Everyday Resurrections

In the Jewish tradition there is a blessing for when two friends reunite who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. When the two people greet each other one may say, “Blessed is the One who resurrects the dead.” Being separated from those we love is a kind of death. Being reunited is a kind of resurrection. 

In my office here at the church I have a picture of my old high school friends back in the day. It was taken in one of the old timey photo shops for tourists . One friend is dressed like a sherrif with a cowboy hat and holster. Another is dressed like a riverboat gambler with a derby hat and cane. One looks like an intrepid reporter with a flat cap and thin tie. Two friends are looking suspiciously at each other, dressed in the uniforms of the opposing side of the Civil War. In the center of the picture is a saloon girl with a frilly dress and a feathered boa, a cigar in her mouth and a shot glass of whiskey in her hand. Most people who look at the picture never even realize that the saloon girl is now the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. 

Obviously, my coming of age was in an era before very sensitive state legislatures tried to ban drag. Indeed, the homecoming queen at my high school was a boy who wore his tiara with quiet dignity. In other words, gender fluidity is nothing new. I have very fond memories of my high school years. Periodically my friends and I have a reunion filled with laughter and good times. That’s why I keep this picture in my office to remind me of those moments of joy. Whenever I look at the picture of their faces, I feel young again. I have a new appreciation of that Jewish phrase, “Blessed is the One who resurrects the dead.” 

This time last year I drove up to Kentucky to do a memorial service for Krista Dalton’s mother Joella. And along the way I kept seeing Jesus carrying the cross by the side of the road. At first I thought I might be hallucinating. Apparently, in some parts of rural Kentucky it is a tradition for someone to do a re-enactment of Jesus’ journey to Calvary. Since I was driving through more than one small town I got to see more than one Jesus. It was a slightly surreal experience. 

On Easter Sunday we remember how Jesus was arrested for turning over tables in the temple, in other words he lacked decorum. On Easter we often hear the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, a resurrection is not always a BIG EVENT that makes the headlines or into the scriptures. All around us there are resurrections in our everyday lives. During the burial for Joella, Krista’s mom, we were standing on a very steep Appalachian hillside at what felt like a 45 degree angle. I couldn’t help but notice the wildflowers blooming and the trees budding all around us. Standing at the graveside on that Spring Day I felt the energy of both death and resurrection. 

The ancient Hindu scriptures the Upanishads describe the cycle of life and death this way, “Consider how it has been with those who have gone before and how it will be for those that now live. Like corn we ripen and fall to the ground. Like corn we rise again in our season.” There is a rabbinic tradition that teaches that every time we lie down to go to sleep it is a kind of death. And every morning when we rise again it is a kind of resurrection. So that every 24 hours we are living through a cycle of life, death and resurrection. 

In that spirit the womanist theologian Tricia Hersey has asked us to start thinking about our sleep as a sacred act. In her book Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto she argues that the worth and dignity of every human being is not based on how much punishing labor we can withstand. We need to resist the cult of busyness and hyper productivity, the tyranny of an economy that treats everyone like machines that should produce no matter what, keep going no matter what the costs to our bodies, our mental health or our society at large. “When we finally wake up to the truth of what a machine-level pace of labor has done to our physical bodies, our self-esteem, and our Spirits, the unraveling (of the system) begins….Resting our bodies and minds is a form of reverence. When we honor our bodies via rest, we are connecting to the deepest parts of ourselves. We are freedom-making.” So sometime after church this Sunday afternoon feel free to take a nap. Hersey calls this “napping ministry.” Resting our bodies can lead to a resurrection of the spirit. 

Speaking of bodies. If you’ve toured many medieval cathedrals then you will be familiar with a certain genre of statues which for the lack of a better name I will call the decapitated saints, statues of saints whose heads have been separated from their bodies. (I brought a picture here today of one because I was pretty sure someone would doubt me. O ye of little faith.) 

These statues of headless holy men are so gruesome that I think we should consider them the patron saints of middle school children. Often the saints are holding their own heads in their hands. Which is to say they are gruesome in the just the right way young people enjoy. 

One of the major themes of the stories about these saints is that you can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. For instance after Saint Denis lost his head he continued to walk around carrying his head in his hands. His head just kept on preaching. You can kill the talker but you can’t keep ’em from talking. 

The reason I mention these ancient medieval saints is because the government of our state is trying to find ways to keep people from talking. To keep people from talking  about what we need to do to keep our children safe in their schools.  To keep people from talking about basic human rights in the face of increasing homophobia and transphobia.  To keep people from talking about Critical Race Theory or any other honest account of our nation’s history.  To keep people from talking about women’s rights and reproductive freedom. To keep people from talking about a living wage and access to healthcare and affordable housing. 

The government of the state is trying to keep people from talking through voter suppression, gerrymandering districts, cutting off the microphone, removing people from committee assignments and expelling elected leaders. Here is my prediction – people are going to keep on talking. In the words of the old civil rights spiritual, “We’re gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching into freedom land.” 

The government of El Salvador in the late 20th century tried to keep Archbishop Oscar Romero from speaking out about his concerns for the poor and the oppressed during his lifetime in the midst of a civil war in that country but he would not remain silent. Romero received death threats and other forms of intimidation, but he would not stop talking. He once told a reporter, “Frequently I have been threatened by death. I should tell you that as a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.” After his tragic assassination people marched for peace throughout the country. And when the nation did finally negotiate a peace agreement to end the civil war there was an enormous rally of hundreds of thousands of people in front of the Cathedral with a large banner that read, “Archbishop Romero, you have risen in your people.” 

Two days ago a group of us took a pilgrimage to the Mount Zion Baptist Church for the Good Friday service. Now if you go to the Vatican in Rome and look at the artwork there you might get the impression that God is a white, Mary is a white, Jesus is white and all the saints are white. But if you go to the Mount Zion Baptist church in Knoxville Tennessee and look at the artwork there you will see that God is black, Mary is black, Jesus is black and all the saints are black. And when you look at the picture of Jesus on the cross it’s hard not to also think about the chains of the Middle Passage, the humiliation of the auction block, the pain whipping post and the horror of the lynching tree and remember the words of Jesus from scripture, “What you do to the least of these, you do also unto me.” Every time someone is oppressed Christ is crucified all over again. 

On Tuesday April 4 I was sitting next to the Reverend Harold Middlebrook at the rehearsal for the Good Friday service and he reminded me that it was the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. This date is a very personally traumatic day for Reverend Middlebrook because he was with King in Memphis working together to support the sanitation workers strike at that time. He told me, “I don’t usually do anything on April 4. I usually stay home, meditate, pray and stay quiet.” But he came out to help us prepare for the Good Friday service and the Stations of the Cross AND during the rehearsal I watched him draft a letter to the Tennessee legislature demanding that our state do something to stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country and and stop expelling our elected representatives for engaging in peaceful protest toward that goal. After he wrote the letter he invited all of us to sign it which we did. The letter went straight to Nashville and all media outlets. It did not stop the legislature from expelling two of the three representatives. But it is my understanding that local leaders in Memphis and Nashville are planning to reappoint the two leaders, so the legislature better get ready for the Second Coming. Dr King died in 1968 but many others are still walking and still talking and still marching. A tragic death AND ALSO the power of resurrection. 

Yesterday we held a memorial service here in this room for Christopher “Tophey” Touchton. I’ve known Tophey since he was in middle school when I was his Sunday School teacher and I watched him grow to be a teenager and then an outstanding young man. Cancer took Tophey much too young. So yesterday was a day of sorrow but it was also a reunion of old friends. It was good to see so many of the “kids” who grew up in our church, many of whom now have kids of their own. On a very sad and painful day there was also the joy that comes from the reunion of old friends, and experience of both death and new life. 

And that is the feeling I hope you feel whenever you come to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. If you come to our services feeling a mountain of despair I hope you leave with at least a stone of hope. If you come feeling discouraged I hope you leave feeling emboldened and empowered. If you come to mourn a loss I hope you are able to look around at the faces of everyone here today, this reunion of friends we have every week and feel a blessing. I hope whenever you come to our church feeling like death that you will also know resurrection. 

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday, April 9, 2023.) 


