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.

Thank you for the book

Last week, I was musing in front of minister friends about how I should read David Bentley Hart's That All Should Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (Yale, 2019) for reasons that should be obvious to even casual readers of this site. And past the obvious: who would be the best audience for the book? I'll write about it as I get deeper into it.

Well, muse in front of friends and what happens? One ordered a copy and had it shipped to me. My thanks to the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, D. Min. for the gift.

Last week was full of unhappy (personal) news, and a token was a balm and an encouragement. (It worked.) That's a benefit of having friends for a long time. But she is not only a friend, but a colleague. The graces of collegial support aren't always formal or programmatic, though it's tempting in professional spaces to privilege structures and forms. Indeed, I wonder if most acts of ministerial collegiality are informal, or at last the ones that have lasting impact. Informal but not unimportant. It's no secret that I don't participate in formal, institutional collegial structures; my reasons are several and have changed in priority over the years. But my informal connections — some deep, some momentary — are now as wide as ever, and that's a gift that also deserves thanks.

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.

Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C.

If you are looking for a Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C., I'll be preaching and leading worship at Universalist National Memorial Church,  at the corner of 16th and S Streets, N. W. at 11 am.  (Map)

Update! Four well-loved carols!

We will meet in the parlor — easier to heat and cheerier for a small congregation — with refreshment to follow.  (There will, of course, also be a Christmas Eve service at 8 pm.)  Hope to see you there.

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.

 

Peeking in on the United Universalist Convention, 1939

Eighty years ago today, the United Universalist Convention began at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. It's my home church, so a moment of pride.

The convention was not for the national denominational body (Universalist General Convention) alone, but included the meetings of the ministers association, the women's association and the Sunday school association. For four days, they worshiped, heard reports, passed resolutions, broke into small groups and saw demonstrations. Given the size of the church, and the polity that sent 214 delegates from state conventions rather than every church, it was a smaller affair than today's General Assembly. The banquet was, however, held at the Mayflower Hotel, which became famous later for other reasons.

Of the ministers welcomed into fellowship after the communion service, I recognize the names of Brainard Gibbons, later a General Superintendent, and Albert C. Niles, who wrote a biography of George De Benneville. A proposed pension plan never came to fruition. A rule change allowing dual fellowship (with the Unitarians and Congregationalists) passed, but I'll have to research to see if this was an expansion of an earlier change; the Universalists entered comity talks with both the Unitarians and Congregationalists in the 1920s. Resolutions for co-ops and against gambling reflect their morals.

I don't have access to the denominational magazines, so it's hard to gauge the tone. Recall that the Germany had invaded Poland the month before, and Britain had declared war on September 3; a "phony war" to this point. The countries of the Americas had decided on neutrality. Yet the Universalists passed a resolution on conscientious objectors "which provoked considerable discussion but was finally adopted with a few dissenting votes." I'm guessing the memories of the Great War were too fresh, and the writing ("times of war hysteria") was on the wall. I can only imagine what Owen D. Young must have felt: he was the toastmaster for the banquet! The church's tower was named for him and dedicated to international peace, recognizing the plan he proposed to restructure German war reparations a decade prior. But war was here.

You can read the official record of the proceedings here.

The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called "Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?" Comments pro and con (so far as I'm algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won't be rehashing that.

What's new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup's prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained "by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!" That's allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I'm satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I'd rather have what we had then, but we don't and so I'll say yes to her based on (what's left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it's a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is "I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it's without the blessing or strictures of the UUA." An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I've heard those for decades, and don't take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn't for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it's clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that's completely unworkable and frantic. (It'll be interesting if there's another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there's anything left.)

The most important part in "Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?" is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn't make it illegitimate. And further I'll add: a guild without benefits isn't worth the time or loyalty.

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.

Cooling off from September

It been quite a month. A new article posted every day, and going back into August. But it's not sustainable: making sure there's something here every day keeps me from researching and writing deeper pieces, like that long promised connection between the Independent Sacramental Movement and Unitarianism. I've been reading less, too. There are more readers, but I'm not convinced that most of "them" aren't bots indexing the new articles.

So, starting tomorrow I'll post when I have something to say, perhaps in a longer format. Indeed, I have a sermon to write (and later post) for October 6. And for the human readers, thanks for coming by.