as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 5, 2022
It is good to be back in the pulpit. I miss you when I am gone. Not that I particularly went anywhere. I spent most of the last month holed up in my home office working on finishing the manuscript for the book I have been writing on populism and religion. I am grateful to have had the support of this congregation as I have been working on this project. And I am looking forward to sharing it with you as gets closer to completion.
Since this is Black History month, we will be drawing from the African American and the larger Pan-African communities for our readings and much of our music this month. Today’s readings come from the poet Erica Hunt, whose work I admit I do not know well, and the civil rights and religious leader Howard Thurman–who has had a significant influence on contemporary Unitarian Universalism.
Here at the beginning, I want to lift up a line from each of their readings that we will return to as we proceed. Eric Hunt, “No thought police, we all became deputies, we never let a line blur.” Howard Thurman, “To cancel out between you and another all personal and private evil, to put your life squarely on the side of the good thing because it is good and for no other reason is to anticipate the kingdom of God at the level of your own functioning.”
The title of my sermon is also our theme for worship this month, “Reimagining Care.” We are offering you this theme in recognition of where we are collectively at almost two years into the pandemic. Less there be confusion, the second we I am referring to is not just me and the congregation’s worship leadership or you and me and all the members and friends of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. When I say, “where are we collectively at” I mean where all of us, all of the people in the city of Houston, all of the people in the state of Texas, all of the people in the United States, indeed all of humanity, where are we all at almost two years into the pandemic?
This week we passed the horrifying benchmark of 900,000 COVID deaths in the United States. It is an appropriate time to reflect on where we are. So, where are we collectively at? Many of us are sick–even though, for the vaccinated, the Omicron variant has been milder than the Delta variant, hospitals are still overwhelmed. Many of us are grief struck–in these last years, almost everyone has lost someone close to them. Many of us are anxious–there’s a resurgence of inflation, supply chain problems, we a political class that seems to be incapable of addressing the climate crisis, there appears to be an existential threat to liberal democracy, inequality is rising, violence is increasing, Ukraine, Russia, it goes on. Illness, grief, anxiety, living in these times can be exhausting. Many of us are tired.
Illness, grief, anxiety, exhaustion, these times require us to reimagine care. One of the advantages of being part of a community like First Houston, is that we have the opportunity to engage in such reimagination collectively. We can ask each other the question; how can I care for you in these times? We can make the abstract–reimagining care–the particular within our relationships with each other.
In these times, we might also take strange comfort that the very thing that has caused such difficulty contains within it the lessons we need to reimagine care. Everything somehow can be reduced to the interpersonal. My actions, your actions, our actions have had an impact upon the course of the pandemic. Over the last two years, individual choices to mask, to isolate when infected, to get vaccinated, have all aggregated together to shape COVID’s trajectory. According to one estimate, at least 300,000 fewer people would have died if more people had made the choice to be vaccinated and boosted. Fewer people would have died if public health measures like mask wearing had not become politicized.
The lessons from all of this have been: We demonstrate our care for the whole in the choices we make. We demonstrate our care for the larger society in the way in which we care for each other.
Perhaps, this reimagining is less an act of reimagining than an act of remembering. What I am naming the reimagination of care has long been taught by some of the world’s great religious leaders. And here, I want to turn our attention to Howard Thurman. Have you heard of him before?
His words are found in two separate readings in our grey hymnal. Both connect to the central message of this sermon, that the care we have for each other as individuals is an expression of the care we have for the larger mass of humanity. Our universal values are expressed in our particular actions.
The first of Thurman’s readings is number 498. Those of you here in the sanctuary can turn to it in the grey hymnal if you like. It runs:
In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, my heart whispers:
Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests,
I may not forget that to which my life is committed.
Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.
The second reading is number 615. In dated and gendered language, it reads:
When song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers,
to make music in the heart.
Each in their own way, these words from Thurman are meant to remind us that our highest aspirations, our universal values, are found in our particular actions. He prays to remember at all times, in “good times or in tempests” the highest principles to which he has committed his life. He wants to recall that the hope Christians speak of at Christmas is something that is lived out. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” as Cornel West would have it.
