“It’s Only Natural” (a “Green Burial” sermon)

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, October 23, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

 

 

We are all part of the Mystery. I believe that as surely as I believe I am standing here right now – and I believe that no matter what happens to us, when we die, we remain part of that Mystery – for we are part of a natural cycle – a turning which we do not understand – the Spirit of Life.

As most of you are aware, I devoted a good portion of my sabbatical, earlier this year, to studying “green,” or as I prefer to call it, “natural” burial. I visited, and hiked within, and met with the stewards of, natural burial sanctuaries from the deep Southeast to the Pacific Northwest. I spoke with funeral directors and “death doulas,” environmentalists and lawyers. I learned about local, state and national burial laws and regulations. I read research papers and masters theses and books. I met celebrities in the death field – yes, there is such a subculture, and there are such celebrities. I meditated and contemplated.

The result is that I think I can say, in all honesty and with all due humility, that I am probably better educated about what is commonly called green burial than anyone else in Cincinnati. Certainly, I have returned to my ministry here with a much clearer vision – and a renewed commitment – to creating what I have come to think of as a comprehensive end-of-life ministry which I hope we can build, together, here at Heritage Church in the years ahead.

By an “end-of-life ministry” I mean caring – compassionately and in community – for those who are dying, and for their loved ones – not just during the dying process, but afterward – all the way to the grave. This morning, I want to talk a bit about the final part of that process – the kind of loving, natural, and sacred return to the earth, as part of the cycle of life and death on this planet, which I think we might all wish for, if we truly had our druthers. And I’m here to tell you – we can. I thank you for showing up today – for being willing to hear about – and perhaps stay after the service and learn even more about – that most taboo of subjects, in America today: death.

But let’s start at the beginning. When people find out what an ardent advocate for green burial I am, their first question – well, perhaps after asking “What’s green burial?” is: “How did you get interested in that?

For me, it all began, with a pine cone…

With apologies to those of you who have heard this story before, this pine cone comes from the quaint little New England village of Concord, Massachusetts – the home of the Unitarian Transcendentalists. Specifically, it comes from a historic burial ground called Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I kid you not – that’s really its name. Even more specifically, I got this pine cone off the grave of Henry David Thoreau.

You know – Thoreau. The author of Walden. America’s literary patron saint – and Unitarian Universalism’s most eloquent spokesperson for – Nature. It was there, at the very humble grave of Henry David Thoreau, that I had an epiphany that changed my life – and certainly changed my own, ultimate destination.

You see, there’s a pine tree growing out of Thoreau’s grave. A pine tree, literally growing from the ground where the world’s most well-known and beloved naturalist is buried. I realized, standing there one fall afternoon, now nearly 20 years ago, that some of the very substance of the author of “Walden” – molecules, and atoms – part of Henry David Thoreau himself – was in that tree. That living, breathing, photosynthesis-performing, oxygen-producing tree. And thus, as well, part of him was in that pine cone, which had fallen to the ground.

This pine cone.

So I bent down … and picked the pine cone up. I drew in a deep breath. I soaked in the crisp air, and basked in the moment. It was, as they say, a religious experience – a moment of spiritual clarity and connection. I recalled those lines, immortalized in our hymnal (as are many of the words of Thoreau himself) – those lines that remind us we are stardust. I heard, in my head, the words I have since pronounced at funerals and memorial services: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

And I was comforted, beyond words, to rest, and to be held, in that eternal connection.

Since that pilgrimage to what is, in many ways, the home, the roots, of Unitarian Universalism, I have made a reverent place for this pine cone on the altar in my meditation room. (To this day, it gives me goosebumps just to hold it). To hold it, and to think about what we now – we Unitarian Universalists who are Thoreau’s spiritual descendants – call the Interdependent Web of Existence.

It struck me that fateful afternoon – as I realized that Thoreau was still a part of that interdependent web – that in Thoreau’s day, people were buried in a simple pine box. Their bodies were literally returned to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – because that pine box, broke down. It decomposed. It, and the body it contained, both went right back into the soil.

I thought of how different it had been for my father, who had recently died. I thought of how his body had been filled with embalming fluid (I didn’t yet know the more gory details of that process, details I learned during my sabbatical). I thought of how my Dad had been squeezed into a brand new suit, laid on some fluffy foam, fringed with frilly white satin, and then hermetically sealed inside a bronze, supposedly air-tight and waterproof casket (I didn’t yet know the falsity of those claims) – and finally, how he, and the whole thing, had been lowered, by a machine, into a large box of concrete that had previously been placed in the ground of an unnaturally well-groomed and manicured piece of earth.

The juxtaposition of how I imagined (and with solid historical evidence) that Thoreau’s body had been laid to rest – and how I knew my own father had been buried – that contradiction haunted me, there in that moment of clarity. And right then, my whole outlook on burial changed.

Prior to that moment at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, I had planned to be cremated when I died – largely because the one thing I knew, for certain, was that I didn’t want done to me what I had seen done to my grandparents and uncles and to my own father. I didn’t want that kind of final rites. But I had never realized I had the right to be buried another way. I had never realized how beautiful, how meaningful, how natural it would be, to simply be buried straight in the ground – perhaps in the woods.

Like my son Patrick, and my wife Jennifer, I love walking in the woods. But I had never considered that I might actually be able to end up there. Thanks to the monopolistic funeral industry in our country – thanks to our current culture of death denial in America – I had not realized that is was, in fact, possible – that it was legal to truly return to the Mother Earth I cherish – return home, to the Earth I sing about in church on Sunday mornings.

That’s the spiritual side, if you will, of my passion for natural burial. But there’s also a very pragmatic, real-world side as well. Consider, if you will, a few statistics. Some facts about what the modern funeral industry is doing to our environment.

Each year, in American cemeteries – and I say American, because the way we bury our dead in this country takes place practically nowhere else in the world – each year, we willingly and intentionally bury into the earth more than 64,000 tons of steel; more than 5 million pounds of copper and bronze; more than one and a half million tons of concrete; 20 million linear feet of lumber (that’s former trees, folks, and it’s also treated lumber) – wood that has been saturated with environmentally toxic chemicals. Then there’s the astounding 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid we also bury with – and in – our dead. Embalming fluid, it should be pointed out, is a hazardous chemical cocktail that contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It is no coincidence that embalmers have significantly higher rates of cancer than the general public.

There are other environmental costs to the way we bury our dead in the U.S. Those pristine lawns in those modern cemeteries don’t remain that way without lots and lots and lots of watering, without the use of huge amounts of pesticides and other chemicals, without constant mowing that uses a great deal of gasoline. Countless trees and other natural growth are cut away to create the vast open spaces of American cemeteries. I could go on and on.

And if you, like many others, think of cremation as the green alternative to conventional American burial – think again. Every year, in the U.S. alone, the amount of fossil fuels used in cremations could drive a car to the moon and back – 84 times. Crematories pollute. They release mercury into the air; they account for an ever-growing percentage of the also-ever-growing number of dioxins in our atmosphere. Oh – and you probably weren’t aware that most human bodies that are cremated have actually been embalmed first! Or that many are, in fact, burned in caskets. All those chemicals, and all that material, also is released into the air.

In short, the negative environmental impact of current American funeral practices – whether burial, or cremation – is quite simply staggering. For me, green burial is the obvious – the natural – alternative. As Unitarian Universalists, we share a deep reverence for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Think about those words, for a moment. Had you ever noticed that our Seventh Principle is actually composed of two parts? Yes, we celebrate “the interdependent web of existence” – but at the same time, we are called to acknowledge the undeniable fact that we, ourselves, are part of that web.

This is a heretical statement. It goes against the grain of Western culture – a culture which desperately declares, at every possible opportunity, that human beings are somehow separate from, somehow elevated above, the natural world. Yet deep inside, all of us know that simply is not true. And modern science confirms what native peoples have always told us – that we are inextricably woven into the fabric of all existence. You come from stardust. You, and I, are connected. Something that was once part of Thoreau, is now part of this pine cone.

Now, let me tell you about a few places I’ve visited in the past year – places where it is easy (much easier than in an urban or suburban landscape, much easier than in a conventional American cemetery) to feel, to experience, to know the reality of our interconnection with Nature. Places where that fundamental, elemental reality of our place in the natural cycle is literally made manifest.

I took the picture that is on the cover of your order of service at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in North Carolina. Those of you who saw the green burial documentary “A Will for the Woods” – which we premiered in Cincinnati right here in this sanctuary roughly a year ago, and which I will be showing again this winter – may recognize the “Path of Clark’s Reflection.” Clark Wang was the young doctor who, while dying of cancer, convinced a conventional cemetery outside Raleigh, N.C., to create a natural burial sanctuary.

You may have noticed my language choice – that I said “conventional” cemetery. We in the green burial movement refuse to call our modern American cemeteries what they would prefer to be called – “traditional” cemeteries – because they are anything but traditional. In fact, they have only been around a few decades – not very long, in the scheme of things, compared to eternity – or, for that matter, even compared to “tradition.”

While at Pine Forest, I visited Clark Wang’s grave. I got to spend an afternoon with Dyanne Matzkevich, the manager of the conventional cemetery there, whose heart (and mind) were so opened by Clark Wang’s passion for returning naturally to the earth, that in his final days she made his dying wish possible – thus initiating a process that created the only Green Burial Council certified cemetery in the state of North Carolina. Over the past five years, dozens of people have been buried there – naturally.

But what, you may still be wondering, is meant by that term “buried naturally”? A natural, or green burial, returns the body to the earth without the use of embalming fluids, concrete vaults, metal caskets, or artificially maintained and manicured outdoor settings. The landscape is allowed to grow, naturally, and the only things buried in the earth are natural and biodegradable: The human body. Perhaps a shroud, made of natural fabric. Perhaps the traditional – and here, “traditional” is an appropriate word – pine box, handmade, of untreated wood. Often, the grave is dug by hand, rather than by heavy machinery. Often, loved ones help to fill in the grave after participating in laying their beloved lovingly into the earth.

I suspect what I have just described to you is very different from most, if not all, of the funerals you have experienced in your lifetime. Few living people, other than perhaps Orthodox Jews or monastic Catholics, have ever taken part in such a burial. But if you are anything like me, the picture I have just painted is a much more moving, meaningful, and inspiring scenario to contemplate. I have been blessed to witness such burials – and I can tell you, they are among the most sacred events I have ever participated in.

Yet in our culture, very few people have had that opportunity. We “outsource” death, as I like to put it, in our society – all the better to keep it away, keep it at arm’s length – a futile effort to separate ourselves from the reality of life itself – that we, and those we love, will die. In the process, we miss out on the possibility of integrating this most natural of events into our lives.

Like many of the other things that have become commonplace in 21st century America, I think our ancestors would simply shake their heads at what we do – and what we don’t do – when a loved one dies.

Let me tell you about another place I visited during my sabbatical. White Eagle Memorial Preserve is part of a 2,000-acre tract of land being preserved by the Sacred Earth Foundation. It is located adjacent to Native American tribal land in Goldendale, Washington. One day this summer, the preserve’s manager, Jodie Buller, showed me gravesites and told me many heartwarming stories about families whose lives and relationships had been forever changed by the distinctly human – yet, sadly, now all too uncommon – experience of burying their loved ones, in sacred ground. I was witness to Jodie’s undisguised joy (and surprise) at seeing a fresh growth of wildflowers that had just emerged from a recently dug grave. I shared her tears – and noticed the wind suddenly whip up, raising the hairs on the back of my neck – as she told me about a woman from the East Coast, who had wanted a natural burial on native land, but who had been too sick from the cancer that eventually killed her to travel to White Eagle and pick out her gravesite. Together with the woman’s sister, Jodie made her final wish happen.

All around the country, at every one of the dozen or so natural burial sites I’ve visited this year, I have witnessed the simple beauty and wonder of human life, ending and returning naturally to the earth which is our original Source. All around the country, I have heard moving stories of how both the living survivors, and their dying loved ones, have been deeply touched, and profoundly changed, by the journey of undertaking a green burial. Every one of the sacred spaces we call a natural burial sanctuary enhances, stewards and protects the natural cycle – and the plants and animals that comprise its ecosystem. Can you say the same about the cemeteries you’ve run across, in the course of your life?

Here’s another thing you may not know: Ohio is home to several natural burial sanctuaries. They are very different from one another, and embody two current trends in the green burial movement. In the northern part of the state, there are Foxfield Preserve, and Kokosing Nature Preserve. Both are conservation land trusts, where natural burials are integrated into – and an integral part of – the preservation and restoration of land that had once been threatened by development or pollution. In western Ohio, there are a growing number of so-called “hybrid” cemeteries – conventional cemeteries that – as did Pine Forest in North Carolina – have designated a portion of their acreage as greenspace, for green burials only.

But unfortunately, there is no natural burial location in southwest Ohio. I hope someday to be involved in changing that – and I hope this congregation will be involved as well. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to bury your loved ones – to be buried, yourself – in the truly “traditional” human way? To return to the earth. To become part of the natural cycle, once again. To become, say, a tree – or as Les sang about this morning, to grow into goldenrod? I have happened across goldenrod at Foxfield Preserve here in Ohio, thriving around, and even on, natural graves.

My journey into the world of natural burial has been much like that of documentary filmmaker Sarah Thomas, who described her first experience of a natural burial sanctuary by saying, “It is … a burial site – and yet [it is] one of the most alive places I have ever [been]… Far from being morbid … what struck me most is the sense that those laid to rest just become part of what is already there… For me,” she continued, “this translates most accurately what death is – part of a continuum, rather than a finite ending.”

Then Thomas concludes – and I fully agree with her – that green burial creates “a resting place, that feels right.”

Or – and I offer you this quote on a weekend when we have seen the most powerful hurricane in recorded history make landfall in North America – as licensed funeral director and green burial advocate Caitlin Doughty puts it, “The type of person who believes climate change is a serious threat to the environment is the type of person who is not going to want the body of a loved one to go into the ground pumped full of cancer-causing chemicals and locked in a metal casket, in a big concrete vault.”

I could go on, but it would only belabor the point. My study, my research – my experiences over my sabbatical, and beyond – have turned me into something of me a green burial evangelist – and I know that evangelists can sometimes be insufferable. So I will simply invite you, if you have questions or want to learn more, to stay after the service. Take a bathroom break, get something to drink, and then come back into the sanctuary at noon. I will be showing some brief videos, including an actual green burial, and I will be providing handouts you can take home, dispelling common myths and misconceptions, and of course offering space for questions and answers, dialogue and discussion.

Before I conclude my reflection, however, I want to make a commitment to you, as your minister. I promise that I will do everything in my power to help anyone in this congregation, who wants a natural burial – for yourself, or for a loved one. I now have the resources and the connections to make that happen – perhaps not yet here in Cincinnati, though I’m working on that – but I commit to you that I will help and guide you in the process of natural burial, should you or someone you care about be interested in doing so.

I leave you with a few lines from a poem titled “The Bed,” by Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer who is as close to the earth, and as in tune with the natural cycle, as anyone I have ever met. He writes:

 

 

The ground’s a grave – and so it thrives…

A thousand thousand years will bloom here, in the spring.

Upon the living, sing the blessings of the dead.

 

Blessed be, my friends. I love you. And Amen.

“The Pope, the Polls, People and the Planet”

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Come into this circle. You belong here. You are welcome here – you are loved here.

We offer you this invitation, at the conclusion of a very remarkable week in American history. Sitting here, now, as we do – in the midst of the visit of Pope Francis to the United States – if we had not told you that the antiphonal reading came from a Unitarian Universalist minister, perhaps it might have been just as easy for us to imagine those words of welcome and inclusion coming from the lips of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Think about that, for a moment. It is remarkable indeed…

The original title of my sermon today was “The Search for Significance” – and I had planned to reflect on the human religious impulse, which drives us to seek meaning and significance in this life. But I changed my preaching plans midweek – after hearing the message of, and witnessing the public reaction to, a humble man from Argentina, now known to all the world as Pope Francis – a man who has become, in just two short years as the Bishop of Rome, the most significant religious figure in the world today – possibly even in our lifetime.

I, for one, never would have dreamed that I would be moved to preach, in a Unitarian Universalist church … about a Pope. But never say never! This remarkable – and there’s that word again – this remarkable man shatters all the stereotypes. He breaks the mold. He walks, to quote another Unitarian, to the beat of his own drummer. And praise God that he does!

So here I stand, someone who – and this is no exaggeration – had never even known a Catholic, as far as I’m aware, until I was in college (you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the blue collar South, where – unlike Ohio – it seems nearly every family was BaptistSouthern Baptist, to be precise, or at least evangelically Protestant) – but here I am, a UU minister, preaching to a congregation that is probably majority former Catholic – about the Pope. Let me just say, I feel a bit like a fish out of water.

Yet I know that my experience, this past week is shared by many. I know that I am part of the circle – because I have been invited in, unbeliever that I am – and not to try to convert me, or to tell me that I’m not saved. No, I have been invited into a loving and welcoming circle of humanity – as have you.

So let’s look back on some of what has happened, in the past few days – let’s reflect, together, on what I have called “The Pope, the Polls, People and the Planet.”

The visit of this Pope to America could not have come at a better time. Our public discourse has become unbearably painful. Partisan political divisions and rancorous religious debates have poisoned the well from which we drink, such that it often seems as if bitterness and hatred are choking out any message of tolerance – much less, of love. We are far too quick to focus on those things that separate us – often unwilling even to look for areas of agreement. Name-calling, demonization and demagoguery are the norm in our society today.

And into this – riding in a tiny Fiat, right up to the White House; walking humbly into the halls of Congress; speaking softly, in multiple languages, to nearly 200 heads of state at the United Nations – into these places of power and polarization – comes Pope Francis, the very embodiment of humility and compassion; the very voice of forgiveness and acceptance.

Consider his method. He doesn’t emphasize doctrine – but puts his energy, and his considerable moral and ethical and even political capital – into ministering to the hungry, the sick, the poor, the refugees. This afternoon, he will meet with victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse. Instead of pushing dogma, instead of digging in his heels about doctrine (which he knows would simply sow more seeds of division) – he reaches out in compassion. He leads with love.

That is the brilliance of this Pope. By modeling his living and his teaching, dare I say it, on the aspects of Jesus’ living and teaching that include, rather than exclude – that embrace, rather than reject – Pope Francis reaches across the divides that separate us, here in the 21st century. He avoids the my-way-or-the-highway, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude of many in his position – be they leaders of faith traditions or political movements. Instead, he exudes a genuine and heartfelt love of all. Let me say that again: Pope Francis demonstrates, expresses, embodies a genuine and heartfelt love – for all people. His is a ministry not just for the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics of this world. It is a ministry, for humanity.

This week, we who live in America have gotten a taste of what that type of ministry can mean for people. What it can mean for our planet. Yes – Pope Francis gave well-documented speeches to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, and met with President Obama and many other world leaders. He spoke truth to power – a phrase originally Quaker in origin, by the way – but for just a moment, I ask you to consider more of the other things the Pope has done, while visiting America. He went onto the streets in Harlem, walking among poor and disadvantaged people – black and brown and white, red and yellow – hugging children and parents, the hungry and the homeless. At one point he blessed a large group of refugees and immigrants who had come to America from six different continents.

Two days earlier, on the streets in Washington, D.C., he embraced the five-year old daughter of immigrant workers, who handed him a letter and begged him to “please protect my parents, because every day I am scared they will be taken away.” As I speak, he is scheduled to be visiting a prison in Philadelphia – meeting with accused robbers, rapists and murderers – as well as some of their victims.

In short, my friends, this is a pontiff who both talks the talk and walks the walk of his faith. In the span of five whirlwind days, he has challenged the leaders of the world on everything from greed and corruption to protecting the environment to helping the poor – and he has ministered to what Jesus called “the least of these.” In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the carpenter’s son from Nazareth – if given five days in 21st century America – doing exactly the same things as the immigrant’s son from Buenos Aires has done. Talking the talk, and walking the walk – and doing it all, with a spirit of palpable love and inclusion.

That is because, unlike politicians and even many of the world’s major religious leaders, Pope Francis puts people ahead of polls. He puts the planet, ahead of profits. This is a man who clearly doesn’t consult pundits or pollsters – or, for that matter, it seems, many Catholic higher-ups – before he speaks. Instead, he consults his heart and he consults his God. He prays – and then he speaks from his heart – and right to the heart of the people.

He prioritizes what he calls “the common good” above the acquisition of wealth and power. Heck, just the fact that he uses phrases like “the common good,” is novel, in the dialogue of our day.

But the Pope hardly stops there. In addressing the United Nations this week – and remember, this was a gathering of heads of state and decision makers from almost 200 different countries – he made a truly radical (yet, I would argue, very biblically grounded) proclamation about our planet. “It must be stated,” he declared, “that a true right of the environment does exist.” In other words, not only do humans, and animals (he specifically mentioned both) have what he called “inherent rights” – but the environment itself does, as well.

