Where There is Sadness May We Bring Joy

Swing dance 1

When comic Stephen Colbert was playing the role of a conservative news commentator he went on a rant about Sensitive New Age Dads. He said, “That’s not the way a father should be. A father should be distant, remote and impossible to please otherwise how will kids ever understand the concept of God.”

While my father came of age before there were Sensitive New Age Dads he was definitely taking steps in that direction. My father was the minister of the Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia, and one of the enduring lessons I learned from him was the prayer of Saint Francis, which he read at my ordination. You may be familiar with it,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

This morning I want to use that last line as our thought for the day and expand upon it by making it a group prayer, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

Now finish the sentence for me, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

When I began planning for this service I had no idea how much sadness would be in the air this morning. This week we’ve heard the Bible quoted to justify the forcible separation of children from their mother’s and father’s, lactating babies separated from breastfeeding mothers. This week we’ve learned about “A migrant father separated from his wife and child at the US-Mexico border (who) had a breakdown at a Texas jail and took his own life.”

Fortunately many religious leaders have spoken out for these children including the one who posted, “People who tore children from their parents in the Bible 1) Pharaoh, 2) Herod, 3) Pontius Pilate. So separating children from their parents is biblical. But (I’m) not sure you want to be counted in that crowd.”

There has been other sad news this week. This week the newsfeed has been filled with images of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain a reminder of how the wealthy, the famous and the otherwise successful are not immune from sadness, depression and despair.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that most people live lives of quiet desperation. Of course, sometimes that desperation is not so quiet. Sometimes that desperation is closer to the surface where we can see it.

All of this makes it important that we dedicate ourselves to the spirit of that prayer and say, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”

Not everyone associates religion with joy. I remember when I was in seminary I once watched a video where a very dour faced minister spoke to the camera in a dull monotone, “We ministers…must be very careful…not to abuse…our charisma.”

I think many of us have had encounters with such ministers. I remember once listening to a minister and thinking to myself, “Surely there is a difference between spirituality and clinical depression.” Surely spirituality most be more than all the forces that bear down on us to make us dull and dour and deadened.

In April 1966 Time magazine ran a cover with headline, “Is God dead?” The humanist psychologist Erich Fromm reframed that question by saying, “The most important question is not ‘Is God dead?’ The most important question is ‘Are we dead?” Are we dead on the inside? Have we lost the link to the source of life, the source of vitality, the source of energy and aliveness.

Dag Hammarskjold once wrote, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

This radiance is not always felt most profoundly during a sermon. It is not always felt most profoundly in a church service. Sometimes this radiance is felt most powerfully on the dance floor. Sometimes this radiance is most present when we move our bodies and stop being so stuck in our heads.

In this way music and dance are revolutionary. And for this reason music and dance can be perceived to be a threat to the powers that be.

For instance in the 1940’s swing dancing was denounced by the Nazis and banned from many parts of Germany and the occupied territories. In the minds of the authorities swing music was seen as anti-fascist activism and a threat to the totalitarian state.

Swing dancing was denounced as alien not only because it was done to American music but because of the roots of the music in African American culture and because many of the musicians who played swing music at the time were Jewish. Posters denouncing swing dancing were unambiguously racist in tone and content with gross caricatures and derogatory language.

Swing dance 2

Swing music was condemned as degenerate leading to moral depravity and sexual licentiousness. The Nazis sent spies to swing dances who took notes on what they saw there. Most swing dancers at the time were teenagers. It was a very young movement. By most accounts the behavior of these dancers was no more shocking than the behavior of teenagers at any other era of history – but- to authoritarian governments and religions the behavior of teenagers is always shocking. As the philosopher La Rochefoucauld once observed, “Elders love to condemn the young for the sins they no longer have the energy to commit themselves.”

In a parallel to the 1960’s generation gap the swing dancers were criticized because the men had long hair (to they eyes) and the women had short skirts (slightly above the knee.) One of the things that the Nazis found particularly shocking is that at some of the swing dances there was gender non-conformity, a man might dance with man or a woman with a woman and to their mind this was verboten.

While these teenagers were not always overtly political swing dance was a counter cultural movement that contrasted dramatically with the militaristic culture of the Hitler youth. Indeed the dancers were call The Swing Youth in contrast to the Hitler Youth. The goal of the Nazis was to militarize the young. They wanted marches not dances, regulation haircuts and uniforms not free expression.

For this reason swing dancers were denounced, harassed, bullied, arrested, imprisoned and sometimes sent to concentration camps. Police raids could lead to up to 300 arrests. It is fair to say that some young people died in Nazi concentration camps simply because they loved to dance.

The Nazi persecution of swing dancing may seem like a huge overreaction by a paranoid government and it was that -but – we must also remember that in Plato’s Republic the sage philosopher says that you must be very careful about the music that is popular among the young because music has the power to bring down governments.

One commentator from 1940’s Germany said that to the young, “swing was freedom…freedom without limits.” In this way swing is the opposite of every form of totalitarianism, religious or political. Authoritarian religion and politics seems to thrive on a grim outlook on life. Authoritarianism seems to feed on fear and anxiety and anger and outrage whereas swing dancing is grounded in joy.

My friend Roy Reynolds is a Unitarian Universalist minister and an avid swing dancer. He is also a philosopher and a theologian so it will surprise no one that he waxes philosophical about swing dancing. He is working on a book he calls The Four Faces of God and one chapter in that book is called The Dance.

 If I were to paraphrase Roy I might say, “Dance is the whole enchilada.” Swing dance is eros, philia, agape, grace and the beloved community wrapped up into one. Swing is body, mind and spirit. It’s the theology of embodiment. It is about being awake. It is about being alive. It is about being attentive. It is about being aware of the totality of experience.

I would also add that to dance is about being in the present moment. In order to dance we must let go of our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future and be present in this present moment.

I am reminded of a story told by Joseph Campbell about an anthropologist who was interviewing people of the Shinto religion who one day said to a Shinto priest, “You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines and I have seen quite a few rites, and I have read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.” And the Shinto priest said, “We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.”

