Sermon for June 7

What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached extemporaneously for the Universalist National Memorial Church. Like a flower that’s been pressed into a book, it only gives an impression of what I said: the context and the execution of preaching being lost. But perhaps better a representation of the sermon than none at all, particularly for those who saw it live. I’ve added the occasional bracketed word where the meaning may not make sense.

The texts were from the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20, but from the Revised Common Version.


Good morning and thank you to Pastor Gatton for asking me back and for welcoming me into your homes and putting up with the fact that sometimes I don’t see the microphone button. But I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about each of you over the last several weeks, and I’ve been praying for you by name. Uh, special things this week to Lee Folia-Brunt who asked me what the sermon title was going to be. Not knowing that that was such a such a loaded and important question, because when she asked I didn’t have an answer, and that’s therefore there is no title today because how can you know what’s going to come? Two days ago, four days ago, a week ago. Who would believe that we would be where we are at this moment? And where will we be a day, three days a week, a year from now. So I didn’t have an answer.

And what do you then call what you’re not going to know what to say? Now I mean. And how can you even conceptualize the life that you’re in when everything is changing so quickly? So the sermon doesn’t have a title. But I’m hoping that it does have some threads which will carry back a day back, four days back. A week back. A year back. Back centuries and likewise centuries forward.

Let’s recap. It has been up until the last couple of days absolutely terrible. I don’t think this is controversial or news to anybody. When I started writing the sermon back when I thought it had a title. There were helicopters whirling overhead through the neighborhood. We were under curfew. And the only thing that would come up on the news — online or on television — were images of people being shot with rubber bullets or tear gas, or who knows what? And everything just seemed like it was going downhill continuously fast. These are not great conditions under which to write a sermon or for to think, or really to live.

So, we could be undercut by despair. We could be undercut by fear or anger or bitterness. We can certainly feel all these things, but to the fear of being pulled down by all these things is what worried me most of all. To think: what can we pull out of our religious lives in order to overcome this? Not just for this moment, because problems have come before.

Our problems are not a week, or a year, or three years old. Some of them go back decades and centuries. And whomever is elected in November, or whatever decisions are made in the next year or two, those problems will continue unless we are able to make systematic, deep-seated, heartfelt and hard-won changes.

We have a lot of resources. They’re not fairly distributed, of course. Some people have wealth and other people don’t. Some people have comfort at home and other people don’t. Some people have large and supportive families and other people don’t. Some people have health and their right minds and other people don’t. But collectively we have a lot of strength and one of the things that we can [also] call upon is our faith, because even though that is also not evenly spread out through the population, it is a resource which keeps giving and will not be exhausted. So I’m not [going to] talk about your wealth, and I’m not going to talk about your families, and I’m not going to talk about your political opinions and not even going to — and this is really rare for Washington — I’m not even going to talk about policy. But I am going to talk about our faith, because that’s something that we can do here and trust one another with. And that will give us some direction where we need to go with everything else.

Faith is not the same thing as religion, after all. Religion is sort of what we’re doing now. It is the customs and the folkways and the language and the texts and the stuff. Now that Zoom has become part of our religion. It’s the doing of the faith. But I want to talk about the faith part. The faith is what draws us into an understanding of the universe and the nature of God. It’s sort of the meta-level over which religion is the day-to-day piece. And it boils down to one question: What do you have trust in? Because sometimes we’ll talk to one another, and will say “I have a lot of faith in you”, or you may get this at a employment review. Or you may hear this among friends or within your families. “I have faith in you.” But in the larger sense, perhaps in the more proper sense, what we have trust in shows what we’re willing to rely on when we have to make those difficult decisions. And one thing that we can have trust in, and one thing Christian should have trust in, is the nature of God to be love.

Now that is so easily brought out that’s almost as bad as “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s so easily [used], just thrown out with no particular meaning and falls to Earth without a sound. But for us, who should be taking these things very seriously, there can be no greater and deeper guarantee than God’s nature is love, because it builds connections. And we can trust those connections that whatever else happens in the world, no matter what cruelty or power or strength or principalities, to use Paul’s language, we have that connection to the creator of Heaven and Earth who cares for us. And that’s important to remember when other people are willing —whether in your family or in the neighborhood or in government or around the world — who’re willing to say that you are nothing.

