as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, July 25, 2021
It is good to be here in the pulpit with you. Indeed, these last two Sundays, it has been a delight to be with you again. It is wonderful to be in a sanctuary with people, to mingle and talk after the service, and to offer something of my life with a beloved congregation–not over Zoom or prerecorded video–but live in-person.
We humans are social creatures. We build the world we live in together. For good and for ill, we each contribute something to the collective whole. We can choose to do harm or we can choose to bless each other with our presence.
You have gathered here, in part, I suspect, because you are seeking the blessing of community. Your presence brings that blessing into being, you bless each other when we assemble. When we are together we can push back loneliness, offer each other comfort when hope is hard to find, and share our joys so that they spark all the more brightly.
It should not be surprising, then, that I have enjoyed the social aspect of our re-gathering. After a prolonged isolation, it is so good to see your faces again and to be blessed by you.
That is not to claim that there have not been a few awkward moments. I know I am not alone in thinking that I have to relearn some social graces after more than a year when socializing has been a dangerous activity. Nonetheless, I have been finding the immediate feedback that I have been getting about our services most helpful. I do not have to wonder whether I hit this point or missed that one. Someone seems to be steadily willing to let me know.
I want to share something someone said last week after the second service. While I was in Channing Hall they came up to me and let me know that they appreciated my word. But, they wanted to let me know, they had particularly enjoyed the service the week before.
Our first week back in the sanctuary, you might recall, I structured my sermon around a phrase from the 42nd Psalm. Each time I offered the words “with joyous shouts of praise,” I encouraged you to let everyone know that you were glad to be here. And many of you did. That first Sunday back we had a stronger Amen corner than we had in the before times.
The person who came to talk to me in Channing Hall wanted me to know that they especially enjoyed that aspect of the service. They did not want it to be just a one off. Instead, they hoped “joyous shouts of praise” would become ingrained in the culture of our congregation.
I agree. I agree because when you respond to the sermon you emphasize a simple truth about our gathering. Worship is something we do together. We are, right now, engaged in a collective act of co-creation. In our service and our gathering, we are building our community and blessing each other. Can I, perhaps, get an Amen or a joyous shout here?
Pablo Neruda recognized our collective nature in his reflection on the nature of poetry. Writer and reader, he understood, engaged together to creating the meaning of the text:
And you, who are reading my ode;
you’ve used it against your own solitude.
We’ve never met, and yet it’s your hands
that wrote these lines, with mine.
y tú que lees mi oda
contra tu soledad la has dirigido
y asi tus propias manos la escribieron,
sin conocerme, con las manos mías.
We are social creatures. Until we read them, the words on Neruda’s page are just meaningless ink. It is only once you or I give eye or throat to his letters that they begin to mean anything.
A ship on the sea
isn’t the only image of its beauty.
It flies over the water like a dove,
of wondrous collaborations
This world we live in, like this service we offer, is an act of constant co-creation. I bring my part into being. You bring yours. Together we form some of what is.
I offer you these reflections as I make my way to the line of text upon which I wish to hinge today’s sermon. It comes from the writer of speculative fiction Ursula Le Guin. She used her many novels to point to a simple truth about our world: things can be different than they are. Deeply immersed in the fields of anthropology, history, and sociology, she knew another truth: things have been different than they are now.
In one of her speeches, she provided the sentence to which we now turn, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable–but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
There is a lot happening in that sentence. It is filled with big ideas. It offers a social critique. It suggests the possibility of hope. For Le Guin, her sentence names the system that she thought of as the source of–shall I call it evil? … she names the system that she understood to be behind a great deal of human suffering and the driving engine behind the climate catastrophe.
You may not agree with Le Guin’s naming. You might also not agree with your preacher’s persistent criticisms of the same economic system. I am not going to worry about that a great deal. Instead, I will point you to our earlier hymn. We sang, “we will all do our own naming.” I am offering Le Guin’s naming to suggest something that transcends the particularity of our predicament and my preacherly analysis. I am offering it as a reminder that over time we humans have created a great number of social systems. Throughout human history those social systems have crested and fallen like so many ocean waves.
However, we want to name it, our social system is changing. We are at an inflection point, caught in what Joanna Macy has hopefully named the Great Turning. We are at the threshold of radical change. As catastrophic forest fires and floods attest, the climate is continuing to warm rapidly. As the journalist David Roberts wrote recently, “there is no moderate position on climate change. Either we act rapidly and at massive scale to avoid the worst consequences … or we suffer the worst consequences. Either outcome involves radical change. There’s no avoiding radicalism.”
The world we live in is changing. We are changing it, changing it so much that some geologists have argued that we need to recognize we have entered into a new geological epoch–what they call the anthropocene, the human epoch. In the anthropocene, we humans are not only responsible for shaping our societies, we are responsible for shaping the planet itself.
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable–but then, so did the divine right of kings.” For the rest of this sermon, I want us to focus less upon the social critique Le Guin offers–her naming–and more on the second two clauses: “its power seems inescapable–but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
Those two clauses are meant to remind us that our social systems have changed before and so it is possible to imagine that they might change again. For hundreds of years the divine right of kings–the idea that the monarch was specially anointed by God to rule–was an almost unchallengeable idea. In the seventeenth century the English Parliament the belief was so ingrained that the body even began its sessions with the Speaker uttering the platitude, “kings were visible gods and God an invisible king.” It was so taken for granted that when Members of Parliament were rebuked by the royal personage it was not uncommon for them respond, entirely without sarcasm, “because the King is a God upon earth I would answer him as we should answer God in heaven, that is with a prayer.”
