Book Review: Conflagration by John Buehrens

When I was in Boston I picked up a copy of the Beacon Press book by John Buehrens – Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender and Social Justice. I highly recommend it! Buehrens is a former minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association who is currently experiencing a very active retirement. His book gives a clearer and more succinct understanding of Transcendentalism than many other treatments. I am especially grateful for his emphasis on the movement’s impact on our congregations and the Unitarian Universalist denomination and not just the spiritual lives of famous individuals like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller or the Peabody sisters.

Reading Buehrens’ book I am reminded that one lasting legacy of Transcendentalism might be found in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes where it says, “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources” including “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Buehrens points out that one of the signatures of the movement was the desire for a spirituality that transcends differences, denominations and divisions leading not only to an openness to the wisdom of the world’s religions but also a desire to work for the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of the mentally ill, women’s suffrage, anti-poverty initiatives, the peace movement, worker’s rights and many other good causes.

One could say that Transcendentalism took our faith beyond, “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston” toward a sense of unity and oneness that transcends gender identity, patriarchy or provincialism and connects us to people of all faiths, races, cultures, classes and creeds. Faith in transcendence also led to a willingness to practice civil disobedience in order to obey the “higher law” written in our hearts paving the way for the civil rights movement and other forms of nonviolent social change.

Over the years I have read countless books on Transcendentalism so I was particularly gratified to read this one and discover new personalities, new stories and new inspiration for our faith and work in the world. It has changed the way I think about our faith tradition. Read it. It may change you as well.

(This book review was written by Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)




When Our Heart is in a Holy Place

On Sunday mornings we say the affirmation that begins with words, “Love is the spirit of this church.” When I was at summer camp one of the counselor’s would shout out, “Who’s got spirit?” And the rest of us would shout back, “We’ve got spirit!” So let me ask you that question, “Who’s got spirit?”


Very good, I am glad the spirit is in this room because today is a celebration of generosity; a time of enthusiasm and excitement! And I can think of no better way to launch this celebration than by sharing some words about this portrait of what appears to be a fairly austere looking Victorian woman. I know what you are thinking, “be still my beating heart!”

This picture used to be over the fireplace in our Fellowship Hall. Once when the Gay Men’s Support Group met there under her gaze someone said to me afterwards, “It doesn’t look like she entirely approves.”


This portrait is of Annie McGhee McClung who lived here in Knoxville in the late 19th century. To be honest when you look at her it does look like she might not approve. And yet that may just be our contemporary inability to see the rich emotional life that lies hidden beneath the surface of a well-heeled Victorian Unitarian woman.

Annie McGhee McClung helped to found a Unitarian Church here in Knoxville on February 17, 1895. Regrettably, her church would only last for fourteen months. One of her co-founders was Lizzie Crozier French, the suffragist whose statue is on Market Square downtown. Annie McGhee McClung herself is best remembered for helping to found the Florence Crittendon Center, which began as a home for unwed mothers.

It should be remembered that in 1895, founding a home for unwed mothers was not a very ladylike thing to do. And yet, as is apparent from her portrait, Annie McGhee McClung was a lady who came from a very prominent family. Just look around Knoxville at the Lawson McGhee Library or McGhee Tyson Airport or the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture and you get the idea of exactly how prominent her family connections were.

So Annie McGhee McClung founded a home for unwed mothers when it was a very risky thing to do. In Victorian times virginity was the most important sign of virtue, at least for women. To have a child out of wedlock was to be a ruined woman. The stigma did not fall on the woman only. Any child born out of wedlock was a bastard child.

This is how we know that Annie McGhee McClung had a big heart. When the rest of the world stood ready to condemn, judge, ostracize and reject. When society was prepared to let men completely off the hook and excoriate women and their children Annie McGhee McClung put her heart in a holy place by creating a home for those who needed a home the most.

In many ways our church is continuing her work by offering comprehensive sexuality education for all ages. In the 1950’s when we met in the double diamond building down the street with a very tall roof local legend Cas Walker called us, “the little church with the big roof where they talk about sex on Sunday.”

And we continue to do so, to host open and honest conversations about human sexuality. We do this not because it was avant garde in the 50’s or groovy in the 60’s but because it is the responsible thing to do at all time and in all ages. That’s why we offer open an honest conversations abut sexual orientation, gender identity, human belonging. Sometimes while we have been having these conversations the portrait of Annie McGhee McClung has been watching over us from her place on the wall.

