Buddha and the Black Church

Once the Buddha gave a sermon without using any words. He stood before a gathering of hundreds of people and simply held up a single flower. Only one person understood what he was trying to say but that person reached enlightenment immediately. This wordless sermon is called the Buddha’s flower sermon and to be honest there are some Sunday’s when I wish I could get away with that…but I can’t (or at least I am too chicken to try.)

So this morning I am going to be speaking about the Buddha and the black church…but as usual it may take me a little bit of time to get to my point. So be patient. You may not know this but the song from our prelude Ella’s Song began as a spoken word statement when the civil rights leader Ella Baker told a group of activists that “Until the killing of black mother’s sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Later Sweet Honey in the Rock set these words to music and created harmonies to carry the message.

So if a spoken word statement can be turned into music maybe the opposite can happen. Maybe the words of a song can become spoken words that call us to work for freedom and justice, and so I say in the words of the song.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

These words come from the hymn we sang earlier this morning, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. The song was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson’s brother set the poem to music and it was performed for the first time on February 12, 1900 by 500 school children in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It quickly became the official song of the NAACP and an anthem of the civil rights movement and a familiar hymn in many churches.

And I believe this song offers a great example of why if Buddha were to come to America today he might go to a black church. For the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “life is suffering. ” This hymn reminds us that the spirituality of the black church is grounded in a profound experience of suffering. As the poet wrote,

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

When we were kids one of the first words we learned “Ouch!” It is a very powerful word. Through this single word we are able express our feelings of pain to another person. However, as we grow older we too often lose our vocabulary to talk about suffering.

All to often when people come up to us and ask, “How are you doing?”we answer, “fine,” when we are anything but fine. We may be crying on the inside, holding back the flood gates, smiling through the pain… and when this happens we need the Buddha and the black church to remind us that its okay to admit that life is suffering, that life is hard, that times get tough.

The scripture tells us that “rain falls on the just”and the participants in the Women’s March yesterday know this to be true. We live in a world were sometimes it rains on our parade. Everyone who has ever organized a movement for social justice knows this is a thing.

And there are other situations as well when we become aware that life is suffering. I remember once when I was at the General Assembly of our denomination we were in the middle of an excruciatingly long business meeting when the moderator announced that the meeting would be extended another thirty minutes and at that exact moment a baby in the audience cried out,“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” And that baby spoke for all of us. Because that baby understood the first Noble truth of Buddhism that life is suffering. We too can be honest about how we feel.

Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the Buddha would remind us not only that “life is suffering” but also that our efforts to escape suffering often compound our suffering. This is why we have such large opiate addiction problem in our country and so many other addictions. Escapism does not ever lead to a successful escape. So ultimately the spiritual question becomes not, “Will we suffer?” but “How will we suffer?” And is there a basis for hope in the depths of this inescapable suffering. As the poet wrote,

Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

 And our mothers sighed as well, Ella Baker would remind us. This song is written about the bitter history of slavery in our country, that is it’s appropriate historic context. However, in this song there is also an invitation to us all to take the reality of suffering seriously; to stop pretending that everything is ok. That’s why this is not just a great African American hymn, It is quite simply one of the best hymns ever written!!

Does anyone here remember the royal wedding held in Westminster Abby that featured a black preacher, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church of America? The English did not know what hit them. There was a preacher in the pulpit expressing emotions, feeling his feelings, letting them show. Those members of the Church of England looked shocked and surprised – talk about a white wedding!

The Anglican Church is not the only place where this can happen. There is a story about a visitor to a rather staid New England Unitarian church who shouted “Amen!” in the middle of the sermon unsettling the whole congregation. Later he shouted, “Hallelujah!” once again ruffling feathers. A little bit later he shouted, “Glory!” causing an usher to approach the man and ask, “Is there a problem?” to which the man replied, “There’s no problem. I’ve got religion!” causing the usher to say, “Well, you didn’t get it here.”

I love this story even as I reject is a description of who we are today or where we are going because we too have religion. Can I get an Amen?

Many of the images of the Buddha, show him silent, still, meditating so it may be hard to imagine him shouting “Amen” or “Hallelujah” but I bet he would be very comfortable in a church where people could say, “Ouch!”

