I wrote this responsive reading for the first in-person worship service of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church where vaccinated volunteers will co-create the worship experience (Wednesday June 2, 7:00) to be broadcast for the benefit of the whole congregation (Sunday, June 6. 11:00 am.) Feel free to adapt it for the needs of your church, congregation, synagogue, mosque, temple, meeting house, society or organization.
We are the young mother with a high risk pregnancy who cannot get the vaccine.
We are the church!
We are the single person who has been living in isolation for over a year.
We are the church!
We are the parents whose children are too young for the vaccine.
We are the church!
We are the empty nesters longing for companionship.
We are the church!
We are the newly vaccinated teenagers eager for youth groups.
We are the church!
We are the teens not old enough to be vaccinated.
We are the church!
We are the eldery in nursing homes longing for visitors.
We are the church!
We are the health care professionals and frontline workers, weary and in need of rest.
We are the church!
We are the ones who have been resting in place bursting with energy
We are the church!
We are the ones who want to be able to sing together again.
We are the church!
We are the members of the small group ministries longing to reunite.
We are the church!
We are immunocompromised.
We are the church!
We are the infants born this year.
We are the church!
We are the memories of those who died this year.
We are the church!
We are those celebrating new freedoms.
We are the church!
We are those grieving our losses.
We are the church!
We are the ones who are together in our building at this moment.
We are the church!
We are the ones watching online.
We are the church!
We are the ones committed to building a free faith where no one is left behind.
The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve walked around the Garden of Eden naked and unashamed. Some people have the same attitude about face masks today. While the rest of us are worried about a highly contagious deadly disease there are those who still dwell in the paradise of a simpler, earlier time.
We’ve all seen signs on public buildings that say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Most of us comply with these health regulations without thinking about it. However, some balk at being required to wear Personal Protective Equipment during a global pandemic. This feels like a fairly arbitrary place to draw the line.
In 1974 TV network anchor Walter Cronkite designated Knoxville as “the streaking capital of the world.” Back then people weren’t afraid to shed all their clothes and run through our streets in wild abandon. In comparison, refusing to wear a face mask seems like a fairly timid form of libertarianism. What ever happened to the era of bold leadership?
Of course, in the year 2020 we need bold leaders who can keep their clothes on. In Knox County there is actually an ordinance against indecent exposure that reads, “the County Commission for Knox County finds that public nudity is injurious to public health, safety and morals.” As far as I know no one died from streaking in the 70’s when it was a huge fad. However, 1,311 Americans died of Covid 19 on Thanksgiving Day alone. Over 260,000 have died since the pandemic began. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are continually warning us that going out in public without a face mask is harmful to public health and safety. The question is, “At what point will we call it indecent exposure?”
Former United States Senator from Tennessee, Bill Frist, has called on Governor Bill Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate. “It will save lives, and it is the fastest way to get people back to work and our economy back on its feet.” Studies show that statewide mask mandates boost consumer spending in local businesses. When we know we can shop safely in a store we are less likely to shop online. I encourage you to write to the governor in support of this proposal.
In Tennessee there are an estimated 675,000 people without health insurance, 1 out of every 10 people. Those with insurance do not always have the best policies. As my friend Tom Mullen once said to me, “My health insurance is like a hospital gown. Every time I turn around there is something not covered.” For this reason we can agree with our freedom loving Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin who said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We need leaders who will wear face masks and work for universal healthcare. Call me overly modest but I’d much rather cover my face than see my neighbor go with something uncovered.
(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)
The magazine Psychology Today once published an article called “How to Deal with a Workplace Diva” full of practical advice on how to be in relationship with a co-worker who always seems to need to outshine everyone else in the room. For the record, a diva may be male or female or non-binary. The contemporary way to describe this kind of person is to say they are “extra.” Diva’s need extra attention, extra care, extra recognition, extra patience so young people boil it down to one word and simply say, “That person is extra.”
I studied for the ministry at a Quaker school which meant that I began my ministry poorly prepared to deal with divas. In the Quaker tradition we are told that the light of God shines brightly in everyone – BUT NOT THAT BRIGHTLY. In the Quaker tradition the idea that the light shines in everyone leads to a very egalitarian kind of ethos. There is an element of leveling. One of the ways Quakers show respect for others is by not trying to demand all the attention in the room. Quakers show respect for the light in everyone by not trying to eclipse, outdo or outshine others. For this reason the Quaker tradition is unlikely to produce someone like Lady Gaga or Beyonce.
So I studied for the ministry in a Quaker school but I have always served Unitarian Universalist congregations. In our faith we encourage everyone to let their light shine including those who do not seem to have a dimmer switch. Here’s why, because under the right conditions a diva can help us all feel a little more alive. The bright and overpowering light of a diva may remind us all that we’ve been using our own dimmer switch far too often and for all the wrong reasons.
As Marriane Williamson once wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”
The word diva has often been used as a put down. However, this morning I want us to reclaim the word. As we celebrate the Hindu festival of lights let us be mindful of that light that shines in you and me that may have been dimmed for too long and indeed may need to shine brighter in order to illuminate everything. At the risk of too much alliteration this morning I want us to put the divine into diva for Diwali.
II The word diva comes from the Sanskrit word deva. A deva may have characteristics that are human but otherwise partakes more of the divine, possessing god-like qualities, supersized powers and abilities. A deva is a being worthy of our veneration, admiration and worship. So you can see how a variation on that word might begin to be applied to rock stars and pop singers who perform before adoring crowds. Since the words diva and deva share the same origins as the word divine I want to talk a little bit about the nature of the divine so that we can better understand divas.
For instance, if you travel to Rome, Italy, and take a pilgrimage to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and look up at the ceiling you may see a picture of God that looks like an old man with white hair and a beard. What you may not know is that this image of God comes more from Greek mythology than it does Hebrew or Christian scriptures. In the Hebrew tradition there are no images of God, no statues or pictures, no graven images. God transcends all that. Jesus never draws a picture of God either or makes a sculpture or paints a painting. So the old man with the white beard comes from Greek mythology which also includes goddesses – Athena, Alectrona, Artemis, Aphrodite and that’s just the A’s. In Greek mythology (and the mythologies of many other world religions) there are goddesses for every letter in the alphabet.
So this morning let’s take a moment to contemplate some of the goddesses in the Hindu tradition, because they are images of what the divine light might look like when shining in human forms. We are focusing on the goddesses because it is women who are too often told that they need a dimmer switch. It is women who are often told that they should not try to shine so brightly. So regardless of our gender identity let us take a moment to study the devas in order to reconnect with our inner diva.
III The goddess most closely associated with Diwali is Lakshmi. As Ruchi Gupta said earlier, “Lakshmi is the goddess of both inner wealth and outer wealth.” She embodies both spiritual and material abundance. She reminds us that we have to have something before we can share it. We must possess inner and outer weath before we can give it away to others. We must have light before we can share light with the world.
The next goddess I invite you to contemplate is Saraswati who is the goddess of wisdom, learning and knowledge, speech, music and the arts. In many ways Saraswati is the goddess of a good liberal arts education, a vision of self actualization, self-expression and creativity. Now just down the road there is a town called Athens, Tennessee, a town named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and in 1857 it became the home of Athens Female College (now known as Tennessee Wesleyan) in a time rampant gender discrimination in education. So in every culture the goddess wants us to learn, grow, develop and blossom. We have to have knowledge before we can share it. We have to have talent before we can share it. We have to cultivate our own light if we want it to shine brightly in the world.
