Broken Open

The labor organizer Mother Jones used to say, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”


This morning we are observing All Souls and All Saints Days, a time to remember the dead but also a time to reaffirm our commitment to life.

On All Saints Day we remember the saints and in my book Mother Jones is a saint. She may not be canonized by any church-but she is canonized in the hearts of everyone who works for justice in the world for her tireless efforts on behalf of the living.

One of the ways we remember the saints is by building statues of them. A few weeks ago I was in Boston walking down an unfamiliar street when I came across a statue of Abigail Adams. The statue included words that she wrote to her husband John Adams when he was in Philadelphia with others in 1776 preparing to sign the Declaration of Independence.

“I desire you would remember the ladies,” she wrote, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

 Of course, her husband John did not remember the ladies nor did any of the other Founding Fathers as the Declaration would clearly states, “all men are created equal.” I posted the picture of the statue of Abigail Adams on my Facebook and my friend Pam Preston commented, “What?!?!?!? A woman memorialized?!?!? Who is She?”

 I think we can better understand Pam’s reaction (as well as the number of exclamation marks and question marks in her post) when we realize how often men are memorialized and how infrequently women are. For instance there is no statue to Mother Jones anywhere although there is a campaign to put one up in Chicago. And the statue to Abigail Adams went up in 2003, over 200 years after she died. So on All Souls and All Saints days let’s remember the ladies and how their words and work continue to empower us today.

On Friday I went to see the new movie about Harriet Tubman. The audience broke out in applause at the end of the film. It’s a great film even if it is part history and part Hollywood. The film does faithfully convey the personality and the spirituality of Tubman. Recently, I found out that there is an effort to build a statue of her in Beaufort, SC, close to where she led Union soldiers on a raid that freed many slaves. I look forward to seeing when they are finished.

At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 activists rewrote the words of the Declaration of Independence and declared that “all men and women are created equal” because as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed, “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”

That’s a powerful statement- And that is an important point for All Souls and All Saints Day for when we follow Abigail Adam’s advice and remember the mothers, sisters cousins, grandmothers and great grandmothers, we help we reclaim the fountain at it source. We help everyone to reconnect with the “wellspring of the joy of living” within each one of us.

Today, transgender activists wisely urge us to revise the Declaration of Independence further to say simply that, “all are created equal” for we all proceed from a common source. We all come from the “font of every blessing” and when we work for equality we unleash the powers of that source and make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book about Stanley Ann Dunham, which is to say I’ve been reading a book about Obama’s mama. I am not reading it for partisan reasons. I’m reading to learn a little bit of Unitarian Universalist history. You may not know this but Stanley Ann Dunham used to attend the Unitarian church in Belllevue, Washington, a church so committed to the civil rights movement in the age of McCarthyism it became known as “the red church on the hill.” Ann participated in the Sunday School class called Church Across the Street, where you learn about different religions and visit their houses of worship. She would later become a cultural anthropologist who was very comfortable entering into different cultures and learning from different customs and she taught both of her children how to do the same. She did not live to see her son become president but her influence clearly continues to have ramifications today.

Now Obama wrote a book about his absent father called Dreams of My Father however, he has said on more than one occasion that if he’d known his mom would die so young, at the age of 52, he would have written less about the absent father and more about the present mother.

So I mention this simply to say, “Whoever you are, whatever your politics– remember those who came before us who helped us along the way, gave us some wisdom and perspective, remember the ones who fed us. Western religion is obsessed with the idea of an absentee father, “our father who are in heaven,” and tends to forget the work of women even though more often than not it is, “by her hands we all were fed, she gave us all our daily bread.” That’s the way it worked in my family, I don’t know about yours.

Of course, perhaps my perspective is influenced by the fact that it is my mother who is absent and my father that is still present. My mom died at the age of 72 whereas we just held a big birthday party for my Dad this past summer. So I am not remembering my Dad on All Souls yet and I know he is happy about that.

But I am remembering Mom – and it is possible that in remembering Mother Jones and Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Stanley Ann Dunham I am also remembering my mom, and recognizing her continuing influence on my life and my ministry. I may even have her to thank for my ministry here.

