Growing the Beloved Community, Twelve Months a Year

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Not long after I’d moved to Connecticut in early 2001, I learned that there was a Unitarian Universalist congregation just up the road from me.  The first service I attended there was on Easter Sunday, and not long after that I went to an orientation and became a member.  Then something very strange happened.

Services came to an end for the Summer.

It turned out that, for the months of July and August, my congregation and the UU church in the next town had an arrangement where they would share services.  Anybody coming to one congregation, assuming there’d be a service, would be greeted by a hand-scribbled note taped to the door saying that services were being held at the other congregation.  Oh, and since the two congregations held their services at different times, well, there was no way…

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Broadening Minds, Deepening Spirits, Opening Hearts

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

In early 2002 I spent a couple of weeks in India. With most of my visit in Mumbai, I stayed in a house that at one time may have been considered opulent. When I was there, though, the paint was peeling from the walls, the plaster was falling from the ceiling, and the toilet had to be flushed with a bucket. All of the water needed for cooking and cleaning — and flushing the toilet! — was stored in large plastic bins that were filled via a garden hose from an outdoor faucet only at a certain time each day. Outside the house, traffic crowded the streets. Loud and smelly three-wheeled taxis wove around equally loud and smelly trucks and buses, not to mention cows and the occasional elephant, as well as people. And there were lots of people…

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Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 24th 2013.)

I’ve loved the thanksgiving prayer of Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Fewkes since I first heard it.  As we heard our youngest choir members sing it so sweetly this morning:

“For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and the evening which we did not design,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Elizabeth Alexander set these words to music, explaining that “my family has spoken this blessing as our table grace for the past twenty years.  This is no small praise, for I had exhaustive criteria for this prayer: it needed to be simple enough for a young child to learn, beautiful in language and form, and appropriate in the presence of a guest of any faith. It was a pleasure to set Richard Fewkes’ words to music, so that I could share his generous sentiment with others.”

Now I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists engage in what they might consider prayer on a regular basis.  Indeed it has been said that prayer in most Unitarian Universalist circles is something like a dog walking around on its hind legs: the surprise isn’t from seeing it done well, but from seeing it done at all.  But some sort of blessing or grace at the dinner table may not be that unusual, particularly when taken as an opportunity to teach children about the value of gratitude, as was evidently part of Alexander’s intention. (She is, by the way, a Unitarian Universalist.)

Now expressing gratitude is one of the four classic purposes of prayer.  The other three are expressing wonder, expressing regret and expressing need, though the forms of those expressions obviously vary depending on your theology.  I think one of the reasons many Unitarian Universalists don’t consider anything they do as prayer is because we’ve fallen victim to the idea that praying is simply about asking for things, and to most of us that sounds pretty self-serving.  But let’s try to escape the trap of a narrow theological frame and broaden our thinking.

What about prayer as an expression of wonder?  I’m by no means a morning person, but whenever I get the opportunity to see the Sun rise into the dawning sky, I can’t help but marvel that I’m standing on a huge ball of rock that’s spinning as it circles through space around a vast ball of fire.  Moreover, the scales and distances are so immense that we actually see the Sun as it was more than eight minutes into the past.  That’s just one of the many wonders available to us every minute of every day.

What about prayer as an expression of regret?  There are all the ways in which I fall short of my own intentions, all the ways that I don’t live up to my own vision for who I want to be in the world.  Whether I make promises to myself or to others, I can run out of time or I can get distracted; I can forget something on my ever-growing “to do” list, and then there’s always just plain old-fashioned procrastination.  But I try to be aware of how I fall short, because it’s only by being honest with myself that I can fix what my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

And what about prayer as an expression of need?  This is not just asking for things.  If we’re willing to admit, particularly to ourselves, our limits and our faults, then we ought to be able to admit what we need, from one another, from the world, from life.  I need to feel connected to family and friends, for instance.  I need to feel like I belong.  I’ve found I have a real need to spend time with my one-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep, and so I also need the people who run our many evening committee meetings to be understanding of that when I arrive late.