Gefilte Fish and Other Love/Hate Relationships

This morning in the midst of the season of Passover I want to talk about gefilte fish and other love/hate relationships. From my conversations with Miriam Davis and Rich Davis I get the impression that gefilte fish is one of the most controversial dishes served at the Seder meal. Although it is not part of the ceremonial foods it is a very common part of the Passover season. Miriam said, “I am not sure all the reasons why it is so divisive but I think it is something about the texture and the taste.”  It is ground up fish, carp, and has a gelatinous quality and a strong flavor. As Rich put it, “It is not a neutral taste.” I polled the couple to see if they were pro-gefilte fish or anti-gefilte fish and learned that Rich is for and Miriam is against. As Miriam said, “We are a house divided.” But they do offer gefilte fish at their Passover meals giving guests the opportunity to make up their own mind. 

Although Miriam doesn’t really like gefilte fish she has a very fond memory of a picture book from her own childhood called The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen which Tablet Magazine describes as “The greatest work of children’s literature ever written about gefilte fish.” The premise of the story is that the mama of the family brings home a carp to live in the bathtub for a week so it will be fresh for the Passover meal and her children hatch a plot to rescue the poor fish. I can’t say more without giving away spoilers but I can confirm that the Knox County Public library does have a copy so after church you run to the library to read it for yourself. 

One of the paradoxes of religion is that  holiday traditions may feature a food that we don’t like that is inspired by a story we do like. Not everyone who enjoys the Seder likes matzah or bitter herbs or gefilte fish. However, the story of Moses going to Pharaoh and saying, “Let my people go” can be an inspiring one. Seasonal foods can remind us of stories from the past that inspire us to work for freedom and justice today. 

Such rituals may also remind us of  family stories that are good for our souls. This week I was in a conversation with Rabbi Shoshana Carson. She told me that she took over the role of  leader of the Passover rituals in her family, after her father’s death.  She said to me, “When I lead the Passover service and it comes time to say the words, ‘All who are hungry come and eat’ I remember my father saying the same words and it brings tears to my eyes.” Sometimes a Passover meal is not really about the foods but about the sacred quality of the stories and memories. 

I grew up in the Episcopal church at a time when there was a love/hate relationship with the new prayer book. The Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1970, 53 years ago, and yet you will still meet people who refer to it as the “new” prayer book. This love/hate relationship with a prayer book is not unique to Episcopalians. Indeed, many religious traditions are very resistant to change and have very spirited and divisive debates over the precise language for prayer and liturgy spawning the following joke. 

Q:What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? 

A: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

In our congregation we have some love/hate relationships. We have people who work for the city government and people who protest the decisions of the city government. We have people who work for the county government and people who protest the decisions of the county government. We have people who work for the state government and people who protest the decisions of the state government. We have people who work for the federal government and people who protest the decisions of the federal government.

As far as I know we do not have anyone in our church who works for the United Nations. But if we did I bet I would hear about it from those members unhappy with the decisions of the United Nations. As minister of our church I am in a special position to hear both sides of every argument. Of course, I am not alone. Anyone in one of our many discussion groups will be familiar with these kinds of debates. As I often say, “In the Unitarian Universalist church we believe that world peace will never come to us from people who refuse to hear the other side of an argument.” Let’s just say, this is one of the many ways we work for world peace. 

So we don’t have anyone in the church who works for the UN today, however, Adlai Stevenson, ambassador to the UN from 1961-65, was a member of our denomination which became the Unitarian Universalist Association in the first year of his tenure at the UN (due to the merger of the American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America.)  He had these words to say about his work as a global ambassador and his faith. 

“I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian, but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination.”

Over the past year I have been learning more about the  Jain religious tradition that has its origins in India which teaches nonviolence of the mind. A Jain practitioner meditates daily on the many-sided nature of truth cultivating the awareness that there are multiple perspectives and a variety of viewpoints to everything in life. The goal is to bring calmness of mind and thoughtful reflection to every challenge that may present itself. To reject one-sided thinking because the inability to see other perspectives is what leads to violence, war and bloodshed. The ability to appreciate and respect multiple points of view is what leads to peace. This principle is called Anekant or nonviolence of the mind. 

As the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tsu once said, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words, watch your words, they become your actions, watch your actions, they become your habits, watch your habits, they become your character, watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” 

In the scriptures the prophet Amos declares, “Seek good, not evil” and the apostle Paul echoed with the words, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” Of course, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn had a revelation that put these teachings in perspective. He wrote, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through (nation) states, nor between (economic) classes, nor between political parties… — but right through every human heart …This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … a….small corner of evil.” 

In our city and in other parts of our country we are seeing an increase in homelessness. Some of the debates around this issue have been framed as a contest between good and evil, right and wrong. The problem with this way of framing the issues is that homelessness isn’t one problem, it is many different problems. It is rising housing prices. It is increasing rents. It is unemployment. It is stagnant wages. It is the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. It is alcohol and drug addiction. It is disintegrating families. It is a crumbling economic safety net. It is all of these things and more. The ancient Manichean religion divided every decision in the world into a choice between good and evil, right and wrong. However, in the Unitarian Universalist church we are not Manichean. 

If you are a sponsor in Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous or some other recovery group then you are helping to address homelessness. If you are an activist working for a living wage or organizing a union, if you are an employer who is giving your employees a raise this year you are helping to address homelessness. If you are a family counselor or a mental health case worker visiting with people under the bridges, if you’ve ever given your time, talent and treasure to the FISH program or the Family Promise program or the Volunteer Ministry Center or our Free Food Pantry or volunteered with the  interfaith youth group, Seeds of Abraham,  serving sandwiches on the street you are helping to address homelessness. If you are planning to turn out for the Justice Knox rally on Tuesday, April 25, from 7-8:30 pm at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium to advocate for systemic change you are helping to address homelessness. Some of these forms of work may not have the taste or texture you like but all of it is important work. And all of it offered in the spirit of those Passover words, “All who are hungry come and eat.” 

During the season of Ramadan Muslims fast during the daylight hours but when the sun goes down there is a generous meal served at the mosque and anyone who walks through the doors will be served. There is no religious test. There are not complex forms to fill out in order to get this benefit. There is no bureaucracy to navigate or bureaucrat to placate. When the sun goes down the message of the mosque is clear,  “All who are hungry come and eat.”

Today we are especially mindful of the tragic events and the loss of innocent lives at the Covenant School in Nashville. We are also mindful that there have been 130 mass shootings in this country this year and it is only April 2.   I don’t think anyone can be silent.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need action – common sense gun laws that include responsible age limits, licensing, background checks, safe storage laws, banning assault weapons and bump stocks. We need a red flag gun law that allows for the removal of guns from someone’s home when there is substantial evidence they may harm themselves or others. I realize that when I advocate for policy changes not everyone on earth is going to agree with me on every position I take. However, if you come to this church on Sunday mornings you might just be served gefilte fish. You don’t have to eat it. You don’t have to like it. But today and on some future Sundays the sermonic equivalent of gefilte fish is going to be on the table. Period. 

Yesterday, the Interfaith Pride Action Group responded to the anti-drag show laws in our state with a wee demonstration led by TVUUC friend Cliff Honicker wearing his Scottish kilt. Friday was Transgender Visibility Day and anyone who knows anything about East Tennessee’s Scottish heritage knows that the binary idea of men wearing pants and women wearing dresses is a false binary. A cursory glance at other cultures of the world reveals the same is true in many other cultures of the world. 

Some may wonder if small demonstrations can make a difference but as the Scotch say, “Mony a mickle maks a muckle.” Translation: A little bit adds up to a lot. Especially, I might add,  if all our efforts are grounded in what the Jains call Anekant nonviolence of the mind, an openness to the many-sided nature of truth. 

And in that spirit  I invite you to come to our coffee hour after the service this morning where Miriam and Rich Davis have graciously offered to give us an opportunity to taste gefilte fish and make up our own minds. If you are watching online you will be glad to know that you can buy gefilte fish on the internet. It even comes in a jar. After you taste it feel free to let others know what you think about it. As Unitarian Universalists we are used to listening to both sides of every argument and considering a subject from many different points of view. So keep talking to each other and who knows maybe one day all of these conversations may add up to world peace one day for as someone wiser than me once said, “Mony a mickle maks a muckle.” 

(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 2, 2023) 

Almost Worship

Richard Dawkins is best known for his outspoken atheism. He is the author of a book called The God Delusion and seems to take pleasure in jousting with fundamentalists on talk shows. And yet he is also the kind of person who could write these words. 

“When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend. I am overwhelmingly filled with a sense of almost worship. It is not worshiping anything personal. It’s a feeling of sort of abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders. When I look down a microscope, it’s the same feeling. I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.” 

This morning I want to talk about those human emotions that transport us to the place of almost worship, those moments when we stand at the edge of an awe inspiring ocean, caught in rapture by the majesty of the sea and the power of the crashing waves BUT we are not quite ready to jump in and swim. I want us to reflect on those moments that are almost but not quite worship. 