Another goddess is Kali who can be a very intimidating goddess. She is often depicted as a warrior on the battlefield, stepping over corpses, swinging her sword, wearing a necklace of skulls. However, in some images she is slaying with a sword even as she nurses a baby at her breast, reminding us that the old order must die so that new life can be born. Kali is the destroyer who clears the way for a new creation. Everytime you weed your garden you are doing the work of Kali, consigning some things to death so that others may live.
The goddess Durga has some similarity with Kali, only, she is the protector of life, the defender of the vulnerable. She is courageous, often depicted riding on the back of a lion. She protects the way a mother protects. Her motivation is love. If Kali is offense then Durga is defense, defending the innocent and the helpless with a strong mother love that wants to protect your light from being extinguished. This is a very noble impulse and a reminder of why we need to put the divine back into diva.
IV If you’ve ever been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 Step Program then you know that the first step is, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs or gambling or sex or any other addiction) and that our lives had become unmanageable.” This week I was talking with someone who said to me, “As a teen girl when I was in a 12 step program I was uncomfortable with accepting powerlessness.” Think about it. Maybe the first step for a teen girl is not to admit powerlessness but to become aware of being powerful beyond measure.
I have a lot of respect for the 12 Step Recovery movement but we should note that the steps were written by middle age white men, so admitting powerlessness might be a good first step if you have a lot of power and privilege. However, with teen girls, women, people of color, LGBT and other historically marginalized groups the first step might be to admit that “We are powerful beyond measure” or to say,“I am not the things my family did. I am not the voices in my head. I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside. I am light.” (India Arie) I am light!
So what I did not learn about divas in theology school I learned from one of our ministerial interns who is now the Reverend Duncan Teague, minister of Abundant LUUV, congregation in the West End of Atlanta. Duncan is a gay African American man who is a self-described diva. Whenever people use the word diva as a putdown Duncan reclaims it as an affirmation. Through his ministry he reminds us that those who society would keep powerless are in fact powerful beyond measure. Through worship and song he proclaims, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. Won’t let anyone blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.” Duncan Teague is married to a Quaker and let me tell you, it’s a good combination. Together they bring more light into our world.
In Hinduism there is a form of singing called kirtan where the song leader sings a verse and the group sings back the same verse. This pattern goes back and forth and has a circular quality to it. The song itself could theoretically go on forever. The song enters into that space that seems to have no beginning or end. In a minute we are going to sing one together. This kirtan is a prayer for peace. And this prayer for peace evokes the feminine faces of God – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga – an invocation of the spirit of generosity, creativity, courage and fierce protective love, inside each one of us. I hope you will join in on the singing. We may not be able to sing like Lady Gaga or have a stage presence like Beyonce but everyone of us has a voice – and everyone of us can help put the divine into diva.
He Maha Lakshmi (repeat) He Saraswati (repeat) He Mata Kali (repeat) Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma He Ma Durga He Ma Durga He Ma Durga Jagatambe Jai Jai Ma (repeat)
Below is the English translation of this kirtan by David Newman We call out to the great Divine Mother in the forms of creator, preserver and transformerWe offer our salutations to She who embodies the highest reaches of Love, the Mother of all.
(The Reverend Chris Buice shared this sermon with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, November 14, 2020)
We are living in very polarized times. People are dividing into different camps, us versus them, good versus evil, right versus wrong. There was an event this past week that brought all that energy out into the open and you know the event I am talking about – Daylight Savings Time.
This week a friend was telling me how much they loved Daylight Savings Time. They went on and on about how much they love the extra hour. I told them to be careful where they spoke as I didn’t want anyone to slash their tires or key their car or egg their house or otherwise express their differing point of view with the level of passion many people seem to feel about this issue (at least as it is measured on social media.)
So this week we had a very polarizing event in our country AND we also had an election. I am writing this sermon (and videoing it) on Wednesday when we still don’t know the election results will be. This sermon will be broadcast on a Sunday so a lot could happen between now and then. So this morning I want to talk about “Loving the Unloveable.” How do we love those who think, act or vote differently than we do? How do we love people whose views may even be the opposite of our own?
And I want to begin by focusing on the goal of spiritual growth. A friend once shared this confession with me. He said, “When I wake up in the morning I hate everyone but then I have a cup of coffee and I feel better about hating everyone.” So the thing about spiritual growth is we all begin from different starting points. The most important thing is to be moving in the right direction.
The scholar and mystic Howard Thurman once made an observation about forgiveness that we might also make about love. He said, “Sometimes I pray to forgive and other times I pray to want to forgive and still other times I pray to want to want to forgive,” so we might say, “Sometimes we pray to love and other times we pray to want to love and still other times we pray to want to want to love.” For love is a journey and not just a destination.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” My theology school professor Dr. Lonnie Valentine had a good insight into this teaching. He said, “Your enemy is someone whose good news is your bad news and whose bad news is your good news.” Our enemy might not even be someone we hate. Our enemy might be someone who thinks that Daylight Savings Time is good news when we think it is bad news. Our enemy might be the person who did not get the job that we got or did not get the promotion that we got or in some other way did not get the good news we got.
So when it comes to spiritual growth, loving our enemies does not have to begin with the people we hate most. Instead it can begin by asking ourselves the question, “Whose good news is my bad news? Whose bad news is my good news?” Spiritual growth can be simply the growing awareness of how our lives impact other people’s lives. Spiritual growth can simply be growing to be a little more sensitive and compassionate than we were before. Spiritual growth might begin with a very small step like having a cup of coffee.
The other day I got one of the best compliments ever. Will Dunklin, our often irreverent organist, said to me, “Even when I hate you, you are still my favorite minister.” The reason that l love this compliment is that it captures the genuine love and inescapable challenges of any close relationship.
For instance, I bet there is someone in your extended family, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a brother or sister or parent who voted differently than you did in this week’s election. I know that is true of my family. I bet there is a neighbor or co-worker (or even dare I say it – a fellow church member) who voted differently than you. I know this is true for myself. I think we all know someone we love who has supported something or someone we hate.
Our nation was once divided by a Civil War, and we feel some of that same energy in the present moment, but we can also remember the words of Abraham Lincoln who said in his First Inaugural Address,
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
We remember Lincoln not only for these words of peace but also because he served as president during a civil war. Lincoln became a casualty of this nation’s toxic politics through assasination. In his life he called us to return to the better angels of our nature and by his death he continues to remind us of the demonic dimension that can possess our civic life in his time and ours.
For this reason, we can strive to love the unloveable without becoming anyone’s walking mat. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?” We need not apologize when we stick up for ourselves in ways that further the cause of justice for everyone. We need not apologize when we speak out for the marginalized, the least, the last and the lost. We need not apologize when we speak out for justice. We can love without capitulating to the overbearing or surrendering to the forces of intimidation.
There are those who profess to love this country while showing contempt for many of the people who live in this country. Where there is this hatred we can bring love. Where there is this contempt we can bring courage. Where there is this animosity we can bring action. Where there is calcification may we can bring change.
Once an old man approached a young woman, the great Sufi Muslim mystic Rabia, and asked her, “Do you love God?” She replied, “Yes,” and so he asked, “Do you hate the Devil?” and she replied, “No my love of God leaves me no time to hate the devil.” Similarly, we can aspire to love our country in such a way that we have no time for hatred for anyone.