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Now here is a difference between Buddha and the black church. An adherent of Buddhism is not required to have faith in God. The Buddha tried to avoid speculative metaphysical matters. He said that too often theologians and philosophers are like someone who has been shot by an arrow who says, “Before I can remove this arrow I need to know the name of the bird that produced these feathers. I need to know the kind of tree that provided the wood that made this shaft. I need to know the variety of metal used to create the point.” We would be silly to insist on answers to all these questions before removing the cause of our suffering.

So a Buddhist is not required to believe in God but if a Buddhist were to believe in God it might be the God of which the poet spoke,

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might,
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray

Now there is a scripture that tells us, “Suffering breed perseverance. Perseverance breeds character. Character breeds hope and hope will not disappoint.” And yet many of us can relate to a story Reid Frank told me about leading a girl scout troop on a rainy overnight camping trip when one of the girls shook her fist at heaven and said, “Enough character already.”

Theologians often speak of redemptive suffering. This is the suffering that breeds perseverance and character and hope. However, there are many other kinds of suffering that simply wear us down and wear us out. Theologians may not have a term for it but I think we can all agree that there are many forms of non-redemptive suffering. The kind of suffering that makes us all want to say, “Enough is enough.”

I believe we who attend a historically white church have a lot to learn from historically black church especially when it comes to understanding the role that suffering plays in our spiritual journey.

My friend Johnny Skinner, minister of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, frequently says two things that I have committed to memory. He says, “The scripture tells us to be grateful in all circumstances. It does not tell us to be grateful for all circumstances.” And the second thing he says is this, “You do not have to take the Bible literally in order to take it seriously,” and the Bible is full of stories of suffering and hope, and we can draw strength from these stories that help us to overcome difficult circumstances. We can say,

Just like Daniel in the Lion’s Den we shall overcome. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego passing through a fiery furnace, we shall overcome. Just like Paul and Silas went to jail with no money for their bail, we shall overcome. And drawing wisdom from a more modern prophet we can say just like Ella Baker we shall overcome because we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

We can say as the poet said,

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
True to our native land.

Like that Native American leader who was confronted by jeering high school students yesterday in Washington DC, we shall overcome.

We shall find strength for the journey. We shall make a way out of no way. We shall draw wisdom from the Buddha and the black church and sing, “We shall overcome.”

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday January 20, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)

 

 

 

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The Gospel of Universalism for Our Times

In order to understand the gospel of Universalism we need to know more than just the theology or doctrine or history. We need to catch the spirit.

So to help you catch the spirit I am going to teach you a song about the Universalist minister, Quillen Hamilton Shinn that kids sing at Ferry Beach Camp in Maine that involves singing as loud as you can and banging on tables in the cafeteria. First I am going to teach you the song and then I am going to talk about the man.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Very good! Now that you know the song let me tell you about the man. Now you may not know this but the local Unitarian Universalist minister’s group is named after Quillen Shinn. We are called Shinn Splints. Our group is named after Quillen Shinn because he started many Universalist churches in the Southeast and around the country. Oddly enough most of the ministers in our group don’t know this song, but you do so that makes you special. So let’s practice it one more time.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Quillen Shinn was born in West Virginia in 1845 and he grew up to be a traveling minister who rode from town to town on horseback spreading the gospel of Universalism. The central theme of the Universalist Gospel was the idea that all souls would eventually be reconciled with each other and with God; one big God in one big heaven. Many of the Universalist ministers of this era, especially those on the frontier, were women, as the Universalist Church was the first denomination to ordain women with full denominational authority

Universalists did not believe in eternal damnation because God’s capacity to love is always greater than the human capacity to err or sin or trespass. In Universalist theology God is great and we are small. For this reason Universalists were sometimes called “no hellers.” And it even was suggested by irreverent critics that when Universalists went to church they sang.

No hell, No hell, No hell, No hell (to the tune of Noel)

But Universalism has always been more than a belief that there is no hell. At the center of the founding of this gospel is a faith in a God whose nature is love and whose ultimate goal is reconciliation. Indeed, if you visit any of the historic Universalist churches in our country you are likely to find the words “God is Love’ written above the entrance or on the altar or the hearth of the fireplace in the fellowship hall. You may even see light shining through those words on a stain glass window. The outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach has the words inscribed on the pulpit.

god is love

Now contemporary Universalist will be the first to tell you that this simple statement “God is love” embraces complexity and diversity. A Universalist who is a theist will see the statement “God is love” as an affirmation of the existence of a God whose nature is love. A Universalist humanist will see these words as a reminder that love is our guiding ideal that calls us to our better selves. A Universalist with a global perspective will see the words as pointing toward the fact that love and compassion are taught by all the great world religions. A practical person will see the words “God is love” as a reminder that God is a verb. God is about action and not just talk.