And so do we. And as we dance we can pray, “Where there is sadness…may we bring joy!”

Dance is the opposite of oppression. Dance is the opposite of depression. Dance is freedom! For instance today the opposite of an anti-immigration rally might be the Fiesta Latina, an event full of music and dancing.

This coming Saturday is the Pride parade and if it is like most years there will be dancing in the streets. However, I also saw this week in the news that there is a white nationalist group that plans to protest the Pride parade. So the ideology and the world-view and the hatred of the Nazis is still with us. Even so here’s what I predict. I predict that next Saturday that the white nationalists will be vastly outnumbered and more importantly vastly out-joyed.

Authoritarian leaders are always afraid of joy, afraid of dance, afraid of celebration, because dancing might just bring down the government. Authoritarians prefer a government that is distant, remote and impossible to please. Authoritarianism feeds on our fear and our anger and our anxiety and our despair –and- in the midst of all these emotions which are very present in our culture today we can dance a revolutionary dance illumined by that steady radiance the source of which is beyond all reason and say a revolutionary prayer.

“Where there is sadness….may we bring joy.”

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 17, 2018)

 

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Evidence of Things Unseen

 

The Little PrinceOccasionally I am asked the question, “What is the difference between a homily and a sermon?” and I will reply, “A homily is when I don’t talk as much as I want to.” Today, you will be glad to know I am giving a homily.

And yet like a sermon, every homily needs a text. Sometimes the text comes from the Old Testament and sometimes a text comes from the New Testament. The text for today’s homily comes from a summer camp skit.

In this skit a woman seems to be sitting in the air with nothing underneath her when a friend asks, “What are you doing?” She replies, “I am sitting on the invisible bench.” So the friend asks, “Do you mind if I join you?” Soon there are two, three, four and five people sitting on the invisible bench until a new person comes up and says, “Hey I moved the invisible bench last week.” Everyone immediately falls down – thud! End of skit.

At first glance this seems like just a silly skit but I think it taps into something that is quintessentially human about what we believe. In life there are beliefs that hold us up and keep us afloat – and – when we stop believing them we fall on our butts.

I want to talk about some of those beliefs that seem particularly relevant as we recognize our graduating high school seniors.

The psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote something about the power of such beliefs, “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help establish the fact.” And this is a piece of advice I offer to our seniors, ““Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help establish the fact.”

Now it is not always easy to believe that live is worth living. The news about Sante Fe high school in Texas reminds us that sometimes we experience losses that feel like they are more than we can bear. Sometimes we have shattered lives and crushed dreams and broken hearts and devastating defeats. And when life does not seem worth it we can fall hard and get hurt bad -or – we can still believe.

There are other beliefs that are like that. The peace activist Mildred Lisette Norman, who later became known as Peace Pilgrim, walked over 25,000 miles across this country teaching peace. This was her effort to make the world a less violent place and she summarized her beliefs by saying, “Over come evil with good. Overcome falsehood with truth. Overcome hatred with love.”

Now we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these beliefs will hold us up. We can’t prove we can overcome evil with good. We can’t prove that we can overcome falsehood with truth. We can’t prove that we can overcome hatred with love just as we cannot prove that life is worth living.

But as the character Hub says in the movie Second Hand Lions (adapted for inclusive language), “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things we need to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; …that… true love never dies. ..Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, we should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

These words remind us that faith is not about what we can prove or disprove – for as the apostle said, “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.”

Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes it feels like liars are triumphant. Sometimes it feels like haters are having their day. At such moments we can crash hard, fall flat, lie sprawled out on the ground and feel defeated- or – we can still believe.

To paraphrase William James, “Believe that you can make a difference and your belief will help establish the fact. Believe that you can change the world and your belief will help establish the fact.”

Not everything that is important about life is visible. In the classic children’s story The Little Prince there is a character, the fox, who says to the prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

And so in conclusion, I want to offer a charge to our graduating high school seniors. I charge you to keep hope alive. I charge you to maintain a heart that sees rightly. I charge you to continue to seek what is essential even though it is invisible to the eye. I charge you to believe in the things that are worth believing in.

And in your travels and studies and wanderings if you ever hit hard times and need a place to regroup you will always be welcome here at our church where you can take a seat on either our visible or our invisible bench.

(This homily was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 20, 2018.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toxic Masculinity and the Divine Feminine

Woman stands shining

This morning I want speak about toxic masculinity but I am aware that not everyone knows exactly what I mean by that term “toxic masculinity” so let me see if I can mansplain it to you.

Now in case you do not know what mansplaining is let me see if I can put it in the simplest possible terms. Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a very patronizing way.

Now if you are new to the church I know what you may be thinking. Later today you might be talking to a friend and say, “You know what I did today. I went to a church where the minister was mansplaining mansplaining.”

And while this is true, let’s see if we can hit the reset button and begin our explorations of this subject upon higher ground.

Today, what I really want to do is talk about toxic masculinity while hopefully avoiding the tendency to mansplain so let’s begin with a definition of toxic masculinity found in Wikipedia.

“Toxic masculinity is defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express…and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger..”

The term toxic masculinity is not meant to demonize men. In fact, I would argue that toxic masculinity is an effort to describe the ways our societal norms are harmful to boys and men, girls and women, indeed, all people regardless of our gender identity.

Last week I was at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky where the theme for the week was “Sacred Insight, Feminine Wisdom” and I heard a powerful presentation by Lyla June Johnston, a Native American activist from the Navajo tribe who also happens to be a hip-hop artist. After her talk and musical performance there was a question and answer session where someone asked, “I am having difficulty finding a spiritual response to the toxic masculinity I see coming from the White House, what is your advice?” I think the answer she gave may be helpful to us regardless of which political party we support. She said, “I refer to the President as uncle Trump, in other words he is part of the family.”