And then there’s prayer as an expression of gratitude.  Many people have noted that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.  It’s something to be done every day, a way of life that we should always be practicing because it helps to move us from dwelling on what we lack — and with that attitude what we need will always be scarce — to celebrating what we have — and appreciating how our needs are met in a spirit of abundance.  As addiction recovery specialist and self-help author Melody Beattie puts it, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Personally I think that gratitude is foundational to any expression of need, regret or wonder.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that gratitude brings depth and motivation and promise and usefulness to those other expressions.  After all, it’s no good to become so focused on what we need that we fail to appreciate what we already have; it’s certainly no good if reasonable and honest acknowledgements of our failings become drowned in self-pity; and it’s no less unhelpful to spend every waking moment in such a state of amazement that we are incapable of actually doing anything with the gifts we’ve been given.  It’s gratitude that frees us from the paralysis that can so easily come from need, regret and even wonder.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For food which we plant but cannot grow,
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Any occasion to sit down for a good meal with friends and family is a chance to think intentionally about these gifts, to appreciate them and perhaps to express gratitude out loud.  A major holiday that’s actually called Thanksgiving does, of course, lend itself to doing this more readily, but Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be grateful any more than Christmas is the only time to be nice to people or Valentine’s Day is the only time to be loving or St. Patrick’s Day is the only time to eat food that’s all been boiled until it’s the same color.  If, that is, you have some objection to vitamins.

Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Thanksgiving as an opportunity to think more about those things for which we are grateful, and there’s some merit to the idea that if we focus on some particular good habit for at least a while, then some of it will stick with us afterwards.

So it’s not too surprising that, for the last forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — the UUSC, for short — has been asking UU congregations to participate in its “Guest at Your Table” program, starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving and running through the Winter holidays.  If you’ve been to this or any other UU congregation on such a Sunday before, you’ll have heard the basic idea, which has a lot to do with gratitude.

The official mission and vision statements of the UUSC are as follows: the “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies”; the “UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights.”  As such, the UUSC is in Haiti, supporting people who are rebuilding communities that are still recovering from the earthquake that devastated the country three years ago.  And the UUSC is in Arkansas, helping people who are fighting against worker exploitation in situations where wages are stolen, where safety rules are ignored and where sexual harassment is overlooked.  And now the UUSC is in the Philippines, too, working with local and international organizations as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines to provide relief in communities where people lost almost everything to Typhoon Haiyan.

Those are all worthy efforts, of course, and the UUSC is engaged in plenty more all over the world.  For me, though, it all comes down to gratitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  And that goes for Unitarian Universalists in general, at least within the United States: most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  The UUSC, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalists, collectively, can give back.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  It’s one of the many sayings that people think are in the Bible, only this one actually is — it’s said by Jesus in the Book of Luke — though it was also paraphrased by Oliver Wendell Holmes and John F. Kennedy.  The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalism recognizes that obligation, and so it makes perfect sense to learn about and think about the UUSC’s work during that time of year when we are encouraged to express gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed.

And so for the last forty years, the UUSC has been asking Unitarian Universalists in congregations across the United States to support their work by participating in Guest at Your Table.  GaYT_boxThe idea is pretty simple: you take one of these boxes, and you take it home, and you put it on your dinner table, and every time you sit down for a meal — and perhaps say a formal grace or at least go around the table and have everyone speak of something for which they are grateful — then you see the box and remember to put a few coins or even a couple of dollar bills into it as a way to make concrete your gratitude for what you have and how you have been blessed.  Every year the UUSC selects four of their partners and writes “Stories of Hope” about them to help bring to life some of the valuable, vital work they’re doing, but that doesn’t really matter, because you know that everything they do is good, worthwhile work that reflects UU values and makes a difference in people’s lives, but that’s not why you put those cents and dollars into that box.  No, you put that money in because you are grateful for what you have and how you have been blessed.