You may not know this but my two immediate predecessors Lynn Thomas Strauss and Joan Kahn Schneider were women. Apparently during the congregational meeting when the church was trying to decide whether to call me to be minister someone said, “I’m not sure I am comfortable with a male minister,” and someone shouted out, “He has a wonderful mother!” So as much as I’d like to pretend I’m a self made man, my presence her at this pulpit may be a sign of her continuing influence on my life.

My mother lost a son, my brother Bill, who died when we were both teenagers. One of the things I have on the altar is a small statuette I inherited from my mother of Mary holding her son Jesus after he has been taken down from the cross. Mary is one of the Saints most often remembered on All Saints Day, but the statuette reminds me of the grief of my own mother over the loss of her son, and the grief every parent feels for the loss of a child.

My brother Bill may be another reason I am your minister. He died when we were both teenagers and his death taught me an important lesson – what I learned after many people visited our family in the aftermath of his death is that sometimes it is the least religious people who are the most helpful. When someone dies, most people do not want to hear platitudes like “Your brother’s in a better place,” or “God called him home,” or “It was his time to go,” I don’t actually remember any of the platitudes I heard after my brother died but I do remember than none of them seemed helpful.

The people who helped the most were not people who went to church or practiced any religion. This surprised me because at the time I was very active in the Episcopal Church. However, when it came to visitors after my brother died, the less religion the better. The people who helped were just people who showed up. After this experience I realized something I’ve tried to practice ever since that time. After someone dies it’s not about what you do or what you say. It’s about who you are and how you are present.

Since the least religious people were helpful I began to look for a church that had the least religious people in it. I’m joking. (Or at least I am kind of joking.) Another way to say this is – after my brother’s death I felt the need to find a totally different way to be religious.

Of course, Unitarian Universalists are not the only ones to understand that traumatic circumstances require more than platitudes. When Pope Francis was asked how he helped others after a traumatic loss he replied, “I stay silent. The only thing that occurs to me is to remain quiet and, depending on the trust they have in me, to take their hand. And pray for them, because both physical and spiritual pain are borne from within, where no one can enter: it entails a great deal of solitude. What people need to know is that someone is with them, loves them, respects their silence.”

Those are the words of the Pope. What you may not know is that my nickname in high school was “The Pope.” How I got the nickname is a long story, one for another Sunday. However, I mention it because after my brother died, I got a card from my World History Class with a cartoon picture of me as the Pope signed by all the members of the class and a kind of Hallmark poem in it.

This note of consolation could never event start

To tell the thoughts and feelings this brings you from the heart

But if you read between the lines perhaps somehow you’ll see

How much you’re being thought of now in loving sympathy

 Well I’ve save this card for 30 years now but it wasn’t really the poem I fond special. It was what was written between the lines. So now I am a minister, not a pope, not yet, but a minister, and one of the things I know is that most ministry is not done by the clergy. Most ministry is done by whoever is closest at the time, whoever can be present in the midst of the pain, whoever can convey all that is written in between the lines.

Sometimes when we lose a loved one we are broken apart. At other times we are broken open. When we are broken apart we are devastated beyond repair. When we are broken open we are more compassionate, loving, kind and considerate because of our loss not in spite of it. In so much as this is true then death can lead to new life and the Psalmist words can have genuine meaning, “Despair may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.” In the midst of our deepest grief we may not feel joy today or expect it tomorrow. In the meantime we can pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living in the hope that in the fullness of time a new day will dawn.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday, November 3, 2019)


It’s a Witch Hunt

What do Unitarians believe? If you’d asked that question in the 19th century someone might have responded, “Unitarians believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston.” However, we have expanded our theology and our geography since then.

Last week I was in Boston at a meeting of our denomination’s headquarters and my friend Tom Schade gave me a more current definition of our faith. When he was a child Tom asked his father, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” and his father responded, “Not much – but very strongly.”

