as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 16, 2022
The Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has always been clear eyed about the purpose of our religious communion. In essay after essay, in book after book, writing alone or with a collaborator, she has told us that we gather in “hope for the recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world.”
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world, I invite you to hold onto those lines as we proceed with our sermon. We will return to them, perhaps once, perhaps twice, possibly even more often. The theme of the month is cycles. Instead of offering a linear narrative–a sermonic journey in which each phrase passes by like the mile marker on a freeway–I am going to present you with a somewhat more circular text.
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world, when I say the word paradise what do you imagine? Instead of what, should I say where? Or when?
In many traditions, paradise is conceived of as a garden–a cultivated collection of plants, verdant with leaves and vines, rich with flowers, awash in colors or covered in soft rain. And so, sometimes when I think of paradise, I imagine the great gardens I have known.
There are the Voyanovy Gardens in Prague. The city’s oldest, their origins stretch back to the Middle Ages when they served as the grounds of a bishop’s residence. Sometime later, they became the property of a now defunct convent. Then, eventually, they passed into the Ministry of Finance’s possession and, after that, to the city itself.
Or something like that, the gardens are so old that I imagine their history might as well be a matter of myth. If we were to visit them together, I suspect that you would not care that much about their history. Instead, you might be caught, like I have been, by their mystic charm. They are not quite secret gardens. Totally surrounded by high plastered walls that date from I know not when, you or I can only enter them from ill marked doors.
And when we do… We are in the midst of a peaceful paradise. Beehives carved from whole logs rest in one corner. Their fronts are shaped like faces. From their gentle mouths emerge a busy, buzzing, yellow highway of bees moving, as they do, in a circular, cyclical, pattern, from hive to flower to hive and back again.
Look, over there, underneath that aged branch (can you tell how old its whorls and knots are?) is that, yes, I think it is, a peacock. The sometime bird of paradise is iridescent, brilliant with feathers, blue as any blue can be. And it is just sitting there, resting in the heat, caring not what you or I do.
A small river runs through the garden. It is a reminder that rivers have long been associated with paradise. They are symbols of the way in which divine blessings are imagined to flow over us, like water washing over rocks, when we are in the perfect lands.
Elder trees are everywhere for the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are imagined to have existed in the original garden. The tree of life, that symbol of the divine’s consecration of the world. For trees, which breath in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, are beings who make our human lives possible. The tree of knowledge, that symbol at the heart of the ancient fable which suggests that to be human is have knowledge of good and evil.
Most cities have tree filled gardens like these. When I was on sabbatical, I found them in London, Oxford, and Perugia, Italy–ancient things filled with small spots of forest, neatly laid out beds of roses, and plots of grass gone wild.
We do not have to travel far to find them. After the service, if you wish, you can journey up the street to Hermann Park and visit Houston’s own paradise plots. There are the Centennial Gardens, complete with fountains, sculpture, and a pyramid mound topped by a winding path. There is the Japanese Garden, carefully laid out with koi stocked ponds. Walk over a stone bridge, gaze into the water, and watch for the flash of gold, silver, or red.
You can also just sit in our courtyard, little bit of paradise that it is. The benches along the walls are cool. The water babbles. The trees offer some small shade and there are plenty of growing vining things.
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world, Rebecca Parker describes paradise “as earthly life at its best.” That is a statement which invites rich imaginings. If I say the word “paradise” there might be concrete things that come to your mind: a garden picnic, cool drink, delicious food, and good companionship. Or you might dream of abstractions: peace, justice, and democracy.
The theme for the month is cycles. The majority of Unitarian Universalists have a cyclical relationship with paradise. In many traditions–especially those most closely connected to Trinitarian Christianity–paradise exists in a sort of linear narrative. Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. They do not return to it. Their descendants will only find themselves in the idyllic land when time is no more. There is paradise at the beginning. There is paradise to be found at the end. There is human history in between.
The story is different for most Unitarian Universalists. Paradise is not something that existed once upon a time. It has not been lost. It will not be found when God ends the world that is and brings the world to come. No, that is not it.
Paradise is something that we can return to again and again, “not,” in Rebecca Parker’s words, “as a permanent state of being but as aspects of life itself.” It is like a garden that we can revisit. It is not someplace out of time and space. It is that moment, any moment, as she tells us, we find “experiences and visions of justice, of the goodness of ordinary life, and of a vibrant peace.”
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world, paradise is not one thing. It is not one place. Visions of justice, vibrant peace, ordinary life… let me suggest that these realizations of paradise are descriptions of relationship. They are not things that come to us unbidden. They are not given to us by some exterior entity–some divine being existing outside the confines of the terrestrial flow of time or the uneven rhythm of human history. They are things that we must work for.
We remind ourselves of this each week when we share our offerings. In the service, the offering is meant to help us remember that this community is something we create together. It is part of our efforts to realize paradise on earth. It is part of our struggle to sustain ourselves and bring a little bit more goodness and beauty into this world.
The song that is sung each week right before the offering blessing prompts us to recall these truths. I suspect you remember the simple words:
From you I receive
to you I give,
together we share,
and from this we live.
To receive, to give, to share, is to live. It is a simple sentiment. Yet, it is also subversive. It runs against one of the great untruths of this society: that we are somehow independent and autonomous creatures dependent upon no one and untethered from the natural world.
