How to Have a Spiritual BS Detector

Once when I was at a music festival in another city I saw someone wave at me from across the room to get my attention. Once they had my attention they walked all the way across the room and asked, “Are you the minister of the Unitarian church in Knoxville?” I said, “Yes.” The man said, “Good, I want to tell you my favorite Unitarian joke,” and he proceeded to do just that. Here it is. 

Q: What is the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?

A: In the Baptist Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone in the congregation might shout out “Amen.” In the Unitarian Church when the minister really gets to preaching someone might shout out, “BS.” 

For our young people listening who may be wondering what the term “BS” means let me simply say that literally BS is the natural byproduct of a male bovine animal studied by scatologists. Metaphorically, synonyms for BS include bologney, balderdash, buncombe, hogwash and a term made popular by the current occupant of the White House – malarky. 

This morning I want to talk about the importance of having a good spiritual BS detector. How to tell the truth from lies. How to tell the difference between a trustworthy minister and a con artist. A few years back a friend drove by a church advertising their Vacation Bible School. Only they must not have had enough letters so their sign said, “Come to our Vacation BS.” This was an accident I am sure but even so it may serve as an unconscious reminder of the fact that some people approach the church with suspicions, skepticism and distrust and understandably so. 

Most of us have heard of the Reverend Jim Jones and the tragic ending of the People’s Temple Cult in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. However, what you may not know is that Reverend Jones began as a very idealistic Methodist minister committed to racial equality. He preached and practiced the social gospel that was more focused on making a difference here on earth than it was in talking about the hereafter. He organized a multiracial congregation where he preached and the congregation practiced love for all people of every race. In the early days, many good people followed Reverend Jones because they thought he was an admirable man doing admirable things. Somewhere along the way things went terribly wrong. His preaching became a delusion and then his delusions became deception and then his deceptions became deadly. 

I mention this particular story because I want to drive home the point that having a good spiritual BS detector is not about simply being an irreverent backbencher.  In certain circumstances having a good BS detector is the difference between life and death. When I lived in Indiana I met people who lost friends and family members to this cult. So as always my sermons will have humor in them, there will be light moments and heavy moments,  but I don’t want us to lose the fact that this topic is deadly serious. 

Speaking of light moments. When I was visiting High Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Macon, Georgia, I met an elderly woman with very gracious Southern manners, who during a coffee hour conversation told me that she wanted to start a bookstore just so she could put Billy Graham’s books in the Cult section. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or joking. 

I tell that story because I want to be very careful how we use that word cult. If you go online you will see that there are some websites that list the Unitarian Universalist Church as a cult. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of a cult, and the reason we are the opposite of the cult is because we teach our kids and encourage each other to have a good BS detector. 

When I was a sociology undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee I focused on the sociology of religion. In the field of sociology a cult is an organization that is led by an authoritarian leader who demands unwavering loyalty and devotion and is excessively controlling over group members. By this definition a cult does not even have to be a religion. A cult might be a political party or a secular organization. 

Based on that definition I can safely say that the Unitarian Universalist church is the opposite of a cult because I know (and you know) that if I were to get up in this pulpit and demand unconditional loyalty, unwavering obedience and unfaltering devotion someone would shout out “BS.” Indeed, there might be a whole chorus shouting the same thing. 

On the spectrum of authoritarianism to anti-authoritarianism we tend to be pretty firmly on the anti-authoritarian end. Our forebears declared “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God” AND I sometimes add, “If tyranny is unavailable any leadership will do.” Which is to say that anyone who agrees to be a leader in our faith will in the fullness of time encounter resistance. I’m not just talking about ministers either. Anyone who volunteers to be a leader whether it be the congregational president or a member of the board or the chair of a committee or even the person who volunteers to fix the coffee in the fellowship hall. Anyone who leads is going to encounter resistance at some time. 

Let me use that last leadership role as an example. If you’ve ever volunteered to fix coffee in the fellowship hall you know that someone is going to question your decisions. If you pick the coffee that you think tastes the best, someone is gonna criticize it if it’s not Fair Trade coffee. And if you pick an ethically responsible, environmentally sustainable brand of coffee, someone is gonna criticize it if it doesn’t taste good. In other words, you may think you just volunteered to fix coffee only to find someone resisting your tyranny in obedience to God. 

