Winner, 2019 Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation Sermon Award

Twenty years ago at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York – long before I heard my call to ministry – a woman named Elizabeth Schell read a difficult story in the Old Testament. As Elizabeth describes it, this story from the Book of Judges is “the horrific tale of the unnamed woman who is raped and dismembered into twelve pieces, and whose violation then leads to the violation of countless other women and children as the tribes take revenge upon one another. A text not included in lectionaries; a text to be avoided in worship.”

Big Woman, as displayed at SUUSI 2018

She was consumed by the story, but more, was compelled to make something of it. And so, she created this twelve-foot-long doll, in twelve pieces. When first presented at Union in 1999, her parts were strewn around the chapel, and during the service, people gathered her and put her back together.

Over the ensuing years, Elizabeth has occasionally used her in workshops, retreats, and worship services along the eastern seaboard, leaning into messages of healing. She is covered not only in her original art, but with the names of those seeking their own healing, written as prayers and affirmations.

Big Woman, as she came to be called, became famous at Union for the depth of creativity and healing she represented. A year ago, I met her in person at the Southeast UU Summer Institute, and Elizabeth loaned her to me, so I might continue her journey.

Here she is – today – sitting among us, her pieces together, wearing names like scars, representing the hundreds of battles fought against harassment, abuse, and violence.

Her story, though, isn’t just the story of women. It’s the story of all of us, battle worn, scarred, broken, exhausted. And today, she is here – to hold our brokenness, and call us to healing.

Now I want to clarify some terminology that I’ll be using. It would be easy to rely on “men” and “women” as my terms, as we are in a culture that’s comfortable with the gender binary. But the truth is, many of the things experienced by cisgender women in this culture of misogyny are also experienced by non-binary folx and transfolk. Thus, I am leaning into the delineation as used by the site AreMenTalkingTooMuch.com – “dude” – meaning cismen and some trans men, and “not-a-dude” – meaning everyone else. I won’t alter quotations that use the terms men and women, but if it’s me – it’s “dude,” and “not-a-dude.”   

It would be easy to get and stay angry – and entirely reasonable, too – given the sheer volume of explicit misogyny and sexual violence we see, and the overwhelming statistics about reported and unreported rapes, harassment in the workplace and online, and the almost belligerent show of ‘manhood’ from celebrities and heads of state. And I doubt there’s a dude here who isn’t as angry about these things as the not-a-dudes are. We should be angry. But what happens when we turn our attention from the statistics and look at the systems that feed those statistics?

A system that’s millenias, old, by the way, which I could offer a few thousand words on but won’t. But if I did, I would take us to the Code of Hammurabi, include an examination of Old and New Testament texts. It would examine the early Church and the shift to a male-dominated hierarchy that would permeate even the most egalitarian of Celtic cultures. It would explore dude-dominated cultures that commit female genital mutilation and footbinding. It would trace the history of bridal dowries and arranged marriages. It would include the commodification of black bodies – particularly black women’s bodies. It would lift up the struggle over the first English queen, and the rights of women to own property, get the vote, get a credit card, get equal pay.

You know from the good, hard work we have been doing around anti-racism and black lives matter that an important step for allies is to acknowledge that we swim in a culture of white supremacy, a culture that says if you’re white, the color of your skin is not complicating your life. This ancient way of understanding not dudes as a “suspect class” means that we all swim in this culture that says if you’re a dude, your gender is not complicating your life. Yes, other things may be – of course. Class, sexual identity, age, ability, health. Of course. But for we who are not dudes, our gender makes us a minority.

This spring, economist and feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez, OBE, released her new book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. In this book, she examines the ways in which everything in our culture is designed for men – from life jackets and military armor, to chemical testing, to pharmaceuticals, to workplace environments, to snow removal, to bathrooms, to public transportation, to academics, to Hollywood scripts,  to iPhones.

Perez argues that by setting standards for the average human based on a model called Reference Man – Caucasian, aged 25-30, weighing 154.3 pounds – we ignore crucial differences in endocrine and immune systems, pain, physical stature, breasts and genitals, body strength, pelvis size – and thus, body armor doesn’t protect everyone, not-dudes’ bodies are more easily injured, medications don’t work, and the unpaid labor of child care and household chores take their toll.

Sometimes the exclusions are purposeful – as Perez notes over and over, data on women is often tossed out as “complicating factors.” But often, designers of systems and product safety and medicines and equipment just don’t think about anyone who isn’t Reference Man; “they just don’t think to consider if women’s needs might be different.”

This breaks us.

There are hundreds of examples – backed up by research – in her book, but the thing that struck me most, and made me realize how deeply imbedded this culture of male-unless-otherwise-indicated is, were the studies Perez highlighted showing that while the word “man” is used to include all people – what is called the generic masculine – is in fact NOT read generically. It is read overwhelmingly as male.

We live in a culture that assumes ‘dude’ is normal, and not-a-dude is a notable exception. This is hard, because for millennia – maybe since Esther – not-dudes have doing everything they can to measure up. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted, “when you’re only seeing white dudes just like, running the world, you think you need to act like a white dude to run the world. The problem is that mold wasn’t made for you. And so even if you try the hardest at being that, you will not be as good as someone who is just that already.”

And yet we try to fit the mold. We try to put ourselves together in the ways our culture says we should. We who are not dudes even learn to judge other not dudes the way dudes are supposed to. It so permeates our culture, it’s almost comic – as we see in parodies from Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, That Mitchell and Webb Look, and Saturday Night Live.

But it is deadly serious, especially when you factor in sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. Those who are not dudes are taught from the time they are kindergartners how to protect themselves, how to avoid the male gaze, how to dress, how to behave not too assertively but not too coyly, how to temper their behavior and speech so as not to break the system.

We put ourselves together in ways that, well, just don’t work. And dudes wonder what’s wrong with those who are not dudes – why are they sick, why are they complaining, why are they not seeing the world as it really is, why does everything have to be about feminism, why do they take up so much space now, why did they have to try to invade our superheroes and our computer games and our military and our legislatures and our White House?

As those who are not dudes begin to see how they are broken and begin to do something about it, the truth becomes even clearer: This isn’t just about those who are not dudes. This breaks all of us.

Actor Robert Webb talks about this in his book, How Not to Be a Boy. While the book is on one hand a celebrity memoir, it goes deeper than that, as Webb explores how the rules for how to be a boy were taught by his father and older brothers, as well as in school and university – rules that teach boys to play sports, be rough, dominate, become king of the hill, and for gods sake, don’t be emotional. As Webb describes, “We tell them to man up, get up, don’t cry, be tough, don’t acknowledge your own emotions; and if you keep being told to not express these emotions, it eventually starts sounding like ‘don’t have these feelings – don’t feel these feelings.’”

Without emotional validation, dudes wind up turning only to their romantic partners for emotional support. Dudes aren’t taught to bond emotionally, they’re taught to bond over sports or games or work, free of emotional support – and romantic partners are the only ones where feelings can happen. Thus, when a not-dude says to a dude, I just want to be friends, that can be interpreted as “there goes my one emotional support person” – and the not-dudes are upset because someone they thought of as a friend really just wanted to have sex with them. At its worst, it causes deep emotional trauma for dudes, who sometimes turn to substance abuse and depression, and rage – which leads to the kind of toxic masculinity that looks like mass shootings and rape.

Now this isn’t to say masculinity itself is toxic – no, dudes. It’s perfectly okay, and in fact appropriate, for dudes to be strong, as long as you’re using that strength in a positive, non-abusive manner. We want you to be strong, as portrayed in a recent commercial from Gillette. The ad used research from surveys asking about qualities of good masculinity – and yet it received a backlash – from dudes – saying it was just feminist propaganda.

That healthy masculinity is attacked is a sign that we are all being tricked into us into thinking that it is the way it is supposed to be. Webb calls it The Trick with his family, to name “the incoming tide of gender BS that [his] daughters and their friends (including the boys) will spend their lives wading through.” He points it out to his children, and to his readers, “because it is difficult to resist, because it hides in plain sight. It’s everywhere: a system of thought and a set of invented and discriminatory practices in our laws, culture and economy that feminists call the patriarchy. Feminists aren’t out to get men,” he writes, “they’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, the hate The Man…. This thing, The Trick, is dangerous for girls. And it’s dangerous for boys, too. Feminism is not about men versus women,’ he concludes, “it’s about men and women versus the Trick.”

The Trick gaslights us. It fools us. It not only hurts those who aren’t dudes, it hurts dudes too.

As Webb notes, “there are probably lots of men who haven’t had their lives marred or pointlessly complicated by the expectations of gender, but I’ve yet to meet one. You had to bury your pain; you had to conform to the tribe; you had to grow up faster than you wanted; you had to have sex as early as possible and with as many people as possible, even if that made you a liar; you weren’t romantic enough and you felt bad you failed to do manly tasks with competence and you felt bad; you made promises you couldn’t keep.”

Human history never told you the system is the problem. This system broke us long before we ever had a chance.

We are broken. All of us, broken by this. #MeToo, and before that, #TimesUp and #NotAllWomen, are pulling back the curtain and revealing our brokenness, revealing how hard it is to be a human being in a culture that tricks us all.

And there’s nothing we can do about what has been done. But there is healing.

Some of you are familiar with the Japanese practice of Kinsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery with veins of gold, copper, and silver. In this art form, the bowl is never not broken, and is even more beautiful in its brokenness.

There’s a Hindu goddess – named Akhilandashvari – her name means the Always Broken goddess. She is a goddess of destruction, but of carefully curated destruction; as writer Julie Peters notes, “Akhilanda derives her power from being broken: in flux, pulling herself apart, living in different, constant selves at the same time, from never becoming a whole that has limitations.”

In some ways, Big Woman is Akhilanda – never not broken. She invites us to make a choice in how to go forward. We always have the incredible opportunity to decide how we want to put the pieces back together. Despite the messages our culture sends, no matter how hard it can be to be our whole selves in a culture that isn’t made for us to be whole, we are whole anyway, and we can put ourselves aright, wearing the scars and the cracks as evidence of our broken wholeness.

And this is our theology: Universalism teaches us that our very humanness means we have inherent worth and dignity, and that there is always a place for us, even in our brokenness. In other words, we’re always whole, always loved, always fully human. Like a cracked pot, lovingly repaired. Like a goddess, daring to put herself together in new ways. Like a young child, noticing the trick. Like a congresswoman, daring to lead authentically. Like all of us, full of holes, yet whole, and holy.

So what now?

Now that we’ve seen The Trick, we can’t unsee it. And we cannot keep quiet – to ourselves, our family, our friends, our communities.

We hear the stories old and new, and we acknowledge the pain of generations.

We can’t keep quiet.

We hear our own stories of brokenness, deep pain, and we acknowledge the complexity of these wounds.

We can’t keep quiet.

We seek wholeness and healing, being willing to unbecome what we have been told to be and become anew that which we are.

We can’t keep quiet.

We commit to reaching out in compassion and kindness, to be a haven of welcome and acceptance, to believe the survivors and work for their protection.

We can’t keep quiet.

We commit to speaking out when we notice harm is being done, whether through words, or assumptions, or attitudes, or erasure, or actual physical harm.

We can’t keep quiet.

We commit to celebrating healthy and inclusive ways of being and model these for our children.

We can’t keep quiet.

We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, of every gender, and welcome each other on this journey to wholeness.

We can’t keep quiet.

