Summoning All Mothers

Today is Mother’s Day which is usually a day of platitudes and greeting card sentimentality presented in a way that reinforces binary heteronormative assumptions about families and without any references to Planned Parenthood. However, this morning I want to talk about the more radical implications of motherhood. 

On May 25, 2020 George Floyd cried out for his mother when a policeman had a knee on his neck. In the aftermath of his death protests broke out in cities all over the world. During one protest in Portland, Oregon, a group of 30 mothers formed a human shield to protect demonstrators. One woman held up a sign that read,  “When George Floyd called out for his mama all mothers were summoned.” 

We rarely associate Mother’s Day with political protests or anger or rage or ferocity. And yet these too, are the emotions of motherhood. I will always remember that moment many, many years ago when my friend Tandy Scheffler was holding her baby in her arms when she said, “If we could all love every baby the way I love this baby then we would beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.” A few weeks later Tandy was holding the same baby in her arms and she said to me, “If someone walked through that door with the intention of harming my child the mama bear in me would come out and I would rip him limb from limb.” This is the paradox of motherhood, an experience that engenders both overpowering love and ferocious protective instincts. Indeed, anyone who hikes in the Smokies knows (or should know) you do not get in between a mother bear and her cubs. 

In 1910 the Universalist minister, the Reverend Julian Stearns, wrote a hymn called the Motherhood of God that captures both the toughness and tenderness of this maternal impulse. The first verse reads…

Motherhood, sublime, eternal, lives in God’s great heart of Love;

Ever holds us, safe enfolds us, underneath, around, above;

This first verse is mostly gentle but in the next verse we get the sense that there may be a divine iron hand in that velvet glove. The second verse reads…

Ev’ry wrong will sure be righted; ev’ry evil swept away;

Truth upspringing, justice bringing, ushers in the brighter day;

This kind of motherlove is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, the love that empowers us to transform the world through acts of love and justice. Of course, our church is not the only faith tradition to possess this love. When I think of ferocious motherlove I think of the Mothers of the Movement, the mothers who have lost children and become involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. I think of Mother Pollard, an elderly woman who refused to ride the bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the civil rights movement because she wanted justice and fairness for every mother’s child. When she was asked if she ever got tired of walking to work at her advanced age she said, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” 

Mother Pollard reminds us that mothering is tiring work where the weariness of our bodies may contrast with the contentment of our souls. Speaking of my own mother I can say, “When I was hungry she gave me food. When I was thirsty she gave me something to drink. When I was naked she clothed me. When I was sick she looked after me.” One of the radical implications of mothering is that we are all called to do this work regardless of our gender identity. There are some theologians that tell us that the word God is a verb. I would argue that the word mother is also a verb for we are all called to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and take care of the sick. Our church, and every church, is called to embody a mother’s love. 

In this sense of the word, our music director, Dr. Reginald Houze has lived into that verb. When he was living in Charlotte, North Carolina and his son was living here in Knoxville he drove 4 hours to see his son perform in a 25 minute show and then got in his car and drove 4 hours home again. My father would never have done that. I am not complaining because my dad had 5 children and he did other things. Now, my mom might have done it. She put a lot of miles on her car keeping up with her children and grandchildren. All I can say is that when Dr. Houze talks about his son – I can feel something that feels like my own mother’s love. 

When I think of the more fierce impulses of motherhood I think of the labor activist Mother Jones who should be the patron saint of Mother’s Day. She once summed up her theology by urging others to “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Indeed, she was so passionate in her advocacy for worker’s rights that one newspaper described her as “the walking wrath of God.” 

Before Mother Jones was an activist she was a dressmaker, a wife and mother living in Memphis when the yellow fever hit in 1867, killing her husband and all four of her children (Ours is not the first generation to experience pandemic.)  Heartbreakingly unable to save her own family she embarked on a mission to save the working people of America. She had a mother’s heart for anyone weak or defenseless in need of protection. 

The labor movement was her religion and union organizing was the work of salvation. For her willingness to fight the good fight she was called the Joan of Arc of labor and for her fiery temper reminiscent of a famous abolitionist she was called John Brown in petticoats. 

Like the Hebrew prophets Mother Jones exercised her right to question God. She told one group of workers on the picket line, “I am going to tell you that if God Almighty wants this strike called off for his benefit and not for the workers, I am going to raise my voice against it.” Like a modern Abraham or Moses she reserved the right to question and challenge the authority of the Almighty. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus in Catholic tradition, she was willing to intercede on behalf of the workers, an intermediary between the human and the divine, willing to plead their cause. 

Mother Jones dressed like a traditional Victorian woman in a long black dress, with a decorative white lace collar and a Sunday-go-to-meeting hat with a smart bow on it. From all outward appearances she seemed to affirm every societal notion of womanly propriety. 

However, looks can be deceiving. Her activism broke every convention of feminine decorum. One biographer wrote, “She tailored her appearance to match every sentimental notion about mothers. Then she subverted the very idea of genteel womanhood.” Victorian women were not encouraged to be independent, have strong opinions, travel alone or lecture men. She did all of these things. 

One of her more dramatic departures from traditional Victorian womanhood was her colorful language. When people praised her for her humanitarian work she would say, “Get it straight. I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hellraiser.” When people remonstrated her for her profanity she replied, “I long ago stopped praying and started swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything: but when I swear I get things here.” The union newspapers described her as the incarnate spirit of motherhood, God’s great ministering angel. If so, she was a ministering angel who could raise some hell. 

Mothers of the Movement, Mother Pollard and Mother Jones remind us of the radical implications of motherhood, a tradition carried on by the mothers in Portland, Oregon. When George Floyd called out for his mama all mothers were summoned. Although my mother is no longer alive I can’t help but feel that she is one of the mothers who is summoned at such moments because I can feel the energizing and electrifying power of her love in those actions. 

All around us we see the radical implications of motherhood. Many of us were moved when we saw the pictures of mothers responding to refugees from the Ukraine by pushing empty strollers to the train stations to welcome the children who’d lost everything to war. Many people don’t know this but Mother’s Day began as an anti-war movement. The Unitarian activist Julia Ward Howe organized women for a peace conference in 1870 with the hope that one day mothers would unite to protect every mother’s child from the scourge of war. A similar movement is afoot now with Ukrainian mothers appealing to Russian mothers through social media to work together for peace and to educate the world about the true costs of war. We should remember these Ukrainian and Russian mothers on Mother’s Day. 

As the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe Vs. Wade, we should also remember my friend who was a mother of two children when her doctor informed her that her health was so precarious that her next pregnancy would end her life. After practicing all the birth control methods that were consistent with her faith she found herself pregnant again. What would you do in those circumstances? She made the choice that allowed her to live and be a mother to her two children. She became pro-choice. She chose to be a good mother and I honor her decision and the decision of every other woman faced with difficult choices. This minister is pro-choice. Barney Frank once said, “There are some on the religious right who seem to think that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” However, every mother can tell you that after birth the work of mothering begins in earnest. 

The radical implications of motherhood do not always make the headlines. The work of mothering often goes unseen.  In 1930 Langston Hughes wrote his poem The Negro Mother about how the unseen spirit of the ancestors is present in the struggles of this moment int time. Speaking in her voice, a mother’s voice, the poet wrote, 

I nourished the dream that nothing could smother

Deep in my breast — the Negro mother.

I had only hope then, but now through you,

Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true:

All you dark children in the world out there,

Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair.

Remember my years, heavy with sorrow — 

And make of those years a torch for tomorrow.

This fierce love from the past empowers positive action for change today. That old Universalist hymn captures this  kind of fierce love with these words…

God is love, and love forever in the motherheart is blest;

Lives the longest, lifts the strongest, far outreaching all the rest;

We feel that motherlove when we see people growing vegetables in our church’s community garden that will later be delivered to food deserts of our city. We feel that motherlove when we see people carrying groceries on a cart on the way to replenish our free food pantry. We feel that love when we see the children walking by our windows during the service knowing that volunteers have come forward to create outdoor programming to keep our kids safe in what we hope is the last stage of this pandemic. We feel that love when we support mothers whose children are in the hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. We feel that love when we see people volunteering for Justice Knox, rallying people to work for systemic change to end gun violence, stop the school push out, create more affordable housing and more accessible transportation. We feel that motherlove in the energy we take out into the community when we leave church on Sunday morning, energy that helps us transform our world. The activist Dorothy Day spoke with the wisdom of a mother when she said, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”And I agree with her, so let me conclude this message by saying to you, we live in challenging times. We must all find our way to make a difference. As my friend Vivian Shipe says,“A little bit from each of us is a whole lot from all of us.”  None of us can afford the luxury of hopelessness. There is too much work to do. All mothers are summoned.

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday May 8, 2022)

Flower Medicine

Jesus once said,  “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” Of course, Buddha took a simpler approach. He once offered a message that tradition has called the Flower Sermon. The Buddha did not say a word. All he did was hold up a single flower. Not everyone in the crowd understood the point he was making but it is said that at least one person reached enlightenment. 

To be honest, I’m not completely sure I know what point he was trying to make either. Perhaps the Buddha was trying to say the same thing Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The roses under my window make no reference to former roses or better ones; they are what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” 

As someone who spent three years in theology school I can tell you the history of religion is full of a lot of references to former roses; the poets, prophets and preachers of the ancient past. Along these lines, I once had a friend who went to visit a historic church in our denomination but walked away disappointed. When I asked about her experience she said “the congregation seemed to be a group of people who worshiped their own antiquity.” Ouch! And yet this is one of the great challenges of any church with a noble history including our own – we must avoid the temptation to worship our own antiquity. 

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem called May Flower about how Nature reminds us to place our reverence for the past in its proper perspective. 

Pink, small, and punctual,

Aromatic, low,

Covert in April,

Candid in May,

Dear to the moss,

Known by the knoll,

Next to the robin

In every human soul.

Bold little beauty,

Bedecked with thee,

Nature forswears

Antiquity.

Nature forswears antiquity. When we walk through a garden in springtime we do not see any of the former roses. We see flowers that are blooming today. The color and variety of flora preach to us with their mere presence saying, “Live now! Forswear antiquity! Live today!”

Have you ever noticed that very powerful women are often named after flowers? Susan B Anthony helped launch the women’s rights movement in this country and was instrumental in getting women the right to vote. Susan is the Hebrew word for lily. This gives a whole new meaning to the words, “Consider the lilies of the field” doesn’t it?

Rosa Parks launched the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa is the Latin word for Rose. Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian from Michigan became a martyr to the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Viola is Latin for violet.  

Recently, I was reading an article about a young Muslim climate change activist from Michigan who has instrumental in organizing people of color in her community. Her name is Zaynab Elkolaly and she lives not far from the city of Flint where the public water supply has been tainted by lead poisoning.  She recently told the media, “The climate movement young people have been fighting for their lives…We’re disrupting the status quo, so we cannot go around doing business as usual. We have to literally dismantle the systems in place. So it’s not going to be comfortable.” Zaynab is Arabic for flowering tree. 