Note this statement is grounded in a very Navajo sentiment, where spirituality is about ‘all our relations” the two-legged, the four legged, the winged, the finned, all our relations in the broadest possible sense. So that when we get angry about politics we can reframe it so that we speak of Uncle Trump or Aunt Hillary or cousin Bernie or cousin Mitch. In other words, find the person who drives you nuts the most and add the word cousin or uncle or aunt to it.

It is this understanding of “all our relations” that informs the way I want to speak about toxic masculinity today because toxic masculinity is toxic to everyone including men.

Many years ago, when I was in seminary I served as a hospital chaplain as part of my education and one of things I learned is that there are a lot of angry men in hospitals especially on the children’s floor. In most cases the men are not angry with doctors or nurses or chaplains or family members. In the vast majority of cases the men are angry about being powerless. The men are angry about being helpless. The men are angry about being vulnerable. The men are angry about being sad. The men are angry about being heartbroken and bereft.

When I was a young chaplain I confess I did not always understand this anger but the older I get the more I do understand. The older I get the more I understand feeling angry about powerlessness, vulnerability, helplessness.

In this age of reactionary politics where so often anger clashes with anger, hate clashes with hate, argumentativeness clashes with argumentativeness, the Reverend Bill Sinkford tells us we need to look for “the hurt beneath the hate” the pain beneath the anger, the anxiety behind the argument.

This is not to excuse the message or the actions of hate groups. Our state capitol building has a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in a place of honor in the hallways. There is no excuse for that in the year 2018. That’s bullshit.

However there are ways to be in relationship to hate that either disempower it or actually augment and strengthen the hate. So the challenge of a spiritual response is to find those methods that actually help transform the situation in meaningful ways. During the civil rights movement when policeman were unleashing attack dogs on protestors and knocking them down with fire hoses Dr. King said something that is relevant today, “The disease has to surface before we find the cure.” And right now in our in our time there is a lot of disease coming to the surface, so much so, that I sometimes wonder if it is possible to find a cure for it all.

So one of the challenges I face personally when I am trying to address toxic masculinity is how to respond to an angry white male without becoming an angry white male. The author Salman Rushdie once said, “Be careful when the powerful trample over you because their disease can infect you through the soles of their feet.” When toxic masculinity tramples over us then we can be contaminated by the toxicity.

Whenever I get angry, I try to ask myself the question, “Is my anger helping or hurting me?” Is my anger empowering me to action, helping me to make a difference, inspiring me to be creative? Or is my anger my own worst enemy?

Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination into ministry and lately I have been thinking about my ordination vows as they relate to our times. Twenty years ago I made this vow.

With humility and reverence I accept the joys and responsibilities of this most sacred mission: to make my life’s work a ministry of reconciliation, a ministry which forever seeks the reconciliation of all people to each other, to the Creation which nourishes us and so many other diverse forms of life and to the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

When I began the ministry my heroes were Lucretia Mott, Mahatma Gandhi and other great peacemakers but lately, I have felt more like those angry men in the hospital. In our current cultural conflict I’ve found myself being angry a lot more often than I used to and here’s why that’s a problem.

Anger is a very dangerous emotion for everyone. Anger is connected to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Anger is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Anger can shorten our lives.

Did you know that anger is associated with reduced lung capacity? Which means the angrier we are the harder it is for us to breathe. That fact gives a whole new meaning to the hymn we sing some Sunday mornings, “When I breathe in I breathe in peace, when I breathe out I breathe out love,” Sometimes we need to let go of our anger, just so we can breath.

So I began my ministry with a vision of a ministry of reconciliation and I am still committed to that goal, however, after twenty years I can see the faces of people who’ve taken offense at a congregational decision or a committee vote or a staff judgment call and chosen to sever the bonds of friendship and connection. For this reason remembering these vows puts me in touch with my powerlessness, my vulnerability, my sadness, my limitations and so I know the meaning of the words we said together earlier.

“Blessed are those who know that the church is often imperfect, yet rather than harbor feelings of anger or disappointment, bring their concerns and needs to the attention of the church leaders.” And remain committed to finding solutions.

So before I go any further let me ask you a question: are you ready for me to get all woo-woo on you? I hope so because I am going to.

Last week I was at the Festival of Faiths immersing myself in that theme “Sacred Insights, Feminine Wisdom.” Consciously or unconsciously I went to that conference feeling like one of those angry men in the hospital. However, on the last day I went to a gathering with a Native American elder in teepee set up on the grounds. As I sat in the circle we went through a smudging ritual and I suddenly felt very close to my mother who is no longer living and who had a deep and abiding interest in Native American spirituality. I felt energy coursing through my body and these words came to me, “It’s not you who is angry. Its your mother,” and at that moment I felt my anger lift, disperse and dissipate. I could almost see it rising up in the air through the hole in the top of the teepee toward the sky. As my anger dissipated I heard an elder say, “In my tribe it is the grandmothers who declare war,” and apparently it is the grandmothers who declare peace too.

At some point we left the teepee for a drumming circle and goodbye song out in the open air led by an elder known as Woman Stands Shining. Immediately after the drumming circle I got a message on my phone from my son that read, “Prepare to be wowed.” It was a video of my granddaughter Wrenowyn who is still a baby. She was lying on the floor giving a kind of primal cry when all of a sudden she sat up grabbed a bowl and started beating on it with a spoon like a drum in a way similar to the way Woman Stands Shining beat her drum. So the grandmothers declare peace and the granddaughter says Amen.

So today, if I am a little less like the angry men in the hospital it is because of this encounter with the sacred feminine. As I said last week, “I do not have to be able to explain an experience in order to appreciate it.” Such experiences do not solve every problem, do not heal every wound or reconcile every conflict but sometimes it is good to know that when we are dealing with Uncle Trump or Aunt Hilary or cousin Bernie or cousin Mitch that we can call on our grandmothers wisdom and a granddaughters energy.

Spiritual growth is hard work. It is labor. As Woman Stands Shining said, “Everyone wants to give birth…metaphorically.” However, both physical and spiritual birth is painful and tough work. Nevertheless we are called to do it for “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” And we want to be a part of that new birth of freedom, that new birth of energy and life.