Delivered April 15, 2019 at First Parish UU Church of Kennebunk, ME

Reading 

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’  

Sermon

To me, the perfect party is a tabletop gaming party – lots of friends gathered around with some tables groaning with delicious food and other tables groaning, and laughing, and planning, and shouting in triumph and despair as we gather around games of Ticket to Ride, and Mysterium, and Clank, and Pandemic, and even throwbacks like Clue, and Yahtzee, and Monopoly. My gaming life started as soon as I was able to hold more than one card in my hand – my family spent hours playing games, and I even learned American literature and art history from games like Authors and Masterpiece. On any typical day, you’ll open the trunk of my car and find at least a few games, or tucked into my purse a small deck of cards, because the way my mother raise me, sometimes a game just has to happen.

And I love them. Card collecting games, goal oriented games, cooperative games, mystery solving games, even silly games. Pretty much, if you’re playing a game, I want in.

Unless it’s chess.

You see, I know how to play chess; along with other classics like Bridge, Spades, poker, and backgammon, Mom made sure I knew how to play chess. I understand the mechanics, but I am just terrible at it. Any time I sit down at a chess board, I sit down with the best of intentions – to pay attention to not just my own move but also my opponent’s, to think several moves ahead, and not just my own future moves but also my opponent’s, to strategize how I will capture their king while not losing my own. To know every step, to anticipate every eventuality. To see the whole board.

I try, but it’s hard. I know the how, but it’s hard to risk your bishop if you are afraid of what will happen to your queen. It’s hard to say yes when you don’t know what exactly will happen. Well – I do know what will happen in chess: I’ll lose. But you know what I mean…

How do we say yes when we don’t know if we’ve considered all the options, assessed all the risks?

And yet risk is exactly what Jesus was taking in the text we heard, in that moment when he decided they should observe Passover in Jerusalem.

Let’s set the stage: here’s this man, from a faithful Jewish family, who’s got an incredibly radical and inspirational message. He has gathered people around him to learn, and to help him preach his message and share his story. He reveals in what some call miracles the healing power of love, compassion, and hope. He’s teaching people how to care for one another, be present to one another, how to see everyone as worthy of love and dignity. But because he’s telling the establishment – which is simultaneously church and state – that they’re missing the point of their own faith, and because this radical spiritual message is a radical political message too, his ministry is becoming a bit of a problem for the establishment.

Who live, work, and rule in Jerusalem.

So here’s this guy, with all these pieces in play – a message and a call he can’t deny, all of these lives he’s changed, all of these people following him, this sense of destiny, an angry government breathing down his neck, an angry group of Temple priests wanting to silence him, and he’s probably wondering why he didn’t just stay quiet and do whatever it was he was doing before he met John the Baptist.

Now while the gospels paint Jesus as this all-knowing deity, what I think is more likely true is that he arrived at this moment, with all these pieces, AND having this vision of bringing truth, hope, healing, and love to all of the people he comes in contact with. And so, he put these pieces in motion, and played the game out in his head a bit.

In the pages before our reading picked up, we see Jesus calculating. He’s still teaching, to be sure, and we are getting some of the more political parables, like the workers in the vineyard who all get equal payment because God’s love is available to all, like the rich man who is told it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And we also get hints from Jesus that he is seeing the costs of his ministry, that he might be jailed, or tortured, or even die, that it could be hard for him and for his closest followers.

He sees the whole board – how the moving of one piece will cause another piece to move, and another, and another.

He may not know exactly what will happen next, or what piece will react more aggressively, or what the surprise moves might be.

He may not know exactly how, but he knows he must say yes – and make a move.

In this case, it’s saying “let’s observe Passover in Jerusalem.”

On its own, that’s not such a radical thing – at this time in history, major religious observances were just starting to happen in communities outside Jerusalem, but most people still traveled to the temple in Jerusalem for sacrifices and the observance of Passover.

But this was somehow different, for a group of people who had grown a ministry on the outskirts of Israel and Judea.

And some might argue the whole ‘riding in on a donkey’ thing was a storytelling device, to connect Jesus to the prophesy of Zachariah. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus was schooled enough as a faithful Jewish man to know that the iconic image of his riding in on a donkey would make some people cheer and others uncomfortable.

And so he does, riding in with people in celebration mobbing the streets to see him and laying palms like an ancient red carpet, playing the crowd a bit, moving aggressively to provoke a move by his opponent. Jesus sees the whole board but clearly engages the details of each move, each piece.

But he had to start by saying yes to this risk.

In his book The Answer to How Is Yes, author Peter Block suggests that we often get stuck asking how a vision will be accomplished and never get past the trees to see the forest. He writes,

“What’s really interesting about ‘how’ is that we are asking a question to which we already have the answer. In fact, we have a large group of answers because we’ve been asking how for a long time. We have been collecting answers for years, and yet we still keep asking the question. We are on a treadmill, because although we keep asking how, we have to wonder what to do with the answers we are getting. No matter how many answers we get, we often decide not to act on them, and when we do act on an answer, what have we got? The fault is in the nature of the question.”

Instead of the how’s, Block advises, we should be asking different questions that will help us focus our commitment to the vision, from which the pieces will start to make sense and the how’s will emerge – from the financial and material resources to the talent and expertise, to buy in and commitment.

In other words, we can’t get caught up in how the bishop moves and its risk to the queen; we have to say yes, the bishop has to move and expose the queen because that’s the only way we’re going to win the game eight moves later.

Jesus can’t get caught up in where the donkey comes from or the risk to his own life; he had to say yes, the ride into Jerusalem will provoke reaction because that’s the only way this message will live on.

We can’t get caught up in the what if’s and fear of risks to our financial and physical security; we have to say yes to possibility, even if it means some possible setbacks because that’s the only way we will accomplish our personal goals, like going back to school, or moving to a new community, or starting a new business, or investing in a new relationship.

We can’t get caught up in processing and reprocessing the how of this congregation’s vision, the vision that you speak every Sunday, to inspire compassion, welcoming everyone, growing and celebrating, building a just and peace filled world. We have to say yes even if that means having to rethink processes, or fundraising, or understanding how we are seen in the community.

Now I’m not gonna lie – this isn’t easy. We are constantly balancing contrary positions – be an individual, take big risks, be independent, self-reliant, make your own path, don’t let the bastards get you down…. And conform, do as everyone else does, invest wisely, tread carefully, do as you should, behave.

Nope, this isn’t easy. I suspect some of you are on the brink of some huge decisions, big, risky steps. And there’s a lot more at risk than a chess piece, often our entire livelihood, or career, or relationships, or an organization’s health, or a congregation’s future is at risk. But if we care about these things enough to have a vision of what that future looks like, then we HAVE to say yes, even if this means some struggles and sacrifice on the path to something new.

Now I want to be clear: When I talk about sacrificing the bishop or security or finances or reputation, I am not talking about people or anything that would harm, oppress, or invalidate the inherent worth and dignity of anyone. I am not talking about ignoring the incredibly important personal stories and experiences that might not look like our own. Too often we think about who are the players and who are the pawns, as though the pawns don’t matter. And we tend to relegate the pawns en masse, as ‘those people’, as though they are expendable.

That is not this. In fact, seeing the whole board recognizes that each piece, each player, each idea, each moment, each process, each story, is important to the whole. You want to see the whole board of humanity? Then understand that, as Frederic Buechner wrote, ‘there can be no peace and joy for me unless there is peace and joy for you also.’

Understand that the story of Marisol, whose family’s roots far predate any Spanish settlement in the American southwest, is the story of conquest and suddenly being told she is an outsider on her own land.

Understand that the story of Terry, who spent the first half of her life identified as male, is the story of a trans woman who still gets harassed and fears for her safety even though she is finally comfortable in her female skin.

Understand that the story of Daniel, whose family came to the US from Haiti in the 1970s, is the story of a black man who still experiences racism borne of American slavery and Jim Crow, even though his family wasn’t ever part of that system.

Each player on the board – each person who makes up humanity – each story and idea and goal that makes up a vision – is valuable and important. Without the particularities of the individual experiences, we could not say yes to the true vision of beloved community.

Saying yes to our individual goals – and the vision of this congregation – is saying yes to the complexities of wholeness, to vision, to value, to healing.

You see, yes is how the entire universe works. There’s just a little more matter than anti-matter, a little more creation than destruction, a little more growth than death. A little more yes, than no. And if that’s how the rest of the universe works, then well, if we’re part of the universe – and we are – then it should be how we work.

(palms are passed out to the congregation)

As Jesus approached the gates of Jerusalem on that donkey (or not, but let’s say he was because it’s a good image), those who were willing to say yes to his vision of how we are to be with one another and how we are to understand Love and embrace Mystery, all acknowledged the risk and the steps it takes by laying down palms.

Palms that affirmed this path as the one worth taking.

Palms that said Yes to taking these first steps.

As you receive a palm frond, hold it carefully as you consider the thing you want to do – individually, as a family, as a religious community. You don’t have to know how it’s all going to play out, but think about what it takes to say yes, to make that first move, to take that first step.

And when you are ready, put the palm you’ve been given on the floor – and put your feet on it – maybe stand on it if you’re so moved – and say – whisper – sing – “yes.”  

Note: The original sermon, delivered at the West Wing Weekend on September 27, 2018, may be seen here; it includes multiple references to the show. The sermon below was delivered with the title “T.H.I.N.K” at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta, NY on October 28, 2018.

How many of you grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood – or showed it to your children as they were growing up? I was born at just the right time – I was 4 when it first appeared on WMHT, the PBS station in Albany – the perfect age for this unique show; and paired with Sesame Street, which came out at the same time, this little white girl from the northernmost of the Taconic Mountains suddenly was learning about towns and cities, counting and spelling (in both English and Spanish), what other people looked like, what it meant to use our imagination, and what it meant to be a neighbor.

I was reminded of the powerful ministry this gentle Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh conducted for decades when I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor on a flight to Lincoln, Nebraska, this summer – and it struck me how important it was to hear these messages in the wake of the King assassination, in the midst of the Vietnam war, in the restlessness of the country – something a little kid knew nothing about except that things seemed wrong and some of my schoolmates’ dads never came home.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that this documentary, and the upcoming film about Fred Rogers, starring Tom Hanks, is resonating so deeply right now. The lessons Mr. Rogers was teaching us – and is still teaching us – help ground us when we feel utterly ungrounded. They are there for the taking – reminders of what Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum reminded us that we learned in Kindergarten – how to be kind and how to share, and how to forgive, and how to take care of ourselves and each other.

And we need these reminders. Too often, I fear, we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle – and lately, the anxieties – of our lives, that we forget to pay attention to others. We forget that while we are the lead characters in our own stories, we are but bit players and maybe just background extras in the stories of other people. So many times, it seems, other people try to upstage us with their ideas, opinions, and criticisms – or worse, we upstage them as if we’re more important or valued. It’s no wonder Mr. Rogers Neighborhood continues to be so important. The ministry of Rogers focused on teaching children – and us – how to live out the assertion that we have inherent worth and dignity just by being human, and how to treat ourselves and each other.

And while I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect the grounding for some of those lessons comes from a sometimes difficult but ultimately helpful text from the Letter to the Ephesians. I say difficult, because the writer uses the metaphor of a marriage to explain his point – and here’s where that pesky “wives, be subject to your husbands” things shows up. Yeah. I know. But what he’s really getting at – and states at the beginning and end of this passage is simply this: “be subject to one another.”

