Posts Tagged Bible

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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Why can’t I own a Canadian?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 14 2012.)

Reading: “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”

Laura Schlessinger is an American talk radio host who goes by the name “Dr. Laura”.  She’s most well known for responding to callers’ requests for advice, doing so from a socially conservative perspective.  Indeed, the stated purpose of her radio program is to “preach, teach and nag about morals, values, ethics and personal responsibility.”  As such, Schlessinger responded to a caller, around the time the state of Vermont legalized “civil unions” in 2000, by re-stating her often-aired opinion that homosexuality is “a biological error”, backing herself up with a reference to the Bible.  It’s not clear who wrote the tongue-in-cheek “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” that appeared around that time, but it quickly became one of the most frequently shared e-mails and was even adapted for one episode of the television show “The West Wing”.

You can read the full text on Snopes.com.  The letter begins:

“Dear Dr. Laura,

“Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law.  I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.  When someone tries to defend homosexuality, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.  End of debate.  I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them.”

A later part of the letter reads as follows:

“Leviticus 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.  A friend of mine says that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.  Can you clarify?  Why can’t I own a Canadian?”

Sermon: “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?”

I’d like to start my sermon today with a question.  How many commandments are there?

If you answered “ten”, you’re probably thinking of the Ten Commandments, as given to Moses on Mount Sinai, according to the Book of Exodus.  Though, according to the great Jewish scholar Mel Brooks, there were fifteen up until one of the tablets slipped out of Moses’ arms.

If you answered “two”, you’re probably thinking of the New Testament, and Jesus’ response to a question as to the most important part of Jewish law.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said: “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  And the second commandment is, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And if you answered six-hundred-and-thirteen, you’re probably a rabbi.  That’s because twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides) scoured the Torah and came up with a list of 613 commandments or mitzvot.  Each mitzvah might be positive — saying something someone must do — or negative — saying something they must not do, while some apply only to men or only to women or only apply at certain times or in certain places.  Many of the 613 mitzvot cannot be observed, in fact, given the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Now according to Maimonides’ list, over two-hundred-and-fifty of these mitzvot come from the Leviticus.  That’s more than any other book of the Torah, though Deuteronomy comes close, so obviously Leviticus is a particularly important book for understanding the Jewish law.  During the first two centuries of the Common Era, in fact, Leviticus was known in Hebrew as Torat Kohanim, which means the Law-book of the Priests.  The priests were descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, and were of the tribe of Levi, hence the name by which we know the book, Leviticus being Greek for “relating to the Levites”.

While Leviticus is the third of the five books of the Torah, it is not a narrative like Genesis and Exodus.  It is set, though, during the forty years when the tribes of Israel wandered between Egypt and Canaan, when the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a portable tent known as the Tabernacle, though the same instructions continued to apply once the Ark was installed in the Jerusalem Temple by Solomon.

Those instructions fill the twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus and divide into sections, addressing such matters as: how the people are to bring offerings of different types and how the priests are to handle them; how priests are consecrated, starting with Aaron; how the dietary laws of kashrut are to be followed; how the people are to restore ritual cleanliness following conditions such as disease; how Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is to be observed; how certain transgressions are to be punished; and how the Israelites are to maintain themselves as a holy people.  The underlying theme that runs throughout the book is that the world was created “very good” and, though it has fallen through sin, it still has the potential for being returned to its original state through the faithful enactment of ritual.

With so many very specific instructions prescribing or prohibiting so many different behaviors — ranging widely from food and sex to disease and economics — it’s perhaps not surprising that Leviticus is the most blatantly cherry-picked book of the Hebrew Bible.  The “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” provides a good demonstration of this.

Leviticus tattoo

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” Lev. 19:28

In fact, Leviticus 18:22 is probably the most cherry-picked verse of the Bible.  Weirdly enough it’s also a not uncommon tattoo, even though Leviticus 19:28 expressly forbids tattoos.  (It’s number 72 on Maimonides’ list.)

There’s also the fact that Leviticus 18:22 (number 157, according to Maimonides) appears to ban only homosexual activity between men.  Like a lot of the Torah, it’s addressed to men, commanding them “not to lie with a male as with a woman”.  Lesbianism, by contrast, is only indirectly forbidden through Leviticus 18:3, which prohibits following the customs of Egypt and Canaan, but that one didn’t make it onto Maimonides’ list, for some reason.

Now many Orthodox Jews, I am given to understand, strive to follow the 613 mitzvot, at least those that can still be followed in twenty-first century America rather than Iron Age Israel.  I witnessed this a little over a decade ago when I took a course on the “Fundamentals of Jewish Thought and Practice” at a local Chabad House, a center for study, worship and outreach run by Hasidic Jews, and the rabbi did indeed talk about the 613 mitzvot and the ways in which they are observed in some detail.  Indeed, a mitzvah to learn the Torah is number 22 on Maimonides’ list; another to honor those who know the Torah and teach it is number 23.

Then there are mitzvot 580 and 581 which prohibit adding anything to or removing anything from the Torah, so great care must be taken in writing a Torah scroll, something that every male must do according to number 82.  (If a mistake is made in writing the Hebrew name for G-d, for instance, the entire parchment cannot be used in a scroll but must be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  Number 7, after all, is the prohibition against profaning the holy name.)

Christians, however, do not benefit from such clarity as a list of concrete requirements and prohibitions.  On the one hand, there’s Jesus’ explicit statement of the two Great Commandments, but there are endless possibilities for debate over how to actually put them into practice.  On the other, and when it comes to the 613 mitzvot, Christian theology speaks of Jesus having fulfilled or satisfied the law — all of the laws — in large part because, as Paul and James explain in their letters, it’s impossible for humans to get them all perfectly right.  There’s a reason why Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament, and that’s precisely because the New Testament supercedes it.

Tony Warren of the Center for Biblical Theology, for instance, explains how, for Christians, Jesus fulfilled all of the laws.  For example, laws prohibiting labor on certain holy days — such as Yom Kippur (number 92) and the first and seventh days of Passover (numbers 97 and 99 respectively) — became spiritualized, in that Jesus himself became the true Sabbath in whom Christians can find their rest.  Warren similarly explains that Christians are freed from the dietary laws against eating non-kosher meat (as in numbers 180, 181 and 184) because, through God, Jesus made clean what had been unclean.  Warren makes his broader point, though, when he says that “the law isn’t a salad bar where we take what we want, and leave the rest.”

