The Devil is in the Details

The 20th century traveling evangelist Billy Sunday used to preach a sermon with hand gestures that made it look like he was in a boxing match with the devil. So if I seem a little more animated than usual it may be because I am channeling my inner Billy Sunday.

A few months ago Bill Dockery suggested I preach a sermon about the Devil based on this book The Devil: A Very Short Introduction. So I told him that I would but I warned him that I was going to tell everybody that Bill Dockery made me do it.

Now this may seem like an unusual topic for a Unitarian Universalist Church. In the age of science, reason and empirical evidence the Devil has disappeared from contemporary liberal theological discourse almost without a trace.

In an increasingly secular world many people may identify with the story of the two kids who were walking down the street when one turned to his friend and asked, “Do you believe in the Devil?” and the other one replied, “No, the Devil is like Santa. It’s your dad.”

While that story may not describe your personal theology, it is true that a growing number of people prefer naturalistic explanations of spirituality to supernatural ones. Even so, the idea of the Devil is a persistent one in popular culture. Anyone who watches the cartoons is familiar with the moment when Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson or some other cartoon character has to make an important decision and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel advocates for the good and wise choice while the devil advocates for the selfish and greedy choice.

Now this cartoon picture of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other may seem overly simplistic, a holdover from medieval times, but believe it or not it does bear some resemblance to some concepts of Freudian psychology. Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts the id, the ego and the super ego. The superego is that part of us that always wants to do the good, the noble and the altruistic thing. The id is the part of us that wants to do the selfish thing; immediate gratification of our desires regardless of the consequences. In other words the superego is like the angel on one shoulder and the id is like the devil on the other and the ego is trying to reconcile these two competing forces within us and sometimes it seems like they are in a boxing match.

I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never seen a devil or an angel on my shoulder but to be honest I’ve never seen an id or an ego or a super ego either. What we are dealing with here is the effort to create imagery for what might otherwise go unseen and a vocabulary for what might otherwise go unrecognized. We are in the realm of mental constructs, mythologies and metaphors.

Biblical tradition gives us the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil. In the East we have the story of Buddha being tempted by the demonic figure of Mara. Now in these stories temptation is portrayed as a contest with an outward enemy but I believe these stories are illustrative of an inward struggle with our inner enemies. Spiritually speaking, the ability to conquer an outward Devil demonstrates less real spiritual power than our ability to conquer our own inner demons.

The novelist William Faulkner once spoke about writing his novels where he said, it is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”

What is true about writing a novel is also true for spiritual growth. We have to address that our hearts are in conflict with themselves. The apostle Paul described this conflict when he said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” The psychologist Carl Jung once described this conflict by saying, “In each of us there is someone we do not know” or as the rock band Pink Floyd said, “There is someone in my head but it’s not me.

The Lord’s Prayer says, “lead us not into temptation.” And yet there is often voice in our heads leading us in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

I once came across an irreverent contemporary version of the creation story that captures this inner struggle by portraying it as an outward struggle. Here it is.

In the beginning God created the earth as a garden with broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and vegetables of all kinds, so human beings would live long and healthy lives.
And the Devil created hamburgers, chicken nuggets, delivery pizza, sugary sodas and fast food meals you could supersize.
And human beings gained weight.

And God created the healthy yogurt that human beings could mix with nuts, whole grain oats, fruits, berries and other antioxidants. And the Devil froze the yogurt and mixed it with chocolate chips, cookie dough and brightly colored sprinkle candies. And human beings gained weight.

And God said, “Why not make a fresh salad from my garden.”And the Devil brought forth creamy dressings, bacon bits, and shredded cheese, and there was ice cream for dessert.
And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth running shoes and exercise equipment. And the Devil brought forth a widescreen TV with remote control so that human beings could watch Netflix and chill. And human beings gained weight.

And God brought forth the potato, a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And the Devil sliced the potato into thin strips and put them in a deep fat fryer. And human beings gained weight, got a sudden spike in their cholesterol and began to go into cardiac arrest.

And God sighed and created hospitals and quadruple bypass surgery. And the Devil created private health insurance.

 Thus endeth the lesson. It’s that time of year when many people give up things for the season of Lent; things like hamburgers, French fries, sugary sodas, high cholesterol foods. In many ways the Christian season of Lent, like Ramadan in the Muslim tradition or the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, is meant to be an antidote to consumerism and addiction. It is a time to ask ourselves the question, “Am I in control of my habits or are my habits in control of me?” Giving something up for Lent can be an exercise in self-control, self-government, conquering ourselves, that pays dividends in other parts of our lives.

As we contemplate life’s many addictions; alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, it is helpful to remember that addiction comes from the same root word as dictator. To suffer from an addiction is to be oppressed. To overcome an addiction is to know freedom.

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday I was reminded that long ago many American evangelists used to preach a stock sermon to their congregations, “Every day is election day for the soul so are you going to vote for God or the Devil?” It’s a pretty simple sermon with either/or choice. It’s one or the other, God or the Devil, Heaven or Hell, with no middle ground. I’m not sure who you voted for on Super Tuesday but I think we can all agree that the inner boxing match continues, the tension between opposites in us continues.

If you’ve every visited a Catholic Church you may have seen an image of Saint Michael fighting with the Devil. According to legend this is a contest where the Saint wins and the Devil loses. This creates a dualistic understanding of the cosmos where good conquers evil, right triumphs over wrong, the devil is defeated and God is triumphant. However, this is not the only way to think about the contest, this tension and struggle between opposites inside us.

Now religions tend to give us myths set in the past whereas science fiction offers us myths set in the future. Myths are the stories that answer the big philosophical questions, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” When I was a kid I grew up watching Star Trek , the original series, and one episode took up this challenging topic. In that episode Captain Kirk was in a molecular transporter accident and he became two people. One was the good Kirk and the other was the bad Kirk. The bad Kirk was aggressive and violent and lustful (even more so than the regular Captain Kirk) but also decisive and action oriented. The good Kirk was kind, gentle and considerate but also weak, indecisive, prone to vacillation. What the crew of the starship Enterprise realized in the end, is that both Kirks need each other – the kindness and the gentleness need the decisiveness and action orientation and vice versa. Fortunately due to the miracles of futuristic technology the Enterprise crew is able to reunite the two Kirks in order to have a fully functional human being. This is science fiction’s way of saying that most of us feel divided and conflicted but we can find wholeness and unity within ourselves.

And so in conclusion let me say, before there can peace in the world (or peace in the universe) there must be peace in our hearts. The prophets tell us that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together but before this can happen the lion inside of us must lie down with the lamb in us. We must make peace in ourselves before we can make peace in the world. At some point we have to stop the boxing match with an outward devil in order to wrestle with our inner demons so that gentleness can be our greatest strength and our strength tempered by the greatest gentleness, our decisiveness blended with kindness and our kindness empowered by decisiveness. So that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the wolf with the kid and there can be peace in the valley.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, March 8, 2020.)

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Action Not Words: Faith, Activism and Democracy

There is a temptation in ministry to try to cover too many topics in a sermon; to launch a thousand ships without bring a single one to port. Let’s see if I can avoid that temptation this morning.

Tuesday is the Presidential primary here in Tennessee prompting some members of the church to send me many ideas for this Sunday’s sermon. One person sent me a long list of potential sermon themes that bore an uncanny resemblance to the platform of one of the candidates.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we do believe that our theology has political implications. That’s why this weekend we’ve hosted a forum by the Meadville Lombard Theological School on “Faith, Activism and Democracy.” However when we speak out for human equality, social justice and environmental responsibility we do so to advance causes that are bigger than any one candidate and commitments that will endure longer than any election cycle.

Our church produces a disproportionate number of activists. I know over the last few weeks some of you have been organizing phone banks, going door to door canvassing, hosting house parties, posting on social media, donating your time and money to campaigns and I want to affirm you for your efforts. We live in an age of rampant consumerism but democracy is not a consumer product. Uber Eats may come to your doorstep, Dominoes may deliver but democracy requires more from us than that. Democracy requires our active participation. Democracy is not about passive consumption but active co-creation.