When I was Director of Religious Education here in the 1990’s Lois Southworth who described herself as “a little old lady”  used to come to every one of the adult education classes I led. At that time her adult son, the Reverend Bruce Southworth, was a well known Unitarian theologian who wrote books about Henry Nelson Wieman and empirical theology. However, Lois was very much a down to earth humanist. In one adult education class I asked members of the group to share a moment where they felt reverence and awe. One person spoke about a sunrise. Another spoke about walking along a ridge with a beautiful view of the mountains. One woman spoke of holding her adopted baby in her arms for the first time. Finally, it came time for Lois to share her experience. She thought for a moment and said with a wry smile, “I guess I am just a good Unitarian. I take everything for granted.” 

I share this story because the Unitarian Universalist Church does include many different kinds of people. Those of us who worship. Those of us who almost worship. And those of us who may or may not be able to summon up any such feelings. In the last Board Meeting as things were winding down Mary Rogge bid everyone adieu by saying  “Secular Blessings.” We are a diverse church where we frame our beliefs using different words. 

As the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, tell  us, “Who knows in truth? Who can tell us whence and how arose this universe? The gods are later than its beginning; who knows therefore whence comes this creation. Only God knows, only the God who sees in the highest heaven knows or perhaps even God does not know.” 

Another ancient Hindu scripture, the Upanishads, teach us that we should reverence, “What cannot be spoken with word, but that whereby words are spoken…What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think…What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see…What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear…What cannot be indrawn with the breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn.” This is what we should reverence and this may or may not be what the other people around us adore or worship. In other words religion cannot be a mere social construct, an exercise in group think, but must be a meaningful personal experience. 

Jean Wahl was a French philosopher who lived in the early 20th Century who staked out a position between atheism, on one hand, and theism on the other. He put forth the idea of an agnostic mysticism. Where theism says, “There is a God” and atheism says, “There is no God’ agnostic mysticism says, “Since the Absolute is unknowable all we can do is have a reverent relationship with the unknowable.” When we are confronted by the insoluble mystery of human existence we should embrace that insolubility. Acknowledge the partiality of all thought and the limitations of every conception. He argued that “all that can be thought is attached to the unthinkable, as all that is visible to the invisible, and all that one understands to what cannot be understood.” The challenge of a philosopher is to realize that the solution is to stop seeking a solution. 

Since the Absolute is Unknowable all we can do is enter into a reverent relationship with the Unknown. We are in relationship with the Absolute whenever we are faced by all that exceeds ourselves. I am reminded of a moment in Alex Haley’s book Roots where Kunte Kinte’s father holds his newborn child up to the starry night and says, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.” 

The Absolute is the experience of everything greater than ourselves. The Absolute is not necessarily something we think about, it is something we feel. There may be different concepts about the Absolute. There may be different theologies and philosophies about the Absolute, however, an encounter with the Absolute can generate many of the same feelings. In other words, we will not reach the Absolute with our knowledge, we will reach it with our feelings. And even though the Absolute is by definition Something Much Larger Than Ourselves it can be felt in every little thing in the cosmos. 

Earlier this month I heard astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson interviewed about the 6 new galaxies discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope that are forcing scientists to rethink all their theories about the origins of galaxies. As one scientist remarked, “We’ve discovered something so unexpected that it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” 

Tyson was asked to comment on this statement and he reframed the issue by saying  that discoveries like this do not create problems for science, they create excitement. They generate a new understanding of the universe, “We delight in this,” he said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re surprised.” We should expect to encounter the unexpected. He said, “When people say that scientists have to go back to the drawing board they do not understand our work. We don’t go back to the drawing board, we live at the drawing board.” When the interviewer asked him, “So this discovery means rethinking everything so what are you thinking now?” Neil DeGrasse Tyson laughed and said, “I don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” What Tyson says about the science of the universe, the philosopher Jean Wahl says we should say about religion. We should never be afraid to say,  “We don’t know…and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” 

We often get the impression that faith and doubt are opposites. That our faith is at war with our doubts and our doubts at war with our faith. However, there can be no faith without doubt. As the scriptures say, “we walk by faith, not sight.” Or as the philosopher Pascal put it, “If I could never act except on the basis of a certainty then I could never act because nothing is certain.” Faith is about how we act in the face of uncertainty. Faith is about  how we move through the Unknowable. And as we move through the Unknowable we can still do some important things together. 

We can be thankful for the gift of reason.

We can be thankful for the gift of freedom. 

We can be thankful for the gift of compassion. 

We can celebrate the wonder of life, the wonder of humanity and the wonder of knowledge.  

There is much we can celebrate even as we face all that is Unknowable. Earlier, I mentioned Mary Rogge’s dispensation of a secular blessing to her fellow members of the church board. Her words reminded me of an old story of a man who was very proud of the fact that he bought a Prius to help the environment. So he went to the Catholic church and said to the priest, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The priest said, “Sure, I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius.” The man was disgusted by the priest’s lack of knowledge about the environmental benefits of his particular car so he went to the Baptist Church and said to the preacher, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” The preacher replied, “I’d be happy to help but what is a Prius?” Once again the man was disgusted so he went to the Unitarian Universalist church which had a great reputation for environmental activism and he said to the minister there, “I just bought a Prius and I would like you to give it a blessing.” And the UU minister said, “I’d be happy to help but what is a blessing?” 

In conclusion, I want to say, even though I have always enjoyed this joke I have never felt it rang completely true because it is a blessing to be together with each other every Sunday morning, online or in person. It is a blessing to work together on our shared vision to transform the world through acts of love and justice. It is a blessing to sing together and celebrate together and laugh together.  I agree with Rabbi Abraham Heschel who said, “Simply to be is a blessing, simply to live is holy.” Indeed, it is such a blessing that I am tempted to almost worship. 

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 25, 2023)

The Overeaters Guide to Lent

There is an old mountain story about the foreman for a whisky distillery who had to deliver some bad news to the wife of one of his workers. He said, “I am sorry to have to tell you but your husband died in an accident at work today. He fell into a vat of whisky and drowned.” The wife said, “That’s horrible. Did he die quickly?” The foreman shook his head gravely and said, “I’m afraid not. He got out three times to go to the bathroom.” 

The story reminds us that we are sometimes very willing participants in our own self-destructive choices. This is why many people choose to make different kinds of choices during the season of Lent. This is a season in which we are invited to give up something that we may have a tendency to overindulge in. Some people give up alcohol for Lent. Others might give up cigarettes or chocolate or fast food or sodas. The season of Lent is meant to be a time to contemplate the possibility that less is more. 

Those of you who grew up in more traditional churches may be aware that one of the Seven Deadly sins is gluttony, the sin of overindulgence, of eating or drinking too much. The commentaries about this sin suggest that human beings have a tendency to try to meet our spiritual needs through the consumption of material things like food and beverages. And yet we hunger for things that can never be satisfied by any form of consumerism. 

At the last Justice Knox clergy meeting Pastor Chris Battle led us in a meditation on a verse from the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be filled” Of course, during his lesson there were distractions. For instance, I couldn’t help but notice that on the counter of the classroom there was a box of delicious looking doughnuts. And while I was listening attentively to Pastor Battle talk about our hunger for justice there was another part of me that was also thinking about those doughnuts. 

And it occurred to me that this hunger for justice requires a lot more from us than our hunger for doughnuts. For it is challenging for us to speak out for justice. It is challenging to take action for justice and yet it is relatively easy to walk over to that counter and get a doughnut. Our spiritual hunger and thirst for justice is real but we are often given very attractive substitutes, very alluring alternatives. And this is the source of many different kinds of addictions. 

The Psalmist cries out, “As the deer pants for water, so I long for you.” Inside of us there is something that thirsts for Something More. In Alcoholics Anonymous they describe a moment of realization where the addict says, “One drink is too many and a thousand never enough.” In other words, there is not enough whisky in the world to quench this thirst inside of us. In Overeaters Anonymous the problem is with food not drink. Sometimes we overstuff our bodies because we feel an emptiness of our spirit. 

Now if you ever go to a rugby match in Wales you are likely to hear the crowd in the stadium at some point break out singing a church hymn that is the Welsh National Anthem. 

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven

Feed me til I want no more, Feed me til I want no more. 

There is something in us that hungers for Something More. Sometimes we go to church to find it. Sometimes we go to a rugby match to find it. We hunger for community. We hunger for connection. We hunger for acceptance. We hunger for meaning. We hunger for love. And sometimes we go to church hoping that our hunger will be satisfied and yet afterwards we can say we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.  