And that’s a point that another blogger, Evangelical Christian Scott Fillmer, tries to address, particularly when it comes to Leviticus, which he describes “one of those books that Christians tend to want to ignore, while those in the opposite camp tear it apart Hebrew letter by Hebrew letter.”  Fillmer provides five reasons why Christians should read Leviticus, the first of which is that it’s an easy target for anyone critical of Bible literalism.

“This is generally because they don’t understand the book in context any more than we do,” Fillmer explains, “but they can read the obvious to make stupid arguments like Christians still eat pork and wear polyester, therefore homosexuality is not a sin.”  That, of course, is precisely the point of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”, though Fillmer doesn’t mention it.  He goes on to try to explain why it’s okay to invoke Leviticus in some situations but not others, in other words why he’s not mis-using it as a sort of scriptural salad bar, by asking, rhetorically, “Why is it acceptable for Christians to get a tattoo, or eat pork, but not put adulterers to death?  Understanding this book in proper context shows exactly why some laws are historically customary for their culture and time, and why some are moral obligations that transcend time.”

The problem is, how do we distinguish between historical customs given a particular culture and “moral obligations that transcend time”?

We can so easily look back a few thousand years to a culture that was striving to set itself apart from its neighbors and recognize that a prohibition against planting two kinds of seed in the same field (number 234) makes some sort of sense in that context, but who knows whether any of the social practices that we in 2012 assume are universal moral standards will, in hundreds of years, be judged as barbarous?

Fillmer also notes, of course, that the Torah in general and Leviticus in particular, especially that part of it known as the Holiness Code, sets the stage for much of Christianity.  After all, the second of the Great Commandments — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” — comes from Leviticus 19:18, which is mitzvah number 13 on Maimonides’ list.  The problem is, when we get into such territory as bacon-wrapped shrimp and tattoos of other Torah verses, it’s all too easy to poke fun at the likes of Dr. Laura who do their own cherry-picking, particularly when they do it not out of humor, but to de-humanize a whole group of people.  One might also argue that calling someone’s sexual orientation “a biological error” violates the prohibition on slander, which is mitzvah number 19.

Another problem is that, beyond the usual complaints about pork and polyester, other Biblical laws have much, much bigger social implications were they actually to be followed.  I became interested in this whole topic, in fact, thanks to an article entitled “The Economics of Leviticus” by Doug Muder.  Muder is both a Unitarian Universalist and a prolific writer.  You may have read some of his articles in UU World and he also has a blog, The Weekly Sift, which provides his take on each week’s events, both those that make it into the major news publications and programs and those that don’t.  In addition to his religious liberalism, Muder is unashamedly politically liberal; he makes no claim to be unbiased, but he says he does try to be honest about his biases.

In any case, Muder wanted to take a look at the economic parts of Leviticus that don’t get as much air-time.  Leviticus “clearly denounces business practices that wring out every last dime of profit”, Muder argues, given the examples of the mitzvot against reaping a harvest to the very edges of the field (number 240) and to leave what has not been harvested for the poor to gather for themselves (number 239).  Or, more directly, there’s Leviticus 19:13, which commands that “you shall not keep the wages of a laborer until morning” (number 518), but how many of us get paid every two weeks or even once a month, in clear violation of Biblical law?

Then there’s Leviticus 19:33–34, which states: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, you shall not oppress them.  The foreigner residing among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  One commentary calls this “the summit of Biblical ethics” and, as Muder points out, it doesn’t say anything about green cards.  This is a slightly expanded version of Exodus 20:21, which provides numbers 502 and 503 on Maimonides’ list.  More importantly it’s a key sentence in the Haggadah, which is the order of service for a Passover Seder.

Muder goes on to note, however, that the most radical part of Leviticus is chapter twenty-five and the institution of the Year of Jubilee: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.”  In the Year of Jubilee, slaves are to be freed (number 290) and debts are to be forgiven (number 285).  Property is also returned to its original owner (number 294) because land may not be sold in perpetuity (number 295): Leviticus 25:23 makes it quite clear that the land belongs to God, and as far as God is concerned, humans only live on the land as foreigners and tenants.  How’s that as a Biblical mandate for environmental stewardship?  It’s even spelled out as to how, should land be temporarily sold, the price should be proportional to the number of years until the Jubilee, since what is being sold isn’t really the land itself, but the number of harvests that land will produce.

In other words, as Muder puts it, “[t]he Bible does not support private ownership of the means of production”, one of the foundational ideas of our capitalist society.  So an absolute rejection of capitalism is right there in Leviticus, the same book used to argue, in similarly absolute terms, that homosexuality is sinful.  Muder concludes his article by noting that “[t]aking Leviticus 25 seriously would force a sweeping re-visioning of [our] economic system.  That would be a lot of work, and cause a certain amount of distress for the people who own property under our more free-trading definition.  Why go to all that trouble?  Unless you think this is the Word of God or something.”

What are Unitarian Universalists to make of all this?  Obviously I think we should make something of it, or I wouldn’t be standing here preaching about it.

Consider that there are self-identified Jewish UUs, such as those who have formed Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, but they’re hardly the same as Orthodox Jews.  There are also self-identified Christian UUs, such as those who gather as the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, but they’re certainly not the same as Evangelical Christians.  Then there’s the fact that both Universalism and Unitarianism evolved, in parallel but separately, within and then out of Christianity, each of them becoming post-Christian until they were able to join to form Unitarian Universalism as a theologically diverse, spiritually inclusive and religiously progressive faith.  So we’re not likely to quote scripture to one another as if that’s all that needed to be said to end debate, and yet our hymn books are full of readings and hymns that are based on or even directly quote passages from the Bible.

So what is scripture to Unitarian Universalists?

During my first year in seminary I took a course as part of the Peace and Justice Program on the topic of “Talking about Homosexuality in Congregations”.  Many of the students were from various Christian denominations, so part of the course involved what scripture says about homosexuality, or at least what some people claim it says about it.  There were a number of Unitarian Universalists taking the course, so we needed to figure out, first of all, what our scripture was.  I came to the conclusion that scripture is some text — poetry or prose, written or oral — that speaks to our own truths in profoundly meaningful ways.  Scripture is like a mirror, in that we see the sacred in it only to the extent that the sacred is already in us.  A number of my fellow students, whether Christian or not, liked that way of thinking about it, which isn’t too surprising at a theological school that’s long been notorious for its liberalism, but I’ve continued to find it helpful when I try to understand the human impulse toward religion, too.