We teach our children, “Ours is a church of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.” Friday was Valentine’s Day; a time when we often see images of hearts; hearts on cards, hearts cut out of construction paper, candy shaped like hearts. Sometimes it feels like all of these hearts is overkill.

Maybe that’s why last Sunday the Birdhouse, a local community center, scheduled an anti-Valentine’s Day event. At this event there were paper shredders so that you could shred pictures of your ex or love letters from your ex or Valentine’s Day cards from your ex or anything shreddable that reminded you of your ex.

Last week the Knoxville Zoo gave everyone an opportunity to buy a rat that you could name after your ex that they would then feed to a snake. If you missed out there’s always next year. So that’s how some people feel about Valentine’s Day.

Now I understand the need for such events. Valentine’s day needs a corrective. However that does not mean all the people doing all that shredding do not have hearts. Indeed all of them do; a heart that has been broken, a heart that needs healing, a heart that need a holy place.

I believe our church is just such a holy place, a place where we can put our heart into it. For the world needs our hearts. John Alan Turner once wrote, “It is hard to convince people that a God they can’t see loves them when a church they can see doesn’t seem to even like them.” In the Unitarian Universalist church abstract metaphysical theological speculation takes a back seat to the practical application of love. It is through our love that we show what might otherwise go unseen in our hearts.

The Dalai Lama reminded us that religion is not about theology or doctrine or dogma or creeds when he said, “I believe the only true religion consists of having a good heart.” And medieval Christian mystics spoke of the Sacred Heart. If you’ve ever been to one of the many, many churches named Sacred Heart then you may have seen an image of a heart that has been cut by a lance, pierced by a crown of thorns, a heart that has been wounded and broken.

On Valentine’s Day the President of our denomination Susan Frederick Gray posted this message, “The root of the word courage comes from the French word coeur meaning heart. Courage is heart strength – a fierce kind of love born from communities and faith that manifest deep care and connection.”

Jane Austen spoke of a friend who could never love by halves but only with her whole heart. That’s what we are called to do. That’s courage. Legend tells us that when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake they could not burn her heart, among the ashes they found the heart of a saint. Joan of Arc had to endure an extreme version of all the brutal misogyny that was directed toward the young women and children that Annie McGhee McClung sheltered under her wing. So too, we, as a congregation, can strive together to be a community with a heart; a heart that can withstand all opposition, a heart that can pass through the fire of every challenge with courage.

Recently when I was renewing my license I reaffirmed my commitment to be an organ donor. Whenever you do this they put a heart on your license. Similarly this summer I picked up a UU Organ Donor Card that begins with the words of the hymn we sang earlier today, “When your heart is in a holy place.” The card reminds us that our generosity can save lives and our generosity can outlive us.

I am reminded of a story I once saw on the evening news about Jeni Stephens who did not meet the man who would walk her down the aisle for her wedding until the actual day. Arthur Thomas was his name, Thomas had received her father’s heart in an organ transplant operation 10 years before. When Jeni asked him to escort her at her wedding he was honored to do so. The man who walked her down the aisle was almost a complete stranger but he had her father’s heart. Her father’s heart was in a holy place.

Here in our congregation we’ve definitely got the spirit, however, the mystics remind us that the spirit is most often embodied in a human heart and in tangible acts of kindness and compassion. This morning let us celebrate generosity in its’ many forms. In particular let us celebrate your generosity of time, talent and treasure that makes this church a force for good in the world. I want to invite you and encourage you to make a pledge to the church this week for as the scripture says, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

You may not have enough money, power or prestige to get a library named after you (or an airport or a museum) but every gift of every size is welcome and together we can use our power on behalf of those without power or prestige or deep pockets.

I want to thank you in advance for your generosity but more importantly thank you for your good heart. As my friend John Butler minister of the Clinton Chapel AME church likes to say, “We are always grateful for the gift but more importantly we are grateful for the giver.”

Our congregation has important work to do in a world where many others are going out of business. Earth Fare is going out of business but we’re not. The East Towne Mall went out of business but we’re not. The church Annie McGhee McClung started in 1895 closed down but we’re not. A similar attempt to start a Unitarian church in the 1920’s went belly up but we won’t. I do not mean to sound overconfident but I do believe that with your help and your heart we will continue to grow and thrive and serve.