Now, you may think that this is a fairly mundane example from the minutiae of congregational life, and I agree. However, it illustrates a tendency in Unitarian Universalist churches that can sometimes be irritating but is also at the heart of our shared work to keep our congregation a healthy organization. 

When I was in college there was a popular bumper sticker that said, “Question authority.” You saw that bumper sticker everywhere, “Question authority,” and then one day someone came up with another bumper sticker that said, “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” The new bumper sticker reminds us that even those who question authority may have our authority questioned. 

In the Torah, Moses serves as a great example of someone willing to question authority, someone who was willing to question not only Pharaoh but God. When God told Moses to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Moses asked a series of questions and critiques, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?…What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?…Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue…Please send someone else.”

In other words, as a point of contrast, the prophet Isaiah said, “Here I am Lord, send me” whereas Moses declared, “Here I am Lord, send somebody else.” This is just the first of many examples of Moses questioning God and the Torah tells us that God patiently (and sometimes a little impatiently) answered Moses’ questions. In other words, God does not question Moses’ right to ask questions. 

Just as Moses questioned God, rabbinic tradition tells us that we must also question the scriptures. Amy Jill-Levine is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity school. She is in the interesting position of being both Jewish and a New Testament scholar and does her work in ways that offer insights into both Jewish and Christian tradition. She writes, “All Scriptures have passages with which people of conscience wrestle..since the name “Israel” traditionally means, “to wrestle with God,” we do well to wrestle with the passages that confuse and disturb us. More, we do well to wrestle with passages that have and continue to cause harm.” Such scriptures might include teachings like, “slaves obey your masters” or “women stay silent in your churches.” 

Levine continues this line of thought by telling the story of her son’s bar mitzvah. On this occasion, the boy becoming a man is asked to read the appropriate reading from the Torah for that day and offer commentary. The text for that particular day was a very challenging one for a young person to interpret. It included these words from Deuteronomy where God enncourages genocide, “In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” 

Needless to say the young man’s job of interpreting this text was very, very challenging but when the day arrived he stood up in the pulpit and said, “I do not like this text.” In other words, he reserved his right to question the word of God but he continued, “I do not like this text but I am very proud to be a part of a tradition that allows to wrestle with it.” Needless to say his mother was also very proud of him. For anyone who wants to gain wisdom from an ancient text is going to have to wrestle with it. 

When we encourage our young people to wrestle with tradition and question authority we are doing important work to keep our faith communities healthy. Our willingness to challenge tradition safeguards our world from horrors like genocide or mass suicide. Remember that the next time someone questions the coffee you serve in coffee hour. Let’s work together to create a healthy church. 

One of my heroes is Emma Gonzalez, who I admire for her willingness to speak truth to power. After seventeen people were killed in a mass shooting in her school, the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, she somehow managed to work through her own trauma and grief to offer one of the post powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. Although a teenager she challenged the most powerful people in our nation and the lobbyists at the National Rifle Association who keep them in power and buy their silence. She told a gathering of grieving families and an international audience through the media. 

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones …to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days…and…hush us into submission…we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.” 

Amen, Emma! 

We need to bring this spirit to many other challenges of our time. At present our society is in the middle of the third wave of the coronavirus with the Omicron variant and yet many of our elected leaders actively sabotage public health measures and act like everything is normal. Nothing to see here. No need to be alarmed. 

So in conclusion let me say, once again the people in our government are lying to us and someone needs to call BS. Knox County Schools closed down this week because teachers and workers and children are sick and still we’re told we do not need facemasks or social distancing or other mitigation in our schools. We call BS. Local hospitals have 10 hour waits in the emergency room because hundreds of nurses and doctors and healthcare workers are sick and still we’re told to act like everything is normal, go to concerts, restaurants, bars and large public gatherings. We call BS. Outside many hospitals there is a line of people and ambulances waiting even though every ICU bed is taken and every ER bed is taken. Many health care professionals are joining the Great Resignation and many young people are choosing other careers and yet elected officials are saying we do not need a strong Board of Health to guide us through this crisis. We call BS. What do we call? BS! What do we call? BS! And let me end by asking one last very serious question. Can I get an “Amen.”