But this year, the UUSC isn’t making these boxes.  They’ve decided that in keeping with their other efforts to be good stewards of the environment, Guest at Your Table will collect money through a website.  After all, producing thousands of boxes and printing them all in full color only for them to be used for a couple of months before they go, hopefully, into the recycling bin, well, that’s perhaps not the most environmentally friendly thing to do every year.  And I applaud that, but, you know, it worries me.  I worry about how well it will work, without the physical presence of the cardboard boxes on people’s dinner tables.  It turns out that it also worries J— who, I should note, has been the one who for so many years has maintained this Fellowship’s participation in the UUSC’s programs and for that we should all express our gratitude to her.  So she and I did some of our own thinking “outside the box” — yes, groan — and came up with our own UUFP way to do Guest at Your Table this year.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come,
for all our free churches that keep us human
and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like food here.  We like eating together, whether it’s a potluck or a lunch after services at a local restaurant or a meal for six or eight offered by members as an auction item or a special dinner as part of the annual pledge drive.  Members of this congregation covenant to companion one another on this journey of the spirit that we call life, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that to be a companion literally means to share bread with someone.  Well, we have a few people who can’t eat gluten, but the good news is that there’s always plenty more food than just bread here!

So today, for instance, the Membership Committee is hosting the first of this year’s Fourth Sunday Soup Socials that run through the Winter months.  These aren’t potlucks, but rather R— and devoted volunteers will provide a variety of types of soup and an occasional chili that are available for anyone to enjoy.  In keeping with our own efforts to be good stewards of the environment, you’re encouraged to bring your own bowl and spoon, but you won’t be turned away if you don’t.  As R— explains it, “All are welcome to join in without having to bring anything except for your [...] willingness to help out if needed for set up and take down.”

Then there’s the Thanksgiving Day potluck lunch that S— is coordinating right here this Thursday.  If you’ll be by yourself for Thanksgiving, or even if you’ll be with others who might also enjoy a friendly meal with a welcoming group, then you’re welcome to come; just let S— know today and she’ll make sure she has enough turkey.  In a similar vein, J— and I are coordinating a potluck lunch here on Christmas Day, and of course the Festival of the Season that we’re doing on December 7th will kick-off the afternoon’s festivities with a meal, too.  There are also many regular groups and programs that include potlucks or meals together in their activities, and looking out as far ahead as the Spring, we’ve already scheduled a Passover Seder — itself an ancient religious practice of companionship — for the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Thinking about all these opportunities we have to share food together, J— and I very quickly went through the four classic purposes of prayer.  First, wonder: “Isn’t it great that we have so many times that people can enjoy food and fellowship here?”  Then, regret: “It’s a shame that we can’t always get to them and enjoy them ourselves.”  Then, need: “We should look for more occasions to do more of them and involve more people, too.”  Then, gratitude: “But we certainly owe great thanks to everyone who organizes these potlucks and meals as well as everyone who comes to them and makes them such fun.”  Well, okay, maybe we didn’t literally say those exact sentences out loud, but our conversation formed a prayer nonetheless, and out of it came an epiphany.  If the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is no longer making the many small collection boxes that can go home with each of you for Guest at Your Table, then perhaps we could instead have one big collection box that stays here at the Fellowship for Guest at Our Table.

And here it is:

GaOT_box

This box will be on the table at those lunches and potlucks and dinners I mentioned, probably on the kitchen island where the food is usually served, and it’ll be the Guest at Our Table, reminding us to be grateful for what we have and how we have been blessed.  As always, putting some coins or dollar bills or anything into the box is entirely voluntary.  We don’t charge admission to any of these meals — they’re not church fund-raisers and the Fourth Sunday Soup Socials aren’t even potlucks — and in fact some of our own members who face daily financial hardships come to such events specifically for a meal that they might not otherwise get.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We also have plenty of people who are able to put anything from loose pocket change to a few dollars into this box and, in a spirit of gratitude, will want to do so.  It’ll add up, and come the Spring we’ll send it all in to the UUSC as our expression of gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed, emphasizing as well that what we do as Unitarian Universalists, we do together, in community, rather than as individuals alone.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

“For all things which come to us
as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves,
gifts of life and love and friendship,
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

As we approach this week the primary holiday of the United States, an essential civic holiday named for the essentially religious act of expressing gratitude, I invite you to keep the words of Richard Fewkes’ prayer in mind.  They’re printed in our grey hymnal and you can find them in plenty of places on-line, too.  Perhaps, like Elizabeth Alexander and her family, you’ll make it a grace, saying it together as you’re holding hands around the table before your meal.