Needless to say, it isn’t always easy to define what Unitarian Universalists believe, however, one of things we periodically do is taking our youth group on a Boston Heritage Trip so that they can learn more about our history. Mark Evans called this the closest thing Unitarian Universalists have to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

However, our trips aren’t always educational every minute. We always try to plan at least one thing just for fun. However, sometimes even the fun thing turns out to have an educational twist. For instance one year we took the youth to see the Blue Man group and it was only when we were outside waiting in line that I noticed a plaque that told us that theater where the Blue Man group performs used to be a Universalist church. I pointed the plaque out to the youth and added, “Many people do not know that the Universalist church was one of the first churches to be inclusive of blue men.”

On our last Boston journey our fun trip was to go to the Salem Witch Museum, a kind of cheesy, touristy museum dedicated to the 17th century Salem Witch trails. The museum is housed in a very gothic building that looked to me like it was once a church so I decided to look around for a plaque and guess what? I found one. And yes, the building that houses the Salem Witch Museum was once a Unitarian church. And it was that experience that inspired the theme of this service and the title of today’s sermon “It’s a Witch Hunt.”

Salem Witch Museum

In recent times the president of the United States has popularized the phrase, “It’s a witch hunt,” a practice that has garnished him some criticism. As one on-line pundit commented (and for the record I have decided to delete the profanity that is a part of the original quote) “White dudes need to stop using “witch hunt” and “lynch mob.” Invoking the means by which women and people of color were murdered to prop up white patriarchal society is obnoxious.”

So this morning I want to talk about witch hunts but this sermon is not about you know who. Indeed, I planned this sermon over a year ago back when impeachment wasn’t even a gleam in Nancy Pelosi’s eye. So let’s take a step back from current controversies and travel back to 17th century controversies before there was CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or other cable outlets.

Now let me begin with a piece of advice: if you want to learn more about the history of the Salem Witch Trails then don’t go to Salem Witch museum because it offers a sensationalized and largely inaccurate recounting of the story. Instead, I recommend you got to the National Park museum there or find a good book or keep listening to this sermon.

In the 1600’s the village of Salem, Massachusetts was caught in the throws of a huge controversy when young girls began to claim to be possessed by the Devil and accuse some of their elders of being witches. The accusations of witchcraft unleashed a wave of mass hysteria in the community that led to 150 people, mostly women, being accused of witchcraft and 19 people being put to death.

Needless to say those accused did not receive a fair trail. Community leaders did not provide for due process or adequate representation by an attorney. There was no presumption of innocence, the accused were not treated as innocent until proven guilty nor were they given the right to remain silent. Indeed, the Salem Witch trials are the textbook example of bad legal practice.

Furthermore the witch trials illustrate just how difficult it is to defend oneself against metaphysical accusations. If a religious fundamentalist tells you that you are going to go to hell, how do you prove that you’re not? If an evangelist stops you on the street and calls you a miserable sinner, how do you prove that your not? If a Puritan tribunal accuses you of being a witch, how do you prove that you’re not? I could go on and one with other examples.

However, the most important point I want to make is that for the Enlightenment thinkers, the presumption of innocence was a spiritual principle not just a legal one. The presumption of innocence was meant to curb not just abusive government but abusive religion.

While the Salem Witch Museum is not a great history museum there was a thoughtful exhibit at the end that spoke of why women have often been targeted for witch-hunts throughout history. Women are often the ones who study herbs, plants and other resources for their healing properties. Thus women become sources of authority outside the boundaries of church control and so witch-hunts are a decisive move to squash competition and reassert the dominance of the male clergy. In the olden days community leaders did not even have to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt. All they had to do was lead people in the chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” Of course, fortunately, we’ve made a lot of progress since then (haven’t we?)

The Salem Witch Trail Museum also had a thoughtful exhibit on modern forms of witch-hunts that are relevant to the history of our congregation. Our church was founded in 1949 in the midst of the mass hysteria that was the Red Scare and McCarthyism. During this era Senator McCarthy claimed to have a file of known communists, however, no one ever got to see or review that file. Instead unsubstantiated allegations of communism were hurled in ways that destroyed people’s careers and ruined many lives. It turns out proving you are not a communist is almost as impossible as proving that you are not a witch. Think about it, if someone accuses you of being a communist, how do you prove you are not a communist? No one can see the thought in our heads.