Redeeming the Soul of America

I grew up in the South, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where many communities banned the sale of alcohol on Sunday out of respect for more conservative churches. For this reason I will always remember the time when I was a college student at a friend’s house on a Sunday morning when her mom came home from the Baptist Church carrying a 6 pack of beer in her hand and announced, “I had to have something to wet down that dry sermon.” 

Well the Baptist church is not the only place where you might hear a dry sermon on a Sunday morning. Indeed, I am pretty sure that I’ve preached at least one or two dry sermons in my time as minister of this church. I can only hope that I’ve never driven anyone to drink. 

Indeed, one of the common criticisms of the Unitarian church in the 19th century was that it was arid and dry, detached and overly intellectual, colorless and uninspiring, monotonous and dull. If you go to Harvard Divinity School today you will see there is a chapel named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a Unitarian minister and lifelong preacher from our pulpits, which is remarkable because it was there that he preached a sermon more or less accusing the Unitarian church of his time of being a spiritual wasteland, a desert without an oasis. 

There is a “famine in our churches” he declared because  too often the preaching, “comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul.” Too often the church looks backwards to the past. We get the sense that God spoke long ago but does not speak today, that God took action long ago but does not act now. What is needed in our time is preaching that conveys “the Feeling of the Infinite.” We need to be reminded that “the Highest dwells within us.” And so Emerson encouraged the ministerial students to breathe new life into old forms of worship for when we feel alive our worship will come alive. When we feel inspired our worship will be inspiring. Emerson told his listeners  that the problem with the church is that “the soul is not preached” and the remedy for that problem is “first soul, and second, soul, and evermore soul.” 

This morning I want to preach about the soul (and hopefully there will be at least a little bit of the soul in my preaching.) Tomorrow is the official holiday for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who declared that the goal of the civil rights movement was “redeeming the soul of America.” In other words, the goal of the civil rights movement was not strictly political, it was spiritual. In more recent times we have heard political contests framed as “a battle for the soul of America.” This language suggests that our politics are sometimes informed by the spirit with a vision that goes beyond achieving short term political objectives toward the realm of the salvation of the soul. 

The contemporary Unitarian Universalist church has always made room for both the skeptic and the believer. There is room for both faith and doubt in our tradition. For this reason, one satirist suggested that a good Unitarian prayer might be, “Dear God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” 

However, even that prayer suggests that both God and the soul are matters of private concern. The language used is one of personal, individual, private prayer. However, if our commitment to social justice requires a battle for the soul of our nation and if our ultimate goal is redeeming the soul of our nation then the soul must be bigger than any one of us. The soul must be larger than the individual if we are to embrace the spiritual work of healing the soul of a nation. 

One of the most widely read books in our times is one by Tennessee writer Jon Meacham called The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. In that book he writes, “The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.” Let me anticipate an objection to that statement from any Canadians who are listening today or people from any other nation who may be thinking, “Hey, wait, that conflict is within us too.” Americans aren’t the only ones who have inner conflict. 

Duly noted, point well taken,  however, sometimes the conflicts within us shape our nations in ways that shape our world. So this morning I will be speaking to the soul of the nation from the perspective of an American citizen. And I invite you to reflect with me regardless of your nationality. And from there we will move toward the larger idea of the soul, one that is bigger than any state or nation. 

In Jon Meacham’s book he notes that the existence of the soul cannot be empirically verified. Indeed, the word “soul” is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to define. He writes, “Philosophically speaking, the soul is the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life…nothing less than the animating force of reality. The soul…is what makes us us whether we are speaking of a person or a people, which… Augustine…defined as -an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” 

Meacham is not the first person to speak about the soul in this way. G.K. Chesterton once described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” because we are bound together by a common creed found in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” A creed that has been refined by our abolitionist forefathers and suffragist foremothers to say, “all men and women are created equal” and we will revise today to say, “all people are created equal.” If we take this understanding of soul seriously, then it is our shared commitment to equality and our openness to change that empowers us to work together to redeem the soul of our nation. 

The Reverend Dr. John Butler, minister of the Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church and leader in the NAACP was speaking to a group of ministers this week about the meaning of the political slogan, “Get woke.” . He said to us, “I’ve always been woke. I’ve never been asleep.” Growing up among sharecroppers, attending segregated schools, experiencing first hand personal and systemic racism and discrimination he said has a way of keeping you awake. And this too is the language of the soul; the language of awakening. 