In the early 1990’s I came to this church as a young adult in my mid-twenties (a baby) and I saw that portrait of Annie McGhee McClung on the walk. By that time the Florence Crittendon Center had a 26 acre campus offering foster care services. A sign beside the portrait mentioned that this painting was donated to this church by her niece Helen Ross McNabb, and at that time I was working for the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a non-profit mental health center, helping the chronically mentally ill who might otherwise be homeless. That portrait made me think, “Maybe, this church is where I belong.”

Annie McGhee McClung’s emotions may not be on the surface. She may be hard to read in that painting but I believe she would be happy to know there is a vital and powerful Unitarian Universalist Church here continuing her work. She would be glad to know that we continue to have hearts in this holy place. Dr. King once wrote, “Love is the greatest power in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the cosmos.” So let me end by saying, “Love is the spirit of this church” and by asking, “Who’s got spirit?”


Yes, the spirit is present in this room and even though it may not look like it I think Annie McGhee McClung approves.







Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva

There is a joke that circulates in Buddhist circles that seems to suggest that it’s not always easy being a Buddhist. A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist arrive at the pearly gates at the same time. An angel appears before them and says, “Before you can enter into heaven you must each answer one question.” The angel turns to the Christian and says, “How do you spell God?” The Christian replies, “G-O-D.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Next the angel turns to the Muslim and says, “How do you spell Allah?” The Muslim replies, “A-L-L-A-H.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Finally he turns to the Buddhist and says, “How do you spell Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva?”

On the altar today there is a statue of Avalokitesvara, who is a bodhisattva we can appreciate even if we can’t spell his name. However, this morning I want to speak about Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad and for the purposes of today’s sermon I want to give her the same honorific title Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

Harriet Tubman wasn’t a Buddhist. Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, which wasn’t exactly a hub for the study of the Eastern religions. Her religion was the gospel grounded in the oral tradition of her family and itinerant preachers. Once she escaped slavery by going north she eventually settled into membership in the AME Zion Church. And yet her life is an embodiment of many of the values taught in Mahayana Buddhism.

In the 19th century there were hundreds of people who escaped slavery in the South through the Underground Railroad. However, there were very few who returned to help others escape slavery. Not many people were willing to return and risk being caught, captured, killed or re-enslaved in order to lead others to freedom. This is what made Harriet Tubman unique. She was not content to rest after having liberated herself. She felt impelled to work for the liberation of others.

Which leads me back to Buddhism. In the Theravada Buddhism it is enough to liberate our selves. No one can save us but us. However in Mahayana Buddhism once we have liberated ourselves we find our fulfillment in liberating others. To take on this commitment to liberate others is to become a Bodhisattva and for this reason I speak of Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

However, before I say more about the meaning of being a bodhisattva I want to say more about Harriet Tubman. To say that Harriet Tubman was born a slave is to make an inaccurate statement. I am reminded of a note a social studies teacher posted on the door of her classroom that read, “Dear Students. They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and made them slaves.” So it is not accurate to say Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She was born a human being and then forced into slavery. Many aspects of her story will be familiar to us because of the huge number of children’s books that have been written about her. Although, Harriet Tubman was already the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad she is now even more famous with the release of the Hollywood film Harriet.

I encourage you to go see the movie. Admittedly the film is another example of history meets Hollywood, where it is not always easy to discern which moments are Hollywood and which are history. So don’t stop with the movie, read a book. There are many to choose from. Most recently I picked up this one Bound for the Promised Land by Katie Clifford Larson which I saw it in the bookstore of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. It’s well researched with good use of primary documents allowing as much as possible for Harriet Tubman to speak in her own voice.

Since the topic for today’s sermon is Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva I want to focus on her spiritual beliefs. When I was in college I majored in sociology and was particularly interested in the sociology of religion. I continue to be interested in how for some people religion is about accepting the status quo and for others religion is about challenging the status quo. While there may be a time and place for every kind of prayer there are, to paraphrase Angela Davis, some of us who tend to pray to accept things we cannot change while others pray to change the things we cannot accept. Harriet Tubman leaned in the direction of change.