Jesus once said to his followers, “ Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?” All too often people go to church hungering for acceptance only to get the stone of rejection, hungering to be included only to get the stone of judgment, hungering for community only to get the stone of dismissiveness, hungering for love but only getting a stone. 

Fortunately the church is not the only place where we can go for spiritual experience. The poet Rumi was speaking about spiritual experience when he wrote, 

Do not look for it outside of yourself.

You are the source of milk. Don’t milk others!

There is a milk fountain inside you.

Don’t walk around with an empty bucket….

There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,

And yet you go door to door asking for crusts.

So we don’t have to go somewhere else to find our milk and our bread (Remember that next time the weather station tells you snow is coming to Knoxville.) We don’t have to go somewhere else for our milk and our bread (at least spiritually speaking.) There is a milk fountain inside of us. There is a basket of fresh bread on top of our heads. And yet we still hunger and thirst for community.

Pastor Battle made another point in his lesson at the Justice Knox ministers meeting. He pointed out that when Jesus taught people to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” he was speaking to a group of people for whom earning one’s daily bread was an enormous struggle. In a subsistence economy earning one’s daily bread is a daily challenge. 

Of course, earning one’s daily bread can still be a struggle today and that’s why our church has a Free Food Pantry. That’s why our church delivers groceries to people in need through the FISH program and why we support Family Promise and Volunteer Ministry Center in providing meals for the homeless. And this is why we are cooperating with Justice Knox to work for systemic change in our community to address homelessness. Because wherever people are hungry for food we are hungry for justice. 

If you have been keeping up with the news from the Unitarian Universalist Association then you know that the Article II Commission has been working on a fresh statement to articulate the values of our faith at this moment in our history. Two of those values are love and justice. We hunger for love. We hunger for justice. Here are the words that the Article II Commission uses to describe these values. 

Love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values. We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.”

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions.” 

One of the challenges of working for love and justice through systemic social change is it can be hard to even see the systems we are in. The systems we are in are often invisible to our eyes. Before John Newton was author of the hymn Amazing Grace he worked in the slave trade. He could not see the evil inherent in the system of slavery but then he had his awakening and became an abolitionist and wrote the words, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The work of love and justice requires us to continually look for, identify and change those systems of oppression that so many people simply cannot see.

Of course, for those of us who live in Tennessee it’s not so hard to see the work that needs to be done. We live in a state where gun manufacturers are opening up for business and family planning clinics are closing down. Where children might lose their mother because the majority of men in the legislature do not understand ectopic pregnancies or diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, anemia , peripartum cardiomyopathy, sepsis, preeclampsia, eclampsia or any other conditions under which a woman might need a just abortion. Where Qweer kids, children of every sexual orientation and gender identity, are at higher risk for suicide because our elected leaders want their stories banned from the library and their celebrations banned from public life and their physicians forbidden to offer services which are the standard of care. We live in a state where a woman in a wheelchair can go to a hospital for help and get kicked out in the street and arrested by the police and die in police custody. 

We live in discouraging times and I have to be honest with you that I have my own moments of despair for we are living in a time when it is very difficult to feel as I have in times past that the sun will come out tomorrow. 

But then I remember the wisdom of the rabbis who taught, “It is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to neglect it.” And I remember the words of Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” But I also remember something the Reverend Duncan Teague said to us in the workshop he led last Saturday. He said that he was an activist before he became a Unitarian Universalist. He was an African American gay man working to end the AIDS epidemic and struggling against the powers and principalities of this world and what drew him to church was the thought, “If I am going to go through hell all week I need some heaven on Sundays.” And this is our responsibility to each other. If we are going to go through hell all week we are all going to need some heaven on Sundays.

So let us recommit to the spiritual life that underlies all sustainable activism. Let’s recommit to the spirituality that reminds us that sometimes less is more, where our hunger and thirst for justice is greater than anything that might be sitting on the counter of the classroom. Let us strive to be a community that practices the spirituality captured in that song sung not only in churches but at rugby matches. (So let’s sing with our stadium voices) 

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven

Feed me til I want no more, Feed me til I want no more. 


(The Reverend Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 5, 2023)


The Rational Mind and Its Demons

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a funeral. This is a true story from my teenage years. My family was in the car driving through downtown Macon, Georgia, an urban center with tall office buildings, when I looked out the window and saw a cow in the middle of a side street. I only saw it for a second because our car was moving fast so I said, “I just saw a cow in the middle of the street back there.” And my sister Merrianne said very patiently, “Chris, when people are grieving they sometimes see things that aren’t there.” I didn’t want to make an issue of it as the family had more important things to worry about. After all, we were on the way to a funeral. But the next day when the newspaper came out there was a picture of a cow in the middle of the street on the front page. Apparently, the cow had escaped from the Middle Georgia State Fairground and wandered into the city. Needless to say, I made sure my sister got to see the front page of the newspaper that morning. 

I share this story because today I want to talk about the rational mind and how our sense of rationality may (or may not) help us to be in touch with reality. In elementary school my teacher got us to memorize a poem (and maybe your teacher gave you the same assignment.)

I never saw a purple cow

I never hope to see one

But I can tell you anyhow

I’d rather see than be one. 

Like the poet, I’ve never seen a purple cow. My rational mind convinces me that I am very unlikely to ever see one. Even so, my personal experience has taught me that I just might see an ordinary cow in an extraordinary situation. 

The country music singer Waylon Jennings used to sing a song with the line, “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.” Indeed, sometimes when we are in touch with reality other people may think we are going crazy. 

Last week I was talking with Morgan Wilson who came by to donate some books for our Used Book Sale. Morgan does not circulate much in public because no mitigation measures are in place or enforced. She has blood cancer and has to be very careful because she is at high risk for blood clots. 

She said to me, “Chris, I am a very rational person. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in astrology. And yet now when I wear a mask in public people look at me like I’m the Covid Crazy Lady.” She is not alone. 

My wife Suzanne is immunocompromised as is our community minister the Reverend Jon Coffee as is our membership and publicity staff member Mark Mohundro….I could go on and on. Morgan says, “It is hard to be an outlier.” Sometimes being very rational about the scientific laws of epidemiology means other people will think we are crazy. 

When I asked Morgan if I could quote her this morning she said with a smile, “Sure, you can use my name, unless you think the astrologists will come after me :)” And it is true that the Unitarian Universalist Church includes people who do believe in astrology and people who do not, people who believe in God and people who do not. Indeed, when I tell people that I am a minister of such a church they sometimes look at me like I am crazy. 

Our rationality and our sanity are connected but not always in the way we think. Indeed, I have sometimes been known to make the argument that sanity is the last acceptable way to escape reality. Our sanity is often based on limiting the amount of reality that we let into our lives. Have you ever been on a media fast where you turned off the television, radio and computer because 24/7 information about every mass shooting, every earthquake, every bombing, every hurricane, every drone strike, every flood, every hate crime, every pandemic, everything can be more than we can let in and remain sane. We have to screen out parts of reality for our mental health. 

Sometimes our efforts to be rational mean we screen out important parts of ourselves. Once in another church I served, a man came up to me and said in a very passionate way, “Your sermons are too emotional. I want logical sermons. I want rational sermons.” I had to resist the temptation to say, “There’s no reason to get so emotional about it.” Sometimes in our efforts to be rational we forget that there are other dimensions to our human nature. Yes, we are thinking creatures but we are also feeling creatures. 

Rationality is a part of who we are but not all we are. We also should remember the demon possessed man who said to Jesus, “My name is legion for we are many.” Rationality is a part of who we are but we are also legion. In addition to reason we contain what the Buddhists call the afflicted emotions – anger, bitterness, resentment, avarice, jealousy, envy, guilt, fear and hate. If we try to repress these emotions we may erupt and take it out on others. Have you ever known someone who was nice in person but  surprised you with a scathing email or a scorcher of a text message. We are many. It is not enough to have respect for our rational mind. We must respect our rational mind and its demons. 

On more than one level I can really relate to the angry man demanding rational sermons. I too prize reason and rationality. William Ellery Channing, the founder of American Unitarianism, told his congregations in the 19th century that we should no more abandon the use of our minds for thinking than we should abandon the use of our eyes for seeing or our ears for hearing or our feet for walking. Reason and rationality are a part of who we are as human beings and as Unitarian Universalists. So much so that one satirist suggested that when UUs get together on Sunday morning we sing, “Oh, what a friend we have in reason.” 

