festive throng… the House of God.” I will expand on the collective nature of our endeavor momentarily. But first, a scholarly digression. Those of you trained in philosophy might argue that I am not being fair to James in my characterization of his definition of religion. After all, you might point out, he goes out of his way in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience” to clarify that he wishes only to address what he calls “personal religion pure and simple.” “I propose to ignore the institutional branch entirely,” he informs his readers, “to say nothing of the ecclesiastical organization, to as consider as little as possible the systematic theology and the ideas about the gods themselves.”

These last months have taught me that such an exercise is impossible. The cleavage between my personal experience of the divine and the religious organization is not a neat and easy one to make. There is no point at which they join into which we can insert an intellectual knife and worry them apart. Instead, the form a single object, “I require a You to become,” to recall Buber.

We are Unitarian Universalists together. If there are any devoted students of James out there, you might reply to all of this by stating that I still do not get the point of his text. He wanted us to understand that the personal experience of the divine, what our Unitarian Universalist sources call the experience of “transcending mystery and wonder,” is the foundation upon which the entire religious enterprise rests. “[T]he founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine,” his text informs us. This was the case for “the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, [Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)]… all the originators,” he tells.

Poke at his list and, I think, his argument starts to fall apart. Each of these superhuman founders did not have their personal experiences of the divine in a vacuum. They had those experiences of the divine in dialogue, in conversation, with a tradition–which is to say the culture and teachings of a religious community–and then collected disciples with who they reinterpreted that tradition. Jesus was a Jew whose teachings come from his reimagining of Judaism. His last words on the cross attest to this–being but a fragment of the Psalm 22. The Buddha’s understanding of nothingness does not rest upon nothing at all. It has a firm foundation in concepts articulated in the oldest texts of the Upanishads and in the tradition which we call Brahmanic Hinduism–which he reinterpreted to give us his teachings about nirvana and how to achieve it. Read the Quran and you will see that Islam’s founder did not invent his religion whole cloth. He rooted it in Jewish and Christian understandings of the divine and his in religious texts of those traditions. Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslims and Jesus is held by them to have been a prophet.

What is unique about each of the originators in James’s list is not that they invented something whole cloth or their direct personal communion with the divine. It is that in a time of crisis, they each reinterpreted existing tradition so that it met the needs of the hour. Consider Jesus. A colonized subject suffering under the brutality of the Roman Empire, he lived during a time of profound crisis. Prophets and revolutionaries arose throughout ancient Israel urging their people to throw off the yoke of the oppressor. Dissidents were tortured to death, crucified, fed to lions, and forced to fight to the death as gladiators. The world must have seemed as if it was coming apart.

In this world that was coming apart, the teachings of the priests and the practices of the Temple must have seemed insufficient for many. Jesus certainly thought that they were. And so, he reinterpreted his tradition. His God–his understanding of the divine–remained the God of his ancestors. But the time of crisis led him to reimagine what it meant to be faithful and to have a personal connection to the divine. He did not do this in the absence of institutional religion. He did it in dialogue, in conversation, with it.

I could stand here in point to all the places within the gospel texts of the Christian New Testament…. I could reference the almost twenty places where Jesus cites the Hebrew Bible or describe his many arguments with the leaders of Jewish sects… but that would take more time than we have. My claim is simply this: our thirst for connection to the divine is something we best equipped to sate together and in times of crisis we are called to reinterpret our traditions.

Like a deer crying for water,
my soul cries for You, O God…

…the festive throng, to the House of God
with joyous shouts of praise.

We are Unitarian Universalists together.