So in conclusion, let me say, next time someone tries to mansplain something and you begin to feel our blood boil and your teeth grind take a deep breathe, be still and sing, “When I breathe in I breathe in peace, when I breathe out I breathe out love.” For when we are giving birth it is very important to pay attention to our breathing.

(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 6, 2018)

Inspired or Insane?

the-starry-night-1889

Long before John Lennon ever saw Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air. Who knew the Bible could be so groovy?

Ezekiel shared his vision of seeing four living creatures with four wings, each having four faces; the face of a human, the face of an ox, the face of a lion and the face of an eagle. In other words, to use the language of our time – Ezekiel be trippin’.

Some scholars have speculated that Ezekiel may have been under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen as part of a shamanic trance. However, the mystics of the world will tell you can be clean, sober and sane and still be trippin’.

Not everyone trusts such mystic visions and some have gone so far as to give the prophet Ezekiel a clinical diagnosis. One scholar suggests that Ezekiel suffered from depressive psychosis with symptomatic insomnia, moodswings, guilt, unworthiness, self-blame and schizophrenia with symptomatic disordered thinking, visual, auditory, olfactory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. That’s quite the diagnosis.

Is this diagnosis medically warranted or is it blasphemy? This morning I want us to explore how we can know the difference between inspiration and insanity.

I want to begin by telling a story about a time when my family thought I’d gone insane. It was many years ago when I was a teenager, back in the 1980’s, and under tragic circumstances. I was riding in a car after the memorial service. We were driving through downtown Macon, Georgia, which was the 3rd largest city in the state (with many multistoried buildings) and I happen to look out the window as we crossed an intersection and I caught a brief glimpse of something so I said to everyone, “I just saw a cow in the middle of the street back there.” My sister responded, “Chris when we are grieving a loss we sometimes think we see things.” I replied, “No really, there was a cow in the middle of the road.” It was clear that no one in the car believed me, it was all in my head, but we had other things to worry about that day so I let the subject drop. However, the next day when we got the newspaper I made sure that everyone saw the picture on the front page of a cow in the middle of the street in downtown Macon, Georgia. Vindicated!

I mention this story because sometimes it’s hard to know when someone is losing their mind or firmly grounded in reality. Are we hallucinating? Do we really see everything we think we see? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

Many years ago I heard an interview with the comedienne Julia Sweeney about her journey from Catholicism to atheism. Before the interview I knew that Sweeney was an outspoken atheist so I was surprised when she told this story about the earlier part of her life.

She talked about a time when she was a young adult and she went through a painful breakup with a boyfriend that sent her into a deep depression. One day she was lying in bed and she found herself saying, “Heal me.” Then something powerful happened. “I felt light in the room and I could feel God in the room and I had this great sense of connectedness with the universe. It is hard to put into words the experience I had but it was just a very profound religious experience. I felt very close to God and suddenly knew that things were going to turn out …I felt healed….It was a very positive experience.”

What I found interesting was this is an atheist telling a very spiritual story using very spiritual words. Now that she is an atheist she interprets this experience differently than when she was a believer. She says she now understands more about how the brain works. She thinks what she experienced was a firing of the right temporal lobe in a way similar to an epileptic seizure that induced the feelings of warmth and light associated with this experience. So an experience that she once might have called “God inspiring” she now attributes to her “brain misfiring.” However, here’s what I find interesting, when she tells the story she uses the vocabulary of her younger self rather than her older self.

Here is what I have learned from 20 years in the ministry, people’s experiences do not always line up neatly with their intellectual beliefs. I once met a Unitarian Universalist who said, “I don’t believe in God but I often experience God’s presence and I am okay with that contradiction.” Such paradoxes are common among UU’s. Similarly, I’ve also known UUs who do believe in God but haven’t ever felt God’s presence. So paradoxes abound.

When I served a congregation in Oxford, Ohio, I had a member, John Eicher, who was a rationalist and a materialist and a humanist who was very proactive about sharing his views. So imagine my surprise when I went to see him in the hospital when he was recovering from an operation and he said to me, “Chris, I want to tell you about my out of body experience.” Apparently, while he was on the table being operated on he had a sense of hovering above his own body listening to the doctors talk about his condition, so that he was a witness to his own surgery. After the operation, and body and soul were back together again as it were, he was able to confirm with his doctor that what he heard was what was said during the operation.

What I found interesting about John’s story is this. It wasn’t an experience he was expecting. It was in no way a product of wishful thinking, indeed, it might have been the opposite. And while John was able to give a rational, materialist, humanist explanation for his out of body experience there was something different about his voice (and it was the same quality in Julia Sweeney’s voice.) As I listened to him tell the story I could tell that he was less interested in explaining the experience than appreciating the experience. For this reason, when people come to me to tell me stories about spiritual experiences I will sometimes say, “You don’t have to be able to explain an experience in order to appreciate it.”

In 1902 the philosopher William James published the classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he collected many people’s first hand autobiographical experiences – people’s own stories in their own words. What I find interesting about so many of these stories is that the experiences come unexpected. They come unasked for. Often they come unwished for. These experiences do not depend on people’s beliefs and they tend to be bigger than those beliefs or outside the boundaries of those beliefs. These experiences sometimes make people question their own sanity or their grasp of reality.

One such experience has been called the unitive experience or oceanic experience. It is an all pervading sense of Oneness and Unity with everything. When we have these experiences it might feel like we are going crazy but here’s the thing. Psychologists tell us we need to have these experiences in order to stay sane. Our sanity depends on these experiences. Which gives new meaning to the chorus of a country song by Waylon Jennings, “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.”

This week I was up in Louisville, Kentucky for an interfaith conference. One of the interesting things about Louisville is that it has a historic marker for the place where the Catholic mystic and Vietnam era peace activist Thomas Merton had a spiritual experience, which he wrote about in his autobiography.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.…If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’.