There is a Sufi proverb that tells us, “If you want to draw near to God you must seek God in the hearts of others.” I can’t think of anyone who lived out this teaching more than Elandria Williams. After she died I found myself going through one of the books she donated to the church, a book about Radical Hospitality, and going to one of the pages that she marked where I found this sentiment, “This is the cry of every single human heart. It is a cry against everything that would make us less than human…the cry of the abandoned and misunderstood and the excluded..I am not an outcaste. I am not a token. I am not a statistic. I am not an object. I am human. I have a mind. I have a heart. I have a soul. I dream. I feel. I care. I am a human being.”
I believe we are all called to embrace this insight and let it empower us to offer radical hospitality. Dorothy Day is one of the patron saints of radical hospitality, opening up Fellowship Houses all across the country to offer hospitality to those who might otherwise go homeless and live on the streets. She did not romanticize the work. She warned new volunteers that they would be living and working with people who didn’t smell good, didn’t always seem grateful and were apt to steal things. She warned them that they might experience threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, vandalism and assaults. Even so she believed that the best way to find God was to be in community with other people. She once said “I only love God as much as the person I love the least.”
It is interesting to me that many of the things Dorothy Day warned her Fellowship House volunteers about in her time are common occurrences in today’s political atmosphere – threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, vandalism and violence. The problems of the homeless shelter in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are now common problems in an election year in 2020. So we might ask ourselves how do we bring the politics of radical hospitality to our times? How do we embrace a politics that helps everyone feel more fully human.
In the Jewish tradition the rabbis do not teach, “Love your enemy,” instead they lift up the words of the book of Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry give them bread bread to eat.” The command here is not to love our enemies. Instead the command is to treat them with respect, to be just, to be fair, to be a decent human being. You might keep this teaching in mind if you can’t bring yourself to love a person or want to love or want to want to love them. Sometimes the destination is not as important as the commitment to move in a good direction.
The mystics of every faith remind us that “The gates of hell are locked from the inside and we have the keys. For hatred imprisons the hater. And the first step toward freedom is to unlock the door and start moving in a good direction.
As we contemplate loving the unloveable, we might be wise to contemplate the relationship between Shirley Chisolm and George Wallace. Shirley Chisolm was the first African American woman to launch a serious campaign to become President of the United States. George Wallace was a competitor in that race, a staunch segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door saying, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Wallace was reviled in the black community and revered by white supremacists. Nevertheless, when George Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt Shirley Chisolm suspended her campaign and flew all the way across the country to visit him in his hospital room.
Shirley Chisolm’s decision made many on her campaign angry. How dare she suspend her campaign to visit that racist SOB?! However, she was not deterred. She went to see her competitor as he lay in his bed grappling with the fact that he was paralyzed for life and would never walk again. No one was more surprised to see Shirley Chisolm than George Wallace himself and so he asked her, “What are people going to say about your coming here,” and she replied, “I know what they are going to say but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
Peggy Wallace Kennedy, George Wallace’s daughter, credits this visit for changing her father’s heart, changing him for the better, the beginning of his journey toward repentance for his racist past and willingness to work for a more just future. Not everyone trusts George Wallace’s conversion. Some saw it as a political calculation to secure needed black votes in his next campaign. However, as a political scientist once observed, “There is a difference between a hater and a callow opportunist. A hater is inflexible, unable or uninterested in compromise whereas a callow opportunist is open to change and willing to adapt to new circumstances.” Some civil rights activists were convinced by Wallace’s conversion. Others were not. But all were willing to embrace the change. Shirley Chisolm went on the work with George Wallace on common causes like raising the minimum wage. And that is something we need to do again today, to support the Fight for 15 and the Living Wage Campaign.
Last Sunday I was part of interfaith online service as part of the Alliance for Community Transformation, an interfaith organization working to revive democracy at the grassroots level, so that we can be more than passive consumers of top down leadership and become active co-creators of change from the bottom up. In that service, Rabbi Alon Ferency shared these words from rabbi Ben Azzai who once wrote, “Despise no man and deem nothing impossible. For there is no man who does not have his day and there is no thing that does not have its place.”
So as the nights grow longer and the days shorter, and we adjust grudgingly (or not so grudgingly) to Daylight Savings Time let us aspire to love or to want to love or to want to want to love so that we can create a world where everyone will have their day, everything will have its place and everyone will find God in the heart of another.
(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was delivered online on Sunday, November 8, 2020)
The 20th century traveling evangelist Billy Sunday used to preach a sermon with hand gestures that made it look like he was in a boxing match with the devil. So if I seem a little more animated than usual it may be because I am channeling my inner Billy Sunday.
A few months ago Bill Dockery suggested I preach a sermon about the Devil based on this book The Devil: A Very Short Introduction. So I told him that I would but I warned him that I was going to tell everybody that Bill Dockery made me do it.
Now this may seem like an unusual topic for a Unitarian Universalist Church. In the age of science, reason and empirical evidence the Devil has disappeared from contemporary liberal theological discourse almost without a trace.
In an increasingly secular world many people may identify with the story of the two kids who were walking down the street when one turned to his friend and asked, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other one replied, “No, the Devil is like Santa. It’s your dad.”
While that story may not describe your personal theology, it is true that a growing number of people prefer naturalistic explanations of spirituality to supernatural ones. Even so, the idea of the Devil is a persistent one in popular culture. Anyone who watches the cartoons is familiar with the moment when Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson or some other cartoon character has to make an important decision and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel advocates for the good and wise choice while the devil advocates for the selfish and greedy choice.
Now this cartoon picture of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other may seem overly simplistic, a holdover from medieval times, but believe it or not it does bear some resemblance to some concepts of Freudian psychology. Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts the id, the ego and the super ego. The superego is that part of us that always wants to do the good, the noble and the altruistic thing. The id is the part of us that wants to do the selfish thing; immediate gratification of our desires regardless of the consequences. In other words the superego is like the angel on one shoulder and the id is like the devil on the other and the ego is trying to reconcile these two competing forces within us and sometimes it seems like they are in a boxing match.
I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never seen a devil or an angel on my shoulder but to be honest I’ve never seen an id or an ego or a super ego either. What we are dealing with here is the effort to create imagery for what might otherwise go unseen and a vocabulary for what might otherwise go unrecognized. We are in the realm of mental constructs, mythologies and metaphors.
Biblical tradition gives us the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil. In the East we have the story of Buddha being tempted by the demonic figure of Mara. Now in these stories temptation is portrayed as a contest with an outward enemy but I believe these stories are illustrative of an inward struggle with our inner enemies. Spiritually speaking, the ability to conquer an outward Devil demonstrates less real spiritual power than our ability to conquer our own inner demons.
The novelist William Faulkner once spoke about writing his novels where he said, it is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”
What is true about writing a novel is also true for spiritual growth. We have to address that our hearts are in conflict with themselves. The apostle Paul described this conflict when he said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” The psychologist Carl Jung once described this conflict by saying, “In each of us there is someone we do not know” or as the rock band Pink Floyd said, “There is someone in my head but it’s not me.
The Lord’s Prayer says, “lead us not into temptation.” And yet there is often voice in our heads leading us in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
I once came across an irreverent contemporary version of the creation story that captures this inner struggle by portraying it as an outward struggle. Here it is.
In the beginning God created the earth as a garden with broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and vegetables of all kinds, so human beings would live long and healthy lives.