Often times presidential elections take on theological overtones and create messianic expectations fostering the idea that only one person can save us. However, there is a Jewish teaching that is relevant here. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai once said, “If you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, first plant the tree then go greet the Messiah.”

I do hope everyone will vote in this election. But don’t stop planting trees. Don’t stop recycling. Don’t stop composting. Don’t stop reducing your carbon footprint. Don’t stop turning out people for school board, city council or county commission meetings. Don’t stop visiting your congressman or your Senator’s office or writing letters or sending emails. Don’t stop welcoming refugees. Don’t stop tutoring inner city kids. Don’t stop challenging racism. Don’t stop feeding the hungry. Don’t stop helping the homeless. Don’t stop organizing marches and rallies agitating for change. Don’t stop because faith without works is dead.

This week I got another email from someone who had less than flattering things to say about our congregation. So heads up here is some criticism. Someone wrote, “I hate that rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment made me feel unwelcome at TVUUC, a place where I found healing and considered my spiritual home. Unfortunately I’m not sure that I feel that love is the spirit of TVUUC anymore.  That message is drown out by those pushing their …political agenda and participating in the polarization of our nation.”

I am not going to name the person who sent the email or the political party they belong to or any other details because they are unimportant. To be honest, I think we are all tired of the rampant politics, political polarization, righteous condemnation and judgment. I think we are all tired of the toxic atmosphere of our current culture wars. However, I think we also have a tendency to blame others for that problem while being unwilling to look at ourselves.

So I won’t defend my ministry or the congregation except to say that regardless of any criticism I may receive love is still the spirit of this church. I know my mama loved me but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to listen to her political opinions. My mama taught me that in a healthy relationship you love someone who stands for something. You don’t ask people to be a “nobody” who stands for “nothing.” And so to paraphrase the words of our affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church… and the inability to escape each other’s opinions is our predicament… and yet it is our hope that we can really mean the words we sing in our chalice lighting song, “May all who seek here find a kindly word; may all who speak here feel they have been heard.” That is our aspiration.

Before Ed Goff went into a retirement home he used to come into my office on Election Day and say, “I am on my way to the polls to cancel out your vote.” That’s love my friends, like it or not. I never told Ed how I was going to vote. He just made an educated guess. As Dr. Ortegas said yesterday, “Safe space is an illusion.” Anyone who goes to church or gets email or goes on to social media knows we are never completely safe from other people’s opinions.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet tells us, “Being aware of a single short-coming in yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in another.” From this statement we can deduce that the Dalai Lama of Tibet will never be elected to office, at least not in the United to States of America where the rule of thumb seems to be – find a thousand faults in others and no fault in your self.

A member of this church, John Bohstedt, once said something that I am probably in danger of over-quoting. He noted that our church building has words that are carved into stone that face the public parking lot that lift up our highest values; words like “love, justice, hope, peace.” So John has suggested we need words for the back of the building, the part that does not face the public, words carved into stone like, “belittling sarcasm, snide put-downs, curt dismissiveness etc. etc.” Which is to say we need words to remind ourselves that we are human, capable of error and insensitivity even as we aspire for justice and peace.

There is a Buddhist teaching that says, “An act of compassion is like a flash of lightening in the dark of night.” Have you ever been outside on a dark night when there was a flash of lightening? I have! Many, many years ago when I was a teenager and a summer camp counselor I was walking with my friends at night when it was pitch dark and then all of sudden a bolt of heat lighting illuminated everything– mountains, trees, fields, hills, leaves, grass, the faces of my friends. I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye with all the power of the present moment – and from this I know that one act of compassion is an amazingly powerful experience. We need more of it in our politics. We need more of it in our churches. We need more of it in our lives. We experience this compassion most often through action not words. It is by our works that we see each other’s faith.

I will not claim to be completely above the fray in politics. When Archbishop Helda Camara of Brazil was asked about his politics he would say, “The right hand and the left hand – both belong to the same body but the heart is a little to the left.” Similarly, I have to admit that my heart is a little to the left.

However, when I sit down at a table at a church potluck dinner or church board meeting or some other church event I often have someone to the right of me and someone to the left of me, and I mean that in more ways than one, and yet we are still members of the same church. To paraphrase the words of scripture, “the right hand cannot say to the left hand I have no need of thee and the left hand cannot say to the right hand I have no need of thee for we are members of one body and both sides need the human heart.”

And so here are some issues I think should concern us regardless of who we vote for. America has proven it is willing to elect an angry white man but is our country ready to elect an angry black man or an angry woman? Or will anyone who expresses their anger in public go down in the polls because they do not have white male privilege? Our current president has a picture of Andrew Jackson in his office – an angry white man if ever there was one. Are we ready for a president to hang a picture of Geronimo or Crazy Horse or Malcolm X or Angela Davis? I think we have a lot of work to do that is going to last longer than this election cycle.

This week our Director of Religious Education, Catherine Farmer Loya, asked her kindergarten aged son who his favorite candidate was and he named someone but then he said, “But she will not win.” When Catherine asked him why this little boy said, “Because a lot of people like men more than women.” Regardless of who we vote for I think we can agree that this statement by a child reveals we have a whole lot of work to do that will go on well beyond Tuesday.

This week Chaz Barber told me about going to Nashville to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood where he met with his state representative who said to him, “You and I have nothing to talk about.” That might have ended the conversation right there. Even so, Chaz kept showing kindness and compassion and respect toward the man and after thirty minutes his representative said, “Well, maybe you and I have more in common after all .” This is the story of a beginning, not an ending and it is a reminder of the work that is cut out for us well beyond this Tuesday and well beyond November’s election; the work of faith, activism and democracy.

Well this morning, I have covered a lot of topics. You might say that I’ve launched a lot of ships. What you may not know is that I’ve got more ships I could launch. I’ve got a thousand more. Nevertheless let me see if I can bring the ones I have launched to port.

So in conclusion, let me say Dr. Martin Luther King once described the separation of church and state by saying, “The church is not the master of the state or the servant of the state but the conscience of the state.” We are the conscience of democracy. The work of the church is not to dictate outcomes but to awaken the conscience. So this morning if I did not repeat the talking points of your favorite candidate or endorse your choice from the pulpit I hope you will forgive me for my restraint. For our church stands in that tradition that says our elected leaders are like sailors on the sea and even if they want to take the country in a particular direction they can’t do it if the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. For that reason the mission of our church is not to endorse the sailor or be the sailboat. The mission of our church is to be the wind.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday March 1, 2020) UU Vote

 

 

 

Book Review: Conflagration by John Buehrens

When I was in Boston I picked up a copy of the Beacon Press book by John Buehrens – Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice. I highly recommend it! Buehrens is a former minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association who is currently experiencing a very active retirement. His book gives a clearer and more succinct understanding of Transcendentalism than many other treatments. I am especially grateful for his emphasis on the movement’s impact on our congregations and the Unitarian Universalist denomination and not just the spiritual lives of famous individuals like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller or the Peabody sisters.

Reading Buehrens’ book I am reminded that one lasting legacy of Transcendentalism might be found in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes where it says, “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources” including “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Buehrens points out that one of the signatures of the movement was the desire for a spirituality that transcends differences, denominations and divisions leading not only to an openness to the wisdom of the world’s religions but also a desire to work for the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of the mentally ill, women’s suffrage, anti-poverty initiatives, the peace movement, worker’s rights and many other good causes.

One could say that Transcendentalism took our faith beyond, “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston” toward a sense of unity and oneness that transcends gender identity, patriarchy or provincialism and connects us to people of all faiths, races, cultures, classes and creeds. Faith in transcendence also led to a willingness to practice civil disobedience in order to obey the “higher law” written in our hearts paving the way for the civil rights movement and other forms of nonviolent social change.

Over the years I have read countless books on Transcendentalism so I was particularly gratified to read this one and discover new personalities, new stories and new inspiration for our faith and work in the world. It has changed the way I think about our faith tradition. Read it. It may change you as well.