Now if you were to go back in time and see Thomas Merton standing on the corner you might (or might not) come to the conclusion that he was a madman. It’s sort of like those people who walking around in public places carrying a “Free Hugs” sign. Part of us wants to say it is a wonderful thing but another part of us isn’t ready to receive unconditional love from a complete stranger. There is a part of us that wants to trust and another part that wants to distrust.

The mystics, the shamans and the prophets are often thought to be crazy. In the 19th century Margaret Fuller once wrote about a spiritual experience in her memoirs, “I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine.  This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God.”

Now many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy, and not just because of her mystical experiences. Many people thought Margaret Fuller was crazy because she believed in women’s equality. Her book Woman in the 19th Century was one the earliest arguments for equal rights. In her time when women spoke out for equality they were often accused of being mentally ill. Sometimes women who asserted equal rights were put away in asylums or given mental health treatments.

Today many people do the same thing to transgender activists, accuse them of mental illness. Indeed, some of Margaret Fuller’s writings seem to presage the current controversies over transgender issues for as she once remarked, “Male and female (seem to) represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

Transgender activists are saying the same thing a hundred years later, “There is no wholly masculine male, no purely feminine woman.” Last week, church member Juniper Stinnet, was given the Artist for Change award by Community Shares for her work with the Transgender Empowerment Project and her use of music to promote justice, equality and freedom in the world. Among some of her best work is the work she does as our youth programs coordinator here at TVUUC.

And this leads me to our final point. There have been times in our congregation’s history when many people thought our church was crazy. People thought we were crazy in the 1950’s when Knoxville was segregated but this church was integrated. People thought we were crazy in the 1960’s when members participated in the sit-ins and the civil rights movement and hosted the Poor Peoples Campaign. People thought we were crazy in the 1970’s when we spoke out for the Equal Rights Amendment. People thought we were crazy in the 1980’s because we were offering comprehensive sex education to our children and youth at church. People thought we were crazy in the 1990’s when spoke out for the GLBT rights…and in this new millennium there are still people who think we are crazy….but you know what? I don’t think we are insane. I think we are inspired!!

Recently a friend send me a picture of a church with a message board out front that read, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our pastor is on fire.” And I’d like to expand on that sentiment by saying, “Bring your marshmallows to church because our church is on fire. Our church is inspired.”

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air, in much the same way as Van Gogh saw the spiraling heavens on a starry, starry night.

And we too have visions. The Spirit is upon us. Our children prophesy. Our young see visions. Our old dream dreams. Who knew church could be so groovy?

And so we sing:

Wake, now, our senses, and hear the earth call;

Feel the deep power of being in all;

Keep, with this spiraling web of creation our vow,
Giving, receiving as love shows us how.

So may it be.

(The Reverend Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 29, 2018)

 

 

Wise Foolishness (and Foolish Wisdom)

The scripture says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” Easter Sunday fell on April Fools Day this year which inspired the following cartoon (for good or ill.) I offer it (partially against my own better judgment) in the spirit of wise foolishness.

4.4 april fools

Of course, there are some who will prefer to see the cartoon as simply foolish rather than wise. I can respect that position and even apologize for any offense caused, however, unintentional. We live in an age when a cartoon about religion can lead to violence. I offer it in the spirit of peace. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

On Sunday in church, we invited folks to write down some personal words of wisdom on a paper egg and then we put all our eggs in one basket. Here is some of the wisdom people shared with apologies for the fact that it is impossible to include everything everyone wrote. Consider this a wisdom sampler. Be prepared for a few egg puns (more wise foolishness.)

“Don’t let others extinguish your flame”

“Love your enemies especially at family reunions”

“Be kind to animals”

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

“Persevere.”

“One need not be eloquent to be intelligent.”

“Always love one another and give of yourself.”

“Love yourself.”

“Don’t take yourself too seriously, laugh!”

“And the meek shall inherit the earth. Meek translation: A warrior who’s sword is sheathed.”

“To love another person is to see the face of God (Les Miserable)”

“Be excellent to each other (Bill + Ted)”

“Be bold, take one more step than you want to.”

“Always try to give the benefit of the doubt.”

“Forgive yourself.”

“Harmony and dialogue, evolve, adapt.”

“In all things, choose love.”

“Though everything changes, nothing is truly lost.”

“Breathe!”

“Love the earth”

“Kids have power.”

“Be eggceptional.”

“Bloom where you are planted.”

“Be still”

“Sleep is good.”

“Treasure every moment.”

“Live with joy in your heart.”

“Be patient.”

“Be eggstra nice to someone.”

“Do the right thing.”

“Dog spelled backwards is God.”

“We are all one, be kind.”

“Love above all else.”

“Every person deserves respect-find a way to give respect to each person you meet.”

“Being gentle is a strength.”

“Truly love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Together we can change the world with love.”

“If you love more you see the world more clearly.”

“The window of eternity is never closed when the eye of the mind is opened by nature’s miracle.”

“Let’s be intentional in our actions for love, equality, eliminating racism and poverty.”

“Listening.”

“Trust.”

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“Don’t do what you hate.”

“The truth is in the walk.”

“No matter how much you know…there is always another mystery.”

I am thankful for everyone who wrote down some wisdom and tossed it in our basket. I am grateful to be part of a community that contains so much wise foolishness.

IMG_6311

 

 

The Once and Future Ordination

It has been almost 20 years since my ordination on May 3, 1998. This year it will be our congregation’s privilege to host the ordination service for Jon Coffee, our former ministerial intern and chaplain of pastoral care. The ceremony will be here at TVUUC on April 7 at 4 pm.

Jon Coffee

As part of the process of preparing for Jon’s service I have been looking over the order of service for my own ordination and reflecting on the meaning of the ritual. The congregation I served as student minister in Oxford, Ohio ordained me. They literally “called” me to the ministry through a literal phone call, “Would you consider being our minister?” I had preached there a few times as a seminary student but was surprised by the request. I sputtered a reply, “I am not ordained so I can’t be your minister.” The congregation called the Unitarian Universalist Association and in fairly short order I was the minister of the congregation as my official UUA internship site.