And the Devil created hamburgers, chicken nuggets, delivery pizza, sugary sodas and fast food meals you could supersize. And human beings gained weight.
And God created the healthy yogurt that human beings could mix with nuts, whole grain oats, fruits, berries and other antioxidants. And the Devil froze the yogurt and mixed it with chocolate chips, cookie dough and brightly colored sprinkle candies. And human beings gained weight.
And God said, “Why not make a fresh salad from my garden.”And the Devil brought forth creamy dressings, bacon bits, and shredded cheese, and there was ice cream for dessert.
And human beings gained weight.
And God brought forth running shoes and exercise equipment. And the Devil brought forth a widescreen TV with remote control so that human beings could watch Netflix and chill. And human beings gained weight.
And God brought forth the potato, a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And the Devil sliced the potato into thin strips and put them in a deep fat fryer. And human beings gained weight, got a sudden spike in their cholesterol and began to go into cardiac arrest.
And God sighed and created hospitals and quadruple bypass surgery. And the Devil created private health insurance.
Thus endeth the lesson. It’s that time of year when many people give up things for the season of Lent; things like hamburgers, French fries, sugary sodas, high cholesterol foods. In many ways the Christian season of Lent, like Ramadan in the Muslim tradition or the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, is meant to be an antidote to consumerism and addiction. It is a time to ask ourselves the question, “Am I in control of my habits or are my habits in control of me?” Giving something up for Lent can be an exercise in self-control, self-government, conquering ourselves, that pays dividends in other parts of our lives.
As we contemplate life’s many addictions; alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, it is helpful to remember that addiction comes from the same root word as dictator. To suffer from an addiction is to be oppressed. To overcome an addiction is to know freedom.
In the aftermath of Super Tuesday I was reminded that long ago many American evangelists used to preach a stock sermon to their congregations, “Every day is election day for the soul so are you going to vote for God or the Devil?” It’s a pretty simple sermon with either/or choice. It’s one or the other, God or the Devil, Heaven or Hell, with no middle ground. I’m not sure who you voted for on Super Tuesday but I think we can all agree that the inner boxing match continues, the tension between opposites in us continues.
If you’ve every visited a Catholic Church you may have seen an image of Saint Michael fighting with the Devil. According to legend this is a contest where the Saint wins and the Devil loses. This creates a dualistic understanding of the cosmos where good conquers evil, right triumphs over wrong, the devil is defeated and God is triumphant. However, this is not the only way to think about the contest, this tension and struggle between opposites inside us.
Now religions tend to give us myths set in the past whereas science fiction offers us myths set in the future. Myths are the stories that answer the big philosophical questions, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” When I was a kid I grew up watching Star Trek , the original series, and one episode took up this challenging topic. In that episode Captain Kirk was in a molecular transporter accident and he became two people. One was the good Kirk and the other was the bad Kirk. The bad Kirk was aggressive and violent and lustful (even more so than the regular Captain Kirk) but also decisive and action oriented. The good Kirk was kind, gentle and considerate but also weak, indecisive, prone to vacillation. What the crew of the starship Enterprise realized in the end, is that both Kirks need each other – the kindness and the gentleness need the decisiveness and action orientation and vice versa. Fortunately due to the miracles of futuristic technology the Enterprise crew is able to reunite the two Kirks in order to have a fully functional human being. This is science fiction’s way of saying that most of us feel divided and conflicted but we can find wholeness and unity within ourselves.
And so in conclusion let me say, before there can peace in the world (or peace in the universe) there must be peace in our hearts. The prophets tell us that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together but before this can happen the lion inside of us must lie down with the lamb in us. We must make peace in ourselves before we can make peace in the world. At some point we have to stop the boxing match with an outward devil in order to wrestle with our inner demons so that gentleness can be our greatest strength and our strength tempered by the greatest gentleness, our decisiveness blended with kindness and our kindness empowered by decisiveness. So that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the wolf with the kid and there can be peace in the valley.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, March 8, 2020.)
There is a temptation in ministry to try to cover too many topics in a sermon; to launch a thousand ships without bring a single one to port. Let’s see if I can avoid that temptation this morning.
Tuesday is the Presidential primary here in Tennessee prompting some members of the church to send me many ideas for this Sunday’s sermon. One person sent me a long list of potential sermon themes that bore an uncanny resemblance to the platform of one of the candidates.
In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do believe that our theology has political implications. That’s why this weekend we’ve hosted a forum by the Meadville Lombard Theological School on “Faith, Activism and Democracy.” However when we speak out for human equality, social justice and environmental responsibility we do so to advance causes that are bigger than any one candidate and commitments that will endure longer than any election cycle.
Our church produces a disproportionate number of activists. I know over the last few weeks some of you have been organizing phone banks, going door to door canvassing, hosting house parties, posting on social media, donating your time and money to campaigns and I want to affirm you for your efforts. We live in an age of rampant consumerism but democracy is not a consumer product. Uber Eats may come to your doorstep, Dominoes may deliver but democracy requires more from us than that. Democracy requires our active participation. Democracy is not about passive consumption but active co-creation.
Often times presidential elections take on theological overtones and create messianic expectations fostering the idea that only one person can save us. However, there is a Jewish teaching that is relevant here. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai once said, “If you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, first plant the tree then go greet the Messiah.”
I do hope everyone will vote in this election. But don’t stop planting trees. Don’t stop recycling. Don’t stop composting. Don’t stop reducing your carbon footprint. Don’t stop turning out people for school board, city council or county commission meetings. Don’t stop visiting your congressman or your Senator’s office or writing letters or sending emails. Don’t stop welcoming refugees. Don’t stop tutoring inner city kids. Don’t stop challenging racism. Don’t stop feeding the hungry. Don’t stop helping the homeless. Don’t stop organizing marches and rallies agitating for change. Don’t stop because faith without works is dead.
This week I got another email from someone who had less than flattering things to say about our congregation. So heads up here is some criticism. Someone wrote, “I hate that rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment made me feel unwelcome at TVUUC, a place where I found healing and considered my spiritual home. Unfortunately I’m not sure that I feel that love is the spirit of TVUUC anymore. That message is drown out by those pushing their …political agenda and participating in the polarization of our nation.”
I am not going to name the person who sent the email or the political party they belong to or any other details because they are unimportant. To be honest, I think we are all tired of the rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment. I think we are all tired of the toxic atmosphere of our current culture wars. However, I think we also have a tendency to blame others for that problem while being unwilling to look at ourselves.
So I won’t defend my ministry or the congregation except to say that regardless of any criticism I may receive love is still the spirit of this church. I know my mama loved me but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to listen to her political opinions. My mama taught me that in a healthy relationship you love someone who stands for something. You don’t ask people to be a “nobody” who stands for “nothing.” And so to paraphrase the words of our affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church… and the inability to escape each other’s opinions is our predicament… and yet it is our hope that we can really mean the words we sing in our chalice lighting song, “May all who seek here find a kindly word; may all who speak here feel they have been heard.” That is our aspiration.
Before Ed Goff went into a retirement home he used to come into my office on Election Day and say, “I am on my way to the polls to cancel out your vote.” That’s love my friends, like it or not. I never told Ed how I was going to vote. He just made an educated guess. As Dr. Ortegas said yesterday, “Safe space is an illusion.” Anyone who goes to church or gets email or goes on to social media knows we are never completely safe from other people’s opinions.