He made his case thusly: “We human beings are part of the environment,” he said. “We live in communion with it… [We] possess a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements – and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”

As a Unitarian Universalist, my heart leapt with joy when I heard the head of the Catholic Church say those words – words that resonate with my own belief in, and reverence for, what we UU’s like to call the “interdependent web of existence” – our seventh principle.

But the Pope was not done. He went on to declare, “Every creature … has an intrinsic value – in its existence, its life, its beauty, and its interdependence with other creatures.” Again, that was not me talking, or another Unitarian Universalist – it was Pope Francis. In those words, I heard strains of both our seventh principle and our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yet careful listeners will notice that Pope Francis – like the saint from whom he has taken both his name, and his inspiration – broadened our first principle beyond just persons, to all living creatures.

Notice as well how the Pope makes the degradation of our planet’s environment – what he at one point referred to as “our common home” – a justice issue. And a universal justice issue at that. Pope Francis refuses to be drawn into the ridiculous, disingenuous partisan political quagmire of debating the validity of climate change. He accepts that human beings are damaging the environment – and thus, in his words, “doing harm to humanity” – and he pulls no punches in pointing out why.

“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion,” he told the United Nations on Friday. “In effect,” he went on, “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads to the misuse of available natural resources, and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged… Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity, and a grave offense against human rights.”

I don’t know about you, but I find great hope in the fact that such words are coming from the mouth of a Pope – that such ideas, are being heard (and must be taken seriously) by literally billions of people all around this planet. As international leaders approach a couple of very crucial climate summits this fall, having the clout of the leader of the Catholic Church behind such ideas could make a huge difference in our collective human will to make the changes necessary to save our planet, and save ourselves.

Closer to home, too, Pope Francis had very important – and potentially healing – words to say, in addressing our divisive, partisan politics. He began his speech to Congress – with two devout Catholics who rarely agree on any political issue, Joe Biden and John Boehner, sitting right behind him – by saying, “I would like not only to address you, but through you, the entire people of the United States.” So listen, my friends, to what the Pope had to say to us – for I believe these words, and these sentiments, are very important for us to hear, and to take to heart:

“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by,” he said, “the disturbing social and political situation in the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities – committed even in the name of God, and of religion.

“[And] we know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism – whether religious or any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of religion, [or of] an ideology, or [of] an economic system.

“But there is another temptation,” the Pope continued, “which we must especially guard against – the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil, or, if you will, [only] the righteous, and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide us into these two camps.”

I would submit to you that polarization begins when we judge. When we pre-judge, of course – but also when we post-judge. When we divide, or separate people, in our minds and in our hearts. When we see them, as the Pope put it, as either good or evil people, as either righteous or sinful. And remember, this is the same Pope who famously said, “Who am I, to judge?”

That, right there, is how you overcome polarization. By adopting an attitude of “Who am I, to judge?” Those five words – uttered, from the heart, by this humble man, not long after he became Pope, set the tone for his papacy. They sum up his message to the world. They are his prescription for the polarization that threatens to destroy us – and our planet. They are the simple message of Pope Francis – and they are incredibly powerful. Just look at what that message has wrought, in only five days, in America.

It is a message I pray we take to heart – whether we be former Catholics or current Catholics, pagans or Protestants, atheists or agnostics, or simply diverse Unitarian Universalists, struggling with how to live and love in a world that seems, at times, hell-bent on destruction. We must confront polarization … with love. We must stand on the side of love. Pope Francis – whose views I do not all agree with, of course (and that, after all, is the point!) – Pope Francis offers us a shining example of how we can live together, as human brothers and sisters, despite our differences. Not by ignoring them. Not by allowing ourselves to become obsessed with them. Rather, by living our daily lives humbly and with integrity – but most of all, with love in our hearts.

May the world heed his call. May we heed his call. For to do so just might be to save the people – and save the planet.

Namaste. Shalom. Blessed be. And amen!

 

“Spirit in Life”

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Now that you have been transported by the music, by the vibrant voices of our Choir, by the sublime silence that followed – I encourage you to reflect, for a moment, on what you have just experienced. If you’re part of the congregation today, you have heard, and seen beauty. As I say, it is a gift that you have received.

And if you are in the Choir – you have the added satisfaction of knowing that you have given a gift, to others. Over the years, I have had many singers tell me that the feeling they get when a singing choral music, together, is indeed nothing less than a spiritual experience. The same is true for musicians and directors.

So let us rejoice, this morning, that truly “music brings us together.” It transports and transforms us, as it lifts us up, beyond the small and fractional – helping us transcend ourselves, and connect with something larger, and deeper, perhaps something even beyond our understanding.

Music, of course, is but one way we experience the Spirit in life. Our days are teeming with countless other pathways, countless other wide-open and inviting – or at least partially open, and waiting doors to the transcendent. But to walk through those doors – to choose to open one of those doors – we must shake off the distractions and the fears that keep us bound in the shackles of an all-too-often spirit-less daily grind.

After all – this is why we are here, at church, right? To leave behind the daily grind. To escape, if just for an hour, if just for a moment, the busyness, the commotion, the distraction, what Forrest Church called “the detritus” of our lives. David Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist scholar whose specialty is the Transcendentalists, says that in UU congregations, “There is a feeling or hunger for a deeper inner life, and a more profound experience of the world that we share. We are haunted by the specter of our own superficiality – by the uneasy feeling that life is sliding by and leaving no deep mark on us. That we’re missing some more ‘real’ experience that would add marrow to the dry bones of our daily routine. We have found many ways of dealing with this spiritual hunger, or masking it, or [even] denying it … but we have also found that it has a curious persistence.”

We are drawn here, drawn together, by that common desire Robinson describes – that hunger for something more meaningful, something more relevant, something that really matters. This is why we come to a religious community – to a sanctuary – on a gorgeous Sunday morning in September, when we could just as well have slept in, played golf, done the crossword puzzle, weeded the garden.

I’m not disparaging those things. In fact, I’d be the first to tell you that anything can be a gateway to heaven. Anything, can help you see and experience the Spirit in your life – provided, you are intentional. Provided the right mindset, and orientation. And lots of practice.

Which is why most of us never achieve enlightenment, much less nirvana.

No, most of us are much more like the poet Marie Howe, than we are like the Buddha. So as I begin my reflection today, I want to go back, for just a moment, to that poem I read right before the Choir sang. You will recall that it was titled “Prayer” – and indeed, it was a prayer. The “you” that Howe addresses, in the poem/prayer, is God. Goddess. The Divine. The Holy. Allah. Brahman. Yahweh. Shiva. Shakti. The Spirit of Life.

It doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters, is that you call it. What matters, is that you seek it, in your life. Seek, and ye shall find – but don’t seek – and, well, ye shan’t find!

I could say to you that the Spirit is always there – which is what I believe. I could tell you that you are literally swimming in the Spirit of Life right now – which is also what I believe. But unless you look for it, unless you notice – those words will mean nothing to you. It will not change how you experience your life. It will not change your life.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate to Marie Howe’s prayer: “Help me.” I can relate to her question: “Why do I flee from you?” I can relate to her complaint: “Every day I want to speak with you – and every day something more important calls for my attention.” Then she goes on to enumerate some of those allegedly “important” things – a veritable grocery list of the mundane. And then there’s the kicker: The poet realizes that “even as I write these words, I am planning to rise from the chair, as soon as I finish this sentence.”

Boom. Busted! Again, I don’t know about you, but that last line hit waaay to close to home for me. “Even as I write these words, I am planning to rise from the chair, as soon as I finish this sentence.”

This morning – not four hours ago – I was there, in my meditation room, on my yoga mat, doing my daily morning spiritual (and physical) practice – when, wouldn’t you know it, I realized my mind was not on mindful movement, or on breathing – but on this morning’s worship service. This worship service. Four hours ago, I was trying to live this moment. To plan for it. To make sure it went exactly how I wanted it to go.

So what to do, about this all-too-common, all-too-human, tendency? How do we learn, to, in yogic terms, be on our mat – how do we, in Marie Howe’s metaphor, learn to sit in that chair – to be still – to not only stop and smell the roses, but to find, in them, something sacred, something that can simultaneously bring us into contact with that which is bigger and beyond ourselves, while also teaching us something about ourselves? How do we, in the words of another great poet, learn to “hold infinity in the palm of our hand, and eternity in an hour”?

That, my friends, is the project of a lifetime – and it begins, in believe, together. “May the music bring us together,” the Choir sang – and truly, for a moment – it did. Yet the Choir could only give us that gift, because we were here. We showed up. We ventured, perhaps, a bit out of our comfort zones, and chose to come to a place called a “church” – where we knew someone called a “minister” would be talking about something called “spirituality.” Maybe even encouraging us to pray. To be silent. To seek God.

Yet knowing all that, we opened our hearts – and thus, we opened one of those doors to the Spirit.

I want to invite you – those of you who perhaps would like to open another door, this year, at Heritage Church – I invite you to become part of a program I am calling “Spirit in Life.” We know about the Spirit of Life … At least, we sing about it, and talk about it sometimes. Maybe we don’t know that much about it, after all – and maybe we haven’t thought about it very much, either.

Maybe it’s time to change that.

That’s why next month, I will begin offering small, intimate, interpersonal “Spirit in Life” groups – groups where individuals will come together and contemplate where, and how, the Spirit is working in their lives. Using a model I studied over the course of my sabbatical, when I received training in Unitarian Universalist congregational spiritual direction – I hope to create a safe, intentional and decidedly spiritual space, here within the Heritage community, for those persons who want to open some of the spiritual doors I’ve been talking about, and seek a connection – be it a new connection or a deeper connection – a connection with the Spirit of Life. With the Divine. With the Great Mystery.

We’ll talk some about language, at the start – but then move quickly into exploring your spirituality, exercising your individual spiritual muscles as it were – developing, or strengthening, your spiritual practice. And we’ll do it together, in small groups of two or three, or at the most four seekers, all of whom will commit to meet for 90 minutes a month, October through May. That’s barely 10 total hours, this entire church year. Isn’t your spiritual life worth that much?

Perhaps at this point I should explain the difference between a Spirit-in-Life group, as I am envisioning it, and what we at Heritage have called “Chalice Circles.” Both offer small-group connections within a church community – but whereas a Chalice Circle is somewhat larger, and meets to discuss pretty much whatever may be going in the lives of its members – a Spirit-in-Life group will be intentionally very small, and will be focused entirely on its members’ spiritual lives. Though done with others, it can be a very individual journey. By definition we will be looking for the Spirit, and seeking to connect with it – through prayer and reflection, meditation and sharing, and individual spiritual practices.

So if you’re looking for an adventure – I’m looking for you. If what you seek is an adventure of the spirit, I want you to be part of this first year of Spirit in Life at Heritage Church. I have room for a couple dozen seekers, who want to go on this adventure with me.

Those who sign up for this pilot program will, together, strive to deepen their spiritual lives, in beloved community. There will be groups on Sunday evenings, Monday mornings, and Tuesday evenings – and remember, it’s only 90 minutes a month. If you are interested, speak with me after the service, and I’ll be back in touch with you soon.

Thus ends the advertisement portion of this morning’s service. And now, back to our reflection!

Whether or not you ever become part of a Spirit in Life group, here or at any other church – I submit to you that you are surrounded by Spirit. In truth, you cannot escape it, even if you wanted to. In our remaining time together today, I will make my case, for that claim.

I mentioned during our Membership Ceremony that one of our new members described herself as “spiritual, but not religious” – a term that is now used, by sociologists, to describe the fastest growing demographic group in the country. I suspect that most of our new members – and that most of us, here in this sanctuary – also consider ourselves to be “spiritual, but not religious.” By that we mean that while we have a sense of our own spirituality, and perhaps feel something of a longing to explore and express that spirituality – we nonetheless find that the traditional practices of orthodox religion simply to not move us. For many, in fact, those practices and dogmas are what has driven us away from more conventional kinds of churches. They are a roadblock, as it were, on the path of our personal, spiritual exploration.

This was the stance taken by the 19th century Transcendentalists – who collectively had more influence on modern Unitarian Universalist thought and, yes, spirituality, than did any other historical group or philosophy. And as I pointed out a moment ago, it is also the stance taken by a rapidly growing number of Americans today. Nearly a quarter of the adult U.S. population now describe themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, almost half of those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” say they engage in prayer, or some other form of spiritual practice, every day. But what exactly is meant, by “prayer or some other form of spiritual practice”? That can sound pretty daunting, pretty off-putting.

Here it might help if we turn for guidance to two of the great ambassadors of the Spirit in life. Anne Lamott, in her book “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith,” writes, “It doesn’t matter how you pray – with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief – or dancing. Churches are good for prayer – but so are garages, and cars, and mountains, and showers, and dance floors.”

Now listen – one should always listen, carefully – to Walt Whitman: “I know of nothing else, but miracles. Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water – or stand under trees in the woods… To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same; every foot of the interior, swarms with the same.”

Whitman’s words remind me of that wonderful song by Catholic turned Unitarian Universalist Peter Mayer, “Holy Now,” in which he sings, “When I was in Sunday School … I remember feeling sad, that miracles don’t happen still / but now I can’t keep track – ’cause everything’s a miracle… / When holy water was rare at best / it barely wet my fingertips / but now I have to hold my breath / like I’m swimming, in a sea of it … / Everything – everything – everything, is holy now.”

The song of a bird in the morning, or of a cricket at night. The glory of a mountain range, or the crashing of the waves on a beach. The joyous squeal of delight when a young child discovers something new – or that sublime second of silence, at the end of a powerful piece of music, when you soak it all in, with gratitude. The unconditional love of a four-legged, furry friend – or the very human love, of a life partner.

I remember distinctly the moment when one of my “church kids” – a high school senior in Tulsa who was in the youth group there – asked me point blank if I had ever seen God. He wasn’t so much challenging me, as he was being a good Unitarian skeptic.

Without missing a beat – I think that surprised him, most of all – I said yes, I surely had. I had seen God, in the eyes of a certain young woman. That woman is now my wife.

Seeing God in the eyes of another – that is the meaning of the Sanskrit word I use, on a daily basis. “Namaste” is the recognition of the holy, in our companions. It is sometimes translated “The Divine in me, greets the Divine in you.”

What a beautiful – what a powerful and profound – spiritual claim that is! There is divinity in you. There is divinity in me. Everything is holy now.

My prayer for you today – and my prayer for us, in this coming year – is that we will seek the signatures of the Spirit, all around us. All around us – and within us.

The Spirit of Life – the Spirit in life – is everywhere, for those who have eyes to see. Seek – and I promise, you will find.

Blessed be. Namaste. And amen!

 

Black Lives Matter

readings, silent witness and a reflection

by Rev. Bill Gupton

Sunday, August 23, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

First: Listening to Black Voices

The subject of today’s service is racism – and what one activist has called the new “revolution against racism.” In recent years, it has become clear to those of us white people who have been working for racial justice and seeking to be allies with the black community, that we need to listen more. Listen to the black experience. Listen, to black voices.

Although I am about as white and privileged as it is possible to be, please know that the voices you are about to hear – the experiences you are about to hear about – are black voices. Black experiences.

Please listen.

The first voice is that of Claudia Rankine, who wrote the following this summer, in the New York Times:

A friend told me that when she gave birth to her son – before naming him, before nursing him – her first thought was: “I have to get him out of this country!”… [Now], years after his birth, whenever her son steps out of their home, her status as the mother of a living human being, remains as precarious as ever. Added to the natural fears of every parent facing the randomness of life is this other knowledge, of the ways in which institutional racism works in our country…

I asked another friend what it’s like [to be the parent of a black child]… “The condition of black life is mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time, inside her and her son’s reality – at any moment, she might lose her reason for living…

Though the white, liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering – there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that, as a black person, you can be killed for simply being black. No hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering that building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.

Those words were written by a black parent, right after the killings in Charleston. Right after people were killed for praying while black. It is important that we remember that the Charleston shootings did not happen in a vacuum. Just listen to this description of something that was going on in Charleston, 25 years ago. This is a passage from Dorothy Roberts’ book “Killing the Black Body”:

In 1989, officials in Charleston, South Carolina, initiated a policy of arresting pregnant women whose prenatal tests revealed that they were smoking crack. In some cases, a team of police tracked down expectant mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods; in others, officers invaded the maternity ward to haul away patients in handcuffs and leg irons, hours after giving birth.

One woman spent the final weeks of pregnancy detained in a dingy cell in the Charleston County Jail. When she went into labor, she was transported, in chains, to the hospital – and remained shackled to the bed during the entire delivery.

All but one of the four dozen women arrested [in this manner] … in Charleston – was black.

The following is an excerpt from the poem “Darkest Truth,” by African American poet Mia Wright of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She read this poem during a worship service at the All Souls Unitarian Church last winter:

Confession: Sometimes, I watch my daughter ball her hands into little brown fists, and I reach out and slap them open. This reflexive action, quicker and less painful than explaining [to her] that in our society, her fist symbolizes a danger she can’t even conceive of – simply because of its color.

The slap I give is lighter than the dark truth: That despite her progressive upbringing, magnet-school education, and diverse friend pool – her physicality is always at its blackest when she is displaying unpleasant emotions in public. And so, put simply, she can’t. That part of her selfhood must always be expressed sequestered in the privacy of home, where her anger, sorrow, rage or humiliation won’t “frighten” anyone.

The dark truth of being a black mother of a black baby in America is that I must teach my child not only how to read, but how not to be mis-read. How to speak softly, tread lightly, smile reassuringly. Unfurrow brows, and open hands. How to not get suspended from school. How to not get restrained by security guards, or “accidentally” shot by police. How the caustic cocktail of being both angry, and black, could at any moment, cost her her life…

Confession: Sometimes I watch my white friends’ children with something like hollow envy. I watch their cream-colored fingers curl into fists no one finds aggressive or threatening. Hear their frustrated screams echo through grocery store or shopping mall, met only by sympathetic concern or annoyed, passing glances – and I think, in awe: There is something my child, cannot do

I confess: I don’t know how to tell her this. How do I explain to her that she must grow wary of her own body – its movements, posture and volume – just because God colored her skin a deeper shade of holy…

How do I tell her she can be anything she wants to be – but there is this one thing, she will always have to be: Black. And everything that means.

Which brings us to this passage from the fictional black character Baby Suggs, in Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved”:

We flesh. Flesh that weeps. Laughs. Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.

Love it. Love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ’em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people, they do not love your hands. Those they only use – tie – bind – chop off – and leave empty.

[So] love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face – ’cause they don’t love that either…

And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken – and break it again. What you say out of it, they will not heed. What you scream from it, they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body, they will snatch away, and give you leavin’s instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You gotta love it.

This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest, and to dance. Backs that need support. Shoulders that need arms – strong arms, I’m tellin’ you. And O my people! Out yonder, hear me: They do not love your neck, unnoosed and straight. So love your neck. Put a hand on it – grace  it – stroke it. And hold it up.

The final reading, the final voice, that Kathy and I offer you before the witness and the reflection, is that of Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, one of the leaders, of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an interview with Yes magazine, he was quoted as saying:

[Ours] is the longest rebellion against state violence in the history of the country. It’s secondary only to the Montgomery bus boycott, and six months longer than the Selma campaign…

They left Michael Brown’s body in the street for four and a half hours… It was right before school started, and there was a bouncy castle across the street from where he was lying. So there were five-year-olds saying “Mike’s laying in the street!”

They brought out police dogs before they brought an ambulance. They tried to put his body in the trunk of a car. The community was like, “You put that body in the trunk of a car, and ain’t nobody leaving here alive.” So they put his body in an SUV. That was undiginified. And when young people tried to find answers – they were met with tanks, and tear gas. It was too much.”

Silent Witness

I suspect that hearing these five black voices – all speaking with one voice, telling us the about the black experience – has generated some powerful emotions, and perhaps some conflicting thoughts, in your heart and in your mind. In a moment, I will invite you to experience those thoughts and feelings – all of them – and to bear silent witness to the unspeakable pain and horror that has been inflicted, and continues to be inflicted, on black bodies, and on black lives, in this country.

In the year since Ferguson, Rev. Sekou has gone all over the country, speaking and teaching, leading marches and actions and die-ins. He has taken those four and a half hours he referred to – the time that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street in Ferguson – and condensed them into four and a half minutes of silent witness.

In Portland, Oregon, this June, I and many other attendees at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly lay down in the street, in the middle of a busy intersection, blocking traffic, for four and a half minutes in a silent “die-in” to protest what at that time was the most recent act of atrocity against black lives in America: the murders in Charleston.