Maybe another joyous shout of praise here? This thing called religion, this connection we seek with the divine, this pursuit of what I have in the past named the resurrection of the living–the waking up to the world as it is–is something that I do not by myself. This truth has been one of the reasons why these past months have been so hard. To be human our psalmist and our poet both suggest is to thirst for connection. Again, Patricia Spears Jones:

been dancing on a dream too long
& found myself lost in this desert/no
lovers tonight/not a one
no rain for days

There’s been no metaphorical rain for a long time. The pandemic has made so very many of us thirsty for connection to the larger human community. The spark of the divine within each of us burns ever brighter when we gather. The sermon, the act of worship, is not my words alone, it is something that occurs only when we have congregated.

This is something–a lesson–that has been impressed upon me during the pandemic. The collective nature of our communion, that the act of being together is what makes us religious, has been one of the things that I have woken up to in these last challenging months. What about you? What have you woken up to during these apocalyptic times?

You might recall that at the very beginning of the pandemic I offered–shall I call it a sermon? a pre-recorded video performance? a virtual worship service?–anyway… at the very beginning of the pandemic, at the start of these strange days, I offered the observation that we are living in apocalyptic times. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller teaches us. In March 2020 the world of the before times ended.

Right now, a new world, the world of the after times, is being born. The pandemic still rages–and here, I must observe that the only way to bring it into abeyance is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated, if you have not gotten a vaccine, I urge you to do so… The pandemic still rages but the life is starting to return to something that it resembled in the before times. That resemblance is but a similitude. No matter what we might think, one of the truths of the hour can be found in Yeats is words, “All changed, changed utterly.”

All changed, changed utterly… In these apocalyptic times much has been unveiled, disclosed, and revealed. Indeed, so much has been revealed that it would be difficult–and distressing–to list it all. It impossible now, if it was ever possible to before, to deny that the naked and agreessive white supremacy that pervades much of the United States. The events of January 6th and all that led up to them, and all that has come after them, refuse any honest person that. Nor can the deep interconnection of each to all be ignore, that is prevented by the worldwide spread of the virus. We cannot pretend that democracy is other than in crisis. We cannot reject the idea capitalism is based upon the brutal exploitation of what came to be called “essential workers,” which is another phrase for the working classes. We cannot…

Let pause here and ask you this question, what has the pandemic revealed to you? What has been unveiled, made visible, that was hidden before? I invite you to ponder that question in the coming weeks and months.

My tears have been my food day and night;
I am ever taunted with, “Where is your God?”…
how I walked with the crowd, moved with them,
the festive throng, to the House of God…

Two things that have been revealed to me during these strange days, during this difficult months… two things I have woken up to… and that are now being resurrected, made alive, anew, for me are this:

First, that this thing we call Unitarian Universalism, this thing we call preaching, this thing we call religion is something that we do together. As James Luther Adams observed, a communion like ours requires “a place of meeting” in which we can gather and which we must maintain–a note of appreciate here is required for all who contributed to our reopening readiness campaign. Without the ability to, as our hymn from earlier said, “gather the spirit” we are something other than a congregation, something other than a religious community. Here I could offer up reflections, which I may well offer in some later sermon, on exactly what it has meant for us to be a primarily virtual community these last months. But the word of the hour is not about we have been during the stranger days that we, hopefully, left behind but rather about what we are now.

Second, that the apocalyptic revelations we have all seen in these past months require us to reimagine everything. All changed, changed utterly… We have a choice: we can stay awake to all that has been revealed or we can go back to sleep and pretend–and it will be a pretense–that the world can somehow return to what it was during the before times.

Here in worship, for these next months, as the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, we will be offering you the chance to reimagine the world. How might, as we gather the spirit, we make our congregation anew, transform ourselves, find new ways of being, that will empower us, individually, and collectively, to reimagine and rebuild as we live in through the ongoing apocalypse that will be the pandemic’s after times? These are questions that we can best pursue together. I hope that you will engage them with me and with this congregation as find ourselves in what our closing hymn hopefully names “this Great Turning.”

Let us share the wisdom of the hymn’s words but before we do, I invite you, one last time, to help me conclude this sermon “with joyous shouts of praise.”

It is so good to be together again.


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