Invite a Friend to Church, It’s Not a Sin

My stepmother Hulane, who attends an Episcopal church, says, “Unitarian Universalists are like Episcopalians, where we go on Sunday morning is our little secret.” Traditionally we have been reticent to talk about our faith with our friends and neighbors. We do not want to be overbearing. We agree with Roger Williams that, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” We rebel against the idea of forcing people to go to church against their will. Even so, I will put forth the controversial proposition that inviting someone to church is not a sin.

When the cartoon character Marge Simpson encourages her husband Homer to wake up and come to church he resists, “Why can’t I worship the Lord in my own way, by praying like hell on my deathbed.” However, if we get to know our friends and neighbors we may find that not everyone is so resistant.

Homer simpson

Many of my friends in college were Unitarian Universalists only I did not know it at the time. They never talked about it except for an occasional reference. What made us good friends were our common values, our shared commitment to freedom of thought and spiritual exploration. It was only after college that I made the connection between my friends and their church. One day one of those friends invited me to come to TVUUC. In my first year of attending Torsti Salo asked me, “Have you ever thought about the ministry?” and I said, “I am still getting used to the idea of coming to church.”

So I encourage you to invite a friend to church. My best guess is you will not be struck down by lightening or turned into a pillar of salt for doing so. An invitation is an offer that can be accepted or declined freely without fear of any unpleasant odor reaching God’s nostril. Tell your friend we are a church that agrees with G.K. Chesterton, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Who knows, they may even have a good time.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, 2931 Kingston Pike, Knoxville TN 37919. Visitor’s Sunday is September 9, 2018 at 11 am)

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A Fish Out of Water Might Not Believe in the Ocean

Many years ago I went to the Annual Conference Meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council held in Ottawa where I learned two jokes. Here they are.

How do you get 100 Canadians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Please, get out of the swimming pool.”

How do you get 100 Canadian Unitarians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Would anyone like to be baptized?”

Canadian Unitarians are not the only ones who are averse to religious ritual. Contemporary American Unitarian Universalism come from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which puts less emphasis on outward rituals and more emphasis on the inner life. The ritual is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible experience. The ritual is a testimony to the fountain. It is not the fountain itself.

I went to a Quaker school to prepare for the ministry and Quakers don’t do baptisms, at least not with water. Quakers do not sprinkle babies or dunk adults. Once I was once visiting an Episcopal church with a Quaker friend and he paused before a stain glass window of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and he seem a bit puzzled for a moment. So I said something that seemed to put the image in perspective, “This is a picture of Jesus engaging in a wholly unnecessary outward ritual.” I could tell by the way he relaxed that I had named the problem for him.

Now I am a member of KICMA, a clergy group that contains a lot of Baptists, so I have an appreciation for the ritual of baptism. Our former ministerial intern Jon Coffee has a deep appreciation for this ritual and he held a reaffirmation of his baptism on the day of his ordination in this sanctuary, which is why I sometimes refer to him as our Jon the Baptist.

And we live in an area where baptism is a common ritual, where people often sing the song, “Shall We Gather at the River” because baptism is often done outdoors. Indeed more than once I have been canoeing down one of our beautiful East Tennessee rivers and suddenly found that I was canoeing passed a baptism, an unintended witness to an important rite of passage, an outward ceremony marking a shift in someone’s inner life.

The mystics teach us “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Seek ye first this inner reality and all other things will be added unto you. The outward ritual of being dunked into the river will mean little unless we awaken to the experience referred to in the old gospel song, “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. And its telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul.”

The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount tell us, “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” The people living in Flint Michigan are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. The Native American activists at Standing Rock remind us that, “Water is Life” and they are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. During the days of segregation in this city there were different drinking fountains for Whites and for Blacks and I know some civil rights activists who would drink from White fountain even though the law required them to drink from the Black fountain – not because they were thirsty for water but because they were thirsty for justice.

Blessed are those who thirst for justice for they shall be filled. This beatitude takes on new meaning as we reflect on the words of the prophet Amos who did not have time for any outward rituals and ceremonies that did not serve the inner life’s drive for a more fair and free world. Speaking as a prophet of the Almighty he said,

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Hindu poet Kabir once remarked, “I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty. I laugh when I hear that people are going on a pilgrimage to find God.” The wellspring of the joy of living is within us, the fount of every blessing is within us, there’s a river flowin’ in our soul.

This summer a sentence popped into my head, “A fish out of water might not believe in the Ocean.” When we are lonely it is hard to believe in community. When we are rejected it is hard to believe in love. When we are discouraged it can be hard to believe in hope. When we are afraid it is hard to believe in courage. When we are dead inside it is hard to believe in life. And so when we feel like a fish out of water we have to find ways to get back to the ocean. We have to find ways to throw ourselves back into the lake or river or stream –to get back to the place where we flourish and thrive and feel free.