The flower can be a powerful revolutionary symbol. In the Ukraine, the floral crown associated with wedding ceremonies has now become a symbol of resistance to tyranny and oppression. 

In Hinduism flowers are said to share a likeness to God. The lotus is associated with the goddess Lakshmi, the red hibiscus with the goddess Kali, palash with the goddess Saraswati.  The ancient French word for “likeness to God” is Michelle. I mention this because Michele Pfeffer, of blessed memory, was a young adult instrumental in starting our congregation’s environmental concerns committee in 2005. If you walk around the grounds of this church you can see how her work continues even after her untimely death. You can walk through our community garden that is an outdoor classroom and a source of food for people in need. You can walk past our compost piles to get to the top of the hill where you can see the solar panels on our roof. Walking around the inside of our building you can see our recycling containers, our skylights and our energy efficient lightbulbs. Less visible is all the rewiring we did to lower our carbon footprint. Eco-theologians tell us that when we protect the earth then we share a likeness to God. Michelle lived that faith. 

After today’s service we invite you to come to a conversation in the Lizzie Crozier French room to learn more about what our congregation has done and how to get involved in making a difference for the environment. Suffice it to say that the conversation will not be only about our noble past but our work in the present moment.  In Hinduism, our relationship to the earth is seen as the dance of Shiva, the dance of creation and destruction. Native American tradition teaches that we must “walk in balance.” So as a congregation our goal is to find balance so that our destruction never overtakes creation. 

A few years back I went to a gardening show in France and I walked through one garden where I noticed a lot of red flowers. I must have walked through the section backwards because it wasn’t until the end that I saw the description of the exhibit which was called “Le Pouvoir Des  Sorcière,” the power of witches. In France even the gardeners are philosophers and so they offered this detailed philosophical explanation of their garden. “Women were known as healers and benevolent mediators between humankind and nature before they were demonized as witches. This demonization of the feminine has led to a way of living that is destructive to both flora and fauna. The flowers in this garden have medicinal properties and can be used to heal people, calling us back to a more benevolent relationship with nature by making good use of the power of flowers. The many red flowers symbolizes the power of women’s blood.”  The description of that garden gives a whole new meaning to the hymn, “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood…” With a few tweaks feminist theologians could create a new hymn. 

In the Canary Islands there is a flower known as the Marguerite Daisy and in Unitarian Universalism we have a spiritual ancestor known as Margaret Fuller who presaged the 20th declaration that “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” She also spoke to the spectrum of gender identity when she wrote, “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” Indeed, the term witches is not limited to women. It has been a label put on anyone willing to be healers, willing to mediate between humanity and nature, willing to work to see all living things flourish. 

In the 1960’s people spoke a lot about “flower power,” and one of those powers is the medicinal quality of flowers and plants. For instance rose petals can be eaten in salads and are a good source of vitamin C. Rose hips can be placed in teas that soothe sore throats. Saint John’s Wort is a flowering herb that can serve as a mild antidepressant. Jasmine can be used to treat an upset stomach and improve digestion. Hyssop can improve rheumatism and arthritis. Violets can be turned into a syrup that can ease respiratory problems. Lavender can help in the treatment of insomnia. I could go on and on. 

Throughout human history powerful women, healers and revolutionary leaders,  have been named after flowers. In 1912 labor activist Rose Schneiderman gave a speech that inspired the creation of a labor song Bread and Roses, a song we will sing together later in this service. She said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art…The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” 

Last week I helped a family grieve the loss of their mother and bury her body in the ground in a graveyard on a very steep Appalachian hillside and as I drove away from the grave after the ceremony I couldn’t help but notice that just beside the road, where not many people might notice, there were tulips blooming in the afternoon sun, purple, yellow and red. For a brief moment they commanded my full attention. Nothing else was on my mind. I can only describe that moment as a personal flower communion. When we lose someone words are not enough. When we are grieving words are not enough. At such moments what we may need most is a flower sermon. 

The Buddha gave his flower sermon many centuries ago. You may not know this but the word Buddha has its roots in the words “to bud” to blossom, to bloom, to flourish. So consider the lilies of the field and the roses and the violets. Consider the trillium, the iris and the columbine. Consider the blue flox, the flaming azalea, the morning glory and the wild hydrangea. Consider the tulips and choose to live today. 

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 24, 2022)

The Universe and Unitarian Universalism (an Easter Sermon)

If you keep up with religion in the news you may be aware that NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has hired 24 theologians to help prepare humanity for the possibility that we may encounter extraterrestrial life somewhere out there. I think many of my friends forwarded the article to me because they thought I would be perfect for the job. Oddly enough, when I read the article the first thing that came to my mind was a joke that seems particularly appropriate to share on Easter Sunday. 

Once there was a group of Christian missionaries who took a rocket ship to another planet to spread the faith. Their plan was to tell the aliens about Jesus only when they got there they found out the aliens already knew him. “Yes, we know Jesus. He comes to our planet once or twice a year to visit.” The missionaries were shocked to hear this news. “Jesus comes to your planet once or twice a year? He hasn’t been to our planet in over 2,000 years,” they said. “Yes,” said the aliens, “Everytime he comes to our planet we give him chocolate. He just loves our chocolate. He can’t get enough chocolate. What did you guys do when he came to your planet?”

Jesus was badly treated in his lifetime. However, human beings don’t have a great track record for how we treat each other either. During the era of the pandemic human beings have not been on their best behavior. Just ask any cashier or waiter or teacher or health care professional or anyone really. In Tennessee it is not that uncommon to see a billboard that reads, “Jesus is coming! Are you ready?” However, Jesus may be waiting for a better offer or Jesus may be waiting until we get our act together and start treating each other better. And so this Easter Sunday let’s explore some of the ways we can treat each other better. On Easter Sunday let’s explore some ways we might find wholeness and healing together after the trauma of the last two years and grow in compassion and kindness toward each other. 

Over the last two years there has been a lot of loneliness, isolation and depression. And when we are feeling depressed it can be very hard to get out of bed in the morning. That’s why I find it interesting that there is a rabbinic tradition that says every time we go to bed at night it is a tiny death and every time we get out of bed in the morning it is a tiny resurrection. Every 24 hours of our lives is a cycle of life, death and resurrection. So if you managed to get out of bed this morning give yourself a pat on the back. This is a small miracle. On Easter Sunday let’s remember that this too is a form of resurrection. 

Life can be tough. Yesterday, I led a memorial service where there was lot of grief. And yet, as our cars moved from the funeral home to the graveyard I couldn’t,  help but notice the many dogwoods in bloom, new life in the midst of death. Because life can be so tough we need to be good to each other and to ourselves. I have to admit that sometimes when I am feeling down in the dumps I am guilty of practicing a very specialized form of retail therapy by going to a bookstore. Recently I picked up a book by Rabbi Naomo Levy called Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, a book that helps put spirituality in its cosmic perspective just like the theologians at NASA would want us to do. 

In the book she tells the story of Rabbi Robert Marcus who once wrote a letter to Albert Einstein after the death of his son. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the rabbi decided to write a scientist for words of comfort and perspective ( a reversal of roles as it were.) We do not know for sure why he wrote Einstein but we do know that Einstein wrote back and that letter contains a few sentences that are often quoted out of context, words that succinctly summarize the philosophy of this great physicist or dare I say it – his religion. 

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion…it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”

These words remind me of something the Hindu tradition teaches us. Each one of us is like a drop of water separated from the ocean and one day that drop returns to the sea. This idea may (or may not) be a comfort at the moment of death. I remember once Dottie Burnham shared this idea with Dian Igou after the death of Dian’s grandmother. Dian remained unconsoled. She said, “Dottie, you don’t understand. My grandmother was a really great drop.” And so it is. Healing has its own timetable and not every form of grief is amenable to the comforts of philosophy.  

Even so, Einstein’s ideas do resonate with the Zen Buddhist tradition where we are taught that we must discover that the concept of “self” is an illusion, the idea that there is a “me in here” and that there are “others out there.” We cannot draw a clear line that divides us from others or from the moon, the stars, the planets, the comets and the galaxies. We are one. 

Einstein described this kind of experience of oneness by saying, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.” He said that if we cannot experience this emotion then we are as good as dead. And yet when we rekindle this emotion there can be resurrection. 

One of the times when I feel this emotion rekindled in me is when our congregation goes on its Fall Retreat to Pickett State Park which is part of the International Dark-Sky Association. On a clear night you can stand in a field and look up at a breathtaking display of stars and planets from horizon to horizon. You can even see the stars shining through the branches of the leafless trees. The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Two things fill me with breathless awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”  Something “in here” is connected to everything “out there.” Looking up at the night sky we become aligned with all true religion. 

Not everyone thinks like a physicist. Even so, I do feel a certain kinship with Einstein and with Rabbi Naomi Levy who offered her own interpretation of Einstein’s ideas, “If the mission of Einstein’s ‘true religion’ is to help us see the underlying oneness of things, then as a rabbi I consider it my mission to spread the word about a faith that can unite people of all religions and races. A meta-religion we can all agree upon and belong to. A religion of universal connectedness, a unity that holds us together.” She contends that every once in a while we catch a glimpse of that oneness – a sense that we are part of something infinite and wondrous that not only surrounds us but flows through us. 

Oddly enough, I’ve found that I often learn a lot about my own faith by studying other faiths. Indeed, in many ways Rabbi Levy offers us a succinct definition of the words Unitarian Universalist. Yes, it is the name of our denomination. Yes,  it is a name found within the name of our church, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. However,  the name points to something bigger than our church or a synagogue or a mosque or a temple or a denomination.  It is a name that points to our unity with everything that is, our unity with the cosmos, our unity with all life and our universal connectedness, Unitarian Universalism. 

This week my daughter Sally expressed confusion about why Easter Sunday falls on different dates every year. I explained that  Easter is always on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox and she said, “How very pagan of the Christians.” 

This year Easter Sunday falls within the season of Passover in the Jewish tradition and the month of Ramadan in the Muslim tradition. The proximity of all the holidays and holy days is not an accident but evidence of our universal connectedness. Both Ramadan and Passover are based on the lunar calendar. So all of these holidays show our connection to the universe. 

During Ramadan it seems appropriate to share words from  Sufi Muslim poet Hafiz who once wrote, 

Just sit there right now

Don’t do a thing

Just rest

For your separation from God

Is the hardest work in this world. 