Four and a half minutes is a long time to lie in the street. It is a long time to remain silent – much longer, than we usually do, here in this sanctuary. Yet I am asking you this morning – I invite you, now – to spend four and a half minutes, in silent reflection, and in silent witness…

[four and a half minutes of silence]

Reflection:

“Black Lives Matter.” The most radical, most incendiary, most controversial statement one can make in America today.

It should give us pause, that a statement so simple, so objectively straightforward as “black lives matter” is so upsetting, to so many white people – but perhaps I should first give you a moment to pause, after four and a half minutes of silent witness. So go ahead – you can exhale now…

These are tough realities, we’re facing – not just inconvenient, but very difficult truths we’re dealing with.

And so I begin with what I consider an absolutely fundamental truth: Black lives matter. The first time I heard that slogan, my instant reaction was “Hell yes! Darn right. What a simple, succinct, undeniable motto and mantra. Way to go, whoever came up with that!”

How naïve of me. I live in a very sheltered cocoon, because it didn’t even occur to me that in America today – in America, ever since America was America – there is actually a prevailing attitude that goes something like this: “How dare black people publicly insist that their lives matter? How dare they make us white people look at how we’re treating them?”

The pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement – a movement that began as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, for killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin – the pushback was immediate – and it continues to this day. “All lives matter” quickly became the refrain of the defenders of the status quo, who feigned indignation at the implication (which of course, was never there) that white lives don’t matter. So let’s get this part out of the way, straight away:

Of course, all lives matter. As Universalists, that idea is the very foundation of our faith. All lives matter. Just because I am wearing a bracelet, today, that says “Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists” – does not mean that I (or we) don’t believe all lives matter, too. Of course they do. Police who are killed – matter. People whom police kill – matter. All lives matter.

But I have to admit it makes me more than a little angry – yes, angry – when I hear my theology, my personal, religious belief that all lives matter – turned into a disingenuous, mean-spirited, hate-filled denial of the reality – yes, the reality – that we live in a nation, and are enmeshed in a social order, that demonstrates, time and time again, day after day, that some lives matter more than others – and some lives matter less.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – a national tragedy that made it perfectly clear, for those who have eyes to see, exactly where our priorities are – and where they are not – in modern America. Exactly whose lives, matter.

If you think about it, there’s never really been a need for anyone to declare that “white lives matter.” Everything in this country – how we allocate our resources for everything from streets and highways to fire trucks and schools – from how we make health care available, to how we make food available – everything that happens in America, says that white lives matter.

So when I first encountered “black lives matter,” as I said, I didn’t realize how brilliantly revolutionary those three words really are. It never occurred to me – no doubt, because of where I live, how I was raised, and the lens through which I see the world – that the assertion “black lives matter” was, by definition, counter-cultural. It directly challenges a culture which tells black people, from the very moment they are born, that they, and their very lives, don’t matter.

Remember that woman who thought to herself “How can I get my son out of this country” when she gave birth to a black male child? She couldn’t get him out, of course – that’s not really an option for most people, of any color – and now, she lives with the daily fear that when her son leaves the house, he may not come home alive.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine? I’m a father, and we just sent our only child off to college on Thursday. While I have the usual parental worries about my kid being off in the world without me – what I don’t have to deal with are the very real – and very realistic – fears of a black parent. Those fears are generations old – and as fresh as this week.

This past Wednesday, it happened again in St. Louis – not many miles from Ferguson, in fact. An 18-year-old African-American was shot in the back and killed, by a white policeman – a fact confirmed both by an autopsy, and by the St. Louis police chief himself. It has now been four days since that young black man died at the hands of a uniformed officer. Statistically speaking, therefore, there has probably been another such death, somewhere in the U.S., since then.

But as is the case in nearly every one of these situations – apologists have focused on facts that cast the victim in the worst possible light. In this case, the young man in question was fleeing from a house where drugs were found. As if that means, somehow, that his life, did not matter. As if that means, he deserved to die.

On that same day – Wednesday – downtown, here in Cincinnati, lawyers for Officer Ray Tensing, who has been charged with murder in the death of Samuel DuBose, were back in court. The killing of DuBose happened while I was out of town at SUUSI with my family. I didn’t even hear about it until we were back, and in fact had been back in town a few days. How insulated, we can be. How inoculated, we who are comfortably suburban, comfortably white – how immune we are to the harsh reality that others must face, each and every day.

Recently, I had a conversation with an African-American woman who asked me what made me decide to preach to my all-white church, about Black Lives Matter. My answer was simple: The death of Samuel DuBose.

Three young black men have been gunned down in Ohio in the past year – at least, three that the media have raised to our awareness and consciousness. First there was 12-year-old Tamir Rice, in Cleveland; then 22-year-old John Crawford III in Dayton. Now, these killings have once again reached Cincinnati – reminding many of those terrible days in 2001, after the killing of Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine.

Let us praise the city for how far it has come since then – and particularly let us praise the black community, and Black Lives Matter leaders, for how they have handled this latest tragedy, with non-violent protests and resistance – but let us also listen to the voice of that African-American woman whom I was talking with recently. She told me something that chilled me to the bone. She said there’s a saying, in this city’s black community: “If you can survive the racism in Cincinnati, you can survive it anywhere.”

Samuel DuBose, did not survive it. And as always seems to happen, when there is such a shooting, the apologists didn’t take long to vilify the victim.

Take a look at this. It is the front page of the Sunday paper two weeks ago. There is no article here. The only thing on this front page – of the Sunday Enquirer, mind you – is what the paper refers to as DuBose’s “rap sheet” – a list – literally, just a list – of the crimes this black man had been accused of in his lifetime.

Did that life matter? One must wonder. If DuBose had been convicted of every one of these offenses – which range from numerous traffic violations, to possession of pot, to burglary – if he had been convicted of all these things – which he was not – would that mean his life did not matter? Would that mean he was utterly dispensable? Would that mean the officer who pulled him over because there was no license plate on the front of his car – the campus cop who was not even aware of this “lengthy rap sheet” – would that have given the officer, the right to execute him?

As a former journalist who wrote headlines and designed newspaper pages for a living – I can see right through the unspoken, maybe even unconscious message of this Sunday Page 1. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, to forget the fact that an unarmed man was shot in the head, at point-blank range, while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, at the end of an otherwise routine, rather innocuous, non-confrontational traffic stop – all of which was captured on video, by the officer’s body camera.

This page says: “Forget all that. See – Samuel DuBose was a criminal!” It says, “Let’s paint that in stark relief for you. Let’s put it on your doorstep, you suburban subscribers, much the same way Martin Luther put his 95 theses on the door of that cathedral in Germany.”

Yes, the front page of The Enquirer – never mind the actual article, on page 8 (no one bothers to read those) – makes the point very clearly: Samuel DuBose was a criminal. But is that the point? Should it be? Is it more important that DuBose had a criminal record – or that he is dead? Does his life, after all, matter? I suppose it depends on who you ask.

I say to you today, that black lives matter. Samuel DuBose’s life mattered – this newspaper notwithstanding – just as much as our own children’s lives matter. That is my faith. That is my Universalism. Samuel DuBose’s mother grieves today, the same as you or I would – though her pain is punctuated by the knowledge that if her son had been white, he surely would still be alive today.

I know a young white male in this congregation who was pulled over, not long ago, for not having his headlights on. When that police officer stood over him, there on the side of the road, he didn’t look down at the man behind the wheel and see a “thug.”

(Ah, there’s that word – “thug.” I encourage you to notice when, and in what instances and what contexts, you see and hear that word these days. It has been pointed out that “thug” is becoming the new “N-word.” So pay attention. Pay attention to language. It is one of the places that racism is most subtly conveyed.)

No, that officer didn’t see a “thug.” Or a “black male suspect.” He simply saw a kid – not even a “white” kid, I dare say, since white people don’t ever see “white” people – they just see people. All that officer saw, that evening, was an absent-minded kid – whom he politely told to turn on his lights, and have a good night.

The thing is – and it’s becoming more and more difficult to deny this – if that young man had been black, there’s a very good chance he would have gotten one of these [pointing at the newspaper “rap sheet”] – or ended up in jail. Or worse.

Earlier this summer, three days after being pulled over in rural Texas for improper use of her turn signal, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American, died in a county jail in Texas. Now I bet I didn’t use my turn signal on half the turns or lane changes I made coming to church today. But for a white person in the United States to be pulled over because of your turn signal is pretty much unheard of. In the highly unlikely event that an officer had stopped me because of it, I’m pretty confident I would have received little more than a smile and a kindly admonishment. I know I would not have ended up in jail. I know I would not have ended up dead.

That’s just the truth, folks. We don’t have to worry about those things. Black people do. And those who would tell you otherwise – those who can always find some convoluted way to blame the dead person – are, at best, in denial. Denial of the reality of American life.

Earlier, I proposed that the simple statement “black lives matter” is countercultural, because America has never – and I mean never – been a culture in which the lives of people of color matter. Beginning with the genocide and forced migration of Native Americans, to the enslavement of Africans, to Constitutional amendments that declared some human beings to have three-fifths the value of other human beings – to “peonage,” an insidious form of legalized slavery that lasted well into the 20th century – to abhorrent Supreme Court decisions both long ago, and very recent – if we are to be brutally honest, we must admit that indeed, America never has been a culture in which black lives matter.

Quite the contrary. Despite its lofty ideals, expressed so eloquently in founding documents and patriotic poetry alike, America was literally built on the subjugation of people of color – and for generations, since its first generation, our society has both legally and culturally institutionalized that subjugation – to the point that, in most cases, we white people never even see it, much less have to think about it. Yet as we have heard this morning, from one voice after another, black people must see it and think about it – must live it – every breath of their lives.

Now I want to offer you a white voice, who articulates what this could – and should – mean for us. Mandy Hitchcock is a young white mother who wrote the following blog, shortly after the killings in Charleston:

“While we must absolutely listen to and try to understand and love our black brothers and sisters – while we must absolutely bear witness to the pain that is the black experience in America – while we must absolutely stand in solidarity with black people – racism is a white problem. It was created by white people, and it must be solved by white people.

“It is not the responsibility of our black brothers and sisters to teach us how not to be racist. [Or] to educate us about racism, [or] to explain white privilege to us, [or] to tell us where to begin. It is our job as white people, to do that work.”

And so, my friends, I am here today to say two things. One, is that black lives matter. We know this instinctively – just as we know this through our Universalist faith. We know, too, if we are honest, that we live in a society in which black lives do not matter – and in fact, never have. So let us not be in denial.

The second thing I want to say to you today, is exactly what Mandy Hitchcock said: It is our job – our work – our sacred calling – to start doing the hard work of learning about, and ultimately dismantling, the individual and systemic racism that is a blight upon our American landscape, on our American history, and on the ideals we profess.

This reflection is but part of a long conversation about race that we must have in this congregation. It’s not just a one-and-done sermon. We will continue to grapple with these difficult truths in the year – and no doubt, the years – ahead.

To that end, let us celebrate – and join in – the work that has already been begun, here in our congregation, by the Racial Justice Team of our Social Justice Collaborative. I understand that while I was on sabbatical, a very well-attended Sunday afternoon discussion helped dozens of you begin to think about, and examine, the subtle and often unconscious prejudices and stereotypes we all have.

Last week, 14 of us saw, and then discussed, the powerful documentary “Slavery by Another Name.” We learned more than one new truth, about the systematic subjugation of black people, long after the end of the Civil War. If you missed it, you can join others from Heritage, and from the interfaith community, at an encore showing, at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, on Oct. 6.

This fall, there will be important opportunities to engage in congregational and community dialogue and education, including a program we are planning here in Anderson Township tentatively titled “Examining Our Whiteness.”

In the meantime, if what you have heard and felt and experienced this morning has touched your heart – if it has moved you in any way – please make a commitment today, to engage in this work. Read your UU World, and books like “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander. Read the papers and watch the news – even if it is difficult; even if it angers you. And have conversations. Honest conversations. Share thoughts and feelings with one another, with me, with your family, with neighbors and co-workers and acquaintances.

We will only begin to move toward the “justice, equity, and compassion” that our second Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to seek – we will only begin to create a world in which, as our first UU principle says, the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” is affirmed and protected – if we begin to talk, with each other.

The longest journey, begins with a single step. Today – may we take that step. Let us learn to talk – and walk – together.

Ashé. Blessed be. Amen.

UU 101

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Religion is the first and last – the universal language of the human heart… This is a sermon about one, specific religion – as well as a reflection, on the importance of language. The religion, of course, is Unitarian Universalism. The language, well … that’s where things get interesting.

Unitarian Universalism. Quite a mouthful.

Bill GuptonIt has been said that “God” is the biggest word in the English language, but to my mind, “Unitarian” and “Universalist,” aren’t far behind. In a moment, you’ll see why. And if you combine those two already large words – well, OMG! And don’t go thinking you’ll make things any better by condensing it all down to “UU.” Oh, that might help with pronunciation, or with that sticky issue of which of the two words should come first (after all, if you simply say “UU,” no one will ever be the wiser about which side of the family tree, you have cast your allegiance with).

But even when you try to crunch it down to just two letters – U . . . U – there’s no escaping the fact that Unitarian Universalism is hard to get not only your mouth, but your mind, around. It’s a mighty big concept. A large tent. We cast a wide, and widely inclusive net. The metaphors roll off the tongue much easier, than the name itself, because ours is a religion that is adamant, intentional, and explicit about the fact that it excludes no one. All are included. All, are welcome.

Talk about a big tent…

This morning – unless you came for the music, or the silence, or the community – or for lunch – and maybe even if you did, come for those things – this morning, you have signed up to audit a very short, introductory class, called “UU 101.” You’re here, at your desk – or at least, in your chair – whether as a first-visitor, a relative newcomer to Heritage, or a long-time church member – you are here in hopes of learning something about Unitarian Universalism. So let’s get started.

One good way to get a quick handle, on this large concept we call “Unitarian Universalism,” is to break it down into its component parts. Unitarian Universalism is the product of the marriage, if you will – the merger, a little more than 50 years ago – of two distinct and distinctive American religious denominations – and perhaps more importantly, two ancient (and each, in its own way, radical) theologies.

A “theology,” you might recall, is an idea about, or a description of, the nature of ultimate reality – what many people call “God.” So we naturally begin our discussion, with theology – with ideas about God.

Unitarianism, was the idea that God is one.

This seems like a rather straightforward claim – but let’s unpack it.

“God is one.” This concept is sufficiently important, that it appears in both the Old and New Testaments – first in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy and later, in the Gospel of Mark, among other places. Yet somewhere along the way – as Christians evolved from being a mere fringe group within the Jewish tradition, to eventually become their own separate and distinct religion – somewhere along the way, things got a bit, shall we say, mystical with the math. So in the year 325, a new statement of theology – a creed, in fact – called the Doctrine of the Trinity, was codified under the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine. Thereafter, in order to be a Christian, one had to profess belief in the Holy Trinity – God the father, God the son, God the Holy Spirit. In short, Christianity became a Trinitarian religion.

“Hold on! Wait just a minute,” said one minority group of Christians. “What about this ‘the Lord thy God is one’ business, in the scripture?”

“Oh, we’ve moved past that now,” said the majority.

“Well not all of us have,” replied the minority. What ensued, then, was an important theological division – between Trinitarianism, on the one hand, and Unitarianism, on the other. I suppose you’re aware of who won that argument – and, as they say, history is written by the winners. But that doesn’t mean the losing side just disappears – and the important idea of the unity of God – that God is One – decidedly did not disappear. But those who held it went underground for a while. Twelve hundred or so years, to be precise. It was for their own good.

But with the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, this persistent if still dangerous idea that God is One, began to come out of hiding. Once again, there was a dissenting, minority theological opinion – first in Europe, and later in America. The debate continues, to this day.

So, Unitarianism. God is One…

Meanwhile, there was another group of unorthodox – “orthodox” meaning literally “right belief” … at least “right,” as defined by the majority – there was different group of unorthodox Christians who, once again, chose (and here, remember, the word “heresy” means “to choose”) – chose to build their faith around a single phrase in the New Testament, taken from the fourth chapter of the first epistle of John: “God is Love.”

Again, on the face of it, this amounts to a rather straightforward claim – yet it, too, bears deeper examination. The Bible, of course, offers notoriously contradictory descriptions of the Divine. There’s God the Creator, fashioning humanity from the clay of the earth. There’s God the inscrutable. There’s God the petulant child, demanding worship, obedience, subservience, even sacrifice – all the while raining destruction on those who don’t follow the ever-more-complicated and absurdly arbitrary rules.

There’s God the shepherd. God the healer. God is compared to a roaring lion – and elsewhere, to a rolling river. And yes, God is both a mother, in Isaiah, and a father, in Luke.

The point is, there’s a lot to choose from, when it comes to how you want to imagine God – and you can back just about any of it up, with scripture. What’s important – what’s telling, about any given religious community – is which version of God you choose to lift up. The Universalists were the folks, who chose to cast their theological lot, with Love.

This is no insignificant choice. In fact, in the words of poet Robert Frost, it “has made all the difference.” Or as UU blogger John Beckett puts it, “If the primary focus of your religion is on how bad other people are, then you’re doing it wrong.” The early Universalists, as far as I’m concerned – and in fact, more modern Universalists as well – did it right. They chose to focus on a loving, rather than a vengeful, God. A tiny minority among Christians, the Universalists were the ones who wrestled with the cognitive dissonance, inherent in Christian orthodoxy, which presented, at the same time, God as loving (at least, somewhat) – but also as capable of (and occasionally downright gleeful about) casting people into eternal torture and torment.

The Universalists thought long and hard about this. They prayed about it. They read their Bible – and in doing so, they decided there wasn’t much evidence at all, of this place people called “Hell.” More importantly, they looked in their hearts – and when they did, they could not imagine a loving God – which, remember, is the God whose side they had chosen to stand on – they could not imagine a loving God sending even one person, to Hell. And that, was that.

Sure, the mainstream – the majority – made fun of them. Called them the “No-Hellers,” in fact. But they just smiled – agreed about the “no Hell,” at least – and went on their way, confident in their overarching belief that God is Love.

So let’s review. Unitarianism: God is One. Universalism: God is Love. Both faiths, espoused a minority viewpoint. They were the loyal, and sometimes not-so-loyal, opposition, within Christianity. But they were, still, within Christianity. At least, as far as they were concerned.

Yet over time, as orthodox Christianity hardened its borders, and an emerging scientific worldview softened other kinds of borders – first Unitarianism, and later Universalism, began to think of themselves as having moved beyond Christianity. As humans learned that other people, in other times and other cultures, had experienced different religious insights, and had followed different spiritual paths – and as we learned, too, the paradigm-shattering truth that humanity, and even the earth itself, are not at the center of the universe (far from it, in fact) the old ideas that God is One, and that God is Love, began to evolve.

God itself – notice I don’t say God him self – became much bigger even than the Yahweh of Genesis, or the Abba of Jesus. God became all that is. And that word “One” – God is One – suddenly summed up the complete, cosmic unity. Meanwhile, the reach and embrace of that other big word – “Love” – also came to include, quite literally, everyone and everything.

One of my predecessors in this pulpit, Rev. Albert Q. Perry, who served our congregation from 1952 to 1961, proved to be prophetic when he wrote in an adult education curriculum that even “the old Universalist and Unitarian theologies about universal salvation and the humanity of Jesus, are no longer vital issues, in our time. Neither [position], can effectively remain the total message of a modern, liberal denomination. Today,” he continued – and remember, this was during the final years of the Eisenhower administration – today “we have the ability to form a new religion, without pulling up the spiritual and emotional roots which link us with the past and provide us with an awareness of the naturalness and divinity of human emotions, human reason, and freedom.”

That new religion would come into being near the end of Perry’s tenure at our church, when the Unitarians and the Universalists at last, merged.

Over the past 50 years, the combined religion that is Unitarian Universalism has become much more than just two heretical – but ultimately very hopeful – ideas about God. As Albert Perry envisioned, we have a much different message now – a message relevant to the vital issues of our time. It is a message still rooted in our historic theologies, but it is no longer limited by them. Our generation has created – democratically, rather than dogmatically – seven principles that affirm our values, and articulate our message to the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the first and last principles, which many Unitarian Universalists hold most dear.

The first UU Principle affirms “the inherent worth and dignity” of each human being. This concept is firmly grounded in the Universalist faith that “God is Love” – for if each person, each unique human personality, comes from Love, and is loved by the Divine, then surely each has inherent worth and dignity. This awareness calls us to treat one another with respect and compassion, empathy and grace.

The seventh and final UU Principle celebrates “the interdependent web of existence.” This statement is also historically grounded – in the Unitarian declaration that “God is One.” Everything, is part of the whole. The seventh principle goes on to say that we are a part of that interdependent web; it weaves each of us, all of us, individually and collectively, into one, sacred unity.