In this case it says to me that cherry-picking the Bible is a way of both hiding our own biases and avoiding our own authority.  It need not take much courage to point to a verse in Leviticus and say, “Look, God says that whatever you’re doing is wrong, and you can’t argue with God, so end of discussion.”  It takes more courage to own up to our own prejudices and to speak honestly on the basis of our own convictions.  Now if something speaks to us more poetically or uses words more effectively than we are able to do ourselves, then there’s nothing wrong with quoting it as an illustration of what we’re trying to say, but that’s in support of our own capacity for reason and judgment, not the other way around.  That’s why we can have a hymn book with a whole section of readings from the Bible, and at the same time trust that it’s not necessary to have a warning label on each copy about not using the hymnal to hit someone else over the head.

The message of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” comes across most strongly, then, when its unknown author asks the question: Why can’t I own a Canadian?  It’s a deliberately absurd question and it would be just as absurd to look to the Bible and only the Bible to answer it — and that, of course, is the point.  We could start a discussion of the Biblical position against slavery by considering Leviticus 25:42 (number 505 on Maimonides’ list) and then generalizing it via the second Great Commandment, but the Bible has just as easily been used to support slavery as to oppose it.  Rather, we are called to answer such questions on the basis of our own convictions, using our own reason and judgment: I believe that slavery is wrong, for instance, because my Unitarian belief is that we are all one human family and because my Universalist belief is that we are all children of the divine.  This, for me, is the foundation of Unitarian Universalist ethics, calling us to gather the courage of our convictions and to share love, hope, peace and joy with one another in equal measure.

So may it be.

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Riding on a Donkey

(A sermon for Palm Sunday delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 24th 2013.)

As with the “nativity” story of the birth of Jesus, each gospel that starts the New Testament describes the events of Palm Sunday in different ways.  Just as the accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are blended together in the popular imagination to form the usual Christmas story, so are the four versions of Palm Sunday often combined into a single narrative.  Here is one way that might be done.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, they first reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.  Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you and, as soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone questions what you are doing, just say this, ‘The Lord needs it but will return it.’”  For as it was said by the prophet Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, for your king is coming to you!  Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

The disciples did not understand at first, but they went ahead and found a donkey tied in the street, near a door.  As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said, and the bystanders allowed them to take it.  Then the disciples brought the donkey to Jesus.  They threw their cloaks on its back and he sat on it.

Now many people had gathered for the festival.  Hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from palm trees and spread them on the road as well.  And as they took the path down from the Mount of Olives, all of the disciples began to speak loudly of the deeds of power that they had seen.  Soon the crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those who followed after him were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But he answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  And the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, we can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept for it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Then Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the whole city was in turmoil, with people asking, “Who is this man?”  Others from the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus went into the Temple.

Christian churches around the world are today celebrating Palm Sunday, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, and looking ahead to the unfolding of Easter in a week’s time.  In those churches there’s usually some sort of procession, whether that’s just the children or the clergy and other worship leaders or even the whole congregation, everyone holding palm branches and singing solemn music appropriate to the day.  Palm branches — or, in colder climates, branches from trees such as yew or willow — are also used to decorate church sanctuaries.  Having been blessed with holy water, the branches are then carefully stored until the next year, when they are burned to make ashes for use in services on Ash Wednesday.

The story that’s told on Palm Sunday comes from the Bible, of course, specifically from those four books at the start of the New Testament that are known as the gospels.  The word “gospel” comes from Old English, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”, and came to describe a particular form of early Christian writing that includes those first four books of the New Testament.  There were other gospels that weren’t chosen for inclusion in the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and though there was strong opinion within the early Christian community that there ought to be four and only four gospels, it took a few centuries for the list of books in the New Testament to be officially recognized by the Church.

Now each of the four official gospels tells more or less the same story.  It’s perhaps not that surprising that the gospel accounts are different from one another, of course, since each gospel was apparently written with different purposes in mind.  Some of those differences may surprise you, but in each case, the story is rich in symbolism, including signs that perhaps Jesus was not to be the kind of king the people were expecting.

The oldest of the four gospels is named Mark.  Like the other names attached to the gospels, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the book itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, which is thirty-some years after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, 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 or his role as a messiah.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells the people he heals and the demons he drives out to keep quiet about what he did and who he is.  Jesus uses many parables in his preaching, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, it’s clear that they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark is really written for people who already understand who Jesus is, so the gospel only needs to serve as a reminder of certain details, rather than as a book that can be read by anyone.  It’s not surprising that, though the oldest gospel, Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is short and to the point.  Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey that’s never been ridden before, then he rides that donkey while people put their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of him, calling out “Hosanna!” and blessings on the coming kingdom.  This gospel’s account of Jesus’ arrival ends rather abruptly, though.  “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  All that fuss, and he just turns around and leaves again!  As I say, pretty mystifying.  The next day Jesus comes back to the city, stopping on the way to curse a fig tree for not having any figs on it before driving the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple.  The cursing of the fig tree — all the more bizarre because “it was not the season for figs” — is one of the few destructive miracles attributed to Jesus in the official gospels — the unofficial gospels have more — and is explained — to the extent that Mark explains anything — as foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew’s account is clearly based on Mark, but with a few differences.  Now this gospel was written a decade or two after Mark’s gospel, incorporating much of Mark as well as some other source material called “Q” that also shows up in Luke’s gospel.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, perhaps one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups following the destruction of the Temple.  As such, the gospel rarely explains Jewish customs but goes to great lengths to connect the events of Jesus’ life and death back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various Hebrew 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, 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 as such existed, with the gospel’s purpose apparently being to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

As such, it’s not enough for Matthew that Jesus has the disciples run ahead to find a donkey that’s never been ridden before, a reference to Jewish sacramental practices that require clean and unblemished animals.  No, Matthew also needs to explain that this took place to specifically fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah.  The weird thing is that Matthew misunderstands those words.  You see, the actual lines from the book of Zechariah (9:9) are as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now there’s a structure in Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in a couple of slightly different ways for emphasis.  The prophet Amos, for instance, spoke of “justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” as two sides of the same coin describing a community based on fairness.  Zechariah was emphasizing the nature of the animal — a lowly donkey that had never before been ridden — an animal that in Eastern traditions represented peace, as opposed to the horse which represented war.  In the context of describing God’s inevitable victory over Israel’s warring neighbors, Zechariah really wanted to make clear that this would come about through peace and demilitarization, rather than through the escalation of violence, so the symbolism of the donkey as an animal of peace is really important.