Similarly, our separation from each other is the hardest work we do. On our altar we have some Ukrainian eggs for Easter. And the war in that country reminds us of how hard we human beings will work to be in conflict with each other, how hard we will work at polarization, discord and division. Like Christ on the cross, innocent people are bleeding into the soil of the Ukraine and we are reminded of the words of the prophet that echo down the corridors of time, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” 

However, we also have violence in our country. We also have violence in our community. We have children who fear for their lives when they walk to school in the morning or home in the afternoon. We might also say, “Forgive us, we know not what we do.” 

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has hired 24 theologians to help prepare humanity for the possibility that we may encounter extraterrestrial life somewhere out there. We are committed to exploring the stars even though we barely understand ourselves. We are committed to exploring the universe even when we haven’t solved all our problems here on earth. So let me end this sermon by suggesting at least three small steps we can take toward world peace. 

The first step we can take is to give away more chocolate. In that spirit I am placing an Easter basket full of chocolates on the altar. Feel free to come get some chocolate after the service. May this chocolate remind you of love,  the love that is the spirit of this church, the love that can renew, restore and sustain us. 

The second step we can take toward peace iis we can heed the advice of another physicist, Stephen Hawking, who once said when we are depressed or discouraged or demoralized, “Don’t look down at your feet, look up at the stars. 

And the third step we can take toward world peace can be summarized in this sentence – If our separation from each other is the hardest work we do then let’s stop working so hard. Let’s stop working so hard and rest. For when we rest we become kinder people. When we rest we become more generous people. When we rest we rekindle those feelings of reverence, wonder and awe without which we are as good as dead. When we rest we open ourselves to the possibility of resurrection. 

(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 17, 2022)

Cringeworthy Moments in Unitarian Universalist History

Since this is the season of Lent and Ramadan, a time for self examination and reflection, this morning I want to talk about some cringeworthy moments in Unitarian Universalist history. For those of you not up to date on your slang, a cringeworthy moment is an awkward and embarrassing moment that fills us with shame. A cringeworthy moment often revolves around a decision we’ve made in the past that in retrospect we can see was a really a huge mistake, one that leaves us totally mortified. So today, I want to look at cringeworthy moments in the history of our faith, cringeworthy moments in the lives of our spiritual ancestors, in hopes that it will help us navigate our own lives better in our own times. 

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we have a tendency to remember our noblest ancestors in their noblest moments, consciously or unconsciously, edited out their more cringeworthy moments. When I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church in the 1990’s it was common to see a list of Famous Unitarian Universalists that included women’s rights activists like Susan B Anthony and Margaret Fuller, abolitionists like Theodore Parker and Julia Ward Howe, pioneers in deaf education like Samuel Gridley Howe and mental health reform like Dorothea Dix, humanitarians and medical missionaries like Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, educational reformers like Elizabeth Peabody. Our religious education director, Catherine Farmer Loya, grew up in the UU church and she has a memory of wearing a t-shirt that had a long list of Famous UUs on it and at the bottom it read in big letters “and me.” In retrospect, the t-shirt is kind of cringeworthy because every name on the list was a white person. 

Our own congregation’s history includes African American civil rights leaders Jim Person who integrated this church by walking through our doors in 1950, Jack and Edna Leflore who helped organize the civil rights sit-ins, Joe and Charlyne Michaels who were supporters of Historically Black Colleges including and especially Knoxville College, Elandria Williams who was the first black moderator of our denomination, but you will not find their names on any list of Famous Unitarian Universalists. So our emphasis on the Famous means we often overlook the very meaningful work for change that all too often goes unseen and is done by relatively anonymous people. Consciously or unconsciously our emphasis on Famous UUs is a way to whitewash history. 

Now even though that list of Famous Unitarian Universalists does include some very admirable people, and I will be the first to admit that I admire many of them, I think we may also need a list of “Infamous Unitarian Universalists.” The Famous Unitarian Universalists who make us want to cringe. 

No list of infamous Unitarian Universalists would be complete without the name of John C. Calhoun on it. John C. Calhoun (who lived from 1782-1850)  is a reminder that there is a big difference between having a good resume and being a good person. Calhoun was a United States Congressman, a United States Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Vice President of the United States. That’s an impressive resume. And yet when I learned he had been a Unitarian it made me want to cringe. You will not find the name of John C. Calhoun on any t-shirt advertising Famous Unitarian Universalist even though he was a founding member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC. 

No one did more to start the American Civil War than John C. Calhoun even though he did not live to see the shots fired on Fort Sumter in his native South Carolina. He had an explosive temper. He was a bully, a polarizer, divider and schismatic. In a time when many Americans felt that slavery was an institution that needed to be abolished or allowed to die of natural causes he argued that slavery was a virtue that needed to be expanded pushing for more slavery in more states even if it dissolved the Union. He used the symbols of the flag and the rhetoric of freedom and liberty to justify and promote human bondage, and the violence and oppression necessary to uphold it.. He advocated for state’s rights that trampled over every human right. Many who supported slavery saw it as a necessary evil. John C. Calhoun saw it as a positive good. He saw slave holding as the hallmark of civilization. He was unapologetic white supremacist arguing that it was natural for the elite race to enjoy the fruits of the labor of the inferior group. Although he did not live to see the Civil War, no one did more to foment it, offering an intellectual, strategic and political justification for it. He was an unapologetic racist and unprincipled white supremacist.  

John C. Calhoun deserves to be on any list of Infamous Unitarian Universalists and his memory is cringeworthy not only for our faith but for the citizens of his native state of South Carolina. Clemson University was founded on land donated by the Calhoun family, even so John C. Calhoun’s name has been removed from the buildings there. The university released this statement, “We must recognize there are central figures in Clemson’s history whose ideals, beliefs and actions do not represent the university’s core values of respect and diversity”.

During the Jim Crow era of the late 19th century white supremacists erected a statue of John C. Calhoun in Charleston, South Carolina, in close proximity to an African American neighborhood. It was almost immediately vandalized by local black neighbors. So the white supremacists decided to put the statue on top of a 115 foot column with an iron fence around it and somehow people still found ways to vandalize the statue. On June 24, 2020, the statue was removed by the unanimous vote of the Charleston City Council. This was in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and within recent memory of the white supremacist hate crime that killed 9 people in a Bible study at Mother Emmaneul AME church in that same city. It took over 100 years but eventually Clemson University and the city of Charleston found the memory of John C. Calhoun to be too cringeworthy. 

In addition to any list of Infamous Unitarian Universalists we could create another list of milder candidates that we could call “Unitarian Universalists we are simply embarrassed to mention.” One of those Unitarians might be Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain, who is best remembered for his policy of appeasement that involved negotiating  with Adolf Hitler and waving the diplomatic agreement with him before cameras declaring “Peace in our times.” 

When Neville Chamberlain ran for political office his opponents used the fact that he was a Unitarian as a reason to vote against him. Since there is no separation of church and state in Great Britain once elected Prime Minister he handpicked bishops for the Church of England causing the more orthodox Lord Hugh Cecil to declare, “I think it unseemly that a Unitarian should have the predominant voice in the appointment of Bishops….If we lived in the reign of Henry VIII a Unitarian would not be in Downing Street. He would be burned at Smithfield.” The archbishop of Canterbury lamented in private that Chamberlain was not only a Unitarian but also a reverent agnostic. 

When Neville Chamberlain declared, “Peace in our time” he was lionized as a hero by his countrymen. It was a very politically popular action.  After Germany invaded Poland he was denounced as a fool. Many remember Churchill’s comment that the policy of appeasement was like feeding a crocodile hoping you would be the last one eaten. Today, Neville Chamberlain is remembered as dangerously naive and unforgivable gullible. Chamberlain was never as heroic as his early popular approval ratings suggested nor was he as foolish as his political rivals villainized him to be later. He wasn’t a pacifist nor was he a pushover. Essentially he used a treaty for peace to buy time to prepare for war. However, the moment he declared “Peace in our time” is one of the more cringeworthy moments in history which may explain why his name does not usually appear on any list of Famous Unitarian Universalists. 

We may well think of Neville Chamberlain in the midst of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as a reminder of how quickly well intentioned diplomacy can deteriorate into bloodshed, violence and genocide. Of course, hawks should not be complacent. There are military equivalents like the former President of our country posing on an aircraft carrier under a banner that said “Mission Accomplished” at the very beginning of what became one of the longest wars in our nation’s history.. Lately, when I hear politicians talk about how the pandemic is over I wonder if we aren’t seeing the modern equivalent of “Peace in our time” or “Mission Accomplished”as death rates rise in China and Great Britain. I sincerely hope not. The infection rates are declining rapidly. However I noticed that in Dr. Fauci’s last press conference he kept using the word “hopefully” over and over again. History has a way of showing us sometimes there is a thin line between hope and hubris. 

In downtown Knoxville there is a statue of the Unitarian suffragist Lizzie Crozier French. Her efforts were instrumental in gaining women the right to vote because Tennessee was the last state needed to ratify that amendment to the Constitution. We have a room named after her in the church. I’ve researched her life and I’ve done presentations about her in the community. Of course, I have to confess that one of my greatest fears is that one day in my continuing research I might come across a cringeworthy letter that she wrote. After all she worked for the right for women to vote in a segregated city and a segregated state. There was more than a little racism in the suffragist movement so a cringeworthy letter may be out there somewhere and if we find it what will do about that statue or our room name? Will there be vandalism? Will the statue be toppled or removed by a vote of city council one day? Once again, let me say, I hope not, even as I am mindful of that thin line between hope and hubris. 

Now I’ve spent most of the morning talking about cringeworthy moments in Unitarian Universalist history but let me also say that I do not believe that history should be an exercise in traveling back in time to slay dragons guilty of the immoralities of the past, if only because we have enough immoralities in the present. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “Modern slaves are not in chains, they are in debt.” Unitarian Universalism has strong ties to higher education. We value lifeline learning. The average student loan debt in America is $39, 351 and some of those undergraduates go on to study for the ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church adding another $30-60,000 of debt to the pile. Many of the jobs out there in the world (including but not limited to those in the church) do not pay enough to make these debts easily repayable. Indeed, my prediction is that we have a student loan bubble now, similar to the housing bubble of the 90’s. When the bubble bursts it will affect everyone of us. The church, the state, the non-profit and for profit sectors are all complicit in this debt crisis, not only student loan debt but credit card debt, mortgage debt and so many other forms of debt that keep people below a living wage. If modern slaves are not in chains but in debt, if that is true, then who is to say than any of us will be remembered any more fondly that John C. Calhoun. 

In 1992 Senator Al Gore (later Vice President) wrote a book called Earth in the Balance about climate change. In that book he called for the elimination of the internal combustion engine in 25 years to protect our planet. That would have been the year 2017. And yet this morning many of us came to church in some kind of vehicle with an internal combustion engine myself included. And while electric vehicles are an improvement they still depend on coal fueled power plants at this time. So how will future generations judge us? Will they look back at us and want to vandalize our statues or condemn us for surrendering to the power of the economic forces by too easily declaring, “Peace, peace when there is no peace”? Who knows that the future holds

But just for today, let me say, if we are wise, the cringeworthy moments of our past can help us examine our lives in the present. The season of Lent and Ramadan can be a time of self-examination where we ask ourselves, “What are we doing today that we might find cringeworthy tomorrow?” 

