The Sacred and the secular


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 2, 2022

It is so good to have Isabelle Ganz with us this morning. As she mentioned earlier, she was the Music Director here back in the 1970s when Webster Kitchell was the Senior Minister. I am not sure how many of you remember him but he was one of the better known Unitarian ministers of the twentieth century. When he served one of our congregations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his sermons were occasionally covered by the New York Times. He publicly tussled with Billy Graham and proclaimed from the pulpit, “we must have a new ideal to dedicate ourselves to. We must fasten ourselves upon the vision of world community, if not as a political fact, at least a world community in cooperation and spirit.”

Those were wise words then. They are wise words now.

But their aspiration has not come to pass. Instead, the dream of world community seems ever further off. In the face of global ecological catastrophe, refugees from the climate emergency are met with disdain, brutality, and closed borders by many of the world’s wealthiest nations. In country after country, the proponents of vicious forms of nationalism, with their covert, and sometimes overt, refrains of “Blood and Soil,” appear to be returning to power. These past weeks have seen the election of a government containing a party founded by neo-Nazis in Sweden and one led by neo-fascists in Italy. In Brazil the current President is threatening violence if today’s election does not return him to power.

Only that shall happen
Which has happened,
Only that occur
Which has occurred;
There is nothing new
Beneath the sun!

The passage comes from Ecclesiastes, one of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Some of us might be tempted to quote it in response to the rather dour news of the hour. It looks like the worst of humanity is reasserting itself. History seems to be repeating itself both as tragedy and as farce. A brutal and hateful regime anywhere is a tragedy. And there is something weirdly farcical about a number of today’s neo-Nazis and neo-fascists. Rather than rooting themselves in solely myths of the historic past, some in Italy have perversely claimed J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits as their inspiration.

The inspiration for the music for our service comes from a much different place and tradition. The song that Isabelle sang right before I began my sermon is an anti-Nazi song. It is in Yiddish, the language spoken by many of the partisans who fought and died in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. That was the most significant mass act of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. The English translation runs:

Never say that this is the end.
Though leaden skies blot out the blue day,
the hour that we long for will appear,
“We are here!”

From lands of green palm trees
to land all white with snow,
we are coming with our pain and with our woe.
And wherever a spurt of blood dropped,
our courage will sprout from that spot.

The morning sun will radiate the day for us:
the enemy and past will fade away.
But should the dawn delay
or should the sunset wait too long,
then may all future generations sing this song.

This song was written with our blood
and not with lead;
it’s not a song of free birds flying overhead.
But a people amid crumbling walls took a stand.
They sang this song with rifles in their hand.

Never say that this is the end…

“Never say that this is the end,” there is always a little something dangerous about translating a song. There is that standing joke about Unitarian Universalist hymns. Perhaps you know it. It runs, “Why are Unitarian Universalists bad at singing? Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.”

The problem with offering you music in translation is that once you learn what the song means you might take exception to it. Certainly, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” is not the expected Sunday morning fare. We do not normally have music in Yiddish. It is quite possible that this is the first time a Jewish partisan song has been sung here as part of the service.

Jolie and I invited Isabelle to lead the music for today’s service after she was a guest at our spring concert. She sang a couple of songs in Yiddish. It was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me.

As many of you know, my father’s family is Jewish. When I was a child, I had relatives who spoke Yiddish. It is the historic language of the Ashkenazi, the Jewish community of Eastern Europe. It blends German and Hebrew.

My Grandmother Lorraine liked to tell my brother and me that we had, “shayne punim,” handsome faces. My Great Aunt Claire, my Great Aunt Dorothy, they both peppered their English with Yiddish words and phrases. Sometimes, the translation would not be readily apparent, or the context was difficult to understand. When I was out of earshot of my relatives I would ask my Dad to explain the words to me. He would usually respond with some sort of parable.

“Chutzpah, what’s chutzpah,” I might ask him.

“Chutzpah is when someone kills both their parents and then throws themselves to the mercy of the court because they are an orphan. That’s chutzpah,” he would reply.