Of course, sometimes our rationality creates more problems than it solves. As in the rewritten version of an old children’s song. 

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

If you’re happy and you know it, give your brain a chance to blow it. 

If you’re happy and you know it, overthink.

Indeed, our tendency to overthink, our tendency to take rationalism to an extreme is at the heart of many addictions, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors and depression. Psychologists warn us that we must be careful to ensure that our rational brains do not become too efficient, too meticulous, too fastidious and too exacting . Indeed, this is at the heart of the practice of meditation, to quiet the noise of the brain, to quiet our thinking and our overthinking, to rest from the hard work of human thinking in order to become a human being. 

Whenever I look at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, such as The Starry Night, I am struck by how much the beauty of the art contrasts with the painfulness of the artist’s existence. By many measures, Vincent Van Gogh was not a sane man. He checked himself into an asylum for help. He did not screen out all the horrors of existence but neither did he screen out all the beauty. Many people do not know that during his lifetime he only sold one painting and felt like a failure. He once wrote of himself, 

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.”

As a Unitarian Universalist I affirm the use of reason and rationality in religion but I also believe we must be very careful to ensure that our rationality does not screen out the harmony and the music in us. I once worked in a mental health program for the chronically mentally ill and there was a man there who could barely communicate with words because of his mental illness but when he sat down at the piano you could hear the harmony and the music in him. 

William Wordsworth once had this to say about his fellow poet William Blake. He wrote, “There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man, which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott!”

What is remarkable about the poetry of William Blake is that it invites us to see the world in a new way. Of course, Blake’s poetry can feel like such an overload of sensory data so much so that we have to screen out parts of it to even begin to understand the whole of it. It was William Blake who taught us that when the doors of perception are cleansed everything will appear to us as it is -infinite. 

He invited us to, 

To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity it the palm of your hand, 

And Eternity in an hour

He reminded us that “everything that lives is holy” and that “all deities reside in the human breast.” and it is only our “mind forged manacles” that keeps us from seeing life this way. Our mind forged manacles keep us from beauty, truth and love within us and around us. He wrote, 

In your Bosom you bear your Heaven

And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without, it is Within

The angels are not “up there” but “in here.” The demons are not “down there” but “in here.” William Blake was not content to have us look for heaven only in the palm of our own hands, but to look for heaven in the face of a stranger, in the face of the outsider or those of other faiths or in the face of the outlier. He wrote, 

To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness…

And all must love the human form

In heathen, Turk or Jew

Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too. 

In the way society measures sanity a scientist who develops weapons of mass destruction is sane whereas the poet who can see divinity in every living thing is insane. What if the truth is the reverse? What if the poet is closer to reality than the rationalist. The bombs that are being dropped on Ukraine were designed by very rational people.Many other weapons of mass destruction are being designed by very rational people – biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Should this kind of rationality get the last word? Or should we pay attention to the artists, the poets and the people society calls crazy. 

Which brings me back to the cow in the middle of the road in downtown Macon, Georgia. In Hinduism the cow is considered a sacred animal, an idea that seems irrational to many outside of that faith. Of course, there are 1.2 billion Hindus in the world so the idea cannot be ignored outright by those inclined to do so. 

 All I know is this – I’ve never seen a purple cow (so to some extent my sanity and my rationality are intact) but I have seen an ordinary cow in extraordinary circumstances and I have read poetry that has led me to affirm- that everything that lives is holy. And so I am inclined to be respectful of other people’s truth claims even when they are outside the boundaries of what I can understand with my rational mind. After Shakespeare may have had a point when he wrote, “There may be more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,  than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 19, 2023) 

One Love

An old professor in seminary once told me, “Chris, nothing makes a congregation more nervous than a minister getting in the pulpit with a ukulele.” Nevertheless, this morning I am willing to take that risk. 

The reason being that we are approaching Valentine’s Day and the mystics of all the great world religions tell us that when we love someone we tap into love that is larger than ourselves – the One Love that Bob Marley sang about. Let’s sing about it too. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

Valentine’s Day is Tuesday and so it seems appropriate that we reflect on the meaning of love today. Jeff Foxworthy once said, “Some men say they have no idea what their wife wants for Valentine’s Day but I know exactly what my wife wants. She wants me to take down the Christmas Tree.” 

Loving a church is the same way. In a church sometimes love is singing together, celebrating life together and other times it is putting up and taking down the Christmas tree, putting up tables, setting up chairs and cleaning out the refrigerator. 

This Sunday we are launching our stewardship drive which doesn’t always feel like the most romantic thing to do. And yet pledging to a church is an act of love. Earlier in Ted Jones’ Ted Talk he suggested there are four ways of giving. We can think of ourselves as customers or dues payers. Or we can think of ourselves as partners or members of one family. Today I want to invite you to be partners together. I want to invite you to be members of One Family. 

Mother Theresa once said something that is relevant for our stewardship campaign. She said, “It is not about what we do but about how much love we put into doing it.” It is not just about our giving but how much love we put into the giving. 

Now there are some people who think that Unitarian Universalists are rational, logical, scientific and not in touch with our deeper more romantic emotions but I invited friends and members to write love letters to the church and one of the first responses came from Nathan Paki who delegated the assignment to a computer program called Chat GPT a form of artificial intelligence. And here is the love letter the computer wrote for us. 

My dearest Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

Where do I even begin to express my love for you?.. 

From the moment I first walked through your doors, I felt a sense of belonging and community that I had never experienced before. Your inclusive and accepting spirit …welcoming me with open arms and a loving heart. Your messages of love, hope, and equality….Your commitment to social justice and making a positive impact in the world is truly inspiring…Whether it’s through supporting environmental initiatives, working towards LGBTQ+ rights, or standing up for marginalized communities, you are always at the forefront of the fight for a better world.

Most of all, I love the sense of family that exists among all of us … Whether I’m in need of a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to help me up, I know that you will always be there for me. In conclusion, my love for you,…will never wane. I am forever grateful to be a part of this community, and I look forward to continuing to grow and learn with you.

With all my love  (Insert Name Here)

Who knew that an AI program could bring a tear to your eyes. The computer program is surprisingly on point. Can I get an “Amen”? Who knew a computer program could know us so well? Who knew that artificial intelligence could remind us of that Larger Love in which we live and move and have our being. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

I guess I could end right there but for those who are not content to give the final word to a computer program I will share these words from real living and breathing human beings. 

Trish Adams wrote her thanks for all the church has done for her family surrounding the treatment of her son Chance Adams at Saint Jude’s Children’s hospital and the many trips to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Trish wrote, “No one has celebrated with us more than our church family. From day one, all of the very dark days in 2021-2022, and now, our loudest celebrants are TVUUC.” 

Ken Stephenson, the President of our congregation shared these words, “Chris, I love our activists, those who are committed to Justice Work in the wider community. Getting to know and be inspired by these folks is what cemented me to the church over 40 years ago.” Folks, that is the long view. 

Betty Coleman built on that sentiment with these words, “Dear Chris, I love TVUUC because it is a beacon of light and a shelter in the storm, not only to me but to the larger community.”

Barbara Thayer Bacon celebrated the ways our church offers small group opportunities for everyone, “Sending love to the heart-to-heart groups, and those who took the lead in those efforts.  It was a warm, supportive, enriching experience.  I also want to send love to the gardeners in our church, who are bringing beauty to our grounds and teaching us about native plants.Much love, Barbara.” 

Ginna Mashburn conveyed this message to me, “I love the people who make up our church; their intelligence, kindness, humanitarian focus and steadfast support of congregational life. And add a strong sense of humor to all of the above.”  Sue Vaughn seconded those sentiments with her words, “I enjoy my social interactions with UUs. UUs are GOOD people.” 

Judy Gibson wrote, “What I love about TVUUC:The opportunity to build community through many connections – discussions, interest groups, supper groups, sponsored events, and even coffee hours!” 

Love sometimes brings out the poet in us and these words by Patsy Farmer could serve as a very poetic mission statement for our congregation. 

TVUUC, our Beloved Community:

a welcoming sanctuary of love, beauty, and light,

a comforting refuge of darkness, rest, and peace,

an intentional cradle of spiritual growth and exploration,

a caring, accountable dismantler of racism and oppression

in ourselves, our congregation, and the world beyond.

TVUUC – somebody loves you. I love you. I love you when you’re rolling out groceries to our free food pantry. I love you when you’re delivering bags of food to people in need through the FISH program. I love you when you are speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.  I love you when you are rallying to do all the work involved with hosting a wedding or a memorial service or an interfaith dinner or youth group lock in. I love you when you are watching our kids on the playground keeping them safe. I love you because this church contains the youngest old people and the wisest young people of any community I know. 