It is interesting to note that the All Souls Unitarian Church co-founded with John C. Calhoun was a major leader in the civil rights movement. Today, it is an organizing hub for many progressive causes and anti-racism initiatives. This should serve as a reminder that our faith is not limited to the most cringeworthy moments of our past. 

The hymn Amazing Grace was written by the Christian evangelist John Newton who advocated for the abolition of slavery in later life but looked back on his past life as a slave trader and found it utterly cringeworthy. Thus he wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see” and he wasn’t talking about cheap grace. He was talking about the grace that transforms lives, the grace that reorients us and makes us change our ways, the grace that turns slavery into freedom, the grace that sees a wrong and makes it right, the grace that transforms cringeworthiness into compassion, kindness and courage. This kind of amazing Grace is the only thing that can save us from the more cringeworthy moments of Unitarian Universalist history. 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, April 3, 2022)

Militant Moderation

When I was in Boston, Massachusetts,  for a meeting I decided to attend the First Unitarian Church on Sunday morning. Although I was over 900 miles from home during the “greet your neighbor” moment of the service, someone turned around and said, “You’re Sally’s dad aren’t you?” Turns out that one of my daughter’s friends from the Mountain Camp lives in Boston now. There was another “It’s a small world moment” when the minister of the church, the Reverend Stephen Kendrick, revealed in his sermon that he grew up in Clinton, Tennessee, just down the road from us, where, as a child, he attended the Episcopal church which he described as a “hotbed of moderation.” This morning I want to talk about what it might mean for us as a congregation if we were to also  attempt to live into that mission of becoming a hotbed of moderation. 

Now let me anticipate some objections. Being moderate seems like kind of a boring thing to be. The word moderate is not the most exciting of adjectives. The word has negative connotations. To be moderate is to be “middle of the road” and as Texas activist Jim Hightower once said, “There is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” We sometimes associate moderation with cowardly equivocation, vacillating indecision and an unwillingness to make hard choices. 

Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, warned us about this kind of moderation; the moderates who prefer the absence of tension more than the presence of justice, the moderates who patronizingly want to set the timetable for another person’s freedom, the moderates who always want to postpone change for a more convenient season, who use the word “Wait!” in a way that means, “Never,” moderates who fail to realize that justice too long delayed is justice denied. 

So when I use the word moderate, I do so, with a clear understanding that we must reject this definition of moderation in order to embrace a more radical and militant moderation. What I am suggesting is the kind of moderation that requires real courage. What I am talking about is the kind of moderation that the philosopher Aristotle called The Golden Mean. 

Aristotle argued that all virtues lie in the middle between two extremes. Between cowardice on one hand, and foolhardiness on the other, there is courage. Between laziness and greed there is ambition. Between stinginess and prodigality there is generosity. Between boorishness and buffoonery there is good humor. Between obnoxiousness and obsequiousness there is straightforward honesty. Between paralyzing self doubt and overbearing arrogance there is confidence. Between shyness and shamelessness there is humility. The challenge to meaningful living is to find our center, stay grounded in our center and live from our center. 

In a similar manner, the Buddha taught the Middle Way. A Buddhist proverb tells us, “A string on a musical instrument will break if it is too tight. If it is too loose it will not sound a note. Therefore find the Middle Way.” When we find the Middle Way we are in tune with the universe. The Sufi Muslim mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan put it this way, “I have no religion. All places of worship are one with me. I can enter a Buddhist temple, a mosque, a church, a synagogue in the same spirit. Spirituality is the tuning of the heart.” In other words, the purpose of religion is to ensure that we stay in tune with the universe. 

Anyone who has ever gone to the performance of a junior high orchestra knows the importance of staying in tune. If one performer is out of tune it can be bad. If five are out of tune it is worse. If everyone is out of tune it can be living hell. In this way, spiritually speaking, when we stay in tune, our efforts not only benefit ourselves but everyone else and all of Creation. So finding our center, and practicing the Middle Way or the Golden Mean, is not selfish introspection. It is a public service. 

Many indigenous peoples talk about the need to walk in balance. This stands in contrast to the tendency of the Western mind to define our choices as being between good and evil, right and wrong, either/or. For instance, in Tennessee we often hear about the debate between science and religion, creationism and evolution. However, if you ask a Native American if they believe in the scientific story of the origins of the universe or the Creation stories of their tribe the Native American is very likely to reply, “I believe both truths.” This is walking in balance. 

Walking in Balance is about moving through the world in tune with the universe, in tune with the natural world, in tune with the wind that blows around us and rushing waters of a nearby stream,  in tune with all creatures, the two legged, the four legged, those with feathers and fins. There is a prayer in the Lakota tradition that expresses the sentiment succinctly. 

Wakan Tanka,

Great Mystery (Great Spirit)

Teach me how to trust my heart,

Teach me how to trust my mind,

Teach me how to trust my intuition,

Teach me how to trust my inner knowing,

The senses of my body,

The blessings of my spirit,

Teach me to trust these things

So that I may enter my Sacred Space

And love beyond fear 

And thus Walk in Balance

With the passing of each glorious Sun. 

For the record, this walking in balance requires the kind of moderation that has radical implications. Learning to walk in balance has radical implications for caring for the Earth and the protection of our environment, radical implications for our relationships with other human beings and other species of life. As the early scientist and philosopher Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.” When we find our center, we have found a lever, and with it we can move the world.

Earlier we heard the words of Frederick Douglass, the famous activist who made the journey from fugitive slave to world famous abolitionist. In that role he made one of the most incisive criticisms of religion that has ever been written. He lived in the 19th century but his  words crackle like thunder when we read them today. He denounced religion aligned with slavery in favor of religion aligned with justice. 

“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. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. 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.” 

Frederick Douglass, then and now, is inviting us to reject both extreme passivity and overwhelming oppression for the middle way of justice. Then and now, he is calling on people of all faiths to embrace the spirituality that is pure, peaceable and impartial. His words did not stop the Civil War, nor did they stop him from supporting that cause to end slavery. Nevertheless, before the world went to hell in a handbasket he offered everyone who might listen an opportunity to return to their better selves and the wiser teachings found in all peace and justice loving religions of the world. 

When Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nation he said, “The role of the UN is not to lead people into heaven but to save humanity from hell.” His words ring true today in our age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, ethnic cleansing and reckless ideas of triumphant nationalism. When Madeleine Albright was ambassador to the United Nations she argued that the people who often stand between war and peace, between survival and annihilation, are those who are willing to be militant moderates, to stand between extremes to safeguard the weak from the strong, the violent from the vulnerable, the many who are peaceful from the few that are hellbent on war and destruction. 

We need militant moderation to combat the bullies on the world stage. However, this week I have been in conversations with parents who are addressing the problem of bullying in our schools, bullying that has led at least one young child to end their own life. Just as we must ensure that our world is not destroyed by extremists, we must ensure that our elementary schools, our middle schools and our high schools are not destroyed by extremists either. We must work together to keep our children safe in all our schools East, West, North and South. Because no one wants to be bullied whether they are tall or short, skinny or large, black or white, red or yellow or brown, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, a bookworm or an athlete, someone who wears glasses or has braces or acne or someone without. We need to work together with our children to build teams of young and old leaders who can be the militant moderates that can outnumber and disempower those who would turn our schools into hell. This is not only good volunteer work, this is an expression of our faith. 

For this morning’s prelude David Asbury played a song inspired by the Brazilian martial arts tradition Capoeira that was developed by Africans brought to the country against their will to serve as slaves. Like all martial arts the goal is to find the center between the automatic reactions of fight or flight. In defense, this martial art means staying in constant motion to disorient your opponent. Capoeira can even be a form of nonresistance, a nonviolent response to a violent attack. Movements are designed to meet aggression with motion so that your opponent always misses the target and is destabilized by their own actions. This form of defense is meant to empower someone who might be physically weaker or outnumbered or unarmed in the face of armed opponents. It can also be an offensive strategy but in both offense and defense, the key ingredient is unpredictability, in this way the brain becomes more powerful than brawn. In Western religion our choices are often framed as pacifism on one hand, and aggressiveness on the other. Capoeira represents a middle way. 

Along those lines, saving the best for last, this morning I would like to make the announcement that our congregation’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously at our last meeting to name our high school youth group room after the most militant moderator we’ve ever known – Elandria Williams, of blessed memory. Elandria spent the last few years of life in the highest ranked volunteer role in our denomination – Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with her co-moderator Barb Greves. Elandria was given The Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism by our denomination for a lifetime of service to our faith.  If you’ve ever been to our national General Assembly then you know that the moderator often stands directly between the pro and con microphones and has to moderate the emotions coming from both sides. Indeed, one of the things that Elandria and I talked a lot about  is how the layout of that room, in combination with Robert’s Rules of Order, makes our national gatherings unnecessarily adversarial. 

For instance,  in recent years delegates have been bringing issues to the floor of our General Assembly that are not amenable to the simplicity of a pro or con position, an either/or choice. Bringing up concerns about anti-racism and anti-oppression in that atmosphere with that structure can be like bringing our most vulnerable emotions to a buzz saw. And Elandria was instrumental helping us rethink our structures and our processes, leading our denomination through a time of incredible polarization in ways that empower us to (in the words of our 8th principle) “journey 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.” Elandria grew up in our church and was a leader in our youth group before becoming a denominational leader who championed the youth of our movement and for this reason we are honored as a congregation to rename our high school youth group room the Elandria Willams room.  

So in conclusion, let me say that perhaps, by naming one of our rooms after a moderator we may be courting the reputation of being a “hotbed of moderation.” If so, I hope that together we will live into that mission in a way that will empower us to transform our world through acts of love and justice by being the most militant moderates the world has ever known. So be it. 

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 6, 2022)

Antidotes to Hate

“Haters gonna hate.” This is the conventional wisdom as expressed in street slang.The phrase has a certain determinism to it. Haters are gonna hate no matter what we do. And yet what if we want to change? What if we recognize ourselves as “the haters” and want an alternative course of action? Are we caught in a never ending cycle of “haters gonna hate” for all time? Or is there a way to break the cycle? If hatred is a poison then this morning I want to ask – are there antidotes to hate? 

One of the most profound lessons I learned in theology school did not come from a textbook or a professor but from one of my fellow students. One day we were in conversation when my classmate revealed that he had been diagnosed with the disease AIDs. He told me that he wanted an alternative to the warfare model of disease, where one wages a war on cancer, or a war on heart disease or a war on AIDs. 