Thurman was one of the great religious leaders within the civil rights movement. He was of a generation older than Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually, he was a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr.–colloquially known as Daddy King. And he was a significant influence on the spiritual development on his old friend’s son.
Thurman grew up in Florida in the opening years of the twentieth-century. It was a time when, in his words, for a Black person, “Any encounter with a white person was inherently dangerous and frequently fatal.” It was also a time when the Civil War and the horrors of the Confederacy and slavery were still within living memory. After his father died, Thurman was raised in part by his maternal grandmother, Nancy. An intensely religious woman, she had been born into slavery and would occasionally recount to her grandson sermons she had heard during clandestine services held far from the ears of the slave masters.
Nancy liked to tell grandson about the sermons of one preacher. It seems that he would end each and every one of his services by pausing and then looking every member of his small congregation in the face. He would tell them, “Remember, you aren’t slaves… you are God’s children.” Actually, he added another phrase in there and told his congregants to remember that they were not a racial epithet either. I am not going to sully this pulpit with that word.
Remember you are God’s children. We contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prefer the language, remember that you have inherent worth and dignity. Either way, I want to invite you to do something. If you are here in the sanctuary, I invite you to look at someone sitting near you and say one of two things, depending on your personal theology. Either look at them and say, “remember, you are one of God’s children” or say, “remember, you have inherent worth and dignity.”
If you are participating in this service online, you can do the same thing if you are sitting with someone. Or you can look in the mirror and say the words to yourself: “remember, you are one of God’s children;” “remember, you have inherent worth and dignity.”
Thurman encouraged people to recall this truth throughout his long and influential career. It began when he earned a degree from Morehouse and another from Rochester Theological Seminary before starting his career as a parish minister in Oberlin, Ohio. There he began to explore the truth that he was a child of God through a study of mysticism. He fell under the influence of Quakerism, with its emphasis on seeking a connection to God through the light within.
It is entirely unfair to Thurman, just as it is unfair to any of us, to attempt to summarize his span within the course of a few paragraphs. But I want to move us quickly past his biography so we can turn to his theology. It contains much that might help us reimagine care in these difficult days. So, let me share with you just a few of his career highlights.
Thurman left his first parish for a joint faculty position at Morehouse and Spellman. There he served for three years before being appointed the dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel. A decade later, he returned to the parish, moving to San Francisco where he founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It is commonly regarded as the first intentionally interracial, interfaith, and intercultural church in the United States.
In the early fifties, he resigned his pulpit in San Francisco to accept a position as dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Disciplines. There he mentored Martin Luther King, Jr., who was then a doctoral student in theology. The scholar Gary Dorrien has summarized the theology he taught in the chapel and in the classroom as a belief that, “all forms of violence, oppression, and prejudice offended the divine good.”
Remember that you are a child of God. Remember that you have inherent worth and dignity.
Thurman’s belief in the character of the divine, in the stamp it impresses upon us, is not the only reason why we turn to him this morning in our project of reimagining care. We also turn to him for a slightly different reason: his approach to social justice.
There is a somewhat common complaint that has been leveled against certain members of the clergy since time immemorial. It is that a few of us focus far too much on social justice and politics. The core of this complaint is belief that there is a conflict between the pastoral and the prophetic. And that some clergy spend far too much time worrying about the state of the world and not nearly enough time worrying about the state of their congregants’ souls.
Thurman saw no conflict between the pastoral and the prophetic. The prophetic impulse, for him, began with the mystical. It began with the insight described in the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that there is an “interdependent web of all existence of which we are [each] a part.”
In one text Thurman, described one of his mystical experiences:
I walked along the beach of the Atlantic in the quiet stillness that can only be completely felt when the murmur of the ocean is still and the tides move stealthily along the shore. I held my breath against the night and watched the stars etch their brightness on the face of the darkened canopy of the heavens. I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all of life breathed. Not only was I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was part of it and it was part of me.