(This book review was written by Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

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When Our Heart is in a Holy Place

On Sunday mornings we say the affirmation that begins with words, “Love is the spirit of this church.” When I was at summer camp one of the counselor’s would shout out, “Who’s got spirit?” And the rest of us would shout back, “We’ve got spirit!” So let me ask you that question, “Who’s got spirit?”

WE’VE GOT THE SPIRIT!

Very good, I am glad the spirit is in this room because today is a celebration of generosity; a time of enthusiasm and excitement! And I can think of no better way to launch this celebration than by sharing some words about this portrait of what appears to be a fairly austere looking Victorian woman. I know what you are thinking, “be still my beating heart!”

This picture used to be over the fireplace in our Fellowship Hall. Once when the Gay Men’s Support Group met there under her gaze someone said to me afterwards, “It doesn’t look like she entirely approves.”

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This portrait is of Annie McGhee McClung who lived here in Knoxville in the late 19th century. To be honest when you look at her it does look like she might not approve. And yet that may just be our contemporary inability to see the rich emotional life that lies hidden beneath the surface of a well-heeled Victorian Unitarian woman.

Annie McGhee McClung helped to found a Unitarian Church here in Knoxville on February 17, 1895. Regrettably, her church would only last for fourteen months. One of her co-founders was Lizzie Crozier French, the suffragist whose statue is on Market Square downtown. Annie McGhee McClung herself is best remembered for helping to found the Florence Crittendon Center, which began as a home for unwed mothers.

It should be remembered that in 1895, founding a home for unwed mothers was not a very ladylike thing to do. And yet, as is apparent from her portrait, Annie McGhee McClung was a lady who came from a very prominent family. Just look around Knoxville at the Lawson McGhee Library or McGhee Tyson Airport or the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture and you get the idea of exactly how prominent her family connections were.

So Annie McGhee McClung founded a home for unwed mothers when it was a very risky thing to do. In Victorian times virginity was the most important sign of virtue, at least for women. To have a child out of wedlock was to be a ruined woman. The stigma did not fall on the woman only. Any child born out of wedlock was a bastard child.

This is how we know that Annie McGhee McClung had a big heart. When the rest of the world stood ready to condemn, judge, ostracize and reject. When society was prepared to let men completely off the hook and excoriate women and their children Annie McGhee McClung put her heart in a holy place by creating a home for those who needed a home the most.

In many ways our church is continuing her work by offering comprehensive sexuality education for all ages. In the 1950’s when we met in the double diamond building down the street with a very tall roof local legend Cas Walker called us, “the little church with the big roof where they talk about sex on Sunday.”

And we continue to do so, to host open and honest conversations about human sexuality. We do this not because it was avant garde in the 50’s or groovy in the 60’s but because it is the responsible thing to do at all time and in all ages. That’s why we offer open an honest conversations abut sexual orientation, gender identity, human belonging. Sometimes while we have been having these conversations the portrait of Annie McGhee McClung has been watching over us from her place on the wall.

We teach our children, “Ours is a church of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.” Friday was Valentine’s Day; a time when we often see images of hearts; hearts on cards, hearts cut out of construction paper, candy shaped like hearts. Sometimes it feels like all of these hearts is overkill.

Maybe that’s why last Sunday the Birdhouse, a local community center, scheduled an anti-Valentine’s Day event. At this event there were paper shredders so that you could shred pictures of your ex or love letters from your ex or Valentine’s Day cards from your ex or anything shreddable that reminded you of your ex.

Last week the Knoxville Zoo gave everyone an opportunity to buy a rat that you could name after your ex that they would then feed to a snake. If you missed out there’s always next year. So that’s how some people feel about Valentine’s Day.

Now I understand the need for such events. Valentine’s day needs a corrective. However that does not mean all the people doing all that shredding do not have hearts. Indeed all of them do; a heart that has been broken, a heart that needs healing, a heart that need a holy place.

I believe our church is just such a holy place, a place where we can put our heart into it. For the world needs our hearts. John Alan Turner once wrote, “It is hard to convince people that a God they can’t see loves them when a church they can see doesn’t seem to even like them.” In the Unitarian Universalist church abstract metaphysical theological speculation takes a back seat to the practical application of love. It is through our love that we show what might otherwise go unseen in our hearts.

The Dalai Lama reminded us that religion is not about theology or doctrine or dogma or creeds when he said, “I believe the only true religion consists of having a good heart.” And medieval Christian mystics spoke of the Sacred Heart. If you’ve ever been to one of the many, many churches named Sacred Heart then you may have seen an image of a heart that has been cut by a lance, pierced by a crown of thorns, a heart that has been wounded and broken.

On Valentine’s Day the President of our denomination Susan Frederick Gray posted this message, “The root of the word courage comes from the French word coeur meaning heart. Courage is heart strength – a fierce kind of love born from communities and faith that manifest deep care and connection.”

Jane Austen spoke of a friend who could never love by halves but only with her whole heart. That’s what we are called to do. That’s courage. Legend tells us that when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake they could not burn her heart, among the ashes they found the heart of a saint. Joan of Arc had to endure an extreme version of all the brutal misogyny that was directed toward the young women and children that Annie McGhee McClung sheltered under her wing. So too, we, as a congregation, can strive together to be a community with a heart; a heart that can withstand all opposition, a heart that can pass through the fire of every challenge with courage.

Recently when I was renewing my license I reaffirmed my commitment to be an organ donor. Whenever you do this they put a heart on your license. Similarly this summer I picked up a UU Organ Donor Card that begins with the words of the hymn we sang earlier today, “When your heart is in a holy place.” The card reminds us that our generosity can save lives and our generosity can outlive us.

I am reminded of a story I once saw on the evening news about Jeni Stephens who did not meet the man who would walk her down the aisle for her wedding until the actual day. Arthur Thomas was his name, Thomas had received her father’s heart in an organ transplant operation 10 years before. When Jeni asked him to escort her at her wedding he was honored to do so. The man who walked her down the aisle was almost a complete stranger but he had her father’s heart. Her father’s heart was in a holy place.

Here in our congregation we’ve definitely got the spirit, however, the mystics remind us that the spirit is most often embodied in a human heart and in tangible acts of kindness and compassion. This morning let us celebrate generosity in its’ many forms. In particular let us celebrate your generosity of time, talent and treasure that makes this church a force for good in the world. I want to invite you and encourage you to make a pledge to the church this week for as the scripture says, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

You may not have enough money, power or prestige to get a library named after you (or an airport or a museum) but every gift of every size is welcome and together we can use our power on behalf of those without power or prestige or deep pockets.

I want to thank you in advance for your generosity but more importantly thank you for your good heart. As my friend John Butler minister of the Clinton Chapel AME church likes to say, “We are always grateful for the gift but more importantly we are grateful for the giver.”

Our congregation has important work to do in a world where many others are going out of business. Earth Fare is going out of business but we’re not. The East Towne Mall went out of business but we’re not. The church Annie McGhee McClung started in 1895 closed down but we’re not. A similar attempt to start a Unitarian church in the 1920’s went belly up but we won’t. I do not mean to sound overconfident but I do believe that with your help and your heart we will continue to grow and thrive and serve.

In the early 1990’s I came to this church as a young adult in my mid-twenties (a baby) and I saw that portrait of Annie McGhee McClung on the walk. By that time the Florence Crittendon Center had a 26 acre campus offering foster care services. A sign beside the portrait mentioned that this painting was donated to this church by her niece Helen Ross McNabb, and at that time I was working for the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a non-profit mental health center, helping the chronically mentally ill who might otherwise be homeless. That portrait made me think, “Maybe, this church is where I belong.”

Annie McGhee McClung’s emotions may not be on the surface. She may be hard to read in that painting but I believe she would be happy to know there is a vital and powerful Unitarian Universalist Church here continuing her work. She would be glad to know that we continue to have hearts in this holy place. Dr. King once wrote, “Love is the greatest power in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the cosmos.” So let me end by saying, “Love is the spirit of this church” and by asking, “Who’s got spirit?”

WE’VE GOT THE SPIRIT!