He wanted an alternative to that framing. He wanted an alternative to thinking of AIDs as an enemy that needed to be defeated, an aggressor that required counter aggression, a hostile force that needed to be vanquished. My classmate was raised a Quaker and was grounded in that tradition’s peace testimony where the goal of faithful living is to live grounded in the spirit and power which takes away the occasion for war. If AIDs was an enemy he wanted an alternative to hating his enemy. He wanted a peaceful approach to his disease. He wanted to love his enemy. 

My classmate’s approach to his own disease made me rethink my own approach to life. For hatred is a toxin. Hatred is hazardous to our health. Hatred is deadly. And the goal of spiritual living is not only to have life, but to have it more abundantly. 

One of my heroes of the civil rights movement is Fannie Lou Hammer who demonstrated so much courage in the face of so much danger in Mississippi. She said she refused to bring herself down into the depths of hell by allowing herself to hate those who hated her. She saw hatred as a cancer that eats away at the vital center of a person until there is nothing left but the shell. 

In her lifetime she declared that hatred was a disease making the whole country sick. We could make the same argument today.  And because hatred was making the whole country sick she argued that she was working for human rights and not equality because she did not want to be equal to those who shot out the windows of her home or threw her into prison for trying to vote and beat her working for justice.  She did not want to be equal to those who terrorized her and her family. She wasn’t fighting for equality with hateful people, an equality grounded in hatred. She was fighting for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. 

She described her approach to local community organizing with these words, “I hope white America learns to love before they teach everyone else to hate,” she said,  “I refuse to hate a man because he hates me. Because if I hate you because you hate me, it’s no different: both of us are miserable. And we’re going to finally have something in common: hating. But as a result of what I can give of myself that I can love you if you hate me, we have poor whites coming into this organization and we’re gonna feed not only the black people of Sunflower county, but all the people who are hungry regardless of color.” Fannie Lou Hammer wasn’t about building up resentments and  hatred. She was about building up the Beloved Community. 

When I reflect on her words I am reminded of that moment in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple where the character Shug says, “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.” I mention these words because we live in a time when there are many churches where people aren’t bringing God to church they are bringing hate. They are bringing anger, resentments and bitterness.  People are bringing the hate they get from cable news, the hate they get from political polarizing fundraising letters, the hate they get from the internet and the darkweb. They are bringing all this hate to church. Alice Walker is a Buddhist pagan but her words remind us of a message found in the book of John, “Whoever loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God for God is love.” 

The Unitarian Universalist Church actually comes out of the Radical Reformation that was a response to the growing acrimony in churches that too often led to bloodshed, heresy trials, pogroms and inquisitions. The radical reformation was opposed to theological disputation that stirred up so much ill will, anger, hatred and violence that it poisoned the well of living water. The Radical Reformation opposed all forms of religion that promoted rancor and division in favor of a religion grounded in love. The spirit of the approach is captured in the old Universalist affirmation, “Love is the doctrine of our church and service is our prayer.” 

The Radical Reformation was grounded in the love doctrine captured by the words Jesus said to the disciples on the night he washed their feet, “A new commandment give I unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all shall know that you are my disciples.”  This sentiment is captured in the words of the apostle Paul. “love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Many theological doctrines are obscure, Trinitarianism vs. Unitarianism, freewill vs. predestination, transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, premillennialism vs. 

postmillennialism. However, the law of love is clear. The law of love is compelling. You do not have to have an advanced law degree to practice the law of love. You don’t have to have a doctorate in theology to practice the law of love for the law of love is already written into our minds and placed into our hearts. Hatred imprisons us. Love liberates us. Hatred restricts us. Love sets us free. Hatred paralyzes us. Love empowers us. Hatred casts shadows. Love sheds light.

There is an old preacher story about a  minister who married a medical doctor and one day they were at a cocktail party when someone struck up a conversation with them and eventually asked, “Is it true you are both doctors?” And the minister replied, “Yes, we are both doctors but I have a doctorate of theology.” This piqued the person’s curiosity and so that they said, “How interesting, tell me what kind of disease is theology?” 

It probably comes as no surprise that I first heard that story in theology school. On many levels this is a seriously funny story for seriously, theology can become a disease when it creates complexity where simplicity would suffice. Theology can become a disease when it creates polarization when unity is the medicine we need. Theology can become a disease when it encourages us to nurse grudges, hold onto resentments and foster division and hatred. 

When Muslims and Christians were killing each other in Bosnia, threatening each other with ethnic cleansing, an Orthodox bishop declared, “Violence in the name of God is violence against God. Violence in the name of any religion is violence against all religions.” This is another way of saying when theology becomes a disease, love can be the cure. Compassion can be the cure. Empathy can be the cure. 

A theology that leads to hatred is a disease. Hatred is hard on the body. Hatred releases the stress hormones related to the fight or flight, impulses, which are meant to be for short term challenges. Sustained stress of this kind leads to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscle tension and perspiration. This undermines cardiovascular health, weakens the immune system, creating the conditions for heart attack, stroke and increasing susceptibility to other diseases. For this reason the prayer of Saint Francis offers us sound medical advice, “Where there is hatred may we bring love.”

My sister Shannon is a healer, a rolfer, focused on the healing of the body. I think of myself as a relaxed, laid back person, but Shannon can run a hand across my back and quickly pinpoint that place in my body where I am holding all my stress. She will say, “You are storing your stress here,” and then she will press down on it and I will go, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” because she is right. 

Similarly, I think of myself as a peaceful, loving person who bears no grudges against anyone but I have found that when I sit down to meditate, to clear my mind and sit in silence to deepen my spirituality there is usually this moment when someone’s face will pop up in my mind and it is always the face of someone who I am annoyed with. Here’s the thing, before I sat down to meditate I might not even know I was annoyed with this person. However, the moment I sit down with the goal to find calm, quiet, stillness and peace, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” I realize where I am storing my stress. 

And this is one of the reasons meditation can be helpful. It can show us where our growing edges are. And here is what I’ve learned from experience. The only way I know how to get that person’s face out of my head is to pray for them, to hold them in light and love, to love my enemies, to bless the haters for the purposes of my own healing.

I found this spiritual practice on my own and only later discovered it’s medicinal value. Medical researchers have demonstrated that when we engage in an “empathetic reappraisal” of our adversaries we reduce the amount of stress hormones we release. We lower our heart rate, our blood pressure, our perspiration level and we relax our muscle tension. We reduce the harm done to our cardiovascular system. We begin to heal. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, who died earlier this year, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. As a Buddhist monk living in Vietnam he worked for peace in the height of the Vietnam War, and afterwards he worked for peace all over the world. However, he once made this observation about the peace movement that has cautionary implications. He observed that peace activists often carry around a lot of anger, frustration, and bitterness. Often activists can write very good protest letters, but are not very good at writing love letters. He said that those of us who are dedicated to working for peace need to learn how to write a letter that someone else will actually want to read and not just throw away. We need to learn how to write an email that the other person won’t want to delete immediately. In other words, if we want to work for peace our work needs to proceed from a peaceful place ourselves. If there is to be peace on earth, it will have to begin with us. 

Valentine’s Day is a time when we think about writing love letters. It can also be a time to heal broken hearts, to heal from fractured relationships, to heal from broken promises, to heal from feelings of hatred. So that when we work for human rights, when work for “a world made fair and all her people one” we side with love. 

I began this sermon by talking about what I learned from a classmate about how to make peace with his disease. He did not want to see it as an enemy to be vanquished as this might release the stress hormones that weaken the immune system at a time when he needed his immune system the most. I have been pondering his advice a lot lately, because I think it is applicable to this moment in time and how we might respond to Covid 19. In my more honest moments, I can tell you that I really do hate this disease. I hate what it has done to our church and our community. I hate what it has done to our hospitals. I hate what it has done to our families. I hate what it has done to the politics of our nation and the world. I hate it! I hate it! I hate it! 

However, I suspect that my hatred isn’t hurting anyone but myself. That my hatred is counterproductive to my healing. And for this reason, I am open to breaking the cycle of hatred. My classmate lived in the days before there were many advanced treatments for the disease of AIDS. Even so he lived much longer than many people thought he might and when he died, he died in peace, and the way he lived and died has opened me up to new ways of living. The conventional wisdom captured by street slang is haters gonna hate. On the day before Valentine’s Day, let’s stay open to love. 

(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon to the Tennesse Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 13, 2022)

How to Have a Spiritual BS Detector

Once when I was at a music festival in another city I saw someone wave at me from across the room to get my attention. Once they had my attention they walked all the way across the room and asked, “Are you the minister of the Unitarian church in Knoxville?” I said, “Yes.” The man said, “Good, I want to tell you my favorite Unitarian joke,” and he proceeded to do just that. Here it is. 

Q: What is the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?

A: In the Baptist Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone in the congregation might shout out “Amen.” In the Unitarian Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone might shout out, “BS.” 

For our young people listening who may be wondering what the term “BS” means let me simply say that literally BS is the natural byproduct of a male bovine animal studied by scatologists. Metaphorically, synonyms for BS include bologney, balderdash, buncombe, hogwash and a term made popular by the current occupant of the White House – malarky. 

This morning I want to talk about the importance of having a good spiritual BS detector. How to tell the truth from lies. How to tell the difference between a trustworthy minister and a con artist. A few years back a friend drove by a church advertising their Vacation Bible School. Only they must not have had enough letters so their sign said, “Come to our Vacation BS.” This was an accident I am sure but even so it may serve as an unconscious reminder of the fact that some people approach the church with suspicions, skepticism and distrust and understandably so. 

Most of us have heard of the Reverend Jim Jones and the tragic ending of the People’s Temple Cult in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. However, what you may not know is that Reverend Jones began as a very idealistic Methodist minister committed to racial equality. He preached and practiced the social gospel that was more focused on making a difference here on earth than it was in talking about the hereafter. He organized a multiracial congregation where he preached and the congregation practiced love for all people of every race. In the early days, many good people followed Reverend Jones because they thought he was an admirable man doing admirable things. Somewhere along the way things went terribly wrong. His preaching became a delusion and then his delusions became deception and then his deceptions became deadly. 

I mention this particular story because I want to drive home the point that having a good spiritual BS detector is not about simply being an irreverent backbencher.  In certain circumstances having a good BS detector is the difference between life and death. When I lived in Indiana I met people who lost friends and family members to this cult. So as always my sermons will have humor in them, there will be light moments and heavy moments,  but I don’t want us to lose the fact that this topic is deadly serious. 

Speaking of light moments. When I was visiting High Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Macon, Georgia, I met an elderly woman with very gracious Southern manners, who during a coffee hour conversation told me that she wanted to start a bookstore just so she could put Billy Graham’s books in the Cult section. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or joking. 