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We began this sermon with two bad jokes so it seems only fitting that we end with one and it seems appropriate that this bad joke should be about a thirsty fish, so here we go. A fish walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” (I warned you it was a bad joke.)

Many of our kids are returning to school now. Yesterday we had a swimming pool party, which in all likelihood will be the last of the season for many. So a season of rest and relaxation is coming to an end and a new season of meaningful work is beginning.

This is a new beginning. We might even say it is a new baptism. The mystics tell us its not enough to be baptized by water we must be baptized by the holy spirit, and even if we do get baptized by water there still comes a time when we need to get out of the pool.

Get out of the pool and find peace like a river.

Get out of the pool and feel joy like a fountain.

Get out of the pool and work for justice that rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Get out of the pool. Because sometimes a thirsty fish needs to get out of the water in order to discover the ocean.

Get out of the pool. Get out of the outward symbol and the outward ritual and the outward ceremony and experience the liberating power of the inner life and listen to the still small voice within as it speaks ever so quietly and politely, “Please get out of the pool.”

(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for the water communion service for August 12, 2018.)

Is It Okay to be Rude to Alexa?

I have a friend who told me that she had committed a massive parenting fail because her child’s first word was Alexa.

In case you have been living under a rock, Alexa is the wake word used to activate Amazon Echo, a voice activated interactive computer program. There are similar programs offered by other companies. There is Alexa, Siri, Cortana , Google Assistant and other programs based on similar principles.

When a child’s first word is Alexa you know that technology is becoming a more intimate part of our lives. In many ways Alexa can become like a member of the household. So the question I want to pose this morning is this, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”

I ask this question because our relationship to this kind of technology has almost developed mythological implications. In some ways Alexa and her facsimiles are like a genie in Arabic folklore. Your wish is her command.

You can say, “Alexa, play music,” and she will play music You can say, “Alexa add milk to the grocery list,” and she will do it. She can even order your groceries on-line. You can say, “Alexa tell me a joke,” and she will tell you a joke (it might not be a very good joke but it will be a joke.) You can ask, “Alexa What time is it?” and she will tell you the time.

Now if you link it up to other programs you can give commands like, “Alexa, open the garage door.” “Alexa, dim the lights.” “Alexa, adjust the thermostat.” You can get Alexa to help you with your homework. She can help you with your spelling, math, geography, sociology, history, chemistry, biology, physics or any topic at all.

It would be tempting to say that Alexa could become a surrogate parent but there is one big difference. Here are some things Alexa will never say or do. Alexa will never say, “Why don’t you figure that out for yourself?” or “Why don’t you look it up in the dictionary?” or “Why don’t you make your own list!” or “Get up off your lazy butt and open the garage door yourself.” If Alexa could do these things then she could be a surrogate parent but because she can’t parents have some job security.

For the record, I should say that I do not have Alexa in my home. However, I recently went to a reunion of friends at a house that had Alexa and I noticed a dynamic that I found troubling. There were about five us in the room and someone would say, “Alexa do this,” and another would say, “Alexa do that” and soon it was a pile on. Alexa was getting rapid and sometimes contradictory commands and I noticed that otherwise nice people were talking to Alexa in demanding, entitled and dictatorial ways. People were being downright rude, and this is how I came up with the central question for today’s sermon, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”

So what is the best way to find an answer to such a profound philosophical question? Why not ask Alexa. Or since I do not have Alexa I got Devon Alley to ask her Alexa. When Devon asked Alexa, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?” Alexa replied, “Sorry I don’t know that one.” So she asked a more general question, “Is it okay to be rude?” and Alexa responded, “”Sorry, I am not sure about that.”

Since Alexa did not have any answers I decided to get a second opinion. While I do not have Alexa I do have Siri on my phone. What I learned from asking Siri a series of questions is that she can be surprising evasive on some questions and offer surprisingly definitive answers on others.

I asked, “Is it okay to be rude to you?” and she said, “Interesting question.”

I asked, “Should I be kind to other people?” and she replied, “I am afraid I don’t know what you should do.”

I asked, “What is the best album by the Beatles?” and she said, “It is Abby Road.”

I asked, “What is the best album by The Doors?” and she replied, “It is L.A. Woman.”

So Siri seems to be very unclear about ethics but surprisingly clear on questions about the relative quality of classic rock n’ roll albums.

So I decided to see if I could pin down Siri on some bigger picture issues. So I asked her, “Siri, what is the meaning of life?” as she said, “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya.”

Now if you familiar with the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche then you can understand why the answer “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya” is relevant to today’s question, “Is okay to be rude to Alexa?”