Quillen Shinn was a man of action. He traveled around the country and in every town he tried to start a Universalist church. He visited every state in the Union and most of the Provinces of Canada. He started an estimated 40 churches and recruited over a thousand new members to the faith and inspired at least 30 people to become ministers. He also founded the Ferry Beach conference center, which is why they sing about him today.

If we were to reduce Quillen Shinn’s theology to a single sentence it would be, “Love conquers all things.” He preached, “All who believe it should place the motto…on the wall of the soul, and then prove it to be true, by showing how every day, your own love, combined with wisdom and purpose, is able to conquer some things.”

One hears echoes of Quillen Shinn in the Universalist Declaration of Faith passed by the Universalist General Assemblies in 1935 and reaffirmed in 1955. This declaration is both an affirmation of a more liberal Christianity but also points toward a broader idea of Universalism. In fact the history of Universalism might be described as a journey from a Christian Universalism to a more Universal Universalism. So here is the Universalist Declaration of faith from the early and mid 20th century.

We avow our faith in
God as eternal and all-conquering love;
the spiritual leadership of Jesus;
the supreme worth of every human personality;
the authority of truth, known or to be known; and
the power of persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome
all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.

One hears a little bit of Quillen Shinn in this statement. One also hears more than a little of the social gospel movement in these words. However, this statement of faith was never a creed. The statement contained this proviso, “Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test.” So Universalism comes from the Christian tradition but is open to the authority of truth, known or to be known.

One of the symbols for the Universalist Church of this era was a circle with a cross inside it (seen below)

universalist cross

This was meant to show the Christian origins of the faith but also openness to wider truth; truth from whatever quarter it might arise. Over time this image became broader. In the 20th century the Charles Street Meeting House designed a sanctuary with an image of the Milky Way in the center, and symbols from all the great world religions along the sides. This particular congregation put the universe into Universalism.

pattonmeetinghouse

So what is the future of Universalism in our times. Well to look forward let’s look back. When our congregation was founded in 1949 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church members were invited to join by signing a card that showed how our congregation was aligned with Universalism even though we did not add the name until the 1990’s. This card stated that the purpose of membership in our congregation was, “To uphold freedom…and equal rights for all…to seek and receive the truth, both old and new, believing that the past must always prove itself anew and that a living religion must change as thought advances and must be free to grow; to respect in each other and in all, the authority of the individual conscience and the freedom of mind, holding that the human spirit is most truly guided from within, to discover and proclaim the world unifying faith revealed in the deeper insights of all religions and derived from the universal wisdom of all cultures, and to utilize for religious purposes all available knowledge for the world unifying fields of thought and science.” That is a very Universalist statement of faith.

We can also find a little bit of that Universalist spirit in our current mission statement where we covenant together to transform the world through acts of love and justice. One can almost hear in those words our forbear’s faith in eternal and all conquering love, a love that conquers all things.

However what the apostle Paul wrote in the scriptures is true of Universalism, “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” To understand Universalism we have to move beyond the letter to the spirit.

Universalism is a tradition full of good stories, so good you are never entirely sure where history ends and folklore begins. There are stories about the Reverend John Murray, the founder of Universalism, encountering resistance as he spread this gospel in the early days of the American Republic. It is said, that in in one town a minister named Reverend Bacon tried to prevent John Murray from preaching and some of the more conservative minister’s congregants got out of hand and started throwing eggs at Murray, and so with egg on his face Murray declared, “These are moving arguments, but I must own at the same time, I have never been so fully treated to Bacon and eggs before in all my life.”

Another story is told about a mob assembling outside a church in Boston where John Murray was preaching when someone threw a rock through the window that landed near the pulpit. John Murray walked over, picked up the rock and declared, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational or convincing. Not all the stones in Boston except they stop my breath shall shut my mouth.”

In these stories we hear the call to love and courage, a call that is as relevant today as it was in ages past. I am very grateful for the legacy of John Murray and I am grateful for the legacy of Quillen Shinn who continues to inspire summer camp kids to shout his name while banging on tables. Quillen Shinn is a rock star at Ferry Beach so let’s make him a rock star here. So let’s close this sermon by recognizing the many ways our faith from the past continues to guide us toward the future by raising a grateful din and singing one more round of the Quillen Shinn song.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY!