I tell that story because I want to be very careful how we use that word cult. If you go online you will see that there are some websites that list the Unitarian Universalist Church as a cult. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of a cult, and the reason we are the opposite of the cult is because we teach our kids and encourage each other to have a good BS detector. 

When I was a sociology undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee I focused on the sociology of religion. In the field of sociology a cult is an organization that is led by an authoritarian leader who demands unwavering loyalty and devotion and is excessively controlling over group members. By this definition a cult does not even have to be a religion. A cult might be a political party or a secular organization. 

Based on that definition I can safely say that the Unitarian Universalist church is the opposite of a cult because I know (and you know) that if I were to get up in this pulpit and demand unconditional loyalty, unwavering obedience and unfaltering devotion someone would shout out “BS.” Indeed, there might be a whole chorus shouting the same thing. 

On the spectrum of authoritarianism to anti-authoritarianism we tend to be pretty firmly on the anti-authoritarian end. Our forebears declared “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God” AND I sometimes add, “If tyranny is unavailable any leadership will do.” Which is to say that anyone who agrees to be a leader in our faith will in the fullness of time encounter resistance. I’m not just talking about ministers either. Anyone who volunteers to be a leader whether it be the congregational president or a member of the board or the chair of a committee or even the person who volunteers to fix the coffee in the fellowship hall. Anyone who leads is going to encounter resistance at some time. 

Let me use that last leadership role as an example. If you’ve ever volunteered to fix coffee in the fellowship hall you know that someone is going to question your decisions. If you pick the coffee that you think tastes the best, someone is gonna criticize it if it’s not Fair Trade coffee. And if you pick an ethically responsible, environmentally sustainable brand of coffee, someone is gonna criticize it if it doesn’t taste good. In other words, you may think you just volunteered to fix coffee only to find someone resisting your tyranny in obedience to God. 

Now, you may think that this is a fairly mundane example from the minutiae of congregational life, and I agree. However, it illustrates a tendency in Unitarian Universalist churches that can sometimes be irritating but is also at the heart of our shared work to keep our congregation a healthy organization. 

When I was in college there was a popular bumper sticker that said, “Question authority.” You saw that bumper sticker everywhere, “Question authority,” and then one day someone came up with another bumper sticker that said, “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” The new bumper sticker reminds us that even those who question authority may have our authority questioned. 

In the Torah, Moses serves as a great example of someone willing to question authority, someone who was willing to question not only Pharaoh but God. When God told Moses to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Moses asked a series of questions and critiques, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?…What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?…Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue…Please send someone else.”

In other words, as a point of contrast, the prophet Isaiah said, “Here I am Lord, send me” whereas Moses declared, “Here I am Lord, send somebody else.” This is just the first of many examples of Moses questioning God and the Torah tells us that God patiently (and sometimes a little impatiently) answered Moses’ questions. In other words, God does not question Moses’ right to ask questions. 

Just as Moses questioned God, rabbinic tradition tells us that we must also question the scriptures. Amy Jill-Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity school. She is in the interesting position of being both Jewish and a New Testament scholar and does her work in ways that offer insights into both Jewish and Christian tradition. She writes, “All Scriptures have passages with which people of conscience wrestle..since the name “Israel” traditionally means, “to wrestle with God,” we do well to wrestle with the passages that confuse and disturb us. More, we do well to wrestle with passages that have and continue to cause harm.” Such scriptures might include teachings like, “slaves obey your masters” or “women stay silent in your churches.” 

Levine continues this line of thought by telling the story of her son’s bar mitzvah. On this occasion, the boy becoming a man is asked to read the appropriate reading from the Torah for that day and offer commentary. The text for that particular day was a very challenging one for a young person to interpret. It included these words from Deuteronomy where God enncourages genocide, “In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” 

Needless to say the young man’s job of interpreting this text was very, very challenging but when the day arrived he stood up in the pulpit and said, “I do not like this text.” In other words, he reserved his right to question the word of God but he continued, “I do not like this text but I am very proud to be a part of a tradition that allows to wrestle with it.” Needless to say his mother was also very proud of him. For anyone who wants to gain wisdom from an ancient text is going to have to wrestle with it. 

When we encourage our young people to wrestle with tradition and question authority we are doing important work to keep our faith communities healthy. Our willingness to challenge tradition safeguards our world from horrors like genocide or mass suicide. Remember that the next time someone questions the coffee you serve in coffee hour. Let’s work together to create a healthy church. 

One of my heroes is Emma Gonzalez, who I admire for her willingness to speak truth to power. After seventeen people were killed in a mass shooting in her school, the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, she somehow managed to work through her own trauma and grief to offer one of the post powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. Although a teenager she challenged the most powerful people in our nation and the lobbyists at the National Rifle Association who keep them in power and buy their silence. She told a gathering of grieving families and an international audience through the media. 

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones …to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days…and…hush us into submission…we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.” 

Amen, Emma! 

We need to bring this spirit to many other challenges of our time. At present our society is in the middle of the third wave of the coronavirus with the Omicron variant and yet many of our elected leaders actively sabotage public health measures and act like everything is normal. Nothing to see here. No need to be alarmed. 

So in conclusion let me say, once again the people in our government are lying to us and someone needs to call BS. Knox County Schools closed down this week because teachers and workers and children are sick and still we’re told we do not need facemasks or social distancing or other mitigation in our schools. We call BS. Local hospitals have 10 hour waits in the emergency room because hundreds of nurses and doctors and healthcare workers are sick and still we’re told to act like everything is normal, go to concerts, restaurants, bars and large public gatherings. We call BS. Outside many hospitals there is a line of people and ambulances waiting even though every ICU bed is taken and every ER bed is taken. Many health care professionals are joining the Great Resignation and many young people are choosing other careers and yet elected officials are saying we do not need a strong Board of Health to guide us through this crisis. We call BS. What do we call? BS! What do we call? BS! And let me end by asking one last very serious question. Can I get an “Amen.”

Redeeming the Soul of America

I grew up in the South, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where many communities banned the sale of alcohol on Sunday out of respect for more conservative churches. For this reason I will always remember the time when I was a college student at a friend’s house on a Sunday morning when her mom came home from the Baptist Church carrying a 6 pack of beer in her hand and announced, “I had to have something to wet down that dry sermon.” 

Well the Baptist church is not the only place where you might hear a dry sermon on a Sunday morning. Indeed, I am pretty sure that I’ve preached at least one or two dry sermons in my time as minister of this church. I can only hope that I’ve never driven anyone to drink. 

Indeed, one of the common criticisms of the Unitarian church in the 19th century was that it was arid and dry, detached and overly intellectual, colorless and uninspiring, monotonous and dull. If you go to Harvard Divinity School today you will see there is a chapel named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a Unitarian minister and lifelong preacher from our pulpits, which is remarkable because it was there that he preached a sermon more or less accusing the Unitarian church of his time of being a spiritual wasteland, a desert without an oasis. 

There is a “famine in our churches” he declared because  too often the preaching, “comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul.” Too often the church looks backwards to the past. We get the sense that God spoke long ago but does not speak today, that God took action long ago but does not act now. What is needed in our time is preaching that conveys “the Feeling of the Infinite.” We need to be reminded that “the Highest dwells within us.” And so Emerson encouraged the ministerial students to breathe new life into old forms of worship for when we feel alive our worship will come alive. When we feel inspired our worship will be inspiring. Emerson told his listeners  that the problem with the church is that “the soul is not preached” and the remedy for that problem is “first soul, and second, soul, and evermore soul.” 

This morning I want to preach about the soul (and hopefully there will be at least a little bit of the soul in my preaching.) Tomorrow is the official holiday for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who declared that the goal of the civil rights movement was “redeeming the soul of America.” In other words, the goal of the civil rights movement was not strictly political, it was spiritual. In more recent times we have heard political contests framed as “a battle for the soul of America.” This language suggests that our politics are sometimes informed by the spirit with a vision that goes beyond achieving short term political objectives toward the realm of the salvation of the soul. 

The contemporary Unitarian Universalist church has always made room for both the skeptic and the believer. There is room for both faith and doubt in our tradition. For this reason, one satirist suggested that a good Unitarian prayer might be, “Dear God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” 

However, even that prayer suggests that both God and the soul are matters of private concern. The language used is one of personal, individual, private prayer. However, if our commitment to social justice requires a battle for the soul of our nation and if our ultimate goal is redeeming the soul of our nation then the soul must be bigger than any one of us. The soul must be larger than the individual if we are to embrace the spiritual work of healing the soul of a nation. 

One of the most widely read books in our times is one by Tennessee writer Jon Meacham called The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. In that book he writes, “The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.” Let me anticipate an objection to that statement from any Canadians who are listening today or people from any other nation who may be thinking, “Hey, wait, that conflict is within us too.” Americans aren’t the only ones who have inner conflict. 

Duly noted, point well taken,  however, sometimes the conflicts within us shape our nations in ways that shape our world. So this morning I will be speaking to the soul of the nation from the perspective of an American citizen. And I invite you to reflect with me regardless of your nationality. And from there we will move toward the larger idea of the soul, one that is bigger than any state or nation. 

In Jon Meacham’s book he notes that the existence of the soul cannot be empirically verified. Indeed, the word “soul” is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to define. He writes, “Philosophically speaking, the soul is the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life…nothing less than the animating force of reality. The soul…is what makes us us whether we are speaking of a person or a people, which… Augustine…defined as -an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” 

Meacham is not the first person to speak about the soul in this way. G.K. Chesterton once described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” because we are bound together by a common creed found in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” A creed that has been refined by our abolitionist forefathers and suffragist foremothers to say, “all men and women are created equal” and we will revise today to say, “all people are created equal.” If we take this understanding of soul seriously, then it is our shared commitment to equality and our openness to change that empowers us to work together to redeem the soul of our nation. 

The Reverend Dr. John Butler, minister of the Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church and leader in the NAACP was speaking to a group of ministers this week about the meaning of the political slogan, “Get woke.” . He said to us, “I’ve always been woke. I’ve never been asleep.” Growing up among sharecroppers, attending segregated schools, experiencing first hand personal and systemic racism and discrimination he said has a way of keeping you awake. And this too is the language of the soul; the language of awakening. 

For once a man approached the Buddha and asked, “Are you a god?” and the Buddha said, “No.” “Are you an angel?” Once again the answer was, “No.” “Are you a messiah?” The answer was still, “No,” so the man asked, “What are you?” and the Buddha replied, “I am awake.” 

When activists tell us to get woke, this is not merely the language of politics, this is the language of the soul. When we speak out against racism people may ask, “Are you a Communist?” or “Are you a Socialist?” However, our commitment to combat bias, bigotry and racism is not a political one but a spiritual one. Before we can take meaningful political action we must wake up. We must experience awakening. 