Tubman seems to have taken the apostle Paul at his word and endeavored to pray without ceasing. Her prayers were for both personal and social change. “Appears like I prayed all the time,” she said, “When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, I took up the water in my hand and I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean!’ Then I take up something to wipe my face, and I say, ‘Oh Lord, wipe away all my sin!’ When I took the broom and began, I groaned, ‘Oh Lord, what so ever sin be in my heart, sweep it out, Lord, clear and clean.’” When I hear these words it seems to me that Tubman had created for herself rituals that contemporary liturgists might call body prayer, where our inmost prayers are aligned with our outward motions bringing harmony to mind, body and spirit.

At other times her prayers were for her oppressors. Her most fervent prayer was for white people to change; to stop being cruel and start being kind. When her master threatened to sell her she said, “I prayed through all the long nights – I groaned and prayed for ole master. ‘Oh Lord, convert master! Oh Lord, change that man’s heart.” Finally, when she became convinced that her master would not change she became angry and she prayed that her master would die –and here’s the thing – he did die – giving a whole new meaning to the power of prayer. While a materialist will find other explanations for the death of this 47 year old man Tubman was unsettled and felt some guilt and responsibility for the power of her prayers.

Over time, the nature of her prayers changed. There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Don’t just pray to receive something. Pray with a willingness to do something. Eventually Tubman came to the same realization that Frederick Douglass did before he made his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. “Praying for freedom never did me any good,” Douglass declared, “until I prayed with my feet.” At some point Tubman decided she was going to do a little less talking with the Lord and a little more walking with the Lord. In the words of the old gospel song, she decided to steal away to freedom.

Through many dangers, toils and snares she traveled before she could escape slavery and find freedom in the north. Fortunately, she had help along the way from Quakers, itinerate preachers, safe houses, sanctuaries that allowed her safety in between stretches of her journey toward freedom. In her time she would have been called a fugitive slave in our time she might be called an illegal immigrant or refugee.

Members of the Underground Railroad made note of her faith. Thomas Garret said of Tubman that he, “never met with any person of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul. Sarah Bradford said she seemed to have “direct intercourse with heaven.” Materialists have sometimes reduced Tubman’s visions to the symptoms of epilepsy, a condition aggravated by the beatings she received from her overseer. However, those who traveled with her got used to the idea that she would stop when God told her to stop, get off the road when God told her to get off the road, and that her intuition did not fail her or her fellow travellers but often saved them from danger. As one person noted, “her trust in Providence was better than many sermons.” As Tubman said herself, “God was always near..He gave me strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant for me to be free.” An astronomer will have a scientific understanding of the North Star but for Tubman it was an outward and visible sign that God wanted her to be free.

Tubman paid a price for her willingness to seek freedom. She knew heartbreak. Her first trip back was to retrieve her husband but when she got there she found he had made a home with another woman. She had brought along clothes for him to wear that would help him pass as a freeman on their journey but he decided to stay. She was able to help others escape on that trip but when she returned she made light of her pain with comic timing. She told friends, “I returned with my husband’s clothes but no husband.”

Harriet Tubman took 19 trips back South and rescued over 300 people from slavery. She was a master of disguise. She could disguise herself as a young man or an old woman. She demonstrated what we would now call gender fluidity. She would adopt any disguise to throw people off her track.

Tubman was not a pacifist. She carried a rifle with her on her journeys back south and was prepared to use it to keep her passengers safe. She once led a successful jailbreak in upstate New York liberating a fugitive slave, physically assaulting the sheriff and deputies, shouting, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Later during the Civil War she volunteered for the Union army where she was a nurse, cook, spy, field scout and military commander. On June 1,1863 she became the first woman in America to plan and implement an armed expedition that liberated 800 slaves with no soldiers lives lost or injured.

Over the years, she had friendships and partnerships with members of our denomination. She worked with Unitarians and Universalists for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led fundraising efforts so that Tubman would be able to retire in old age with dignity. He helped raise money for her because she had done so much to raise money for others.