 (Rev. Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 13, 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

Emmanuel: A Christmas Eve Homily

Warning: what I am about to say may be considered offensive, polarizing, divisive and even inflammatory – Happy Holidays!

On Christmas Eve in the midst of our nations culture wars ‘Tis’ the season to be easily irritated. In all fairness this can be a very stressful season on all of us, so maybe we can be all be forgiven if we get a little bit testy. This week I almost got suck into a Facebook fight over the Happy Holidays controversy – and I’m adult. I know better.

Another thing that happened this week someone shared with me a video of a Christmas pageant that went way wrong. In the pageant two preschool actors got into a fight over the baby Jesus. Mary and one of the sheep got into a tug of war over who should hold the Christ child. And it occurred to me as I watched the situation deteriorate that I was watching a major theme in church history play out before my eyes. Because fighting over Jesus is a well established church tradition – adults do it to.

This evening I want to suggest an alternative to fighting over the baby Jesus. I want to suggest that maybe there is another meaning to this season. This summer I went to the Samuel Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy at the Alex Haley Farm, an event sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, where I heard a matriarch of the civil rights movement, Marian Wright Edelman, speak to the meaning of this season. She said, “God sent us a poor child so that we could learn to take care of all poor children.” She is echoing one of the major themes of the Poor Peoples Campaign that Christmas should be a holy day for the poor not a holiday for the rich.

The gospel according to Luke tells us that once an argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Clearly, the disciples were competitive with each other and still working through some of their own ego issues.

 Jesus responded to the argument, this tug of war, when he took a little child and had the child stand beside him. Then Jesus said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child welcomes me. For the least among you will be the greatest.”

We live in an age where we often hear about greatness like the slogan “Make America Great Again” and this should remind us that our country is in desperate need of a new definition of greatness: Our greatness should be measured by how well we treat our children, how we treat the least, the last, the left out and the overlooked.

Right now there are 15,000 migrant children incarcerated in America. When a White House official went on TV to defend this policy, to defend the indefensible, do you know what the first thing he said to the reporter was? Merry Christmas. That, my friends, is really messed up.

And so Christmas Eve reminds us that our country needs a new definition of greatness. We need to remember that Christmas is a holy day for the poor and that greatness does not come from the White House down but from the manger up. Greatness does not trickle down from the top. Greatness is about the power of Spirit that rises and flows through all people and makes justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Greatness does not come from the laws that were written by Congress or enforced by the Supreme Court but from the law that has been placed in our minds, and written in our our hearts, the law that says love one another, the law that says go the extra mile, the law that says feed the hungry and house the homeless. As the Christmas carol tells us, “his law is love and his gospel is peace. “

Although I am a grown up now I remember what it was like to be a little kid. It can be hard to be the littlest one. I once heard someone say, “I went to an interfaith camp where I was beaten up by children of all faiths.”

Similarly, I remember being the youngest kid at summer camp and getting picked on by bigger kids but I also remember one of the biggest kids at camp, Creed Emmanuel Brown, (who would later become my camp counselor.) Creed took me aside for a pep talk. He said, “Those kids pick on you because they don’t feel good about themselves. You need to feel good about yourself because God don’t make junk.” He taught me self-respect. Although I was the littlest kid in camp he made me feel like I was the greatest. And that’s how we should make all children feel.

I think of Creed Emanuel Brown every Christmas because his middle name Emmanuel appears in so many Christmas Carols. The word Emmanuel means “God with us,” and when we love one another and look out for the little ones God is with us.

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Mother Theresa used to say, “At all times preach the gospel, if necessary use words.” This season we could fight over Jesus. We could do that. We could continue that church tradition. However, maybe Jesus would prefer it if we would put an end to this tug of war. So on this night when we hear the choir sing, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” as we remember that night when there was no room at the inn, we can make room in our hearts for all God’s children and remember the words of a modern day proverb that tells us, “Let us feed the hungry, house the homeless, stop the killing, and provide medicine for the sick. When we have accomplished that, then we can sit around and argue about religion.”

Can I get an Amen? Happy Holidays.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this homily on December 24, 2018 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The picture is of Chris with Creed Emmanuel Brown from a reunion this summer.)