Posts Tagged justice

The G-Word

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 14th 2018.

I’m going to begin by asking for a favor.

We’re in the South, more or less, and there are a few foods that are known for being popular in the South. To pick a couple of them, one is fried chicken and another is watermelon. Maybe you don’t eat either of these at every meal, but perhaps you’d eat one or the other if they were served at a picnic or a potluck. So how many of you would eat fried chicken? Hands up if you’d eat fried chicken. And how many of you would eat watermelon? Hands up if you you’d eat watermelon. Okay, so that’s pretty much everyone, whether vegetarian or not, who’d eat one or the other.

Now I picked these two foods because there are parts of them that you can’t eat. In fried chicken there are bones and in watermelon there’s the rind. When you’re eating these foods, those are the parts you leave on the plate. So here’s something you might not have thought about, but it’s an important question: Do the bones and the rind stop you from enjoying the parts of fried chicken and watermelon that you do eat? No, they don’t. Much less would it make sense to get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind because you can’t eat them.

The reason I bring up fried chicken and watermelon and the fact that there are parts of them that you can’t eat is because a lot of discussions about religion are the same way. A friendly discussion about religion is, in fact, a lot like a picnic or a potluck. There are parts that appeal to us, that we like, that we enjoy, and there are parts that are, essentially, inedible.

Now I want to stress the “friendly” part of “a friendly discussion about religion”. I’m not talking about somebody making religious claims that are actively harmful, that promote inequality or prevent injustice. That would be like bringing a plate of poisonous toadstools to a picnic: they’re not going to be good for anyone!

So imagine you’re in a group with other friendly people — such as the Sunday Morning Forum or a Fellowship Circle — and the topic is how we view and understand the world and our place in it. You’re sharing your answers to questions such as: Why are we here? How did reality come into being? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens to us when we die? More importantly, you’re going to hear the answers that other people have to those questions.

Some of their answers you’ll like; they make sense to you, maybe even helping you to understand something that’s been puzzling you. Some of those answers will challenge you, but then you figure out they’re actually familiar ideas expressed in unfamiliar ways, or they use different words than you’d use; you’ll have to work at translating those answers into your own terms to appreciate them. And some of those answers will simply be unacceptable to you, with ideas that are clearly incompatible with your own experience; they make no sense to you no matter how you try to translate them.

Here’s the favor I’m asking of you, and why I asked you to think about fried chicken and watermelon: enjoy other people’s answers that work for you, with or without translation, but don’t get angry at answers that don’t work for you. For one thing, other people’s answers belong to other people; if you like them, if they make sense to you, great; if you don’t like them, if they don’t make sense, well, they’re not your answers anyway. For another, getting angry at somebody else’s ideas, experiences and feelings, that does more harm to you than it does any good.

So when it comes to discussions about religious matters between friendly and well-meaning people, please, do enjoy the fried chicken and the watermelon of the theological potluck that’s offered to you, and please, don’t get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind just because you can’t eat them, too.

I asked for this favor up front because our subject today is God, and I don’t think there’s any subject about there’s more disagreement. For many people, it’s the most important part of their faith, and they don’t understand how any religion can exist that doesn’t put God front and center. Only, ask them and the person in the pew next to them how they actually understand God, and you’ll quickly find that even people going to the same church don’t really share the same theology.

Many religions got their start because of disagreements about understandings of God, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism began with quite specific theological ideas that departed from Christian orthodoxy. For the early Unitarians, it was their belief that God was one — a unity, not a trinity — including the specific belief that Jesus was fully human and thus a viable role model for what it means to be human. For the early Universalists, it was their belief in God’s love as the strongest force in existence, stronger than the ability of any mere human to do wrong, such that every soul eventually reaches heaven.

Over the centuries, both Universalist and Unitarian belief systems evolved, growing much broader than their Christian origins. The Unitarians did this, as I see it, largely by accident, thanks to such spontaneous movements within Unitarianism as Transcendentalism and Humanism. The Universalists, on the other hand, did it much more intentionally, embracing the implications of Universalism as a religion that could truly be for all people. Either way, by the middle of the twentieth century the Universalists and the Unitarians found themselves in such similar places theologically that the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together, consolidating to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.

Now there was a habit, particularly within Universalism, of writing statements of belief, articulating who we are and how we understand the world not only for the benefit of other people but also for ourselves. Our Seven Principles and Six Sources are part of that long tradition. Such statements have been crafted in different ways at different times, but one of the favorite tools is, of course, the survey. And while a survey is rarely an effective substitute for getting people together and talking with them, it is an easy way to get a lot of people to answer simple questions.

So in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the UUA sent surveys to UU congregations. Somebody at the UUA deserves credit for having the presence of mind to include some of the same questions each time, to see if anything was changing. Specifically, there was a multiple-choice question, “Which one of the following comes closest to expressing your beliefs about God?” What’s striking is that, in all three decades, the distribution of responses was very similar and, though I don’t think there’s any more recent data, my own unofficial experience suggests it would be pretty similar today.