The Dalai Lama of Tibet tells us, “Being aware of a single short-coming in yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in another.” From this statement we can deduce that the Dalai Lama of Tibet will never be elected to office, at least not in the United to States of America where the rule of thumb seems to be – find a thousand faults in others and no fault in your self.
A member of this church, John Bohstedt, once said something that I am probably in danger of over-quoting. He noted that our church building has words that are carved into stone that face the public parking lot that lift up our highest values; words like “love, justice, hope, peace.” So John has suggested we need words for the back of the building, the part that does not face the public, words carved into stone like, “belittling sarcasm, snide put-downs, curt dismissiveness etc. etc.” Which is to say we need words to remind ourselves that we are human, capable of error and insensitivity even as we aspire for justice and peace.
There is a Buddhist teaching that says, “An act of compassion is like a flash of lightening in the dark of night.” Have you ever been outside on a dark night when there was a flash of lightening? I have! Many, many years ago when I was a teenager and a summer camp counselor I was walking with my friends at night when it was pitch dark and then all of sudden a bolt of heat lighting illuminated everything– mountains, trees, fields, hills, leaves, grass, the faces of my friends. I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye with all the power of the present moment – and from this I know that one act of compassion is an amazingly powerful experience. We need more of it in our politics. We need more of it in our churches. We need more of it in our lives. We experience this compassion most often through action not words. It is by our works that we see each other’s faith.
I will not claim to be completely above the fray in politics. When Archbishop Helda Camara of Brazil was asked about his politics he would say, “The right hand and the left hand – both belong to the same body but the heart is a little to the left.” Similarly, I have to admit that my heart is a little to the left.
However, when I sit down at a table at a church potluck dinner or church board meeting or some other church event I often have someone to the right of me and someone to the left of me, and I mean that in more ways than one, and yet we are still members of the same church. To paraphrase the words of scripture, “the right hand cannot say to the left hand I have no need of thee and the left hand cannot say to the right hand I have no need of thee for we are members of one body and both sides need the human heart.”
And so here are some issues I think should concern us regardless of who we vote for. America has proven it is willing to elect an angry white man but is our country ready to elect an angry black man or an angry woman? Or will anyone who expresses their anger in public go down in the polls because they do not have white male privilege? Our current president has a picture of Andrew Jackson in his office – an angry white man if ever there was one. Are we ready for a president to hang a picture of Geronimo or Crazy Horse or Malcolm X or Angela Davis? I think we have a lot of work to do that is going to last longer than this election cycle.
This week our Director of Religious Education, Catherine Farmer Loya, asked her kindergarten aged son who his favorite candidate was and he named someone but then he said, “But she will not win.” When Catherine asked him why this little boy said, “Because a lot of people like men more than women.” Regardless of who we vote for I think we can agree that this statement by a child reveals we have a whole lot of work to do that will go on well beyond Tuesday.
This week Chaz Barber told me about going to Nashville to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood where he met with his state representative who said to him, “You and I have nothing to talk about.” That might have ended the conversation right there. Even so, Chaz kept showing kindness and compassion and respect toward the man and after thirty minutes his representative said, “Well, maybe you and I have more in common after all .” This is the story of a beginning, not an ending and it is a reminder of the work that is cut out for us well beyond this Tuesday and well beyond November’s election; the work of faith, activism and democracy.
Well this morning, I have covered a lot of topics. You might say that I’ve launched a lot of ships. What you may not know is that I’ve got more ships I could launch. I’ve got a thousand more. Nevertheless let me see if I can bring the ones I have launched to port.
So in conclusion, let me say Dr. Martin Luther King once described the separation of church and state by saying, “The church is not the master of the state or the servant of the state but the conscience of the state.” We are the conscience of democracy. The work of the church is not to dictate outcomes but to awaken the conscience. So this morning if I did not repeat the talking points of your favorite candidate or endorse your choice from the pulpit I hope you will forgive me for my restraint. For our church stands in that tradition that says our elected leaders are like sailors on the sea and even if they want to take the country in a particular direction they can’t do it if the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. For that reason the mission of our church is not to endorse the sailor or be the sailboat. The mission of our church is to be the wind.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 1, 2020)
When I was in Boston I picked up a copy of the Beacon Press book by John Buehrens – Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice. I highly recommend it! Buehrens is a former minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association who is currently experiencing a very active retirement. His book gives a clearer and more succinct understanding of Transcendentalism than many other treatments. I am especially grateful for his emphasis on the movement’s impact on our congregations and the Unitarian Universalist denomination and not just the spiritual lives of famous individuals like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller or the Peabody sisters.
Reading Buehrens’ book I am reminded that one lasting legacy of Transcendentalism might be found in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes where it says, “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources” including “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Buehrens points out that one of the signatures of the movement was the desire for a spirituality that transcends differences, denominations and divisions leading not only to an openness to the wisdom of the world’s religions but also a desire to work for the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of the mentally ill, women’s suffrage, anti-poverty initiatives, the peace movement, worker’s rights and many other good causes.
One could say that Transcendentalism took our faith beyond, “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston” toward a sense of unity and oneness that transcends gender identity, patriarchy or provincialism and connects us to people of all faiths, races, cultures, classes and creeds. Faith in transcendence also led to a willingness to practice civil disobedience in order to obey the “higher law” written in our hearts paving the way for the civil rights movement and other forms of nonviolent social change.
Over the years I have read countless books on Transcendentalism so I was particularly gratified to read this one and discover new personalities, new stories and new inspiration for our faith and work in the world. It has changed the way I think about our faith tradition. Read it. It may change you as well.
(This book review was written by Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)
On Sunday mornings we say the affirmation that begins with words, “Love is the spirit of this church.” When I was at summer camp one of the counselor’s would shout out, “Who’s got spirit?” And the rest of us would shout back, “We’ve got spirit!” So let me ask you that question, “Who’s got spirit?”
WE’VE GOT THE SPIRIT!
Very good, I am glad the spirit is in this room because today is a celebration of generosity; a time of enthusiasm and excitement! And I can think of no better way to launch this celebration than by sharing some words about this portrait of what appears to be a fairly austere looking Victorian woman. I know what you are thinking, “be still my beating heart!”
This picture used to be over the fireplace in our Fellowship Hall. Once when the Gay Men’s Support Group met there under her gaze someone said to me afterwards, “It doesn’t look like she entirely approves.”
This portrait is of Annie McGhee McClung who lived here in Knoxville in the late 19th century. To be honest when you look at her it does look like she might not approve. And yet that may just be our contemporary inability to see the rich emotional life that lies hidden beneath the surface of a well-heeled Victorian Unitarian woman.
Annie McGhee McClung helped to found a Unitarian Church here in Knoxville on February 17, 1895. Regrettably, her church would only last for fourteen months. One of her co-founders was Lizzie Crozier French, the suffragist whose statue is on Market Square downtown. Annie McGhee McClung herself is best remembered for helping to found the Florence Crittendon Center, which began as a home for unwed mothers.
It should be remembered that in 1895, founding a home for unwed mothers was not a very ladylike thing to do. And yet, as is apparent from her portrait, Annie McGhee McClung was a lady who came from a very prominent family. Just look around Knoxville at the Lawson McGhee Library or McGhee Tyson Airport or the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture and you get the idea of exactly how prominent her family connections were.