Or keep, at least, the spirit of Fewkes’ prayer in your heart.  Keep its spirit of humility, of wonder, of grace with you; let it open you to all the possibilities offered by life and love and friendship; let it lead you to join others in the outpouring of all those “gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves”.  There is much in this world for all of us to do — and, really, to do together — but to do any of it we must begin in a place of gratitude.

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

Update!  We collected $144.44 in our Guest at Our Table box, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY!  An additional $200 (also matched) was collected by on-line donations via our UUFP team web page.  (as of June 11th 2014)

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Bringing Wholeness

(I preached this homily for Flower Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 1st 2014.)

In a few minutes’ time, we’ll celebrate the Flower Communion, which I can say without hesitation is the most beloved of all Unitarian Universalist ceremonies.  It was created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, who wrote a number of original hymns and prayers for it, and it was then brought to the United States by his wife, Maja.  Actually, I suspect that Maja had a hand in helping her husband create the Flower Communion, but we are particularly grateful to her for making it such a beautiful part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

The story goes that, until about a hundred years ago, Norbert was living in eastern Europe.  He’d been born into a Roman Catholic family living in Bohemia and he’d always wanted to be a priest, but he was a free-thinker and that got him into trouble when it came to some of the things he said about religion and politics.  Finding his increasingly liberal opinions unwelcome, Norbert, his first wife and their eight children fled to the United States.  Unfortunately his wife died soon after they arrived, but it was here that he learned about Unitarianism and found that it matched his own developing religious ideas.  He also met Maja, who was from Bohemia as well and had come to the United States some years before.  A graduate of Columbia University, she worked at the New York Public Library when they met.  They married soon after, and together joined the Unitarian church in Orange, New Jersey.

With their homeland newly independent after World War I, the Čapeks moved back to Europe, to the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.  Together they founded the first Unitarian church in that part of Europe, and in time it became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with over three-thousand members.

Now, Sunday services in the Czech Unitarian Church weren’t much like worship services in today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.  They didn’t sing hymns, and the ritual of lighting the chalice didn’t yet exist.  Some of the church members wanted something more spiritual than a lecture they could hear at the local university, so Norbert decided to create a ritual that would bring people together.  Taking his inspiration from the beauty of the countryside around Prague, he created the Flower Communion.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the simple beauty that makes it so meaningful.  Every person coming to the service brings a flower, which they place in large vases.  The flowers form a beautiful bouquet, as unique and irreplaceable as each of the flowers in it.  With even just one flower missing, it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  After the flowers are blessed, each person selects a flower to take home with them.  So different people brings different flowers and everybody gets to take one home, a different one than they brought.  In this way we honor the uniqueness of each person, as beautiful in their own way as a flower, each of us with a special contribution to make to our community.

Now this isn’t a story with a nice, neat happy ending, but then, life is hardly a fairy tale.  During World War II, the Čapeks were invited back to the United States, given understandable concerns for their safety.  Maja did return, though that was primarily to help raise funds for Czech relief efforts, but Norbert chose to remain in his homeland, ministering to those who needed to hear his message of inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  Unfortunately that message wasn’t popular with the Nazi regime, and both he and his daughter were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.  Norbert was tortured and then killed.  But his legacy didn’t die with him, of course.  Maja, who had also been ordained a minister of the Czech Unitarian Church, brought with her the Flower Communion, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In a moment, I’ll read Norbert’s own words for consecrating the flowers before I invite you to come forward and take one.  But there’s one particular line that has stood out since the first time I heard these words, and it bears a little further comment.  That line is as follows:

May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.