Yes, the spirit is present in this room and even though it may not look like it I think Annie McGhee McClung approves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva

There is a joke that circulates in Buddhist circles that seems to suggest that it’s not always easy being a Buddhist. A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist arrive at the pearly gates at the same time. An angel appears before them and says, “Before you can enter into heaven you must each answer one question.” The angel turns to the Christian and says, “How do you spell God?” The Christian replies, “G-O-D.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Next the angel turns to the Muslim and says, “How do you spell Allah?” The Muslim replies, “A-L-L-A-H.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Finally he turns to the Buddhist and says, “How do you spell Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva?”

On the altar today there is a statue of Avalokitesvara, who is a bodhisattva we can appreciate even if we can’t spell his name. However, this morning I want to speak about Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad and for the purposes of today’s sermon I want to give her the same honorific title Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

Harriet Tubman wasn’t a Buddhist. Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, which wasn’t exactly a hub for the study of the Eastern religions. Her religion was the gospel grounded in the oral tradition of her family and itinerant preachers. Once she escaped slavery by going north she eventually settled into membership in the AME Zion Church. And yet her life is an embodiment of many of the values taught in Mahayana Buddhism.

In the 19th century there were hundreds of people who escaped slavery in the South through the Underground Railroad. However, there were very few who returned to help others escape slavery. Not many people were willing to return and risk being caught, captured, killed or re-enslaved in order to lead others to freedom. This is what made Harriet Tubman unique. She was not content to rest after having liberated herself. She felt impelled to work for the liberation of others.

Which leads me back to Buddhism. In the Theravada Buddhism it is enough to liberate our selves. No one can save us but us. However in Mahayana Buddhism once we have liberated ourselves we find our fulfillment in liberating others. To take on this commitment to liberate others is to become a Bodhisattva and for this reason I speak of Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

However, before I say more about the meaning of being a bodhisattva I want to say more about Harriet Tubman. To say that Harriet Tubman was born a slave is to make an inaccurate statement. I am reminded of a note a social studies teacher posted on the door of her classroom that read, “Dear Students. They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and made them slaves.” So it is not accurate to say Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She was born a human being and then forced into slavery. Many aspects of her story will be familiar to us because of the huge number of children’s books that have been written about her. Although, Harriet Tubman was already the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad she is now even more famous with the release of the Hollywood film Harriet.

I encourage you to go see the movie. Admittedly the film is another example of history meets Hollywood, where it is not always easy to discern which moments are Hollywood and which are history. So don’t stop with the movie, read a book. There are many to choose from. Most recently I picked up this one Bound for the Promised Land by Katie Clifford Larson which I saw it in the bookstore of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. It’s well researched with good use of primary documents allowing as much as possible for Harriet Tubman to speak in her own voice.

Since the topic for today’s sermon is Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva I want to focus on her spiritual beliefs. When I was in college I majored in sociology and was particularly interested in the sociology of religion. I continue to be interested in how for some people religion is about accepting the status quo and for others religion is about challenging the status quo. While there may be a time and place for every kind of prayer there are, to paraphrase Angela Davis, some of us who tend to pray to accept things we cannot change while others pray to change the things we cannot accept. Harriet Tubman leaned in the direction of change.

Tubman seems to have taken the apostle Paul at his word and endeavored to pray without ceasing. Her prayers were for both personal and social change. “Appears like I prayed all the time,” she said, “When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, I took up the water in my hand and I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean!’ Then I take up something to wipe my face, and I say, ‘Oh Lord, wipe away all my sin!’ When I took the broom and began, I groaned, ‘Oh Lord, what so ever sin be in my heart, sweep it out, Lord, clear and clean.’” When I hear these words it seems to me that Tubman had created for herself rituals that contemporary liturgists might call body prayer, where our inmost prayers are aligned with our outward motions bringing harmony to mind, body and spirit.

At other times her prayers were for her oppressors. Her most fervent prayer was for white people to change; to stop being cruel and start being kind. When her master threatened to sell her she said, “I prayed through all the long nights – I groaned and prayed for ole master. ‘Oh Lord, convert master! Oh Lord, change that man’s heart.” Finally, when she became convinced that her master would not change she became angry and she prayed that her master would die –and here’s the thing – he did die – giving a whole new meaning to the power of prayer. While a materialist will find other explanations for the death of this 47 year old man Tubman was unsettled and felt some guilt and responsibility for the power of her prayers.

Over time, the nature of her prayers changed. There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Don’t just pray to receive something. Pray with a willingness to do something. Eventually Tubman came to the same realization that Frederick Douglass did before he made his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. “Praying for freedom never did me any good,” Douglass declared, “until I prayed with my feet.” At some point Tubman decided she was going to do a little less talking with the Lord and a little more walking with the Lord. In the words of the old gospel song, she decided to steal away to freedom.

Through many dangers, toils and snares she traveled before she could escape slavery and find freedom in the north. Fortunately, she had help along the way from Quakers, itinerate preachers, safe houses, sanctuaries that allowed her safety in between stretches of her journey toward freedom. In her time she would have been called a fugitive slave in our time she might be called an illegal immigrant or refugee.

Members of the Underground Railroad made note of her faith. Thomas Garret said of Tubman that he, “never met with any person of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul. Sarah Bradford said she seemed to have “direct intercourse with heaven.” Materialists have sometimes reduced Tubman’s visions to the symptoms of epilepsy, a condition aggravated by the beatings she received from her overseer. However, those who traveled with her got used to the idea that she would stop when God told her to stop, get off the road when God told her to get off the road, and that her intuition did not fail her or her fellow travellers but often saved them from danger. As one person noted, “her trust in Providence was better than many sermons.” As Tubman said herself, “God was always near..He gave me strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant for me to be free.” An astronomer will have a scientific understanding of the North Star but for Tubman it was an outward and visible sign that God wanted her to be free.

Tubman paid a price for her willingness to seek freedom. She knew heartbreak. Her first trip back was to retrieve her husband but when she got there she found he had made a home with another woman. She had brought along clothes for him to wear that would help him pass as a freeman on their journey but he decided to stay. She was able to help others escape on that trip but when she returned she made light of her pain with comic timing. She told friends, “I returned with my husband’s clothes but no husband.”

Harriet Tubman took 19 trips back South and rescued over 300 people from slavery. She was a master of disguise. She could disguise herself as a young man or an old woman. She demonstrated what we would now call gender fluidity. She would adopt any disguise to throw people off her track.

Tubman was not a pacifist. She carried a rifle with her on her journeys back south and was prepared to use it to keep her passengers safe. She once led a successful jailbreak in upstate New York liberating a fugitive slave, physically assaulting the sheriff and deputies, shouting, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Later during the Civil War she volunteered for the Union army where she was a nurse, cook, spy, field scout and military commander. On June 1,1863 she became the first woman in America to plan and implement an armed expedition that liberated 800 slaves with no soldiers lives lost or injured.

Over the years, she had friendships and partnerships with members of our denomination. She worked with Unitarians and Universalists for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led fundraising efforts so that Tubman would be able to retire in old age with dignity. He helped raise money for her because she had done so much to raise money for others.

To call Harriet Tubman a bodhisattva may seem presumptuous. As far as I know she never even heard of Buddhism. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and Harriet Tubman was someone who walked and talked with the Lord. However, whenever I look at that statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in my office, an image of a bodhisattva, part mythology/part history, I see a person with many arms and many eyes and many ears I am reminded of the words of Saint Theresa that could just as easily be the words of Harriet Tubman and her fellow laborers on the Underground Railroad, “God has no hands but our hands with which to do the work of healing. No eyes but our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. No feet but our feet with which to walk around doing good.”

Harriet Tubman spent most of her adult life praying with her feet. Not content to liberate only herself she was compelled to work for the liberation of others. For this reason I’ve always felt that it was very appropriate that the Knoxville Family Justice Center that offers shelter and sanctuary for victims of domestic violence is located on Harriet Tubman Street.

Harriet Tubman was not a Buddhist, but I think it is fair to call her an honorary Bodhisattva. So let us bring this sermon to a close with a Buddhist vow that can offer guidance to people of all faiths, words that can serve as our North Star, words worthy of a bodhisattva.