So Annie McGhee McClung founded a home for unwed mothers when it was a very risky thing to do. In Victorian times virginity was the most important sign of virtue, at least for women. To have a child out of wedlock was to be a ruined woman. The stigma did not fall on the woman only. Any child born out of wedlock was a bastard child.
This is how we know that Annie McGhee McClung had a big heart. When the rest of the world stood ready to condemn, judge, ostracize and reject. When society was prepared to let men completely off the hook and excoriate women and their children Annie McGhee McClung put her heart in a holy place by creating a home for those who needed a home the most.
In many ways our church is continuing her work by offering comprehensive sexuality education for all ages. In the 1950’s when we met in the double diamond building down the street with a very tall roof local legend Cas Walker called us, “the little church with the big roof where they talk about sex on Sunday.”
And we continue to do so, to host open and honest conversations about human sexuality. We do this not because it was avant garde in the 50’s or groovy in the 60’s but because it is the responsible thing to do at all time and in all ages. That’s why we offer open an honest conversations abut sexual orientation, gender identity, human belonging. Sometimes while we have been having these conversations the portrait of Annie McGhee McClung has been watching over us from her place on the wall.
We teach our children, “Ours is a church of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.” Friday was Valentine’s Day; a time when we often see images of hearts; hearts on cards, hearts cut out of construction paper, candy shaped like hearts. Sometimes it feels like all of these hearts is overkill.
Maybe that’s why last Sunday the Birdhouse, a local community center, scheduled an anti-Valentine’s Day event. At this event there were paper shredders so that you could shred pictures of your ex or love letters from your ex or Valentine’s Day cards from your ex or anything shreddable that reminded you of your ex.
Last week the Knoxville Zoo gave everyone an opportunity to buy a rat that you could name after your ex that they would then feed to a snake. If you missed out there’s always next year. So that’s how some people feel about Valentine’s Day.
Now I understand the need for such events. Valentine’s day needs a corrective. However that does not mean all the people doing all that shredding do not have hearts. Indeed all of them do; a heart that has been broken, a heart that needs healing, a heart that need a holy place.
I believe our church is just such a holy place, a place where we can put our heart into it. For the world needs our hearts. John Alan Turner once wrote, “It is hard to convince people that a God they can’t see loves them when a church they can see doesn’t seem to even like them.” In the Unitarian Universalist church abstract metaphysical theological speculation takes a back seat to the practical application of love. It is through our love that we show what might otherwise go unseen in our hearts.
The Dalai Lama reminded us that religion is not about theology or doctrine or dogma or creeds when he said, “I believe the only true religion consists of having a good heart.” And medieval Christian mystics spoke of the Sacred Heart. If you’ve ever been to one of the many, many churches named Sacred Heart then you may have seen an image of a heart that has been cut by a lance, pierced by a crown of thorns, a heart that has been wounded and broken.
On Valentine’s Day the President of our denomination Susan Frederick Gray posted this message, “The root of the word courage comes from the French word coeur meaning heart. Courage is heart strength – a fierce kind of love born from communities and faith that manifest deep care and connection.”
Jane Austen spoke of a friend who could never love by halves but only with her whole heart. That’s what we are called to do. That’s courage. Legend tells us that when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake they could not burn her heart, among the ashes they found the heart of a saint. Joan of Arc had to endure an extreme version of all the brutal misogyny that was directed toward the young women and children that Annie McGhee McClung sheltered under her wing. So too, we, as a congregation, can strive together to be a community with a heart; a heart that can withstand all opposition, a heart that can pass through the fire of every challenge with courage.
Recently when I was renewing my license I reaffirmed my commitment to be an organ donor. Whenever you do this they put a heart on your license. Similarly this summer I picked up a UU Organ Donor Card that begins with the words of the hymn we sang earlier today, “When your heart is in a holy place.” The card reminds us that our generosity can save lives and our generosity can outlive us.
I am reminded of a story I once saw on the evening news about Jeni Stephens who did not meet the man who would walk her down the aisle for her wedding until the actual day. Arthur Thomas was his name, Thomas had received her father’s heart in an organ transplant operation 10 years before. When Jeni asked him to escort her at her wedding he was honored to do so. The man who walked her down the aisle was almost a complete stranger but he had her father’s heart. Her father’s heart was in a holy place.
Here in our congregation we’ve definitely got the spirit, however, the mystics remind us that the spirit is most often embodied in a human heart and in tangible acts of kindness and compassion. This morning let us celebrate generosity in its’ many forms. In particular let us celebrate your generosity of time, talent and treasure that makes this church a force for good in the world. I want to invite you and encourage you to make a pledge to the church this week for as the scripture says, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”
You may not have enough money, power or prestige to get a library named after you (or an airport or a museum) but every gift of every size is welcome and together we can use our power on behalf of those without power or prestige or deep pockets.
I want to thank you in advance for your generosity but more importantly thank you for your good heart. As my friend John Butler minister of the Clinton Chapel AME church likes to say, “We are always grateful for the gift but more importantly we are grateful for the giver.”
Our congregation has important work to do in a world where many others are going out of business. Earth Fare is going out of business but we’re not. The East Towne Mall went out of business but we’re not. The church Annie McGhee McClung started in 1895 closed down but we’re not. A similar attempt to start a Unitarian church in the 1920’s went belly up but we won’t. I do not mean to sound overconfident but I do believe that with your help and your heart we will continue to grow and thrive and serve.
In the early 1990’s I came to this church as a young adult in my mid-twenties (a baby) and I saw that portrait of Annie McGhee McClung on the walk. By that time the Florence Crittendon Center had a 26 acre campus offering foster care services. A sign beside the portrait mentioned that this painting was donated to this church by her niece Helen Ross McNabb, and at that time I was working for the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a non-profit mental health center, helping the chronically mentally ill who might otherwise be homeless. That portrait made me think, “Maybe, this church is where I belong.”
Annie McGhee McClung’s emotions may not be on the surface. She may be hard to read in that painting but I believe she would be happy to know there is a vital and powerful Unitarian Universalist Church here continuing her work. She would be glad to know that we continue to have hearts in this holy place. Dr. King once wrote, “Love is the greatest power in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the cosmos.” So let me end by saying, “Love is the spirit of this church” and by asking, “Who’s got spirit?”
WE’VE GOT THE SPIRIT!
Yes, the spirit is present in this room and even though it may not look like it I think Annie McGhee McClung approves.
There is a joke that circulates in Buddhist circles that seems to suggest that it’s not always easy being a Buddhist. A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist arrive at the pearly gates at the same time. An angel appears before them and says, “Before you can enter into heaven you must each answer one question.” The angel turns to the Christian and says, “How do you spell God?” The Christian replies, “G-O-D.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Next the angel turns to the Muslim and says, “How do you spell Allah?” The Muslim replies, “A-L-L-A-H.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Finally he turns to the Buddhist and says, “How do you spell Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva?”
On the altar today there is a statue of Avalokitesvara, who is a bodhisattva we can appreciate even if we can’t spell his name. However, this morning I want to speak about Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad and for the purposes of today’s sermon I want to give her the same honorific title Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.
Harriet Tubman wasn’t a Buddhist. Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, which wasn’t exactly a hub for the study of the Eastern religions. Her religion was the gospel grounded in the oral tradition of her family and itinerant preachers. Once she escaped slavery by going north she eventually settled into membership in the AME Zion Church. And yet her life is an embodiment of many of the values taught in Mahayana Buddhism.