For once a man approached the Buddha and asked, “Are you a god?” and the Buddha said, “No.” “Are you an angel?” Once again the answer was, “No.” “Are you a messiah?” The answer was still, “No,” so the man asked, “What are you?” and the Buddha replied, “I am awake.” 

When activists tell us to get woke, this is not merely the language of politics, this is the language of the soul. When we speak out against racism people may ask, “Are you a Communist?” or “Are you a Socialist?” However, our commitment to combat bias, bigotry and racism is not a political one but a spiritual one. Before we can take meaningful political action we must wake up. We must experience awakening. 

Dr. King said the challenge of social justice work is to serve the cause of freedom without “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” This is easier said than done. Indeed, it can be very difficult to be engaged in working for meaningful change without drinking at least some from the cup of bitterness, anger and resentment. Indeed, some of us have drinken it to the dregs. Even so, this does not have to be our only drink. Indeed, one of the things I like most about working for social change is not the enemies but the friends. The enemies come with the territory, but the friends are priceless. For when we align with good causes, when we side with love and form new friendships we become channels for what our Universalist forebears called “Eternal and All Conquering Love” the love that conquers all things.

Leaders in the civil rights movement taught us that we must meet physical force and political force with soul force. Or as Mother Pollard said of the civil rights marches in Montgomery, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” Some LGBT activists embraced that term soul force and chose it as the name of an organization to combat bias, prejudice and discrimination in our society. For that reason, this morning we are wise to remember Bayard Rustin, the gay man who organized the March on Washington, who took care of the grunt work behind the scenes,  without whom we would have never heard the words, “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. 

Politics has been called the art of the possible and for this reason it is often framed around short term strategic objectives limited in scope. With this limited focus we can sometimes forget the big picture, and fail to make lasting change. As the scripture says, “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our own souls?” What good are political victories if we lose our integrity. For this reason we need a wider vision, a reminder that our goal is not simply to win one election cycle or pass one piece of legislation for we must do this work with a BIG PICTURE VISION, do this work without losing our own souls and by so doing help redeem the soul of our nation. 

This week I was talking with Barbara Lamm about the Food Pantry she has helped organize on our land (an idea that began as the brainchild of the Reverend Jametta Alston.) The food pantry is a place where anyone who needs food can come and get food AND anyone who feels like donating some food can bring food for the pantry. This is an important ministry in this time of pandemic when all the emergency food systems in the community are overwhelmed by those in need of help. And in the course of our conversation Barbara reminded me that it is important to remember that this is not only a ministry to the body but to the soul. The food pantry is a way to help people while also respecting people’s dignity. It is helping without humiliation. This is not a ministry by “us” for “them.” This is a ministry that may be needed by members and friends of the church in this tumultuous time, this time when one untimely medical bill can make it hard to feed the family. In other words, the food pantry is about solidarity not charity. Take something when you need it. Give something when you can. Pay it forward not back. When combined with our efforts to work for a living wage and address systemic change this is a ministry that feeds both body and soul. 

Dr. King had little patience with any religion that ministered to souls but ignored bodies. He preached, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of …(people) and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson accused the Unitarianism of his time of being a “corpse cold religion.” Ouch! Not everyone thought it was a fair accusation. However, I sometimes think that if Ralph Waldo Emerson had grown up in a church with a preacher as good as Dr. King then he’d never have given the Harvard Divinity School Address. (This linkage is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Coretta Scott King wrote in her autobiography about how she and her husband visited Unitarian churches during his time at Boston University and considered joining but decided they could be more effective in their civil rights work through the Baptist Church.) Emerson would have never decried the famine in our churches. He would never have had to lament the arid and dry message coming from our pulpits. And if my college friend’s mom had had a preacher as good as Dr. King in her all white Baptist church she wouldn’t have needed to pick up a 6 pack after the service. 

The hymn that Dr. Reginald Houze shared with us earlier declares,

The church of God, in every age,

beset by change but Spirit led,

must claim and test its heritage

and keep on rising from the dead.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with a corpse cold religion that a little resurrection won’t fix. We must continue to ask the question that the prophet Ezekial asked, “Can these bones live?” The bones, these bones, these dry bones. 