So this morning if you are in the room I invite you to pick up one of these green pledge cards in the hymnal racks and fill out the form. If you are watching online go to our church’s website tvuuc.org look in the right hand corner for the words Pledge Now and click on them to make a pledge. The more you give the less we have to talk about money (or simply click on this link Pledge Now (onrealm.org))  Remember the more you give the less we have to talk about it. So give generously. 

If you want to know why it is important to give to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, don’t ask me. Ask your computer. Because even our computers know that the world needs our messages of love, hope and equality. The world needs us to be on the forefront of the fight for a better world. The world needs our inclusive and accepting spirit. The world needs our vision and our voice. Most importantly the world needs our love. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright. 

One love, one heart, 

Let’s get together and feel alright.

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday February 12, 2023, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Bodhisattva?

The main question I want to ask this morning is this, “Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a bodhisattva?” Of course, I am going to take my sweet time getting to my answer so be patient. 

This week I saw a commercial  for Berlitz, a global language educational service, that illustrates how so much can get lost in translation. In it there is a radio operator for the German coast guard sitting at his desk when all of a sudden he gets a message in English, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking! We are sinking! We are sinking!” which seems to intrigue the radio operator. So he leans into the microphone and asks with great curiosity in his voice, “What are you thinking about?” 

I thought that the commercial was very appropriate for a Unitarian Universalist church because when people visit our church on Sunday morning we often ask them, “What are you thinking?” without any recognition that they might also be sinking. Sometimes, it is intellectual curiosity that drives people through our doors but at other times it might be a death in the family or a divorce or a diagnosis or a bankruptcy. 

This morning I want to talk about the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Christian minister and a Buddhist monk, an American citizen and citizen of Vietnam. And one of the reasons I want to talk about this relationship is because even though Dr. King had enough challenges of his own leading the civil rights movement in our country in the 1960’s he could not help but be concerned about the people in Vietnam whose boats and whose hopes were sinking. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh shared a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Dr King applied these principles in our country, America, and Hanh applied them in his country, Vietnam. Both also spread these ideas all over the world. For this reason Dr. King nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. 

Dr. King was a Baptist minister and Hanh was a Buddhist monk. Christianity is a theistic religion and Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, and yet the two men were able to find common ground despite their different ideas about God. 

Dr. King made a distinction between what he called “theoretical atheists” and “practical atheists” and he made it clear that he was more interested in practice than theory. He once said, “The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism -that’s the most dangerous type. And the world, even the church, is filled up with people who pay lip service to God and not life service. And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t. We say with our mouths that we believe in (God), but we live our lives like (God) never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion. That’s a dangerous type of atheism.” In other words Dr. King was less concerned with what we say and more interested in what we do, less concerned with what we believe and more interested in how we live. 

Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had different ideas about God but they had the same ideas about peace and nonviolence, kindness and compassion, love and understanding. And these ideas are not just about a common way of thinking but about a common way of being present with one another when someone is in times of crisis and pain. How we are present with someone when they have a death in the family or a discouraging diagnosis or a bankruptcy or other catastrophe. 

They were less concerned about orthodoxy (right thinking) and more concerned about orthopraxy (right living.)

Thich Nhat Hanh helped found a movement called engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war. He described the foundation of this movement with these words, “As monks, nuns and lay people during the war, many of us practiced…meditation. But we could hear the bombs falling around us, and the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were motivated by the desire to do something to relieve the suffering in us and around us…we wanted to maintain our (spiritual) practice while responding to the suffering.” 

This is what Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had in common, the desire for spirituality to inform our actions in the world and inspire us to work together to build the Beloved Community. Indeed it is this term that inspired a recent book by Marc Andrus, Brothers in the Beloved Community:The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Earlier in the service we heard Eddie Chin share his new year’s resolutions in anticipation of the beginning of the Year of the Water Rabbit and one of the resolutions that we share is a desire for our congregation to live more fully into the 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism which reads. 

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” And this is why we are reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King this morning because they are an excellent example of an interfaith partnership committed to building the Beloved Community together. As we approach the Year of the Water Rabbit we are mindful of members of the Asian community who have been targeted with violence and hate crimes including a recent attack in Bloomington, Indiana. Our meditations and our prayers cannot ignore the suffering around us caused by racism. 

This vision of the Beloved Community is not only the concern of famous people like Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. This vision of the Beloved Community is what brings us to this church on Sunday morning. Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Erven Williams who named his son after Frederick Douglass. Erven was a Unitarian Universalist but he also identified himself as a Christian. And he identified as Christian in the same sense that the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass identified as a Christian, a follower of Jesus and a fierce critic of every form of religion used to support slavery, racism and white supremacy. 

On more that one occassion Erven read these words by Frederick Douglass from our pulpit, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked…I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

So when Erven described himself as a Christian he was aligning himself with the Christianity of Christ and not the Christianity too often practiced in this land that is unwilling to challenge white supremacy.. 

And Erven’s religion, like Dr. King’s, was informed by his friendships with members of the Buddhist faith. Erven served in the Air Force and was stationed in both Thailand and Vietnam where he made friends with Buddhist monks, and these friendships would shape his whole life. 

He once told me that it was this experience, more than many others, that set him on the path to becoming a Unitarian Universalist. It was his time in Southeast Asia that revealed to him that there are good people in every faith and wisdom in all the great world religions. 

This week Elnora shared with me some pictures of Erven in Thailand including one with him and a friend who was a Buddhist monk. In my hands I hold two books that belonged to Erven, a cookbook on how to prepare Asian cuisine and another called The Teaching of the Buddha written in Japanese with an English translation, food for the body and the spirit. 

The two books remind us that we often build the beloved community around food. Our church has hosted many interfaith dinners, where people of all faiths can sit at the same table and learn more about each other. And we also study the scriptures of the world’s religions here at TVUUC. Including these verses from Erven’s book about Buddhism, wisdom from the Dhammapadda. 

“Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world. By love alone they cease. This is the ancient law. 

Though we should conquer a thousand soldiers on a battlefield a thousand times, it is not until we conquer ourselves that we become the noblest victor.” 

After Dr. King’s assassination, Thich Nhat Hanh described some of his last words to Dr. King, “I said to him, ‘Martin do you know something? In Vietnam they call you a bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other beings and help them move toward more compassion and understanding.’” 

With these words in mind, the question might be raised, can a Baptist be a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva is someone who reaches the mountaintop of enlightenment but then feels led by compassion to return to the valley to help others struggling to find their way to that experience. And I would argue that in so much as the memory of Dr. King inspires us to live a compassionate life today, to reach out to those who are suffering today, then I believe we can say, “Yes, Dr. King is a bodhisattva,” even now. 

Erven Williams once gave a sermon in this church where he said, “As an individual it is easy to look at differences, but if we are really concerned with living in harmony with each other we look for likeness. What we share together is what holds us together.” 

One way to look at all the different religions of the world is to focus on those differences. Another way to look at them as different languages, differing words trying to speak about the same things. Our challenge is to make an accurate translation. If we adopt this latter point of view then we will spend more time thinking about our similarities than our differences. We will spend more time thinking about what we have in common and not what divides us. And if someone asks us what we are doing we can say, “We are thinking. We are thinking. We are thinking.” For as Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “Our thoughts become our words. Our words become your actions. Our actions become our habits. Our habits become our values. Our values become our destiny.”

Dr. King used to say to his fellow Americans, “We all came to this country on different boats but we are in the same boat now.” So our challenge is to turn our thoughts into words and our words into actions and do everything in our power to keep this boat (and every boat) from sinking. 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 15, 2023) 

Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree

This week I got a text from Claudia Pressley, our Director of Administration, informing me that the alarm for the church building went off in the middle of the night. Claudia reviewed the video on our security system and discovered a mouse had walked in front of one of our electronic sensors. So it was a week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring except for a mouse.

The season is upon us. Walking through the bustling halls of our church this morning I found myself singing; (to the tune It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas)

 “It’s beginning to look a lot like multiple holidays. Let’s name them all…”

That’s when I had to stop singing because I needed a comprehensive list. There’s Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Yule, Festivas for the Rest of Us. There’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. 

This year Chanukah and Christmas overlap so we will  have latkes and mistletoe, dreidels and caroling. Sometimes the pairings seem dissonant. For instance, after church today we are having “Hotdogs for Hanukkah.” Rest assured kosher hot dogs. This year it seems especially important to remember that many of our favorite Christmas songs were written by Jews. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin. The Most Wonderful Time by George Wyle, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow by Samuel Kahn, Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Johnny Marks. 