Dr. King said the challenge of social justice work is to serve the cause of freedom without “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” This is easier said than done. Indeed, it can be very difficult to be engaged in working for meaningful change without drinking at least some from the cup of bitterness, anger and resentment. Indeed, some of us have drinken it to the dregs. Even so, this does not have to be our only drink. Indeed, one of the things I like most about working for social change is not the enemies but the friends. The enemies come with the territory, but the friends are priceless. For when we align with good causes, when we side with love and form new friendships we become channels for what our Universalist forebears called “Eternal and All Conquering Love” the love that conquers all things.

Leaders in the civil rights movement taught us that we must meet physical force and political force with soul force. Or as Mother Pollard said of the civil rights marches in Montgomery, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” Some LGBT activists embraced that term soul force and chose it as the name of an organization to combat bias, prejudice and discrimination in our society. For that reason, this morning we are wise to remember Bayard Rustin, the gay man who organized the March on Washington, who took care of the grunt work behind the scenes,  without whom we would have never heard the words, “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. 

Politics has been called the art of the possible and for this reason it is often framed around short term strategic objectives limited in scope. With this limited focus we can sometimes forget the big picture, and fail to make lasting change. As the scripture says, “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our own souls?” What good are political victories if we lose our integrity. For this reason we need a wider vision, a reminder that our goal is not simply to win one election cycle or pass one piece of legislation for we must do this work with a BIG PICTURE VISION, do this work without losing our own souls and by so doing help redeem the soul of our nation. 

This week I was talking with Barbara Lamm about the Food Pantry she has helped organize on our land (an idea that began as the brainchild of the Reverend Jametta Alston.) The food pantry is a place where anyone who needs food can come and get food AND anyone who feels like donating some food can bring food for the pantry. This is an important ministry in this time of pandemic when all the emergency food systems in the community are overwhelmed by those in need of help. And in the course of our conversation Barbara reminded me that it is important to remember that this is not only a ministry to the body but to the soul. The food pantry is a way to help people while also respecting people’s dignity. It is helping without humiliation. This is not a ministry by “us” for “them.” This is a ministry that may be needed by members and friends of the church in this tumultuous time, this time when one untimely medical bill can make it hard to feed the family. In other words, the food pantry is about solidarity not charity. Take something when you need it. Give something when you can. Pay it forward not back. When combined with our efforts to work for a living wage and address systemic change this is a ministry that feeds both body and soul. 

Dr. King had little patience with any religion that ministered to souls but ignored bodies. He preached, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of …(people) and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson accused the Unitarianism of his time of being a “corpse cold religion.” Ouch! Not everyone thought it was a fair accusation. However, I sometimes think that if Ralph Waldo Emerson had grown up in a church with a preacher as good as Dr. King then he’d never have given the Harvard Divinity School Address. (This linkage is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Coretta Scott King wrote in her autobiography about how she and her husband visited Unitarian churches during his time at Boston University and considered joining but decided they could be more effective in their civil rights work through the Baptist Church.) Emerson would have never decried the famine in our churches. He would never have had to lament the arid and dry message coming from our pulpits. And if my college friend’s mom had had a preacher as good as Dr. King in her all white Baptist church she wouldn’t have needed to pick up a 6 pack after the service. 

The hymn that Dr. Reginald Houze shared with us earlier declares,

The church of God, in every age,

beset by change but Spirit led,

must claim and test its heritage

and keep on rising from the dead.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with a corpse cold religion that a little resurrection won’t fix. We must continue to ask the question that the prophet Ezekial asked, “Can these bones live?” The bones, these bones, these dry bones. 

Emerson felt that society would never change until we are willing to change. Society will never be whole until we are whole. He wrote about our tendency to become fragmented, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within (us) ..is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One…We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” And the soul is always bigger than any one person or any one nation. 

The ancient Gnostics decried the church for overseeing a spiritual drought, turning spiritual life into a desert, and decried the preachers of the early church as waterless canals. So let’s commit to being a church that is not arid or dry or monotonous or dull, colorless or uninspiring. Let’s put the soul into our preaching. Let’s put the soul into our practice. Let’s put the soul into our music. Let’s put the soul into our organizing. For when we put our soul into our work we become like the scriptures say, like “a tree planted by the water that will bear fruit in the proper season and whose leaves will not wither.” In other words, let us aspire to be the kind of church where no one ever feels the need to wet down a dry sermon. 

(Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 16, 2022.)

Water Into Wine: Spirituality of Transformation

My father, the Episcopal priest, once showed me a cartoon in the New Yorker that had two very biblical looking characters in robes and sandals leaving the wedding at Cana when one turned to the other and said, “Sure, he turned the water into wine but it was really a rather ordinary Merlot.” 

This morning I want to talk about transformation. The Bible is full of stories of miraculous transformation. Water turns into wine. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The dead rise again. The living experience transfiguration. Crack the Bible open and chances are you will find a miracle story. 

And yet, historically, Unitarians have been skeptical of miracle stories. Thomas Jefferson, a self-described Unitarian, created his own book called The Life and Morals of Jesus where he edited out all the miracle stories but kept the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus. Jefferson was a naturalist who was skeptical of supernatural stories. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous Harvard Divinity School Address in 1838 where he argued that divine law is natural law. These divine laws are not written anywhere on paper so much as they are written in our hearts. We can never adequately write these laws into a book and declare that book infallible and yet, he writes, “we read them hourly in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions and in our own remorse.” 

Emerson went so far as to claim that Jesus shared his view. He told the Divinity School students that Jesus spoke of miracles because he felt that our lives are a miracle and all that we do is a miracle and that this daily miracle shines in us through our character when we commit to becoming better people and when we choose to be appreciative of the miraculous in the natural. 

 However his affirmation of divine law as natural law came with a criticism. He declared, “But the word Miracle as pronounced by the … churches, gives a false impression; it is a Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” According to Emerson if we want to see a miracle we must look all around us to the blowing clover and the falling rain. Or as Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet…Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Look for your miracles in the natural world. 

This is not to say that all Unitarians denied the miracle stories. Indeed after Emerson gave his Divinity School Address he was not invited to speak there again for almost thirty years. One prominent Unitarian scholar Andrews Norton described the address as “the latest form of infidelity.” And yet even some of the early Unitarians who believed in the miracle stories did not feel that it was necessary to share their faith in miracles in order to be a part of the church. There was room for both faith and doubt in the church. This is why Emerson continued to preach in Unitarian pulpits throughout his life, even after giving this controversial address. 

And all of this history is just a preface for what I want to talk about today – the miracle of transformation. For just as the story of the wedding in Cana speaks of Jesus turning the water into wine we are called to the work of transformation. We are called to turn despair into hope, animosity into peace, fear into faith, sadness into joy, lamentations into psalms. We are called to the work of transformation. And this work also requires a faith in miracles. 

For the record, I grew up in the Episcopal Church with permissive ideas about alcohol. It is said of Episcopalians, “Whenever two or more are gathered there is a fifth.” Growing up in that church I remember an elder saying of the ritual of communion, “Jesus turned the water into wine and the Methodist turned the wine into grape juice.” 

I enjoy this kind of humor even as I recognize that we have recovering alcoholics among us for whom grape juice is the life saving option. Grape juice is the miracle. So this morning when I use that metaphor of water into wine feel free to translate that as water into grape juice or water into one of the many non alcohol wines we see on the market today. My goal this morning is not to sell or romanticize a product. My goal is to use the power of metaphor to talk about spiritual transformation. 

And in many ways wine is a good metaphor for spiritual life. A few years ago church member Nathan Paki and I went to a free wine tasting in a place out in West Knoxville. I’d never been to one before and it seemed like it might be a fun one off. And it occurred to me during that event that some sommeliers talk about wine the way some theologians talk about God. Which is to say sommeliers use vague, abstract and opaque language to talk about wine in the way that theologians use vague, abstract and opaque language to talk about God. 

The sommelier will say something like, “This wine is angular, austere, structured, complex, intellectually satisfying and accessible.” I am pretty sure Whitehead and some of the other process theologians once said the same thing about God. If not those exact words, something close to it. 

The 20th century Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman used abstract language for God. For him God was a natural process, an object of sensuous experience, a statement of supreme value, an intellectual conception of the source of all good, the ground of all being, creativity and transformation. Which is another way to say that God is angular, austere, structured, complex, intellectually satisfying and accessible.

However, on a practical level, what Whitehead and Wieman and feminist process theologians like Marjorie Suchocki would say is that the spiritual life is about creativity and transformation. And the good news is we do not have to have all the right words in order to live lives of creativity and transformation. We do not have to have all the right vocabulary words in order to live, move and have our being in this experience of Creativity and Transformation. 

The other day I was walking nearby in the Seven Islands State Birding Park, home to a wide variety of different kinds of birds, when I saw a bench dedicated to the memory of someone inscribed with these words, “Look for the songs hidden in eggs.” Which is to say that before we can hear the song of the woodthrush, the bobolink and the yellow warbler there has to be a transformation. 

The songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” and I would add, that’s how the bird gets out. A crack in the egg is an important part of the transformation that leads to the birdsong. So if we want to know where transformation begins, we need to look for the cracks in our lives, look where things are broken, look for the destruction that may usher in a new era of creativity. 

They say, “If you want to make an omelette you’ve got to be willing to break eggs.” Nature tells us the same thing about birdsong, after a long process of incubation, eggs will be broken in order to make birdsong.

The hatching of eggs is best done without human interference with the nesting process. We would be wise to stay away from any nests with eggs in them if we want those eggs to hatch. However, wine is different, before anyone is going to enjoy wine, someone is going to have to smash grapes. There has to be human agency. Destruction precedes creation. Indeed, grapes are 80% water, which is to say grapes are mostly water. Therefore, every drop of rain that falls, every farmer watering her vineyard is part of a creative process of turning water into wine. 

After the grapes are smashed the process of fermentation begins. Wine is not the only product of fermentation. There are yogurts, cheeses, sauerkraut, bread, pickles, beer and more. The food critic, Sandor Katz, has written a book called The Art of Fermentation with these words in it, “We reject certain food because it is rotten. Certain food we can see is fresh. But there is this creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist.” Fermentation happens in that space between freshness and rottenness, something dying and something else being born. 

As many of you know Greg Johnson and Rainey Fox lost their home in a fire over the holidays. Greg is one of our longtime Sunday School teachers who has a very calm demeanor. He is one of the most even keel guys I know. He has a gift for understatement. I first learned about the house fire when Greg posted a picture of it going up in flames on social media with the short comment, “I guess this gives us a chance to do the Phoenix thing.” 