I know there have been times in my own life when I feel envy at something that another person has done, something that I myself have not done, perhaps that I am not even able to do.  Many of my colleagues in ministry do amazing things all the time, and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oooh, I wish I had done that.”  Or even, “I wish I could do that.”  Of course, I try not to begrudge them their success, and I try to turn it around to find ways to let their successes inspire me, rather than resenting them and putting myself down.  I’d like to think, of course, that there are similarly things that I do, at least once in a while, that inspire other people, and maybe even impress them, too.  Hey, I have an ego: I’m human, too.

Goodness knows, there are lots of opportunities, even within a modestly sized congregation like ours, to be impressed by what other people are doing.  Take any one of us, and there will always be someone who can volunteer more of their time here, or who can contribute more money, or who can run a committee meeting more effectively, or who can sing or play music with more skill, or who can create artwork or write poetry that is more beautiful, or who can cook and bake more delicious food, or …  The list goes on.  It’s natural to feel a little envious, because we’re human, too, and if it inspires us to try a little harder and aim a little higher, then that’s okay.  Putting ourselves down, and making others feel bad about their talents and efforts, on the other hand, is not okay.

This, of course, is one of the lessons of the Flower Communion.  It wasn’t some random thought that prompted Norbert Čapek to put that line into his prayer for consecrating the flowers: “May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.”  Flowers are a great metaphor for human diversity, and of course an object lesson in accepting one another’s inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  And not only accepting it, but lifting it up, and enjoy being lifted up ourselves, too.

After all, even the flowers that most people consider to be undesirable weeds when it comes to their lawns at home are beautiful in their own way.  When my daughter and I go for a walk — well, I’m usually the one walking, while she rides in the wagon I’m pulling — we notice all of the flowers we pass.  As yet, she really hasn’t been that interested in roses or lilies, but she loves buttercups and clover.  It’s reminded me of my own childhood delight in flowers, how buttercups shine so brightly yellow, and that thing children do of holding one under someone’s chin to see if they like butter or not.  And clover is not only something that enriches the soil, but is a primary source of nectar for honeybees, which need all the help they can get right now.  Even dandelions, the bane of many home gardeners’ existence, are beautiful in their own way, not to mention when the heads dry out and all those seeds are on their little fluffy parachutes and you can blow on them and who knows how far any one seed will travel.

So as you select a flower today to take home, think about how it’s different from every other flower that you might have taken.  Think about how you are different from every other person here, perhaps more skilled and gifted and interested in some things than other people, perhaps less in others.  And that’s okay, because whatever we do and whatever we are, we are all a part of the work of bringing wholeness to the world.

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The Plight of the Pharisees (Rocking the Boat)

(I preached this sermon for Easter Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 20th 2014.)

Anthem: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” by Frank Loesser

Sermon: “The Plight of the Pharisees”

It doesn’t take long to figure out from those accounts of the life and death of Jesus known as the Four Gospels that there was no love lost when it came to the Pharisees.  The gospels mention them more than ninety times in all, and rarely is the purpose to say something good about them.

The gospel named Mark is the oldest of the four, and provides much of the material used by the later gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Just as is the case for those names, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the text itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, or four decades after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells them to keep quiet about what he did and who he is. Jesus uses many (often rather cryptic) parables, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark was written for people who already understood Jesus, so the gospel only needed to serve as a reminder, rather than as a text book that could be read by a beginner.  So it’s not surprising that Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

As Mark tells the stories, the Pharisees try to understand what Jesus is doing, particularly in terms of his disregard of ritual tradition.  Perhaps they’re even earnest in their attempts to understand.  Still, they clearly don’t approve of his eating in the company of people they consider to be unclean, and they definitely don’t approve of the way that Jesus and his followers ignore the laws regarding the Sabbath.

When Jesus gets angry at the Pharisees or calls them hypocrites, they don’t take it too well, of course, so they decide to test him, asking for proof of his divine authority in an attempt to destroy his credibility.  In response, Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees”, using yeast as a symbol of corruption that can spread.  As is typically the case with Mark, though, the disciples don’t understand him and they think he’s simply talking about the fact that they didn’t bring enough bread.