So the ancient truths of Unitarianism and Universalism are still embedded in modern Unitarian Universalism. Yet we have broadened our vision to encompass and embrace much more. By nature, and by definition, there are many ways to describe the more modern understanding of religious and spiritual freedom that has evolved into this unique faith we often refer to simply as “UUism” – perhaps as many ways as there are Unitarian Universalists themselves. For you see, we do not have one, single, prescribed, official statement of who we are and what we believe. That is not our way.

For my part, I like the words – the language – used in a recent blog post by Victoria Mitchell, a 23-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee who currently serves on the UU Association’s Youth Ministry Working Group. She writes:

“Unitarian Universalism is a non-judgmental religious home that will accept and support you, wherever you may be, in life’s journey. It is composed of diverse communities – operating without a common belief about God, the Universe, [or even] death. Instead of a creed, we share a spirit – and a vision of radical inclusivity, individual agency, and social justice. It is a safe place to stand out and stand up – [even to] change your mind… We embrace personal discovery and growth… Our only doctrine is love.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s about as good as it gets when it comes to describing this big thing – this large-as-the-Universe, all-encompassing thing called Unitarian Universalism. Listen once again, perhaps more carefully now, to some of the specific language Mitchell uses:

Radical inclusivity. The story of Gail Geisenheimer that I told earlier is just one example of the radical inclusivity that is Unitarian Universalism at its best. This idea of inclusion is the very essence of our Universalist roots.

So too non-judgmental. Having historically posited a non-judgmental God – source of unconditional love – we seek, ourselves, to live and love in that way. But being human, we will inevitably miss the mark, falling short of our ideals. This, too, is an opportunity to practice being non-judgmental – in this case, forgiving ourselves.

Acceptance and support. Mitchell highlights these characteristics of our communities. It has been my experience that a Unitarian Universalist church offers acceptance and support in almost limitless supply. I think this is one of the main reasons, most of us are here.

And she goes on to say that we operate without a common belief about God. This is one of the most important things you can learn, in UU 101. Yes, we talk about God here – but there is no assumption that we all mean the same thing when we use that word. Language does matter – and here, in a Unitarian Universalist church, language about God, and about other religious questions, acknowledges the sometimes inconvenient truth that they are, indeed, simply questions – and does not presume to tell you what answers you must have.

What you won’t find in a Unitarian Universalist church – and this frustrates the hell (pun intended) out of those who come with more restrictive understandings of what religion is or should be – what you won’t find, here, is a statement of what “the church believes.” I’ve always thought of it like this: People have beliefs. Churches do not. Being a community of people – being composed of many different and diverse people – there is no way, with integrity, with honesty, that we can claim we all believe the same thing.

Furthermore, statements of belief – creeds and dogmas – divide people, rather than unite them. They create a “right” group, and a “wrong” group. They create insiders, and outsiders. By now, I’m sure you understand that Unitarian Universalism is all about being just the opposite of that. It is about inclusion. About finding common ground. About respecting one another’s beliefs, rather than seeking to change them.

Peter Morales, who is the elected President of our Unitarian Universalist Association – notice I said “elected;” we get to choose our own religious leaders in UUism – Peter Morales puts it this way: In Unitarian Universalism, “we don’t ask you to believe what you find unbelievable.” Or you might remember Victoria Mitchell’s words: “Instead of a creed, we share a spirit.”

I am thrilled that you have come here, today, to share in that spirit. In the course of little more than an hour, I hope you have been able to experience something of Unitarian Universalism – the language, and the silence – the compassion and the community – the history and the hope – the traditions and the promise – of this very unique faith, and in particular this very special congregation, that I have now been blessed to serve, for a dozen years.

Today’s reflection was the first in what I’m structuring as a three-part sermon series. Next Sunday, I invite you to come hear my thoughts about the current, sometimes strained and awkward, relationship between Unitarian Universalism and Christianity, in a sermon that was bought-and-paid-for during last spring’s Auction fundraiser. And then in two weeks, I’ll share with you my own theology – because as we have seen today, each individual Unitarian Universalist has – and is encouraged to keep developing and growing – his or her own unique and distinct ideas about God.

I hope these three Sundays will get you thinking about your beliefs. In the end, that’s one of the main reasons we gather, in this type of religious community – a place where our fourth UU Principle, the “keystone principle,” encourages us to share in a “free and responsible search, for truth and meaning.”

May it ever be so. Blessed be. And amen.

We Still Have a Dream

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Sometimes, history can be divided into ‘before and after.’ Before and after the printing press. Before and after the “shot heard round the world” in Lexington, Massachusetts, that signaled the beginning of the American Revolution. Before and after the atomic bomb, or the landing on the moon. Before and after the morning of September 11, 2001. Moments in time when the course of human history – our destiny, our direction, our very self-understanding of who we are, as a people – as people – shifts forever.

One such moment occurred in late August, 1963, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. – when a quarter of a million people – roughly 200,000 of them  African-American – peacefully assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating a century since the Emancipation Proclamation, and demanding their long-overdue, God-given, Constitution-guaranteed, civil rights. That day, history changed.

It marked the end of a very remarkable spring and summer in American history. Before the March on Washington, Martin Luther King had been thrown in a Birmingham jail. Before the March on Washington, Bull Connor had released police dogs and water cannons on peaceful protestors. Before the March on Washington, Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway of a building at the University of Alabama, attempting to physically prevent African-American students from enrolling there. Before the March on Washington – just two months before – Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights leader in Mississippi who himself was battling in court for the right to be admitted to a college – to the University of Mississippi Law School – just before the March on Washington, Medgar Evers was assassinated, in his driveway, by a member of a local group called the White Citizens’ Council.

The litany of evil – is seemingly endless. And Lord knows – the March on Washington did not bring it to an end. But after the March – when civil rights organizers returned to the South to continue their struggle – something had forever changed. They carried with them a moral mandate. A point of no return had been passed.

Martin Luther King’s iconic speech had placed the civil rights movement in a broader historical perspective – wrapping it in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation – transforming civil rights, in the words of youthful participant Andrew Young, “from a Southern black movement, into a national, multi-racial, human rights movement.” The size and the scope of the March made it impossible, any longer, to deny the depth and breadth of that movement – and made the political successes that would shortly follow almost inevitable.

Before the March on Washington, it was possible to ignore both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department – to deny African-Americans admittance to Southern colleges and universities – access to whites-only bathrooms and water fountains – to the voting booth. But after the March on Washington, came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After the March on Washington, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After the March on Washington, the goals of the civil rights movement were somehow legitimized, in the eyes of many white Americans, which ultimately led to their being legalized. And after the March on Washington, some of its own organizers –among them Andrew Young, John Lewis, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Julian Bond – were elected, to political office, breaking new ground at the same time they were breaking color barriers.

Fast forward, half a century. Without the March on Washington – without Dr. King’s powerful articulation of the Dream – it is difficult to imagine a President, Barack Obama. Do you remember seeing the faces of some of those now elder statesmen and stateswomen of the civil rights movement, on that night in November, 2008, when Obama was elected? Written there on those faces – amid the tears and the smiles and the eyes filled with disbelief at being alive, to see that day – written there was confirmation that a piece – just a piece, but an important piece – of the Dream, had been realized.

Yet we know, all too painfully well, that though the arc of history was bent, just a bit, toward justice, that hot afternoon in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago – we have not yet reached, the promised land. It is true that, after the March on Washington came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Institutions of higher learning, businesses, city councils and civic organizations were integrated. But also, after the March on Washington – less than three weeks after – a bomb, planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, ripped apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black children. It was but the beginning of several waves of violent response to the forced desegregation of the South. Rioting in various cities – including Cincinnati – throughout the 1960s, highlighted  just how difficult such a social and cultural paradigm shift can be. And let us not forget that it was only after the March on Washington, and its successes, that the era’s most prominent and powerful proponents of civil rights – John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy – each, one after the other, was assassinated.

Yes, though the unprecedented crowd on the Mall that historic day in D.C. – unprecedented in its size, unprecedented in its integration, unprecedented in what today we would call its “diversity” – though they sang “We Shall Overcome” – we know, that we did not actually overcome, that day. Nor have we, yet.

Rev. James Reeb Marker

And friends, I am here this morning – after listening once again to the inspiring, moving, impossible-to-hear-without-crying words of Martin Luther King Jr. – and after another disturbing summer of discontent – I am here today to try to shake us out of our complacency, to urge us, in the words of that antiphonal prayer I borrowed from another faith tradition, to “find a way, to stop just celebrating the dream, [and] to start living it.” To fight against injustice and prejudice, anywhere and everywhere we find it. Here. Now. In today’s world. “When I feel secure,” that reading tells us, “I must remember the insecure. When I see injustice, I must remember that it will not end, until I help make it end.”

Folks – I see injustice every time I turn on the news. We need not look far, for evidence of how far we still have to go. The Voting Rights Act – legislation that, for 48 years, allowed enforcement of the constitutional right to vote, in places where that right was being intentionally, viciously, and sometimes violently denied to the minority, by the majority – that Voting Rights Act was eviscerated this summer, by a deeply, ideologically divided Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision on a case brought by – you guessed it – a county including the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama – the Supreme Court removed restrictions on primarily Southern states that had kept them from rigging their voting systems, to deny African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities access to the ballot box.

Before the March on Washington – and the Voting Rights Act that resulted from it – there were the infamous poll taxes and literacy tests and other insidious laws in the South that effectively prevented blacks from voting. The beauty, of the Voting Rights Act, was in its so-called “pre-clearance” clause, which required certain political jurisdictions – in many cases, entire states – that had a history of discriminatory voting laws to get the approval of the United States Department of Justice, before enacting any such voting laws. The Voting Rights Act, it should be noted, was repeatedly extended by Congress – four times, in fact, most recently in 2006 by a quite conservative Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, all of whom supported extending it because of clear and ongoing efforts in parts of the country to thwart the right of minorities to vote, at every turn.

In other words, as recently as seven years ago, the Voting Rights Act was a bipartisan affair. But no more.

Yet for 48 years – after the March on Washington – the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia were kept in check – were required to submit, for approval by federal authorities, their voting laws. Maybe that seems extreme to you. Why, you may ask, do we still need such laws, in the 21st century? Haven’t we grown past the need for such oversight? Well, in a word – no.

In 2001, for example, the white mayor and the all-white Board of Aldermen of a small town in Mississippi actually cancelled an election when census results showed that African-Americans had become the majority of voters in the town – effectively declaring themselves monarchs of the municipality. Under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice was able to intervene. Still, it took until 2003 – two years – before another election was held. But when it was held – guess what? The town elected its first African-American mayor, and three black aldermen.

After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.

Also in 2003, a small town in South Carolina tried a new and creative way to protect the dwindling – white – voting majority. The town (ironically called “North,” South Carolina), sought to annex an adjoining unincorporated area, that, just coincidentally, was all white. Again, under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice stepped in – pointing out that a request for annexation by a predominantly black area on the other side of town, a decade earlier, had been denied. The Justice Department concluded, [quote], “race appears to be an overriding factor” in the town’s annexation decisions – and thus blocked that particular attempt to rig an upcoming election.

After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.

Now you may think – you may want to believe – that such transparently racist voter suppression schemes are isolated incidents – but the evidence proves otherwise. This kind of thing has been going on quite literally ever since freed former slaves got the right to vote – and the March on Washington and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act hardly did away with the determination, or the sentiment, of those who seek to deny minorities the vote. No, those laws just gave the law some teeth, to the legal effort to thwart such efforts.

And – I have to say it – if anything, the election of an African-American President in 2008 prompted an even greater number of similarly desperate attempts to circumscribe the voting populace. A rash of so-called “voter ID laws” were introduced around the country following the election of Barack Obama – laws that required government issued, photo identification before one could have access to the ballot box. It is certainly no coincidence that minority populations and marginalized demographic groups, especially blacks and Latinos, are much more likely to not have such IDs.

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, one such law – in Texas, where the 2010 census showed 89 percent of its ten-year population growth of more than 4 million people, was non-white – thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a Texas photo ID law was blocked. But within hours of the Supreme Court decision this summer – which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act – Texas officials – white Texas officials – announced they would immediately begin implementing, the same voter ID law that the Justice Department had declared, three years ago, to be a violation of civil rights.

And just this week, as thousands of protestors marched in the state capitol, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, signed what many are calling the nation’s most restrictive voting law – the new gold standard of voter suppression. Without the threat of being stopped by the now-impotent Voting Rights Act, the very conservative North Carolina legislature is cutting back on early voting, eliminating same-day registration, and requiring certain specific, state-issued photo IDs to vote – IDs that many minorities, students, and poor people (especially those without cars) do not have.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed suit against these new efforts to deny thousands access to the polls. Meanwhile, as I said, thousands are marching, in the streets, in protest, and will be doing so again tomorrow, in what have become weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations. Even the Attorney General of the United States – and the Justice Department – remember them? – are preparing to sue North Carolina.

Friends, I could go on all morning – but I trust I have given you enough real-world, concrete examples to convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that despite the great strides forward that began with the March on Washington, and the federal legislation that followed – despite the election and re-election of an African-American President (perhaps, even, because of these things) those who would limit, rather than expand, civil rights – those who would deny even the most basic of democratic freedoms – the right to vote – because of one’s race or ethnicity – these kinds of vile and cowardly collusion, remain alive and well in America, in 2013 – because racism remains alive and well, in the hearts of many Americans.

We have come a long way – but we have not come far enough.

Which is why we must still have a dream. Why we must not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we have finished the task. No – we must continue to work for that dream – for our dream – for a time when not only “right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” – but for a day when their parents, who are of legal age and are citizens of this great country, can have equal access to the voting booth – where their votes will each count, equally – where no one, be they a local city or county election official, or a political partisan on the sidewalk outside the polling place, or a roving band of zealots in a pickup truck – all of which I have personally seen with my own eyes – where no one can or would dare try to legislate or intimidate a single person into not voting.

That is my dream. It’s been said before – and I’ll say it again – I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Though I was only five years old when Martin Luther King spoke of his dream – that dream is alive and well in me, today – as it is in thousands – no, millions – of others. We are now the embodiment of the dream. We are the ones to whom it is left to complete the task.

It may be a long climb, up that mountain – it may be a long way, to that promised land – but we are undeterred. For justice is on our side. History, is on our side.

We still have a dream. Let us get to work making it a reality.

May it be so – and amen!

My God: A Work in Progress

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

The road less travelled. Each of us, in one way or another, almost by definition, has taken the religious road less travelled, or else we wouldn’t be here, this morning. Those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists, have taken a largely untraveled path – have chosen to become part of a religious minority – because we UU’s comprise far less than one percent of the population of this country. Those who are newer to Heritage Church, and to Unitarian Universalism – those of you who have taken that bold step, that leap of faith, to come to this sanctuary today, and be with people you don’t yet know well, and about whom you’re perhaps not so sure – you, most certainly, are taking the road less travelled. And even those few who were born and bred UU – perhaps, especially, those who were born and bred UU – have also taken a road less travelled, for the majority of folks raised Unitarian Universalist, do not stay Unitarian Universalist.

And that last, most sobering, piece of data, is where I want to begin my reflection, this morning. Yes, to be a UU – whatever way any one of us may have come to be here – is to take the road less travelled. And make no mistake – I believe, that our taking of that road, does make all the difference. I, myself, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else – I can’t imagine not being a Unitarian Universalist. But the thing is, a great many people can – including far too many people who were raised in our churches… or congregations… or fellowships… or societies – because UU churches are called all those things – and more – throughout the country. We go by a multiplicity of names that don’t so much reflect our diversity, as they belie our widespread discomfort, with anything religious.

Nowhere is this unfortunate Unitarian Universalist tendency more evident, than when it comes, to “God.” I have always been proud that Heritage UU Church – “where the Universalist comes first,” as I like to say – I am proud that our church not only calls itself a “church,” but more importantly that we are not afraid to use, as well as to discuss, the word “God.” Even that, puts us on the road less travelled, when it comes to Unitarian Universalist congregations. But I will say it again: that does make all the difference. It’s why I am here, as your minister. Many of you have told me it is also why you are here, too. Heritage is that rare Unitarian Universalist church in which God-language is not a source of conflict; that rare UU church where religious language, of various kinds, is a normal and accepted part, of community life.

Rev. Christine Robinson spoke to this point, as well as I’ve ever heard anyone do, in her Berry Street Lecture at our UUA General Assembly in 2008 in Fort Lauderdale. The Berry Street Lecture is a prestigious speech given by a Unitarian Universalist minister to his or her gathered colleagues, an annual reflection on what I, here at HUUC, might call “the state of the church” – though in this case, it is an examination of the state of our churches, and of our religious movement.

Robinson told us, and I quote, that it is high time for us UU’s to stop playing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when it comes to God. It was a moment of searing insight for me. In Unitarian Universalist churches – even strong, healthy churches like Heritage, where we are, for the most part, comfortable at least using the word “God” – we don’t really talk about God that often. No, we prefer to keep our spiritual life, our personal beliefs – particularly our beliefs about that biggest of all subjects – to keep our beliefs, in the closet, so to speak – a private matter, thank you very much. Best not discussed in polite company. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I won’t ask you what you believe, and I won’t tell you what I believe. It’s the Unitarian Universalist way, said Robinson.

What a loss. What rich conversations, we might have; what trusting, maybe even transformative, connections we might create, if we could only talk, openly about what we believe.

I realize, of course, that the world we live in has trained us to be uncomfortable talking about our religious beliefs. In many cases, remaining discreet about what you believe is something akin to social self-preservation. But in your church – especially in a church where differences are respected, where the prevailing attitude is one of live-and-let-live – more open disclosure of our own most deeply held and cherished beliefs might just open the door to deeper relationship. It is my hope that today’s service, and next week’s, will move us away from what Christine Robinson calls “religious don’t ask, don’t tell,” and toward a deeper, more profound level of sharing.

And the truth is – in ways both direct, and indirect – many of you have asked – so let me tell you, about my God. The first thing you will probably have noticed, is that, for me, there is something that I choose to call “God.” Thus, God is not a word, or a concept, that I have chosen to discard. Either stance, is appropriate, for a Unitarian Universalist. And either stance – whether we choose to engage with – or to dismiss – God – is definitely, a choice. We each choose what we are going to do with and about God, because in this life, “God” is a given – we are born into a world, and into a culture, where it is not possible to be free of either the word, or the idea.

For the first half of my life, I made a different choice – I was, at times, an ardent agnostic, at other times simply a devout secularist. The predominant image of God in our culture – you know the one: a stern, judgmental, bearded old white man in the sky, filled with vengeance and wrath, damning some and saving others, choosing winners and losers – the God that Cindy Landrum dismisses in today’s first reading – was easy enough for me to dismiss as well. In fact, that God so disgusted to me that for many years, I closed myself off to the very idea of religion.

As I say, that was roughly the first half of my life. But then, as they often do, two paths diverged – and I made a choice, to take the one less travelled by – a choice that has made all the difference. Thirty years ago this Easter, I made the fateful decision to attend church, with a girlfriend – a girlfriend who wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist, but who knew enough about me, to know that I wouldn’t be comfortable at her Presbyterian church on Easter. So she suggested that we try the local UU church instead. I agreed.

Here’s all that I remember about the morning that changed my life: There were folding, gray metal chairs, much like the ones we use in the Great Hall, lined up in rows, in the parlor of a large old, gray house. There were probably three dozen of us in attendance – my girlfriend and I, by far the youngest two. The minister was a kindly, older, gray-haired man.

What’s the common theme so far? Gray. But then, at the end of the service, each of us was handed a colorful, helium balloon. We went outside, to the front yard of this old house, and – after the minister said some words of some sort, words that I am sure did not include the word “God” – we all released our balloons, and they filled the gray – yes, gray – sky with vivid color, and beauty. Meanwhile, my heart, was filled with joy and wonder, hope and possibility.

I would go so far – now, at least – as to say what happened to me that Easter morning, was a religious experience. It was definitely a conversion experience. I became a Unitarian Universalist right then – and made it official by joining the church – without my girlfriend – soon thereafter. (It would be more precise to say that I joined the “fellowship” soon thereafter, because it was one of those UU churches where religious language, and God language, was not spoken; thus, perhaps, my immediate comfort level, sitting there in those uncomfortable metal chairs.) But whatever kind of UU church, or fellowship, it may have been – it started me on a road less travelled, a road that eventually led me to a UU church as different from my first congregation, as it is possible to be).

Nine years – two different churches, in two different cities – later, I was hired as the full-time Youth Director at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa – the largest UU church in the world. No folding metal chairs there – only stately white, wooden pews. Nothing gray about the place – everything was white – from the glossy white paint on the steeple and the outside walls that stretched a city block, to the picket fence around the playground – to the senior minister’s hair. The senior minister who wore a robe, and preached about God, all the time.