Ordination vows are kind of like wedding vows. You don’t really know what they mean until 20 years later or more. The words “for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” are abstract when first uttered. Decades later the same words speak to specific stories and challenges encountered along the way. I was present on Jon’s wedding day and I feel blessed to also be a part of his ordination and look forward to witnessing his vows.

So, as I’ve said, I’ve been reflecting on my own vows in preparation for witnessing Jon take his. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you the words I spoke in Kumler Chapel, Oxford, Ohio. Almost twenty years ago.

“To the members and friends of the Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community I say I accept this ministry which you have done so much to nurture, encourage and support. With humility and reverence I accept the joys and responsibilities of this most sacred mission: to make my life’s work a ministry of reconciliation, a ministry which forever seeks the reconciliation of all people to each other, to the Creation which nourishes us and so many other diverse forms of life and to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And rest assured that wherever I go, wherever I am called to serve I will gratefully carry the spirit and the blessing of this community with me.”

Let me say for the record that I was a young man on that day but I’ve earned every white hair I’ve gotten since then. On April 7, 2018, at 4:00 pm our congregation will ordain another young man. I hope you will plan to be there. We may not even begin to know the full meaning of his vows until 2038 but we can be there in the beginning and we can send him the message that wherever he goes, wherever he might serve, he will carry the spirit and the blessing of this community with him always. May it be so.

 

The Black Panther and the Dark Side of the Force

I don’t think I’ve experienced a film phenomenon like The Black Panther since 1977 when I stood in a line for the first Star Wars movie. Recently I went downtown for the matinee of the new film only to find that the next two shows were sold out. I bought a ticket for the third. The line for my show was so long I worried I might not get in the 300-seat theater.

I am a fan of the Star Wars movies but it is fair to say that The Black Panther gives new meaning to the concept of the dark side of the force.

The Black Panther

I recently heard the Reverend Chris Battle give a presentation on “White Jesus and Black History.” He spoke about how our dominant culture tends to make darkness and blackness synonymous with evil. Because he is adept at audiovisual presentations a picture of Darth Vader appeared on the screen behind him as he said this.

Rev. Battle then showed an image of an anthropologist’s reconstruction of a first century Jew reminding us that the historical Jesus was a dark man. In the Vatican, the Louvre and other museums, Jesus is often portrayed as lily white even though evidence suggests otherwise. The history of Western religious art supports a vision of white supremacy whereas anthropologists remind us that Jesus was an embodiment of the dark side of the force.

Jesus according to anthropology

Sometimes Star Wars seems to reinforce dualism, the idea that light must destroy darkness. After all Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia wear white. The evil emperor and Darth Vader wear black. However, in the latest movie The Last Jedi there was a lot of emphasis on bringing balance to the force, balancing light and darkness, in much the same way that every 24 hours is a balance between night and day. This balance between night and day, winter and spring, is what makes life flourish and all things grow.

Without offering any spoilers let me say that The Black Panther has similar insights into the need to move beyond a strictly good/evil, darkness/light, black/white paradigm. Sometimes the hero does the wrong thing. Sometimes the villain has a valid point. The force is strong in both of them. As Dr. King once said, “There’s some bad in the best of us and some good in the rest of us.” In the 1960’s the Black Panthers was an activist group that many white people feared. Today The Black Panther is selling out in theaters across America and could well be the top grossing film of all time.

In America angel food cake is light and devil food cake is dark. The Black Panther turns the tables by meeting white supremacy with Black Power. Where the dominant culture tells us we must choose between black and white The Black Panther reminds us that we can have our cake and eat it too.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”

In recent days, we’ve been inspired by the leadership of the young. We’ve seen more leadership coming out of Parkland, Florida, in the last few weeks than we’ve seen coming out of Washington in years.

Where elders have been cautious, the young have been brave.

Where elders have been silent, the young are speaking out.

Where the elders are sitting still, the young are walking out.

Where elders have been evasive, the young have been clear.

Where elders have been bought and paid for, the young have reminded us we still live in a free country.

We may not be able to agree on everything but surely we can agree that thoughts and prayers are not enough. Faith without works is dead.

Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday February 25th our congregation, the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, held a vigil for the 17 students, teachers and staff killed at the Stoneman Douglass High School and for victims of gun violence all over the country who do not garner so much publicity. For the most part our speakers were young including child survivors of the shooting in our church on July 27, 2008, who are now teens and young adults.

We heard from close friends and mentors of Zaevion Dobson, an innocent victim and hero gunned down in a drive by shooting. We heard from activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and grassroots neighborhood activists trying to save lives. After the vigil there was much organizing for action, , signing petitions, sending postcards planning school walk outs and recruiting for the March for Our Lives in Washington DC on March 24.

I will leave you with some thoughts from Jennifer Kitts, a child survivor of the TVUUC church shooting who is now a young adult serving overseas in the Peace Corp “This time feels different. It didn’t at first but as the days passed and the debate became more thoughtful instead of the same re-used arguments I felt my spirit become energized. I watched as thousands of high schoolers dominated the most distractible news outlets for a week and a half. I have seen even the slimiest of politicians begin to lose their grip on the gun lobbies ‘sacred’ agenda. That is something. And most importantly, I have seen parents, teachers, survivors of so many previous tragedies come together to support each other and push forward for change. I see their strength and I feel their energy from 5,000 miles away. I never want to see another human being suffer the way I and so many others have. We must ban the gun that has been used in the 7 deadliest mass shootings in resent memory. The AR 15 has no place in the Unites States of America. I have to believe that this time is different, because it has to be.”

(Below are some links you can click on in order to see and listen to the young speak out.)