And that you were not important and what you care about is not important, you know, and can trust in your heart that the maker of Heaven and Earth cares for you. And the feeling is [ought to be] returned.

Of course it’s not just us, it’s not just a private property to be a member of a church, even the Universalist Church [it] isn’t to say that I have something that you don’t have. It’s not the AAA. you don’t call them up to jump your battery or to your car away, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get those things. But rather we know that based on that relationship — sometimes we forget — but we know that based on that relationship that same thing is true for everybody else as well. Which means that we are in an elastic but very strong network. Jesus had a word for it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So that connection that we have runs all ways.

God, we love to deny it though. We love to deny it in our casual habits and in our systems. The ones that we inherit, the ones that we built and the ones that we suffer under, whether we choose to or not. That’s sort of the one thing I think of: the first pillar of Christian faith that I was to come back to. But the other ones a little sneakier. That in a word the world is not what it seems to be. Because if everybody was decent and forthright and believed this way, or at least kind of fell along with the program, we could rely on God being love and God loving us and that we would love everyone and everything would just be OK wouldn’t it ? But it’s not that way. Never has been.

We know that there is another pillar to Christian faith that we have to rely on and that is knowing that the world has this deep strain of sadness in it. Something’s not right. I’m not going to get into whole doctrine of original sin because I think that’s been so overplayed that it kind of misses the point that we just kind of know that things aren’t right. That suffering continues and life ends. And they’re good people don’t get what they deserve. And that sometimes people, even if they’re not good, just don’t get the basics to keep going. We know that there is something sad and continuous in this world, but that the same faith that we have — the same trust we have in that God is good and loves us knows that the world is not as it seems, and that we just cannot trust everything that comes to us.

Just because someone says that the powerful rule does not mean that they have a right to that that the systems that they exist, even though they are long and inherited, does not mean that they are good. And that we can look and think that there are other ways that we can have dreams. And those dreams as they form in our consciousness can become ideas, and that idea is the basis of hope. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean God will flip the script on you really quick. There’s a line that I come back to every once in a while. I’m just going to read it.

This is Saint Mary and her praise of God at the in the first chapter of Luke. And she cries out, sings even. Speaking of God:

He has scattered the proud in their imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich, he has sent empty away.

I mean, you don’t have to agree with me on these things because we’re not that kind of church. But one thing I hope that I can encourage you to think about, or at least engage with is there. There are two pillars of Christian faith that we can rely on. [First,] God’s nature is love, not just some sort of thing that God pulls out every once in awhile to impress us or to get us to think that maybe we should join the club, but that God’s nature is love, and that connects everything.

And that just because things seem to be set in stone doesn’t mean that they are. I can’t promise you policy changes. (I told you I wasn’t gonna talk about policy.) Can’t promise you wealth either, or a long life, or all the dreams that you’d cooked up. But I hope that that something that you can carry away and give yourself a little hope, because hope is the anchor of the soul. And without which it doesn’t matter where else we come up with.

But this is Washington after all, and you don’t think I’m going to [not] talk about something that’s happened in practical terms recently. The president came up with a really good idea on Monday. I mean, you’ve seen it. You watch the news. He was going to make a stand, I guess. I don’t know what goes through his mind. So he had some people clear out [the] people who were protesting, which it was their thorough right to do. Clear them out: horses, tear gas, pushed them away. We saw that we’ve seen that. That would be bad enough, galling enough, abusive enough. Boy, he just took it that much further, didn’t he? (And I know that the tear gas and the horses and all that, that’s the serious thing; that’s the important one. I get that.) But then he came out and used a church and a Bible as a prop piece to remind us that power is the first and most important [thing]. We know that’s not true, but it came out to remind us of this “fact.” And I’ll tell you that just sticks, sticks right here. [Points to throat.]