Unfortunately, all of that is simply lost on Matthew, who only sees Zechariah’s words as a Nostradamus-like prognostication that just needs to be fulfilled in order to prove a point about Jesus.  Perhaps worse, Matthew fails to understand the poetic device of parallelism and instead takes Zechariah literally!  Matthew actually has Jesus send the disciple to find two animals, a donkey and a colt, which they do, and then he rides them both at the same time, presumably like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

Somehow Jesus makes it to Jerusalem without falling off and breaking a hip.  Matthew, unlike Mark, has people identify Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth, after which Matthew has him enter the Temple and immediately drive out the money-changers and the vendors.  Matthew has Jesus curse the poor fig tree the following day.

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 the “Q” 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 book as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated, dedicating it and Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, to somebody called Theophilus.  That may have been the author’s patron or, since the name simply means “lover of god”, it may have been anybody looking for the sort of theologically sound, historically accurate account that Luke claimed to be.  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.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem initially follows Mark’s very closely, and does not quote Zechariah.  As the people are calling out their blessings, though, Luke has the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop.   He refuses, saying that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out instead.

Then Luke includes an extensive lament by Jesus, weeping for the city of Jerusalem and its refusal to recognize the signs of peace, namely Jesus — the heir of King David — riding a donkey — the royal animal of peace.  Luke has Jesus speak of an assault on Jerusalem as punishment for its failure to recognize him as God’s emissary.  Jerusalem had, of course, fallen and its Temple destroyed by the time Luke was written.  Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus then immediately enter the Temple and drive out the vendors, but unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke does not include anything about the cursing of a fig tree.

Finally, we come to John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, they’re known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be seen together, or read 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 the exorcisms.

John is believed to have been written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  This gospel may have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society, having difficulty in particular with antagonistic synagogue authorities, given John’s portrayal of hostility between Jesus and other Jews.  Still, 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.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is preceded by his raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, a story that isn’t found at all in the other three gospels.  For John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most important signs that convinces people to follow Jesus.  John reports that, out of fear of what the Romans might do to them and the Temple, the priests and the Pharisees plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too.

John explicitly notes that it is a week before Passover when Jesus comes back to Bethany and then heads into Jerusalem.  John is the only gospel that specifically mentions palm branches, giving Palm Sunday its name.  Palm branches were traditionally used as a symbol of triumph and were probably meant to recall the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks a couple of centuries before, representing the people’s hopes that Jesus would similarly defeat the Romans.  Like Mark and Matthew, John has the people calling out “Hosanna!” which rather than meaning “Hooray!” is actually from the Hebrew for “Save us, we beg you!”

Now John has Jesus finding the donkey himself, and then quotes a simplified version of Zechariah that avoids confusion such as  Matthew’s over how many animals were actually involved.  Perhaps in subtle criticism of the earlier gospel-writers, John comments that the disciples didn’t understand this at first, but only figured out what it meant later on.  Then John has people speak about how they’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead, something that grows the crowd even more.  Finally, the Pharisees complain to one another in resignation that there’s nothing they can do.

John does describe how Jesus drove the vendors and the money-changers out of the Temple, by the way, only as an event very early on in his public ministry, around the time of a previous Passover.  Scholars debate such differences between the gospels, of course, and what they might mean for the chronology of Jesus’ life.

There are lots of questions that, without some sort of time machine, will never be answered when it comes to ancient texts such as the Bible.  Like it or not, though, it’s such a part of our culture in this society that it’s important for all of us to have some level of biblical literacy, whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or even Jewish.  Most Unitarian Universalists do not, of course, and have long since rejected the Bible as unhelpful or even untrue.

In a time when “religion” is all too easily used to oppress rather than to liberate, though, it’s particularly important to understand the Bible and what it says and where it came from so that others can’t use it against us in support of their own bigotry and small-mindedness.  The four stories about Palm Sunday are, I think, a good place to start, given the similarities and the differences between the stories as well as the important symbolism.

There’s the fact that all four gospels agree that Jesus was riding on a donkey, for instance, an animal of peace rather than an animal of war like the horse.  Given cultural traditions, including the writings attributed to Zechariah, the gospels agree that Jesus’ mission was all about peace.  This was not supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the victory of armed might, but a plea for peace, whether that’s between the world’s nations or between the various factions within Judaism itself.

Three of the gospels have the people calling out “Hosanna!” which comes from the Hebrew meaning “Please save us!”  Someone arriving in great power, with swords and other weapons, and certainly riding a big horse rather than a donkey, would have seemed a much better candidate for Messiah, I’m sure.  Perhaps the people were too wrapped up in their stories of how Judas Maccabæus had defeated the Greeks, driving them out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple as a Jewish holy site.  Perhaps they were thinking of how King David, who was said to be Jesus’ ancestor, had even as a young boy defeated much stronger soldiers like Goliath.

For me there are eerie parallels with some of the ways that, even in our modern world, we tend to pin our hopes on people we single out as special, casting them in the models of our heroes of the past and then, when they inevitably fail to deliver the miracles we demand of them, we crucify them.

By the end of that Passover week, of course, the Romans had executed Jesus, betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.  The triumph of Palm Sunday turns into the tragedy of Good Friday.  But let’s resist the urge to jump ahead to Easter.  Without that time machine, of course, we can’t know if any of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are remotely accurate accounts of actual events or are, as some people claim, complete fictions.  For me, it doesn’t really matter either way.

I can still learn something and find inspiration in the stories.  What I read in them is a message about the importance of loving one another and living in peace, or at least trying to.  Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things about Jesus, but we can at least think of him as someone who said some important things about being kind to one another, about treating one another fairly, about standing up for what we believe in without giving in to violence, and about the power of love to conquer everything, even death.

This Palm Sunday, may that be the “good news” we remember in the days and weeks ahead.

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The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

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When the Spirit Says Do!

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 13th 2013.)

Reading: from “Get Religion” by Peter Morales

Anthem: “When the Spirit Says Do!”

A year or more ago an article by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel went viral amongst ministers on Facebook.  I saw it reposted by a number of my fellow graduates of all denominational stripes from the Iliff School of Theology as well as by Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Apparently she hit a nerve.

Daniel had evidently been on one too many airplane flights where the people sitting next to her had found out she was a minister and immediately needed to explain to her why they don’t go to church.  Now I can imagine this sort of thing happening to people in other professions during air travel — doctors who are asked to look at suspicious lumps, stand-up comedians who endure bad knock-knock jokes, and so forth — but perhaps it doesn’t happen in quite the same way — and quite so predictably — as it does to ministers.

As Daniel explained in her article, “when I meet a math teacher, I don’t feel the need to say I always hated math.  When I meet a chef, I don’t need to let it be known that I can’t cook.  When I meet a clown, I don’t admit that I think clowns are scary.  I keep that stuff to myself.  But everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church — and it’s usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.”