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YweGJJC41aE&list=PLgup_gL_2CJFKfP9O5QOGJpNXfdDnFf7k

 

http://www.wbir.com/article/news/local/hundreds-gather-to-honor-gun-violence-victims-demand-change/51-523261959?utm_campaign=trueAnthem%3A+Trending+Content&utm_content=5a9386459ebbef0007f593bf&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=facebook

 

https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/2018/02/25/parkland-shooting-vigil-knoxville-unitarian-universalist-church/367092002/

 

 

The Doors of Perception

My mind is prone to tangents. Recently, I’ve been listening to the music of the 1960’s rock group The Doors and pondering the words of William Blake that inspired the name of the band, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to us as it is, Infinite.” (Well actually he said “man” but I decided to expand it to “us.”)

Perception is a powerful thing. Related to my most recent mental tangent I read the biography of Jim Morrison No One Gets Out of Here Alive. (Apropos of nothing I got a real bargain on it, seventy five cents at a used book store.) Reading this book I couldn’t help but feel that the lead singer of The Doors was a real a$$hole. (I was going to use another word but my computer thesaurus didn’t have one -no results found.) Then I read another book Light My Fire by the band’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek and I came away with the impression that Morrison was sensitive, poetic, polite, witty, wise, prophetic, spiritual, a great friend and also capable of being a real a$$hole.

From these two books I conclude we are saved by friendship. Our friends see the good in us even if others can only see the bad. Our friends appreciate us even when others are repelled. The world may look at us through a glass darkly but our friends see us when the doors of perception are cleansed.

TheDoors_LightMyFire_Digital_Cover

One of the main reasons to join a church is to make friends. We need communities where others see us and value us. For this reason, we all have to do the work of keeping the doors of perception cleansed so that we can see each other and appreciate each other for what we really are, Infinite.

Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception was about mescaline but one does not need drugs to awaken to realization (and the high levels of addiction in our culture suggest need more sustainable and less consumerist paths to experiences of the transcendent – meditation, music, art, creativity, prayer, mindfulness etc.) The Quakers are known for their sobriety, even so, they tell us to look for “that of God in every person.” Many of 19th century Unitarians were teetotalers but they advised us to seek “the divine spark in every person.” The poet William Blake would tell us that we can hold infinity in the palm of our hand and “eternity in an hour.”

My mental tangent about The Doors began in December when I decided a good title for the homily for the Christmas Eve candlelight service would be, “Come On Baby, Light My Fire” as a way of bringing together the nativity story with the fire related traditions of Hanukkah, Advent, Kwanzaa and  winter solstice. If you missed this homily you can check it out on YouTube and sing along with everybody else (see below link.) To paraphrase the words of the religious educator Sophia Fahs, “When the doors of perception are cleansed every night is a holy night and every child a holy child.” That’s a good thought for Christmas eve or any night or day of the year.

My mind is prone to tangents. I like to explore new areas of thought. “There are the things you know about and the things you don’t,” said Jim Morrison, “the known and the unknown, and in between there are the doors.” I suppose every poet/songwriter has an element of pretentiousness. Even so, this should not deter us from walking through the doors of our church, greeting a new person, turning a stranger into a friend and by so doing discover the Infinite.

 

All for One, One for All

Hatred can come out of nowhere.

I was once camping on an island in the middle of Lake Ocoee when someone sped by in speedboat shouting a racist slur at my friend Alex who was sitting right next to me. Alex did not seem surprised or alarmed. As the boat sped off into the distance he turned to me and said something he clearly did not really mean, “Now there goes a brave man.”

On another camping trip a group of us were swimming in a swimming hole near a waterfall in the middle of the Cherokee National forest when an old man came out of nowhere and went on a racist diatribe against my friend Creed in an effort to run us all off. He forgot to factor in that he was outnumbered.

Hatred can come out of nowhere

In the Unitarian Universalist church we often speak about the beauty of the earth and the wonders of nature but the truth is we can be camping on a island in the middle of a lake or swimming by a pristine waterfall in the wilderness when hatred comes out of nowhere.

There’s no escaping it.

A friend recently told me about his wife who was working as a nurse in a hospital when a patient insulted her and demanded a white nurse. Such outrages happen daily across the country.

When the President recently referred to Haiti and African and Central American countries as shitholes (that’s one word I though I’d never say from the pulpit) his behavior was shocking to some of us but not surprising to all of us. As the Reverend John Butler says, “The problems in the White House are symptomatic of the problems in every house.”

Call me naïve but up until recent times I thought we were making some progress in this country. However after careful reflection I am coming to understand why Malcolm X once said that when white people talk about racial progress its like a mugger who pulls the knife halfway out and calls it progress.

Now as a white person it is tempting for me to get defensive about such comments but then I remember how hatred can come out of nowhere. I remember that day on island or that afternoon by a waterfall or that nurse who has to figure out how to heal someone who hates her.

Malcolm X said if black people feel wary of white people it might be because , “If all of your ancestors have been snake bitten and you have been snake bitten then you just might want to teach your children to be wary of snakes. “

Over my sabbatical I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X with special attention to the Epilogue by Alex Haley. I also read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a book about racism in the criminal justice system. Both books are good books but anyone who has ever read them can tell you than can be some heavy reading and so I decided to read something light, fun, escapist so I picked up a copy the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

I’m told that my choice of an escapist book says something about me-as 19th century literature is not everybody’s idea of escapism. Nevertheless, I picked up the book in the same way someone might go to see a blockbuster action movie. I was hoping to be immersed in a rollicking tale of swashbuckling adventure-and it worked- at least for a little while.

For a little while I escaped into the world of imagination in the company of the musketeers D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramas as they defended the honor of the Queen of France from the Machiavellian maneuvering of Cardinal Richelieu and the fierce vengeance of Milady de Winter.

The book is a good read. Strictly speaking, the musketeers are not paragons of virtue. Many of their choices do not measure up to contemporary ethical standards. The musketeers have a puppy dog quality to them, overly eager and overly energetic and hormone driven. They bumble into each other and other people with testosterone-fueled dreams of fame, honor, glory and romance. Their unity has a sibling like quality full of mutual adoration and mutual competition nevertheless we all know the oath that binds them together, “All for one and one for all.”