May I become at all times…
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a helper to all in need.IMG_4994

 

 

 

Holy Envy

When I visited a Methodist Church this summer I was introduced as “the minister most likely to show up at the protest rally.” So here is a call and response song you can lead at your next protest.

Rosa Parks was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

You can add new names as you go along – Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and more to have an interactive Black History Month lesson.

This morning I want to talk about the freedom fighter from another country, Nelson Mandela. He spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner before being released and becoming the first president of a post apartheid South Africa. Mandela was largely a secular leader of a secular state even so I believe we can gain many spiritual insights from his life in part because he was able to emerge from so many years in prison without any discernible bitterness or resentment. He did not come out bearing grudges or seeking revenge. Instead he focused on truth and reconciliation and a united South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was famously circumspect about his own religious beliefs but once when he was asked about his religion he replied, “I certainly recognize the importance of the religious dimension of my own life…Religion is important because at the center of the great religious traditions is the pursuit of peace…the world needs peace and I am convinced that if we were to put into practice the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, African traditional religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths – all of which have a lot in common – there would be peace in the world.”

Mandela reminds us that religion at its best is about seeking peace. At the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working for peace in the world. We aspire to be a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good. One way we do this is through a class we offer our young people called Our Neighboring Faiths where we take our youth to visit a synagogue, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a wide variety of Christian churches.

The thing I like the most about this class is that it teaches our young people to have the courage to cross the threshold of another faith; to walk through the doors of new building with confidence. Anyone who has ever done it knows that it can be very intimidating thing to do. My hope is that by offering this class we are giving our children a lifelong skill, and ability to cross lines and form friendships with people of all faiths.

Now this peaceful approach to learning about different religions can stand in stark contrast to another approach taken by others. The religions of the world can sometimes seem very competitive; Jews versus Christians, Catholics versus Protestant, Muslims versus Hindus, Evangelicals versus secularists, the Methodists versus the Methodists (for sometimes the competition between factions within a church, including our own, can make every Sunday feel like Super Bowl Sunday.)

However, the more we make religion a contest between “us and them” the more we make religion a battle where there are “winners and losers” the more we seem to stray from that deeper unity that underlies all religions. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” a paradoxical statement that reminds that the more competitive we get about religion the more we are missing the point. For the wisdom of all the great religions points to paradoxes that can be summarized in this way, “It is by emptying that we are filled, it is by letting go that we gain, it is by losing our life that we find it. In other words, it by losing that we win.”

Mahatma Gandhi once said that wisdom can comes to us through all religions but all religions are imperfect for they come to us through imperfect instruments-human beings. So when studying our own religion or the religion of others we will find the sublime and the imperfect, faith and flaws. That’s why the religious scholar Krister Stendahl warns us that when we study another religion we should not compare our best with their worst – but leave room for “holy envy.”

So what is holy envy? Holy envy means that although I am a Unitarian Universalist minister I can envy the Jewish tradition its liturgy; the Greek Orthodox Church its iconography; the Hindu temple its statuary; the Buddhist tradition its spirituality. In other words, I can belong somewhere but still learn and grow everywhere.

Over the last couple of years I have been leading an adult version of the Neighboring Faiths class with field trips to African American churches for members. This time last year I took a group of us to Trinity Seventh Day Adventist Church in East Knoxville for a Black History Sabbath led by the Reverend Harold Middlebrook, who was one of Dr. King’s lieutenants

On other occasions we’ve been to a Watch Night service on New Years Eve at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. We’ve been the New Year’s Day Emancipation Proclamation Service at Mount Zion Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Martin Luther King Interfaith Service at various congregations. We’ve been to the Good Friday service at Tabernacle Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Thanksgiving service at First AME Zion Church.

Now whenever I take groups to visit other congregations or other faith traditions I will often say, “You do not always have to agree with the theology in order to align with the energy. Theology is about language, concepts and ideas. Energy is about life, power and vitality. Theology comes from the past written in ancient words. Energy is found in the present moment. Theology is an outward form. Energy is the inward power. Energy is about transformation and change. And one of the reasons I feel it is very important for everybody to visit historically black churches is to experience the energy that can sustain us in times of trial, the energy that overcomes oppression and empowers resistance; the energy that aligns us with the truth that sets us free.

Maybe you felt some of that energy in this room last Sunday. Last week we had a guest preacher Pastor Chris Battle and his wife Toma playing gospel on our piano. Could you feel the energy? It’s like Pastor Battle said, “Church was never meant to be about an address. Church was never meant to be about a place on a map. Church was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. The church is about relationships.”

When we visit another congregation we strengthen our relationships. When we invite someone from another tradition to preach here we strengthen relationships. As Maya Angelou likes to say, “We are more alike than unalike.” We walk on the same earth. We drink the same water. We breathe the same air. As the bard says we all have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” If you prick us we will bleed. However, if we love one another and learn from one another then we strengthen our relationships.

Earlier I shared a reading by Barbara Brown Taylor who was a fulltime Episcopal priest before becoming a professor of world religions at Piedmont College in North Georgia. Once when she took a group of students to the Hindu temple in Atlanta she found one student named Maria could not even stay inside the building. She was afraid. The temple seemed foreign. All the statues of various gods and goddesses were overwhelming. The rituals made her uncomfortable. She panicked. So she left the building.

If I were to end the story there you might draw certain conclusions about Maria but the story continues. Maria recovered from her panic attack. She went on to make an A in the class. For her final project she designed a hypothetical interfaith chapel for Piedmont College. The chapel she designed reminded me of this sanctuary; no religious symbols or iconography inside so anyone of any faith might feel welcome. The lighting was soft so that no matter where you looked people would be able to see each other and have a sense of community. So Maria was able to overcome her fears and move in the direction of spiritual growth and so can we.

When Barbara Brown Taylor teaches about the world’s religions she urges her students to practice three principles.

  • When trying to understand another religion, we should ask the followers (and the friends) of that religion about it and not it’s enemies.
  • We should never compare our best to their worst.
  • We should leave room for holy envy.

Religion at its best is about the pursuit of peace. Yes there are religious terrorists out there. Yes, there are clerics who proclaim holy wars. Yes, there is violence done in the name of God. Religion can exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, there are moments when we can tap into the energy of peace that is at the heart of all the great religions and the energy we can feel when we are in relationship with people of all faiths.

Sometimes we can even draw sacred wisdom from secular institutions. This week someone threw a smoke bomb into Yassin’s Falafel House, an act of pure malice committed against the restaurant that a national magazine has deemed the nicest place in America.

Yassin is Muslim, a Syrian refugee. Rabbi Erin Boxt of Temple Beth El next door is Jewish. However this week I took some comfort when I saw the rabbi post a picture of himself in Jerusalem wearing a T-shirt from Yassin’s with the words from a sign we often see when we go there, “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people safe here.” That picture of the rabbi wearing that t-shirt in Jerusalem, a place that has seen so much conflict, discord and violence between religions gives me hope.

Such moments remind us that peace is possible; that Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths can find common ground because we all want peace; we all want freedom and we all want good falafels.

This week while doing a little Internet research I learned that there is a restaurant in in Ohio that has a falafel sandwich called the Nelson Mandela (and apparently this sandwich is rated very highly by Tripadvisor.) Which brings me back to something Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

So in the midst of our nation’s impeachment controversy and our continuing culture wars let’s draw wisdom from one of the great freedom fighters who reminds us that it is by letting go of our bitterness that we gain; by losing our hatred that we win; it is by emptying our hearts of enmity that we are filled with peace and with freedom. So let’s end by singing.

Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

May it be so.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 2, 2020.)

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How White People Can Spoil a Good Party

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we like to think of ourselves as a progressive denomination. However, I graduated from Central High School in Macon, Georgia, in the year 1983. The year I graduated all the senior class officers were African American and the homecoming queen was a man so I am still waiting for my denomination to catch up with my high school.

If you read the newsletter or your order of service then you know the title of this sermon is “How White People Can Spoil a Good Party.” This morning I want to talk about my high school because although I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree from the Earlham School of Religion, I could almost say that everything I ever needed to know on this subject I learned in my high school.

