Sermon: “Work”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back. And I’d like to start, not with the sermon directly, but with an illustration I really wanted to work into the sermon, but doesn’t really fit.

Back in 1982 Ridley Scott’s neo-Film Noir movie Blade Runner introduced viewers to a dystopian future Los Angeles, where nearly perfect copies of human beings — essentially slave labor on other planets ― would only live (or last) three years, by design. They were forbidden from coming to earth, but some do, with hopes of extending their lives. The blade runners, one is the lead played by Harrison Ford, are the agents sent to find and destroy them. The title suggest our identification with the blade runners, with humanity and order, but is that how it works out? Watch and see.

That disturbing future took place in the far future of November 2019. That future is now, and so I wanted to work it into the sermon, in part to reflect on today, and also because science fiction provides such an easy and accessible window into theological discourse.

If you want to talk about human nature, what better contrast is there than to introduce a non-human character with human characteristics, whether living or an automaton. If you want a metaphor for a spiritual journey, you can depict it as a journey through space, into the literal heavens, where you will find nothing familiar except yourself. If you want an idea of what God is, or properly what God is not, have the characters meet a force which is greater than humanity — perhaps unseen — and whose good or evil works force crises and decisions.

Blade Runner adds another twist. There are several, slightly variant versions of the film, edited to suggest the different answers to the mystery underlying the story. (In fact, my brother worked on one of them.) So it’s not clear which version is canonical, or authoritative. All of them, perhaps? We approach biblical interpretation the same way, so this is another way to look at the film theologically.

But I’ve not seen Blade Runner in two or three years, certainly not contrasting the variations, and haven’t seen the recent sequel. Apart from the coincidence of dates, I couldn’t work it into the sermon. And (ironically, you’ll see) it was a heavy week at work, so I didn’t have time to run down all the leads: I’ll leave Blade Runner aside. I hope to come back to it, and other films, some day.


Instead, I started by going back to that article that Pastor Gatton referred to last week — the one from the New York Times (5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please”) by Cal Newport — since he preached from the prior passage from Luke. (I have his book on hold at the library; there’s quite the wait.) The editorial’s main illustration was an experiment by a small German tech firm to have a distraction-free five hour work day instead of a longer day peppered with Twitter, email and urgent texts.

Imagining a world where we work less is also something frequently posited by futurists and in science fiction. It prompted me to lift out the ideas about work in the lesson from Second Thessalonians.

It’s funny that work itself isn’t more of a theological topic. For most of us, it takes up most of our waking hours, working either outside the house, in it, or both. Work for pay gives us access to the necessities and pleasures of life, even as it keeps us from them. A good work life will make you happy, a bad work life will make you unhappy and not having work or not being sure of what work would be good can be the worst of all. Work, like sleep, growth, family and food, is one of those foundational realities of human existence.

And yet, any number of commentators would have us believe that the future of work is optional or minimal, and with a science fiction-like zeal that the robots will take care of us, and so we need to look past work for both fulfillment and the distribution of goods. I’m not convinced, but not because I think people should be forced to work, but that it’s not so easily brushed away.

To be sure, work doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in St. Paul’s time.

Technological advances in the last nineteen centuries have moved us past the power of human and animal power and faster than sailboats. Electric light makes us a little like God for the day and the night are alike to us — but that means we can or must work longer than ever before, not to mention faster communication than even the last generation knew. The ideas of retirement and vacation are revolutionary. And we are less stuck — I can’t say not stuck — in the work paths our parents and grandparents set before us. Indeed, we may not work (and live) in the same place they were born or where we were born. And tomorrow we might be working halfway around the world, or speaking with someone who is. For most of us, and by us I mean the whole human family, work doesn’t mean farming or finding the next meal. It’s different, less physically demanding, but easier or better? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But work is different now than in the first century.

The first and second letters from St. Paul to the Thessalonians — that is, what’s now the the city of Salonica, in northern Greece — are essentially practical advice to that young church, and he was helping them in their own time. The churches were very young at this point, as old (more or less) as social media is to us, and the “rules” were still being developed. We take from the context that some of the people in the church in Salonica didn’t think they should work, or that they needed to work. Were some of the people taking the message of a liberating gospel so literally that they didn’t feel that they needed to work. Or perhaps took the injection to “give away all you have” so literally that they became dependent on the good-will of others. Or perhaps they believed that God would provide in all things, and too that to mean the supernatural supply of natural needs. Well, eventually. It’s not clear, but there’s indirect evidence of conflict.

So his warning, “if they don’t work, they don’t eat” should be read not as a kind of punishment but set a standard of how they members of the community should regard one another. Egalitarianism is implied for one thing. And that bit about “not being busybodies” might be translated idiomatically as an injunction to work, but not work each others’ nerves.

But this is a short passage, and to read it without inquiring and generous minds would miss the point. What about those who really cannot work? The sick or injuried or debilitated? The very old, and the very young? Are they left hungry? Of course not. This goes against good sense, and cuts against the kind of care that drew people to the gospel in the first place. So the lesson for us is that work is important, it resources our needs, it can build mutual understanding, but it’s not the ultimate good. Work has its place.

Five days a week I work as the operations director of a small international health nonprofit, working up budget, payroll, contracts and the like. It’s typical office work, with the typical mix of rewards and challenges.

It’s no secret that I used to be the minister of this church, but after that pastorate ended I didn’t want to leave town. The quality of life is good here, particularly for gay couples, and there were few if any churches that might appeal elsewhere. Those that did would pay very poorly in isolated communities, and would offer my husband few good opportunities. So I traded ministry for administration. I bring my theological training into my work: active listening, a kind word, and a willingness to get the bottom of a story have all been a part of my nonprofit life.

But I do miss church work, sometimes, and I do feel that God is keeping me in the ministry. One of the reasons I like preaching here, in fact is that it helps me work out my ministerial vocation when that will never again be my main source of income. St. Paul was himself famously and literally a tent maker, from which we get the term “tent-making ministries” when you refer to a minister who has a day job to cover most of the expenses.

Work has a value apart from earnings. It’s not an original thought to say that you get a lot of our sense of self from my work. We build collegial relationships with sometimes turn into friendships. Our work structures our daily lives. The problem is when our work let’s become our daily lives. When we have no other sources of validation or encouragement apart from work. Which also means that work has a power over us in more than providing earnings. And then subsumes that you somehow enjoy your job, or have one. I recall being unemployed and hating it. It was like I was always waiting for my life to restart.

I know that one from personal experience. I’ve had four multi-month long spells of unemployment and I remember how corrosive the experience was. I was lonely. I started missing the presence of co-workers who annoyed me. I worried about money. I doubted my worth. In one case, I’m pretty sure I took a job just to make the grind of not-having go away. That’s also why I don’t believe the stories of the “end of work” and that robots will do everything, and that we will have to prepare for a time past work. You need something to make life seem meaningful, and we have millennia finding that kind of value in our work.

But what if your job stinks, and you don’t have very good options? Sometimes you need to take or keep a job because there’s no time or energy to change. Or the one you have took a long time to get, and you don’t want to go through that again. Or it provides medical insurance you or a family member needs. Or if you can get through three more years you can retire without imperiling your retirement years. Or a hundred other variations.

Then take my advice: find your vocation, even if it’s not your day job. This is opposite of that cloying work advice, “Do what you love” which sounds like the kind of advice given by people with lots of options and cash to fall back on. Instead, find out what God is leading you towards, and be prepared to follow that off the clock.

That brings us to our lesson from Luke. The passage in Luke is different than the Thessalonian letter, both in that it’s not meant to be practical, and not meant to be clear. In it, Jesus is speaking of a final time, but doesn’t say when it will be, or clearly how to anticipate it. A time when nothing will be the same. It’s heavy and apocalyptic, and can unsettle you deeply if you’re not aware.

Time, of course, means nothing to God, but it does to us. So this future time, when even the Temple, falls in meant for us. The most we know, and this is so banal that I resist even mentioning it — the most we can know is that it’s terribly important. And that we should be ready.

But a cautious, moderate kind of readiness, I think. We cannot become extreme by denying what we can have now. We cannot become extreme by predicting exactitudes we cannot know. I feel a bit of sympathy towards those people who prepare not only for disasters but prepare for a full collapse of society.

They act as though it is inevitable that everything will collapse around us. Food supplies, safe water, public safety, the rule of law and the electrical grid. All things which human beings have built and must maintain. It makes me deeply sad that it makes more sense to some to run to the boondocks and try to reproduce society rather than to make it part of your life’s work to preserve all these things from collapse in the first place.

When we find our calling, and pursue it where or not it’s our job, we orient ourselves to that Day that Jesus speaks of. We live for the future. The past is done. Nobody can add anything to it, or take anything from it. We can, and should, be grateful for those who worked and struggled, usually unnamed and unrecognized, for us to be where we are.

In the meantime, what can we do until we find our calling. Reflect your faith in daily life.

To jump from Sunday prayer to Monday work then means taking on new habits that we may not directly benefit from. For instance, we might try and create virtuous circles in the workplace. No winking at little cheats or pilferage. We show our workplace — our coworkers and vendors, if not our bosses and clients — our honest, kind and careful intentions.

Be thankful and show thankfulness for the special contributions others bring to their work, including taking on work that’s unpleasant to do or has low status.

And outside of the workplace, we find alternatives to the Washington question. You know the one at social occasions? where we categorize each other by what we do.

In short, work to live, and find a better way of living. But do not live to work.

Find places were we have friends and not just coworkers or contacts, and interests that makes life interesting and rewarding that is not dependent on having any particular job. I will include church in that number.

Don’t treat your religion as a niche interest just because others project theirs badly. Your religion can be deep without being intrusive. The good ones are out there; you just may not know their religious motivations. May your behavior at work, at home and wherever you are the first way you express your faith.

Let your life’s work be a blessing for you and for others.

 

Sermon: “Memory”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on October 6, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the First Letter to Timothy and the Gospel of Luke.


Memory

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

Now that the weather has finally turned cooler(-ish), it’s beginning to feel like October. The Halloween advertisements and displays begin to make some sense: the gently spooky ones that combine pumpkins, the changing color of leaves, ancient headstones, bed-sheet ghosts and big bags of chocolate candy.

But truth be told, the candy seems like an inadequate bribe for the ever-present truth that life ends. The pretty red and orange leaves will soon dry out and fall. We see the pumpkins in their patch because the green leaves that fed them have withered away. For new life to thrive, it means that old life has to give way.

And yet the dead are present with us.

Washington, more than most places, is stuffed with constructed memorials: Greek temples, pavilions, engraved stones, benches, ceremonial walls and pathways, grottoes, pillars and obelisks, statues and fountains. Not to mention lecture series, endowed faculty chairs, scholarship funds, arts centers, even commemorative walls and plaques. We are surrounded by remembrances of the dead.

There are also the burial places, both those as famous as Arlington National Cemetery, but also the private and religious cemeteries that ring this and most cities. Places where even the rock-ribbed cry.

And then, as in every town or city, there are the informal, spontaneous memorials — made up of candles and flowers, pictures and signs, made up of teddy bears and crosses and too many tears — those memorials that that pop up on street corners and plazas or on lonely stretches of highways when something terrible happens, like when someone dies violently or senselessly. The dead may be gone, but we put up a fight to keep them.

Some of the memorials were created after a life of service or a moment of heroism, and are the people’s thanksgiving. Others were secured by substantial philanthropic giving. Some are homemade, the loved-one known by relatively few in this life. And each is evidence of dedication and love, that the dead may have their “part and lot with all thy saints.” We even pray in this memorial church, one of many in D.C. in dedicated that way.

So, who really, is the Universalist National Memorial Church a memorial to? John Murray? The people mentioned on the fading “scrolls” in the lobby? Someone else? That answer is now out of the hands of its builders. Because before the stone constructions, before those flowers laid, before a child’s toy left with sobbing, before any visible reminder were words. Perhaps thought and not spoken, because voices crack under grief. But words that say I loved her, and she’s gone. I miss her. I will remember her.

So in this church and all temples, at heroic monuments and roadsides, the memorial begins with our words, and our words become our prayers.

Memorials aren’t necessarily religious, but the answer to the questions they raise are. And in a Christian setting, the answers to those questions relate to God’s relationship and promises to us. Why do we make memorials of word and stone? Will they touch the heart of God?

I didn’t pull this theme out of the air. The first Sunday in October is, or was, Universalist Memorial Sunday, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Although I don’t know of any churches that still celebrate it. It was one of a number of observances commended by the Universalist denomination that became a part of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.

It was originally combined with All Souls Day, on November 2 or the nearest Sunday. All Souls, however, is an ancient observance, and served a different purpose. Ecumenically, it is for those Christians not included the day before, on All Saints Day. In the Episcopal Church is is officially called the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed”. But it could also be to remember all who lived. That second one is the Universalist take.

It’s hard not to see the bigness of All Souls Day if it includes everyone who has ever lived and arguably everyone who will yet live. Possibly angels, too, possibly pre-human ancestors, maybe beings on other worlds if they exist, perhaps all that lives. There’s a vastness and inclusion in this vision of God’s reconciliation of all souls. So great perhaps that our own personal need to remember those we love gets lost in its vastness. What about Grandma and Cousin Joe? So in the 1870s Universalist Memorial Sunday became a thing. The memories of the Civil War must have been fresh and raw; in any case, it must have been perfectly clear that life was fragile. Our religious ancestors needed to say so in their own words.

Speaking of the Civil War, of the monuments on the National Mall, I think the greatest among them is the one dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Having been brought up mostly in the South, where Lincoln is not as revered as he is in other parts of the country, I nonetheless choke up a little when I see the words above the seated statue of Lincoln there:

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

And his memory is a blessing.

When I think of Lincoln, Washington, D.C. and the Civil War, I also think of Walt Whitman. In part, because May 31 was the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. In part because I see his poetry every time I take the subway (more about that later). In part because a new commemorative stamp came out last month: a portrait of Whitman with a lilac bush and a hermit thrush, a reference to one of his more famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That’s the one many of us read in school, about his grief and the nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d womenstanding,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

and ending

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Whitman gave us a new, free way to feel and so to speak. He gave people words to grieve by. He came to Washington during the Civil War to look for his not-very-hurt brother: a soldier listed as a casualty at Fredricksburg. He stayed (ten years in all) to care for the broken and dying in the hospitals as something of a one-man volunteer morale officer.

Washington was swollen during the war. Universalist ministers started holding services here, perhaps in response to members relocated from the north, and Whitman attended services in that period. (A note. Ford’s Theater; the Lincoln death house; Whitman’s hospital, now the National Portrait Gallery; the Masonic Temple, the site of the Universalist services in D.C.; and Clara Barton’s missing soldiers bureau are within a short walk of each other, and all are still standing, if you wish to see for yourself.)

If you came today by subway, that inscription around the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is from the end of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser” and shows us what he saw and felt, but earlier he writes:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Let us thank and remember Walt Whitman, a poet for the living and the dying.

I’d like to talk about the two lessons today.

As those of you who’ve heard me preach before know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical reading list for worship. It’s one of the few places Unitarian Universalist Christians have had an impact in the ecumenical church for decades. It keeps me from cherry-picking lessons, and in return there are a lot of resources out there, as so many churches use in world wide. Today’s lessons are from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I didn’t want to avoid the passage from the Gospel of Luke just because it was hard. The fact there’s no obvious tie to Universalist Memorial Sunday doesn’t help.

The thing that sticks out is the reference to slavery; that you wouldn’t thank a slave for doing their job. Formal legal slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire and would remain a formal part of human relations for centuries. There were slaves in these lands four hundred years ago, with first-hand survivors of American slavery surviving into the middle of the twentieth century. The echoes of the African slave trade continue to this day: people who too often have to be remembered en masse, for there was nobody to write their names, save the Almighty, who inscribes them in the book of life. The recognition and memorials to slaves owned and sold by Georgetown and George Washington Universities, though relatively few in number, multiply in the mind to how many millions of lives were disrupted and destroyed by the slave trade. Of the many losses, sufferings and indignities the enslaved faced, I’m thinking today (in connection with memorials) of the broken connection with home. To never know what happened to the kidnapped, and to those left behind. To have families broken as a commercial transaction: the grief without recourse and without resolution.

And that makes me think of migrant children separated from their parents today. Or of those kept in human trafficking: modern slavery. Will they ever be reunited with their families? Will that break be healed? It’s not history, it’s not even the past. Something could be done about it. It’s not really the point of the passage from Luke, but if it sensitizes us to what must be and what must not be, then it has given us a blessing.

The passage from the second letter to Timothy is closer to the theme. While internally attributed to St. Paul, the consensus is that it (with the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus) weren’t written by St. Paul but together make up a set of letters offering advice to the very early church. So, we heard:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The rest of the passage is about remaining firm and strong in faith. This is the only place in the Bible we hear about Eunice and Lois, and given the context we might think that they were both dead, but remembered and respected. What’s true of Timothy is true of us; he could hold on their memory as encouragement. We also carry traces of the characters of those who influence and molded us. When we act out of those influences to do the good, we honor the memory of those who went before us. Which doesn’t mean necessarily mean those influences started good. Take pigheadedness, for instance. You can transform pigheadedness into perseverance to defend the what’s right. Or remembering someone who struggled and faltered with addictions. That might make us more compassionate toward someone who struggle, knowing that some challenges can’t be wished away, but are are extraordinarily difficult to overcome. My point is this: someone doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve our memory, and those who are the most imperfect need it the most. That includes ourselves. We can and should pray for one another. For in prayer we witness to one another before the living God.

What then, will touch the heart of God when we remember those who have lived before us, and especially those whom we love? Nothing we can add. We trust that God already leans towards us. Our memorials of stone and candle and prayer reach to the mystery of God call out, and say “hear us.” “Hear us, and make us whole again.” God waits to hear. We are bound together across life and death, by love, and by God “whose nature is Love” for whom time is no thing.

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May God bless you all, this day and forever more.

Printing out sermon or service book pages

My face is still a bit sore from dental work, so another shortish article.

Back in 2015, I shared my workflow for printing out pages of a sermon or service that can be put in an attractive binder using half-size pace protectors. It’s neat and professional looking and not hard to assemble.

Here am I bringing that up to date. I use LibreOffice, which you can download and use for free. I’ve used it for years at home and in my day job, and can attest that it makes a good replacement for Microsoft Office. Since 2015, LibreOffice has added new features. In particular, it supports OpenType features, including the much desired small caps and old-style numerals, if they’re embedded in the font. This is a good tutorial for using this feature, and this is a good reason why you shouldn’t use your word processor’s “small caps” feature, in so far as they’re not true small caps and not good replacements. The Libertine (formerly Linux Libertine) font has those features, and you can now make use them in the standard release, rather than the Graphite text features I wrote about in 2015. Very few fonts support Graphite, so I won’t labor the subject.

I’ve also been modifying the template I use. Here it is to download. Or copy it to your own Google Drive and try it out with one of their available fonts.

Sermon: “Ourselves, Alone”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on August 4, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke. The ad-libs are not included, and I named this sermon before I wrote it, so don’t make too much of the title.


Ourselves, Alone

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

We’re continuing our lessons in the Gospel of Luke. As I looked at our lesson today, I realized that the obvious sermon is about probate law and binding arbitration. (I’m joking of course: let’s save that for the holidays. Thanksgiving, perhaps.)

But this passage about a family squabble and an inheritance raises an important to look at scripture. Instead of looking at a passage like this as a guide for behavior, let’s think of it as a longer story that’s missing some pieces.

First, we consider who’s present. Jesus, of course, and the two feuding brothers. The crowd and presumably Jesus’ own students. Likewise in Jesus’ embedded parable, we hear about the rich man with the productive farm. Then we can ask ourselves who’s missing from the stories, perhaps implied but still important to understanding what’s going on. For example, the source of the family wealth, perhaps a mother or father, or another relative. In any case this person must be dead. You can just imagine the hard feelings born of family crisis. The same feelings played out in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in families today. In the parable, we hear about the productive farm but presumably the rich man to not till the soil or harvest the crops himself. The missing people are the farm hands and his domestic workers, the ones who did the work to create the wealth. They’re missing. Even the rich man’s family is missing.

And then in this approach — who’s present in the story; who’s missing from the story — makes a demand of us. Who do you most identify with here? The feuding brothers and the rich farmer are what we would call bad examples; models of living which we use as object lessons of what not to do. If we see ourselves in them, we judge ourselves and (I hope) reform your lives for the better.

But we aren’t stuck with seeing ourselves in one role. What about the unnamed laborer? The unnamed benefactor? What do we make of our own possessions or work while we yet live? And do we, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, rue the work that we do under the sun? Because this reading is not not simply about personal possessions, though possessions have their place. But rather, what values do we ascribe to possessions that they don’t deserve? If you “are what you eat” (as the saying goes), are you also what you wear? what you drive? where you live and what you own? Is our value as a producer or a consumer?

I mean this is not exactly a trick question. You are in church. Of course you value is not as a producer or a consumer. After all Jesus said:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

It’s really more of a warning. Because how we approach our wealth (or lack of wealth) cuts right to the root of what it means to be a human being filled with dignity and joy. And if you can reflexively know that your value as a person is not based on being a producer or a consumer while you sit in a church, is it as easily to think that about yourself the other hours of the week?

Several years ago, I was working for a government transparency and accountability organization that specialized in technological and policy. Two of my responsibilities were finances and purchasing, so I know first-hand that we used Amazon Web Services for data storage, processing and other solutions. This is the same goliath Amazon that has taken over online shopping and may provide you streaming video. What’s less well-known is that their huge computing capacity is itself a suite of products. One of which is Amazon Mechanical Turk. This was a service where real human beings would take on small discreet tasks that weren’t well suited for computers. Think of it is artificial intelligence done by human beings. The name came from a automaton in the form of a Turkish man, a mechanism that could play chess. The idea is that you would be impressed by the intricacy of the device which was in fact a human being dressed up to be an automaton. My responsibilities also included human resources, and (as you know) my first calling is in the service of God: I found this service incredibly chilling. I was at work looking at the future of work: unseen people doing that which the tools that human beings created to relieve us of unnecessary burden could not do. People being made into robots.

Was this right? Was this what we were promised? Along with flying cars and trips to Mars, one of the great science fiction promises of the coming age was the end of toil. The future where are we, well anyway most of us, would be spared difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing or repetitive work. But since so much work is difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing and repetitive, the promise has to be that we would have less work overall.

If you read articles on productivity, automation, business processes or robotics, you know that it’s a matter of time until many of the jobs we do today will be automated. We might as well plan on what we are going to do with all that free time. (I don’t think writers of those articles have much experience with manual labor, or have too much faith in robotic barbers.) I know serious people who are looking at Universal Basic Income as a policy to mop up all that excess labor, as if people were rational when it comes to providing funds for people without work.

It’s one thing to say that work gives life meaning, or to say that “idol hands are the devil’s playthings.” But it’s altogether another to realize how little we may regard one another if large blocks of the population are first unneeded, then unwanted and finally expendable. The Black Plague killed so many people that the labor of those who survived became more valuable, and so those workers could demand more money and better treatment.

I’m sort of workaholic killjoy, but because without work, experience shows that it’s way too easy to devalue the people who don’t work. If you’ve ever been out of work and didn’t want to be, and then someone asks you the quintessential D.C. question, “what do you do?” you know what I mean. If you are wanted you are valuable, if you are not wanted, you aren’t.

Without economic pull, without political pull, I think we do have something to worry about.

I am one middle-aged man with bad knees and I cannot solve this for myself let alone anyone else. I do worry about our future, particularly those who do not already have accumulated wealth. Instead, we need a new way to measure human worth. A way that doesn’t reduce us to how best we can exploit one another. And if we can’t force that appreciation on society-at-large, then at least we can’t give up on it personally, and the groups of people who matter the most to you.

It’s all that more important that we find additional ways of measuring value. And I think this is at its heart a religious question.

In today’s first lesson, we heard “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (2:22) Ecclesiastes has a philosophical, world-weary tone that distinguishes it from the Technicolor way we normally talk about scripture. Perhaps because in was much later than much of the Old Testament.

The Teacher’s complaint in Ecclesiastes has a particular rhythm, and keeps coming back to that phrase “under the sun.” His “labor under the sun,” “wisdom under the sun” and so forth. In the middle of summer, I’m certainly aware of the sun. Seeking out shade where I can. Walking my dog Daisy with the sun to our backs so it doesn’t blind us morning and evening. There is too much light and too much heat, and we wilt under it.

Ecclesiastes was the book that the protagonist chose to memorize in Fahrenheit 451, that cautionary tale against book-burning, mass-culture and soothing consumption. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) the tension breaks as poetry:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

The tone, in reading, is the tell. Shall it be read with knowing bitterness, or weariness, or surrender? Perhaps the kind of cheer that makes the best of bad situation, and in giving one’s best, does very well. Or, as I personally suspect, that disgusted tone that comes from having no choice. But that’s not be at my best, hopeful self. What does work mean? Depending on the tone, the occasion, the person you will get different answers.

But it should be what not defines us. Our lives are precious. They don’t have to be measured against an outside standard to be valid or important. They’re important because their ours. If we choose to share our lives with other people can we give a gift of ourselves to others. But our attention, our friendships our presents — these things are not rent we pay in order to justify our existence. Our lives are a gift from God. No king or president, no company or party, no “tide of history” or fashion of the day. Nothing has a mortgage against your personhood, your dignity or your soul. And because the giver has the nature of love, we can trust that we are endowed with that love from which springs all good things.

Among these are the spiritual gifts of kindness, humility, perseverance and fortitude. The kind of things that are terribly valuable and have lasting value if your sense of worth and freedom are strongly challenged.

And once we appreciate our freedom, once we have it and no one else can lay claim to it. Then we are able to fully appreciate what it means to live together. Because it is in having a full and healthy esteem for oneself that we are able to appreciate how much others value their own lives, their own paths their own hopes and their own futures. And our own worth is far more valuable than anything that the crowd can provide. Instagram celebrity is a new way to become conspicuous, but the desire to be seen and praised by others is hardly new.

The good news is that we have time to recognize these spiritual gifts. We have them already. Strengthen them; help them grow. The capacity of the gifts of the Spirit dwells within us. It’s a question of cultivating these gifts, talking about them, praising them, including them in the decisions you make. Again and again this returns us to the life of faith, which knows you and seeks you and “makes all things new.”

Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 28, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, for Shaun Loria kindly serving as the liturgist — and thank you for welcoming me back.

It’s usually bad form for preachers to talk about their families from the pulpit, but I’m going to talk about Daisy all the same.

She’s is a twelve-year old bichon frise, weighing about sixteen pounds with white curly hair and big, round black eyes.

White dog with bow on head
Freshly groomed

Today, she charms everyone she meets when we walk in the neighborhood. I’ve heard her called a teddy bear, a little lamb and a muppet. But when my husband Jonathan and I got Daisy from the then-Washington Area Rescue League, she was sick and underweight (just over six pounds), with lopsided buzz-cut, and obviously very scared. Already a “senior dog” it would have easy to look past her, and to be fair, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We didn’t know much about her background, other that she came in with other dogs and was surrendered by a relative of her original owner, who had died. But we took her home. She shook all the way, and that night she slept under our bed. She’s doing much better now, almost six years later. Now, she sleeps up top and is a good as gold. I mean: sometimes she’s fussy, but who isn’t? When she wants to cuddle, she’s sweet as all get-out.

Thin dog
Day four. So many questions on both sides.

But when she wants something, she will let you know. I will be sitting on the sofa, working on a sermon say, and I’ll hear her tip-tap down the hallway. Then arriving, she’ll stop and look me dead in the eye and whirr. And then she’ll whirr again. And tap her paw on the wood floor, and then whirr again.

What does she want? Food? To go on a walk? Attention and a cuddle? A second chance at puppyhood? Who knows.

But if I choose wrong, she’ll whirr and tap her paw and then I try again. She usually gets her way. It’s sometimes a nuisance to have a fuzzy, four-footed perma-toddler, but she doesn’t ask for anything that’s not appropriate for a pet dog. And even if she did, how would I know?

The unknowing is the hard part, particularly when she’s stressed, or pained or afraid. I still think of her on that first day. But she can’t tell us what’s wrong, and we can’t tell her how we will help, if we can.

So, it makes me wonder what she thinks of us. Are we our fathers, her pack or her puppies? Or are we simply the catering staff? Ae we something more like God, a God who answers prayer with Milk Bones and bully rubs?

I didn’t sign up to be a Dog God, and I certainly don’t have a god-like disposition. And besides we — you and I, human beings — have more in common with dogs than we do with God. There was a time when we were not alive, and are now alive, and sometime when we won’t be. We have bodies, which must be fed and cared for. We have emotions that sometimes enhance our understanding of the world, and sometimes distort it. We are social and depend on others of our own kind, and suffer when we’re deprived. All of that we share with dogs, and none of which we share with God.

And if it’s hard for me to understand the one dog that I live with, how much harder is it to understand the One God, whom none of us has seen. That’s why I want to speak to you about prayer.

Prayers are a tricky subject, and not always happy. Coming from the South, I know that phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be just as easily an insult as a real concern of one’s welfare. An insult in meaning that you need prayer because something is deeply wrong with you. There’s nothing kind about it. It also implies a kind of spiritual superiority from the speaker, and right to claim spiritual dominance, perhaps even abuse. Nobody should give that any room at all.

We also have that cultural, verbal fudge “keep me in your thoughts and prayers” to broaden what prayer means and to rescue it from sounding trite, or well-wishes from sounding sectarian. Or at least until recently when activists rightly pointed out that “thoughts and prayers” is another way of saying “let’s do nothing” about the scourge of gun violence, for instance. Thoughts and prayers cost no resources, no time, no anxiety, no stained friendships, no angry quarrels. In too many cases, it’s literally the least one can do, so I can’t say that it’s wrong to be tired and frustrated with “thoughts and prayers.” At least not in a civic arena where the full power of prayer is neither appreciated nor particularly welcome. The age of mandatory religion is, fortunately, behind us. That’s one reason that I’ll tell people that I’ll pray for them if they ask for prayer in the first place. And if they don’t ask, I’ll still pray for them, but that’s between God and me. I don’t want to come off as manipulative or saccharin. Prayers are tricky.

But that also means for those of us who do pray, who choose our faith, who sacrifice to strengthen it, and benefit from growing within it, prayer takes on a new value in a new meaning. We can’t take it for granted, and need to explore what should and shouldn’t be.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Luke is some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

You probably noticed in the middle of the lesson, Jesus teaching his students (the disciples) how to pray. So when I start, “let us pray, as Jesus taught his disciples, saying…” this is what I mean. We are not only worshippers, but also Jesus’ students.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most valuable and universal resources that Christians have. You will find it well-used and well-loved wherever you find Christians, whatever else might divide us. It’s one of the things first memorized in attending Christian worship, if only from sheer repetition. In seminary, we could joke “are you a debtor or a trespasser?” And one of the ways that Christians in the Unitarian Universalist Association have measured if something — say a church or an event — is Christian or not is whether or not the Lord’s Prayer is present. I even use it to time the silence after the pastoral prayer.

A aside: you might have also noticed that what Jesus taught the disciples isn’t quite the same as what we pray here. The form of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things that distinguishes Protestants and Catholics: the Catholics stop with “deliver us from evil” as Jesus says in this passage, while Protestants continue with a doxology, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Why the difference? Simply, the doxology was a part of the worship in the Byzantine court, and in time it got slipped into the biblical text. So by the time the Protestant reformers translated Luke into their native languages, the doxology was part of the Greek they were translating. Later generations of translators had earlier, and more authentic texts, so the doxology wasn’t present to translate. But it was by then already a fixture in Protestant worship.

But the passage in Luke is arguably about how to pray, not a particular formula of prayer. In Jesus’ time, the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing. There, priests made sacrifices of animals, grain, oil and incense. Jesus does not speak of them, but sincere and simple prayer, as in fact other Jews had made since the Exile centuries before. The Temple was gone by the time Luke recorded these words, and the sacrifices ended; prayer is what the Jewish community in its place, including its not-yet-broken-off Christian minority. Simple heart-felt petitions, directed to God as Father rather than God as Overlord, for a balance between heaven and earth, and a hope for a universal good. Paul’s lesson to the Colossians underscores this: do not be distracted by that which is optional. The prophets, speaking for God, warned their hearers about useless sacrifices, when the people lacked mercy and gentleness. The psalmist comforts us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17, KJV) The age of prayer is the age of the sincere spirit.

Little wonder the Lord’s Prayer spread. But then there’s that other part of the lesson from Luke: the parable of the Bothered Neighbor. (That’s not what it’s usually called, but maybe it should be.)

Did Jesus mean that we should bother God in prayer? How else are we to interpret the passage about asking your sleeping neighbor for bread, who then relents. Or the parable of the Unjust Judge — that’s in the eighteenth chapter of Luke — who wouldn’t do what was right, but would do the right thing just to just to get this widow off my back. Or the Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, when he teaches about the coming of the Holy Spirit: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14 NRSV) There’s a theme here: bother God persistently, and you will get what you want. Except that runs counter to both scripture and plain common sense.

Anyone who has lived long enough knows that one’s wishes and desires are not always fulfilled. Not often fulfilled. Sometimes not fulfilled at all. It’s not foolish to expect God to help, especially if nobody else will. After all we profess that God loves and cares for us, and why would God want to make us more miserable or feel more alone? So we rely on God’s human community. Sometimes God puts us in the right place and right time to be the right help for others, and we should take that call. I’m not saying it’s logical. I’m not even saying it’s anything more that confirmation bias. But to those who need a prayer answered, it is an answer to prayer.

And yet prayer is more than a prelude to good work. Our good acts won’t undo hurricanes or earthquakes. They come too late to undo ethnic cleansing or structural racism. They are powerless before “the last enemy”: death.

Our prayers are sometimes answered in the ways that we wouldn’t want them answered. Sometimes there’s an absence that leads to new prayers. Or the unstated “no” forces us to abandon what seemed to be the right path for us. And sometimes we get answers when we didn’t ask the question, like an inkling of that “peace which passes all understanding” without praying for anything at all, without asking or even knowing that we needed it. All of this is tied up in the mysterious way that prayer happens. These answers and non-answers and presumptive answers drive us, in so far as in us lies, to greater spiritual depth, and more prayer.

What we should avoid is treating God as some kind of vending machine which will dispense wishes, or clear answers, or happy thought on command, and then thinking “it’s broken” if you don’t get what you asked for. Maybe you learned this kind of prayer while growing up or from your neighbors, relatives and friends, but you’re unlikely to hear that at this church.

There’s more than a couple of problems with this approach. If you don’t get what you prayed for, you can blame God. Bad theology makes confirmed atheists. Or if you don’t get what you prayed for, then it’s easy to blame your lack of faith. You should have prayed harder or believed deeper. And what kind of help is that? Or what kind of God is that? It’s just another way of saying that you’re not worthy of God’s love, and that also needs to stop right now. A God who would work on those terms isn’t worth worshipping.

Treating prayer as a payment in a transaction with God is also a violation of what God has taught us through scripture and tradition. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not take the name of God in vain. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the accuser, Satan, that he might have all things it was Jesus who reminded him not to put the Lord God to the test. Which is another way of saying that God is not our wishing box in which we pour our desires and hope to have a predictable, desirable outcome. Life with God, instead, is our reward and portion.

Looking back at the passage from Luke, there was a detail I don’t want to miss: the pesky neighbor’s particular request. Jesus could have used any example for any need, but he spoke of needing bread to give to guests who had just arrived: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

That, as we say, is a clue. An arriving guest. Loaves of bread. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angelic visitors. There are earlier echoes of Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God — it’s all a bit ambiguous, and ripe for a mystical interpretation — Melchizedek who greets Abram with bread; whose priesthood is seen in the letter to the Hebrews as a foretelling of Jesus’ eternal high-priesthood. And speaking of Jesus, bread and friends, one of the reasons the communion service is so powerful for so many people is in it he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. We do not commune with the bread and wine, but with the God who made it — and us.

I have to think this detail is about prayer, too. Prayer is how we meet deity, whether formal or informal, planned or spontaneous. For whatever else we can say of prayer, it is in God’s nature as we understand it to draw us toward God’s self, that we might have the divine life “on earth and it is in heaven.”

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.

Sermon: “None Asked, ‘Who Are You?'”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on May 5, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Revelation of John and the Gospel of John.

I extemporize parts of the service, which are not present here apart from my opening aside, which I reconstructed from memory. The title, drawn from John, was meant to have a meaning, but didn’t in the final writing.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for having me back this rainy Eastertide morning and thank you for welcoming me back.

[I’m going to break from my notes a moment and point out a few things in this church. It preaches though silent. There’s an inscription on the back of the wall of the chancel. It’s hard to read but has a version of one of the lines in today’s responsive reading: “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). Along the chancel rail, you have images of the four “living creatures” which are customarily associated with the four gospel-writers, and you’ll find these four on the chancel-wall cross and in the archway over the front door of the church. The furthest stained glass window on the pulpit side — the one with the gold ring and the sprig of leaves — is associated with the text from the Revelation of John, “the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2). That was the text I preached here the Sunday after 9/11, a word of hope.

So if you find yourself tuning out, let the building preach.]

Today’s lessons from the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John have in common — as you might guess — John. Or, it’s more accurate to say they share a theological outlook.

But the closer I got to them, the more I realized there was something about them that both excited and bothered me.

And I realized that this was not my specialty, and that it’s been twenty-five years since I took my New Testament course in seminary, and I have to continually got my head around this.

So let’s start with basics. (Everybody who knows this has to learn this at one time.)

The New Testament is a set of twenty-seven documents written roughly between the 50s and about the 120s, so in the two generations after Jesus’ life and ministry. The four gospels are the longest and best known of these documents; they’re not biographies or histories as we know them, but rather a kind of hero tale that would have been familiar in the time of the Roman Empire. They concern the life, ministry, death and post-death experience of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, conventionally read in this Easter season, is essentially a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and continues the story in the experience of the earliest Church. The documents are in the form of letters, either true letters from one person to a particular community, or “general” or public letters. The Revelation of John is written is if it were a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, in today’s Turkey.

Early Christians wrote many documents, including many gospels; that is, works is the gospel genre, but later influential Christians considered four “canonical” or worthy of being a rule of faith. There’s long been a whiff of conspiracy around these other Gospels, and sometimes they’re described as being hidden or suppressed. but I think they’re hidden or suppressed in the same way those ugly dishes or scratchy blankets that a dear relative once gave you: you know they’re there and you just don’t want to have to deal with them.

In fact, apart from the Gospel of Thomas — which is really a collection of sayings of Jesus — most are pretty loopy. Others are very late, and do not represent an authentic tradition of the apostle, Jesus’ core appointed leaders. It’s hard to take a gospel seriously when you know who wrote it. Because he’s, like, over there.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas — not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas — is an extreme example. It’s the one where Jesus make clay birds come to life and then kills other children because they bothered him but it’s OK because he brings them back to life. You know: normal Jesus stuff.

The gospels and other texts we have were chosen early on because the have the voice of authenticity and authority to them. Besides those wild gospels, other practical but later works didn’t make the cut. If you look online for New Testament Apocrypha you can find all you could ever want.

But it’s not like the four gospels are mirror images of one another. They are four versions, often of the same events, with different focuses. Mark is the shortest and probably the oldest. It’s missing events we take for granted, like Jesus’ birth. Luke focuses on secret knowledge, while Matthew is the most tied to Jewish concepts. But despite these differences, there’s enough overlap between these three that they look on the same events, and are not wholly dissimilar. Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to depend on Mark; for this reason the first three gospels are known as the Synopics, meaning they “look together.”

The Gospel of John is not like that. It’s about 90% unlike the others (though perversely our passage today seems to depend on Luke.) So, for example, instead of Christmas narrative it has a theological prologue: “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

The Gospel of John tracks its own path, with the three letters of John and the Revelation of John are collectively known as Johannine literature, which is where we started. This is not to say they are all written by the same person, and hat’s not controversial: Christians since the second century have figured that out. But there are similarities of outlook that holds them together, and we’ll get to that later.

But like the apostle Paul with his emphasis on sin, the Gospel of John has a bad reputation in liberal churches.

I think there’s two reasons for this. First, the synoptic gospels are earlier. Being a closer witness to Jesus and his ministry matters. It’s that same attitude that the early church applied to post-apostolic writings, and I get that. John is later and different. It’s also less practical. With the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, for instance, you get a sense of what you should do. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Be a peacemaker. It’s practical and approachable in its own way. John is less about doing and more about being, and its meaning isn’t clear.

But there’s another reason we might be uncomfortable with John: we might sense that we’re reaching a limit of what’s acceptable. And a lot of that problem is what we bring to the reading of these text as our cultural inheritance.

Let’s also be plain about Christians for century have made targets of Jews, and have very often used texts from John to justify terrible violence. The community that produced these material were probably expelled from their synagogues, and might have been bitter and hurt for it. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity isn’t the same then as now. Both were periods of rapid transition. From its own perspective, the separation from a Jewish identity was not anti Jewish, much like a much less anti-Semitic in our modern use of the word.

But a lot of Christians who followed in the generations to our own have used the Gospel of John as a blunt weapon against Jews. And so we have to be very careful when we introduce these texts in our worship do so carefully. I’m unapologetic that I will remove or trim ratings in order to take out a phrase that means something very different to us today than it did when it was written.

The text is associated with Holy Week just passed or some of the hardest to deal with, and that’s why in place of the usual Good Friday text from John, I was glad to see Pastor Gatton use the text from Luke instead. It’s reading aloud is less likely to put casual readers on edge when emotions are prone to be high.

Another problem with Johannine literature is much older: it’s association with, and approval by, Gnostics. in these tolerant and pluralistic days is easy to overlook how dangerous Gnostic seemed. I think it’s because we’ve lost the sense of how powerful ideas can be, although that hasn’t really changed. Ideas are as powerful as ever, which means that some ideas are necessarily harmful.

Gnostics fall into that category. They have strong dualistic view of existence. Light and darkness are real, separate and irreconcilable. Spirit and matter are real, separate and irreconcilable. And the spirit is good in the matter is evil. The Gnostic views our physical bodies, our material world and the created order itself is something tragic. What Gnostics are described as having an equal regard for men and women, it’s because physical existence of self is equally bad I’m so how could you distinguish between them? It doesn’t read like approval to me, indeed when I think of Gnostics I think of the great sadness they must be towards the world. Any beauty or comfort or desire would have to be a delusion, or worse something misleading and diabolical.

Their hatred (or fear or rejection) of the material world. Not being able to love trees or mountains; birds or beasts; their hunger or their food; the sky and the stars; their bodies and their growth, even aging and dying. They hate the non-spiritual, and hate living itself, subordinating everything to the spiritual. And that moves me to tears.

I’ve come to love the Revelation of John, who is not fashionable in the liberal tradition. It’s wild, erratic, based on visions, is full of wild imagery and (most of all) is apocalyptic. Liberal Christian grows well in better-tended garden, one less wild and without the threat of sudden and inextricable change. But who doesn’t? Even the early church wasn’t sure the book — framed as letter — belonged in the canon of the New Testament.

It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so. In the nineteenth century, it became

But it’s precisely that wild visionary view that gives the words of the Revelation their power. It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so.

It’s this otherworldiness found in Revelation that helps us understand the Gospel of John. They belong to the same “school of writing” if not the same author, and are known collectively as Johannine literature.

Be careful in your dealings with people, yourself included. Be wise in your dealings with people, yourself included. Above all, be loving in your dealings with people, yourself included.

Seek that spirit that goes where it will, and be conscious of where it is taking you, for just because it seems to be of God, doesn’t mean that it is.

And lastly, look that the opportunities that God has given you with a questioning mind. What is the truth in this moment? What details am I missing? What other perspectives might there be? Does your understanding of our shared experience differ? Maybe my understanding or your understanding has a greater portion of the truth, and with wise discernment we can try to tell the difference.

Sermon: “Future Tense”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Genesis and Philippians.


I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me again.

I want to continue the theme of journey that he started last week and so keeping with the season of Lent. Let’s not lose momentum.

In today’s first lesson, the journey is both literal movement and spiritual development, even if the direct verbal communication with God and the animal sacrifice makes it seem very strange and very remote. Literal movement in the sense that Abram and his family were migrants. Figurative, in the sense that his relationship with God was tested and changed over time. That should feel familiar and very close to many, if not all of us.

In the second lesson, the apostle Paul writes to a young church about overcoming evil, and the effects of evil, though imitating him; this leads to a reward which he expresses in both cosmic and personal terms.

So we have two interesting lessons to consider this morning.

First, I’ll talk about how we should interpret scripture. Next, I’ll talk about the themes that these two lessons present us. Lastly, I’ll talk about what these themes have to do with us today and our lives in general.

I want to be as plain and straightforward as possible, because whenever we deal with a text as complicated and rich in meaning as the one from Genesis, difficulty is bound to follow. It is distant in time and culture; we have to go deep in order to find those human bonds — us to him — and those bonds that we share with God.

Now, about interpretation. Some basic principles. I think it goes without saying that we should know something about the passages that surround the ones we read, for context. We should know something about the writer (if we can) and something about the subjects of the passage. We should know something of the political context, geography and language. But it’s also important not to get so hung up on the facts around a reading that we miss the meaning, which isn’t always, or even often the literal reading.

We meet Abram, his wife Sarai and her handmaid Hagar in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Later, they would take on the more familiar names of Abraham and Sarah, but that’s for another sermon.

Abraham is also the common root to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam because at least these three religions have analogous relationships with the same God, with a personal relationship with the figure of Abraham, and connected in analogous ways in prayer, congregational life and revealed scripture.

Genesis is the first of five books collectively known in Jewish worship as the Torah, and so is foundational both in Jewish religious life and Christian religious life. Culturally, even if you don’t know anything else about the Torah, you will have probably heard about the creation of the world (“In the beginning”), Noah and his ark and perhaps the tower of Babel. Around Easter and Passover, you can watch that Technicolor interpretation of the Exodus, The Ten Commandments, on your televisions. But that story comes much later than the one about Abraham and Sarah.

Seen as a work of literature, the Torah is a library of myths, histories, stories, genealogies and censuses that speak of God’s relationship with the world and particularly with a group of people which became the nation Israel. But as a work of faith, its depths cannot be exhausted in a lifetime. And that doesn’t even include the other works of history, wisdom, poetry, songs and prophecies that make up the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which we commonly call the Old Testament. Collectively, these works were gathered, written and edited over centuries, millennia ago. On the one hand, it’s not a simple handbook with answers that correspond to our daily lives on a one-to-one basis. On the other, it’s not a work of magic, no matter what others say. It is meant to be read and understood. Again, it’s about the relationship between God and human beings, written in a human language if at times in an obscure way. The Bible is for human beings, not angel, and understanding takes work.

But that’s more than getting a good translation or an academic commentary. What we need is an interpretive system.

Reading the Bible as a faithful person asking, “where is God in that moment?” “how did the people respond?” “Where might I find myself in a similar situation?” “How can I adapt my life in a similar way.” You may come up with new and different questions. Interpretive systems matter. Just as people see the world in different ways, people see the Bible and its role in different ways.

I’m guessing that some of you have heard the news about the United Methodist Church. A few weeks ago, in a special session of their General Conference, the global body of the United Methodist Church, passed a conservative reading and harsher implementation of their code of conduct, the Book of Discipline. This means that GLBT persons who have have been ordained, including at least one bishop, risk expulsion, while their ministers who perform weddings for same sex couples face a year’s suspension without pay. The winning, traditionalist side declared their loyalty to scripture, implying that the opposition was only following the whims of culture and politics. Of course, conveniently not applying their same standard to divorce.

So when the liberal wing says they’re being faithful to scripture, it’s not a slogan or an evasion, but rather they’re using an interesting model and through it have seen God’s action in the world move in the direction of more inclusion. We can better identify truth from the general thrust of scripture, and not from counting this number of passages which suggest one thing as opposed to that number of passages that suggest another. We’re looking for bigger arcs in the story. That’s why I believe that God will save all, even though there are verses that talk about wrath and punishment. These are rocks and eddies in a river of God’s lovingkindess and compassion.

So when I hear that God accounted God’s faith as righteousness, I hear that in the wider context that God’s blessing is not earned by deeds; that we are not defined by our usefulness; and that dedication is a source of strength, and its own reward. It encourages me to be more faithful.

One thing that stands out for me is that he seems more like a historical person than the people before him. Before the section of Genesis about Abram, we had a genealogy that reaches back nine generations to story of the tower of Babel. Before that we had Noah and his ark, and of course all the way back to Adam and Eve. These seem more like mythological understandings of how certain realities of the world came to be. Perhaps pre-existing stories — certainly with Noah — with a special spin to make them fit with these people’s understanding of how God related to them.

But Abram was different; he seems more like a real person with a past; he was from Ur of the Chaldees, probably a site now in southern Iraq, along the River Euphrates, settled about twenty-nine centuries ago.

He had his own ideas and ways and volition. Abram was faithful, but not God’s puppet. He made some big mistakes and you can wince at his action and reasons. Abram is faithful, but flawed and that makes him believable.

What about his life can we appreciate for ourselves?

To me, one thing about the Abram/Abraham story stands out as obvious, but is so plain that we’re bound to miss. Something so basic that we’re prone to take it for granted, but shouldn’t.

Abram is conscious of his future. The future is where we human beings plot out our lives, make plans for change, plans for redemption, plans for future generations. The eternal God needs no future. God is eternal: the past and present and future are the same; with all possibilities. So God comes to us as a god of history — within time, and working though history — for we mortal people cannot leap into eternity ourselves.

And through the promises God made to Abram, he had a future in three senses.

  • A personal future that pulled him out of an ordinary life and threw him into an unknown world;
  • a family future, where he had children with Hagar and Sarai
  • a human future, where his acts wrap you and me with this blessing

As Universalists, we naturally care about the human future. God promised Abram that through his descendants all the world would be blessed, and our forebears used that as evidence of the final harmony of all souls with God.

But our own personal and family stories are also important. The future is important, but nothing is more fragile and tentative. In it, all things are possible, which can either be a relief or a threat. A relief if the present isn’t so good: the future might be better. Or it could be worse, and so frightening and threatening. Think about the 2020 elections and whether they bring promise or dread.

The hope of the future is not the same as watching one day pass into the next. My grandmother said “don’t wish your life away” but some people today are doing just that. The future — the active, changing, living future — can be so much of a threat that the past can look better in comparison. And so much of a threat that it might be more appealing to live perpetually in the past.

Timothy Snyder, writing in The Road to Unfreedom and elsewhere has defined a double process where our ideas of the past, present and future can be manipulated to shut down democratic norms and create perpetual authoritarian states. Russian leadership being the force behind the manipulation in the United States and the United Kingdom, following the success they had at home. Snyder’s point is that Russia seems better comparatively if the US, the UK and other western powers and institutions, like the European Union and NATO, are weakened.

He writes at length about “the politics of eternity” — the situation following the end of the Cold War — where (to make the matter brief of the sake of this sermon) the United States remained the sole superpower and assumption that the hard crises of the past were over. This is sometimes also called “the end of history.” Which is news to me, and perhaps to you, having lived through it. But lacking obvious alternative futures, it’s easy enough for the powers that be to focus our attention on the past. There can be no change and thus no future; just old victories and old grudges and no progress.

Little wonder that the proponents of Brexit use Word War Two imagery, as if the UK were still at war with Germany, and that there’s still an Empire with which to do business. It’s a way to escape from the future and recall a rose-colored version of the nation overcoming an existential threat. The President does the same thing; when exactly was America great? Since he says “again” it has to be in the past. Snyder points out that the President’s “again” like more like the 1930s than anything else. And for the racist, terroristic murders in Christchurch, the message: turn back the clock to when people knew their place, silent, elsewhere or nowhere.

We cannot live like that and need not. We, too can have a future; must have a future.

St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, offers a way to be brave for our own futures. That is, to be set apart from those whose “god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” In other words, living for themselves, turned inwards, and unattuned to what life with God is like.

The faithful, on writes:

He [that is, Jesus Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

This is a promise of life with God. We must choose who we live for: the one who cares for us, or the many who care only what they can get from us.

The “body of humiliation” Paul talks about is one that diminishes itself by only caring for its own needs. This is the opposite of humility, which is a gift we can give to others by being present but not dominating. It’s certainly not the same thing as loving the world and those who live in it. If we care about what we have so much that we can’t get over ourselves, can’t look past ourselves, then we will not have that same kind of integration that Jesus had.

And if we cannot care, we cannot hope and if we do not hope, there will be no future.

Because the approach I suggested towards scripture applies equally well when interpreting our own lives: not to focus on particular episodes of failure; not to let them veto the good that you do or attempt; and not to draw your focus away from examining your whole lives, and rejoicing in who you are. You are set on heavenly things, and those are first seen here among the living.

So love, care, think, use good judgment. Be not afraid. Extend kindness and understanding. Pray energetically. Live within the deep story that God has set among us; that story will lead you far.

May the eternal God bless our lives and bless our homes. And may God continue to bless the peoples of the earth, to every corner, and until the close of days. Amen.

 

Preaching this Sunday at Universalist National Memorial Church

Come hear me preach this Sunday at the 11 am service at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington D.C. Since the church website is down for repairs, I’m putting the details here.

The Law Dwelling Within

I’ll be drawing from passages from Nehemiah and Luke will question whether ordained ministers — indeed, even churches themselves — are necessary or even desirable as society changes. And if not these, what will take their place?

My thanks to Connor Cosenza, who will be liturgist.

Universalist National Memorial Church is a liberal Christian Universalist church.

It is at 1810 16th Street, N.W., within walking distance of Dupont Circle Metro (Q Street exit) and U Street Metro (13th Street exit.) The S2 and S4 buses stop in front of the church. There is parking behind the Masonic House of the Temple, catty-corner from the church; drive down the alley for access.

I look forward to seeing you.