Isabelle’s performance last spring was the first time I head Yiddish since I moved to Houston. When I lived in Boston, I had several graduate school friends who grew up speaking it. Like my relatives, they had a tendency to pepper their speech with words like kvetch and mensch or occasionally describe someone they didn’t care for as a no-goodnik–that is actually Yinglish.

When I heard Isabelle sing, I was pulled out of time. Maybe you know the kind of experience I am talking about. Where the accumulate memories associated with a piece of music or a type of food or a particular place are so strong that when encounter them–especially after some years–your experience is not just the experience of the present. It is an experience of the past and the present and possibly the future all collapsed into one. The boundaries between time and space seem to fall away. You are not just wherever you are but also where you once were.

T. S. Eliot speaks of the experience of accumulated memory in one of his poems. They “[m]ay be concentrated into a great joy / Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion / When fear came upon every soul: / Because the beginning shall remind us of the end.”

Great fear, great joy, the beginning, the end, when I heard Isabelle sing that night I found myself confronted with a jumble of memories. My Aunt Claire taking us out for brunch at Skokie’s famous Barnum & Bagel. My grandmother’s commitment to progressive politics. Visiting my Aunt Dorothy at her retirement home in Redondo Beach and there, just off the coast, as we drove along the highway, seeing them, a pod of whales breaking the water with their humps and spouts.

“Never say that this is the end,” some of the other music today is in Hebrew, Judaism’s sacred language, or draws from biblical imagery found in ancient scripture. “Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield” is an African American spiritual that was sung during the civil rights movement. It was a favorite of the famed Unitarian folksinger Pete Seeger, who likely sang it with many of our congregations, and draws from Isaiah. The prophet’s words:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war.

Their sentiment is similar to Webster Kitchell’s desire to see “a world community in cooperation and spirit.” Like his words, the prophet speaks of something that should be but is not. It is the dream of justice–which Cornel West has helpfully defined as “what love looks like in public.” It is what William Morris named “the news from nowhere,” the images we have of what would come to pass if we humans were ever to reconcile ourselves with nature and with each other.

The news from nowhere… the announced title of this sermon is “The Sacred and the Secular.” It is the first in our month long series on cycles. It comes in the midst of one of the great religious turnings–the passage from one year to the next. For, in the Jewish tradition, we are between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. The Jewish High Holy Days are a time for repentance, reflection, and renewal. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” are words often found in prayers at this time.

In Judaism’s cosmic story, it is a period when God is deciding whose name will be written in the Book of Life. It is the time when God picks out who will live and who will die, how many will pass away and how many will be born.

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

The poet Leonard Cohen wrote these words when he recast one of the tradition’s ancient prayers. I have heard them recited in a synagogue during the High Holiday services.

The sacred and the secular, the cycles of religious life… These things have come to me this week as I have been preparing for this service.

Unlike Judaism, Unitarian Universalism does not have a cosmic story. While in this congregation, our liturgical calendar includes such celebrations as Christmas and Easter, Water Communion and Flower Communion, there is no overarching narrative, drawn from ancient scripture, that we all agree we are participating in.

This lack of a unifying narrative has led some of our critics to accuse us of being a secular community. Alternatively, they cast us as the gateway that leads from religion to irreligion, from the sacred to the secular.

In fits and starts, with my references to Yiddish and Hebrew, politics and the Jewish holidays, I have been attempting to point us in a different direction. I have been questioning the division between the sacred and the secular. The end of one, and the beginning of the other, cannot easily be found.

In many religious traditions, the sacred is thought of that which connects us to a cosmic story or to some transcendental realm. Is is the tether between human life and divine power. The secular, in contrast, is understood as everything else.

The division of reality into sacred and secular realms has consequences. For some people, it can make it easy to believe that their home is somewhere else than here. For others, it can justify murderous or hateful acts of exclusion. The neo-fascists that have come to power in Italy, for example, have declared the soil of their beautiful land somehow distinct and more sacred than the soil of other lands. Many Zionists see Israeli as a religious experiment rather than a secular state. Christian nationalists have long understood the United States as having a uniquely divine mission. The list goes on.