One of the goals of our denomination is the work of dismantling white supremacy. There has been some reactivity to this language. For some people the word white supremacy conjures up images of the KKK in white hoods or neo-Nazi groups with shaved heads. However, white supremacy is often much more subtle than that. White supremacy can be about the ways white people dominate without even noticing that we are dominating.

Which leads me back to my high school. When I was in high school the committee that planned our high school dances was predominantly and possibly entirely African American and the dances were better for it. A more racially integrated group would not have improved our dances.

Now my niece Laura grew up in a different era but a similar high school. I once saw her when Sir Mix-a-Lot came on the radio with his famous song Baby Got Back. You know the song, “I like big butts but I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny.” When I saw my niece start dancing to that song I knew we shared a common experience as regards high school dances. To go to such a high school dance is to have a vision of what the world might be if we were able to dismantle white supremacy. What would it feel like? It would feel like freedom.

So how do white people spoil a good party? One way to understand this dynamic is to look at it through the lens of physics; (You know you are in a UU church when the minister says we need to look at something through the lens of physics.)We can look at it through the lens of what physicists call the observer effect. The observer effect theory tells us that, “the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.” Now the observer effect has ramifications for quantum mechanics, electronics, particle physics and thermodynamics but for our purposes today we can reframe the principle to say, “When white people are observing something then the mere fact that white people are observing it inevitably changes that something.” That’s how white people can (without ever meaning to) ruin a good party.

I witnessed an example of the observer effect right here in this sanctuary. A couple of years ago we hosted the community Interfaith Martin Luther King service. At the beginning of the service the worship service was much quieter than such services usually are. Later the Reverend Carol Bodeau would describe it this way – she said that it seemed like everyone was especially conscious that we were in a “white church” and were adopting the norms of worship for white churches, quiet listening rather than active participation.

There is a preacher story that illustrates this dynamic. Once there was a man who went to visit a very staid New England Unitarian church and somewhere in the middle of the sermon he shouted out “Amen!” This was a bit unsettling to the congregation. Even so, the sermon continued for a while before the man shouted again, “Glory!” This rattled a few nerves but the sermon kept on going until the man shouted again, “Hallelujah!” Finally, an usher walked up to the gentleman and nervously asked, “Is there anything wrong, sir?” and the man replied, “No, nothing’s wrong. I’ve got religion!” To which the usher replied, “Well, you didn’t get it here.”

Now that story may be true about some other Unitarian churches but not here. Can I get an “ Amen.” A couple of years ago, I witnessed in this room what looked like it was about to become the world’s quietest and most subdued Interfaith Martin Luther King service. However, when the Reverend Harold Middlebrook , one of Dr King’s lieutenant stepped up to the pulpit he changed the dynamic completely. I do not remember his exact words but I do remember that the energy in the room changed and the volume in the room changed. There was less quiet listening and more active participation. The Reverend Middlebrook singlehandedly changed the laws of physics. He was able to help us overcome the observer effect.

So when we talk about dismantling white supremacy we are not only talking about confronting hate groups during street protests although that is important and we are committed to doing that. When we are talking about dismantling white supremacy we are talking about more subtle things, like the observer effect, where the dynamics in the room change because white people are observing them.

After the service today we are going to have a congregational meeting to vote on whether or not to ordain Christopher Watkins Lamb into the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Full disclosure, Christopher is my stepson. He went to high school here in Knoxville at Austin East, a predominately African American high school that has produced at least three Unitarian Universalist ministers, the Reverend Caitlin Cotter Coilburg who is already ordained and Isabel Call and Christopher Watkins Lamb who are in the process seeking ordination.

When Christopher went to Austin East he took the African drumming class and if all goes well with the vote today we are going to have the AE African drumming class play at his ordination.

Now let me ask you a question, how many of you have ever been to an Austin East high school graduation ceremony? If you have then you know it is fundamentally different for every other graduation ceremony held in this city. Our minister of pastoral care, the Reverend Jametta Alston, might describe those graduations with one word, “Joy.” In many graduations the line between decorum and boredom is a thin one but not at AE. It is a raucous celebration. So hopefully we may have some of that energy in the room at a future ordination ceremony.

In 1998 I was ordained at the Kumler Chapel in Oxford, Ohio, the chapel where college students and other young people gathered to organize for Freedom Summer in 1964 before moving on to Mississippi to work for civil rights. This kind of activism required courage.

Gordon Gibson, a member of this church, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister and a civil rights veteran, likes to tell the mythical story of a young college student from the North during the 60’s who was suddenly struck by a blinding light from heaven and a big booming voice that came down from heaven and said, “I want you to go down to Mississippi and work for civil rights and lo, I will be with you as far as Memphis.” For the record, Gordon Gibson served a UU congregation south of Memphis in Mississippi. His current Facebook profile is his mug shot from when he was arrested as part of the Voting Rights efforts in Selma. (In revising this sermon I texted Gordon to say “Maybe the reason I chose a church in Tennessee is because I wanted to be closer to the Lord.”)

It took courage to work for civil rights in those days. It takes courage to work for human rights today. Three of the civil rights workers who sang freedom songs in Kumler Chapel in 1964 went to Mississippi but never returned home. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney became martyrs of the civil rights movement. On the day of my ordination the Reverend Charlotte Cowtan began the ceremony with the words, “There is power in this room” and all of sudden a big boom of thunder rumbled all around us causing a woman from the African Methodist Episcopal church to shout out, “It’s the spirit of the Lord!” Needless to say, this startled some of my more humanist members. However, there was power in the room; the power of history, the power of community, the power of ministry, the power of transformation.

Freedom Summer was a powerful movement. However, there were unintended side effects when a flood of predominantly white college educated young people, many from privileged backgrounds, descended on Mississippi. The laws of physics kicked in. The observer effect became operative. Many of the educated and empowered volunteers began to assert authority, take over things, leaving local leaders sidelined and disempowered. Now there is no question that Freedom Summer did very important work that raised national awareness about the problems of racism in our country, registered a lot of voters and organized a lot of Freedom Schools. However, it also true that just as white people can ruin a good party, white people can inadvertently undermine grassroots efforts for social change.

Now I am talking about the ways good people with all the right intentions can ruin a party. There are others who ruin the party through gerrymandering, voter suppressions, draconian laws, for-profit prisons, open discrimination, hate speech, hate crimes, micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions. I could go on and on, but today I am talking about how good people can undermine our own efforts to do the right thing. I am asking us all to take an honest inward look so that we can better work for justice in the outward world.

There is a mantra I’ve made up that I believe can be helpful to all Unitarian Universalists, but especially those of us who are white, we could benefit from the following mantra. Repeat after me , “We are not as smart as we think we are.” Let’s do that two more times together, “We are not as smart as we think we are. We are not as smart as we think we are.” The more we are able to remind ourselves of that fact the more we will be able to prevent ourselves from ruining a good party or ruining a good effort to work for social change and social justice.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working hard to dismantle white supremacy, not only “out there” in the world but “in here” in our own hearts and in our own church by re-examining all our practices to see if they help everyone to grow. The social gospel preachers used to say, “Just because a blade of grass can grow through a crack in the sidewalk doesn’t mean every blade of grass has an equal opportunity.” Dismantling white supremacy is about looking at all the systems that are holding people down and instead of celebrating the cracks in our sidewalk committing to do more; committing to work so that everyone can grow, everyone can flourish, everyone can experience the sunshine and know freedom. That’s what it means to dismantle white supremacy.

There will be some who say that this goal of dismantling white supremacy is impossible and I will be the first to admit that the challenges are daunting. However, the motto for my old high school is an optimistic one. The motto for Central High School in Macon, Georgia is this, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” So let’s say it together like we would in a high school pep rally, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” Let’s do that two more times, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” So let’s lead because it can be done and who knows maybe one day the whole world will catch up with my high school.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday January 19, 2020, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

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Toiling in the Vineyard

We live in an age of Internet abbreviations where LOL means “laugh out loud” and YOLO means “you only live once” and AFGE means, “another spiritual growth experience” or so I am told, although, why the letter F is used to represent the word “spiritual” is unclear to me.  Maybe someone can explain it to me after the service today.