In many cases, Daniel observed, the precursor to someone’s non-church-going testimony is a declaration of an identity that has become so well-known in the last few decades that it has its own acronym: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”.  And while, perhaps as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been genuinely countercultural and shocking to any religious professional to encounter someone openly declaring themselves as spiritual but not religious, that’s hardly the case today.

After all, what religious group is the fastest growing in the United States?  Anybody know?  Yes, it’s the “nones”, by which I do not mean women who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.  The “nones” are those who have no religious affiliation and today they represent about a fifth of the American population.  And, as those of you who took part in last Sunday’s Adult RE discussion know, there’s a strong correlation between age and religious affiliation.  For instance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the “nones” make up between a quarter and a third of the generation known as the Millennials, who were born after 1981.

There are other generational correlations, of course, some of which are amplified by whether people have a religious affiliation or not.  Adults born before 1928 are almost twice as likely to pray every day as Millennials, for instance.  Now the Pew Forum found that age doesn’t make as much of a difference as religious affiliation in some things, such as whether someone believes that the Bible is literally the word of God or not, while on social issues such as prayer in public schools and LGBT rights there are very big differences.  If you enjoy survey statistics, by the way, all of the data is on the Pew Forum’s website.

Now it’s interesting that there’s no particular correlation between the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religions”, and for that matter there are more SBNRs tend amongst Generation X and the Baby Boomers than the Millennials.  Of course, while the SBNRs tend to be, as indicated by Lillian Daniel’s article, something of a source of frustration for religious professionals, the “nones”, within liberal religion at least, tend to be viewed more positively, as potential new members, particularly the younger “nones”.  I know that this is a conversation that’s been going on within Unitarian Universalism — just look through some of the recent issues of UU World, for instance — and I’m pretty sure our cousins at the United Church of Christ have been talking about it, too.  To my mind, though, both the “rise of the religiously unaffiliated”, as PBS titled their three-part program about the “nones”, and the popularity of SBNR, to the extent that it’s become its own cliché, are symptoms of how most people understand — or, perhaps more appropriately, misunderstand  — religion.  And, not to be accused of promoting religious exceptionalism or, for that matter, jumping on the “the nones will save us” bandwagon, but I believe that there’s an emptiness in the soul of our society that Unitarian Universalism is especially well qualified to fill — in part because we’ve become aware of that hunger within ourselves.

Let me back up a bit before I explain what I mean by that.

When someone calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”, what do they really mean by “spiritual”?  I think it’s generally implied as being whatever life attitude is diametrically opposed to organized religion, particularly if organized religion is solely characterized by its worst excesses, such as rigid hierarchy and gender roles, antiquated dogmatism, and all manner of bigotry.  Well, there are plenty of things that are the opposite of the worst features of human nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual.  In her article, for instance, Lillian Daniel jokes about some people’s claims to be spiritual by seeing God in the sunset or in small children, at least when they’re saying cute things about God.  Her point is that spirituality isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or parental oxytocin.

Twenty years ago I may well have identified myself as SBNR.  I came to the United States with a suspicion of religion, not that I really knew anything about religion beyond the vague Anglicanism we’d been taught in school, including the distrust of Catholicism we’d been taught in history classes.  I had a similarly low opinion of what I considered to be religion in the US, which wasn’t based on much more than what I’d heard in the UK about American televangelists.  Similarly, if I had claimed to be “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not sure I could have told you what spirituality was either.

During the five years I spent in graduate school, though, my education included a lot more than physics.  From my Indian class-mates I learned something about Hinduism and Buddhism, and from a girlfriend I learned about Judaism.  Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe religion was bigger than what I’d been taught.  That by itself wasn’t enough to make me want to join a church, but it was at about that time that I converted to environmentalism.

Starting with the Sierra Club I learned about the problems afflicting planet Earth — by which I mean the problems facing human beings, because the Earth, by and large, would do just fine without us — and it quickly became overwhelming.  I couldn’t understand why more wasn’t being done about pollution and species extinction and climate change, and then I learned about the political process in this country and I just got angry.  I shared what I was learning with friends and co-workers, but few of them seemed to care much.

I realized I needed to find people who were motivated to really work on these problems at the same time that I needed to find people, a community, that would help me withstand the weight of my growing awareness.  Actually, I’m giving myself too much credit.  I never articulated such needs to myself, but looking back, I realize they were there, and in my searching there were  two different paths — one following environmentalism and one following science — that both ultimately led me to Unitarian Universalism.

I was skeptical at first.  I never thought that, as an adult, I’d choose to join a church.  (I certainly never anticipated becoming a minister, but life’s funny that way.)  But the people I met at the Unitarian Society of Hartford were generally friendly, they certainly seemed to think and care about the same sorts of things I thought and cared about, and I really was looking for a choir where I didn’t disagree with the words we were singing too often.

After being there for a while, attending services, going to a few potlucks and committee meetings, it was time for me to go deeper.  I became a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program, which is like our Fellowship Circles program here.  The topic of the very first session was “Spirituality” and one of the first questions asked the people in the group what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most of them were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the church building.

I’ve since realized that a deep sense of connection to either — or both — something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, which I don’t think was the case in our small group, everyone talked about spirituality in ways that focused on human awareness as a subjective experience.  We talked about the basic human urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we might understand them and make sense of the world around us, something that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

Okay, so that’s one way to think about the “spiritual” part of being “spiritual but not religious”.  To claim to be SBNR, then, is to express a distrust of so-called “organized religion”, something that might be based on personal experience or on an awareness of other people’s experiences, where such religion has inhibited spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself.  Step back for just a moment, though, and it’s obvious that any true religion ought actually to foster spirituality.

Let me give you a couple of different analogies, then, as to how I think about this.

In the language of my past career as a research scientist, for example, our lives are like experiments, constantly generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results, and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

The other analogy for the relationship between spirituality and religion occurred to me a few years after that small group ministry experience, when I was in seminary.

I imagined a tree, perhaps an ancient oak that had witnessed the passage of centuries.  I could see its roots, sunk deep into the fertile soil of the Earth, and in the folds and crevices of its trunk and branches I knew that it was providing shelter to countless smaller creatures.  Its limbs stretched toward the sky so that its leaves could better drink of the sunlight that shone upon it.

I considered how spirituality might be like that oak tree.  Growing forth from the eternal mystery of being, spirituality expresses our yearnings toward transcendence, all the while nourished by powers beyond our understanding.  Spirituality does not demand recognition for what it does or is, but quietly encourages wonder, reverence, gratitude, creativity and imagination.