I contemplate a tree.

… I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

Martin Buber’s words from his classic work of theology I and Thou disrupt the division of the world into the sacred and the secular. They are not distinct, he wants us to understand. They exist on top of each other. We can access the sacred at any time. It might be the same thing as secular. The cosmic story may simply be our story.

And so, Buber invites us to contemplate a tree. Any tree will do. There is a small lemon that we keep in a container next to the front porch. It has hardy thick leaves–it stays evergreen–and sweet purple white flowers. This year it has produced four fruit, green now, ripening to yellow soon.

Sometimes, I pause by the tree as I enter the house. It is young. It might not long survive. But it offers me a gateway into the sacred. Looking at it, I find myself imagining its cycles, its flowerings and fruitings, its patterns of yearly growth, and thinking about how trees outlive us, have stories that are beyond us. The live oaks on Southmore have stood longer this this building has. Their story began before ours. Perhaps it will continue after ours, or least mine, as well.

And yet, a tree is a wholly secular thing. It does not exist in some transcendental realm. It is as much a part of this good green earth as anything.

The sacred and the secular… One of the challenges that Unitarian Universalism offers us is the ability to question what is secular and what is sacred. Where do you find one? Where is the other? Webster Kitchell wanted us to seek “a new ideal” of “the vision of world community.” Was his a vision of the sacred or the secular?

“Every year I manage to live on this earth / I collect more questions than answers,” the poet Fatimah Asghar confesses.

Questions about the nature of the sacred and the secular abound. Some of us might hold that there is a neat division between the two. Others might reject the idea that the sacred even exists or hold that there is no difference between the two. There are those who believe that we are caught in a cosmic story. And those who think that there is nowhere else but here.

And there are those who understand the world as endlessly repetitious and agree with Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!” While others see the sacred flow of time, or the secular course of history, as leading to some sort of inevitable conclusion or the unstoppable improvement of humanity.

The sacred and the secular, sometimes it is my job as your preacher to put both definitive positions. Occasionally, I am called to explicate the nature of Unitarian Universalism: we are a people who believe in the separation of church and state. In other instances, I am asked to offer pastoral advice: we are creatures who have been born and know we will die and it is our task to figure out what to do in between. And in different moments I challenged to provide prophetic accounts: we faced the intertwined crises of the climate emergency, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the global assault on democracy.

Other times, I ask you questions. Is there a difference between the sacred and the secular? Is there such a thing as cosmic time, as the Jewish High Holidays would remind us, or are we only ever caught in natural cycles, as the lifespan of a tree might prompt us to recollect? Do such questions even matter?

Every year I manage to live on this earth
I collect more questions than answers

I collect more questions than answers, in that spirit I leave you with three complicating gestures. First, a story about our music. When we invited Isabelle to sing in both Hebrew and Yiddish she pointed out that traditionally Yiddish was viewed as a secular language. It was not used on the High Holidays.

I asked my family’s rabbi about this. He disagreed every so slightly. Sometimes, he told, it was viewed by some congregations as an acceptable language to speak or in during the services. It is hard to get agreement about precisely what is secular or what is sacred.

Second, there is Hurricane Ian. It is a catastrophic event that has been, at least in part, driven by the human caused warming of the planet. It has come and left devastation in its wake because of changes to natural cycles. The climate crisis should cause us to wonder, whatever our understanding of the sacred and the secular, the wisdom of ever understanding the human as something other than the place that is here.

And third, there is Judith Malina–grandchild of a rabbi and Jewish poet–who would remind us of the dangers that can occur when the sacred and the secular are intermingled. She wrote of the origins of antisemitism in sacred stories and cosmic narratives. She would have us “Beware of the law of the land.”

But, “Come, Chavarim,” she tell us, “It’s time for the evening prayer.”

I have more questions than answers. And so, at the end of this sermon on the sacred and the secular, on cosmic narratives and the cycles of our lives, I close not with an Amen but an invitation into shared silence. May we each find within it something that we seek.

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