The Pharisees test him again, asking him questions about the legality of divorce or whether they should pay taxes to the Romans.  That earns them the famous response, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  And the Pharisees were amazed, Mark concludes, because Jesus neatly avoided their efforts to trap him into committing either treason or blasphemy, while forgetting that, according to their own theology, everything belongs to God.

In the final chapters of Mark, of course, Jesus is arrested, but that’s at the behest of the Jerusalem Temple’s priests and scribes, and it’s they who put him on trial for blasphemy before handing him over to the Romans for execution.  The Pharisees, who had formed a more pious faction of Jews by separating themselves from what they saw as the corrupt bureaucracy of the Temple, were not part of that, and Mark leaves them merely confused and outwitted by Jesus.

Matthew is not nearly so kind to them.

Matthew’s gospel is clearly based on Mark’s, but with a few differences.  Now Matthew was written a decade (or perhaps two) later, and incorporated much of Mark as well as some other material that also shows up in Luke.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, probably one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups, like the Pharisees, following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

As such, the Matthew goes to great lengths to connect the events of the life and death of Jesus back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, something that Jesus also did, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity existed as such, and when it came to fulfilling prophecy, the gospel writer went to great lengths to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

For instance, in describing the events of Palm Sunday, Matthew quotes the book of Zechariah in describing how the king of Jerusalem will enter the city by riding on a donkey.  Only Zechariah uses a poetic structure called parallelism, repeating the point for emphasis by also referring to the donkey as “a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Evidently Matthew didn’t understand that, because he takes Zechariah’s words literally, and has Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt at the same time, like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

When it comes to the Pharisees, Matthew repeats what Mark related, and adds to it.  The Pharisees accuse Jesus, for instance, of being in league with Satan in order to be able to cast out demons, to which Jesus responds with such memorable phrases as “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and “whoever is not with me is against me”.

The main addition to Matthew, though, is a scathing speech in which Jesus attacks the Pharisees at length.  It fills the whole of chapter 23, calling them bullies and cheats and liars and even murderers.  The phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” is used half a dozen times to preface some accusation of self-indulgence and false righteousness while neglecting the sick and the needy.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus denounces them.  “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

Following Mark, Matthew has the Temple’s leaders plot to have Jesus arrested, and tells much the same story through to the placing of Jesus’ body in its tomb.  The next day, though, Matthew has the Pharisees go with the priests to petition Roman governor Pilate for permission to seal up the tomb, in order to prevent anyone from stealing the body and then claiming that this proved that Jesus had risen from the dead.  This is the last time that Matthew mentions the Pharisees, and it’s one last reminder to Matthew’s Jewish readers that they should join those who claimed Jesus as Messiah rather than other Jewish factions that had got it all so badly wrong.

Luke, on the other hand, claims to be more objective in his presentation of the stories, and that may actually be the case.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.

We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the gospel as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

As with the first two gospels, Luke has the Pharisees question Jesus about his apparently deliberate lack of observance of Jewish law.  They also try to trick him into revealing himself as a false prophet, but there’s at least one Pharisee named Simon who seems willing to view Jesus as a teacher, even as Jesus criticizes Simon’s hospitality.  It’s when another Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner that triggers the “Woe to you Pharisees!” speech.  “For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

According to Luke, though, Jesus only gets part way through the list of woes before some Torah scholars who are present chime in, saying that the things that Jesus is saying against the Pharisees also insult them, at which point Jesus turns the rest of his speech into a condemnation of them instead.  So I guess the lesson is, don’t interrupt a Messiah in full-on rant-mode.  Luke’s final mention of the Pharisees is on Palm Sunday when, addressing Jesus as “teacher”, they ask him to keep his followers from proclaiming him king.

And that brings us to the fourth gospel, given the name John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, those three are known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be looked at in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and including instead a lot of unique material.  John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

John was written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  It is thought to have been written at least sixty years after the death of Jesus, meaning that two or three generations had passed since the events the gospel claims to describe had supposedly happened.