Since I was in seminary to become a minister, my task was clear: to carefully and diligently tend the tree of spirituality.  It would be necessary to fertilize it and water it, yet also prune it as necessary, honoring it even as I remained aware of the limits of my comprehension.  And while some religion might be as mistletoe, sucking the life out of the tree on which it grows as a parasite — effectively creating people who are “religious but not spiritual” — I realized that the task of true religion was quite clear: to be a splendid garden in which magnificent trees of spirituality might flourish.  Those who dwell and work in that garden, then, are both “spiritual and religious”.

Looking back to that time when might have identified myself as SBNR, I recognize now that I was, in fact, neither spiritual nor religious.  I was waiting for the laboratory of a congregation that could provide me with the equipment, tools and co-workers to help me interpret and explain the experiment of my life.  I was looking for a religious garden that could provide the shelter and the nourishment and the tending that my fragile sapling of experience and yearning needed to grow into a real tree of spirituality.

And I’m far from unique in that.  I’m a member of Generation X, rather than being a Millennial, but we Gen-Xers aren’t too far behind the Millennials in terms of being religiously unaffiliated.  And had I continued to think of religion only in terms of that vaguely well-meaning Anglicanism or that laughable stereotype of American televangelism, had I never managed to stumble upon Unitarian Universalism, then I would have continued to be one of the “nones”.

And, really, it’s not surprising that there are so many “nones” within Generation X and the Millennials.  For when they reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s so clearly at odds with what we know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.  Well, guess what?  Unitarian Universalists reject those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

So what’s holding us back?  Why aren’t the “nones” becoming Unitarian Universalists in droves?  Why aren’t our congregations booming the way religious scholars and even the leaders of other religions say we should be?

My friend and colleague, David MacPherson, who preached here a few months ago, has many stories that he loves to tell, but one of them concerns “the nineteenth century newspaper editor, reformer, failed presidential candidate and Universalist lay leader, Horace Greeley.”  I won’t attempt to mimic Dave’s style but Greeley, as he tells the story, “was asked to suggest to a group of fellow Universalists some new device for financially supporting their struggling congregation since the fairs, festivals and suppers they had tried did not succeed.  His answer to them was short but definitely not sweet: ‘Try Religion!’

Well, a century and a half later, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, is suggesting the same thing, that it’s time we “get religion”.  We have “to take ourselves seriously as a religion”.  We have to remember “that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions.”  And we have to understand that “religion is relational because we are relational beings”, that “religion is something we practice together.”

Fredric Muir, who is minister to the UU Church of Annapolis in Maryland, elaborated on that third point in his Berry Street Lecture, delivered last year to the UU Ministers Association and printed in condensed form in the current issue of UU World, when he talked about moving from being the church that worships individualism — or “iChurch” for short — to being the church that embraces deep relationality through covenant as the way to the Beloved Community.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem, the single most effective thing we can do to appeal to the “nones”, to the religiously unaffiliated, to the “spiritual but not religious”, the single most important thing we can do for ourselves, is for us to “get religion”, to actually act like the religion we claim, at our best, to be.  The “nones” are already with us in spirit.  They just need us to show them — and, in many ways, to show ourselves — that religion isn’t only what they’ve rejected, but also what they hunger for.

Let me give you, as I bring this sermon to a close, one specific example of this: social justice.  Many UU congregations — and I know, because I’ve seen it first hand — have a social justice committee that is largely ignored by the rest of the congregation and is made up of a handful of people who each feel very passionately about their own particular cause and who are each trying to convince everybody else to give up their passionate cause in favor of their own.  Two seconds of thought will tell you how well that generally works, and I know because I’ve been there and done that.  And most of the time, attending a meeting of such a committee, you’d have no idea they were part of anything larger, let alone a congregation.  And yet social justice work — really anything we try to do within a congregation, but particularly social justice work — must be grounded in spirituality and nourished by religion if it is to be effective.  To do good social justice work, we need to get religion.

So I was delighted to see another article in the current issue of UU World, right after Muir’s article about escaping from the cult of individualism, about how social justice activism can only be sustained by community, particularly by religious community.  That article is by Tim DeChristopher, the member of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City who is now famous for bidding on federal oil and gas leases at an auction in Utah in order to protect lands near national parks and for that was sent to prison for two years.  DeChristopher writes that “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings.  The greater the risk and sacrifice involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”  “And I’m convinced”, DeChristopher explains, “that the spiritually grounded activism of Unitarian Universalism holds the potential to not only make the [social justice] movement more principled, but also make it more pragmatic.”

And that, if I may finish with a plug, is what J— and I will be talking about next weekend at the Social Justice Workshop we’re running here at the Fellowship.  I urge you to attend.  Why?  Because by our fruits they will know us.  For if the true purpose of religion is to nurture the spirituality of both individuals and community, and if spirituality is that deep sense of connection to something larger than ourselves and something within ourselves, then the result, the fruit of the trees of spirituality, the harvest of the garden of religion, is an active striving for love and justice, spreading the seeds of the spirit that will grow into the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

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The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 19th 2012.)

If you’ve ever been a subscriber to an e-mail discussion group (or, going back a few years, a listserv or — even further back! — an on-line bulletin board), chances are you’ve either witnessed or even been a participant in a disagreement that became an argument that escalated into what’s known as a “flame war”.  We wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this phenomenon characterized by ad hominem attacks and all-out sarcasm is a unique result of the development of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail and the Web, particularly since they allow for the rapid exchange of increasingly heated sentiments fueled — in large part — by the cloak of anonymity.  We’d be wrong, though.

For example, the available technology of sixteenth century Europe, including Gutenberg’s movable type for the printing press, was apparently sufficient to allow individuals with not-so-humble opinions to hurl strong words and insults at one another, albeit with a turnaround time of weeks rather than minutes.  And in Reformation Europe, two such individuals were Michael Servetus and John Calvin.

Calvin was running the city of Geneva on the basis of his ideas for reforming church and state.  Servetus was practicing medicine in public and writing books in secret, specifically books decrying how Christianity was corrupt.  Now Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, also believed that Christianity had been corrupted, the blame for which lay squarely with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Servetus agreed, but went further by insisting that the real source of the corruption was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gutenberg’s movable type, you see, had put the Bible into the hands of anyone who wanted to read it for themselves, and Servetus, like countless others since that time, had done so and had found that the Trinity — the fourth-century doctrine that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as three persons but only one being — well, that claim is not actually in the Bible.  And denying the Trinity made Servetus a heretic.