And for this reason I thought a good theme for this year’s service would be Kibbitzing Around the Christmas Tree. Before I say more about Christmas trees let me turn to Rabbi Naomi Levy for a good definition of the word kibbitz. 

“Kibbitz is a Yiddish word that encompasses all that amazing nothingness you do with your friends – hanging around, joking, gossiping, teasing, storytelling, unburdening, listening, laughing and more…” 

And so today seems like a good day for… (to the tune of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Kibbitzing around the Christmas Tree

At the interfaith party hop

Celebrating all the holidays 

So religious rivalries stop. 

All humor aside, our church has hosted many interfaith dinners and interfaith forums and these are the very heart of spirituality for us. In the Unitarian Universalist church we draw wisdom from all the great religions of the world. We also draw joy from all the celebrations. 

This interfaith spirit is not an exercise in postmodern political correctness. It is about “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.”  Today we are mindful of the rise of antisemitism and hate crimes in our country. The local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center have increased their security during this season due to possible threats. Today people of all faiths light the candles of the menorah as a sign of solidarity and a prayer for peace. 

Many of us are familiar with the story of a pagan who approached Rabbi Hillel and said to him, “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you, this is the Torah, all the rest is commentary.” 

All the great religions of the world have similar teachings. 

“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” teach the Buddhists.

“Lay not on any soul a load you would not want laid on you,” teach the Bahai. 

“Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you,” teach the Hindus. 

“No one is truly a believer until you wish for others what you wish for yourself,” teach the Muslims. 

Bill Fields says, “It isn’t the holidays unless there is a baby Jesus in the room” so here he is. Last year we had a hard time finding our baby Jesus for the Christmas pageant (and I was worried we might have a hard time this year.)  However, here he is. Of our baby Jesus we can truly say, “He once was lost but now is found.” 

Jesus taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And it is the sentiment found in all of the different versions of the Golden Rule that underlies all of the holidays of the season. In Shintoism followers are taught to look for the religion that underlies all religions. We often find this religion when we spend time in Nature doing what the followers of Shintoism call “forest bathing.” Walking in the woods we get a sense of why Theodore Parker called “The Earth, the Oldest Testament.” 

This time of year I love to go walking in the mountains among the evergreens of the Smokies, the pine and fir,  the cedar and spruce, the mountain laurel and rhododendron, the moss and ferns, against a winter background of gray skies and brown leaves -a hint of life among the omnipresent reminders of death. Walking in the woods every small bit of green becomes an antidepressant and we begin to understand why the Cherokee, the original inhabitants of this land, teach that walking in the woods is Good Medicine. 

When I walk outside in winter I understand why the ancients before any written religion was recorded decided to bring trees inside during the darkest, coldest time of the year and decorated their homes with holly and mistletoe. Oftentimes, the sight of something green is enough to fill us with tidings of comfort and joy. 

For after we’ve had our forest bath it can be good to return to family and friends, hearth and home or come to our congregation on a Sunday morning for some kibbitzing. So let’s finish up this sermon so the kibbitzing can begin. We invite you to come to our fellowship hall for coffee and conversation after the service (or attend the online coffee hour for those watching from home.) For it is beginning to look like multiple holidays and I hope everyone is a holy day of peace for you and your family. So Merry Christmas, Mazel Tov and Shalom. 

(This homily was delivered by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday, December 18 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

Charity: Beyond Minimum Help and Maximum Humiliation

Lately, I have been following the controversy over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. One of the things I find so intriguing is the combination of two things. First, Musk is fashioning himself as a champion of free speech and second, he is firing anyone who disagrees with him. I am intrigued by the irony of it all. However, if we are wise we can use this kind of irony to practice self-examination. Because oftentimes, if we take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror, we may discover that we are the obstacles to our own goals. We are the ones standing in the way of our  notions of progress. As the comic strip character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

Today I want to talk about charity but before I do I probably should point out that a sermon unlike a tweet is not limited to 280 characters or less. So I am hoping everyone will be charitable with me about that. Today I want to talk about charity as we enter into the most charitable season of the year. However I want us to reflect on charity with an appreciation of all the ironies involved in the process- for sometimes our efforts to help do harm, our attempts to heal cause hurt, our initiatives to empower can undermine and our good intentions yield bad results. 

 Indeed when I take a close look at our nation’s welfare system and the policies of many other non profit organizations I sometimes feel that the systems in our country are designed to offer the minimum amount of help with the maximum amount of  humiliation. Too often when we offer assistance we do so in ways that undermine human dignity. So this morning my goal is to reflect on charity in a way that helps us all practice self examination and choose to act charitably in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. My hope is that the work of the church will always be to help and never to humiliate. 

But before I say anymore about charity, I want to remind all of us of the parable of the sower, a parable that should help keep us all humble. Jesus told the following story. 

 A farmer went out to sow his seeds. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seeds fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seeds fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.

This parable reminds us our efforts to do good will not always yield the results we desire, not every seed we sow is going to yield an abundant harvest. All our efforts to do good involve some level of trial and error. Sometimes our best efforts will be trampled underfoot or eaten by birds or fall on rocky ground or get choked by thorns. However we are called to do good anyhow. We are not in the seed conservation business. We are called to sow seeds anyhow. As Mother Theresa who worked among the poorest of the poor often said, “God does not require me to be successful. God requires me to be faithful.” 

Another thought that should keep us humble comes from Saint Basil the Great who reminds us that the wealth we give away wasn’t created by ourselves alone. Our wealth comes from the commonwealth. He reminded us, “The bread that you keep for yourself belongs to the hungry; to the naked belong the clothes that you hoard in your closet; to the barefooted belongs the shoes that is gathering moth in your home; the indigent have a right to the money you hide in your coffers. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.”

Along these lines there is a Sufi story from the mystical strand of Islam where a man who is caught stealing is brought before the king. The king asks his advisors how the man should be punished. The first advisor says, “He should be roasted alive as a warning to others. The second advisor says, “He should be torn limb from limb.” But the third advisor says, “Ensure that he has the necessities of life so he will not be forced to steal to provide for his family.” The king decided to follow the advice of the last advisor to ensure that the man could live and work in dignity. 

The story reminds us that charity isn’t the solution to every problem. A living wage is worth more than a thousand acts of charity. Working for systemic change often yields far better results than individual acts of kindness. Archbishop Desmund Tutu was right when he said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Or, I might add, find out who is throwing them in. And this is the work of the church to minister to people downstream AND send people upstream to see what’s going on and change it. 

Charity is important year round. However, there is a reason that the winter season is a time when we increase our acts of charity. In the bleak midwinter the frosty winds make moan, the earth stands hard as iron and water like a stone. Sometimes when the earth is hard, our hearts soften. Sometimes when everything else is frozen our hearts melt. And so we pass the plate at the KICMA Holiday service to raise money for people who need help with their utility bills. We create a Mitten Tree and invite people to bring mittens, hats, gloves and scarves to give to people in need. We make meals for families who would otherwise go homeless through the Family Promise program. We take home a Guest At Your Table Box to help raise money for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. We buy groceries to stock our church’s free food pantry. This time of year our charity is informed by a sense of solidarity in the face of the common challenge of winter. 

Winter reminds us that charity is not something we do for others. It is what we do with others. It is what we do to face common challenges together. Recently I have been reading the autobiography of the rock star Bono of the group U2. I am interested not only in his music but his activism. He has been a leader in many charitable and justice efforts like Live Aid, Live 8, the One Campaign, the Jubilee Debt Forgiveness movement, Artists Against Apartheid, Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope. He  sometimes leads audiences in the chant, “There is no them. There;s only us.” Let me take the first part and you take the second part, 

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us. 

There is no them, there is only us. 

Believe it or not that chant is theologically sound. Google it and you will find theological commentaries (Catholic, Protestant and more) where those words are referenced as a very simple way to condense thousands and thousands of pages of theological commentary (making it the size of a tweet.)  So let’s say it again, 

There is no them, there is only us.

We can never help others through systems that shame or humiliate. Systems that shame and humiliate are degrading for both the giver and the receiver. For we hunger not only for food. We hunger to be treated with dignity. We not only thirst for something to drink. We thirst to be treated with respect. We long for not only the warmth of winter’s coat or a night’s lodging. We long for the warmth of meaningful human connection, the warmth of compassion, love and mutual respect.  And real human connection includes accountability. Everyone who’s been in a relationship has experienced tough love. My mother knew how to dispense it. Real human connection means realizing that everyone has something to contribute. Everyone has something to offer. We are all called to be part of a solution. Everyone has gifts to give. Everyone has potential to realize. There is nothing that anyone has to offer that we can afford to go to waste. We need everyone, rich and poor, to be a part of the solution. 