The first answer choice (out of five in all) was “God is a supernatural being who reveals himself in human experience and history.” We might consider that the traditionally theistic belief and, like it or not, such a traditionally theistic God is usually imagined as male. About three percent of UUs selected this answer choice.

The second answer choice was “God is the ground of all being, real but not describable.” If you’ve ever heard of theologian Paul Tillich, the phrase “ground of being” comes from him. This answer choice spans deism, mysticism and some agnosticism, and close to thirty percent of UUs selected it.

The third answer choice was “God may appropriately be used as a name for some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution.” This is the answer of choice for many humanists and neo-pagans, from physicists to pantheists, and it’s not surprising that almost half of UUs selected it.

The fourth answer choice was “God is an irrelevant concept, and the central focus of religion should be on human knowledge and values.” This is more hard-core humanism, as well as atheism, and a fifth of UUs selected it.

And the fifth and final choice was “God is a concept that is harmful to a worthwhile religion” and about two percent of UUs selected it.

As I said, this distribution of responses matches my own experience in talking with Unitarian Universalists over the years. A small number of UUs are pretty traditional theists, while about three-quarters of UUs have broader conceptions of divinity, even if they’d never apply the word “God” to them. About a quarter of UUs think that God is either an irrelevant concept or actively harmful.

Here’s a question, though. If a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists are at least okay with some concept of the divine, then why do we use the word “God” so infrequently? (To the point that we can joke about it being “the G-word”?)

In 2011, when the Unitarian Universalist Association was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Religion News Service published the sort of article that causes ministers to pull out their hair. It began:

A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology. Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program. But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in ‘Once to Every Soul and Nation’ might upset the humanists in the pews. ‘I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,’ said Mendes, 52, after the service. ‘We did say “God”, which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.’

Let me get my pedantry out of the way. The hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” doesn’t include the word “God”. Just in case Baltimore was doing something oddly retro, I even looked it up in the 1964 hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, where it was called “Once to Every Man and Nation”, but still no “God”.

I should note that many of those hymns that went on to be in our current hymn book were indeed edited in the late seventies, but in most cases that was to remove unnecessarily gendered language that privileged men. When it came to the word God, there was no attempt to “scrub” “religious doctrine” to make hymns “politically correct”, whatever that much abused phrase actually means these days. We still have lots of hymns that refer to God— just not the one in the article. Rather, the problem identified in some of the old hymns was always referring to God as male.

By way of response to the article, here’s my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein.

So right away we come off as bizarre-o. This isn’t just a word I’m throwing out there to be funny; it’s one Unitarian Universalist’s reminder to the rest of us that when it comes to our image in the broader culture, we appear to be so far off the beaten track of what constitutes religion [that] the wheels have fallen off our truck. That first paragraph reveals us at our weirdest and worst: irrational, ‘pre-offended’, entitled, immature and quarrelsome. […] I’m not sure if the reporter edited Mendes’ remarks or not, but there is the further issue about why a profession of faith is in the least objectionable in a [UU congregation]. It is not: we recite them all the time[.] But someone has taught this conscientious lay woman well: she is on red alert for offense and is obviously walking on eggshells, the hallmark of a highly anxious system.

Weinstein does acknowledge that the rest of the article almost redeems itself from what she calls “the wackadoodle impression made in the first paragraph”, though she notes that, in contrasts to the five ordained men quoted in the article, “the one woman interviewed is also the only lay person the reporter talked to, and she is portrayed as being insecure and apologetic.” Clearly there are bigger problems than whether a hymn uses the word “God” or not.

In short, and this is why I asked up-front for a favor about not getting angry at things that don’t feed us, we need to get over ourselves when it comes to “religious” language.

Actually, we are doing better in that regard than we were fifteen years ago, when then-recently elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, suggested that UUs should reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence”. The uproar only calmed down when Sinkford issued an open letter promising that he wouldn’t make anyone use the word “God”.

Now, I have to say that I stopped using the word “God” back in high school when I realized I was an atheist. A decade later, I learned about pantheism, and I was okay identifying the Universe as God on the basis that it didn’t say anything about the Universe but rather said something about us and our emotional response to existence. Then, in the UU congregation I joined, it was clear that “God” was not a helpful word because so many people had been hurt by churches and people with unhealthy ideas about God, particularly in how God has been used to justify oppression and suffering. And going to seminary, I learned the art of theological translation: Could I simply accept what someone else said? Or should I translate it into my own terms, such as replacing “God” by “Universe”? Or did I just need to set what they’d said aside and leave it?

I still don’t use the word “God” without good reason, but I am realizing that there is a time and a place for it. For instance, I reject male-centered ideas about God, but I have found that I am quite okay with — and even enjoy — the lifting up of female divinity. Did you hear, for instance, that Roy Moore was actually correct when he said that the election in Alabama was in God’s hands? Only, what he doesn’t know is that God is a black woman.