Part of what distinguishes John, however, is how it seems to have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society.  That community may have been experiencing particular difficulty with antagonistic Jewish leaders, and as a result John paints a picture of significant hostility between Jesus and other Jews, particularly the Pharisees.

Now remember that the Pharisees were a Jewish faction that sought to separate itself from, say, the Sadducees and the priests who emphasized the role of the Jerusalem Temple.  But according to John, it’s the priests and the Pharisees working together who plot to have Jesus arrested.  When the Temple police return without arresting him, it’s the Pharisees who take them to task for having failed.

John, more than the other gospel-writers, has the Pharisees take an active role in denying Jesus, rather than merely asking him questions or trying to trick him.  The Pharisees even bring in for questioning a man whose blindness Jesus had healed, going so far as to check with the man’s parents that he had actually been blind.  In one indication of John’s political agenda, the parents refer the Pharisees back to their son to answer further questions, because they were afraid of what might the Pharisees might do to them if they said that Jesus was the Messiah.

It is when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead that the plot to kill him emerges in full.  The Pharisees called a meeting with the priests, and according to John said, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many wonders.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”  The high priest then speaks for all of them, saying “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  And from then on they planned to have Jesus put to death, with both the priests and the Pharisees giving orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they could arrest him.

Of course, when the Pharisees see Jesus arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, they realize there’s little they can do with such a large crowd going with him, but they do manage to prevent some other Jewish leaders from going with him.  And finally, when Judas betrays Jesus by revealing his location, it’s a veritable mob of not only the Temple police under the supervision of the priests and the Pharisees but also a unit of Roman soldiers who go to arrest him.  Once his trial begins, John has Pilate alternate between questioning Jesus and speaking with the Jewish leaders, who are adamant that Jesus be put to death by the Romans, even going so far as to accuse Pilate of treason if he acquits Jesus.

So, to recap: Mark has the Pharisees mostly confused and outwitted by Jesus; Matthew has them trading insults with him, but in the end they’re just trying to keep him buried and forgotten; Luke has some of the Pharisees at least open to what Jesus is preaching, even as they worry about the unwanted attention he’s bringing from the Romans; and John has the Pharisees actively conspiring with the other Jewish factions to manipulate the Romans into killing Jesus in order to save themselves.

There’s clearly a progression in how the gospels treat the Pharisees, based on when they were written and what the gospel-writers wanted to achieve.  And it’s not surprising that a lot of anti-semitism has been blamed on the gospel of John.

The Jerusalem Temple was, of course, destroyed about forty years after Jesus was killed, when a large-scale Jewish rebellion against Roman rule brought the Imperial army to lay siege to the city.  That took care of the Sadducees and the Temple priesthood, because there was no more Temple.  The Essenes, the third Jewish faction mentioned by the gospel-writers’ contemporary, Josephus, were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and are thought to have removed themselves to the desert to wait for the apocalypse they expected.

So that left the Pharisees, who had not relied on the Temple for their religious identity but had instead organized themselves in the synagogues; unlike the elitist Sadducees, they had the support of the common people.  Rejecting the traditions and privileges of the priesthood, the Pharisees emphasized the study of Torah, not only as written down in the Bible but also the oral tradition that went along with it and that was essential for interpreting the written words.

And as they strove to teach those traditions to the surviving Jewish population, to answer questions of what it meant to be Jewish when there was no longer a Temple, they earned the title of Teacher, which in Hebrew is Rabbi.  And since there were no other Jewish authorities, this Judaism of the Rabbis simply became Judaism.

These developments were underway as the four gospels were being written, and at the same time that the Pharisees who separated themselves from other Jewish (particularly Temple) authorities were evolving into the Rabbis who were the only Jewish authorities, the followers of Jesus were evolving into an early form of Christianity as more non-Jews joined them.  These developments were more advanced for John than for the synoptics, of course, so it’s not surprising that, while the followers of Jesus had never seen eye-to-eye with them, the Pharisees became the targets of particular hostility from John.