I want to say thank you, here and now – thank you, John Wolf, for preaching every Sunday, about God. Thank you, for teaching me, and your congregation, about God – teaching us that when we allow superstitious, narrow-minded, hate-filled people to define and take ownership of the most important word of all – we surrender the possibility of a rational, open-minded, compassionate religion – and in the process, we give away what might be our last, best chance at finding common ground, spiritually, and socially. So I am eternally grateful, to my first ministerial mentor, for gently allowing me – and for sometimes less than gently urging me – to wrestle with God, to use the Biblical metaphor. In Frost’s words, “that has made all the difference.”

But if it was All Souls that helped a religiously diffident, overgrown adolescent make peace with God, it was Heritage Church that helped a grown man, grow into a minister. I won’t say I picked Heritage solely because of your Covenant, but I can in all honesty tell you that the Covenant was one of the first things that told me I could find a home here. The Covenant said to me, “This is a church where religious language is spoken. This is a church where people are interested in building a spiritual community.” Love is the spirit of this church, you declare. No equivocations there – no don’t ask, don’t tell. Love is the spirit of this church. And there are also words like “quest” and “seek” – words that proclaim a congregation of seekers, a community of people who are on a path, who are walking, together, on a road less travelled.

And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but the first, and the last words of the Covenant – “Love” and “God” – are, at least in the Universalist tradition from which this congregation comes, synonymous. They form a perfect circle. God is love.

And so begins, my definition, of my God. My God, is love.

But what kind of love? The kind that prefers one of us, over the other? Certainly not. What I’m talking about, is the kind of love that is literally limitless, a love that is overflowing and unquenchable – a love of life. My God is that universal urge toward life. My God is not only love, but life itself. Which is one reason I am so fond of the beautiful hymn “Spirit of Life” – because it offers us a phrase – a distinctly Unitarian Universalist phrase – that for me, and for many UU’s, can serve as a helpful synonym, for God.

To my mind, the two terms are virtually interchangeable, two sides of the same coin, representing two aspects of the same, ultimate force. “Spirit of Life” is the softer, more nurturing expression, while “God” comes with both more baggage, and more power.

Let’s examine this proposition, for just a moment. Simply by virtue of its ability to evoke strong emotions, the word “God” has immense power. I am hardly the first to make the argument that there is no single, stronger word in the English language. And shouldn’t any word that seeks to sum up the most powerful force in the universe, be a strong word? I’ve often been intrigued by the tone and structure of the very word itself – one, forceful sounding syllable, composed of two hard consonants surrounding a round, all-encompassing vowel. How brilliant is that?

On the other hand, “Spirit of Life” has soft consonants, and explicitly includes what I consider to be the defining characteristic of God – life. And not just life, mind you, but Life, with a capital “L”. The larger life, as one of our older hymns says – the life that maketh all things new. The “Spirit of Life” is a vital, animating force – the kind of force that brings forth, from the seed, a plant; that brings forth from the egg and sperm, a human being – the kind of force that impels grasses to shoot up between cracks in concrete; the kind of force that cannot be stopped, by death – but rather transforms death into even more life. Life, with a capital “L”.

Twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich tackles the linguistic question of what to call this force, in the following passage from his most famous sermon:

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being, is ‘God.’ That depth is what the word ‘God’ means. [But] if the word has no such meaning for you, [then] translate it – and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern… Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional, that you have learned about God.”

Which is exactly what many of us, have done. In retrospect, it is certainly what I have done. It has been a slow process, an evolution, and my God remains and hopefully will always be, a work in progress. But it – note I said it, not he, or she – it has been well worth, the effort.

Still, we have only scratched the surface. So far, we have only discussed the name – or names – for what our UU Principles call “that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures.” I have said that I use “God” and “Spirit of Life” almost interchangeably, and have examined the differences in the two names. Tillich has offered us other names, such as the “ultimate,” and the “ground of all being.” One member of a recent chalice circle called it the “Great Mystery.” Hindus refer to Brahman. There are indeed, as hymnist Brian Wren reminds us, “many names” for God.

But how to describe my God? When you come to a church, and hear your minister use the word “God,” you have a right to know what he means by that word. I often make the point – because I believe it is one of the most important points of all – that in a Unitarian Universalist church, we don’t define God for you. There is, therefore, a clear distinction between what I mean by the word God, and what any one of you, may mean by that word. And, at least in a UU church, there is really no such thing as what we mean by the word God.

As for my God – let’s begin with a baseline reading. I took the liberty of printing it, in your order of service, so that you can take it home with you. While these are not my own words, they are the most accurate words I’ve yet found, to describe what I call “God.” With all due credit given to Joseph Campbell, my God is that “ubiquitous presence” – and, I would add, power “in the universe, which brings everything into being, sustains it in [all] its manifestations, and then dissolves it back into the universe.”

That is what I mean, when I say “God.” That is what I mean, when I say “Spirit of Life.” That is what I bow to – in you, and in me – when I say “Namaste.” There, in a couple dozen words, is the summation and the essence of what I have collected in my two-inch-thick three-ring binder about God, where I have gathered and am still gathering tens of thousands of mine and other people’s words, about God. Words which are just that – words, limited human tools, for the task of trying to pin down that which is limitless. But aside from meditative silence, they are what we have – so let’s look at some of those words, for a moment.

I said that I would add the word “power” to Campbell’s definition. I have described God as that force at work inside the seed, which transforms it into a flower. I remember well, because I wrote it down in my God-quote book, something a fellow minister said at a retreat back in 2003: “The older I get, the less I understand – and the more I like that fact. My experience,” he went on, “in 12-step programs has shown me, convinced me, that there is a power – that what happens inside, in one’s heart, is grace – a spiritual transformation.” If a seed can be transformed, why not us?

I believe God is a force, in the universe. But what of “presence” – God as being a presence in the world, in our lives? There is “a story from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s ‘Honey from the Rock,’ in which Kushner asks some grade school children how many of them believe in God, and to his dismay, not a single hand goes up. He eventually thinks to ask instead how many of them have ever been close to God. Showing no awareness of the contradiction, [nearly] every child raises a hand.

They tell Kushner about their closeness to God when helping their parents, when lighting candles, when angry and sad at a grandparent’s death. “Too often,” Kushner writes, “we get hung up on the question of ‘believing in’ – when what we really want is ‘closeness to.’ ”

“In choosing to live close to God,” writes UU essayist Phillip Simmons, “I’ve decided I no longer have the luxury of waiting until I’ve figured out, intellectually, once and for all, exactly what God is.”

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For me, I feel close to God – I feel, and thus believe in, this presence – each Sunday, when we join hands around the sanctuary and speak about the Spirit of Life, flowing, from one to the other. I feel it coursing in and through my body, when I am on the yoga mat. I feel it stirring in my heart, when I am alone in the woods. I feel it when I go to bed each night, and when I wake up each morning.

This presence, I believe, is everywhere, at all times – it is ubiquitous. It is “abiding.” Perhaps you’ve noticed my fondness for that particular word, over the years, because it is a word that goes a long way, toward describing my God – “abiding.” It is a presence that is always here, with each of us, as near as our breath; as much a part of our essence, as our DNA.

But the remarkable thing about this abiding presence – even more remarkable than its ubiquity – is the idea that, somehow, it brings everything into being. It is what Sophia Fahs called “The Life Giver.” It is what I have described as that which impels the seed, to become the flower. This attribute, above all else, is what makes me, a believer. The idea that the universe is mere happenstance, that all we see and taste and touch arose from nothing, is one that simply does not resonate with me. As I understand it, even the unimaginably tiny speck that exploded in the Big Bang, held within it all the potential of the known universe. Maybe, after all, that’s another good way to describe my God – potentiality.

Think of it! We are each an utterly unique manifestation of the potential of the universe. Our hymnal is filled with readings that speak of the atoms and the molecules and the elements from the Big Bang, which now comprise, our bodies. What’s more, those bodies – those manifestations of the creative moment – are somehow (and not of our own doing) – sustained. It takes no conscious effort – no effort at all – for us to live. The Life Giver has taken care of that. You don’t have think, to breathe; you don’t have to tell your heart, to beat. In fact – and I can say you this from experience, as someone who has had medical issues with his heart – the more you think about it, the more you can actually screw up your heartbeat!

And so, we are sustained, as manifestations of this abiding presence and power. Sustained – for a time. But experience tells us that everything that lives – including us – must someday die. No exceptions. It was, perhaps, this inconvenient truth that spawned religion itself. Without the knowledge of our own impending mortality, we might not even be having this conversation today, about God. But because of this reality, each religion, each religious person – whether through prayer or meditation, scientific research or simple speculation – must eventually come to some kind of conclusion, about the conclusion of life.

For me – try as I might – I have never been able to believe that after I am dead, I will continue to exist, in some personal, individual, self-aware way. Thus, I never could find comfort in, or a comfortable fit within, any of the more well-travelled religious paths. But in Unitarian Universalism, I found a religion that not only didn’t tell me what I had to believe about God – it also didn’t tell me what I had to believe about life after death – if indeed there is such a thing.

As a Unitarian Universalist, therefore, I am free to find my own religious truth in any and all scripture, any and all writing – and it was Joseph Campbell’s simple but beautiful description of death that resonated perfectly with me, the first time I read it – because I, too, believe that, as he says, when I die, I will dissolve, back into the universe. The picture I have always had is that of a drop of water, in the ocean. It only becomes a drop, when it is flung onto a rock by the crash of a powerful wave. In time, under the heat of the sun, the drop evaporates, turns to water vapor, and rises through the sky to become absorbed into a cloud. Eventually, in the fullness of time, the cloud itself becomes full, and it rains. The drop falls, and lands back in the ocean.

God, to me, is like that ocean. Just where I am, in the cycle of that drop, and in my own life cycle, I cannot know, but I fully believe that there is a cycle – a glorious cycle, of which I am a part. It is that cycle, which I celebrate. It is that cycle, which I call God.

I will close this reflection, this theological work in progress, with the words of Maria Mitchell, the 19th century Unitarian scientist who many consider the first woman astronomer. It is safe to say that Mitchell studied the universe, and pondered its meaning – and was well ahead of her time…

“Small as our whole system is, compared with the infinitude of creation,” she said – “Brief as is our life, compared with the cycles of time – we are [yet] so tethered to all [that is], by the beautiful dependencies of law that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt, to the utmost bound [of the universe] – but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter, reach through all space, and the[ir] tremor is felt through all time.”

I believe it is so. Amen!

Why I am a Universalist

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

This morning, as we are gathered here in this sanctuary that is and always will be so special to me – a few hundred miles to the northwest, in a different and much larger auditorium, a few thousand seekers and believers have gathered to hear the message of universalism as delivered by a charismatic and controversial preacher named Carlton Pearson, on the final day of an international rally called Inclusion 2011.

This little bit of trivia, this piece of spiritual synchronicity, would hardly be worth noting if it weren’t for two things: my fondness for religious irony, and the fact that Carlton Pearson, though a Universalist of the Christian persuasion, has had a very profound impact on my personal theology and ministry, as a Universalist of the Unitarian persuasion.

You may already be aware of Pearson’s connections with Unitarian Universalism. His story was published in the UU World a couple of years back – the story of how he rose, as a young African American preacher, from a ghetto in California to the pinnacle of evangelical Christianity, becoming one of the inner circle of hand-picked leaders in the Oral Roberts televangelism empire in Tulsa – only to be banished from the flock after he had a  conversion experience that called him to question the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell.

Pearson spoke at our UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City. For a time, he served on the staff at All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, the same church that sponsored my own call to the  ministry.

I mentioned irony a moment ago. I do find it ironic that Carlton Pearson is something of a celebrity, and has achieved notoriety, both within our all-too-white Unitarian Universalist Association, as well as in predominantly black evangelical Christian circles. Last month, while I was eating dinner with some friends at an Indian restaurant in downtown Charlotte during this year’s G.A., a young African American man approached our table to inquire about our yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts. In the course of the conversation, I learned that this man was on something of a pilgrimage, heading to Atlanta to hear – you guessed it – Carlton Pearson preach.

I also find it more than a bit ironic that Pearson is not nearly as well-known, in the American mainstream, as his Caucasian counterpart Rob Bell – whose book “Love Wins” landed him on the cover of Time magazine this spring, and whose own version of Christian universalism is apparently so threatening to orthodox fundamentalism that the Southern Baptists, at their own annual assembly last month in Phoenix – in the very same convention center where we UU’s will gather next summer for our annual convention (how’s that for irony?) -– felt compelled to pass a resolution condemning Pearson, and [quote] “affirm[ing] our belief in … eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate, in Hell.”

Which is as good a place, as any, to begin the story of my own conversion to Universalism…

For just about as long as I can remember, I’ve been something of a skeptic. A doubter.

Never one to accept what I was told without first considering it carefully, and weighing it against common sense, early on I became what you might call a “Sunday School dropout.” Some of you may remember the saga of my ongoing battle with my kindergarten teacher, in the small Methodist church my family attended, in the small Southern town where we lived, in the early 1960’s.

Miss Maude, as she was known, was an imposing woman whose impatience with my questions – questions I considered quite natural, and quite important, thank you very much – was almost as legendary, in that small congregation, as was my own childish insubordination. Eventually came the Sunday morning of our final showdown – when Miss Maude at last played her trump card: Hell. If I continued to stubbornly insist on not believing what she was teaching me about some miracle or another – if I remained obstinate in my refusal to accept the things I was being told about this strange God-Man named Jesus – then I, and everyone like me – would go to Hell.

Upon hearing this news, I did what any self-respecting five-year-old boy might do, when his words were no match for a more powerful, more articulate debate opponent: I spit on the floor.

As I say, this may not be the first time some of you have heard that story – but I share it today because it marks a critical turning point in my life – a defining moment in a journey of religious questioning and spiritual development that led me, over the course of nearly half a century, first to atheism, then to agnosticism, then to something of a tenuous truce with the idea of, and language about, God – and finally to a reverential, very Universalist  kind of Unitarian Universalism.

And somewhere along the way, I felt the calling, to became a minister.

Miss Maude, God bless her, would be proud, I think – at least of my vocational choice, if not of my theology. But there is no doubt in my mind that I have her to thank, for the fact that today I call myself a Universalist – because it was in her Sunday School class, that I first encountered, and almost instinctively rejected, the idea of Hell – the idea that God would condemn anyone, to eternal torment.

It has been said that our images of God – our sometimes subconscious, and often very diverse concepts of that ultimate power in the Universe – can be traced back to the earliest days of our lives – to a time when, totally dependent on the care given to us by seemingly omnipotent beings, we learned one of two things: either that our parents and other caretakers were dependable, nurturing, and loving – or that they were unpredictable, threatening and angry.

Depending on what kind of early imprinting we receive, so this theory goes, we develop not only our concept of God, but also our understanding of the world – as either an essentially safe place, or as an untrustworthy environment in which we must always, be on guard.

As for me – I know I am one of the lucky ones. Despite a childhood that included not only Miss Maude, but multiple schoolyard bullies and a broken home, I always knew that I was loved – by both my parents, and my family – a knowledge which I believe also had a great deal to do with the fact that I am, today, a Universalist. At that pivotal moment when I first came face to face with harsh judgment – when first I encountered the prospect of ultimate rejection – I already knew, that I was unconditionally loved. The information – the theological claim – that God might reject me – for eternity, no less – simply did not fit, into my worldview.

This, at the age of five.

As I grew older, my understanding of unconditional love deepened. When I was playing, and accidentally broke a window – I was loved, and forgiven. When my negligence caused an expensive jacket my parents had bought me to catch fire, nearly burning down the house – or at least, so I believed – I was loved, and forgiven. When I got suspended from high school, for stealing something out of my biology teacher’s desk – yes, this was the same biology teacher who infuriated me by teaching us Creationism rather than evolution (perhaps there is a common thread here!) – anyway, when I got suspended from high school, I was loved, and forgiven.

When I wound up in the hospital after experimenting with some bad drugs – I was loved, and forgiven.

I’m not saying that my family and my parents weren’t disappointed in me, over and over again – that they weren’t upset, weren’t even sometimes outright furious at me, for all these things – I’m just saying I always knew, that in spite of all my many faults and failings – I was loved, and forgiven.

And if human beings are capable of such love and forgiveness, I reasoned, why not God?

So first and foremost, I am a Universalist because I believe in love and forgiveness.

I’ll never forget the time my mother lay dying, in a coma – and we had an unexpected visit from my nephew, a young man who had been in and out of trouble, in and out of jail, for all of his adult life. Mama had not been responsive, to any of us, for days. Furthermore, she had not seen or spoken to my nephew in years – nor, in fact, had most of the family that had gathered round the deathbed.

But when my nephew walked into the room, something there changed. And when he bent down beside her bed, almost as if in prayer, and took my mother’s hand, and stroked her hair, and said, “Grandma, it’s me. I’m here” – the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever seen took place. A tear – one, single, tear – rolled out of the corner of my mother’s closed eye, and slowly down her cheek.

If a human being, can offer such love and forgiveness, why not God?…

At this point, I realize that some of you are probably thinking, “why God?” Who needs God, to be touched by stories of love and forgiveness? And it is true, that unlike the classic Universalism of the 19th century – a 21st century Universalism does not have to have God, in order to be Universalism. Belief in God – belief in Jesus as the Son of God, or even as a specially anointed messenger of God – belief in the Bible as a unique revelation containing stories of literal truth – these are no longer necessary, to be a Universalist, in the 21st century. If they were, I suspect that most of us, would not be here, right now. Certainly, such beliefs have little to do, with why I am a Universalist.

No, we modern UUs have principles, rather than dogma, to guide us; we prefer logic and reason, over what we sometimes think of as “blind faith.” And so, like most adult converts to Unitarian Universalism, the Principles play a significant role in my religious self-understanding – and therefore offer insight, into why I am a Universalist.

It is not uncommon for folks to cite our first UU Principle, our affirmation of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” as our most explicitly Universalist principle – and it is true that the language of this principle grew directly grown out of our Universalist heritage. This principle – and not just because it is our first principle – certainly carries great moral weight. If one really believes in the inherent worth and dignity of each and every human being – if one looks at the world in which we live through this lens – it will create a profound shift in our perceptions.

For one thing, it means that we are not, contrary to most orthodox religious teachings of most of the world’s religions, somehow fallen, or flawed. The baby dedication ceremonies with which we celebrate the coming of new life into our community, speak to how differently we UU’s view human nature.

Furthermore, if we seek to truly live as if each and every person we come into contact with has inherent worth, and is deserving of our respect – then, as Helene Knox reminds us, we are called to live a very different kind of life, throughout our life.

Yes, our first principle, is Universalism made manifest. But I bet you never thought of how our second UU principle, might relate to Universalism. Actually – let’s be honest – I bet you never thought much about our second principle, at all! Can anyone even tell me our second principle?…

[That’s right – “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”] If you’re looking for a short, succinct sound bite for Universalism –to me,
that’s it!

Let’s look at this particular version of the “trinity,” one word at a time… Justice. I am a Universalist, because I believe in justice. Not the kind of retributive justice that calls for punishment or banishment, that demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – but rather the kind of justice that is egalitarian – the kind of justice that makes level the rough places, the kind of justice that guides us, in the words of the hymn, on the road from greed, to giving. It is the kind of justice immortalized, in the Hebrew scriptures, in the concept of the Jubilee year, when the slaves are freed, all debts are forgiven, and the slate is wiped clean. As an aside, my online dictionary tells me that “egalitarianism” is the opposite of “elitism” – a subject we UU’s have been wrestling with a lot, lately. But suffice it to say, believing, as I do, in egalitarianism – how could I be anything but a Universalist?

Rev. Bill Gupton marching with Standing on the Side of Love banner in Selma, Alabama.

Which brings us to equity. I am a Universalist because I believe in equality. I believe that all are created equal; that no one person has any more, or any less, right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, than does any other. I believe with all my heart, that when all is said and done – when you strip away all the superficial and ultimately meaningless differences among us, differences like age and ability, gender and sexuality, wealth and status, education and opportunity – when you look beyond those things, we are all equal. Believing that, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

Justice. Equity. And finally, compassion. I am a Universalist because I believe in compassion. I believe that there is no greater power than love – and that there is nothing more transformative, that the experience of being loved. As I have said, knowing that I was unconditionally loved, shaped who I am and how I see the world, at a very deep and fundamental level. Further, it is our human capacity for empathy – not sympathy, mind you, but empathy – our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another, and then act on that deep connection – which has truly transformative power. When you give, from deep within you, you can change the world, with your love. Believing this, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

But there is more, to this faith I profess. I am also a Universalist, because I believe in diversity and inclusion. When I look around at our world, I see a planet that is both diverse, and inclusive. Did you know that there are nearly 500 species of frogs? That there are more than 8 million possible gene combinations in the process of human cell meiosis? Have you ever noticed that a weed – of which there are no doubt scores of varieties, though I didn’t bother to look that one up – have you ever noticed that a weed, does not care where your neighbor’s property line ends, and yours begins? Yes, the natural world is one, giant experiment, in both diversity, and inclusion.