In recent years activists have begun to speak about toxic charity, those forms of charity that do more harm than good. Although some of the books on this topic have come from conservative authors there is some significant overlap with insights from the most progressive movements for social change. I am going to focus on that common ground in this sermon. 

One neighborhood organization describes toxic charity this way, 

Toxic Charity shares stuff, but not power or agency – making the recipients into objects of pity.  It usually doesn’t engage with systems of inequity. As a result, it tends not to have a long-term impact on the issue it purports to address.Over time, Toxic Charity can be deeply disempowering. As such, it can end up harming the people who are supposed to benefit from the initiative. It can create an antagonistic or condescending relationship between givers and recipients.” 

Too often, all the power of charity is in the hands of the “giver” and no power in the hands of the “receiver.” One way to detoxify charity is to share power, to share agency and to work in partnership together. The goal is to provide resources without robbing others of human dignity. The goal is to be able to say (in the words of our chalice light song)…

From you I receive, 

to you I give, 

together we share, 

and from this we live. 

Everyone of us needs help sometimes. Recently I was at an interfaith clergy meeting when a member of the group began to complain about the Student Loan Forgiveness plan saying it taught young people the wrong lesson. However, at the risk of ruffling interfaith feathers I pointed out that during the global pandemic many congregations  benefitted from the Payment Protection Program loans offered through the federal government and we also benefitted when those loans were forgiven. Many of us in this room work for organizations, for profit and non-profit,  that  benefited from those loans and that loan forgiveness. And if you meditate on that it gives a whole new meaning to that old familiar prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive those in debt to us.” 

An important aspect of charity is the recognition that we may be givers today and receivers tomorrow. When I was a minister of a church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, we organized a group to support the work of the Interfaith Health Clinic. Our duties were light, welcoming patients, accepting paperwork, minding the bureaucracy of a small clinic. However, it felt good to be able to give back to the community. And yet during our first year one of the members of our congregation found herself in need of essential medical care. She was low income and uninsured. Fortunately, through the Interfaith Health Clinic she was able to get the surgery she needed. I never saw her bill but I am willing to bet that the cost of her surgery was more than the value of all our volunteer hours put together up to that point in time. All of this is to say, we went to the clinic in order to give, only to find ourselves on the receiving end. 

The famous Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas, addresses words to Christian men about charity that are equally applicable to people of all faiths and every gender identity. 

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.

Of course the mystics of all faiths teach this truth, often through sayings that are short enough to be a tweet. We are taught that  “It is by giving that we receive. It is by emptying that we are filled. It is by letting go that we gain.” The book of Proverbs tells us that our “Mercy to the poor is a loan to God and God pays back those loans in full.” Or as the book of Galatians tells us, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due time we shall reap a harvest, if we do not give up.” Or as a rock star known for championing good causes would remind us…

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

There is no them, there is only us.

(Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 4, 2022)

Thankfulness: A Countercultural Practice

Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever utter is ‘Thank You’ it will be sufficient. So sometimes when I am hiking on a trail in the Smokies, walking by the music of a mountain stream I will sing that Natalie Merchant song we heard earlier as a kind of prayer (Kind and Generous.) I invite you to sing it with me.

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

As I said, this song can be a kind of prayer or meditation. Sometimes we need tools to help us meditate. When I was younger I used to find it easy to clear my mind and enter into a meditative state. However, the older I get the more I feel the need for some words to replace the spiraling negative thinking of my monkey mind. So it is good to have a musical prayer to clear my head and allow me to be in the present moment and feel grateful for that moment. 

My longtime friend, the Reverend Johnny Skinner of the Mount Zion Baptist Church often says, “The scripture says ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ It does not say, ‘Give thanks for all circumstances’.” In this way the song may serve as a prayer no matter what we are going through in life. There may be more than a little bit of truth in our negative thinking. We may have understandable reasons for feeling agitated or anxious or angry or antagonistic. We may have understandable reasons for not being grateful for all circumstances. We may even have good reasons for not wanting to be grateful in all circumstances. Or maybe today our dominant feeling is not gratitude but anxiety. If so, there is a poem by Mary Oliver that can speak to our condition. Her poem is called I Worried. 

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn

as it was taught, and if not how shall 

I correct it? 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better? 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am, well,


Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing

and gave it up. And took my old body

and went out into the morning,

and sang. 

So maybe we should take Mary Oliver’s poem as a piece of advice, let go of all our worries and imitate the sparrows and the other songbirds and sing.

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

After all, thankfulness is a countercultural practice. In many ways our culture is built around worry and anxiety. I am reminded of the roadside sign outside a church that read, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.” All too often a church can be a place that just piles on more worries to an already overburdened spirit. We worry about the earth and forget to appreciate it. We worry about our families or our communities or the state of the world in general and we forget to make room in our hearts for thanksgiving. Our anxiety about ‘what isn’t’ often intrudes on our gratitude for ‘what is.’

Some Native American leaders have renamed this season Thanksgrieving. It is a time to grieve all the losses suffered by this continent’s indigenous people since contact with Europeans. Today we are especially mindful of the Cherokee tribe that was forcibly relocated from this area to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. We must name the harm that this season so often tries to cover up. However, the holiday is called Thanksgrieving, which is to say there is both “thanks” and “grieving.” Indeed, the indigenous people of this land have many teachings and practices about fostering gratitude. As the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh taught us, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.” 

If we cannot find any reason to give thanks, the problem is within us, not outside of us. Grieve, yes. Grieve for the lost lives at the Club Q in Colorado Springs. Grieve for the people of Chesapeake, Virginia, who lost their lives doing last minute Thanksgiving shopping. Grieve for every empty seat at the Thanksgiving table that once belonged to someone we loved. Grieve for our loneliness and isolation (or grieve for feeling overwhelmed by the demands of family and friends.) Grieve for the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Natchez and Shawnee who once lived on this land and now are the names of the streets in our suburban neighborhoods. Grieve, yes, but also give thanks! 

Giving thanks is countercultural. Our economy is built around planned obsolescence and manufactured discontent. There is a reason Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving because our economy isn’t built on being grateful for what we have. Our economy isn’t built on feelings of thanksgiving. Our economy is built on wanting more, more, more, and that my friends is why so many Native Americans lost their land, for standing in the way of more, more, more. 

And so it can be countercultural for us to say, “Thank you.” So let’s say those words together, “Thank you.”  This week I was at the KICMA Thanksgiving Service at Bethel AME Church and the pastor there, the Reverend Myron D. Hill, began the service by saying, “At Bethel AME we are a loud church. Not a quiet church.” So let’s see if we can get a little more volume from the Unitarians this morning. Let’s see we can say, “Thank you”  loud enough that they can hear it all the way over at the Bethel AME church in East Knoxville, “Thank You!” 

Very good! Let’s be members of the counterculture and give thanks. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that ungrateful people are rarely happy people. When we hear someone described as an ingrate we do not imagine a happy person, a content person, a peaceful person. We are the ones who benefit from gratitude. That’s why Thomas Acquinas taught us, “God does not need our worship. (God does not need us to give thanks) It is we who need to give thanks and praise.”  When we are grateful, we are the primary beneficiaries. 

A couple of decades ago my friend Dan King was being installed as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta in Georgia. If the name of that church is familiar to you it may be because it was targeted by vandals with hateful graffiti a couple of years ago which made the news. Many years before that hateful act Dan asked me to give the prayer at his installation service and I remember worrying about getting it right. I was a very new minister. It was the first time I’d been asked to be a part of such a ceremony so I was a little bit worried about messing up. 

And so I began with that familiar quote  from Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever utter is ‘thank you’ it will be sufficient.” And when I said these words there was an audible gasp from folks in the choir loft behind me. That made me even more nervous. I wasn’t sure what that gasp was about. So I continued by offering the prayer followed by a moment of silence. After that the choir began to sing a song I had never heard in a church before and was not expecting to hear (as I had not looked carefully at the order of service.) The words of that song will be familiar to you now. So let’s sing together and make those words the last words. 

I want to thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you,

thank you, thank you, 

thank you, thank you. 

Thank you. 

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday November 27, 2022)

(Those who would like to hear Natalie Merchant sing the song can go to Natalie Merchant – Kind and Generous – YouTube