To call Harriet Tubman a bodhisattva may seem presumptuous. As far as I know she never even heard of Buddhism. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and Harriet Tubman was someone who walked and talked with the Lord. However, whenever I look at that statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in my office, an image of a bodhisattva, part mythology/part history, I see a person with many arms and many eyes and many ears I am reminded of the words of Saint Theresa that could just as easily be the words of Harriet Tubman and her fellow laborers on the Underground Railroad, “God has no hands but our hands with which to do the work of healing. No eyes but our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. No feet but our feet with which to walk around doing good.”

Harriet Tubman spent most of her adult life praying with her feet. Not content to liberate only herself she was compelled to work for the liberation of others. For this reason I’ve always felt that it was very appropriate that the Knoxville Family Justice Center that offers shelter and sanctuary for victims of domestic violence is located on Harriet Tubman Street.

Harriet Tubman was not a Buddhist, but I think it is fair to call her an honorary Bodhisattva. So let us bring this sermon to a close with a Buddhist vow that can offer guidance to people of all faiths, words that can serve as our North Star, words worthy of a bodhisattva.

May I become at all times…
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a helper to all in need.IMG_4994




Holy Envy

When I visited a Methodist Church this summer I was introduced as “the minister most likely to show up at the protest rally.” So here is a call and response song you can lead at your next protest.

Rosa Parks was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

You can add new names as you go along – Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and more to have an interactive Black History Month lesson.

This morning I want to talk about the freedom fighter from another country, Nelson Mandela. He spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner before being released and becoming the first president of a post apartheid South Africa. Mandela was largely a secular leader of a secular state even so I believe we can gain many spiritual insights from his life in part because he was able to emerge from so many years in prison without any discernible bitterness or resentment. He did not come out bearing grudges or seeking revenge. Instead he focused on truth and reconciliation and a united South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was famously circumspect about his own religious beliefs but once when he was asked about his religion he replied, “I certainly recognize the importance of the religious dimension of my own life…Religion is important because at the center of the great religious traditions is the pursuit of peace…the world needs peace and I am convinced that if we were to put into practice the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, African traditional religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths – all of which have a lot in common – there would be peace in the world.”

Mandela reminds us that religion at its best is about seeking peace. At the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working for peace in the world. We aspire to be a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good. One way we do this is through a class we offer our young people called Our Neighboring Faiths where we take our youth to visit a synagogue, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a wide variety of Christian churches.

The thing I like the most about this class is that it teaches our young people to have the courage to cross the threshold of another faith; to walk through the doors of new building with confidence. Anyone who has ever done it knows that it can be very intimidating thing to do. My hope is that by offering this class we are giving our children a lifelong skill, and ability to cross lines and form friendships with people of all faiths.

Now this peaceful approach to learning about different religions can stand in stark contrast to another approach taken by others. The religions of the world can sometimes seem very competitive; Jews versus Christians, Catholics versus Protestant, Muslims versus Hindus, Evangelicals versus secularists, the Methodists versus the Methodists (for sometimes the competition between factions within a church, including our own, can make every Sunday feel like Super Bowl Sunday.)

However, the more we make religion a contest between “us and them” the more we make religion a battle where there are “winners and losers” the more we seem to stray from that deeper unity that underlies all religions. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” a paradoxical statement that reminds that the more competitive we get about religion the more we are missing the point. For the wisdom of all the great religions points to paradoxes that can be summarized in this way, “It is by emptying that we are filled, it is by letting go that we gain, it is by losing our life that we find it. In other words, it by losing that we win.”

Mahatma Gandhi once said that wisdom can comes to us through all religions but all religions are imperfect for they come to us through imperfect instruments-human beings. So when studying our own religion or the religion of others we will find the sublime and the imperfect, faith and flaws. That’s why the religious scholar Krister Stendahl warns us that when we study another religion we should not compare our best with their worst – but leave room for “holy envy.”

So what is holy envy? Holy envy means that although I am a Unitarian Universalist minister I can envy the Jewish tradition its liturgy; the Greek Orthodox Church its iconography; the Hindu temple its statuary; the Buddhist tradition its spirituality. In other words, I can belong somewhere but still learn and grow everywhere.

Over the last couple of years I have been leading an adult version of the Neighboring Faiths class with field trips to African American churches for members. This time last year I took a group of us to Trinity Seventh Day Adventist Church in East Knoxville for a Black History Sabbath led by the Reverend Harold Middlebrook, who was one of Dr. King’s lieutenants

On other occasions we’ve been to a Watch Night service on New Years Eve at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. We’ve been the New Year’s Day Emancipation Proclamation Service at Mount Zion Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Martin Luther King Interfaith Service at various congregations. We’ve been to the Good Friday service at Tabernacle Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Thanksgiving service at First AME Zion Church.