Living as I do, in a Universe that is one of an infinite number of possible universes – living in a Galaxy itself that, according to a NASA report released earlier this year may contain as many as 500 billion planets – and living as I do, for a brief time, on one of those planets, amid billions of other human beings as just one of two million or so existing species – how could I be anything other than a Universalist?

But when all is said and done – in the end, I am a Universalist because – and here I come round again, full circle, to that Sunday School classroom, all those years ago – I am a Universalist because I believe that the ultimate destiny and destination of every human being, is the same. This is the classical definition of Universalism – and it seems to be just as radical, just as controversial, a faith statement today, as it ever was. Yet if I am to be true to my heart, it is where I must take my theological stand.

Throughout history, though they certainly wouldn’t think of it this way, human beings have constructed cosmologies and creeds based on the supposition that, in the end, when all is said and done, inequality will reign supreme – that injustice will somehow carry the day. This simply makes no sense to me. Believing, as I do, in justice, equity, and compassion – I find such a universe unthinkable – unconscionable, in fact. Believing, as I do, in love and forgiveness – I cannot imagine a Creation in which there would be such a place as Hell. Believing, as I do, in compassion and inclusion – the idea of eternal exclusion, is one I cannot abide.

Just as everything comes from the same Source – so, too, I must believe it will eventually return. All, will be made one, because all is one. Nothing, can ultimately be separated, from the whole. On this point, science and spirituality – head and heart – agree. Believing this, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

Yes, mine was a spiritual journey that began in the arms of loving parents. It was shaped, very early on, by a defining encounter with an inflexible, Christian fundamentalism. What followed were years of questioning and doubt but – with some luck, perhaps fate, and maybe even a bit of Divine guidance – I eventually found, at the age of 24, a new faith: Unitarian Universalism. More recently, I believe it was Grace that led me to Cincinnati, to serve as the minister of a Universalist congregation whose people, and traditions, have played another pivotal role in helping shape who I am, and what I believe.

It has been wonderful to be with you, this morning – here at First UU, where I always feel at home. Just beyond that wall, in the memorial garden, sits a bench, dedicated in memory of my late mother. Down the back hallway, mine and Jennifer’s names are among those on the wall of what I still think of as the “new” religious education wing. First UU is in my blood; you are part of my religious DNA. This is the first church I served, after I was ordained to the ministry.

But way leads on to way, writes Robert Frost – and now I have found my place in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – as a Universalist minister, who takes every chance he gets to preach the good news of love and inclusion. Thank you, for letting me share that gospel with you, today.

May the tradition we share – a tradition rooted in the unconditional, loving embrace of Creation; a tradition of radical hospitality for friend and stranger alike; a tradition of inclusion, rather than exclusion – may this cherished tradition, light our paths forward – now, and in all our days to come.

Shalom. Blessed be. And Amen!

Why Are We Here?

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

We are in need, of others. Others, are in need of us.

“We shall love one another,” sang the choir this morning, “with all our heart – and we shall care for each other with all our soul.” Annie Foerster speaks of prayer as a relationship, and as a call to “go out into the world beyond … to begin yet another prayer.” Sarah Lammert calls it a “crazy notion, that we can live separate and aloof from one another.”

The common denominator, the underlying theme, in every reading and song, every story and prayer, that we have heard this morning, is just this: That we need one another, yes – but also that others, are in need, of us. We are – each of us, each and every one of us – but a small part of an intricate web of life and existence, that holds us in its embrace, and somehow connects us, to each other, and to God.

Today, as we celebrate “homecoming,” as we recognize and remember the power and beauty of community – the beauty of this gathered community – we are reminded that no one, is an island. No one, truly, stands alone. Yet this is a particularly difficult truth, for Unitarian Universalists, to accept. More frequently, it seems, we collectively aspire to be something that I personally consider to be an oxymoron – an individualistic religion. The historical figures we celebrate, and the themes we lift up, bear this out: Emerson, and his essay “Self Reliance;” Jefferson and his solitary practice of Unitarianism; Thoreau and his trip to the woods, to Walden Pond; the Transcendentalists and their emphasis on the individual’s direct experience of God; the 20th century Humanists and their manifesto.

Yes, our tradition is rooted, throughout, in a foundation of individual belief, of individual thinking, of the celebration of the individual. Thus it has always been true – just as true in Emerson’s time, as today – that there is a certain, given tension between the individual, and the community, in a Unitarian Universalist church. Sometimes, in our congregations, “me” is even allowed to run roughshod, over “we.”

Which begs the question – why are we here? What is it that has drawn us, called us out from our many singular rooms, as Kenneth Patton puts it, to come to this place, as to a homecoming? What makes our gathering here today, or on any given Sunday, any different than going to the movie theater, or to see a play or a concert? What makes what we’re doing here in this sanctuary, any different than what takes place at a Toastmasters meeting? What makes the act of joining this congregation – a solemn step that several of you will be taking, next week – any different from joining a political party, or the PTA?

To begin to answer that question, I return, for a moment, to this morning’s prayer. There is a recognition that this place where we meet, is holy ground – not because it is a church, but because of why we are here. There is an acknowledgement that at the center of the gathered community, lies the sacred. It is this recognition, this acknowledgement that we are part of a bigger picture, that there is something more at work here, than the individual – something which we meet and experience as holy, when we encounter it in others, in community, and in service – it is by this, that we become religious community. The word “religion,” of course, at its root, means to “re-connect” – reconnect with our fellow travelers, on this journey of life; reconnect, with our common Source.

At this point let me clarify an important distinction I tend to make, between being “spiritual,” and being “religious.” You have no doubt heard – and perhaps you have said yourself – that well-worn Unitarian Universalist apology, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Here’s how I look at it: To be “spiritual,” is, at its essence, to be alone. Whether it be taking a solitary walk in the woods, sitting in a quiet room in meditation, or standing atop a mountain, the spiritual experience, ultimately, tends to be a very private experience.

On the other hand, the religious experience takes place in community – one by one, we gather, says Annie Foerster; two by two we come, until we are pulsing like a hundred heartbeats. We are re-connected with something larger, we step into the flow of Grace – we bring our own little light, our own lamp, and together, they fill every corner. As a result, we are illuminated, we are drawn out of ourselves, back into the greater whole. Thus do we covenant – not with ourself, but with each other, and with God.

Yes, one way I would answer the question, “why are we here?”, is to say that we are here with an intentionality to create, and participate in, a particular and distinctive kind of community – a religious community – a community that is, by definition, covenanted.

Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams said that we “become human by making commitments, by making promises” – by entering, into covenant. Thus, one reason we are here, is to become more human.

And part of being human, is to care for each other – again, to care for each other, in the words of our choir, with all our soul. We come to know what it is to be human, each time we comfort another who is experiencing loss or facing surgery, each time we reach out to another who has celebrated a marriage or birth, each time we embrace another, who has lost a job. We know – because we have experienced it – the power of what happens here, at this altar, each Sunday. It is part of what makes us a religious community. It is one of the primary reasons, we are here.

Another reason – one we are certainly aware of, today, as we prepare for that “Homecoming Hoedown,” right after the service – is simply to have fun together. Being with one another – laughing, breaking bread, enjoying fellowship – is plenty enough reason, to gather in community.

Yet we are here, as well, in the words of our covenant, to “serve humankind in fellowship.” Our human brothers and sisters – those who are not part of this gathered congregation, those whose lives have never even brought them to this sanctuary – are also, in need of us. Each day, people go hungry, in this land of plenty; each night, people sleep on the streets. This is why we partner with Inter-Parish Ministries, and the Interfaith Hospitality Network. This, too, is why, we are here.

As a distinctly Universalist church in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we are here to witness for our highest value – the value of inclusion – inclusion in a world, and in a society, where minorities of race or religion or sexual orientation are systematically oppressed, repressed, and excluded. When a religious group in our community is without a home, whether due to discrimination or simple circumstance, we are here to open our arms and hearts, and provide sanctuary – in every sense of that word – as did the Heartsong Christian Church in Tennessee, which I spoke about last week.

When someone threatens to desecrate the scripture of another religion, we are here to take a stand against hatred and fear, as did the Amarillo UU Fellowship in Texas, whose story I emailed to you yesterday. When a couple – straight, lesbian, or gay – is denied a minister to officiate at their wedding – because of their religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, or because they are divorced or already have children, or are living together, or any of the other numerous rationales many mainstream clergy use to decline to perform marriage ceremonies – I, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, am here to offer them a religious ceremony – in every sense of that word.

And in all this, let us not forget that we are here, as well, in order to teach our children – to impart to them our ideals – in the words of one passage in our hymnal, to hand down the heritage of heart and mind, from generation to generation. On this first Sunday morning of a new Sunday School year, let us remember that it is no accident that what is taking place, in those classrooms, is called religious education. It is about teaching our children to walk the path of life with integrity and purpose, with compassion and tolerance, with a deep and profoundly grateful awareness of our interconnections – with each other, and with a whole that is far greater, than the sum of its parts.

We are here to teach ourselves, and others, responsible stewardship of the earth. With the inspiration of our seventh principle, which is based on the words of the Native American tribal leader Chief Seattle, we are here to witness to the religious, as well as the practical, reasons that it is imperative for our species to turn the corner, and turn back to a lifestyle that is more in harmony with the natural world, one that respects our environment as – itself – an expression of the sacred, as much so as any one of us. We are here, to live and work and play in as “green” a manner as we possibly can – and to teach others to do the same.

A few years ago, during the process that led to our congregational mission-vision statement and our strategic plan, there was some concerted effort put into answering – as succinctly as possible – the question, “Why are we here?” The result was a short, easy to grasp, easy to remember “sound bite,” if you will – six simple, yet powerful words that cut right to the chase, and summarize everything I have been saying this morning, everything we seek to do, as a congregation: Celebrate Life. Create Community. Seek Justice. That, is why we are here.

And we aspire to do all these things, while living harmoniously, in covenant. No easy task, that! When we say we are here to celebrate life, create community, and seek justice, we are striving to accomplish ideals – not in the manner a civic group, or a professional organization, or a non-profit agency might – but rather, in the way religious communities do – in covenant, as an ongoing, ever-evolving community of people who have made certain commitments. Living in covenant, in other words, is what distinguishes a religious community.

Alice Blair Wesley, today’s leading Unitarian Universalist authority on, and proponent of, the concept of covenant, has this to say, about the power, and the potential, inherent in true religious community: “Strong, effective, lively – churches – [those] capable of altering, positively, the direction of their whole society – will be those … churches whose … members can say clearly – individually and collectively – what are their own, most important loyalties, as church members.”

There’s a lot to unpack, in that one, short quote. Certainly Wesley is asking, in her own way, the same question I am asking today – “Why are we here?” What, when all is said and done, is our ultimate commitment, as members of this church? And just how strong is that commitment, that loyalty? For unless it is strong, we will never be able to build a healthy church community; unless it is strong, we will not be capable of helping the world, beyond these walls. Until we can not only articulate our commitments, but own them, and embody them to an extent greater than we have perhaps to date imagined – we will exist, only for ourselves.

Wesley’s language is pointed; she speaks of our “most important loyalties, as church members,” “individually, and collectively.” Here, she alludes to that inherent tension, which I mentioned earlier, between the individual, and the community. Sometimes, in a church – and this is particularly important to remember, I believe, in a Unitarian Universalist church – sometimes, the individual must set aside his or her own needs, the needs of “me” – for the good of “we.” I’ll say that again: sometimes “we” are called to put the well-being of the group, the needs of “we,” ahead of “me.” This is difficult for us, as highly individualistic UU’s, to accept – which is precisely why it is so important, from time to time, that we be reminded – that we remind one another – of this reality: One of the primary reasons we are here, is for “we.”

It is no coincidence that there’s a very similar philosophical, existential, and – I would even go so far as to say – theological question facing America today. Though the political dialogue seldom puts it in terms like this, when find ourselves debating the relative merits of health care, or outsourcing, or government regulation – we are really asking the question, “Why are we here?” What is our purpose, as a society? And isn’t it interesting that one of the most popular putdowns, one of the most widely used pejoratives today, in our political debate, is to call someone a “socialist.” You’ve probably never stopped to think of it in these terms, but I will submit to you that the most socialistic institutions in any society, are its religious communities.

When I speak of teaching our children about our belief that there is something beyond the individual, that is worthy of our reverence; when I talk about lifting up the holy, not only in each, but in all; when I preach about seeking justice, and serving humankind in fellowship – I am talking about the same kind of radical inclusion, the same kind of radical community, that Jesus spoke about – I am talking about acts that bring us out of the narcissism of “me,” and squarely into the sacred realm of “we.”

Listen one more time, to Alice Blair Wesley’s comment, on covenant: “Strong, effective, lively … churches – [those] capable of altering, positively, the direction of their whole society – will be those … churches whose … members can say clearly – individually, and collectively – what are their own, most important loyalties, as church members.”

All our lives, we are in need – and others, are in need of us. In a culture that is so me-centric, so consumer-oriented, I say to you, this morning – don’t let your church, don’t let Heritage Church, be about “me.” Don’t let it be just another place, in the modern American marketplace, where you “consume” something. Let it be, instead, a place where you give, where you embrace, where you engage, where your ultimate commitment, is to something bigger. In doing so, I assure you, you will find not only that you are able to feed others who are in need – but that you will be fed – fed in ways only dimly visible, now – in ways both powerful, and profound.

As the poet Annie Dillard wrote, “We are here to abet Creation, and to witness to it – to notice each other’s beautiful face, and complex nature – so that Creation need not play, to an empty house.”

As we come home, once again, this morning – come home, to Heritage Church – let us be reminded of this reason for being together. Let us remember why, we are here. Let us celebrate the part we play, in the greater whole. Let us truly see, as if for the first time – in the faces and smiles and bright eyes of each other – the holy. Let us feel, in the energy and exuberance of this community, the very Spirit of Life itself. And let us be grateful, for the opportunity, to serve others – the opportunity to covenant with each other, and with God.

May it be so. Amen!

Celebrate Life

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Unitarian Universalist minister Sara York tells the story of a conversation she once had with a colleague:

“We know that all ministers really only have one sermon,” she begins, “so I asked my friend what his was.”

“Really just one word,” he replied: “Live.”

“Yeah,” Sara agreed, “I suppose that’s about what mine is, too – except that I would add ‘Live, in spite of…’ ”

“In spite of what?” her colleague asked.

“In spite of … having to die, mainly. But there are other in-spite-of’s, too – like going to the dentist.”

“Get serious,” he said.

“I am serious,” she retorted. “As far as I’m concerned, every dentist is Dr. Partridge, my childhood dentist. He didn’t believe in novocaine. He liked to torture children. When I say ‘going to the dentist,’ it means having to confront Dr. Partridge. It means dealing with all the pain and heartache of life. It means facing what you’re afraid of.”

“And when,” her friend asked Sara “was the last time you, went to the dentist?”

“What difference does that make?” she replied, a bit too quickly.

“Well,” said the wise colleague, “if you live, as you say, in spite of the pain, in spite of the fear – if you live in spite of having to go to the dentist, what I’m asking is, does that mean that you go to the dentist – or that you avoid going to the dentist?”

I love that story. I think it carries so many layers of meaning – sort of like the little lesson about dandelions that our Director of Religious Education, Hollie Johnson, shared this morning. Contained in this brief, real-life conversation, is just about all the theology I believe anyone could ever need. For one thing, it challenges us to go to the dentist – to face our fears – to make damn certain that we do not, in Thoreau’s brilliant phrase, “when we come to die, discover that we have not lived.”

For another thing, this anecdote points to the idea that – as has been said many times before, but bears repeating today – religion is the human response to the fact that we are alive, yet one day, will die. Religion is the way human beings find meaning and purpose in a journey we did not ask to undertake – one filled with both indescribable joy, and sometimes unbearable sorrow. Religion is the human experience of a universe in which we are amazed, and all but mute with awe, that on a cinder, hurtling around the sun, there is life at all – and we – we are part of it.

Is it any wonder, then, that we would want to celebrate that miracle? That for as long as people can remember, we have gathered, around a fire, to express our amazement, our gratitude – and yes, our fear – at being part of life’s rich pageant?

To celebrate, to bask in, the fullness of life – that is religion.

There is a reading, in our hymnal, which says it well: “Therefore, we do not neglect the ceremonies of our passage – when we wed, and when we die; when we are blessed with a child; when we depart, and when we return; when we plant, and when we harvest.”

That is why we are here. That is the purpose of religious community – to offer us an opportunity to share our amazement; to provide a touchstone on the circuitous and often confusing path of life; to create a time and a place, made sacred by intention, for us to be mindful, amid the otherwise mindless rush of time. In short, to celebrate life – and thus, to live it, more fully.

Just how often do you stop to celebrate life? How often, do you pause to look at the wonder that is a newborn baby – and to ponder the arc of that child’s journey into, through, and ultimately beyond this life? How often do you drink in the joy, and exuberance, of adolescence – thus reliving, your own youth? How often do you take the time to simply sit, in silence, listening to your own breath, and to the vibration of life, all around you?

bill-gupton-4-ccHow often do you listen to someone else – whether that someone is telling you about a personal crisis they are facing, or is perfectly at peace – how often do you really listen to another human being, and recognize what a blessing it is, simply to be able to share the experience of being human, with another? How often do you look at the heart of a daisy – and know that it is heaven itself, to take what is given – to see what is plain – to notice what the sun lights up, willingly?

How often, do you really celebrate life?

If this were an easy thing to do – if this came as naturally as drawing breath – there would be no need for churches, or worship services; for ministers or meditation classes. But we know that living this way is not easy – far from it, in fact. And so, we come to religious community, in the hope that we can learn – together – to celebrate life. To do the miracle that is life justice. To sing together, and to hear the voices of others. To laugh, and to cry – to give a hug, or teach a child. To be in silence. To honor the ceremonies of our passage – when we wed, and when we die, when we are blessed with a child, and when those children grow up. This is why we come here, week after week, year after year – in good times, and in bad – because Heritage Church is a spiritual home where we can celebrate life, create community, and seek justice.

Let me be the first to say that, those last two stated purposes of our congregation, those last two aspects of our mission – community, and justice – are no doubt equally well-served in most, or at least many, other churches, synagogues, and temples. But it is the first of the three aspects of our mission, the first of the three reasons we come together at Heritage – the celebration of life – that I believe is what has drawn us to a Unitarian Universalist church – to this particular church, as opposed to any other. And I will submit to you today that it is our distinct, UU way of celebrating life, that distinguishes us, from other faith communities. Because as Unitarian Universalists, we put our faith, in this life. We celebrate this life. We do not avoid going to the dentist – nor do we focus our energy and attention on another life that we cannot even know.

Carl Jung once said that “life is a luminous pause, between two great mysteries.” The plain truth is that some religious communities tend to denigrate, rather than celebrate, this luminous pause. Some faiths teach that this life is somehow “fallen,” or stained by sin. Others, that it is merely an illusion. Most religions I know, look toward some “better life,” somewhere other than here.

But we – we are taught to see the miraculous, in the everyday. We believe that this life, is the only one of which we can be sure – the only place we have ever known or found beauty, and wonder. And the thing is, the more we human beings study this life, the more science tells us about the universe, about everything from the smallest atom, to the smallest ant – from the simplicity of a single-celled organism, to the complexity of the human brain – everywhere we look, we find even more reason for reverence.

One of my favorite passages in my favorite book – Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel “The Story of B” – is a conversation between Jared Osborne, a Roman Catholic priest, and a mysterious woman named Shirin, a spiritual leader not unlike the Inuit priestess Uvavnuk, whom I have quoted at the top of your order of service this morning.

In that conversation, Shirin is attempting to explain her theology to Father Osborne, whose imagination has been limited by the dualistic thinking and anthropocentric cosmology he has been taught. She says:

“Here, I’ll tell you a story. When the gods set out to make the universe, they said to themselves, ‘Let us make of it a manifestation of our unending abundance, and a sign to be read by those who have eyes to [see]. Let us lavish care without stint on every thing – no less upon the most fragile blade of grass, than on the mightiest of stars; no less upon the gnat that sings for an hour, than upon the mountain that stands for a millennium; no less upon a flake of mica, than upon a river of gold.

“ ‘Let us make no two leaves the same, from one branch to the next; no two branches the same, from one tree to the next; no two trees the same, from one land to the next; no two lands the same, from one world to the next – and no two worlds the same, from one star to the next. In this way, the Law of Life will be plain to all who have eyes to [see]…’

“And this was how it was done, from first to last – no two things alike, in all the mighty universe – no single thing made with less care than any other thing, throughout generations of species more numerous than the stars. And those who had eyes to see, read the sign, and followed the Law of Life.”