Now for those not familiar with the biblical text, this epistle (or letter) to the church in Ephesus, is one of many written in the name of Paul of Tarsus, carrying on the ministry of someone who planted these Jesus churches around the Mediterranean. Paul’s like a mega church pastor, only his congregations are probably small. But he has this collection of churches he stewards, like a regional consultant – the Evin Carvil-Zeimer of his day. And well… let’s not kid ourselves. People 2000 years ago were much like people today, and any time you get a bunch of people collected in an organization, there’s gonna be trouble. Especially when they’re collected around a mission, or a vision, or a belief.

So these letters – these epistles – aren’t (to me, anyway) so much sacred text as swift kicks in their collective kiesters. Over and over again, Paul – or one of his staff, anyway – is telling them to (a) stop bending the stories of Jesus to make you look good and (b) stop being bad! This one to the Ephesians is no different. My hunch is that there was a lot of conflict and infighting there, so this letter is very much reminding everyone to get along with one another. Especially since the figure they’re centering their organization around – Jesus – is most assuredly not keen on people treating each other with disrespect.

In other words, this isn’t so much about a particular belief or connection to a particular god, it’s about you, and it’s about me, which means it’s about us.

What we are talking about is seeing one another as family – as the people we devote our last measure of affection to. It’s how we are seen, and cared for, and thought of.

This – and the congregational covenant you will be voting on later today – is calling us back to our best selves. And yes, this covenant is about how we treat one another, the people we have known for months, years, decades. The people we work side by side with on committees and events and projects. The people we celebrate with and mourn with. The people who delight us and annoy us but whom we consider family. The people who we see, care for, think of – and hope are seen by, cared for by, and thought of by.

Now I know that people don’t always get along well all the time – especially when there are decades of history. When I first started serving our congregation in Southold on Long Island, I had a series of meetings with members so I could learn more about the congregation and the people. In one afternoon, I was to meet with a woman I’ll call Dorothy, who had been a member for about 40 years, and then later with another woman I’ll call Caroline, who had been a member for about … 40 years. Both women had served as president, on various committees, taught religious education – they’d done it all. In my conversation with Dorothy, I learned about the seven year span that she and Caroline hadn’t talked to one another because Caroline had done something she deemed terrible, but at some point they forgot about it and while they still argue a lot, they’re talking again. A few hours later, I learned from Caroline about how she and Dorothy hadn’t talked for about seven years because Dorothy had done something she deemed terrible, but at some point they forgot about it and while they still argue a lot, they’re talking again.

My point – and I do have one – is that many of you have similar stories. We sometimes speak without thinking because ‘these people know me and I can say anything around them and it doesn’t matter.’ But it does, and the way we treat each other and speak to each other can cause long-held grudges and hard rifts. We assume there’s a level of trust, forgetting that trust needs to constantly be built and tended. I wonder if Caroline and Dorothy could have avoided the seven year silence if they’d thought about how they were seeing each other, speaking to each other, and being subject to each other – or if they’d realize what had happened and made an effort to call one another back into covenant. I wonder what happens when we do.

This stuff matters, because if we don’t get it right inside our walls, we have no hope of getting it right outside our walls. Because being subject to one another is about family, and friends, and fellow UUSO members, but it’s also about strangers in the workplace, in the coffee shop, on I-88, at the airport, at the gym, in our houses of worship. This is about how we treat one another with our policies and our laws. This is how we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion.

Now let me be clear. Being subject to one another is not about being subservient, as some might want to interpret that Ephesians text – this is not about an imbalance of power – or at least it shouldn’t be. Rather, it is about attention. Simply being attentive to one another.

We might see it as being kind.

Now I want to make a distinction – I do not mean nice. I hate that word, nice. Nice is wishy washy. Nice rolls over. Nice buys into the gospel of comfort, that says we don’t want to offend. Nice is complacent. Nice doesn’t make waves or make a stink and lets people have their own version of truth even when it’s not factual. Nice doesn’t want to bother anybody. Nice says comfort is more important than goodness, ease more valued than doing what’s right.

Blech.

We are, however, supposed to be kind.

Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, Kindness holds the door, Kindness builds a ramp, Kindness explains, Kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice.

But that’s just the start. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.

Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in many big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and votes – and makes sure other people can get to vote too, and goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness believes the survivors.. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water and asks forgiveness. Kindness knows that trans people cannot be erased. Kindness presses legislators to send aid to Puerto Rico, and North Carolina, and Florida. Kindness works for racial justice because it knows that Black Lives Matter.

Kindness answers yes. Kindness doesn’t calculate the return on investment or the risk to reputation or the fear of comments. Kindness is present to the moment.

Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness matters.

Kindness doesn’t assume everyone knows how we do things here. Kindness welcomes new ideas as a gift, not a challenge. Kindness embraces complexity. Kindness embraces discomfort in service to something better. Kindness prefers effectiveness over efficiency. Kindness apologizes and takes responsibility. Kindness lets go of perfectionism. Kindness speaks honestly but also speaks with thoughtfulness and care.

Imagine if we were thoughtful about how we communicate with one another. The image on the front of your orders of service reminds us to THINK –to consider what it is we are about to say. Is it thoughtful? Meaning – did we think before we spoke? Is it helpful – meaning, does what you are about to say actually offer advice or information or just criticism? Is it inspiring – does it give a boost or does it shame? Is it needed – meaning simply that – does it actually need to be said, or would it just make you feel smarter or superior? And is it kind? Well, we have explored kind… which I think is the key. Kindness is how we live into covenant with one another, how we act as Fred Rogers taught us to act, how the writer of Ephesians wants us to act.

You see, there’s a reason the writer of Ephesians uses a marriage as his metaphor for being subject to one another. He’s not just talking about affection for others but understanding that when all is said and done, we’re all part of one family, one body. How can we be unkind to one part of our body when it’s so intrinsically a part of us? As gospel artist Hezekiah Walker sings in “I Need You To Survive” – “I need you / you need me / we’re all a part of God’s body.” Imagine when we think of another person this way, and show them they matter, to see them as individuals, to listen to their stories and consider their needs. Imagine if we thought of OURSELVES this way and were kind to ourselves?

Because when we start acting that way toward ourselves… and then each other… we begin to see how we can be subject to one other even if “other” are people who disagree with us at the top of their voices.

We are subject to one another when we stop building walls and start building bridges. We are subject to one another when we work for equal rights and equal pay and safety and clean water and accessibility for everyone. We are subject to one another when we join our forces together – remembering Margaret Mead’s words to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Be subject to one another, pleads the writer of Ephesians. And every religious path worth its salt. And your congregational covenant… which is a promise to be subject to one another, to be kind to one another, and to forgive one another.

We know this stuff. We learned it as children. And it’s what drew us to the life-giving message of Unitarian Universalism in the first place. We just need to remember… to notice each other’s needs and seize the moment to act. To be willing to be uncomfortable in service to something greater than ourselves. To give of ourselves out of love and affection and compassion. To be truly kind to one another. To think before we speak, and we must speak with openness and generosity. To answer the call of our principles and our morals and ethics and our faith.

Let us be subject to one another.

(As delivered on May 6, 2018, at the UU Fellowship of Bennington, VT)

 Reading

 “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

Sermon

I’m about to make a bold statement: We need to stop writing covenants.

Now hear me out… I know we’re a covenantal faith, which means that we make an agreement to come together to engage in mutual promises with Mystery, other people, and communities. But tell me if any of this sounds familiar:

  • Someone breaks the covenant, but everyone excuses the breach as “oh, that’s just Bob.”
  • New people are asked to sign a congregation’s covenant before they know what is in the covenant or even what a covenant is.
  • The members in power use breaches in the behavioral covenant to punish, not reconcile.
  • Significant donors demand to have things done their way or they’ll resign their membership or withdraw their pledge.
  • A congregation brings concerns about a minister’s conduct to a regional or denominational body, but there is no reconciliation or resolution.
  • A regional or denominational body asks congregations to take up a major justice initiative but provides no support for it, thus creating what we call in government an ‘unfunded  mandate.’
  • We affirm and promote the seven principles, but only as far as we’re comfortable, often excluding people for their skin color, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or religious belief.

And these are just a few examples.

What is a covenant for, if we aren’t going to actually use them as they are meant to be used, to hold one another in relationship? No wonder our circus can’t find the park.

 

I wonder why this is – why we regularly break the covenants we create – and while we’ll get to the courage part in a bit, I think we need to start with this simple fact: people want to fit in to a new group, and often we figure we will learn the jargon and the meaning of things through assimilation. We hear the words “covenant” and “chalice” and “principles” and figure eventually we’ll understand what they actually mean if we hang around long enough. I remember going through nearly an entire year of high school chemistry before I had the guts to ask the teacher what a mole was and what Avogadro’s number had to do with it. When, in May, I think, I finally asked, and he explained it, the clouds parted and the angels sang and I finally understood.

Now the experience I had at age 16 is the same many of us have as we become a part of Unitarian Universalist congregations. We don’t often know what the words really mean, or where they come from, and we’re often too shy or too deep into it to ask.

So let’s talk about what covenant is, and where it comes from.

The idea is as old as well, some of the oldest writings in the Hebrew scriptures, really, beginning in Genesis, with a guy called Noah.

Now the God Noah is talking to is angry with humanity, and God wants to hit the reset button. But God’s got a soft spot for Noah, apparently, and tells him to gather his family and a bunch of animals into a big boat – that went pretty well, I suppose, although I’m still not sure why Noah saved the mosquitos. And like God said, a huge flood comes, wipes out pretty much everything but the ark and its contents. Now you can imagine Noah and his family were pretty freaked out, especially when it seemed like it Went. On. For. Ever. But then, God shows up, right on cue, so God and Noah make a covenant, which seems more like authoritarian rule – as long as the people stay in line, there will be no more floods.

And then there’s Abraham, from whom God also demands fealty, so much so that after making Abraham the father of many nations, he exacts proof in the form of human sacrifice – namely, his son Isaac, which gets a puzzling, last minute reprieve. Again, it’s called a covenant, but it’s more like quid pro quo.

Fast forward a bit into the book of Exodus, and we have Moses, whom God taps to lead the Israelites out of slavery, and in exchange for keeping them safe gives them a set of rules – commandments – that they must follow. And of course, like many humans do, they bristle against the rules, and as soon as Moses is out of sight, break the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” By the time Moses is on the mountain chatting with God again, God’s seen the people melting down metals to fashion a golden calf idol. And God is angry. So angry. Soooo angry that he threatens another flood.

But what’s different in this moment is that Moses speaks truth to power and says “remember your covenant, how you swore to them by your own self – do you want to be as bad as those who enslaved us?” And – as the scripture tells us, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

So we learn something here in the early stories from Hebrew scripture – that a covenant is not just about rules and how those in power hold sway over those under them – but it’s about how those in weaker positions can hold those in power accountable.

But that’s not all of it – remember that about a thousand years after the Egyptian exile, a man we call Jesus came around, and he said “all of these rules you have about beards and shellfish aren’t important. You’re cool if you treat each other right, seek forgiveness when you blow it, remember what I taught you about caring for the sick and poor, and maybe talk about me over a nice glass of merlot now and then.” It was a new covenant – one that’s the model for how we understand covenant today. Especially the merlot part.

Jesus understood – as we come to understand – that what covenant is not about is authority or demands. Covenant should not be a set of hard and fast rules that carry a punishment. Rather, it is about how we treat one another and how we forgive one another. It’s the often forgotten line in the familiar Rumi poem, “come come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving: Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, come yet again, come.”

It’s not about taking our toys – or our pledges – and going home. It’s not about ghosting or cutting folks off when we’ve messed up. Though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times, covenant asks us to come back to the table.

That takes courage.

It takes courage to create covenant; and that creation has to be driven by everyone. It can’t be driven by the people in power, whether that’s positional power like boards and religious professionals, or systemic power like the white people or the top donors. The process has to be courageous enough to include all voices of those who have agreed to freely come together in the process of creating and living it out.

It takes courage to write a covenant that actually treats everyone like a person, with inherent worth and dignity.

It takes courage to see covenant not as “yes or no” but as “yes-and.” In a world where you must choose between false binaries like this or that, yes or no, good or evil, friend or enemy, black or white, covenant suggests that there are multiple choices that may all be true. Covenant asks us to look for possibility, to say yes, and… this too.

It takes courage to covenant, especially when covenant is broken. Covenant audaciously says “come back anyway, trust anyway, make room anyway.”

 

Friends, we have to get this right if we’re going to covenant at all. We have to pay close attention to how we create and live out covenants in our congregations. We have to have the courage to get it right in our congregations, or we have no chance of getting it right in our denomination.

Because as a faith movement, we regularly mess this up. We struggle with the fairly recent understanding that gender is not a binary state, with many outright refusing to call a person by the names and pronouns they identify with. We struggle – or in one case, outright refuse – to make our spaces fully accessible; one congregation refused to put a ramp in because it ‘interfered with their aesthetics.’ We struggle to make full membership and participation available to those with lower economic resources. We struggle with misogyny and sexism, not only among members but also in hiring practices. And we struggle – as our history tells us – with racism.

Truth be told, I don’t even know where to begin to share this history with you without going way over my time, and getting the board to bring in lunch and maybe dinner.

What I need you to know is that we white UUs have been regularly making toothless covenants for a very long time. I beg forgiveness here for my incomplete bullet points:

  • In 1965, while some of our Unitarian Universalist ministers, seminarians, and lay people answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to march in Selma, far too many stayed home – not because they didn’t agree in principle, but because they were not connected to enough people of color to see the need to put covenant into practice.
  • When the UUA attempted to address the uprisings in the late 1960s and put our money where our mouth is, white UUs were too disconnected from people of color to actually live up to the financial promise. White UUs broke their covenant, and our movement lost over a thousand members of color.
  • At the 1993 General Assembly in Charlotte, coordinators suggested a “Thomas Jefferson Ball” inviting 18th century period costumes; ministers of color protested, asking “shall we come in chains?” White UUs broke their covenant by ignoring the reality of every person who might attend.
  • At the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, there were multiple incidents of confrontations between white participants and youth of color, harassment by Fort Worth police, culminating in a confrontation between three youth of color and a white minister at the assembly’s closing ceremony. White UUs broke their covenant by treating those not like them as suspicious.
  • In 2017, less than a year after the UUA committed $5 million to Black Lives of UU, the hiring of a white man over a woman of color opened white eyes to what our fellow UUs of color have known all along: that the culture of white supremacy that allows racism to thrive under the surface permeates our denomination too. The resulting turnover of leaders at the highest levels has led us to focus on better hiring practices and a denomination-wide series of teach-ins and fundraising so that we might meet that five million dollar goal.

This has not been without consequence: just two months ago at Thomas Jefferson Memorial UU in Charlottesville, a religious educator of color, Christina Rivera, came to work to find a note from a congregant that attacked her based on her skin color, meant to intimidate her and encourage the ministers to stop preaching about racial justice, take down their Black Lives Matter signs, and get back to comfortable whiteness. This not an isolated incident, as many religious professionals of color have faced intimidation and distrust, and then cowardice from white UUs unwilling to call others back into covenant.

Now in Rivera’s case, senior minister Reverend Erik Wikstrom had the courage to covenant;  instead of a large anniversary celebration, Wikstrom changed the program to address this horrific act and call everyone back into covenant, to reexamine what it means to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to voice concerns in healthy ways, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation and strengthen the covenant.

But this isn’t happening everywhere, because the courage to covenant is in short supply among white Unitarian Universalists. There is amazing courage among UUs of color who come back time and time again, knowing they are entering white spaces yet knowing that there is hope and freedom in the things we affirm and promote. These courageous people of color are asking us white people to be brave with them, to make sure that they aren’t the only ones having to be brave, to come back into covenant and reaffirm our commitments to justice because they believe we can do better if we too are courageous enough. We who are white need to see and meet this courage.

We must be courageous enough to not forsake our own covenant with our principles. As Stafford’s poem says, if we stop holding each other’s tails, we wander – even when we know that it’s happening. “It’s important that awake people be awake” he writes… we must be awake to the fears and anxieties that keeps from forming real, strong, accountable covenants with one another.

Covenant – whether in a small group, a congregation, a denomination, or the larger beloved community – requires us to be accountable and responsible, to negotiate and compromise, even as the covenant remains in place. That’s okay – it isn’t a sign of the covenant’s weakness but rather its strength that it can bend and not break. We should always be reexamining our covenants to embrace the reality, not just the idea, of every person, making room for the reality, not just the idea, of every person’s color, sexuality, gender, ability, and economic status. But ultimately, when we approach covenant with respect, shared awe, and openheartedness, covenanting together means we are greater than the sum of our parts, and strong together even when something breaks down – because it inevitably will.

So – maybe I’m wrong about my original proposal. If there are no objections, I’d like to retract and revise my original statement… My bold statement is this:

We must have the courage to actually get close enough to know one another, so that covenant means something, even if we covenant with people who don’t look like us or act like us or love like us. We must have the courage commit to one another, to trust one another, to be deeply connected to other souls, to consciously covenant in healing, helpful ways, to come again, come, though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times. We may be wanderers, worshippers, and lovers of leaving, but instead, we must courageously say come yet again – come.

 

Click to listen here (as delivered in Nantucket on March 18, 2018)

Let us pray.

Now… some of you instantly bowed your head a bit, maybe you closed your eyes. Perhaps you took in a deep breath as you waited to hear how I started the prayer and to whom I addressed it.

Others of you did that, but you also groaned a little inside, because you don’t pray, you don’t like the word pray, and wait…. didn’t we just pray?

Others still didn’t close eyes or bow heads – either because you thought, rightly, that I wasn’t about to actually pray. But others of you didn’t do any of that because the idea of prayer actually runs counter to how you understand your theology. And while you know I’m not going to intentionally exclude anyone in my prayers, you also have lots of experiences with so-called interfaith or ecumenical prayers that are directed to a particular understanding of a particular “Whom” to which the prayer is directed.

Prayer as a construct across the world’s religions and cultures is… fraught. Pray wrong and you’re a heretic. Pray too overtly and you’re a fanatic. Pray in a style that’s outside your community’s norms and you’re a pariah.

Sometimes prayer is so central to a religion’s lived practice it becomes almost a curiosity. Such is the case with our understanding of the five daily prayers of Muslims.

While it might seem strange to us, praying five times a day makes perfect sense to Muslims, who understand their god as one who seeks devotion in order to help us let go of the things of man, the things that would keep us from the deep compassionate love of God. Praying at prescribed times rather than praying when it’s convenient further enforces the idea that we must do things in God’s time, not in ours. The prayers have a distinct form and include words that have been spoken for a millennium, along with physical movements to involve the whole self in prayer.

This is a religion – one of the Abrahamic religions – that takes seriously the idea that In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. Islam is a recited religion, and to even read the Koran or speak the words of prayers is an act of worship and devotion. And while television has demonized the chant “God is Great” – “Allahu Akbar”, as though it is the secret code to unimaginable terrorism and violence – it is not that far off from the start of the Hebrew prayers, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha`olam…” or “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe…”

It’s true that we who are by and large descended from Christian faiths, this kind of prayer seems foreign, the demands unreasonable. Yet even our Roman Catholic friends are taught to pray the rosary and instructed to do so at certain times and places.

Prayer is a significant practice in many religions, in ways many of us don’t understand and sometimes distrust.

Yeah. Prayer is fraught.

And yet.

Prayer is found around the world, in every religious tradition, whether it’s called prayer or not.

Now prayer should not be confused with meditation. Meditation is a practice or technique for promoting relaxation, building internal energy, and developing a sense of compassion in a floaty, non-attached sort of way. And don’t get me wrong – meditation and mindfulness practices are important and good and valuable. But prayer is different. Prayer  doesn’t expect you to watch your thoughts pass by or disengage. Prayer doesn’t expect you to be free of the monkey mind as a prerequisite; rather, that is prayer’s result. Being restless, dubious, and distracted is a perfect trifecta of emotion for entering a time of prayer.

So we decide to pray. What is it?

There are many ideas about what prayers should be, but I like the simple classification found in Erik Walker Wikstrom’s book Simply Pray, from which the title of this sermon is drawn. In the book, he talks about four basic types of prayer:

The first is Naming. This is a prayer of gratitude, for naming all the ways we encounter the sacred. It might appear in a grace said or sung before a meal:

Let us give thanks for the food that we share
Let us give thanks for people who care
Food fills our bodies, and love makes us whole
Let us give thanks deep down in our soul.

It might be the laundry list of names for god – whether the 99 names of God in Islam, or the myriad ways Unitarian Universalists name the sacred, starting with Spirit of Life and occasionally including ‘to whom it may concern.’

Or we may simply name all we are thankful for, and begin naming the mystery that prayer helps us approach.

The second type of prayer is Knowing. This is the prayer of confession, the prayer of “well, here’s all the crap.” It’s Job’s complaint to God in his eponymous old testament book. It is the third verse of For All That is Our Life:

For sorrow we must bear, for failures, pain, and loss,
for each new thing we learn, for fearful hours that pass:
we come with praise and thanks for all that is our life.

It is this Muslim prayer, also found in our hymnal:

Save us, our compassionate Lord,
from our folly, by your wisdom,
from our arrogance, by your forgiving love,
from our greed by your infinite bounty,
and from our insecurity by your healing power.

Knowing prayer invite us to journey into the shadow without judgment in order to see ourselves more clearly.

The third type of prayer is Listening. This is the prayer of holding space open. Listening prayer, as Wikstrom writes, “is predicated on the notion that God is already speaking to us and that the reason we don’t know this is that our heads are so full of static.” We want God to hear our prayers, but are we hearing our prayers?

There’s a scene in the film The Hunt for Red October, where our hero, Jack Ryan, is on an American aircraft carrier, tracking Soviet ships that are looking for a renegade Soviet sub; the captain notes that the Soviets are “pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.” When Ryan asks what he means, the captain replies that the Soviets are moving really fast. “At that speed,” he says, “they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.” Sometimes there’s so much static that we forget to listen. As the Talmud says: “The Good Lord gave us each two ears and one mouth, showing we should listen and speak in the same proportion.” Our hymn Voice Still and Small calls us to listen –

Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing.
In storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain singing.
Calming my fears, quenching my tears,
through all the years, singing.

Thoreau’s piece “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” invokes the same kind of prayerful listening.

The fourth type of prayer is Loving. This is where prayers of petition and intercession come in. It is about asking for the things to make our lives and the lives of others better – showing our love and asking for love, mercy, and compassion in return. What’s important to remember in Loving prayers is that we do not pray so that GOD knows about people’s needs; we pray to make sure WE know. Spirit of Life is a Loving prayer, reminding us of who we want to be at our best…sing with me:

Spirit of life, come unto me,
sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea,
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close, wings set me free,
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.

Our opening hymn, May Nothing Evil Cross This Door, and our closing hymn, Thanks Be for These, are also Loving prayers.

Now of course you can do all this in the name of God, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Vishnu, Odin, Gaia, or in the name of the Spirit of Life, the Creator, the Infinite All, Mother Father Spirit, or any other name you can come up with. The who, really, doesn’t matter. And even if you don’t believe there is a who at all, praying takes us outside of ourselves, reminding ourselves that there are forces at work in the world – nature, physics, metaphysics – that are larger than us, remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe.

Prayer, in other words, keeps us right-sized.

Because prayer isn’t about who you pray to, and know that you can pray to no one. Praying is about OUR attention. Prayer is a conversation with Mystery. Prayer keeps us humble – it is a way for us to acknowledge what we don’t know, and get us in touch with what we desire, what we need, what we fear. Prayer focuses our attention on what calls to us and what drives us. Prayer clarifies our priorities – noticing the things that strike terror, the things that make us weep, the things that call us to swell with hope.

And despite the fact that we all have probably uttered the “God, get me out of this and I will…” prayer in a time of crisis, or bad mistake, or bad hangover… prayer isn’t a bargain. Prayer isn’t about doing one thing to receive another. Prayer is simply a moment where we give attention. It creates space to notice all the bad stuff – our fears, our doubts, our anger, our sorrows – without guilt or judgment.

And just naming things in prayer – Divine one, protect my neighbor as he heads to surgery next week – or Mother of All, hold my family as they struggle with this loss – just naming things in prayer matters. You see, when things go unnamed, they tend to grow exponentially into big hairy monsters lurking around the corner. But when we take time to name all the bad stuff – and all the good stuff too – we draw our attention to those things so they seem more manageable.

Prayer also helps us see what we have to do. We might pray for help, but our prayers are answered when we see how that might happen. There’s the story of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’

The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’

A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.

Well… the man drowned.

And standing at the gates of heaven, he demanded an audience with God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’

God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?’

When we pray, we get clarity. We get perspective. We get right-sized, and so do our needs, our wants, our joys, and our sorrows. And when we pray, we create, for a moment, a bit of a pause for our bodies, minds, and souls to catch up to the moment.

I think this is one reason I kind of admire the Muslim practice of prayer. Five times a day, for a few minutes, prayer takes center stage. And while these are not free form, we know that ritual and rote chant can actually help open our minds to what we might consider religious experiences.

In the late 1990s, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili conducted an experiment with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns – they hooked these willing participants up to all kinds of brain scanning gadgets and asked them to pray or meditate as usual. Rosaries were said, deep humming chants were intoned, and at the end, the scientists analyzed the data. They found that at the moment these practitioners indicated they were “in the zone” with a spiritual connection to the Mystery, the frontal lobe activity increased significantly, suggesting that something happens when we occupy one part of our brain.

This experiment was repeated in the early 2010s with Muslims, and they found that when the prayers got most intense, the religious experience, as felt in the frontal lobe, increased. It’s thought that by distracting the analytical brain with a repeated prayer or chant, it allows other parts of the brain to get busy. And there is a thought that this kind of activity is healthy for our brains; just as doing crossword puzzles keeps those synapses firing, prayer activates parts of our brain that don’t always get a work out.

The conclusion I draw from all of this – the cognitive, the emotional, and the spiritual benefits – is that we should pray. A lot. Whether we really know how to or not.

Because while there are books and proscribed rituals for prayer, ultimately prayer is simply a moment of commitment, of diving in, of just going for it in order to experience it. To simply pray. Wikstrom has the perfect metaphor: just as you cannot know what prayer is until you do it, “you cannot find out what ‘wet’ feels like unless you get into the water. There’s simply no way to talk about it. There’s no explaining it. There’s no understanding it, even. There is only getting wet.”

So… let us pray.

 

Click to listen here (as delivered in Nantucket on February 18, 2018).

I first learned the word “transmogrified” from Calvin and Hobbes.

You may remember the comic strip by Bill Waterston, which ran from 1985 to 1995. Calvin, aged 6, was part Christopher Robin and part Dennis the Menace, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, regularly came to life in Calvin’s active – and sometimes too mischievous for his own good – imagination. Together, Calvin and Hobbes went on adventures around the universe and considered the big philosophical questions of the day. And occasionally annoyed the crap out of his neighbors and his exasperated parents.

One day, Calvin built a transmogrifier. To us, it was just an upside-down cardboard box with a dial drawn on the side. But to Calvin and Hobbes, it was a machine that could turn them into whatever they wished to become – eel, baboon, bug, dinosaur, tiger, toad, and even worm. While everyone else still saw a little boy and his stuffed tiger, Calvin and Hobbes saw themselves – transmogrified – transformed in a surprising manner.

I think sometimes we forget that we can transmogrify things – especially in religious communities. We often joke – because otherwise we would cry – about the seven deadly words of the church: “But we’ve always done it this way.” That can be about everything from how the coffee is made to how the hymns are sung to how we understand the principles and ethics of our faith.

In fact, let’s look at our principles for a moment. Do me a favor and turn to the page of principles in the hymnal – in STLT it’s about 8 pages in, in STJ, it’s about 11 pages in. There they are, our principles. Our organizing statements of who we are and what we believe. Nicely laid out, in a list. We even tend to number them, and quote them by number – our fifth principle calls me to fight for responsible gun control legislation, I’m doing third principle work in learning about Hinduism, I’m a seventh principle guy so I invest in renewable energy.

A nice, handy, step by step list. Heck, you could even do a seven step program, isolating each principle and focusing on them one at a time. Many congregations – maybe this one too – have experienced seven principles worship series.

There they are. Nice. Neat. Ordered. Isolated. Each principle, an individual.

But that was bugging my colleague, the Reverend Ian Riddell. Ian wrote “I’m in a bad mood that our principles are in a list. So I transmogrified them.”

And this is what he devised.

Instead of an ordered list, we have a wheel…no numbered principles, but rather a different pattern of organization. A surprising way to see them.

As you can see, I hope, the center – the axle – is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s where we start, where everything else moves from. Then encompassing it, as the rim, is the interdependent web of which we are all a part. And the spokes are the other principles, the ways we understand ourselves in the world, the ways we act in the world because of who we are and where we are.

So what does this mean? How would we approach our faith, our work, our connection to other human beings, our sense of the divine, if we were willing to transmogrify how we think of them?

Let start with this section – the spoke calling for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Alone, it sounds pretty good; it’s the cornerstone of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and of every social justice action we take, both within and outside Unitarian Universalism.

We take this call on faith, surely. Those things all sound good, are all preached by the major religions, and who doesn’t want justice, equity, and compassion? As a bullet on the principles list, it’s positive and a bit of an ‘of course’.

But there’s something missing.

Unitarian Universalists are so good at questioning things, but often we forget to question what’s underneath our own principles. They’re written on the page – literally – and so they are there, set in stone as it were. Often we ask “What” – what do they mean, or “How” – how do we affirm and promote them. But rarely do we ask “Why” – why are they important for us to affirm and promote. When we change how we see them, we suddenly have a way to question the ‘why’ of our principles, to interrogate the deeper meanings, to see the connection between the individual and the world.

Why is justice, equity, and compassion so important? Because if I as an individual am inherently worthy of dignity, then so must every other individual. And if we are all connected, how can I be like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm and say some animals are more equal than others? How can I not see that the compassion I hope you’ll show me might be worth showing to someone – everyone – else? This principle calls us to be in that state of becoming just, equitable, compassionate – we are never JUST just, but if we remember who we are and where we come from, we are BECOMING just. The justice, equity, and compassion we get from the world and see in the world helps us become more just – to others, but also to ourselves.

Now I will admit something here – a bit of my own theological struggle. I don’t always believe that the things I know are true also apply to me. In other words, sometimes it is easier to declare that the inherent worth and dignity of every person in this interdependent web of all existence means that there must be justice, equity, and compassion for other people… but it’s hard to accept for myself that I am part of that web and am as inherently worthy so that justice, equity, and compassion should also be for me. For you, absolutely. For everyone in the world who faces injustice, oppression, and hatred, absolutely. For me, eh…

And when the principles are in a tidy little list, it’s easy to dismiss myself as not really part of it. It’s easy to apply these things to the people I love, the congregations I serve, the larger community.

But this wheel…Ian’s pesky new way of looking at things… well, it’s not letting us off the hook. Instead, it is reminding me of what David Bumbaugh wrote: “In this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.” In other words, y’all can’t grow into harmony with the Divine without me, nor I without you, nor all of us without each other.

We aren’t isolated – while Paul Simon’s line “I am a rock, I am an island” is more singable, John Donne’s poetic “no man is an island” is actually much more accurate. We are not islands. We are all part of what James Luther Adams called the brotherhood of man, but which I prefer to call the family of humanity. (It’s usually at this phrase that I start singing the disco tune “we are family…I got all my sisters with me…” but I’ll resist…oh wait.)

It is this kind of questioning – asking the Why of our principles, and seeing this deep human connection –led our organization Standing on the Side of Love to realize that the words of its name actually did not show compassion to every person – especially the person who cannot stand and finds it difficult to be included in the activities of an organization that insists on the metaphor of standing. Thus, the organization changed its name to Side with Love. And while they were making a shift, so too did composer Jason Shelton, who has officially changed the name and lyric of his song, #1014 in our teal hymnal, to Answering the Call of Love. And in changing those lyrics, the song becomes more active, more engaged in the work of the second principle.

It is this connection– from the individual to the collective and back again – that helps answer why. Why do we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Because it’s about me and it’s about you, neither of which can stand alone, so it becomes about us. As Frederick Buechner famously said, “It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

I think you can see how this begins to work together.

Now if we interrogate the goal of world community, it has a similar sense of connection – how can we have a world community without all the individuals? As Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley writes, “if in recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our own salvation… if we join spirits… the pain of our aloneness will be lessened, and that does matter.”

I think about the table blessing that calls us to be thankful for the many hands make a meal possible – the farmers who grew it, the workers who picked it and packed it, the truckers who transported it, the grocers and stock boys and cashiers who sold it, the cooks who prepared it, the waiters who served it. Our food comes from all over the country, all over the world. We cannot know for sure where the orange I have in my hands has been, who has handled it. So how can I not want to affirm and promote a world community, when that world community feeds me?

And that’s just one example. When we see ourselves as both an individual and part of something bigger, we begin to see others the same way. And that’s not always easy. Sometimes we get too self-focused and see every act, every word, every decision just about ourselves. Or we get too outwardly focused and feel lost and used and burned out. Our transmogrified principles – looking the same on the outside but feeling new and different on the inside – reminds we are both-and.

So we can see how many of these might work. But how might we understand some of the more individualistic principles, like encouragement to spiritual growth? That seems awfully individualistic. And on one hand, it is. My spiritual path is not your spiritual path. As we like to say, we need not think alike to love alike. In this room, I suspect we have Jews and Christians and atheists and pagans and who knows what else? But even this principle – a vital one to be sure – both benefits from the going out and the coming in and strengthens both.

It is your path; but this religious community – this congregation – encourages you to this path. The path you choose is modeled by others out there – those who have gone before, those who are going along it now. Their wisdom informs yours. And here’s a secret: your wisdom informs theirs too.

Why do we affirm and promote this? “Why”, of course, being the question this wheel seems to ask of us over and over. And I think the answer is in the fact that humans have been ritualizing in both solitary and communal ways since humans started doing rituals, and healthy spiritual exploration contains both. I like what Parker Palmer says about this:

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people – it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”

And so on. Each principle, connecting the self to the interdependent web and back again, in areas of truth, justice, community, connection, process, growth, and compassion. Leading us from the familiar form that says “what” and to the transmogrified form which asks “why.”

Once you see it, it can’t be unseen. Now we can’t think of the principles without thinking about the wheel and the spokes and the interconnectedness. We have transformed our way of thinking about it… we’ve transmogrified our principles, our ethics, and our faith.

And maybe that’s the real message – not that we become something new overnight, but that we – and our world – and how we act in it – is deeply and inexorably interconnected, interdependent. And that’s not just about how we act outside these walls but how we act inside them too – how we are with each other. Some of us can be too inwardly focused, or outwardly focused, and we forget the gifts of both receiving and giving love, compassion, energy, encouragement.

There’s a lovely Buddhist meditation that bring this home; and you may be surprised that it was set to music by the guy who started this all off, Ian Riddell.

Huh. It really is a circle.

A Time for All Ages

John Murray and The Winds of Change by Christy Olson and Jessica York

Sermon

True or false: In April of 1775, Paul Revere rode through the streets from Boston to Lexington yelling “The British Are Coming”.

True or false: The Declaration of Independence was signed by everyone on July 4, 1776.

True or false: A Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, NY.

Myths, one and all. Fabrications, shifted narratives. It seems silly to tell these falsehoods, and yet… throughout human history, legends and apocryphal stories have sprung up – often not to obscure the truth (although there is plenty of that – a topic for another day)… but often to tell a story about a people. In the case of some of the great American legends and tall tales, they were told to enhance the reputation of our new country – greater, bigger, smarter, more unique, rougher, tougher, more fabulous.

American Unitarian Universalism is not immune from this propensity – and in fact, the story I shared in a time for all ages has much in common with the story I told last week, about the three little pigs, from the viewpoint of the big bad wolf. In that story, the truth wasn’t very interesting – wasn’t sexy and newsworthy – so a story was created to make it seem special.

Yes, John Murray was a Methodist minister from England who left the ministry when he discovered he believed in the doctrine universal salvation, much to the dismay of his fellow Methodists. Yes, after his wife and newborn child died, Murray spent some time in a debtors’ prison; his brother in law rescued him and helped him pay off his debts, and firm in his resolve to not preach again, Murray announced that he wished “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.” In 1770 he decided to quit his life in the old world and start fresh in the new.

He boarded the brig Hand-In-Hand, which grounded on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey.

Yes, it is true Thomas Potter had built a chapel for itinerant preachers, and yes, Potter invited the reluctant Murray to preach.

Now the legend says Murray and Potter struck a deal, and the weather played in Potter’s favor. Legend also says that that first sermon, delivered September 30, 1770, was the start of American Universalism.

But what we know is that German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had already established themselves in the mid-Atlantic colonies. We know that Potter himself was connected to a group of Baptists who were open to universal salvation.

And we know that Murray’s first sermon had very little to do with Universalism, as he was, admittedly gunshy.

But does all of that matter? The UU mythos tells a narrative of a miracle for people who don’t often believe in miracles. But the miracle was a lot less headline-grabbing – the miracle was that he preached at all… and subsequently, he got his confidence back. And, finding that there were places he could explore and expound upon his own rather Trinitarian theology of Universalism.

Now the fact that Murray started preaching again at all is important, because he struggled to find a place but kept at it…. And he eventually founded a meeting house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he established the first Universalist Church in 1780. Subsequently, Murray worked through legal channels to ensure Universalists were protected under Massachusetts parish laws, and by 1785 had helped to establish the Universalist Convention. This was important – Massachusetts was a hard place to be a preacher if you didn’t follow their orthodoxy – just ask Anne Hutchinson. Murray had taken up quite a fight.

Now I tell you the less sexy side of the story – not to knock Murray off a pedestal, but to point out how important the real pedestal is… if not for Murray, Universalism would not have taken root or been legitimized. And if not for his travel to ensure our faith’s success, his pulpit wouldn’t have been open to a more radical Universalist named Hosea Ballou.

You see, Murray’s Universalism was of the restorationist variety – Murray believed that those who died impenitent would be punished in the afterlife until the Day of Judgment, when all would finally be saved – or restored, while bad angels, devils and demons would be condemned – a belief reinforced by the parable of the sheep and the goats in the gospel of Matthew.

Meanwhile, Ballou, a Baptist preacher’s kid from New Hampshire, saw universal salvation differently – that hell was here on earth, and that once we died, we would all rest in the glory of God – “death and glory” it was called.

Now the controversy between Universalists was hot and heated – so much so that one time when Ballou preached, Murray’s wife, Judith Sargeant Murray instructed a choir member to stand up and declare, “The doctrine which has been preached here this afternoon is not the doctrine which is usually preached in this house.” To his credit, Ballou’s respect for Murray and his knowledge of their theological incompatibility meant that Ballou did not attempt to settle in Boston while Murray was alive.

Which was also a good thing – because instead of settling in, Ballou spread his message farther and wider, taking advantage of the administrative work that Murray had done to legitimize Universalism.

Now it’s not a surprise that Ballou’s universalism was more popular than Murray’s – Murray’s was still heavily tinged with the hellfire and damnation of the Calvinists.

Remember – this is a time, the late 18th/early 19th century, when hellfire and damnation in the style of Jonathan Edwards was still in vogue; it was still common to hear passages like this, from the famed sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”:

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder!

I suspect good church folk were more scared of their minister than they were of God Almighty.

So then, imagine hearing Hosea Ballou. He’d preach in small, temporary pavilions, with the words “God Is Love” painted on a crossbar at the top of the stage.

And he would preach not of hellfire, brimstone, flames of wrath.

No judgment.

Just love. God as love.

Ballou would talk about a God who, as a Father, loves all his children:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

God is love. We are all saved.

Ballou’s message was full of wholeness and worth, love from a loving God. And unlike restorationist Universalism, you don’t have to wait – you don’t have to worry whether you got it all right so you don’t have to suffer when you die. It’s salvation, right off the bat.

It’s a message people are still waiting to hear.

It’s so radical, the Universalist church almost pulled apart because of it.

It’s so radical, it was vilified by even Universalist-leaning Unitarians – William Ellery Channing said he had never seen a more irrational doctrine.

It’s so radical, Calvinists are still up in arms. For proof that the landscape hasn’t changed, consider the story of evangelical pastor Rob Bell. In 2011, Bell wrote a NYT bestselling book Love Wins, where he suggested there might be something to the universalist argument, even though he refused to call himself a Universalist. And still he was vilified by the evangelical community, with conservative leaders like Albert Mohler assserting that Bell’s book was “theologically disastrous.” Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll took Bell to task on Twitter and his blog, calling Bell’s ideas “completely absurd and unjust.”

And that’s just over a general assumption that maybe there’s wiggle room in the New Testament for something that might resemble universal salvation.

Universalism becomes even more radical when you follow it, as we do, to its natural conclusion… that if all souls are saved by the simple fact that God loves us, then Universal Salvation must extend beyond Christianity, to literally ALL SOULS, whatever they believe.

We are inheritors of something incredibly radical. To many, it’s heretical.

And the fact that John Murray – who was ready to fade into obscurity and never preach again – stepped into that pulpit and could not help but preach and promote Universalism – that to me is the miracle.

Thanks to Murray, we had space for Ballou. And thanks to Ballou and his evangelical prowess, Universalism as we know it today began to spread and change history. We count among Universalism’s exemplars and pioneers Olympia Brown, the first woman welcomed into full ordained fellowship in 1863; Benjamin Rush – signer of the Declaration; scientist Joseph Priestley; Red Cross founder Clara Barton; newspaper magnate Horace Greeley; Abner Kneeland – the last person to be tried for heresy by the government in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; industrialist George Pullman; showman PT Barnum.

And thanks to Murray, I stand here today in a Universalist congregation, as a Universalist. Although raised by Unitarian Universalist parents, as a child, I attended a Methodist Sunday school – because the UU Society in Albany was much too far to drive on a Sunday morning. Sometime around age 9 or 10, I recall a discussion about who is saved, and wondering about the poor communist kids in China who had never heard of Jesus – were they saved? No matter what the class was teaching, I decided YES, because otherwise, what kind of God was this?

I didn’t have the words for it, but the idea I now know as Universalism made sense to me then, and it still makes sense to me. It makes me feel loved, and worthy, and part of the interconnected web of all existence.

But Universalism doesn’t just make me feel good. It makes me want to DO good. As the great showman and notable Universalist PT Barnum remarked, “a comparatively small portion of scripture bears on immortal life and the great end of our course. Conduct is three-fourths of life. This present life is the great pressing concern. This is precisely as it should be.”

As UU minister Forrest Church writes, Universalism encourages us to “pitch ourselves into the very midst of life’s teeming questions.”

And those teeming questions send us headlong into the centerpiece of Universalism: that Hell isn’t where we try to avoid going after we die – Hell is on Earth. Here, and now. Sin isn’t inherited from some ancient creation myth, it’s manifest in those times when we act inhumanly. Evil grows when we forget that we are part of this huge planet, with all its beings and the very planet itself.

Hell is on earth…and it is easy to see:

  • Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine, yet live with on this island that may be gone before the turn of the next century.
  • There is a clear and present danger to women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s dignity, with a shocking growth in the culture of misogyny and violence, and more draconian laws being passed to turn back 100 years of progress.
  • As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably, and continue to do so – taking their lands, destroying their water, sidelining their rights, legitimizing their slander, refusing to recognize their place as the original Americans, and recently – the near complete media blackout of the huge protests to protect their rights in the Dakotas.
  • Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests, with some green initiatives held so in contempt there are laws against implementing them.
  • The Borderlands continue to be a crucible for racism, poverty, oppression, and violence – with buses of immigrant children besieged by snarling mobs, with political candidates crying out for walls and deportation.
  • Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions – and are trapped in a failed system with years-long delays for treatment.
  • Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.
  • Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe, from teamsters to hotel workers, from teachers to firefighters.
  • Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and student loan burdens threaten to bury a generation in inescapable debt.
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ youth are killing themselves. And many trans people are being murdered.
  • Gun violence thrives with Caucasian people walking through malls, rifles slung over their shoulders, daring someone to take issue.
  • Racism thrives, with black people constantly afraid to walk through the streets, even when their hands are empty and open and in the air… with a growing list of names of people dead, with a growing realization of just how hard it is to be black in America.

That is evil.

That is Hell on earth.

 

We aren’t loving each other; we are hating each other.

That is hell on earth.

But we are not called to hate – we are called to love.

In love, there is justice.

In Universal love, we must do justice. Universalism is more than comfortable seats and no damnation. As Lewis Beals Fisher says, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer is that we do not stand at all; we move.”

The real call of Universalism is social action – around the world, in our communities, and right next door. The call of our faith says we must listen to our neighbor, who may be different from us, or have needs we cannot know just by looking at them. Who are they? What do they struggle with? How can we help? How can we make life more just, more loving, and less like hell on earth?

love-the-hell-out-of-this-world-tshirtThe call of Universalism is palpable. Our open minds and hearts cannot help but hear the call. And it’s simply put; my t-shirt proclaims it: Love the Hell out of this world.

When we love one another – when we follow the golden rule and do unto others – we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we hear each other’s stories, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we honor each other’s lives, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we lend a hand to help, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we ease another’s suffering, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we stand with one another, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

So let us go forth and honor the miracle that is Murray’s first sermon and do as he asked, to give them NOT hell. Instead, let us Love the hell OUT of this world.

 

Click here to listen to this sermon as delivered in Nantucket on March 4, 2018.

People find wisdom in a variety of places – folk tales, sacred texts, nature, the words of prophetic people, music. I add to that list popular culture – specifically, movies and tv shows – in particular, those I find well written and which speak to something deeper than entertainment: Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and of course, The West Wing.

I’ve told this story – from an episode called “Noel” before, but it’s worth the retelling:

“This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up ‘Hey Doc! I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!’

“And the friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”

This story helps me talk about my own journey out of that hole – because, to use another movie reference, this time from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, in the spring of 2004, I dropped my basket.

I was struggling to make sense of my life: on one hand, a corporate drone shuffled from Connecticut to North Carolina, working too many hours in a dog-eat-dog world with no release; versus my personal life, a queer, spiritual woman, longing for connection, missing loved ones both alive and deceased, feeling very broken and divided. I was exhausted, trying to balance this divided life. I burned out and fell into a major depression.

As I sought treatment and began to look for a way out of the hole, I found many messages about how to become whole again – Madison Avenue and the Self Help Industry told me that wholeness was everything and could be achieved for a price. Yet the more I heard how I had to fix my flaws, the deeper the hole got, and the more broken I felt.

This desire for wholeness caused more pain…because like so many of the empty Madison Avenue promises, wholeness – the way it’s sold, anyway – is a myth.

So what does that mean for getting out of the hole? If wholeness isn’t the way, what can we do? I know that I was really deep in that hole and had no idea how I was going to get out.

And then, someone who had been down the hole jumped in, in the form of a book, The Joy of Burnout, by psychologist Dina Glouberman.

In her book, she talks about the physical, mental, and psychological exhaustion that comes from our drive to be everything, do everything, take care of everything, balance everything. But instead of calling us to fix the problems that led us to burnout, she suggests we can get out of the hole by learning from the burnout.

The first lesson is simply “Wait.”

Waiting means we have to give up the struggle – take a break – breathe – listen. Waiting isn’t easy. Because in the waiting, still in that hole, things still seem awful and hurtful and empty. We are broken, not whole. We are profane, not sacred. We are ugly, not beautiful.

But the waiting gives us time to hear what might help us.

It was a throwaway line in the middle of something else Globuberman was talking about, but it stopped me in my tracks:

“I asked life that tormenting question: why is it that you always give me everything but the thing I really want? Life, like a good Jewish mother, answered a question with a question: why is it that whatever I give you, you still complain?”

I realized my hole was telling me I had nothing, was nothing, and was always going to get nothing. But as I pondered this line, I decided, okay, I’ll show you what I don’t have… and so…I made a list.

It started with the pen and pad I was writing on. And then the sofa I was sitting on. And then my cat jumped up, so I added ‘cat’. And then the bookshelf across the room. And the books. And oh yeah, magazine subscriptions. And if I look at the desk over there, I see pens, markers, a computer, a mug from my alma mater. A picture taken with an ex in England. Soon the paper was filled to the brim.

I began to sort them out into what seemed like good categories – and I realized that I not only had a lot of what I needed – food, shelter, employment – I had a lot of things higher on Maslov’s hierarchy of needs too – friends, family, hobbies, health insurance, transportation, security. And those things pointed to the intangibles – a sense of humor, an artist’s passion, a love of language, curiosity, compassion, …. and a sense of connection to something… bigger. Something…we might call hope.

And then Glouberman’s second lesson of burnout is “Give up hope.”

As she explains, giving up hope is letting go; she says “it is the opposite of hopelessness because it is trusting in ourselves and in what we may be, given half a chance and loads of patience.” It’s about forgiveness and relieving pressure, and mostly, giving up hope for a better past.

I gave up hope when I realized I couldn’t go back to corporate America, couldn’t bring loved ones back from the dead, couldn’t change the choices I had made – for good or for ill. I could only learn from what I had done and experienced.

I could only “keep the faith” – Glouberman’s third lesson.

Keeping the faith is about surrender, deciding that we can trust ourselves and that we are already whole.

How can I already be whole? I am a broken mess. I cracked up. I’m full of cracks.

And a voice whispered “that’s how the light gets in”… a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem.

Soon after, I met a Hindu goddess named Akhilandeshvari.

akhilandeshvari-300x450“Ishvari” in Sanskrit means “goddess” or “female power,” and the “Akhilanda” means essentially “never not broken.” In other words, The Always Broken Goddess.

As writer Julie Peters notes,

“Akhilanda derives her power from being broken: in flux, pulling herself apart, living in different, constant selves at the same time, from never becoming a whole that has limitations. The thing about going through broken times is that one of the things you lose is your future: your expectations of what the story of your life so far was going to become. And of course, this is terrifying.”

Akhilanda invites us to make a choice in how to go forward. We gave up hope for a better past, so our stories about the past don’t dictate how we go forward. We are in flux – flowing in new ways, with this incredible opportunity to decide how we want to put the pieces back together. We have the choice to hide the brokenness with carefully hidden repairs and a new coat of paint; or honor the brokenness, like those Japanese bowls, mended in celebration with copper, gold, and silver.

Because no matter how we treat the cracks, we get to put ourselves back together in new ways. No matter what anyone else says or thinks about how we are doing it. No matter how many times we are told that we are broken, ugly, worthless – whether from others or our selves. Every broken bit of ourselves is our key to wholeness – full of cracks, and differently beautiful.

When I started putting the pieces back together, differently, out of my own divided life, I realized that just saying goodbye to corporate America, to exhaustion and negativity, to North Carolina itself, wasn’t enough. I could do some of this work on my own, but I could not do it all alone.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer says

“The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo – lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road… the path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way…[requires] the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue. …we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.”

And so I came back into community – both to where the rest of my family lived, but also to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York – a perfect place to be held in the expansive embrace of our faith. A faith that teaches that our very humanness means we have inherent worth and dignity, and that there is always a place for us, even in our brokenness. As the Reverend Robert Walsh writes, “Universalists believed that the fate of a human being was like that. No matter how rough the trip might have been or how badly you might have behaved, at the end you would come home, and it would be a place of trust, safety, and love.”

Not just that congregation, not just my family, but in the very totality of life, the universe, and everything – a place of trust, safety, and love, where I can be never not broken.

I am whole. You are whole. Holy and sacred, full of holes, and whole. Every single one of us, with the cracks and scars that are evidence of a life lived through grief, trauma, sadness, and illness. Every single one of us, going through things no one else could imagine. Every single one of us, always in flux, always putting ourselves together differently. Every single one of us, with our own stories of how we got out of the hole – every story sacred and valuable and meaningful. Every single one of us, never not broken, but instead called – as always – despite of and because of our cracks – to love anyway.

Theologian Henri Nouwen says this:

“The great mystery of love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that we are loved. The great invitation is to live your brokenness under the blessing. I cannot take people’s brokenness away and people cannot take my brokenness away. But how do you live in your brokenness? Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse? The great call of Love is to put your brokenness under the blessing.”

In the blessing of brokenness, we can find a measure of comfort, a call to grace, and joy – joy in having made it out of the hole, joy in helping others out, joy in loving, joy in the very complex, beautiful, brokenness of life itself. We are meant not to be perfectly whole and harmonized, but to be humans in our messy humanness, growing into harmony with the divine and each other.

We are human. We are holy. We are whole.

 Listen here.

In my first semester of seminary, I took a course in systematic theology from Dr. James Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology. Dr. Cone is a force of nature – a slight black man from the backwoods of Arkansas, with incredible passion and intellect, and who at age 73 can literally run circles around even the fittest 20-somethings I know. His class lectures were a tour de force – right off the bat, he encouraged us to build our own theologies; he said that his job was to show us how theology worked and then we were to build a theology that worked for us.

The first time I heard this introduction, I was enraptured. The second time – the very next week, I thought “okay, he really wants us to get this point.” By the third week, it was clear that Dr. Cone would pretty much say the same thing for the first 20 minutes of class each week, and we all became a little less anxious to get to the lecture hall on time.

I tell you this story because I feel a little like that – for those of you who have been here for the first two parts of this sermon series, my introduction will seem a bit familiar. On the plus side, this is the last week of this series, so unlike me and Systematic Theology, you escape another 10 weeks of the same introduction.

For those of you here for the first time, the good news is that it won’t take long to get up to speed. Our working metaphor is the universal translator from Star Trek that allowed the crew of the Enterprise to understand the languages of everyone they encountered without struggling with Google Translate. The problem – not just for the Enterprise crew but for us, without universal translators – is that even when we understand the words, we don’t always understand their context; much like strangers to western culture wouldn’t understand the image produced when we say “Juliet on her balcony”, we aren’t well equipped to understand the narrative imagery other cultures use to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.

What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself.  But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.

It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring – not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it – in our principles, in our theology, in our songs.

Two weeks ago, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for us anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting, the God we sing of in hymns like “immortal, invisible, God only wise.” Last week, we looked at the immanent God – the God that is in everything: the trees, the rocks, the animals, the air, the fire, and the people; this is the God we sing of in hymns like “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies.”

But of course, being a pluralistic faith, there are other ideas of God in our faith tradition, imbedded in our hymnals – this week, we’ll examine an idea of God that seems somewhat new but is in fact much older: this is the god of process theology.

Now one of the struggles in talking about this particular aspect of God is that it is a fairly new way of thinking about God, and the language is still morphing. We have narrative imagery, but not a concrete word or phrase to describe that imagery. When I sent the descriptions for this sermon series, I called this god the creating-creator God. But I could have just as easily called this god the relational God, the dynamic God, the responsive God, the big picture God, the persuasive God, the changing God.

Why such difficulty? Perhaps it will help to look at what we mean by process theology and where it comes from. Now the scientists and engineers among us are going to like this next bit – because process thought starts with Einstein.

More specifically, it begins with a mathematician named Alfred North Whitehead, who was fascinated with Einstein’s work, in particular, quantum physics, where we see that everything is in motion; everything – from the biggest bodies of mass to the tiniest quark, is in motion; it turns out that everything we thought was fixed, stable, and solid, is actually vibrating, changing, and shifting. Whitehead realized that this didn’t just apply to the physical world, but to the metaphysical world as well, and he developed a philosophy that proposed that events are the discrete base of reality, not matter. Essentially, the core of Whitehead’s philosophy is “if it seems static, don’t trust it.”

Soon, process philosophy found a home in theological circles; Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb realized that if everything was an ever-changing event – then surely God and all of creation was equally ever-changing. Instead of a transcendent God – above us, creating the rules of nature but not in nature; or an immanent God – present in the material world; this God is as mutable as the quark – at once a vibration and a particle. This God – like us – is always being created, is always creating, is always happening; this God – like us – is eternally becoming.

Now in Unitarian Universalist thought, our ideas of God – or the divine, the collective unconscious, the universe, the infinite – is one of benevolence. God is good and wants what’s best for us. Thus, when we apply process theology, we find a God who isn’t controlling us but is inviting us to imagine, to grow, to dream, to create – enticing us toward goodness and wholeness. This God invites us to be architects, as we see in hymn number 288, All Are Architects; please join me in singing verses 1 and 2.

I used a word a few minutes ago that I’d like to reflect on – “becoming.” What does it mean to be always becoming rather than being? This is a bit contrary to what we think of in the Eastern traditions, where nirvana is a state of being. Yet I think we can find, even in Buddhism, the idea that we are ever-changing, always striving for that nirvana.

My own understanding of becoming comes from thinking about concepts of time. There is the idea that time is linear, with a rather causal past, present, and future. But there’s also an idea that time is not linear; rather, we have all that is known, the eternal now, and then all that is unknown. At every moment of the eternal now, we have a choice; we create reality in relation to all that is known and all the possibilities of the unknown. In that eternal now, we are constantly becoming.

In process thought, time is not linear; instead, it is unfolding in many directions all at once, each new moment ripe with possibility. Each new moment carrying the known, offering an opportunity for creativity, always becoming, always in that eternal now. We are always making choices, small and large. When applied to our faith’s call to action, we know that our choices lead us to fight for economic justice, reproductive rights, immigration reform. Our choices lead us to follow this call from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Another aspect of this God of process thinking is that God is relational – perhaps the most relational reality of all. Human choices to hurt others hurt God. And maybe that is evil – when we make choices that hurt others. Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki suggests that “In positive choices, we blend our own interests with the interests of the wider communities within the world. In negative choices, we secure our own interests against all others. Process thinking affirms that God calls us beyond violence toward communities of well-being.”

Like the immanent God we spoke of last week, the creating-creator God calls us to action, to “come build a land where we’ll bind up the broken” and “I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find…” and “ ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step…” We also hear the call in hymn number 6, Just as Long as I Have Breath. Let’s sing verse 1.

So when we embrace the idea that we are not just experiencing God in all living things, and not just experiencing God as a big eternal separate idea – but are experiencing God as co-creative force calling us into communities of well-being, we see a God that is a Living Whole of which you and I and others in the “cosmic conversation” are active parts and partners. In a “participatory universe” where all have a role in the construction of reality, God participates in all life and every act of creation. And we in turn must participate too. Einstein put it this way:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

And we see our place in the whole of the universe reflected in hymn number 22, Dear Weaver of our Lives’ Design. Let’s sing verses 1 and 2.

 

When I first read about process theology in our Wellspring spiritual deepening course a few years ago, I felt as though the Universe opened up to me with a resounding Yes. If I’d been reading in the tub, I would have been like Archimedes jumping out naked and running through the streets shouting Eureka! For the first time, I discovered there was a theology that matched what I believe: process thought jives with my Unitarian belief in human potential and reason as our way toward truth and meaning; it jives with my Universalist belief in universal goodness and love, which propels me to serve my human family. And apparently, I am not alone. UUs all over are realizing that we understand this idea of God intimately. As Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar points out in her book Fluent in Faith, process thinking affirms many of the threads in our theological heritage:

We are a part of an interconnected web of life in which each affects all. There is a sacred spark, a spiritual energy and power, in each of us. It matters what we do with our lives. The great, ultimately unnamable mystery of life is a call to goodness and love. As we choose love, decide for love, stand on the side of love, we are part of the growing God in the universe. This is process theology made real.

This creating-creator God affirms our long-held belief in the goodness and progress of humanity; we find this in James Freeman Clarke’s affirmation of the “the progress of humankind onward and upward forever.” In the early 20th century, John Dietrich, considered the father of religious humanism, spoke of a ‘cosmic theism, which “interprets God as the indwelling power in the universe rather than an individual, separate power.”

No wonder this God – this creating-creator, relational, dynamic, responsive, big picture, changing, becoming God – is so familiar. And our hymnal shows it; the Center for Process Studies did an extensive review of a variety of hymnals – ours, along with hymnals from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ – and named 349 out of 414 hymns as representing this creating-creator God – that’s 85%. And that’s not even the teal hymnal, which further reflects this god of process thought.

This God…who is an artist and reminds us, as Arthur Graham puts it, that “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see.”

Yes, this is most assuredly a god I believe in – to me, this God encompasses the transcendent and the immanent and brings us in deep relation to the wide universe. This is the God who reminds me that everything evolves – not just life forms but thought and ethics and understanding and relationships. This is the God who reminds me that truth and revelation are not static but are forever unfolding. This is the God who reminds me to be open to the eternal now, to be open to becoming. This is the God who persuades me gently with love and compassion and the promise of a new day. This is the God who accompanies me, as God accompanies all of creation, on this journey. This is the God that is at the heart of our universal translators; this is the Unitarian Universalist narrative image for God.

This is the God I pray to when I sing “our world is one world – what touches one affects us all” and when I sing “we are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our heart is in a holy place” and when I sing “when we live in deep assurance of the flame that burns within, then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin…” and when I sing “woyaya…woyaya…”

 

We live in a participatory universe. We do not leave things up to a remote God….we act with the divine energy…we too create out of mystery….we share in the opportunity and responsibility of creating reality. We are all artists…creators of what is, and what is becoming.

 Listen here.

Last week, we started cobbling together our own universal translators. Unlike the Star Trek universe that Gene Roddenberry created, we aren’t equipped to automatically understand the many different languages of many cultures, and even if we were, we wouldn’t always know what people really meant. What we know is that real communication relies not just on vocabulary and syntax, but also on the metaphors and idioms we use. We rely more heavily on narrative imagery than we realize – the example I used last week was that of Juliet on her balcony; to those of us immersed in western culture, we understand this phrase to indicate young romantic (and maybe doomed) love. And every culture – whether a local culture or a corporate culture or a religious culture – uses different and sometimes confusing narrative imagery to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.

What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem, with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself. But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.

It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring, not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it; last week, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for UUs anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting. I am sure it amazed some people that this God even exists in our hymnal, but we found many songs and readings expressing this very idea of God.

But of course, being a pluralistic faith, this isn’t the ONLY idea of God we find in our hymnal – so this week, let’s look at a different idea, one that may seem a bit more familiar to many of you – particularly those who are big fans of Emerson. This is the immanent God.

The immanent god is the divine presence seen in the material world – the god that permeates the mundane. It is also the God that inhabits the material in visceral ways. It is the god we saw in the verses we sang this week in Down the Ages – “the present God-head own where creation’s laws are known.” It is the God that sometimes makes the choice to come to church difficult, as nature beckons for its own communion.

The spiritual practices of the Hindus perhaps most explicitly explain this narrative image of God; they begin with the concept of sacred perception, where the devotee enters into a state where they can truly receive the image of the deity as given by the deity.

It is a visceral, real, tangible experience. For Hindus, the deity isn’t just represented in the statue or image; the deity is in the statue or image. The Divine is immanent, present, touchable, seeable, knowable. And this isn’t a one-way experience; the deity is present with, knows, communicates, and touches the devotee as well. The devotee begins by bathing, dressing, adoring, and anointing the statue; once properly clothed and honored, the deity is fully present, and allowed to be seen by others. And… they understand the deity to be fully present and fully whole everywhere at once.

The Hindu understanding of the immanent God was especially attractive to the early Transcendentalists; encountering Hindu texts meant that for the first time, Americans were exposed to a view of the divine that wasn’t transcendent; that is, separate and above us. Henry David Thoreau was one of the earliest American readers of the Bhagavad Gita, and the ideas of the immanent Divine spoke deeply to Thoreau, as well as other transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. They began to see the same fully present and fully whole divine presence in nature. The idea that God might be in the trees and rocks and the very water they sat by was remarkable and expansive in a time when Unitarian theologians sought to limit God to being, as William Ellery Channing described, the creator of nature, not within it.

We don’t see much of the immanent God in the Abrahamic traditions; occasionally, the immanent God appears in the rocks, or in the air, or in a burning bush. We do, however, see it in the words of the mystics. Let us look at responsive reading 607, by the Islamic mystic Hafiz.

By and large, the immanent God is not represented in Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. Thus, it was quite a remarkable shift for Unitarians in the 19th century to embrace the immanent God in nature; to us in the 21st century, it feels, well, natural. We resonate with the words William Wordsworth uses to describe God in his poem “Tintern Abbey”:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

And we find this immanent God in nature quite vibrantly in hymns such as number 25, God of Earth. Let’s turn to this and sing verses 1 and 2.

I have encountered this god several times – perhaps the most memorable was during a trip to England about a decade ago. A friend and I went to Avebury, the less commercial and more interactive version of Stonehenge. We began at a collection of stones at the center of the village, the center of the concentric circles of monoliths placed there by a long-ago people. And we touched the stones; they were warm, and they gave off an almost imperceptible vibration. We went to the next stone…and the next…and touched every stone in the inner circle. Something clicked for us, that we needed to commune as our ancestors might have. Soon, we were going over streams, through corn fields, and over rocky cowpaths to touch every stone in Avebury… because for reasons we could not explain, we had to connect. We knew we weren’t just connecting to the stones themselves – although we imagined the many stories they could tell of the many events through the many millennia they’d born witness to. We were connecting to the people who first set the monoliths into these wide circles… and to both the earth that they rested on and the earthiness of each stone itself. At the end, I felt as one with the world as I have ever felt.

It was a remarkable day; it is a now part of my universal translator that helps me better understand those who would rather hike to the top of a mountain than read in an air conditioned coffee shop. And it helps when we are confronted with less-than-hospitable attitudes toward the earth. We need to add to our universal translators the note that some believe we are simply visitors on this planet, and stewardship of the earth isn’t part of our call. But as eco-theologian Sallie MacFague points out, we are earthlings; we belong to the earth. Because Unitarian Universalists understand the idea of an immanent God who inhabits the very earth itself, we see ourselves as part of – not separate from – the interconnected web. And we sing about it quite emphatically in hymn 317, We Are Not Our Own. Let’s sing the first verse.

We find this connection to the earth and this immanent God in some of our favorite hymns: “for the earth forever turning” and “the wide universe is the ocean I travel, and the earth is my blue boat home.” Even more, we find that the immanent God leads us to broader connections. In her new book Fluent in Faith, UU minister Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar suggests that the immanence of God in nature actually directs us to “move beyond material realities to the meaning of life and love, to the truth that there is more beauty and care in this world than we can comprehend or capture in our scientific explorations.”

Thoreau got it when he realized that ice cut from Walden Pond was sent to India and thus likely mingled into the Ganges, which is a holy river for Hindus. As he wrote in Walden,

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well … In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta [sic]… I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

It is this connection that we see in Emerson’s words: “that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul” is beautifully interpreted in Jim Scott’s song “The Oneness of Everything” – number 1052 in the teal hymnal. If you can, sing along with me on the first verse.

But the call of the immanent God is not just one of appreciation. The call of the immanent God is one of action. Yes, we can commune with nature and we can connect with one another, but, as UU minister Kathy Huff notes, “being part of a conscious universe means that each moment profoundly matters; everything I do, say, think, or feel relates to everything else and may have consequence and meaning beyond my comprehension.” The immanent God calls us to protect our mountaintops from strip mining, to protect wildlife endangered by climate change, to stand for any person whose inherent worth and dignity is compromised. The immanent God expands on Frederick Buechner’s comment that “there can be no peace for me unless there is peace for you also;” this expands beyond humanity, to all who inhabit the earth and the very earth itself.

As I said last week, I find myself at times thinking many different things about God, sometimes all at the same time. And yes, the immanent God is one in whom I believe. I turn to the immanent God when I am too much in my head and need grounding. I turn to the immanent God when I lose faith in humanity’s goodness. It is the immanent God who compels me to a life of compassionate service. This is the God to whom I pray “we would be one, as now we join in singing” and to whom I pray “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies” and to whom I pray “listen more often to things than to beings…tis the ancestor’s breath, when the fire’s voice is heard…tis the ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters…. aaahh.”

The immanent God is present – here, now, among us and in us and with us. It is the divine in you, connecting to the divine in me, which we honor in this simple gesture: Namaste.