When Queen Elizabeth I of England took steps in the direction of religious freedom in her country she declared that she was not the ultimate arbiter of who was good or bad, “The Queen of England cannot see into her subject’s hearts” she said. The Queen may not be able to do it but there are some people who think they can. There are some people who act like they can read minds and know what is in people’s hearts. Whenever I meet such people I have a tendency to question their omniscience. Queen Elizabeth’s words remind us that claiming to know what is in people’s hearts and minds is not just political abuse. It is spiritual abuse.

So our church came into being in the age of McCarthyism and in our early day our church was accused of being a communist organization. That’s because we refused to discriminate on the basis of race and threw our wholehearted support behind the civil rights movement. In the era the church to out an advertisement in the paper to answer the question, “What do Unitarians believe?” The answer –

  • Individual freedom of belief
  • Discipleship to advancing truth
  • The democratic process in human relations
  • Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race or creed
  • Allegiance to the cause of a united world community.

 This was our way of saying that Unitarianism had moved beyond the neighborhood of Boston to the neighborhood of Knoxville. Of course, even this statement is framed in the language of its times. We would use more gender inclusive language today. And while this statement does have a quality we might call Unitarian vagueness, our support for civil rights, our active participation in the sit-ins, our willingness to risk insult, injury and livelihood for social justice caused other people to say, “Those Unitarians may not believe in much – but they believe it very strongly.”

I joined this church in the 1980’s when the slogan was, “Sisterhood is powerful.” If you remember the 70’s and 80’s at all then you will remember that not all churches supported women’s rights. Many opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. The television evangelist Pat Robertson denounced feminism by saying, “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Needless to say opposition to women’s rights in every age has sometimes felt like a witch-hunt. As does opposition to LGBT rights that challenge us to move beyond binary thinking, beyond brotherhood and sisterhood, to work for the unity of the human family in all its diversity.

Which takes me back to the Salem Witch Museum. In one of the later exhibits there was some information on modern paganism and all I can say is this, “If you want to learn more about paganism do not go to the Salem Witch Museum because it’s not going to help you one bit.” Once again, I suggest you get a good book or keep listening.

The museum did get one thing right by posting the pagan version of the golden rule, “Harm none, do as you will,” So based on this teaching we can say that paganism is the opposite of a witch-hunt. In a witch hunt the rule is, “Do what you will regardless of who you might harm.” In the pagan tradition the rule is, “First do no harm then do what you will.”

We live in a culture that likes to draw a hard line between paganism and biblical religion. But in our biblical reading today we heard how Saul cleansed his country of witches and pagans, but then later decided to consult a witch and it was from that witch that he received a message from God. So what can I say, to use Facebook terminology you can summarize the relationship between paganism and biblical tradition by saying, “It’s complicated.”

Religious conservatives like to draw a hard line between paganism and Christianity, however, I think you make the case that Jesus was the victim of a witch-hunt. That the cries “Crucify him! Crucify him!” are not that different from “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Jesus was denied due process, a fair trial, a right to representation and was given cruel and unusual punishment. All historical evidence seems to confirm that Jesus was a non-white man living in a white man’s empire, a victim of a witch hunt and a lynching.

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? At the New Friendship church in Lonsdale they like to say, “We are the church in the hood that can do some good.” Well our church is in a different neighborhood but we can still do some good. In an age where insults too often triumph over ideas, and name-calling becomes a substitute for debate – we can be a house of peace.

As you already know, this is Endowment Fund month here at TVUUC when we are asked to imagine what the church might look like in the future. All I know is I do not want to see this church become a museum. I do not want to see this church converted into a theater. In future years I want people to look at this building a house of peace, a congregation that keeps reminding everyone that before there can be peace in the world, there must be peace among the nations, before there can be peace among the nations there must be peace among the states, before there can be peace among the states there must be peace in the cities, before there can be peace in the cities there must be peace in the neighborhoods, before there can be peace in the neighborhoods there must be peace in the homes, before there can be peace in the homes there must be peace in the heart. Let ours be a house of peace.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday, October 27, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)