Um, so it’s sticking so much that I actually decided to pay for a subscription to the Washington Post so I can see some of the photos in more detail. Now when I’m gonna spend money for something you know that there’s a problem. OK. So I was able to get a photo of the president in his photo op. Holding the Bible as, like it was a dead fish. And they gotta close up of it, and I saw it, and I saw the spine. And I just about… I saw it in my heart went cold. It said the Revised Standard Version on it, which is not a new Bible. This was the sort of the mainline favorite between the late 40s. President Truman was given the first copy of it. That might be his copy for all I know. I suspect it was a presentation piece left at the White House at some point. Between the Truman administration and say, though the first, Bush administration. That was sort of the highlight of that of that version and so I decided to redeem it a little bit today, and Alex very graciously read today’s lessons from that version.

Because I think that if we take our religious life. Seriously, we need to reinterpret and understand what corrupt and powerful forces would have us believe. This thing, [gestures a bible] we will open it. And we will find strength from within it. We will look into our hearts. We will open them. And we will know what we have to do. Let’s talk about the readings for a second. These actually are the appointed readings for the day. I didn’t come up with these. I didn’t invent these for the purpose, but there’s something that’s really interesting about both of them.Both the second Corinthians and the Matthew are the last passages from their respective books. And Paul offers council to this unsuccessful little church in Corinth that needed his help remotely. If he had Zoom, he would’ve had a much easier time of it. And in Matthew, on the other hand, you have the departing narrative of Jesus, the his earthly ministry is ending and he is transferring authority to his students that he might be — that what disciple means — to his students, so that he might create new students in a world that might understand this way of God’s relationship with the world. But both of them are parting stories; both of them are endings.

Something, something in our sad world is ending right now. Maybe something better will follow. I don’t know; people have said that a lot, too, over the centuries and generations. I’m not going to make any promises. But when it comes to endings, we know that there’s grief that follows. And there’s a lot of tears that haven’t been shed yet. Not only for these people who were slain and had no.… I just can’t say it … Who should be with us here today.

Not only are there not enough tears for them, but for the ones, for them [for whom] there was no camera nearby. An artificial report was written up, which itself is deception and lies. We have not had enough tears for the dead and not enough truth to address the lies.

Something old is ending. But we cannot step to what is new, even if it’s good, even if it’s holy, and wholesome and beautiful until we properly, accountably, and in a holy way remember the hurt and the dead. We’ve been through these things long, I mean. Years and generations. Of course, we know how the story goes. There will be another disease, or there’ll be another crisis, or the economy will probably tank out from under us and will be caught up in all of that. And people who for whom this is not the first concern. (Those people are largely white people. So let’s put a little bit little flag in that.) We want to move on. We will not move on, right? Because our hearts are not yet open for that love which God has for us. And at which we must have for one another! must have! And we have not yet trusted that the world in its stream of sadness, [which] tells us lies about what is right and wrong. It’s not there yet. But I have faith and I have faith in you, each of you, that you will not let this pass away with the next new cycle in the next distraction or the next possibility of something more pleasant.

There’s this evidence of this. There are signs. Last week was horrible. Early on it got a little bit better, and once again, that’s in part due to you. And for the people who turned out on 16th Street in front of church. Who showed up in the smallest little towns across America and around the world to say no. No. “But my life matters.” And the things are not going to be the same. And that is, tt’s not the new, but it is a foretaste of the new which, like someone looking for food in a time of hunger [would] be a taste to allow us to go forward.

I’ve said too much. Let us mourn. Let us reflect. Let us be open. Do not be forgetful or distracted. But have faith, knowing that God is love. And that we must love one another, and that has responsibilities with it, and duties which we will find in order to address our sad world. To cheer it and to create that city which comes down adorned like a bride and be united with God. Amen.

Tomorrow’s (June 7) service may be delayed

Update (June 7). I’ll be slow getting out today’s audio service and the sermon text I preached. As it happens, I preached extemporaneously and so will need to transcribe it. But not today. Take care.

A word to my faithful audience. Tomorrow’s service may be late, but I hope to have it up some time on Sunday. Given the situation, I didn’t want to prepare something too early, and I’m also preaching (on different texts) for Universalist National Memorial Church tomorrow. I’ll have that sermon text posted.

And there’s a good chance I’ll be out in or near the demonstrations, too. Wear your masks and stay as safe as you can be.

Black lives matter.