I ask you, my friends: Is such intricacy, such beauty, such wonder – is this life – not worthy of celebrating? Is this life not worthy, of our reverence? Why would anyone call it “fallen”? Why would anyone turn their eyes away from such magnificence, to look toward some imagined better life, somewhere else?

I do not deny that there is always Dr. Partridge. I do not disparage the reality of death. And I will grant you that in the 52 years I have been given so far, my life has been, by any objective standard, a very comfortable, privileged, and very blessed existence. So I won’t ask you to take my word for it – but instead will offer you the thoughts of two others – one of them nameless – who have inspired me, to celebrate life.

In a poetry collection titled “Peking Spring,” Chinese dissident Kuo Lu-Seng writes:

While I am imprisoned in a cage of pitch darkness,
Still able to endure the pain from torture,
I will struggle to rise – bite open my fingers,
And with my blood, write on the wall –
“Believe in life!”

And the following poem was found in the Terezin concentration camp, following the Nazi occupation of what is now the Czech Republic. Its author is anonymous, and presumably died in the concentration camp.

He doesn’t know the world at all,
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best,
Nor what I want to sing about –
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night –
And then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey! Try to open up your heart
To beauty. Go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then, if the tears obscure your way,
You’ll know how wonderful it is,
To be alive.

… I am left, for a moment, without words … which is, I suspect, the best way of all, to celebrate life. When the victim of a concentration camp can write that he or she “want[s] to sing [that] … the world is full of loveliness,” I return to Sara York’s story, and our colleague who asked her pointedly, “Do you go to the dentist, or do you avoid going to the dentist?” When the Chinese prisoner writes, in his own blood, “Believe in life” – how can I not do the same?

And so, I have happily cast my lot with the a community that chooses to celebrate life. This life. I consider myself deeply blessed to have found such a community, here. I hope you feel blessed to have found it, as well.

May we never take for granted either this remarkable place, or this all-too limited time we have here together. May we never forget, why we are here. Though I will preach in the next two weeks on the other two pillars of our Heritage Church mission – creating community, and seeking justice – this, is my one sermon: Not just “Live” – and not “Live, in spite of” – but “Celebrate Life”!

May it be so. Amen!

A Power Beyond Ourselves

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Let me begin my reflection today by acknowledging what a blessing it is for me to be part of a UU church where we can sing, on Sunday morning, a hymn, such as the one we just sang. Some Unitarian Universalist churches are what I call “God-free zones” – congregations which espouse religious freedom, but where at times it seems people are more interested in being free from religion. But the deep Universalist roots we celebrate here at Heritage provide us, I believe, with both a stronger, shared spiritual foundation upon which to draw, and a more all-embracing sense of religious expression.

Nonetheless, I know, because there are folks who have spoken with me about it over the years, that for some people just saying, or singing, the word “God” is uncomfortable. I want to lift up that truth as well, and honor it – and say that I, too, sometimes feel that centuries of misuse and abuse have stripped the word “God” of any meaning it may have once had.

So, too, other traditional religious words, like “prayer,” or “miracle.” Yet I am asking you this morning to consider the proposition that each of us lives, and breathes, and has our being, in the very midst of miracles. Is it anything short of a miracle that, from a seed, springs a flower – from an acorn, grows a tree – from a sperm and an egg – you, and me?

These and other common miracles suffuse every moment of our existence. Consider the way our breath draws oxygen into our lungs, oxygen which crosses a perfect barrier into our bloodstream; consider the way our breath releases carbon dioxide, which becomes part of a similar chemical exchange in the plants on which we depend, for life.

Yes, at this very moment, we are literally swimming, like fish in water, within something truly, and utterly, miraculous – something that is much bigger, much more powerful, than ourselves – something on which we are utterly dependent.

And I believe, in the words of this morning’s call to worship, that “We have religion [only] when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, or self-derived…[That] we have religion, [only] when we [can] entrust ourselves to [a] Life that is larger than ours.”

Friends, these are not even easy words to say – but how much more difficult they are, to live. Even if, in our human insecurity, we are somehow able to take that initial step of admitting – living, if uneasily, with the fact that we are not self-sufficient – there remains the kicker: to be open to experiencing the full depth and breadth of life, to fully realize our potential as spiritual and religious creatures, we must also come to a place of trust – to entrust ourselves, to that what is beyond ourself.”

Let’s pause a moment to break down this two-part process of spiritual awakening – which is, after all, the work of a lifetime (or of more than one lifetime, if you are so inclined). Step one: acknowledging, and learning to live comfortably with, the fact that we are dependent creatures – dependent on a power far greater than ourselves. Step two: trusting that power, giving ourselves over to it, and – ultimately, as we draw our final breath – giving ourselves back to it.

In a nutshell, this is the universal spiritual journey, common to seekers of every faith, in every time. Only through surrender to Allah, say the Muslims, shall we find peace. Not my will, but thine, say the Christians. By letting go of our attachments, say the Buddhists, we can achieve nirvana. Those in 12-Step programs begin by admitting their powerlessness, then trusting in a higher power – “letting go, and letting God.”

Each of these paths – drawn from the East, and the West – drawn from ancient times, and from modern times – offer remarkably similar religious instruction. Basically, it can be summed up in two words: admit, then submit.

But to admit our contingent, dependent nature – to submit to a power beyond ourself – these actions pose a particular challenge for Unitarian Universalists. We pride ourselves on our individualism, our independence. It is no coincidence that Emerson, the author “Self-Reliance,” is among our most celebrated spiritual ancestors. It is no coincidence that many of us have difficulty with trust, with believing in things we cannot scrutinize and measure, with letting forces beyond our control, act upon us.

Yet that is the nature of life itself. We are – to an extent far greater than any of us are comfortable admitting – interdependent, rather than independent. We are – and each of us remains painfully aware of this fact, at some subconscious level – like the people at Fort Hood (to whom our hearts go out in solidarity this morning) – just one unthinkable moment away from having, in Chardin’s words, our “narrow standards of measurement” shattered.

The author at Cascade Falls in Virginia
The author at Cascades Falls in Virginia

Like you, of course, I would prefer to think of only the beautiful and the benevolent side of the Spirit of Life – those chirping birds and blooming flowers, orange sunsets and green mountains. Like, again, Emerson, I would rather look at the “roses under my window.” But as Chardin reminds us, the full “dimension of God” includes, necessarily, a darker side. The Hindus had it right, when they envisioned the ultimate force in the universe as both and equally creator and destroyer. The same force that makes the delicate petals of a rose unfold, brings a tsunami crashing over an island village.

Let me share with you a dream I had, this week, as I was preparing for today’s service. As I do, perhaps it would help – if you are comfortable doing so – to close your eyes…

Picture yourself driving a car, heading up a long, steep gravel road. Suddenly, ahead – up above you – you see an avalanche, tumbling down the mountainside toward you – as you head toward it. Dust and smoke billow across the road, and on both sides of the road, as far into the horizon as you can see. Rocks and boulders create a roaring sound – and this entire tidal wave of … debris … is rumbling down on top of you.

In a panic, you shift the car’s gears, execute a quick three-point turn – and begin racing down the mountain, hoping against hope that you can outrun the oncoming avalanche.

Then, as it grows ever closer to you, you see a building up ahead – a gleaming, glass and metal structure maybe five stories tall. You pull into the parking lot in a panic, and rush inside. You can see, out the window, that the cloud of rocks and dust and dirt is about to engulf the building itself – but this building is the only place of shelter available. Strangely, those inside the building have not yet noticed the impending doom – but when you point, wordlessly, out the window at the avalanche, they, too, begin scrambling for cover. Some cram into a closet – but you, in a moment of lucid thought, decide instead to run up the stairs to the top floor, in hopes that the height of the building will keep you from being buried alive.

You reach the top floor – a restaurant where, again, the patrons do not yet seem to have noticed the avalanche – and you dive under one of the tables, curling up into a fetal position, waiting. You can hear the roar of the tumbling debris, and – looking out the window – you see the dirt and rocks slowly blocking out the sunlight as they move up the outside of the glass walls, like sands in an hourglass…

And that is where the dream ends. I’ll give you a moment to return, to this safe and comfortable sanctuary – just as I needed a moment to realize I was in my own safe and comfortable bed when I awoke from this particular dream, sometime in the wee hours of Friday morning. So take a moment, to return, and to integrate your thoughts and feelings…

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of dreams. I believe dreams are one of the very best ways we have of learning about ourselves. Jung, and others, have pointed out just what a spiritual tool dreams can be, as we seek to ask the big religious questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Having taken a course, in seminary, on the spirituality of dreams – having been a long-time keeper of dream journals – I could tell you now that, upon waking, I was aware of the symbolism of the windows, and the fact that in my dream, I was always inside some protected area, looking out at the world, looking out a window – looking, with a mixture of fascination and fear – looking at, but somehow separated from, a power that was greater than myself.

I could, as well, focus on details like the fetal position in which I eventually chose to await my fate; or on the strange sense that others were, at least initially, unaware of the danger we were in; or on the clearly meaningful sands-of-time, hourglass image.

I could do all that – but instead, what strikes me most of all about my dream is the fact that I was running away from this power greater than myself – despite the obvious futility of such an effort. The thing is, this not the first time I have had a dream like this – one in which I am about to be overwhelmed by some force more powerful than I am – a force that I am desperately trying to avoid – and then, just as I am about to be consumed – I wake up.

It’s as if I’ve been watching a heart-pounding action movie, for an hour and a half – only to have someone pull the plug, right in the middle of the climactic chase scene. I never get to see the end of the movie! But as my graduate-school professor used to tell us, you cannot remake your dreams. They are, what they are.

So this particular, recurring theme, somehow, is part of who I am: It seems that somewhere, inside me, is a white-knuckled man – to be more accurate, probably a frightened little boy – who is terrified of facing a power beyond himself. But ironically, another part of me is a man who knows, both logically (and, in fact, theologically), that it is only by facing that power – by turning and looking it right in the eye – can I ever truly discover what it means, to be human.

As Forrest Church says, religion is the human response to living a life which we know must ultimately end. Admit, then submit. How much easier our lives would be – and how much sweeter – if we could let go, just a little bit more. Let go, and let God.

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, by Denise Levertov – titled “The Avowal.” She writes,

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky,
and water bears them –
as hawks rest upon air,
and air sustains them –
so I would learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing [that] no effort earns
that all-surrounding Grace.

That is what I long to do! To attain freefall. To lie, completely still, on my back, in the water – and be held up, by the water. To float effortlessly, like a hawk, on the warm air. To trust – to fully entrust myself, to that power which is greater than myself.

Here’s how the Unitarian Universalist essayist Phillip Simmons put it, in his beautiful book “Learning to Fall”:

“At its deepest level, life is not a problem, but a mystery. The distinction … is fundamental: Problems are to be solved; true mysteries are not… At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, [so] bewildering, [so] joyous or terrifying, that all our efforts to see it as a ‘problem,’ are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments, we can either back away … or leap forward into the Mystery.”

“And what does Mystery ask of us?” he continues. “Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all – and that is everything. We can participate in mystery, only by letting go.”

May we learn to participate, in the mystery. May we experience the peace, which passes all understanding – the peace which comes with letting go – the peace that comes only as we entrust ourselves … to a power, beyond ourselves.

May it be so. Blessed be. And amen.

The Wonder of Creation

A view of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

“And we all know about wonder, don’t we?” Ken Wilber writes rhetorically, in “The Marriage of Sense and Soul.”

“From the depths of a Kosmos too miraculous to [even] believe,” he says, “From the heights of a universe too wondrous to worship – from the insides of an astonishment that has no boundaries – an answer begins to suggest itself, and whispers to us, lightly. If we listen very carefully, from within this infinite wonder, perhaps we can hear the gentle promise that, in the very heart of the Kosmos itself, both science and religion will be there, together, to welcome us home”…

Unitarian Universalism has always been a somewhat shaky marriage of science and religion, reason and faith, head and heart. Like a pendulum swinging through the generations, our tradition has veered from the first, enlightened wave of Deism and Biblical criticism, to the enthusiastic Transcendentalism made manifest in Emerson and Thoreau; from the heady assurance of the Humanist Manifesto, to the eager embrace of New Age spirituality and neo-paganism. Today’s Unitarian Universalism is an often uneasy alliance of seemingly contradictory spiritualities – an alliance that, for all its difficulties still remains, in my mind, the best and most hopeful model of how, in a global marketplace of widely differing and diverse faiths, people might yet be able to come together, and build beloved community.

And wouldn’t that be a wonder!

Yet I have great hope, this morning, that it can be done. We all know a little something about wonder, don’t we?

Today, I lift up that sense of innate, human wonder – wonder at the beauty of the earth and the vastness of the cosmos, wonder at the multiplicity of creation, wonder at the fact that we exist at all. I lift this wonder up, so we might be mindful of the importance of keeping that flame of universal mystery and awe burning brightly at the very heart of our lives. I lift this wonder up, as a reminder, that science and religion are not incompatible.

Unitarian Universalists are not alone in this conviction. In fact, this morning, we join nearly a thousand churches and synagogues in all 50 states and nine foreign countries – Methodist and Episcopal, Jewish and Catholic, UU and Lutheran and more – in celebrating what is being called “Evolution Weekend, 2008.” Evolution Weekend is a program of The Clergy Letter Project, a group of some 11,000 ministers who have gone on record as proclaiming the importance of using modern science, in the exercise of modern faith. Theirs is a hopeful, forward-thinking attempt to counter the efforts of religious fundamentalists of all stripes and persuasions, who seek to discount science as a threat to their beliefs, or – worse yet – to use pseudo-science to prop up their own beliefs.

And we in Cincinnati know much about the latter approach. After all, we are home to what is perhaps its most egregious example – the 27-million-dollar Creation Museum, a privately financed, multi-media complex that has been called the world’s largest “religiously motivated fraud.” Whatever you may think of the so-called Creation Museum, you cannot deny that it has turned the Greater Cincinnati area into ground zero in the latest battle between science and religion – a battle that dates back to Galileo’s time, and beyond – a battle the modern media have always loved – a battle that I believe is based on a false premise, a false dichotomy. Because, like the Clergy Letter Project, I can see no reason that humanity’s hard-won scientific knowledge – including what we know about the processes of planetary motion and the expansion of the universe, about natural selection and evolution – cannot live in harmony with – and, in fact, cannot deepen – a sense of religious reverence and spiritual awe. After all, the natural, human response to the vast complexity and beauty of creation, is one of wonder.

Now let me admit right here, that, until today, I have studiously avoided preaching about the Creation Museum – one of the last, I might add, among my colleagues – just as I have, on principle, studiously avoided going to the Creation Museum, or giving its proprietors a single dime of my money. But Evolution Weekend, and an email I received from its founder, Michael Zimmerman, a biologist and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, have changed my mind, and inspired me to speak out on the subject.

The fact is, I am deeply troubled by the Creation Museum. I am troubled that my son must grow up in a community where there is debate – heated, intense debate – almost every month, in the editorial pages of the local newspaper, about the relative “truth” of so-called intelligent design versus evolution, about Biblical literalism versus rational Biblical interpretation. I am troubled to be living in a time when a journalist feels compelled to ask a question, in a presidential primary debate, about a candidate’s belief in evolution – and when three different candidates can answer, with straight-faced conviction, that they don’t believe in evolution. I am troubled that, just down the road from our airport, a massive “museum” is attracting thousands of people each weekend – including this Evolution Weekend – to walk among displays featuring dinosaurs and people living together on the earth, and exhibits detailing how the universe was created in six days, a mere six thousand and three years ago.

What troubles me is not so much the fact that the Creation Museum exists – but rather what its existence has created. What troubles me is the scope of its influence, and the way in which it seems to be taken seriously, by so many – not just in the media, but politicians, influential celebrities, preachers, and yes – even those as close to home as friends and family. That some feel a need to reject scientific knowledge which contradicts certain narrow religious doctrines or dogmas, is something I have never been able to understand.

My first inkling that this was a serious problem in our society came in my high school biology class. I’ll never forget the day our teacher – a well-respected, balding man who peered out over tiny wire-rim glasses and then spoke with a booming voice – told us that, although he was required to teach it, he considered evolution to be nothing less than a lie, and a hoax – and proceeded to give Biblical justification for his assertion. Raised, as I had been, in a free-thinking, open-minded, secular home, this clearly inappropriate, if not downright illegal and unconstitutional moment of evangelism in a public high school classroom, was one of my first indications that there was trouble in river city, when it came to science and religion, church and state.

Contrast that experience with that of my friend and colleague Mark Belletini. Mark tells of his schooling in a decidedly Catholic private school, where the nuns taught him and his classmates that [quote] “evolution was a fact, and that religion and cosmology were not in conflict … that the Bible was full of cultural assumptions, exaggerations, and even out-and-out fairy tales, which we were not to be so foolish as to take literally.”

Two different children. Two different upbringings. Two paths to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

My own path took another strange turn through the anti-evolution wilderness when – perhaps because of my earlier experience in high school – I chose to do a college research project on the Scopes trial. As you know, I grew up in Tennessee, and I knew we had come a long way since 1925, when John Scopes was tried, and convicted, in a Dayton, Tennessee, courtroom, for the crime of teaching evolution. We had come so far, that is, that half a century later, another Tennessee science teacher – mine – had been legally required to teach evolution, even if he didn’t believe it!

Catepillar

At any rate, as I say, I chose to do a project on the Scopes trial, and traveled the roughly fifty miles to Dayton in order to see, first hand, the place that had been the site of the infamous “Monkey Trial.” I say I “traveled” to Dayton, rather than I “drove,” because the tiny hamlet of Dayton was so far off the beaten path at even then, that I was able to drive only part-way there – on a curvy, country road. The remainder of the journey involved taking a ferry ride across the river, to reach the courthouse where the trial had taken place.

As I walked the tree-lined streets, and spoke with residents who shook their heads and laughed at the silliness of those days gone by, I remember saying to myself – thank God, at least, that this generation of high schoolers is being taught about evolution; thank God, at least, that even those who live in a town such as this one, can see the folly of blind adherence to outmoded beliefs that defy both common sense and the most basic of scientific understanding of our world.

Little did I imagine, that day, that a generation later – when you can reach Dayton, Tennessee, by driving over a bridge – that in many ways our culture has taken a U-turn back toward the horse-and-buggy days, that the myopic views which had been the source of such high drama in 1925 – the unquestioning beliefs that had resulted in downturned eyes and the shaking of heads among my classmates in high school, 50 years after that – would one day be enshrined in a glitzy, multi-million dollar museum, not far from where I serve, as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Little did I imagine that something called “creationism” would be alive and well in the 21st century – seeking at every turn to cast doubt upon – to cast out, in fact – evolution from the teachings of our public school system – public schools such as the one my own son now attends.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – folks, there is nothing so important, as what we teach our children. You may not know this, but the words to the hymn we sang this morning, as the children were leaving the sanctuary to go begin a new semester of open-minded, open-hearted religious education – “Seek Not Afar for Beauty” – those words were written by a 19th century Unitarian minister, Minot Judson Savage.

Savage is best-known for his advocacy of what we would now call UU Sunday School. Here is how he put it: “Parents tell me continuously that they do not give their children any religious training, from a sense that it is taking unfair advantage of the [impressionable] child. They say, ‘I propose to let my children grow up, as far as possible, unbiased.’ [But the truth is,] if you do not bias your children, the first [person] they meet on the street, or in school, or among their companions, will begin the work of biasing [for you]…”

And so, Savage said, all those years ago – perhaps anticipating events like the Scopes trial, perhaps anticipating a time such as ours – teach your children. Teach them to have open minds. To be curious about the universe. To be inquisitive, and appreciate the scientific method. And, ultimately, teach them to appreciate the beauty, and the wonder, of creation.

I am proud to serve in a tradition with such a history. For two centuries now, we have been teaching not only our children, but our adults, that nature is not to be feared, but to be revered. That creation is not simply a collection of objects made for humanity’s use and abuse, but is an interdependent web of which we are just a small part, an intricate process which science may help us to better understand, but which ultimately remains a matter of profound mystery.

That we are a living portion of a living universe which Ken Wilber calls “too miraculous even to believe.”

Yes, I am proud to be the minister of a Unitarian Universalist church where we sing together of beauty and wonder, where we join together in silent gratitude and appreciation for the gifts of this life, where we reach out to others in welcoming embrace – and where we celebrate both science, and religion, recognizing that it is only when spirituality is balanced by reason, that faith can truly thrive.

May it always be so. Amen.

The author at the Grand Canyon
The author at the Grand Canyon

He Who Has Two Coats

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Bill-hammering-in-the-sky-ccThere is a passage, near the beginning of one of the biblical gospels, in which a crowd of people is gathered, seeking pearls of wisdom from a local, charismatic prophet. The group is composed of the usual assortment of soldiers and seekers, tax collectors and widows – and they have the following exchange with John the Baptist:

And the multitudes asked him, “What shall we do?”