Have you ever had such an experience? A moment when you become aware of that fundamental, inescapable truth, that we are all children of the same long dead star. That you, star child, and I, star child, and this pulpit, made from star stuff, and the pew or chair on which you sit, star stuff, are all descended from a single luminous sphere? That the tree, not trees in general, but a single tree, with its folds of bark and smooth green leaves, and you are interconnected in ways so complicated and profound that they escape any renderings in human language? That you and I are truly and fully bound up together into a single destiny?
I have had such experiences: walking on dunes by the ocean, listening to the beat of water upon sand; moving through forests stopping to look at a flower here or a mushroom there; gazing at broken glass with its sun reflection and realizing that its glitters connect me with the day star some billions of miles away… What about you? Have you ever had such experiences? Where you have become aware, if only for instance, of the profound interconnectedness of all?
Thurman found the prophetic impulse–the desire to bring more justice into the world–wrapped up in this insight, that all life is one and everything is interconnected. This mystical insight erased the boundaries between the pastoral and prophetic. In one of his late lectures, he suggested that the path to a just world began with the individual effort to “cancel out between you and another all personal and private evil.”
This was not a call to quietism or the suggestion that we ignore systems of oppression. It was not a belief that white supremacy or capitalism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia or the climate crisis are not primarily created and maintained through institutions or laws. Thurman had mentored people like Martin Luther King, Jr. He was clear that injustice is embodied in the violence of the state and the economic system. But he was also conscious that such corporate violences require individual actions, individual choices, to be made real. Racism and all other forms of violence and oppression, he recognized are maintained by people who participate in, who propagate, them. In his lifetime they were sustained by the restaurant owners who went along with “Whites only” serving areas, by the bus drivers who enforced segregation on the buses that they drove, by the police officers and election officials who prevented Black people from voting… How are they maintained in ours?
Let us consider Erica Hunt’s poem, “Surplus Future Imperfect” here. It describes the time after “the smoke [has] lifted.” There is “no promised land in sight.” It seems to be a flat world, a world without hope. There are “No holy days, no spirituals, no speeches intended to solder you to earth.” In this unpleasant future, “the entire world seemed unsafe.” There seems to be no joy, nothing to look forward to or savor.
The poem ends with a line that is very much connected to Thurman’s insight about the relationship between the pastoral and the prophetic. She writes, “No thought police, we all become deputies, we never let a line blur.” In other words, this unbeautiful, sour world, is not maintained by some external force. It is sustained by the involvement of all who live in it. They bring the lack of hope into being and they sustain their world’s sense of despair.
Thurman’s mystical, prophetic, message was that systems of injustice can only be dismantled when we begin to refuse to cooperate in them. When we recognize that we are all interconnected we change the way we understand the ill we do in the world. We realize that the harm we do to another is harm that we are, in some sense, doing to ourselves. Then we commit to “cancel out between you and another all personal and private evil” so that we might bring more justice into the world.
This is very difficult work. Thurman did not pretend it was easy. And I do not to claim it is easy either. In truth, recognizing how, in our own lives, we participate in the systems of oppression that surround us and then saying, “I will do what I can to have it stop with me” is some of the most difficult work there is.
But… it is also work that we can each engage in. When you look at someone, think to yourself, before me stands a child of God or a person with inherent worth and dignity or someone made from the same star stuff that I am. And then try to be kind, try to be empathetic, try to cancel out whatever “personal and private evil” exists between you.
You can begin with kindness. You can begin with simply doing what you can to treat them as you are called to see them, as a person with divinity or worth and beauty inside them.
I close with a second invitation to remember that you are God’s children or that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. Again, I invite you to look at someone near you and say one of two things, depending on your personal theology. Either look at them and say, “remember, you are one of God’s children” or say, “remember, you have inherent worth and dignity.”
Remember, you are one of God’s children. Remember, you have inherent worth and dignity. We are all interconnected, bound up together. Let us remember this for the path to justice, and the path to reimagining care, lies through this recollection.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe.