Sermon: “Another Advocate”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 9, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday: so, a little bit of background. Feel free to take notes. If pressed, I’d say it’s the third most important holiday in the church year, after Easter and Christmas. (And yet somehow Hallmark forgets it.) It is symbolized by a dove descending, representing the Holy Spirit, and — as you know, I like to point out church fixtures to illustrate a sermon — this symbolism is found in the center of the chancel cross. (It’s hard to see, so you should come up and look for yourself after the service.) It is also in the second of the lower windows; the lower windows recount the history of the Christian church, and the Universalist church in particular.

The first window, with the menorah, recognizes the Jewish roots of the church. Which is perfectly sensible and today uncontroversial, but its installation follows the Leo Frank lynching, the publication of anti-Semitic screeds by Henry Ford and the resurgence of the Klan. And that’s just the terrors in the United States. So it’s good to know what side of history you want to stand on, and then put it in stained glass. Pentecost, today’s holiday, also rests on a Jewish existing holiday: Shavous, to use the Yiddish name, which is both an agricultural festival, and to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Hallmark missed that one, too.

Pentecost’s name comes from the Greek, meaning “fifty days” and Greek-speaking Jews in those days would have called Shavous Pentecost, also. Pentecost (as we know it) is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Pastor Gatton read a part of that in the opening words. A multi-ethnic and multiracial group of Christians came together — Shavous was a pilgrimage festival — and God’s spirit descended upon them and gave them a common speech that they understood. But this wasn’t a linguistics symposium: people on the outside looked at this congregation and thought that they were drunk.

They were filled with the spirit. The godly kind, not the distilled kind. Conventionally this coming of the Spirit is identified with the birth of the church. A bit more exactly, it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his people would not be left helpless; that he would send an advocate for us: the promise that we heard in the lesson today in the Gospel of John.

And those gifts given to that congregation on the day of Pentecost is what gives the Christians called Pentecostals their name. For they are distinguished for signs of Spirit dwelling in among them, most distinctive of which is the ecstatic speech known as tongues. Similarly, charismatics who have some of the same ways of the Spirit but in other churches get their name from charism, the Greek word for “gifts.”

And this is the way you usually preach about Pentecost. I could stop here, if you like. And if Pastor Gatton or next year’s Pentecost preacher mentions some of these themes that’s perfectly fine; I’ve done the same myself.

But I wanted to look at the charisms — the gifts — the Universalists have, and what we add to the story, so I’m going to assume a Universalist approach (or at least my Universalist approach) from here on.

And I wanted to look at the Genesis text, the Tower of Babel story. This is the last of the stories in Genesis that seem like pure legend, along with the Garden of Eden and Noah and the Ark. Stories that you can’t pin to a particular place and time, and seem universal in scope.

You can imagine the questions people had. What caused there to be different human languages? Why don’t we understand one another? Why do we fight one another? Did we do something wrong?

If those are your worries, then the add in the image of a Babylonian ziggurat, and you have this story. Tower of Babel Indeed, the image of the Tower of Babel that Laura Dely sent out with the newsletter this week is the standard image of human hubris in the face of divine majesty, which we pay the price to this day.

But it also reminds me of one my strange habits. I have a confession to make: I am an avowed Esperantist.

Esperanto is a constructed language meant to be a universal second language, a common language.

I first started studying it back in college, but picked it up again in 2010 when the national meeting was to take place in Bethesda, and this time it stuck. I study it every day.

L. L. ZamenhofIt was invented by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a Yiddish and Russian speaking Jew, born in 1859 in Bialystok, now in Poland, but then in the Russian Empire. He introduced the language to the public in 1887 under a pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto — Doctor Hoper — and the pseudonym gave the language its name.

Nobody knows how many people speak it. Estimates suggest tens of millions have taken lessons like I did in college. There are a few thousand native speakers of the language, the controversial financier and philanthropist George Soros being the most famous. So the number of Esperantists is somewhere in-between.

Here’s what Esperanto sounds like:

Sur la tuta tero estis unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero.

. . .

Kaj la Eternulo malleviĝis, por vidi la urbon kaj la turon, kiujn konstruis la homidoj.

. . .

Ni malleviĝu do, kaj Ni konfuzu tie ilian lingvon, por ke unu ne komprenu la parolon de alia. (Londona Biblio)

That was some of the Genesis lesson in Esperanto. Maybe you heard a word or two that you could kind-of make out. If you speak English or German or one of the Romance languages, Esperanto has the sound of words seeking understanding. A craving for understanding that’s just out of reach, but approaches you. I’ll leave that as a metaphor for the work of the Spirit itself.

As for Esperanto, what Zamenhof had in mind was a practical, alternate way of relating to one another.

It’s like he wanted to undo the curse of Babel. Not literally, but spiritually and politically, even though to accomplish this he insisted on a policy of complete neutrality. And for good reason. He grew up in that Babel. (And if like biographies and you’re looking for an interesting figure to read about, he’s your guy.)

In a letter (1895) Zamenhof wrote:

The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.

His own home bridged two of those communities, after a fashion: his father was a Yiddish censor in Imperial service. He knew the power of language. There was already international interest in a language that could be used alongside one’s mother tongue; that is as an auxiliary language. But everything proposed to that point was too complex, or obtuse, or hard to pronounce. Zamenhof’s language was easier to learn and had a simple and regular grammar. Anyone could use it, but no one person could own it, including Zamenhof itself.

In the words of the Esperanto hymn — yes, there’s a hymn, and we’ll be singing it later in Esperanto. (No, we won’t be singing it later.)

In the words of the hymn,

On a neutral language foundation, understanding one another, the peoples will make in agreement one large family circle.

And perhaps, even a bit more to Zamenhof’s project. It’s a optional piece, a spiritual thread that some who are drawn to the language accept, and others reject. (Forcing the point wouldn’t be “neutral.”) That is has an “internal idea” — a hopeful spirit that will draw us together, friend by friend, across miles and cultures.

To tell you the truth, when I think of Pentecost, I think of Zamenhof.

And when I think of the church, I think of the internal idea.

But no good dead goes unpunished. And I don’t mean the fatal persecutions that Esperantists faced under Hitler and Stalin. (In fact, most of Zamenhof’s descendants died in the Holocaust.)

Rather, I mean the indignity of having a good idea turned on itself, again maybe a metaphor for the church: when Esperanto touches popular culture, it’s used to represent “the other.”

Long before television and film producers commissioned linguists to develop realistic “alien” languages like Klingon (for Star Trek), Na’vi (for Avatar) or Dothraki (for Game of Thrones) Esperanto stood in for European languages when it was politically inexpedient to use a natural, national language.

So, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a parody of Nazi Germany, signs in the ghetto of oppressed people were in Esperanto, not Yiddish.

In the 1939 Clark Gable/Norma Shearer anti-war comedy, Idiot’s Delight, Esperanto stands in for the language of a belligerent country that’s borders Switzerland, but is absolutely not Italy or Germany. Members of an Esperanto club were used as extras.

But the strangest stand-in use for Esperanto isn’t on film but from the U.S. Army.

After the Second World War, the United States feared a rise of right-wing power in Europe: the smoldering embers of Fascism plus Franco’s Spain bursting back into flame. And so created a simulated army opponent to fight in war games. As late as the 1980s, the Army simulated a country known as Aggressor — subtle that — and the people of Aggressor spoke Esperanto.

Judging by the surviving public information films, they spoke very bad Esperanto. So it comes out as one of those little ironies of life that thirty and forty years ago people were learning Esperanto — a language of peace and mutual understanding — from surplus army manuals describing it is the tool of war games.

But the longer you live, the more that kind of thing happens. As a Christian, I’ve had to live with rotten people using its spiritual, economic and political power to reinforce terrible things, and we’ve talked about them at length there. I didn’t see them at the Capital Pride Parade yesterday, but then I don’t give them my time.

I suppose the best thing you can say about the diminishing power of the church in American life is that it can’t be used like that as much any more. Those rotten people — in Esperanto, we’d call them fiuloj — will leave the husk of the church behind and find something else to exploit for their purposes.

So, instead of worrying about them, let’s flip the script. Let’s see what opportunity there is in a smaller, leaner, tighter church world to make some good for ourselves, our friends, our enemies and the world.

For one thing, at its best, the church is a place of temporary liberation and not just an extension of society. We don’t have to wait for the great hereafter to experience what God has in store for us. That’s the reason Esperantists host so many conferences, to create if only for a few days an Esperanto-speaking, perhaps even an Esperanto feeling place. Places called by convention, and in English translation, “Esperantoland.”

We need a place of the spirit that remembers the rest of the world, cares about the rest of the world, loves the rest of the world, but is not confined to it.

The spirit gives people, and people in the church a kind of freedom and an arms-length distance from the everyday.

A place, at least, temporarily escape the roles were assigned, the limitations we suffer, the dreams we have to defer. In church, at least, we should be able to live in our full lives and anticipate with joy and courage what that means for the rest of our lives.

That’s why prayer and the communion table are such powerful signs. In prayer — deep, sincere prayer — we present ourselves to the Source-of-all-that-is without pretending that we can or should hide anything. And there, we ask for link between the everyday, the workaday, the unimportant and forgettable — a link between that and that which is eternal, just, gracious and true. We ask for that spirit to come and help us remember forgotten dreams and shape new ones. We ask for that spirit to let speak in new words, and shout out new ideas.

And that’s what I hear in the gospel when Jesus says,

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24-26, NRSV)

This Spirit pleads with us to be free.

The spiritual gifts have to be nurtured, even though they are not ours to hand out. Paul described the “fruit” of the spirit, in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), in contrast to the vices of attending only to one’s own desires. The spiritual fruit are

love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (KJV, vv. 22-23)

Each of these need support, and they need to be developed. Some other time (trust me) we’ll talk about what we need to cultivate them.

But until then, listen for that Spirit from God which “goes where it will” and makes all things new.

May God bless you now and forever. Amen.

What I’m doing this Memorial Day weekend (not writing about the UUMA)

I’m going to spend the long weekend not writing about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

After all,

I won’t be writing about the following, which is in no way exhaustive:

  • Proposals that confuse and conflate congregational and ministerial interests;
  • Plans that will embolden cranks to make specious or ideologically-driven charges against ministers (and sucking away energy to find genuine misconductors);
  • How this will cause ministers to self-censor, withdraw from public life, grow suspicious and adopt other damaging habits;
  • How UUMA membership should not obligatory, and if it produced something of greater value, it wouldn’t have to lock ministers into it;
  • Or how “hard cases make bad law.”

I will write about the UUMA and the UUA proposals next week, and in weeks to come. Unless other ministers speak my mind before me, in which case I’ll link from here.

“All souls, O Lord, are thine”

My apologies for my long silent spell — longer, I think, than any since I began writing in 2003. But I couldn’t let All Souls Day go by unnoted.

The Universalist General Convention commended the Sunday closest to All Souls Day, November 2, “for a special celebration of our distinguishing doctrine, the Scriptural truth that all souls are God’s children, and that finally, by His grace attending them, they will all be saved from the power of sin, and will live and reign with Him forever in holiness and happiness.”

What we have here friends is an ethos, a vision and a plan worth celebrating. But what form shall this take?

For all of you who do not observe the Day of the Dead because you believe (in your case) it is cultural appropriation, know that that All Souls Day is for you. But there’s not a lot of cultural artifacts attached to it, so I can’t help you with those sugar skulls you’ve wanted an excuse to buy.

We do have a hymn, the most popular (not saying much) of writer and journalist Epes Sargent. Judging by his birthplace (Gloucester) and others having that name (Judith Sargent’s grandfather) I’m guessing his ties to Universalism are deep.

Epes Sargent portrait.

It only showed up in a handful of denominational hymnals, the last being the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit, but I consulted the 1917 Hymns of the Church, which I’m now cataloging, for the text.

All souls, O Lord, are thine — assurance blest!
Thine, not our own to rob of help divine;
Not man’s, to doom by any human test,
But thine, O gracious Lord, and only thine.

Thine, by thy various discipline, to lead
To heights where heavenly truths immortal shine, —
Truths none eternally shall fail to heed;
For all, O Lord, are thine, forever thine.

Forgive the thought, that everlasting ill
To any can be part of thy design;
Finite, imperfect, erring, guilty, — still
All souls, great God, are thine — and mercy thine.

Easter Sunday, 1954

A couple of weeks ago, I found the online archive of the Unitarian Universalist Church, in Muncie, Indiana, and found the summary order of service from April 18, 1954: Easter Sunday.

Here it is:

April 18, 1954 service

This was First Universalist Church, as it was know then, and just renamed from St. John’s Universalist Church. Let’s decode the service.

The “tell” is from the first line. The service is the Easter service from Services of Religion, prepended to the “red hymnal,” The Hymns of the Spirit.

This makes the hymns (483) “Fairest Lord Jesus” and (192) Charles Wesley’s famous “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” The doxology (500) begins “Praise God the love we all may share.”

Responsive Reading 72, entitled “Easter,” is mainly drawn from the third and fourth chapter apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (the citations in the index should read verses 1-9, not verse 19; it’s a mix of KJV and RV, with some heavy edits) and reads:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And there shall no torment touch them.

In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die,
And their departure is taken for misery,
And their going from us to be utter destruction:

But they are in peace: and their hope full of immortality.
And having borne a little chastening, they shall receive great good:

For God proved them, and found them worthy for himself.

And in the time of their visitation they shall shine forth,
And the Lord shall reign over them for ever.

The faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are to his chosen.

For in the memory of virtue is immortality:
Because it is recognized both before God and before men.

When it is present men take example at it:
And when it is gone they desire it:
And throughout all time it marcheth crowned in triumph,
Victorious in the strife for the prizes that are undefiled.

But a righteous man, though he die before his time, shall be at rest.

For honorable old age is not that which standeth in length of time,
Nor is its measure given by length of years:

But understanding is gray hairs unto men,
And an unspotted life is ripe old age.

Being made perfect in a little while,
he fulfilled long years;
For his soul was pleasing unto the Lord:

And they that be wise shall shine
As the brightness of the firmament,

And they that turn many to righteousness
As the stars for ever and ever.

For the path of the just is as a shining light
That shineth more and more unto the perfect day.


It’s interesting that the anthems proceed thematically from Thursday to Sunday. I tried to track down the organ music and anthems, but none of the titles are distinct enough to shake anything useful out of Google.

And the preacher? The Rev. Sidney Esten (1892-1965) was not the church’s pastor. (That was the famous Russell Lockwood, would be installed that fall; perhaps he hadn’t arrived yet?) After studying at St. Lawrence, Esten was ordained and served at the long-gone Anderson, Indiana Universalist church; he also taught school. Money was tight, and — per his obituary from the Indiana Academy of Science (PDF) — it seems Anderson was his only pastorate. But he married people and supplies pulpits for years. (Sounds familiar.) He later got a graduate degree and taught science in an Indianapolis high school. He was a  “noted authority on birds” — indeed, feeding birds when he died suddenly.

I would have been happy to have been there. Can you image the flowers? Happy Easter to you, when it comes!

Christmas sermon, 2016

This is (almost) what I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. from the lessons from Titus and Luke.


I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.

Merry Christmas to you all.

The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.

Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.

But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.

The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.

That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.

But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.

First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.

This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.

But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.

We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.

The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.

Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.

Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.

The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.

(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)

And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.

If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.

So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.

The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.

 

Need a Christmas hymn for your order of service? A song book?

Time again to point out the Open Hymnal Project, which has a special PDF booklet of public domain Christmas hymns, (direct link) and a ZIP (archive) file GIF (image) files of individual files that should make it easier for you to put individual hymns in an order of service, downloadable from the main page.

See this page for an index of available hymns, Christmas or not, from which you can download related files, including single PDFs and GIFs.

He Is Risen!

Christ is risen!
Khristós anésti!
Kristo leviĝis!

I would love it if we adopted the Paschal troparion, but we can, of course, hear it in another voice…

And sing, chant or recite an anthem found in our traditionEaster.

Rom. vi. 9, and 1 Cor. xv. 20.

Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more : death hath no more dominion over him.

For in that he died, he died unto sin once : but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin : but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ is risen from the dead: and become the first-fruits of them that slept.

For since by man came death : by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Now unto the God of grace : for the might of his Spirit and the love of Christ;

Be glory in the Church throughout all ages: worid without end. Amen.

Happy Easter!
Alleluia!

“Away in a Manger” in a Universalist paper

Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain, cites an article in the current
Evening Standard

I replied:

I had never heard that connection before, and I thought I’d heard them all. I got the citation from the associated Wikipedia article, and here’s a link to that volume of The Myrtle.

So, it would be interesting to see if there is any earlier citation. It would also be interesting if the poetry of the carol compares with one of the known Univeralist poets in The Myrtle

Selection_192

That said, the temperance songs on the next page are fun, if not so evergreen. Here’s the first three (of nine) stanzas of one.

Selection_191