And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”

Those are two of my favorite sentences in the entire Bible. There – in two brief lines, in the third chapter of the Book of Luke – is the summation of all the ethics my parents ever sought to teach me: the vision of a compassionate and just society which, at least when I was growing up, was still the articulated goal and dream of this nation.

“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”

This morning, I want to talk about that vision – those ethics – and how we, as a culture, have failed to live up to them.

As I say, there was a time – in my own lifetime – when the leaders of this great land spoke of such things. Remember Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society?” It was both an ideal – and a set of specific, social programs designed to eliminate poverty, improve health care, and address racism and oppression in America. Remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream? It inspired a generation.

Yes, there was a time when it was expected that we, as a people, would work together for a society in which everyone who was cold would have a coat; in which everyone who was hungry, would have food.

Somewhere along the way, we have lost that vision. Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to become distracted – by the pursuit of personal and corporate gain, by electronic hedonism, by our addiction to DVD’s and SUV’s.

Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to become afraid. Wars, assassinations, terrorist attacks, school shootings – we have let these things drive us even further back into our shells, even further behind the walls of separation that perpetuate the kind of “I’ve got my slice of the pie, so I’d better protect it” mentality which today grips our culture, everywhere we look.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in the Sixties, but I believe that the purpose of a society – any human society – is to take care of its members. All of its members. Not just to protect them, in a military or right-to-beararms way – which seems to be all that this century’s leaders care to focus on – but rather to share the wealth, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, to assure a common safety net that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of each person, that insures everyone the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet we all know that the reality is this: the economic divide in this country grows wider with each passing day. The net worth of the poorest 50 percent of families in America has actually declined, even adjusted for inflation, by six percent in the past six years; meanwhile, corporate America’s profits have doubled (that’s an increase of 100 percent!) in the same time frame.

Meanwhile, in a survey conducted by Pew Research, almost half – 44 percent – of Americans said they “don’t have enough money to make ends meet.

And more and more people are starting to realize that one of the main culprits in our economic squeeze is the soaring, personal cost of health care. Nowhere in our economy, nowhere in our society, is our failure to take care of one another more evident than when it comes to medical care. Thus, I would argue, nowhere is our moral imperative to make drastic changes more clear, than in what even the popular media has come to call the “health care crisis.”

Nearly 50 million of us – almost one in every five American citizens – has no health insurance. That’s an increase of almost 10 million, or 20 percent, from the figure that was being widely quoted just a few years ago, during the 2004 presidential campaign. You may recall that those sobering statistics about health care had little impact on the way most people voted; in fact, they barely made a blip on the issue-meter at the time. But something tells me 2008 will be different; something tells me we’ve reached a tipping point. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the same figure – about 10 million – of what one analyst calls “solidly middle-class Americans” are now among those without health insurance.

So let’s just get it out on the  table right now. When I step into the voting booth next year, one of the top issues on my list – if not the top issue – will be the creation of a national, universal health care system. Ever since, as I say, I was raised to believe that the best measure of a society is how it takes care of its sick, its poor, its weak – I have wondered, as have many people around the world, at the fact that a nation so strong and wealthy as ours, can somehow fail to guarantee its citizens medical care.

And though I am fully aware that addressing this grave injustice will amount to a sweeping change to the way we structure our society, and our economy – and thus, cannot, in the end, occur outside the political realm – I just as strongly believe that these changes will never occur until we have a change of heart. For I believe universal health care is not so much a political issue, as it is a moral and ethical issue. We will not see the Great Society, we will not become a great society, until there is a profound shift not only in our political, but our cultural will. Until we come to believe – truly believe in our hearts – that each person who is cold should have a coat; that each person who is hungry should have food; that each person who is sick should have the best medical care we can provide.

Until we believe these things, nothing will change.

I have a friend – a middle-class, single mother of two – who works only part-time. She tells me that’s the only way she can guarantee her children health care. Medicaid provides them with basic health coverage, she says, but if she were to earn just a thousand dollars more in any given year, they would become ineligible for that benefit. If she were to earn $1,000 more a year, she would have to buy her own health insurance, to the tune of literally thousands of dollars a year – and so, it would actually cost her more money, to work just a few more hours each week.

There has got to be a better way.

I have another friend who, though concerned about symptoms of a potentially serious, yet incurable, disease, won’t talk to the doctor about it, for fear of a diagnosis that would make getting health insurance in the future even more expensive, if not downright impossible.

There has got to be a better way.

Last week on the radio, I heard the story of an Iraq War veteran who had to have part of his skull removed following a mortar attack. As you might imagine, his condition has caused him to need frequent medical attention – yet, due to a bureaucratic decision in which the military declared him to be just 10 percent “disabled” – he recently had to pay $10,000 out of his own pocket for a hospital stay.

There has got to be a better way.

Each passing day brings a similar story. A recent article in the paper told of a self-employed consultant, here in Cincinnati, who spends $75 a week, out of pocket, for medication, and who recently received in the mail a bill for thousands of dollars in hospital costs. Needless to say, he does not have health insurance.

“We’ve got the best doctors, we’ve got the best hospitals, and nobody can afford it,” he told the newspaper reporter. “What kind of sense does that make?”

It makes no sense! And don’t tell me that we can’t pay for it. We are the richest nation in the history of the planet, with more resources at our disposal than any society has ever had. We could provide every person in America two coats, if we chose.

No, we don’t lack the ability to address this issue. What we lack, or at least what we have lacked to this point, is the collective will to do so.

If we can put a man on the moon, if we can put a hundred billion dollars toward “Star Wars” missile defense research (which is how much we’ve spent in the past two decades on that red herring of an idea) – if we can spend what we have spent in the last five years invading and occupying Iraq – then we could just as easily choose to use our money, and our power, and our resources, to take care of our fellow citizens, our human brothers and sisters, when they are sick.

It is simply a matter of priority.

Are we so scared of being attacked – and do we cling so desperately to the illusion that we can, somehow, insure that we will never be attacked – that we’re willing to fail to insure, what we can insure – one another? This nation is perfectly capable of providing adequate health care, and a decent standard of living, for each and every one of its citizens. And so my question: Why don’t we?

Do we really believe – as a country, as a culture – in the kind of Social Darwinism that rationalizes away the unconscionable condition in which some among us live, as the natural order of things? Survival of the fittest? Or do we have a higher standard – do we really have values, family values – which compel us to share our coat, to share our food, to share our best and brightest energies with one another, so that all may be taken care of?

Imagine what the life of my friend would be like if she could work full-time, contribute in a more meaningful way to our society, and know that, if her children fell ill, they would receive appropriate medical care. Imagine what the life of that veteran of the war in Iraq could be like, if – in return for his service to his country (heck, if simply as a result of being a citizen of his country!) he could seek the medical attention he needs, when he needs it – without fear of losing his savings, his home … everything he owns.

But still, many will say, we cannot afford it. Others will want to turn the clock back to a time when we depended on businesses and employers to pay for health insurance. When I was young, my parents – and thus, I – benefited from a system in which those who were able to work, had their health needs paid for through the workplace. Those who didn’t work, at least theoretically, fell under the protection of Medicare and Medicaid.

Today, however, 40 percent of all employers provide no health coverage options whatsoever – and of the businesses that still do, more and more of the cost of that coverage is being passed right back to the worker; less and less is being provided by the employer.

Yet I know, from personal experience, that in today’s economic climate, finding an employer who can offer at least some kind of group insurance coverage, however limited or expensive, can be the deciding factor in making a job choice. Is this really what we want driving the labor market in America?

There has got to be a better way.

And so we continue our slow shift from workplace-oriented health coverage to state-supported medical insurance. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (note that word, “Commonwealth” – it is more than just a nostalgic throwback to the early days of this nation; it connotes the deeply held values of a people who believed that to share their wealth, for the common good, was the highest form of ethical living) – the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with bipartisan support, has enacted legislation, taking effect July 1, that will assure each of its citizens has health insurance.

I applaud this one, small step toward universal health care in America, yet I cannot help but be concerned that – much as has happened with embryonic stem cell research, where the federal government has passed the buck (literally, passed the buck…) back to the states – if we end up going down the road of individual, state-sponsored health care, I fear we will end up with a hodgepodge of widely differing state programs that will leave some Americans with better medical care and better service – and some with worse.

The Universalist in me recoils at any solution to our health care crisis that does not address the basic, moral imperative to take care of all our citizens, equally well.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Suddenly these days “national, universal health care” is a phrase that rolls more easily off politicians’ silvery tongues. It wasn’t too long ago that to say such words was political suicide – but now, with nearly 10 million middle class Americans among the 50 million who have been “left behind” by our current health care system – there is momentum for change. There is a demand for change.

We can find a better way.

I am not a politician – nor am I an economist. I am not a bureaucrat, nor a part of the health care industry. Such experts will be called upon to find that better way – and I am confident that they can do so. I pray that they will do so.

What we are called upon to do – we who compose the too-often silent majority – we whose lives, and whose loved ones’ lives are affected, every day, by the inequities of the health care system in this country – what we are called to do is create a mandate for change, by finding within ourselves the collective will to shift our priorities away from militarism and materialism, and toward community and compassion.

It is my prayer this morning that we will search our hearts, and find it within ourselves – as individuals, and as a society – to make that shift.

He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.
May it be so.
Amen.

Ten Things I Like About Jesus

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Today I am going to share with you ten things I like about Jesus. Let me begin my reflection by telling you, very briefly, about what theologians might call my “Christology” – not what I like about Jesus, but what I believe about Jesus…

I believe Jesus was a man, not a god – and that he really lived, and really died. But like John MacKinnon, whom we heard from in a reading a moment ago, I also believe that – had there never been such a person as the historical Jesus – people would have invented him nonetheless. I also believe, like Elaine Pagels, whom we also heard from a moment ago – that Jesus was engaged in perhaps the ultimate religious quest: seeking to understand what it means to be human, and to understand the relationship between the human and the holy.

And I find truth, too, in the picture of the dual Jesus painted by the poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote, “Once, every hundred years, Jesus of Nazareth meets with the Jesus of Christianity, in a secluded garden in the hills of Lebanon. They walk together, and talk for a long time – and, at the end of the conversation, Jesus of Nazareth goes away, saying to the Jesus of Christianity, ‘My friend, I fear we will never, ever agree.’ ”

As Unitarian Universalists, we approach any discussion of Jesus with certain givens: For one thing, although we as a religious movement have our roots in the Christian tradition, in the past century or so we have come to a place where, we must admit, there are some things inherent in our lived context, on which we will never, ever agree. We believe – and, on our good days, even celebrate – that there are many different, and valid, ways to look at, interpret, and be in relationship with this man called Jesus. And so, we seek to be open-minded not only in our own personal Christology, but in our acceptance of the differing beliefs of others.

Yet when we hear the old children’s hymn “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” despite its ostensibly comforting message, we grow uncomfortable at its implications. We wonder that so many, in today’s world, can accept this kind of literalistic, and simplistic, interpretation of the already limited perspective on Jesus that’s presented in the Bible.

So how, with integrity, can a thoughtful person who seeks to find a more profound meaning in the life and death of the great Palestinian prophet, make sense it all? How can we “wade in the water” of relationship with this remarkable man without drowning in a sea of bad theology?

Well, we have one example, from our own Unitarian tradition. I’ve told you on more than one occasion the story of Thomas Jefferson, who, during his presidency, did his best to separate the wheat from the chaff by taking the four gospels available to him – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and literally cutting out the supernatural and the superstitious. The resulting volume – called “The Jefferson Bible” – is a little-known but remarkable piece of early American historical trivia – and a treasured volume on my office bookshelf.

But we of the 21st century have available to us many other teachings about Jesus than did Jefferson – the Nag Hammadi discovery and the Dead Sea scrolls, among others – many of which represent a Gnostic understanding of Jesus and his ministry. Fundamentalists notwithstanding, our ideas about Jesus today are shaped by considerably more sources, and by listening to lots more voices, than simply “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Now you may be wondering why I chose to preach about Jesus this morning. After all, I don’t consider myself a Christian, and though Heritage, as a Unitarian Universalist church, stands in the historic lineage of Judeo-Christianity, we seldom even mention Jesus during Sunday services here. We do not consider a “personal relationship” with Jesus to be “the only way.” Yet it is important for us to remember that it’s one way – and a way that we might find meaningful, if we take the right approach.

In short, the answer to the question, “Why this service today?” is that I thought it was time I gave Jesus some thought. And so, I have come up with a list of ten things I like about Jesus. Here they are:

First, and foremost, Jesus was a universalist. He practiced an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, ministry – the very definition of universalism. Those who were scorned by society, those who were excluded from power, those who experienced living outside the strict codes of conduct of the Mediterranean world of his day – be they the poor, the sick, the young, women, lepers, prostitutes, the blind, Samaritans or those of other races or classes – these are the people Jesus cared for. These are the people Jesus sought to save – in a very real-world sense of that word. With intentionality, he subverted the dominant paradigms of his time – for the purpose of including everyone in what one of our UU Sunday School curriculae calls “The Kingdom of Equals.”

I say he did all this “with intentionality,” because what almost all the accounts of Jesus’ life tell us is that Yeshua – for that was his real name – sought very public venues in which to offer his most radical teaching. My personal favorite comes, ironically, from my least favorite gospel: John. In Chapter 8:3-11, while preaching at Mount Olivet, the following happens:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst, they said to him: ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?

“This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to throw a stone at her.’ ”

If he had done nothing else at all, Jesus’ universalism, his message of all-inclusive love and care for the human race and the human condition, his example of unconditional forgiveness, would have been enough, for generations to come, to emulate.

The second thing I want to lift up about Jesus is, to me, a natural corollary to the first. All of us are familiar with what has been called “The Golden Rule” – that teaching in which Jesus says to his followers, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There, in succinct form, Jesus says, is the entirety of “the Law and the Prophets.” That is, even if you were to throw out everything else in scripture, everything in the holy writings of his people – if you could but manage to live by this one rule, your life, and the lives of those around you, would be transformed into something holy.

And though the Golden Rule appears in many, many stories about Jesus, both within and outside the Bible – as well as in remarkably similar form in the teachings of nearly every religion of the world – I especially like the version that appears in Matthew, because it is part of a longer passage that harkens back to my first point, in which Jesus begins by saying, “Don’t pass judgment, lest you yourself be judged.”

Elsewhere in that same sermon comes the third thing I like about Jesus – his insistence on living in the present moment. Whether or not he picked up this aspect of his teaching from a purported journey to the East and the influence of Buddhist teachings matters not; what is important is the idea that we cannot, “by worrying, add a single hour to our life;” in fact, more likely, quite the opposite. We now know to be true, what Jesus only surmised : that worrying actually takes time off our lives, through the adverse effects on our body of cortisol and other stress hormones.

Jesus wondered aloud in Luke, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, so why do you not know how to live in the present time?” A sense of mindfulness, of being fully present, in the moment, will lift many of our burdens from our shoulders. This is a profound insight into the human condition, truly the result of religious and spiritual contemplation.

It is also perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ admonishments for us to achieve. “Don’t fret,” says Jesus simply in Matthew – and sometimes, when I read that, I feel like I’m being told, “Just say no.” The truth is, I often seem to be living by the motto, “I fret; therefore I am.” But even if it takes all the world’s great teachers, Jesus and Buddha and even Nancy Reagan – eventually, I pray, I will get it; eventually, I will be able to “consider the lilies, how they grow… even Solomon at the height of his glory was never dressed as beautifully at they.”

Part and parcel of his openness to grace is the fact that Jesus took time for himself. He went on retreats. When the stress of his ministry began to get the best of him, he left the crowds and the disciples and went out alone, to meditate, to reflect, to recharge his spiritual batteries. What better model could one provide for anyone in the caring professions, than what we are taught in seminary to think of as “self-care.” Everyone, regardless of her or his Myers-Briggs type, sometimes needs alone-time – particularly, like Jesus, when we are about to make a major life decision, or embark on a different path, or undertake an important mission.

Let us all – and here, again, I am speaking also to myself – remember Jesus’ example of taking time for ourselves, so that we can then be more present, for others.

The fifth thing I like about Jesus is something that may strike you as odd, because it’s based on an omission rather than on something he said or did. I just love the fact that Jesus never once, in any known quote or story about him, mentioned homosexuality. Almost all of the bigotry and fear being directed at gay and lesbian people today is done with some kind of Christian justification – yet the man on whom Christianity is supposedly based never uttered a single syllable about – much less against – gays.

In fact, his preaching most frequently railed against those who took a judgmental, holier-than-thou attitude toward the oppressed groups in his culture. This, as much as than anything else, provoked Jesus’ enemies – this, and his unrelenting insistence on point number one – universalist inclusion.

So if we are to give any kind of honest treatment to Jesus’ ministry, to what he stood for, we should be wary of anything that gives us a feeling of self-satisfied superiority, anything that smacks of casting judgment on others. It is safe to assume that, were he alive today, Jesus would be focusing much of his attention on those groups of people whose rights, whose very humanity, are being trampled in our time. Everything he did spoke of erasing divisions and creating equality. Keep this in mind next time you hear Christianity being used to justify homophobia.

I have already alluded to the huge volume of material professing to quote from, narrate, or describe the life and teachings of Jesus. We know, of course, that none of this material was recorded during his own lifetime; in fact, much of what is considered scriptural or contemporary came into written form a few generations afterward. But this is actually another of the things I like about Jesus: That he can’t be contained in any one story. There are, of course, the four gospels most people are familiar with – those contained in today’s Bible – and even those don’t agree with one another on many key points. There are also the scores and scores of other gospels, not in the Bible, that contain some similar, and many different, events in the life of Jesus, as well as innumerable sayings both profound and profane that are attributed to him. There are also the much later commentaries – nearly two thousand years’ worth of them – that seek to make sense of this complex figure.

You can choose to consider this a problem, a reason to dismiss the whole business, or – may I suggest – you can take another approach. Isn’t it cool that here’s a guy who truly, literally, cannot be contained in one story? In hundreds of stories?

Yet, there are things about Jesus that shine through all the stories, all the commentaries, all the speculation. Let me shift now to certain aspects of Jesus’ personality that I find particularly meaningful. The seventh thing I like about Jesus is that he had doubts. Like me, like you, he had doubts. There was the famous scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, of course, when Jesus expresses his misgivings about the meaning of his ministry. But throughout many of the depictions of this remarkable prophet, this charismatic political leader and religious teacher, we see evidence that Jesus had reservations about what he was doing. He doubted that people were getting his message (and here, I would venture, his doubts were very well-founded!). He wondered aloud if he was making a difference. He feared that he might be dying in vain, that he might be causing too much pain to others. In short, despite his powerful personality and strength of will, he sometimes wasn’t so sure of himself – and this, I must admit, I find very attractive about him.

Along the same lines, I like the fact that he had a temper. Again, perhaps because this is something I, too, am working on, I like it that Jesus had what we might today call “anger management issues.” We all know the story of the moneychangers in the temple, when Jesus burst onto the scene in Jerusalem, and threw what amounts to a temper tantrum – but this isn’t the only story of his anger. In many tales from both the Bible and outside the canon, Jesus’ frustration at those round him – those who didn’t see what was so obvious to him – frequently bubbled over. Of course, the spin on these stories would have us agree that, in each case, Jesus’ anger was justified – but more subtle in the depiction is the fact that such outbursts make Jesus a far more realistic figure – much more like me and you – and thus, someone we can relate to.

Which brings us to the ninth thing I like about Jesus – that he loved. With the huge popularity of Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code,” the general public is just beginning to catch wind of this fact – but those who have studied the Bible and other stories about Jesus have known all along that Jesus had feelings of affection – most notably and particularly for Mary Magdalene. And in this, too, he becomes more real. More subject to the ups and downs of life and of relationship, more able to experience the joys and sorrows of human existence. Again, more like you and me.

And that, after all, is the most important thing about Jesus. Despite the Bunyan-esque, larger-than-life mythology that has since developed around him, Jesus was human. That is not only the tenth good thing about Jesus – it’s the thing that matters most.

For if this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was not really a man, but rather a god – if you somehow accept the convoluted concept of consubstantiality that holds Jesus out as somehow both fully human and fully God – if indeed Jesus were not completely and literally human – and only human, just like me and you – then how might we ever aspire to be like him? To live like him?

It is the very fact that he was human, that makes Jesus a model for our own lives. By virtue of our shared humanity, we can know this man’s struggles with anger and doubt; we can know his feelings of love and heartbreak, passion and compassion. We can understand that, like us, he was on a religious quest – not already holding all the answers, not knowing or having already come from the final destination – but rather working out, one day at a time, with fear and trembling, the meaning of the journey.

Let us be on such a religious quest. And let us share the journey, with one another – today, and in the days to come.
Amen.