I enjoyed the Three Musketeers so much I decided to read the next book in the series and then the next book and then the next book and then the next book and finally finished the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.

 

Over my sabbatical I was in France serving as minister in residence and guest preacher to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris. During that time I decided to take a pilgrimage to The Chateau de Monte Cristo, the historic home of the author of the Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas.

This chateau is named after another one of Dumas’ famous books The Count of Monte Cristo which is a story of revenge about a man who is falsely imprisoned in an island fortress with disastrous consequences for him and eventually for the people who put him there.

In the Chateau de Monte Cristo there was an exhibition where I learned something about the author that I did not know before. During his lifetime Alexandre Dumas was a constant target for racist attacks.

His father, Thomas Alexandre Dumas, was the child of a Haitian slave and a rebellious French nobleman. Although his father was mixed race all existing portraits showing him to be a very black man.(Picture of Thomas Alexandre Dumas below)

The Black Count

If you look closely at photographs of the author Alexander Dumas you can see that his hair is approaching what we might now call an Afro. Because of his heritage he became a target for bigots. The exhibit contained racist broadsides that had been printed in the press and repeated in salons. There were also cartoons depicting Dumas as a cannibal with exaggerated lips and hair and savage-like appearance. The attacks were so constant that sometimes Dumas found ways to deflect them with a witty comment. When someone told him that his family was descended from monkeys he replied, “Yes my family starts where yours ends.” (Picture of the author below)

Alexander_Dumas_père_par_Nadar_-_Google_Art_Project

One of the more interesting things that I’ve learned since the visit to that home is that many characters in Dumas’ novels are patterned after his father Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, who left Haiti and made his way to France where he got military training in fencing, swordsmanship and combat. He came of age in the comparatively egalitarian era of the French Revolution and was able rise from a new recruit to a brigadier general in the French army and commander of over 50,000 men. He was the first person of color to become a brigadier general in France and the highest ranked military person of color in the Western world until Colin Powell surpassed him in rank in the late 20th century.

If you are interested in learning more about him I highly recommend the book The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Reading the book I could see how Thomas Alexandre Dumas helped inspire his son to create such vivid characters and write such good stories. He had the courage approaching foolhardiness of D’Artagnan, the gravity and brooding nature of Athos, the romantic spirit of Aramis and the brute strength and appetite of Porthos. Indeed, Thomas Alexandre Dumas was such a larger than life human being that his son had to create 4 different fictional white characters to try and capture the essence of one black man. (In the BBC series The Three Musketeers the character Porthos is black as a tip of the hat to this history.)

porthos

General Dumas was like one of those action movie heroes who can fight off five or six people at once only he actually could do it in real life. Incidences of him defeating multiple assailants are well documented. He was constantly volunteering for the most dangerous missions and defying the odds to achieve victory. Napoleon saw him as a rival. He was also once falsely imprisoned in a military fortress so not only was he D’Artagnan and Aramis and Athos and Porthos he was also the Count of Monte Cristo.

So by now you may be wondering why I am telling this story about an immigrant from Haiti, an immigrant from Haiti that fought bravely for the revolutionary ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” , an immigrant from Haiti who inspired his son to write some of the most widely known and celebrated works of literature the world has ever known. Here’s why.

February is Black History month but I am here today to tell you that there is a lot of Black History hiding in the middle of supposed White History. And along those lines let me tell you about another book, one of the hidden gems of world literature, a book by Alexandre Dumas that is rarely if ever mentioned Georges.

 The story is set on the Isle of France, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa now known as Mauritus. Dumas describes Georges as a mulato, “one of those unfortunate colonial beings that cannot be forgiven for their color no matter how much success or wealth…they attain.” He writes about the sense of inferiority Georges feels in the presence of whites. He feels robbed of his self-respect.

Georges is a man who is tired of feeling like he must spend his entire life apologizing for his own existence. Eventually he becomes angry not only at his oppressors but at those who accept their own oppression. He is able to affirm his own worth and dignity. All of this leads up to Georges’ decision to lead a slave insurrection against the French colonial powers. As he launches this violent revolution he declares, “I have a prejudice to fight. Either it must destroy me or I it.”

One cannot help but feel that the author of this book Alexandre Dumas is working through some of his own emotions about what it is like to be on the receiving end of hatred and racism. The thoughts of Georges seem to offer us a window into his soul.

Because I am a good person I am not going to tell you how this story ends #nospoilers. However I can tell you that this book is an adventure story that could compete with any Spielberg movie. The story has battles at sea, shark attacks, sword fights, hand to hand combat, armies clashing, dramatic rescues, narrow escapes, separated lovers and romantic reunions. Our hero is often in peril. Alexandre Dumas is nothing if not an entertaining storyteller.

However, as I bring this sermon to a close, I want to say that my point this morning is not to recommend good literature to you, even though I do recommend these books to you. Instead today I want to remind you what was true then is true now, the wealthy and the successful are not spared the viciousness of racism. Bryant Gumbel, a wealthy, successful, famous television broadcaster has talked about his own experiences with racism saying, “You can’t buy your way out of it. You can’t educate your way out of it…this is nothing to do with the victims and everything to do with the culture of demeaning a person of color.”

Hatred can come out of nowhere. There is no escaping it. We have yet to create a culture where the knife of racism has been completely withdrawn from the body or where every child is free from the danger of snakebite. And yet the fact is that racism is a lie. Bigotry is a lie. Prejudice is a lie and this is important for us to know because it’s the truth that sets us free.

And the truth is that there is a unity that underlies our diversity. Nothing disempowers the bullies of the world quite like unity. The best way to address intolerant is to be sure the forces of fairness always outnumber them. As Rumi wrote – all of the people, all of the religions, all of the singing is one song. As the Haitian flag tells us “L’union fait la force.” Unity makes strength. Or as Dr. King used to say, We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” No one is free until everyone is free. There are truly global implications for the oath made famous by the three musketeers, “All for one and one for all.”

(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 28, 2018)