Anything written in a book intended to strengthen one group that so strongly criticizes another, competing group obviously needs to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.  The term describing this in today’s information age is “filter bubble”, where the information given to someone is pre-selected based on their existing biases, reinforcing those biases rather than challenging them.   That doesn’t excuse two thousand years of anti-semitism, of course, much less the anti-Jewish violence that continues to break out in our own times, in places such as Kansas just one week ago.

Now outside of the Bible, there’s not much mention of Jesus by other ancient writers.  One place he is mentioned is in a book that Josephus wrote at the very end of the first century, entitled Antiquities of the Jews.

Josephus himself is thought to have been a Pharisee, or at least a high ranking Jew, and he led the Galilean forces of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans.  With the rebellion going badly, his garrison was defeated and Josephus surrendered.  He was made to act as an interpreter and a negotiator during the siege of Jerusalem, and for his services was granted not only Roman citizenship but also imperial patronage.  Settling down as a historian, Josephus first wrote about the rebellion in which he had played a part, before turning to everything that had led to it and writing Antiquities of the Jews.

It’s in that extensive work that Josephus refers to John the Baptist, to a Jesus who was condemned and crucified by the Roman authorities, and to a “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”.  Now Josephus was writing about people who lived a decade before he was born, and it’s believed that the passage about Jesus was embellished a few centuries later by a Christian historian, but it’s notable that Josephus never mentions any animosity between the Pharisees and those who followed Jesus.

We might expect that there was some animosity, of course.  Julius Caesar had granted Jews the right to follow their own religious practices, exempting them from having to worship the imperial gods, including the emperor himself.  So there was relative harmony with the empire, so long as the Jewish leaders didn’t make waves, and that meant being very careful of anybody who criticized the otherwise cruel empire that permitted them such freedom.  There were others who rocked the boat, but we know about two of them: John the Baptist and Jesus.  If anything, it was John who was more dangerous to the Empire, but as Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan summarizes the differences in how Josephus describes them — and explains how John’s movement disappeared with him while that of Jesus thrived — “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.”

There’s a lot in our culture that’s influenced, for good and for bad, but what’s in the Bible, so it’s better for us if we understand it ourselves rather than let others dictate to us what they think it says.  The Unitarian half of our heritage has long believed in the full humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a role model for resisting the forces of oppression and imperialism. But the Pharisees deserve some credit, and our sympathy, too, for they were doing what they thought was best, clinging to a boat amidst an all-powerful sea that had temporarily granted them life when it could so easily extinguish them.  We would do well to remember that, when someone comes along and starts rocking our boat.  But when it comes to seeking a better tomorrow, what will choose?  Will we tell them to sit down, or will we join them?

So may it be.

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A Joy to Be Together

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Gathered here, in the mystery of the hour;
gathered here, in one strong body;
gathered here, in the struggle and the power:
Spirit, draw near!

I’m writing this column at The Mountain, a Unitarian Universalist retreat and learning center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, here to participate in the Spring meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the UU Ministers Association.  It’s my first time back in more than two years, and it’s been great to catch up with colleagues both old and new.  I’m also excited to be here this week because the Rev. Thandeka is leading us in a seminar on what she names Affect Theology, “the study of the human emotions and affective states that guide, direct and prioritize religious beliefs, liturgical structures, religious education programs and pastoral practices by members and leaders…

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Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yahad!
How rare it is, how lovely, this fellowship of those who meet together!
— Psalm 133

The house was alive with activity, from elders catching up on their news to children chasing one another through the doorways.  Those not assisting in the preparations would be shooed out of the kitchen, where the cooks were in a state of frenzy getting everything ready.  There were bowls of appetizers everywhere, to try to delay some of the impatience of hunger; olives were particularly popular.  And in what was otherwise the living room, every table and chair in the house had been gathered to make a long dining table with enough space for the whole family to sit down together.  It was Passover at my grandmother-in-law’s house in Philadelphia.

Soon after Allison and I…

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