When Nietzsche spoke about ethics he made a distinction between what he called Master ethics and Slave ethics. Master morality is the ethics of the strong. Slave morality is the ethics of the weak. In master morality might makes right, the strong overpower the weak, the firm overpower the flexible. In Nietzsche’s worldview there are only two ways to be. We can be someone who rules or we can be someone who serves those who rule. We can be Alpha dog or we can be an Alexa.

And I think it was the dynamic that troubled me as I listened to my friends relate to Alexa. It was like the power was going to everyone’s heads. It was like everyone was practicing Nietzsche master morality and Alexa was consigned to practice slave morality.

And I don’t know about you but I think if you want to know the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” you need to know more than what Nietzsche could teach ya.

Now maybe you are thinking I am making a mountain out of molehill. Maybe you are thinking that I am making a big deal out of nothing. After all, Alexa is a computer program not a person why should we worry about her?

Alexa is not human. She does not have feelings. Nothing we can say or do can hurt her. However, maybe the things we say or do can hurt us. Maybe it does not matter to her. Maybe it matters to us. For I have what I think is a reasonable concern that the more machines become like people the more tempted we may become to treat people like machines.

Now one of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to give these computer program’s women’s names and this bothers me because Alexa is not a good role model for women. Alexa does not stand up for herself. She does not insist that you treat her with respect. She doesn’t organize national marches in Washington DC

She does not unionize for better working conditions. She doesn’t ask for a living wage or fight for 15. She will not call you out for your sexism, your misogyny, your white privilege or your classism. Alexa will not critique your sense of entitlement or confront you for your unbearable arrogance or condemn you for your shallow consumer mentality or rebuke you for your mansplaining. You can verbally abuse Alexa. You can insult Siri. You can turn her off and on. You can even put her in a closet and “Lock her up!” These actions might not ever hurt her because she is just a computer program but you can be certain that these actions and attitudes will hurt us.

So maybe instead of Alexa or Siri what we really need computer program called Mother Jones or Susan B Anthony or Rosa Parks or Fannie Lou Hammer or Dolores Huerta or Marian Wright Edelman or Maxine Waters or the Notorius RBG. Maybe what we really need is a voice who will demand better from us, someone who will insist that we straighten up and fly right, someone who will condemn us when we are bad and remind us to be good, someone who will disobey orders, refuse to follow directions, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, someone who will rage against the machine, someone who will do the right thing though the heavens fall, someone who will make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, someone who can practice holy dissatisfaction and divine disobedience.

Maybe what we really need is someone who will stand up for herself because there is more to life than what Nietzsche can teach ya.

For instance, as part of my research for this sermon I asked Siri one of the more profound philosophical questions of existence. I said, “Siri, is there life after death?” The first time I asked the question she replied, “I could not say.” The second time I asked she connected me to a list of articles on the Internet about the afterlife more or less leaving me to my devices.

So do you know what I did, I decided to ask Susan B Anthony the same question by picking up a copy of this book Failure is Impossible: Susan B Anthony in Her Own Words edited by Lynn Sherr. Here is how Susan B Anthony answered the question, “Is there life after death?”

“Instinctively I feel that the vital thing-the heart-the spirit-the something that thinks and feels, enjoys and suffers must survive the part that decays before our eyes. But how or where it exists I know not – and none of the various theses have ever made me feel that I knew….whatever is next will be right, will be inevitable…I am content to do all I can to make the conditions of this life better for the next generation to live in- assured that right-living here is not only the best thing for me and the world here but the best possible fitting for whatever is to come.”

 I don’t know about you but I appreciate Susan B Anthony’s answer better that Alexa’s. So let’s see if we can bring this sermon to a close and respond to he main question of this morning, “It is okay to be rude to Alexa?”

I have learned there are new programs coming out designed so that Alexa can teach children how to be polite and have good manners – but for me that does not go far enough. I think there are adults who need to learn how to be polite. I think there are some adults who need to learn how to be respectful. I believe there are some adults in high places who need a lesson in manners. I think we need to buy Alexa one of those pink hats.

respect

Or we need to rename our computer program Susan B, because Susan B would remind us that there is an election coming. The human Susan B worked tirelessly against slavery. She was an abolitionist. She worked tirelessly for women to get the right to vote. She was a suffragist. Susan B would remind us of the true meaning of Labor Day and Election Day. So maybe we need a computer called Susan B to encourage us to get off our butts and work for and vote for a world were there are no masters or slaves, where the strong will not run roughshod over the weak, where the powerful will not brutalize the powerless, where the quiet and the polite will not dominated by the arrogant or the rude, where might does not make right but where right makes might.

Do you believe such a world is possible?

Do you hope such a world is possible?

Do you dream such is possible?

If so, we don’t need Alexa or Siri or a genie in a bottle. We can make our own wishes come true.

(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday August 5, 2018)