Non-Subscribing Presbyterians have new website, services online

I was watching some Holy Week and Easter videos from Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland. I have known about them for decades but have never seen one of their services. Be sure to see and the several videos by the Rev. David Steers, including his effective use of a litany to create a moment of worship, here for Good Friday, and the Easter service from Killinchy, led by the Rev. Philip Reain-Adair.

Killinchy, where is that? I went to the website of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and saw that it had been completely revamped. Congratulations!

Sermon: Good Friday 2020

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)


Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God’s beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That’s this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we’re experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It’s a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter’s resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

Sermon: on healing

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I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

Sermon: “Mountaintops”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.


From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

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 the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

Christmas sermon, 2019

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 25, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Letter to Titus and the Gospel of Luke.

The service format was drawn from the twelfth order of service (for Christmas Day) from the 1937 Services of Religion prepended to the Hymns of the Spirit. The responsive reading used the alternative, second-person text of the Magnificat from the English Language Liturgical Consultation.


Merry Christmas.

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

Plainly put, Christmas sermons tend to write themselves. The stories are well-known and well-loved, and they say something different to us in our different stages of life. And we fill in the details with the singing, the shared companionship and the general warm feeling. My sincere hope for anyone struggling now (and struggling with Christmas in particular) that these moments will bring you rest and refreshment; you’re among friends.

And yet for the familiarity of the Christmas stories — I learned part of today’s lesson in King James English through repeated viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — it takes years of living to recognize what strange stories they are, and to appreciate the differences between them. Today, we have two lessons from the Gospel of Luke, the most familiar version of Jesus’ origin story. We heard the part about the manger, the shepherds and the actual birth from chapter two, and Mary’s song from chapter one, which we read as the responsive reading. Though considered separately, they are part of a whole. In Mary’s song, she recounts her place in cosmic history. We took her part, and declared to God:

You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This is perhaps less familiar than the angel and Bethlehem, but it is very much part of the same story.

Mary speaks of those who fear God; they will receive mercy. Similarly, the shepherds were terrified: God was being revealed for them, as an infant and nearby. Yet it’s awkward to speak of fear and think of the love of God at the same time. Too often, we fear that which can and would hurt us. This is not what we mean by the fear of God. Rather we also fear what we cannot understand, and we fear disruption to our customary and ordinary life, even it means something good might be coming.

Divine living is not customary or ordinary, and we can scarcely understand how it might come about. That itself is frightening, but also gives us cause for hope. God’s ways are not our ways. In Mary’s time and ours, the proud get their way, the mighty get their way, the rich get their way and it’s hard living for the rest. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” we was not mandating poverty, but recognizing what had always been, casting a light on it, dignifying the suffering rather than ignoring it. Divine living is living with a God who knows us and sees us, and desires our good. And God acts by confusing our expectations. Thus a baby, not a warrior or Caesar. Thus Bethlehem, not Rome. Thus a word and not a sword.

And so too, the confusing, unexpected love that God shows us. It can make us afraid because we may not want to love so deeply. God would not hurt us, but love often does. It breaks our hearts, but also gives us life. We can be afraid of being loved so deeply. Consciousness of God’s love pulls out out ourselves, and away from anything low and self-serving. It can lead us to a life of serving one another, as Deacon Eliserena spoke of on Sunday. Is this how God scattered the proud, and cast down the mighty? And it is how God lifts up the lowly?

Or as the author of the letter to Titus puts it, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” We do not earn this love and cannot earn it; it’s God’s unreserved gift. Accept it. Let it take you to a moment of tenderness, answered by gentle tears. Let it take you, like the shepherds, to the manger.

And then, on returning, what? Where then do the Christmas stories take us? At the very least, this tender goodness and loving kindness should lead us to reflect on how we regard one other in families, among friend or at work, as a nation and in the world. Have been too hard on one another? And in doing, have you been too hard on yourself? For the gift and goal of Christmas is that nearness to God which draws out our likeness to God. Day by day, we can (by God’s grace) strengthen and express those same divine qualities, and above all, a heartfelt love for the world and the people in it. By it, we fulfill the angel’s song of peace and goodwill.

God bless each and all of you this Christmas morning.

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.