Until then, I want to speak about spiritual growth and the way it tends to happen to us over and over again often against our will. In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in creating congregations were we practice acceptance of one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth. But how is a Unitarian Universalist Church’s approach to spiritual growth different from the approach taken by many of the other world’s religions? That is what I want to focus on today. How we as a congregation can work together to help facilitate spiritual growth.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in religious freedom. However, when I was a Director of Religious Education here in the 1990’s I would sometimes find myself in the position of saying to a child, “Yes, we believe people should be free to think for themselves. Yes, we believe people should be free to explore on their own. Yes, we believe people should be willing to question authority –but- you still have to come down from the roof.” In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning while maintaining a safe and nurturing environment for everyone.

One metaphor for our approach to spiritual growth can be found here in the mountains of East Tennessee. If you go hiking on the Grapeyard Ridge Trail in the Smokies you will see a lot of grape vines hanging from trees on both sides of the trail but you will not see any grapes because grapes need structure in order to grow.

Of course, there are also a lot of vineyards springing up in East Tennessee and if you go to one of them you will discover grapes are growing in abundance. Over 30 varieties of grapes grow in Tennessee – but- you will not find any of these grapes on the Grapeyard Ridge Trail (even though grape is in the name of the trail) because where there is no structure and there is no growth.

When Jesus was asked to described the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet he said, “It is by their fruits you shall know them.” And the apostle Paul followed up by saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I think the pairing of these two teachings offers us insights because they suggest that the goal of religion is not about producing good doctrine or good dogma or good creeds or good theological treatises. The goal of religion is to bear good fruit. The goal is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and other fruits of the spirit.

When I was on sabbatical I went to visit my daughter Sally in France and we went on a bike trip that began in Bordeaux, a region known for its vineyards. One of our first stops was La Cité du Vin, a wine museum filled with interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations, hologram projections engaging all the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell where we hoped to learn more about vineyards and the production of wine.

I want to be honest with you, when I went to this wine museum I wasn’t looking for an idea for a sermon. I was thinking more about the tasting room at the end of the tour. However, once I got inside I discovered how prevalent vineyard imagery is in so many of the world’s religions and mythologies. Indeed by the time I finished the tour I had a whole page full of sermon ideas.

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One idea that I took away from that museum is the realization that there is not just one structure that helps grapes to grow. There are over 50 different kinds of structures that help grapes reach their full potential. Similarly, when it comes to spiritual growth one size does not fit all. We need a variety of different structures that help people grow. And here is where the UU approach is different – we welcome that variety. We do not try to make one size fit all.

We live in an age where many people like to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” However one way to think about it is to say, “Spirituality is about our inner life and religion is about the outward structure that helps us to grow.” Through coming to Sunday services, participating in religious education classes, engaging in deeper conversations, learning from the great wisdom traditions of the world, singing hymns, receiving pastoral care, offering a listening ear, donating to good causes, volunteering to serve in the church and the community, by all these things and more, we are giving our lives the structure that helps us grow.

One size isn’t for everyone. Some of us are Tai Chi people, some of us into yoga or contemplative prayer or meditation or a walking in the woods.

The outward structure is meant to facilitate our inner life; that inner life that sounds along the ages, “From Sinai’s cliffs it echoed, it breathed from Buddha’s tree, it charmed the Athen’s market, it hallowed Galilee,” that inner life that flows through all things and all people, that inner life that declares, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you then you will bear much fruit.” That’s the voice of the inner life. That’s the voice of what Quakers call the inward teacher.

One of my favorite spiritual writers is the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones, who was the first chair of the American Friends Service Committee, the only denominational service committee to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. Rufus Jones was a social activist and a peace activist par excellence. He was also a deeply grounded spiritual person. He spoke to how spiritual growth is a continual theme of the Bible when he wrote, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not. They spin not. They let the forces of life operate…that further growth…A good many persons expect the Kingdom of God to come…suddenly from the sky, but Jesus said that it would come like the growth of a tiny seed…like a mustard seed…like yeast. You start with a tiny germ of life and the growth is sure to follow; first the blade, then the stalk, then the ear. It grows the farmer knows not how. It is a mystery, but not a miracle, for life at every level is a normal process.” His words suggest that like a tree planted by the water we are called to grow. Like a vine that produces branches that bear fruit we are called to grow.

The rock star Bob Geldof organized the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts to help fight world hunger but he is not a particularly religious person. He once said of his younger days, “I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing – the nothing won.” When he was a young adult he was an atheist, even so, he decided to volunteer in a church soup kitchen feeding the homeless. Why did he do this? I suspect it was because even though he was not religious, he sensed that volunteering in a church soup kitchen would help him grow – in his case from a young man with a conscience to a global leader on social justice issues. We do not have to be particularly religious in order to benefit from the structures of religion that can help us grow.

Dolores Huertas got her start as a social activist organizing grape workers in California with Cesar Chavez in the 60’s. She wanted to make sure that those who harvested the grapes were compensated fairly and treated justly. I saw Huertas speak at the Children’s Defense Fund Conference at the Alex Haley Farm a summer ago. She often works with religious organizations that are committed to social change in part because religious organizations are dedicated to spiritual growth. She argues that it is absolutely essential that we see the potential in every person because “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”

There was an old bumper sticker for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that reads, “Plant Justice, Harvest Peace.” The scripture tells us, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” so “Let us no grow weary in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”

I was once meeting with a clergy group where one minister seemed to want to give up. This minister was complaining that our denomination’s headquarters in Boston does not always see and appreciate the work that ministers do on the local level. “Yes,” my friend the Reverend Jennifer Slade replied, “The UUA does not always see the work of those of us who are toiling in the vineyard.” Of course, ministers are not the only ones who toil in the vineyard, all of us do important work that goes unrecognized and unappreciated.

The parable about workers in the vineyard, that we read earlier, captures this paradox perfectly, all the workers in that parable got paid the same wage even though they did different amounts of work, economically this seems unfair, but I think the parable is not about the work we do for economic reasons. I think the parable of the workers in the vineyard is about the work we do because love compels us to do it. It is about the work that is it’s own reward. Much of the work of the church is this kind of work. Without this kind of work the doors of the church would close like the Walmart down the street or most of the businesses on Cumberland Avenue or the East Towne Mall or Saint Mary’s Hospital or Sears or K-mart or Toys R Us or so many other businesses that have gone belly up in the last decade. Our church survives in an age when so many others are going out of business because we foster a willingness to do this work. Our church survives and thrives because of our willingness to toil in the vineyard.

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However, our work in the vineyard requires structure. And one of the reasons we need structure is because there is often a part of us that resists growth. Birth is a painful. Growth is painful. Most of us don’t like to do painful things.

Young people have created a new word -adulting. When we are being more responsible than we want to be we are “adulting.” I think it is a word that is useful for people of every age. I, for one, feel like every day I am growing to be more and more of an adult largely against my will. I had a professor in seminary who said that we need the church to call us to be more loving than we want to be, more forgiving than we want to be, more compassionate than we want to be, more generous than we want to be, more open-minded than we want to be, more outspoken for justice and peace than we want to be.

Today we are living in a time when people are beating their plowshares into swords and using their religion as a weapon for war. However in this church I will continue to insist as long as I have breath that religion must always be an instrument of peace. My friends, I do not claim to know what the future holds but I suspect in the days ahead we are in for an AFGE – another spiritual growth experience.

However, in these troubled times we can seek guidance from the world’s religions that helps us grow. As the Tao te Ching, the ancient scriptures of China, tell us, “At birth we are soft and yield, when we die we are hard and stiff. All green plants are soft and yielding. At death they are brittle and dry. When we are hard and rigid we consort with death. When we are soft and flexible, we affirm greater life.” We are called to growth. We are called to life.