In the 19th century there were hundreds of people who escaped slavery in the South through the Underground Railroad. However, there were very few who returned to help others escape slavery. Not many people were willing to return and risk being caught, captured, killed or re-enslaved in order to lead others to freedom. This is what made Harriet Tubman unique. She was not content to rest after having liberated herself. She felt impelled to work for the liberation of others.
Which leads me back to Buddhism. In the Theravada Buddhism it is enough to liberate our selves. No one can save us but us. However in Mahayana Buddhism once we have liberated ourselves we find our fulfillment in liberating others. To take on this commitment to liberate others is to become a Bodhisattva and for this reason I speak of Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.
However, before I say more about the meaning of being a bodhisattva I want to say more about Harriet Tubman. To say that Harriet Tubman was born a slave is to make an inaccurate statement. I am reminded of a note a social studies teacher posted on the door of her classroom that read, “Dear Students. They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and made them slaves.” So it is not accurate to say Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She was born a human being and then forced into slavery. Many aspects of her story will be familiar to us because of the huge number of children’s books that have been written about her. Although, Harriet Tubman was already the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad she is now even more famous with the release of the Hollywood film Harriet.
I encourage you to go see the movie. Admittedly the film is another example of history meets Hollywood, where it is not always easy to discern which moments are Hollywood and which are history. So don’t stop with the movie, read a book. There are many to choose from. Most recently I picked up this one Bound for the Promised Land by Katie Clifford Larson which I saw it in the bookstore of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. It’s well researched with good use of primary documents allowing as much as possible for Harriet Tubman to speak in her own voice.
Since the topic for today’s sermon is Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva I want to focus on her spiritual beliefs. When I was in college I majored in sociology and was particularly interested in the sociology of religion. I continue to be interested in how for some people religion is about accepting the status quo and for others religion is about challenging the status quo. While there may be a time and place for every kind of prayer there are, to paraphrase Angela Davis, some of us who tend to pray to accept things we cannot change while others pray to change the things we cannot accept. Harriet Tubman leaned in the direction of change.
Tubman seems to have taken the apostle Paul at his word and endeavored to pray without ceasing. Her prayers were for both personal and social change. “Appears like I prayed all the time,” she said, “When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, I took up the water in my hand and I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean!’ Then I take up something to wipe my face, and I say, ‘Oh Lord, wipe away all my sin!’ When I took the broom and began, I groaned, ‘Oh Lord, what so ever sin be in my heart, sweep it out, Lord, clear and clean.’” When I hear these words it seems to me that Tubman had created for herself rituals that contemporary liturgists might call body prayer, where our inmost prayers are aligned with our outward motions bringing harmony to mind, body and spirit.
At other times her prayers were for her oppressors. Her most fervent prayer was for white people to change; to stop being cruel and start being kind. When her master threatened to sell her she said, “I prayed through all the long nights – I groaned and prayed for ole master. ‘Oh Lord, convert master! Oh Lord, change that man’s heart.” Finally, when she became convinced that her master would not change she became angry and she prayed that her master would die –and here’s the thing – he did die – giving a whole new meaning to the power of prayer. While a materialist will find other explanations for the death of this 47 year old man Tubman was unsettled and felt some guilt and responsibility for the power of her prayers.
Over time, the nature of her prayers changed. There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Don’t just pray to receive something. Pray with a willingness to do something. Eventually Tubman came to the same realization that Frederick Douglass did before he made his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. “Praying for freedom never did me any good,” Douglass declared, “until I prayed with my feet.” At some point Tubman decided she was going to do a little less talking with the Lord and a little more walking with the Lord. In the words of the old gospel song, she decided to steal away to freedom.
Through many dangers, toils and snares she traveled before she could escape slavery and find freedom in the north. Fortunately, she had help along the way from Quakers, itinerate preachers, safe houses, sanctuaries that allowed her safety in between stretches of her journey toward freedom. In her time she would have been called a fugitive slave in our time she might be called an illegal immigrant or refugee.
Members of the Underground Railroad made note of her faith. Thomas Garret said of Tubman that he, “never met with any person of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul. Sarah Bradford said she seemed to have “direct intercourse with heaven.” Materialists have sometimes reduced Tubman’s visions to the symptoms of epilepsy, a condition aggravated by the beatings she received from her overseer. However, those who traveled with her got used to the idea that she would stop when God told her to stop, get off the road when God told her to get off the road, and that her intuition did not fail her or her fellow travellers but often saved them from danger. As one person noted, “her trust in Providence was better than many sermons.” As Tubman said herself, “God was always near..He gave me strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant for me to be free.” An astronomer will have a scientific understanding of the North Star but for Tubman it was an outward and visible sign that God wanted her to be free.
Tubman paid a price for her willingness to seek freedom. She knew heartbreak. Her first trip back was to retrieve her husband but when she got there she found he had made a home with another woman. She had brought along clothes for him to wear that would help him pass as a freeman on their journey but he decided to stay. She was able to help others escape on that trip but when she returned she made light of her pain with comic timing. She told friends, “I returned with my husband’s clothes but no husband.”
Harriet Tubman took 19 trips back South and rescued over 300 people from slavery. She was a master of disguise. She could disguise herself as a young man or an old woman. She demonstrated what we would now call gender fluidity. She would adopt any disguise to throw people off her track.
Tubman was not a pacifist. She carried a rifle with her on her journeys back south and was prepared to use it to keep her passengers safe. She once led a successful jailbreak in upstate New York liberating a fugitive slave, physically assaulting the sheriff and deputies, shouting, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Later during the Civil War she volunteered for the Union army where she was a nurse, cook, spy, field scout and military commander. On June 1,1863 she became the first woman in America to plan and implement an armed expedition that liberated 800 slaves with no soldiers lives lost or injured.
Over the years, she had friendships and partnerships with members of our denomination. She worked with Unitarians and Universalists for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led fundraising efforts so that Tubman would be able to retire in old age with dignity. He helped raise money for her because she had done so much to raise money for others.
To call Harriet Tubman a bodhisattva may seem presumptuous. As far as I know she never even heard of Buddhism. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and Harriet Tubman was someone who walked and talked with the Lord. However, whenever I look at that statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in my office, an image of a bodhisattva, part mythology/part history, I see a person with many arms and many eyes and many ears I am reminded of the words of Saint Theresa that could just as easily be the words of Harriet Tubman and her fellow laborers on the Underground Railroad, “God has no hands but our hands with which to do the work of healing. No eyes but our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. No feet but our feet with which to walk around doing good.”
Harriet Tubman spent most of her adult life praying with her feet. Not content to liberate only herself she was compelled to work for the liberation of others. For this reason I’ve always felt that it was very appropriate that the Knoxville Family Justice Center that offers shelter and sanctuary for victims of domestic violence is located on Harriet Tubman Street.
Harriet Tubman was not a Buddhist, but I think it is fair to call her an honorary Bodhisattva. So let us bring this sermon to a close with a Buddhist vow that can offer guidance to people of all faiths, words that can serve as our North Star, words worthy of a bodhisattva.
May I become at all times…
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a helper to all in need.
When I visited a Methodist Church this summer I was introduced as “the minister most likely to show up at the protest rally.” So here is a call and response song you can lead at your next protest.
Rosa Parks was a freedom fighter And he taught us how to fight (say what?) We go’n’ fight all day and night Until we get it right (say what?) Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side) Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)
You can add new names as you go along – Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and more to have an interactive Black History Month lesson.