This idea was not universally accepted. We have pamphlets of radicals which contain proclamations like, “it is undoubtedly lawful for the people… to resist the King… [for the] people’s power is higher, yea the supream power.” And we have lyrics from subversive ballads promising, “the poor shall wear the crown.”
Over time, the ideas of the radicals became commonplace. Over time, the idea of the divine right of kings started to be viewed as anachronistic, absurd. Over time, the social system changed.
This, of course, is a gross oversimplification. It excludes much blood, sweat, and tears. The divine right of kings did not go quietly or gently into the good night. But it did go.
I could stand here and tell you how, and why, it went. I could offer you the history of that transformation–speak of the English Civil War and the French Revolution. I could tell the story of the American and Haitian Revolutions too. Perhaps I might linger upon a quote by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary who declared, “It could only be kings… who dare claim the right to reduce into servitude men made like them and whom nature has made free.” But I will save such a discourse for another forum.
Instead, I just want to lift up this point: we humans create the social systems–the economic and political systems–in which we live. We have the power to imagine and then bring into being different ways of being than we have now.
One of the purposes of our religious communion is to offer a place for such imaginings. Radical talk, you might think, but such a claim rests upon the theological bedrock of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Indeed, such a claim bespeaks much of what makes our tradition what it is. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the congregations that became Unitarian Universalist emerged in opposition to the theological idea that we humans have no power to shape our human destiny.
Many pulpits were then filled with performances inspired by the theology of John Calvin. He utterly rejected the idea that we humans are free in anyway to choose our own destiny. Instead, he taught a doctrine called predestination. This is the belief, that, in Calvin’s words, God has “determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man.” He paired this belief in what he named “the depravity of our nature.” This was a claim that humans are fundamentally evil and incapable of bringing any good into the world separate from what God wills for them.
Unitarian theologians like William Ellery Channing rejected Calvin’s beliefs on both counts. Instead of preaching about human depravity, Channing taught that we all contain within “the likeness to God.” With this likeness inside, he argued, we are gifted with the possibility of nurturing the spark of the divine so that it might shine ever more brightly. Whether or not we nurtured that spark was ours to choose. It was not foreordained that I would fail to let it gleam brightly and you would let your spark dazzle and flare. What happens is tied to the choices we make.
Channing’s theology helped to inspire a generation of social reformers: people brave enough to believe that the world that they lived in could be different. They inhabited a world where chattel slavery was the norm and where women did not have the right to vote or even speak in public. They imagined the abolition of slavery. They imagined the rights of women. And their imaginings helped to bring those things into being.
Again, I find myself offering oversimplifications–trying to reduce so much history, so much theology, and so much bravery into a few sentences. The point I am attempting to bring us to is this: we co-create, bring into being, the world we inhabit. We social creatures create our society. The world is not foreordained. We can build a different society than the one we presently inhabit. We can imagine a new world into being.
Indeed, this is the only thing that has ever happened. All of human society, all that is, began as an idea, a twinkling, a dream. This sanctuary in which we worship, started as conversations between this congregation and an architect some generations ago. The pews upon which those of you here with me sit, the pulpit from which I am preaching, all ideas carved into wood. The same is true for those of you who are watching our service via livestream. The silicon chips, the camera lenses, the speakers and audio equipment, all began as ideas before materials were manufactured into their present forms.
What is true of our physical human creations is true of our social ones as well. Religion, this act in which we are now, together, as a congregation, engaged takes many forms. Go across the street to the First Presbyterian Church you will find one variety of religious expression. If you could go back in time to ancient Egypt would find another. If you choose to visit a mosque, a synagogue, or a Hindu temple you would encounter still others.
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable–but then, so did the divine right of kings.” I am offering you these words, this week, as we are caught in a great turning, for the simple reason that as your minister I am called upon to offer you hope. Hope might be hard to find. The climate crisis is dire. The hour is late. We have only a few years to avert the worst of what might come. But hope is not unjustified. We humans have changed society before–we are no longer ruled by a monarch who believes himself to be ordained by an all-powerful divine–and so we have the possibility of changing it again.
Catastrophe is not foreordained. As a human society we will either choose it or we will choose something different. But we will make the choice. We will either decide to imagine an outcome where we avert overwarming the planet or we will not. We really do have that power.
I am not promising that the radical changes that must be made to ward off the worst will be easy. I am not telling you that they will occur. There are grave forces in place–structures that we all participate in–which want to tilt us to the radicalism of despair, the belief that we cannot stop what is coming and that we cannot choose differently. I am just trying to offer you a radicalism of hope and remind you that, hard as it is to imagine, we as a human species have the power to choose our collective fate.
In our closing hymn we will sing, “We are of the spirit, truly of the spirit, only can the spirit turn the world around.” Whether you identify as atheist, theist, pagan, Buddhist, Christian, just plain Unitarian Universalist or something else, let me suggest that the words of our hymn affirm, in an indirect or metaphorical way, the message of this sermon. It is not the material forces in our world that so much determine what happens. Fire, water, and mountain, are all very important. But in the end it is the spirit, the ideas, the imaginings, the dreams, that empowers us to bring things into being. The world is not foreordained.
In the hopes that we will each remember this I invite the congregation to say Amen.