Spiritual growth can be painful, however, if we do our work right, if we provide the right structure, then one of the fruits of the spirit is peace. If we align our inner life with our outward world we can toil in the vineyard for the day when everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid, and into plowshares turn our swords, nations shall learn war no more. But until that day arrives there will be discouraging moments, painful setbacks so it would be best to continually prepare ourselves, everyday, for yet another spiritual growth experience.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 12, 2019)

So You’re “Not Religious”

When Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked to describe his leadership of Great Britain during Nazi bombardments he said, “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.”

I feel that same way about being the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. I am not the lion, but sometimes I am called upon to give the lion’s roar. For that reason, I am grateful for my predecessors who roared before me including the Reverend Richard Henry of blessed memory who was this congregation’s first settled minister.

In 1953 the Reverend Henry gave a sermon to our congregation with the title So You’re ‘Not Religious.’ I know this because someone found a printed copy of the sermon when cleaning out their files and donated it to the church. And so one day in my office I found myself reading a very old sermon, printed on yellowing paper, that may be even more relevant for our times than it was back in the 50’s.

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That’s because in the 50’s almost half the population in our country went to church on Sundays. The 50’s were the high water mark of American institutional religiosity whereas in our time, 33% of the population does not go to church or identify with any religion at all. So what Reverend Henry was describing back then is even more pertinent in our times when more and more people are saying they are not religious.

So seeing it is a New Year, a time when many of us clean out our closest, possibly finding old sermons, it seems like a good time to reflect on that theme again.

In his sermon the Reverend Henry said that many people think they are not religious because they do not belong to an organized religion or go to any particular congregation. However, religion is not the same thing as church attendance. I am reminded of the words that Alice Walker wrote in her 1982 novel The Color Purple.

“…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too.”

The same could be said of religion. We don’t go to church to find religion because the religion we find there is most likely the one we brought with us. In other words, religion is not something we find “out there” but “in here” in the human heart.

In his sermon Reverend Henry suggested that another reason that many people say they are not religious is because they no longer identify with ancient phraseology found in so many creeds, doctrines and dogmas. Old words do not speak to current circumstances. Old certainties do not explain new discoveries.

In the year 2019 we had a lot of losses. We lost one of the great spiritual writers of our time, Rachel Held Evans, who died at the age of 37, far too young. Evans grew up near Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial, where creationism and evolution battled it out in the courtroom in 1925.

However, one of the things Evans so often said was that religion and evolution need each other; that religion and evolution should be partners not enemies. She said our faith must always be evolving, growing fins when we need to swim and wings when we need to fly, changing, adapting, learning and growing. Our faith like life itself must evolve.

When I was in middle school I was religious in a fairly conventional way. I was a minister’s son who grew up in the Episcopal Church and belonged to the youth group. I led vespers services at summer camp and workshops at church youth conferences. My beliefs fit within the parameters of orthodoxy and so I never felt the need to re-examine my beliefs or convictions. Of course, events were about to change my complacency.

For instance, when I was in high school I had a fire breathing fundamentalist camp counselor who worked hard to terrorize me with visions of the fiery furnaces of the afterlife, dangling my soul over eternal hellfire for my two weeks in captivity in his cabin at summer camp.

After camp I confronted tragedy, my brother Bill died in a car accident just one block away from our home. Shortly thereafter, in the aftershocks of that trauma, my parents got separated and then divorced. The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “ground of all being” and at this period of my life I felt like my being was groundless. I felt I was unanchored, unmoored and adrift in the universe without protection, guidance or comfort.

So I decided to give up on religion altogether. I told my parents that I needed a new start with religion. I needed to begin again –tabula rasa – a clean slate. I quit going to church and participating in the youth group. So for the record, let me say I can totally identify with the 33% of the population that does not go to church or identify with any religion. Indeed, even though I am a minister now, there is a part of me that does not identify with the word religion or religious. There are times when the word religion only describes everything that fell apart in my high school years, everything that cracked, crumbled, disintegrate, did not work and did not last.

Of course, there are other times when the word religion points to something more. As the Zen Buddhists say, “Our words are like a finger pointing at the moon, they are not the moon itself.” There are times when I walk at night when I do experience the moon itself. I feel what Shinto priests calls the religion that is higher than all religions, deeper than all religions, the religion that underlies all religions, the religion before all religions and after all religions where the goal is not to be a better Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu but where the goal is to be a better human being. As Corey Booker once said,

 “Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people.
Don’t tell me how much you love your God;
show me in how much you love all God’s children.  Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith;  teach me through your compassion for your neighbors.” 

Reverend Henry put it this way in 1953, “We need not be a member of a church; we certainly need not have the remotest trace of a theology; nor need we ever utter any of the words, or think any of the thoughts that belong to the learned treatises on the history and philosophy of religion, to be a religious person. What we must have is an attitude of understanding and respect toward every human being, including ourselves, courage to entertain great thoughts and generous ideals, and to stick to them till we can substitute more ennobling ones, sensitivity to the beauty and mystery of life; and wisdom to act on the knowledge that the salvation of the world is dependent, in part, on our own loyalty to the highest vision we can conceive.” He wrote these words over 5 decades ago, rediscovered in 2019. Perhaps his words can guide us in this New Year offering us both 2020 hindsight and 2020 foresight.

I am grateful to Richard Henry who worked so hard to build this church so I could discover it when I was a young adult in the 1980’s ready to let go of my past so that I could experience something new, evolution, change and growth. Hopefully this first Sunday in the New Year can also serve as a new beginning for us all. So let me end this sermon with a roar.

However, this time I am not the lion or the roar. For these words come from a member of this congregation Bill Fields, who offers us these thoughts to usher in the New Year.

It is 2020.
I want these 20s to ROAR.
I want them to roar with cries for justice.
I want them to roar with songs of peace.
I want them to roar with affirmation of the dignity of ALL people.
I want them to roar for fairness, for enough for everyone and excess for none.
I want them to roar with demands for honest, honorable government.
I want them to roar with outrage for children in cages, for children slaughtered in classrooms.
I want them to roar for kindness, courtesy, decency and dignity.
I want them to roar as loudly for you as for me and louder still for us.
I’m ready. Let the Roaring Twenties begin!

(Rev. Chris Buice shared this homily with the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on this first Sunday in January 2020)

Invocation for the Inauguration

Mindful of our Jewish neighbors who are keeping the Sabbath today who can’t be with us body but are with us in spirit let us enter into that spirit of prayer that includes us all. Let us pray

God, Giver of Life and Love, your servant Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer we ever utter is thank you it will be sufficient.” And so we say thank you.

We thank you for this little city on the Tennessee River that we love more than words can say.

We thank you for our newly elected leaders and for their opponents who gave us a contest of ideas that strengthened our democracy.

We thank you for the suffragists memorialized on Market Square who worked hard for this moment.

We thank you for the Knoxville College students who led the civil rights sit-ins that allow us to sit together today and for the storyteller in Morningside Park and his ancestors who remind us to “Find the Good and Praise It.”

We thank you for activists filled with Pride who labored for the day when the Henley Street Bridge would be illuminated by all the colors of the rainbow flag.

Thank you for the organizers of the World’s Fair, the Hola Festival , the Greek fest, the Asian festval, the KUUMBA fest, the Arab fest, India fest, the Rossini festival, the Knoshville Jewish food festival, the Blue Plate Special and so many other events that remind us that ours is a city where people of all kinds can find common ground and work for together for the common good and we can raise our children together to be ready for the world.

We thank you for the civic leaders of the past who looked at boarded up buildings and saw business opportunities, abandoned hotels and saw housing, utility service lines and saw greenways, industrial quarries and saw swimming holes, neglected land and saw urban wilderness and urban farms

We thank you for this new generation of leaders about to take their oath of office who dream new dreams and see new visions. We ask that you guide their feet, their hands, their hearts and their minds while they run our city.

Guide them as they work with us so that together house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, business by business, we can make our entire city the nicest place in America, a city on a hill with the eyes of the world upon us, a special place that will always be home sweet home. For these and many other blessings we say, thank you and Amen.

(This invocation was given on December 21, 2019 for the Inauguration of Indya Kincannon as Mayor along with new members of City Council)

Inauguration 2019