As his books made the rounds, in part because he couldn’t help but send them to religious and civic leaders across Europe, Servetus was condemned not only by the Catholics but also by the newly minted Protestants, too.  Taking a pseudonym to avoid persecution, he continued to write books as well as letters to those who he thought might have some sympathy for him.  Servetus believed he knew the truth and he felt it his duty to share it with others, convinced that if they were but willing to listen to him then they would be free of the falsehoods to which they had chained themselves.  When others, from his perspective, would not listen to him, he fell back on verbal abuse, whether in his letters to Calvin or during his trial in Geneva.  Yes, he was caught and tried for heresy, something that was probably only a matter of time.

Servetus was first arrested, in fact, by the Roman Catholic authorities but he managed to escape.  In his absence the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to be burned with his books.  Fleeing across Europe he inexplicably stopped in Geneva, where was recognized and arrested following a Sunday service where none other than Calvin himself was the preacher!  Just as the Catholics had the first time, the Calvinists convicted Servetus, but this time they made sure he couldn’t escape again.  And so he was burned at the stake, in person rather than in effigy.  His books were burned with him, his most recent work chained to his thigh.

That was the end, and a thoroughly grisly end at that, for Michael Servetus.  It was not, in spite of the intentions of the Catholics and the Calvinists, the end of his ideas or even of his books, a very few copies of which survive even today.  Scholars view our modern ideas of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, in fact, as his legacies.  We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him as a martyr, recognizing his influence on the Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, and putting him on T-shirts such as this one that was sold at General Assembly in a few years ago.  “Michael Servetus, 1511–1553: Unitarian Universalists Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy”!

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is arguably the most Unitarian of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, and it finds its place thanks, in part, to Servetus.  We call ourselves a liberal religion because we stand for that which liberates the heart, the mind and the soul.  Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle prefers the term ‘freethinking’ as “a fresher and less corrupted reference than ‘liberal’”, but it comes to much the same thing.  We may even refer to ourselves as heretics, recognizing that the word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ and noting that we choose to employ tolerance, reason and freedom as tools to transform ourselves and our world.  As freethinkers, the liberally religious, we belong, Owen-Towle notes, “to the heritage of incorrigible choice-makers, an admirable lineage of heretics from Michael Servetus to Susan B. Anthony”.

So hooray for freedom!  Where, though, does responsibility come in?

First, remember that, as I mentioned last month, the word “freedom” comes from an ancient root word that actually means “love”.  That means that freedom isn’t so much about our status relative to the ideal of an autonomous individual, but rather about what we do and the choices we make in relationship to one another.  Freedom is not, in fact, a static, isolated state of being, but a dynamic, connected process of becoming.

Second, remember that the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not creed, that is, what we believe, but covenant, that is, how we promise to behave.  As you’ve heard me say before, a creed can exist in the head of just one person, even if that person were all alone in the entire cosmos, but a covenant by definition exists around and within the relationships between two or more people.

So if freedom is about becoming and if our faith is about relationship, then our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  I’ll say that again: our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  In other words, we are challenged to make sense of freedom when we do not, in fact, actually have the autonomy to do whatever we want without regard to the consequences for others or ourselves; we should instead expect to be answerable for our — otherwise free — decisions and actions.  Let me try to make this a little more concrete…

You may have heard of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, a modern parable by ecologist Garret Hardin.  Consider, Hardin wrote about forty years ago, a medieval village in which each family has the use of some common land for letting their cows graze.  For each individual family, adding another cow to their own herd on the village commons gives that family all the benefit of the additional cow, while spreading any possible drawbacks amongst all of the families in the village.  If each family in the village is free to add more cow to their herds, then it’s quite rational for them to do that, and to keep doing it, until there are so many cows that the commons becomes so damaged that it’s of no use to anybody.  The Tragedy of the Commons takes place because the villagers fail to recognize their interdependence and refuse to accept responsibility for the collective consequences of their individual actions.

Some economists, of course, have argued that the Tragedy of the Commons simply isn’t realistic, that “market forces” — Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and so forth — would always come into play to magically prevent such runaway self-centeredness, but this is no idle thought experiment: it literally happened with overgrazing on Boston Common in the 1630s, and it’s not hard to see global climate change as an on-going tragedy with the Earth’s atmosphere as the commons and all of us as the villagers.

Unfortunately responsibility is a much less exciting idea than freedom.  Even the word, ‘freedom’, tends to conjure exciting images in our minds: the open plains, with pioneers and settlers traveling westward to make new lives for themselves; or the open road, driving a fast car toward the horizon, no cares in the world as the wind blows through your hair.  Romanticized and more inspired by Hollywood movies and television advertising than based in real-world experience, yes, but evocative and inspiring nonetheless.  Responsibility, on the other hand, is about duty, obligation, something that binds us to behaving in certain ways when, all things considered, we’d rather cut out when nobody’s looking and go for a drive on the open road in that zippy convertible.  We adults like to tell our children that responsibility is a necessary part of growing up, but sometimes I wonder who it is we’re really trying to convince…

Of course, the process of individuation is a necessary part of growing up.  Healthy human beings must learn to think of themselves as individuals, separate from their parents and other people and with a sense of their own identity and will.  There’s a lot of power in recognizing oneself as an individual with free will, able to make the decisions that determine one’s own destiny.  Individuality is a necessary and healthy part of being human, but what about individualism, the place where, more than any other, our ideas about freedom are enshrined?

Individualism, it could be argued, encapsulated the founding ideals of the United States.  The “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as defined by linguist Ronald Scollon, is that “the individual is the basis of all reality and all society” and that individual freedom must, above all else, be protected from external interference.  Well, it’s easy to get into a sort of chicken-and-egg situation when arguing about the relationship between individuals and society — and theologians and philosophers and, more recently, politicians have spent a lot of time arguing about it — but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if we were to aspire to be completely free individuals, we were (and, in fact, continue to be) formed — as individuals — in the overlapping contexts of family, community, culture and the very society that supposedly depends on us rather than the other way around.

And don’t we find the most value and worth in ourselves as individuals precisely when we are connected to other individuals in those relational contexts?  How easily we forget or overlook or ignore that, though!  As Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Collier puts it, we “sometimes spend so much time and energy worrying about and praising the autonomy of the individual that we forget that individuals standing alone have about as much strength as a bunch of stones lying around on the ground.”  And in his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers this much stronger critique of American individualism: “It’s an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.  At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.  A nation of individuals saying, ‘[Hey,] I’m an individual.  Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of [my] country.’”