The story of the Phoenix is one of the most well known legends in human history. The mystical bird is consumed by flames but rises again from the ashes. I am willing to bet that most of us would not be able to be that philosophical at such a moment, watching our own home go up in flames. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. And his comment in no way minimizes the very real tragedy of losing a home, losing a workshop full of tools you’ve spent a lifetime collecting, losing two beloved pets. This is body blow that will be hard to recover from, nevertheless, Greg and Rainey are already planning to rebuild and soliciting ideas for eco-friendly new housing designs, out of the flames rises the Phoenix. 

This week on the anniversary of the Insurrection at the national capitol building we learned that the fire that demolished the Planned Parenthood clinic was arson. Very likely an act of domestic terrorism. This is a demoralizing moment without question and yet with our help the Phoenix can rise from these ashes. 

There are many opportunities for transformation in our world. I remember during one election season, I won’t say which one, the Reverend Johnny Skinner of the Mount Zion Baptist church said to me that he would never pray for someone to lose an election but he was praying for “some people to get new jobs.” Which is to say, out of some losses there can be many gains. Every election season offers us the hope of transformation. And the best way we can stop the next insurrection is to revitalize our democracy and ensure that everyone has the right to vote and can exercise that right without hindrance or obstruction. We must renew our commitment to democracy. 

Of course, when you are a Unitarian minister, a tradition that welcomes dissenting views, you always know there is at least someone praying for you to find a new job. And if you have ever been in a leadership position in the church or in the community then you’ve probably had that moment when you feel like you’ve worked a miracle and someone else felt it was just an ordinary Merlot. Well, let me just say, I think we’ve all been there. It comes with the territory. 

This week Covid Act Now indicated that our community is at the Severe level of risk for transmitting the virus, which is why I am preaching to a mostly empty room. The decision to move back to online worship was a difficult one, even so I want to thank everyone for working together as a community to keep everyone safe. I understand that this decision feels like a death to many of us. The challenge for us now is – how do we turn this experience of death into new life? 

We’ve covered some heavy topics today so let me end the sermon on a lighter note by telling a story from my adolescent years. When I was a teenager I was a summer camp counselor. At summer camp there was no TV or computers or other devices of passive consumer entertainment. We had to find ways to turn our boredom into joy. 

I remember one year a fellow counselor and I decided to stage a takeover of the camp office calling ourselves the Camp Ocoee Liberation Army. We got on the camp’s public address system to make our demands. We announced that we had a book called 1001 Jokes that we found in the camp library and that every single one of them was bad. And so we declared that we would read one joke every five minutes until our demands were met. I can’t remember all our demands but I do remember us demanding two ice cold colas and surprisingly enough we got them. We demanded candy from people’s care packages and our extortionist demands were met. The reason we were successful was because these jokes were well and truly terrible jokes. The best one in the book was,

What did the hat say to the hatrack? Stay here I am going on a head. 

More representative of the low quality of the jokes was this one. 

What is big and yellow and swims the seven seas? Moby Banana. 

What is green and jumps over buildings in a single bound? Super Pickle

Like I said, these were bad jokes, very bad jokes. And so we were successful in getting our demands met. And yet occasionally a joke would be so bad it would make us laugh. Have you ever heard a joke that was so bad that it made you laugh? Well, once you start laughing at a bad joke it can be hard to stop. Once you’ve let it slip, it can be hard to reel the laughter back in. And soon you are not only laughing at the joke but laughing at the fact that you are actually laughing at such a bad joke and soon you and your friends are rolling around on the floor laughing. And as mundane and utterly silly as this sounds, this too is the power of transformation. When we are able to turn boredom into joy and joy into laughter knowing that laughter turns the water into wine.

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

Churches often have highly visible symbols that send a spiritual message. Cathedrals have towers and spires, flying buttresses and stained glass windows, compelling statuary and ornate decorations. And when turning off Kingston Pike to come to the  Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church one of the first things you notice about our building is that we have a big orange port-a-potty in our parking lot. 

I mention this because this week we have received some emails from concerned congregants suggesting that this might not be the right aesthetic for our faith. There have been some who have gone so far as to venture the opinion that the big orange port-a-potty might not be the visual effect we are looking for to tie together the overall architectural vision of our church. 

Point well taken. These emails do raise some very valid concerns. However, there is a way to look at that port-a-potty as a symbol for spiritual reality…for that outward and visible symbol reminds us that we are reinvesting in our faith by reinvesting in our building. We are investing in a new roof for our building. And I want to thank the Building and Grounds committee for all the hard work they have been doing to renovate and update our 23 year old building. In this way that big orange symbol is a symbol of hope. The outward and visible signs of the renovation of our building can serve as harbinger of the inward and invisible renovation of our spirits.  

We are entering into the season of Advent and as we do so we are surrounded by outward symbols that come from many different religious and cultural traditions, the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe and evergreen tree. The light of advent candles, Hanukkah candles, Yule log candles, Kwanzaa candles and more. All suggest that in this season of winter darkness we all await the dawning of new light. 

We often hear the words of the prophet Isaiah this time of year,  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” This time of year, people of all faiths are looking for hope. People of all faiths are looking for light. 

Today in our country there are cities, towns and neighborhoods that have been devastated by tornadoes and there are people mourning lost loved ones. There are communities where the power is out and the people literally wait in darkness for the light. 

Even under normal circumstances this is not an easy time of year for everyone.  There are those who are experiencing seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. There are those who are having a hard time putting up the holiday decorations this year or going through the motions of the traditional celebrations. There are those grieving lost loved ones who will not be at the holiday gatherings this year or mourning losses of another kind. 

In those years when we do not feel we can decorate our homes with festive lights we can heed the wisdom of the mystics of every faith who advise us to go inward toward the light and open ourselves to interior decorating and inward renovation. A common theme across the lines of every faith is that outward ritual should speak to our inner lives. We must never allow religion to become about route ritual, empty tradition and force of habit. We must continually insist that the outward is a  manifestation of our inward lives. 

In other words we can look upwards to the towers and spires, the flying buttresses and the stained glass windows but we need to know that the highest is present within us. Divinity does not come to us but through us. 

Last Sunday we had storytime and activities for all ages on the front lawn of our church. And one of those activities was making luminaria. Luminaria is a Mexican tradition where you take a paper bag, cut or punch holes in it and then you place sand at the bottom of the bag. Then place a candle in that sand so that it can stand erect and you can then light the candle. A luminaria can be a stand alone, a single light in darkness, or you can create a walkway, a path lined by them, as we do on many Christmas Eves here at the church. And I mention this children’s arts and crafts project for a reason because this time of year it is important for us to remember that each one of us is like a luminaria. We are illuminated from the inside. 

The novelist, poet and playwright Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, not too far from where some of my family live. She’s written an interesting book called We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light In A Time of Darkness. The words “We are the ones we have been waiting for” comes to us from the poet June Jordan and these words have been set to music by the group Sweet Honey in the Rock that has connections to All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC where Ysaye Barnwell helped start the Jubilee Singers Choir. 

In her book Alice Walker shares the idea that we are each guided by “an inner light, a compass we can steer by as we set across the lengthening darkness. It comes from the simple belief and understanding that what one is feeling and doing is right. That it is right to protect rather than terrorize others; right to feed people rather than withold food and medecine; right to want the freedom and joyful existence of all humankind. Right to want the freedom and joy for all creatures that exist already, or that might come into existence.” 

Walker doesn’t say it but she knows from experience that not everyone sees that light because when she grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, the schools and the movie theater were racially segregated precisely because white supremacy culture does not see or acknowledge or respect the divine spark in every person. 

Alice Walker practices Buddhist meditation but she does not claim to be a Buddhist. Indeed, she reminds us that Buddha was not a Buddhist just as Jesus was not a Christian. And yet, enlightened beings offer us light and remind us of our own light. When Buddha was dying he told his followers, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves” just as Jesus said to his disciples, “you are the light of the world.” When we light a candle we do not hide it under a bushel, no. (We all know that song don’t we?) We let it shine. We put it on a stand so that it can give light to everyone in the house. And in this same way we should let our light shine before all humankind and all creation. 

The Unitarian Universalist Church has been heavily influenced by the Social Gospel Tradition where we are taught, “Change does not come when we wait for somebody else to do it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We must be the change that we want to see happen in the world.” This is what theologians call realized eschatology. 

In advent we wait for the birth of Christ. However, we practice realized eschatology when we remember the old words to the Christmas Carol that tell us, “In the deep midwinter, in this world of pain, when our hearts are open, Christ is born again.” The dawn of new light comes from within. We honor the babe laying in a manger by accepting our adult responsibilities. 

This is not to say that outward ritual and traditions are not important, they can be. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when we can experience God directly we should set the scriptures aside. Direct experience is preferable to a transcript of someone else’s experience then he added, “But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, – when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining – we repair to the lamps (the scriptures, the traditions, the rituals) which were kindled by their ray to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is.” That is what the Advent candles can do for us – guide our steps to the East where the dawn is. 

Every holiday season we are mindful of those who are no longer with us. Sometimes we may not even know a person who died but still we are affected by it.  For instance the media reminds us of celebrities who are no longer with us. This year the comedian Norm MacDonald died who used to be on Saturday Night Live as the anchor for Weekend Update. I don’t remember watching the show during the period he was on it, so his name was unfamiliar to me. However, I caught a clip of him talking on one of the Late Night Talks show hosts where he shared a joke that caught my attention.

He began by thanking the host for sending a limousine driver to pick him up for the show. Then he mentioned that on the way to the studio the limo driver told him a joke. He then proceeded to tell that joke on national television. So this joke is not a professional comedian’s joke. This joke is the People’s Joke. So power to the people. Here is the joke about a moth that goes into a podiatrist’s office. 

It begins this way, once a moth went into a podiatrist’s office and said, “Doc, I am feeling very depressed. I am really down in the dumps. I think I might have a drinking problem and an eating disorder and issues with anxiety,” and the moth continues enumerating many other problems. And the podiatrist replies, “It sounds like you need a psychiatrist not a podiatrist so why did you come to a podiatrist’s office,” and the moth replies, “Well, because the light was on.” 

I tell that story because I find hope in the fact that someone can make us laugh even after they’ve died, that something of our spirit and sense of humor survives. I also tell this story because I believe that if we do our job right the church will always be the place where the light is on, a place where we can all gather in this season of winter darkness; and console and comfort each other, a place where our lives can be illuminated, a place where we can be luminaria. 

So let me end by saying that if the big orange port-a-potty in our parking lot doesn’t work for you as a symbol, try seeing it as a meditation on impermanence. For that port-a potty will not be with us forever but only until our renovation is complete. So look at it as a reminder of the impermanence of all things in the natural order (including life itself.) 

And if you need another symbol that works better. Maybe sometime this week you can wake up in the morning to see one of our gorgeous winter sunrises and witness that moment when that big orange symbol rises above the horizon turning darkness into light, serving as a messenger of the dawn of a new day within us and all around us. So may it be. 

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, December 11, 2021)