This morning I want to talk about the freedom fighter from another country, Nelson Mandela. He spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner before being released and becoming the first president of a post apartheid South Africa. Mandela was largely a secular leader of a secular state even so I believe we can gain many spiritual insights from his life in part because he was able to emerge from so many years in prison without any discernible bitterness or resentment. He did not come out bearing grudges or seeking revenge. Instead he focused on truth and reconciliation and a united South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was famously circumspect about his own religious beliefs but once when he was asked about his religion he replied, “I certainly recognize the importance of the religious dimension of my own life…Religion is important because at the center of the great religious traditions is the pursuit of peace…the world needs peace and I am convinced that if we were to put into practice the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, African traditional religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths – all of which have a lot in common – there would be peace in the world.”
Mandela reminds us that religion at its best is about seeking peace. At the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working for peace in the world. We aspire to be a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good. One way we do this is through a class we offer our young people called Our Neighboring Faiths where we take our youth to visit a synagogue, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a wide variety of Christian churches.
The thing I like the most about this class is that it teaches our young people to have the courage to cross the threshold of another faith; to walk through the doors of new building with confidence. Anyone who has ever done it knows that it can be very intimidating thing to do. My hope is that by offering this class we are giving our children a lifelong skill, and ability to cross lines and form friendships with people of all faiths.
Now this peaceful approach to learning about different religions can stand in stark contrast to another approach taken by others. The religions of the world can sometimes seem very competitive; Jews versus Christians, Catholics versus Protestant, Muslims versus Hindus, Evangelicals versus secularists, the Methodists versus the Methodists (for sometimes the competition between factions within a church, including our own, can make every Sunday feel like Super Bowl Sunday.)
However, the more we make religion a contest between “us and them” the more we make religion a battle where there are “winners and losers” the more we seem to stray from that deeper unity that underlies all religions. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” a paradoxical statement that reminds that the more competitive we get about religion the more we are missing the point. For the wisdom of all the great religions points to paradoxes that can be summarized in this way, “It is by emptying that we are filled, it is by letting go that we gain, it is by losing our life that we find it. In other words, it by losing that we win.”
Mahatma Gandhi once said that wisdom can comes to us through all religions but all religions are imperfect for they come to us through imperfect instruments-human beings. So when studying our own religion or the religion of others we will find the sublime and the imperfect, faith and flaws. That’s why the religious scholar Krister Stendahl warns us that when we study another religion we should not compare our best with their worst – but leave room for “holy envy.”
So what is holy envy? Holy envy means that although I am a Unitarian Universalist minister I can envy the Jewish tradition its liturgy; the Greek Orthodox Church its iconography; the Hindu temple its statuary; the Buddhist tradition its spirituality. In other words, I can belong somewhere but still learn and grow everywhere.
Over the last couple of years I have been leading an adult version of the Neighboring Faiths class with field trips to African American churches for members. This time last year I took a group of us to Trinity Seventh Day Adventist Church in East Knoxville for a Black History Sabbath led by the Reverend Harold Middlebrook, who was one of Dr. King’s lieutenants
On other occasions we’ve been to a Watch Night service on New Years Eve at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. We’ve been the New Year’s Day Emancipation Proclamation Service at Mount Zion Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Martin Luther King Interfaith Service at various congregations. We’ve been to the Good Friday service at Tabernacle Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Thanksgiving service at First AME Zion Church.
Now whenever I take groups to visit other congregations or other faith traditions I will often say, “You do not always have to agree with the theology in order to align with the energy. Theology is about language, concepts and ideas. Energy is about life, power and vitality. Theology comes from the past written in ancient words. Energy is found in the present moment. Theology is an outward form. Energy is the inward power. Energy is about transformation and change. And one of the reasons I feel it is very important for everybody to visit historically black churches is to experience the energy that can sustain us in times of trial, the energy that overcomes oppression and empowers resistance; the energy that aligns us with the truth that sets us free.
Maybe you felt some of that energy in this room last Sunday. Last week we had a guest preacher Pastor Chris Battle and his wife Toma playing gospel on our piano. Could you feel the energy? It’s like Pastor Battle said, “Church was never meant to be about an address. Church was never meant to be about a place on a map. Church was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. The church is about relationships.”
When we visit another congregation we strengthen our relationships. When we invite someone from another tradition to preach here we strengthen relationships. As Maya Angelou likes to say, “We are more alike than unalike.” We walk on the same earth. We drink the same water. We breathe the same air. As the bard says we all have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” If you prick us we will bleed. However, if we love one another and learn from one another then we strengthen our relationships.
Earlier I shared a reading by Barbara Brown Taylor who was a fulltime Episcopal priest before becoming a professor of world religions at Piedmont College in North Georgia. Once when she took a group of students to the Hindu temple in Atlanta she found one student named Maria could not even stay inside the building. She was afraid. The temple seemed foreign. All the statues of various gods and goddesses were overwhelming. The rituals made her uncomfortable. She panicked. So she left the building.
If I were to end the story there you might draw certain conclusions about Maria but the story continues. Maria recovered from her panic attack. She went on to make an A in the class. For her final project she designed a hypothetical interfaith chapel for Piedmont College. The chapel she designed reminded me of this sanctuary; no religious symbols or iconography inside so anyone of any faith might feel welcome. The lighting was soft so that no matter where you looked people would be able to see each other and have a sense of community. So Maria was able to overcome her fears and move in the direction of spiritual growth and so can we.
When Barbara Brown Taylor teaches about the world’s religions she urges her students to practice three principles.
When trying to understand another religion, we should ask the followers (and the friends) of that religion about it and not it’s enemies.
We should never compare our best to their worst.
We should leave room for holy envy.
Religion at its best is about the pursuit of peace. Yes there are religious terrorists out there. Yes, there are clerics who proclaim holy wars. Yes, there is violence done in the name of God. Religion can exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, there are moments when we can tap into the energy of peace that is at the heart of all the great religions and the energy we can feel when we are in relationship with people of all faiths.
Sometimes we can even draw sacred wisdom from secular institutions. This week someone threw a smoke bomb into Yassin’s Falafel House, an act of pure malice committed against the restaurant that a national magazine has deemed the nicest place in America.
Yassin is Muslim, a Syrian refugee. Rabbi Erin Boxt of Temple Beth El next door is Jewish. However this week I took some comfort when I saw the rabbi post a picture of himself in Jerusalem wearing a T-shirt from Yassin’s with the words from a sign we often see when we go there, “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people safe here.” That picture of the rabbi wearing that t-shirt in Jerusalem, a place that has seen so much conflict, discord and violence between religions gives me hope.
Such moments remind us that peace is possible; that Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths can find common ground because we all want peace; we all want freedom and we all want good falafels.
This week while doing a little Internet research I learned that there is a restaurant in in Ohio that has a falafel sandwich called the Nelson Mandela (and apparently this sandwich is rated very highly by Tripadvisor.) Which brings me back to something Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
So in the midst of our nation’s impeachment controversy and our continuing culture wars let’s draw wisdom from one of the great freedom fighters who reminds us that it is by letting go of our bitterness that we gain; by losing our hatred that we win; it is by emptying our hearts of enmity that we are filled with peace and with freedom. So let’s end by singing.
Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter And he taught us how to fight (say what?) We go’n’ fight all day and night Until we get it right (say what?) Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side) Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)
May it be so.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 2, 2020.)