Aside from the delicious subversion, there can be a playfulness that nonetheless delivers an important message. Consider this poem, for instance, by Oklahoma poet (and preacher’s daughter), Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

So let me finish with this.

During the debate over Bill Sinkford’s call for Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a vocabulary of reverence, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker wrote an open letter. Parker was president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, our UU seminary in San Francisco, and when it came to the word “God”, she noted that

over the course of the past two hundred years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided at the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me-and-I’ll-Take-Care-of-It God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.

I will qualify this by saying that the problem was never God. The problem was that God was too small. The problem was that God was made in man’s image — and I do mean “man” because the problem was that God was imagined as a man, a supposedly powerful man, the sort of being that men imagine themselves to be if only they had all the power (and none of the responsibility) in the world, a justification for men to act as they please in the cult of toxic masculinity. Have you ever noticed that whenever someone declares that something is what God wants, it’s also what that person wants? Amazing! That’s how you know that their God is only a small god, and is no bigger, in fact, than their own ego. And not only is such a small god an excuse for selfishness and greed, but it’s also an excuse for failing to act when there’s a real need.

So, with respect, I’m going to edit Rebecca Parker’s words: “In place of a small god, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.”

Furthermore, while we have hastened the death of a small god, we have also midwifed the birth of a God who is a working mother, a God who is gay, a God who is black or brown, a God who is transgender, a God who is disabled, a God who is sick, a God who is imprisoned, a God who is poor, a God who is in recovery, a God who rejects toxic masculinity and white supremacy, a God who sides with the oppressed and downtrodden, a God who is begging us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

And that’s the place where, no matter what we mean by the word “God” or even if we choose not to use it, we can find common ground. I have long said that it doesn’t really matter what each of us believes; rather, what matters is how we behave. Sure, our beliefs determine our behaviors, but we are judged by our behavior. When someone works for justice, equity and peace, when they are kind and charitable and generous, maybe they don’t believe in God and they’re doing good because it’s the right thing to do, or maybe they believe in God and they’re doing good because that’s how God manifests in the world. Such beliefs are not incompatible when it comes to making the world a better place, because what matters is making the world a better place.

May that be the true measure of our beliefs, now and always.

~)<

I am grateful to the Rev. Michael Piazza, in whose “Future Church” workshop I was privileged to participate a few years ago, for the fried chicken analogy. (I added watermelon as a non-meat option.)

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Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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Why?

UUFP Blog

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

Many parents dread that age when their child starts asking “Why?”  Not because they don’t want their child to be curious, but because whatever the answer, it usually leads to another “Why?” until the final answer, out of frustration, is something like “Because I said so!”  (The theological problem that answer represents is a topic for another time…)  Olivia hasn’t reached that phase yet, but she certainly asks plenty of other questions and I know it’s just a matter of time!

While it’s a phase that’s usually outgrown within a few years, the question still sticks with us throughout our lives.  And “why” is distinct from the other question words: “what”, “where”, “when” and “who” often have concrete answers, and in fact the rule of thumb for announcing an event is to include those answers as the most important details.  Even “how”, though more…

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Liberal Religion in the Public Square

UUFP Blog

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

“Ways of life we are all enmeshed in — economic systems, our whole patterns of living, our whole established world — are not adequate for the quality of life we know we ourselves capable of and that we want for the Earth’s people.  We must become capable of offering religious leadership to a society called to change its fundamental ways of living.”
— Rebecca Parker, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times” (1997)

For the last few years, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have been invited to read and discuss a book selected as a “Common Read”.  As such, it “can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations.”  Recent Common Read books include Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories…

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Seeking a Song of Love

UUFP Blog

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

A hand that’s warm in friendship strong,
that lifts us up when things go wrong
and builds a church where — more than creeds —
we count our blessings in good deeds:
our hands can offer hope’s embrace
to make the world a better place.
— additional fifth verse to hymn 300, “With Heart and Mind”

While in Denver for my seminary studies at the Iliff School of Theology, I also worked for the Mountain Desert District, first as Youth Chaplain and then as interim Youth Ministry Coordinator.  Working with teenagers and their UU congregations from New Mexico to Wyoming, from Texas to Utah, I witnessed their youthful struggles with matters of personal and religious identity, with questions of morality and justice, and with attempts to put their hopes and aspirations into words.  In other words, exactly the same…

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Putting Gratitude into Practice

UUFP Blog

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

“The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.  From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole.  Gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”  — Rev. Galen Guengerich (UU World, Spring 2007)

One Sunday morning last month, in announcing our Faithify project to help the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Fellowship President Alan Sheeler shared with us the following story.

“Back in 1972 — I was a bit younger then — I spent the Summer in the Southwest, including a month in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. My camp was in the Needles District and was composed of my…

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Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

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

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

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

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

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

And here it is:

GaOT_box

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

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

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

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

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

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

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

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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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Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

UUFP Blog

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

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

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

Soon after Allison and I…

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One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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