How White People Can Spoil a Good Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Toiling in the Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

So You’re “Not Religious”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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