I think we need to find a new way to talk about our individuality that, on the one hand, avoids the excesses of individualism and, on the other hand, helps us to see responsibility as not only important but even inspiring.  (Getting responsibility to be exciting may be too much to ask, but I live in hope!)  There’s a word that I learned about a decade ago now that describes some of what I’m trying to get at here, and you heard it in my reading this morning: “autokoenony”.  It was coined by Sarah Hoagland, who in her book Lesbian Ethics writes: “I mean to invoke a self who is both separate and related, a self which is neither autonomous nor dissolved: a self in community who is one among many, what I call autokoenony.”

Now think of this in terms of our Fourth Principle, that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Well, there’s the “free” piece of our religious journey.  If we articulate it at all, we tend to place religious authority — the right to determine what we believe and how we should behave — in individual experience.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.  What sort of experience do we mean, for instance?  Are all experiences to be equally valued?  Are all “truths” from every source to be respected on the basis that they belong to someone else’s and that we have no right to judge them?  What is it that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism?  Yes, we affirm, in the words of our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of all people”, but look more closely and there’s something implicit there.  Who is it who is recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a given individual?  That particular person her- or himself?  No, it’s someone else, which means we’re talking about relationship.  We’re talking about the relational individual, the individual who belongs to something larger, the self in community, or autokoenony.

And this gets us to the “responsible” piece of our quest for truth and meaning.  When it comes to figuring out what to believe and how to behave, another common source of authority is community tradition.  Our individualistic tendencies make us more aware of the problems of placing authority in tradition, of course, to the extent that Unitarian Universalists have a practically instinctive distrust of hierarchy, which is why our Fifth Principle speaks of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  The individual, after all, needs some distance from the community in order to reflect on it, but the community also serves as the touchstone that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism.  We need both, individual and community, experience and tradition, distance and belonging, freedom and responsibility.

Our own religious authority, then, emerges through autokoenony, the individual being in community, the individual becoming in community.  This is, in fact, our process of becoming human.  We may not always get it right, but we’re not aiming to succeed by being infallible; rather, we’re aiming to succeed by being faithful, and the word we use to describe this process is “covenant”.  We covenant with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we covenant with those outside our faith community to be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand”.  Unitarian Universalist theology arises from individuals relating to one another within our congregations themselves and the ways in which we as individuals and congregations work for justice in the wider community.  In contrast to Howard Zinn’s rather negative outlook of individualism, then, consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words concerning individual effectiveness when combined with the power of community: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Responsibility calls to us, because without responsibility we’re not really free.  Universalist minister and social activist Clarence Skinner made this point when he wrote that “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

In the dance of the good life to which we all aspire, freedom and responsibility are inseparable partners.  Sometimes, it’s true, one leads and the other follows.  Sometimes it’s good to hit the open road in a fast car, but it’s usually even better to do it with a good friend or a loved one in the passenger seat.

So I encourage you, in the days ahead, to look at your own lives and see how freedom and responsibility are dancing through them.  Look for the ways in which you are free to assert your individuality and the ways in which you help others to find their own freedom.  You might be surprised at how often they overlap.  And then look at how your relationships help you find your own value and worth.  Consider how you can answer the call “to win an ever larger and more important liberty” for yourself, for your communities and for our world.  And take a look at what you have to offer our liberal religion, our free faith, that, in turn, supports your own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as well as that of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming human.

So may it be.

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The Covenant of Ordained Ministry

One of my favorite books is Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.  Subtitled “The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy and One of the Rarest Books in the World”, it’s primarily focused on the life and death of Michael Servetus (1511–1553), proto-Unitarian martyr and heretical hero to many of today’s Unitarian Universalists.  Out of the Flames begins and ends, however, by talking about books, from Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press to the three surviving copies of Servetus’ last book, Christianismi Restitutio.

Now Out of the Flames is no textbook.  Servetus’ story is already a pretty exciting tale: he was rivals with John Calvin in college; he took to subterfuge to publish his books attacking orthodox Christianity; and he escaped from the Inquisition in France only to be captured by the Calvinists in Geneva.  More than that, though, the Goldstones have a knack for bringing history alive and they do a great job of setting the scene in Medieval Europe and explaining the continent-wide impact of Gutenberg’s decision to make the Bible the first book he printed.  (Not that he was particularly pious: he simply thought it would be the easiest book to sell!)  Suddenly anyone who could read could read the Bible and, what’s more, they could have their thoughts turned into print for others to read, too.

Until that time, Christianity relied on two sources of authority: the Bible and the priesthood.  While the Bible was authoritative, it was not completely authoritative since a priest was required to interpret it.  The priest was granted this authority, of course, by the church hierarchy, from the local bishop all the way up to the Pope; the Bishop of Rome was in turn authorized as part of an unbroken line going back to Apostles who had — according to the Bible and the priesthood — been authorized by Jesus.  It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the commercial availability of the Bible combined with widespread dissatisfaction at the corruption of the Roman Church, would lead to a questioning of the authority of the priesthood, and the stage was set for the Protestant Reformation.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were part of that reformation, only they took it further than most!  They not only rejected the hierarchical priesthood but, a few centuries later, the authority of the Bible as well, resulting in today’s Unitarian Universalism that is most well known for aiming to be open to all people and to all sources of wisdom.  It’s also important, though, that we have ministers rather than priests, and it’s particularly important that Unitarian Universalist ministers are not ordained by one another or by some version of a bishop or by any denominational authority, but by the congregations served by those ministers.

Now in Servetus’ time ordination meant the conveying of priestly authority down through the church hierarchy, but what does it mean for today’s non-hierarchical Unitarian Universalists?

Just as no one of us is alone when it comes to figuring out what it is that we believe, neither is any one of us doing ministry alone.  Unitarian Universalism is dedicated to the process of individual being in community, the covenant we make with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and the covenant we make with the wider world to be a church of “the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  Similarly, Unitarian Universalist congregations reserve the right to ordain their own ministers because, having rejected the circular logic of both authoritative scripture and authorized priesthood, our authority emerges through that same process of the individual being in community.  When a minister is ordained by a congregation, then, another covenant is enacted, a covenant that dedicates that minister to the service of Unitarian Universalism at the same time that it re-dedicates that congregation to the cause of liberal religion.  Just as a congregation is founded once and only once, so is a minister ordained only once.

A year ago the members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, decided to ordain me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry and install me as their minister.  The last year has confirmed to me that this congregation has a bright and beautiful future, and I am honored that they chose to be responsible for this truly once-in-a-lifetime event!

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