The words should challenge us to remember a different reality. It is clearly spoken of in the Seventh Principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I depend upon you. You depend upon me. We are all dependent on the health of this green blue ball of a planet of which we are a part.
Each of us is, after all, but a temporary expression of it. The matter that composes our being comes from nowhere else but here. Our bodies are made from and propelled by the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Each of these, in turn, is a product of dependent interactions and seemingly endless cycles. Our choir sang of these cycles earlier when they offered us Elizabeth Alexander’s “Tree Song:”
As a tree gives
so it receives:
rain and sun
from the sky.
Trees can last longer than us. They can grow to great heights and achieve ancient ages. Yet, they too are caught in the cycle of giving and receiving. In a healthy forest, each tree has been nourished by the proceeding generations. The soil in which the present generation has rooted itself is but the accumulation of life that has come before. The naturalist Peter Wohlleben has reflected on this cycle. “Without soil,” he writes, “there would be no forests, because trees must have somewhere to put down roots. Naked rock doesn’t work … cannot store sufficient quantities of water or food.”
The soil itself, upon which trees are dependent, is a product of the accumulated life that came before. It has been created by “bacteria, fungi, and plants, all of which decomposed after death to form humus,” he reminds us. This means that in a forest locked in cycles free from human interference “the soil under the trees becomes deeper and richer over time so that growing conditions for trees [are] constantly improving,” he observes.
In other sermons, I have spoken with you about something that I call the resurrection of the living. My understanding of it has been inspired by the Christian gnostic text “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” There we find these words, in response to the question, “What is the resurrection?” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
The resurrection of the living is that teaching found in so many of the world’s religions that tells us that the purpose of life is to open ourselves to the earthly paradise that surrounds us. It is the Buddha’s answer to the question, “Are you a god?” with the words, “I am awake.” It is Jesus’s teaching, “God is not God of the dead but of the living.” It is the Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s claim, “All actual life is encounter.” It is the Hindu poet Mirabai’s enjoinment, “Get up, stop sleeping–the days of a life are short.” It is the Sioux scholar Nick Estes’s observation, “the moral universe is how one relation to others and to the land.” It is…
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world. Part of the resurrection of the living is the acknowledgement that in order to be here now we each have received enormously from others. And that the only appropriate response, the only way to honestly recognize this truth about life, the best way to wake up to the reality of being human, is to give.
We have come to consciousness, we have woken up, in this earthly paradise, the tenuous planet that has brought us into being and which sustain our lives. We should be grateful for that. The only way, the best way, to express that gratitude, is to do our part to realize paradise on earth.
Paradise on earth… this is not a call to quiescence. It is not a claim that “[a]ll will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” to invoke the great mystic Julian of Norwich.
And so, let us return to one garden ideal which we visited earlier. When I spoke of the Voyanovy Gardens in Prague at the start of the sermon I did not offer you an accurate description of my recent visit to them. For, I have been to Prague not once but several times. My memory of them is more like my first visit from almost twenty years ago than it is of the gardens as they were this summer.
Yes, there were peacocks. And yes, there were trees. And yes, hives brought forth a favorite line from William Butler Yeats, “in the bee-loud glade” where “peace comes dropping slow.” But the spring in the garden’s center was running dry. And the grass was not verdant. It was turning to straw.
And so, it was with each of the venerable grounds I visited. Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath, Gordon Square, all in London and all far more brown than green. A friend’s Italian plot underneath of Perugia’s Medieval Wall almost turning to dust under our feet. For all summer, while I was there, Europe was in the midst of one its worst droughts in five hundred years.
Here is the place where we could speak about the ongoing nature of the human caused climate crisis. But you know about it. And I know about it. And we know what must be done.
The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world, in another essay, Rebecca Parker has challenged us to reconceive of how we think of the end of the world. It is common to think that the apocalypse, the crisis, the shattering event, is something that is coming, that has not yet arrived. What, however, happens, when we stop thinking of the apocalypse as something that is coming and instead acknowledge that it has already happened? In that scenario, Parker wants us to “consider how we might regard our religious task differently.”
In such a scenario, she tells us, “the religious enterprise can be imagined as a kind of salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” We are called to wake up to the present state of our earthly paradise. We are called to open ourselves to the truth that it is our task, as a human species, to do what we can to salvage it. There is nowhere else but here.
Let us return to the garden. Let us return to the garden. Let us conclude, also, with some words of Gustavo Gac-Artigas’s poem “invocation.”
The gardens of which I have spoken–be they our lovely courtyard, in Hermann Park, or amid old European city walls–are human things. They have been nurtured over the generations. The paradise that they offer has been maintained across world wars, pandemics, other droughts, and, in some cases, bombings. They are gifts that we have received from previous generations. It is our challenge to figure out how to gift this earthly paradise to those who will come after.
It is our calling to give gifts across the generations. I tell you this now, because are besought by crises. I tell you this now, because we already know what must be done. And I tell you this now, because we Unitarian Universalists are already trying to do it: recognizing and revitalizing the paradise on earth that could be and sometimes is. This is why so many of you come here week after week, to take your part in this collective work. To inspire each other in it. And this is why so many of you have been part of our voting justice initiative, working together to celebrate and share the common treasury that is our beloved planet.
So that together we might say, to those who will be here next, “mi sueño sobreviva en el tuyo,” “let my dream survive in yours.” The recognition and realization of paradise on earth, rather than after death or after the end of the world.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.