Now whenever I take groups to visit other congregations or other faith traditions I will often say, “You do not always have to agree with the theology in order to align with the energy. Theology is about language, concepts and ideas. Energy is about life, power and vitality. Theology comes from the past written in ancient words. Energy is found in the present moment. Theology is an outward form. Energy is the inward power. Energy is about transformation and change. And one of the reasons I feel it is very important for everybody to visit historically black churches is to experience the energy that can sustain us in times of trial, the energy that overcomes oppression and empowers resistance; the energy that aligns us with the truth that sets us free.

Maybe you felt some of that energy in this room last Sunday. Last week we had a guest preacher Pastor Chris Battle and his wife Toma playing gospel on our piano. Could you feel the energy? It’s like Pastor Battle said, “Church was never meant to be about an address. Church was never meant to be about a place on a map. Church was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. The church is about relationships.”

When we visit another congregation we strengthen our relationships. When we invite someone from another tradition to preach here we strengthen relationships. As Maya Angelou likes to say, “We are more alike than unalike.” We walk on the same earth. We drink the same water. We breathe the same air. As the bard says we all have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” If you prick us we will bleed. However, if we love one another and learn from one another then we strengthen our relationships.

Earlier I shared a reading by Barbara Brown Taylor who was a fulltime Episcopal priest before becoming a professor of world religions at Piedmont College in North Georgia. Once when she took a group of students to the Hindu temple in Atlanta she found one student named Maria could not even stay inside the building. She was afraid. The temple seemed foreign. All the statues of various gods and goddesses were overwhelming. The rituals made her uncomfortable. She panicked. So she left the building.

If I were to end the story there you might draw certain conclusions about Maria but the story continues. Maria recovered from her panic attack. She went on to make an A in the class. For her final project she designed a hypothetical interfaith chapel for Piedmont College. The chapel she designed reminded me of this sanctuary; no religious symbols or iconography inside so anyone of any faith might feel welcome. The lighting was soft so that no matter where you looked people would be able to see each other and have a sense of community. So Maria was able to overcome her fears and move in the direction of spiritual growth and so can we.

When Barbara Brown Taylor teaches about the world’s religions she urges her students to practice three principles.

  • When trying to understand another religion, we should ask the followers (and the friends) of that religion about it and not it’s enemies.
  • We should never compare our best to their worst.
  • We should leave room for holy envy.

Religion at its best is about the pursuit of peace. Yes there are religious terrorists out there. Yes, there are clerics who proclaim holy wars. Yes, there is violence done in the name of God. Religion can exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, there are moments when we can tap into the energy of peace that is at the heart of all the great religions and the energy we can feel when we are in relationship with people of all faiths.

Sometimes we can even draw sacred wisdom from secular institutions. This week someone threw a smoke bomb into Yassin’s Falafel House, an act of pure malice committed against the restaurant that a national magazine has deemed the nicest place in America.

Yassin is Muslim, a Syrian refugee. Rabbi Erin Boxt of Temple Beth El next door is Jewish. However this week I took some comfort when I saw the rabbi post a picture of himself in Jerusalem wearing a T-shirt from Yassin’s with the words from a sign we often see when we go there, “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people safe here.” That picture of the rabbi wearing that t-shirt in Jerusalem, a place that has seen so much conflict, discord and violence between religions gives me hope.

Such moments remind us that peace is possible; that Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths can find common ground because we all want peace; we all want freedom and we all want good falafels.

This week while doing a little Internet research I learned that there is a restaurant in in Ohio that has a falafel sandwich called the Nelson Mandela (and apparently this sandwich is rated very highly by Tripadvisor.) Which brings me back to something Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

So in the midst of our nation’s impeachment controversy and our continuing culture wars let’s draw wisdom from one of the great freedom fighters who reminds us that it is by letting go of our bitterness that we gain; by losing our hatred that we win; it is by emptying our hearts of enmity that we are filled with peace and with freedom. So let’s end by singing.

Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

May it be so.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 2, 2020.)