Emerson felt that society would never change until we are willing to change. Society will never be whole until we are whole. He wrote about our tendency to become fragmented, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within (us) the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One…We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” And the soul is always bigger than any one person or any one nation. 

The ancient Gnostics decried the church for overseeing a spiritual drought, turning spiritual life into a desert, and decried the preachers of the early church as waterless canals. So let’s commit to being a church that is not arid or dry or monotonous or dull, colorless or uninspiring. Let’s put the soul into our preaching. Let’s put the soul into our practice. Let’s put the soul into our music. Let’s put the soul into our organizing. For when we put our soul into our work we become like the scriptures say, like “a tree planted by the water that will bear fruit in the proper season and whose leaves will not wither.” In other words, let us aspire to be the kind of church where no one ever feels the need to wet down a dry sermon. 

(Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 16, 2022.)

Water Into Wine: Spirituality of Transformation

My father, the Episcopal priest, once showed me a cartoon in the New Yorker that had two very biblical looking characters in robes and sandals leaving the wedding at Cana when one turned to the other and said, “Sure, he turned the water into wine but it was really a rather ordinary Merlot.” 

This morning I want to talk about transformation. The Bible is full of stories of miraculous transformation. Water turns into wine. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The dead rise again. The living experience transfiguration. Crack the Bible open and chances are you will find a miracle story. 

And yet, historically, Unitarians have been skeptical of miracle stories. Thomas Jefferson, a self-described Unitarian, created his own book called The Life and Morals of Jesus where he edited out all the miracle stories but kept the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus. Jefferson was a naturalist who was skeptical of supernatural stories. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous Harvard Divinity School Address in 1838 where he argued that divine law is natural law. These divine laws are not written anywhere on paper so much as they are written in our hearts. We can never adequately write these laws into a book and declare that book infallible and yet, he writes, “we read them hourly in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions and in our own remorse.” 

Emerson went so far as to claim that Jesus shared his view. He told the Divinity School students that Jesus spoke of miracles because he felt that our lives are a miracle and all that we do is a miracle and that this daily miracle shines in us through our character when we commit to becoming better people and when we choose to be appreciative of the miraculous in the natural. 

 However his affirmation of divine law as natural law came with a criticism. He declared, “But the word Miracle as pronounced by the … churches, gives a false impression; it is a Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” According to Emerson if we want to see a miracle we must look all around us to the blowing clover and the falling rain. Or as Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet…Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Look for your miracles in the natural world. 

This is not to say that all Unitarians denied the miracle stories. Indeed after Emerson gave his Divinity School Address he was not invited to speak there again for almost thirty years. One prominent Unitarian scholar Andrews Norton described the address as “the latest form of infidelity.” And yet even some of the early Unitarians who believed in the miracle stories did not feel that it was necessary to share their faith in miracles in order to be a part of the church. There was room for both faith and doubt in the church. This is why Emerson continued to preach in Unitarian pulpits throughout his life, even after giving this controversial address. 

And all of this history is just a preface for what I want to talk about today – the miracle of transformation. For just as the story of the wedding in Cana speaks of Jesus turning the water into wine we are called to the work of transformation. We are called to turn despair into hope, animosity into peace, fear into faith, sadness into joy, lamentations into psalms. We are called to the work of transformation. And this work also requires a faith in miracles. 

For the record, I grew up in the Episcopal Church with permissive ideas about alcohol. It is said of Episcopalians, “Whenever two or more are gathered there is a fifth.” Growing up in that church I remember an elder saying of the ritual of communion, “Jesus turned the water into wine and the Methodist turned the wine into grape juice.” 

I enjoy this kind of humor even as I recognize that we have recovering alcoholics among us for whom grape juice is the life saving option. Grape juice is the miracle. So this morning when I use that metaphor of water into wine feel free to translate that as water into grape juice or water into one of the many non alcohol wines we see on the market today. My goal this morning is not to sell or romanticize a product. My goal is to use the power of metaphor to talk about spiritual transformation. 

And in many ways wine is a good metaphor for spiritual life. A few years ago church member Nathan Paki and I went to a free wine tasting in a place out in West Knoxville. I’d never been to one before and it seemed like it might be a fun one off. And it occurred to me during that event that some sommeliers talk about wine the way some theologians talk about God. Which is to say sommeliers use vague, abstract and opaque language to talk about wine in the way that theologians use vague, abstract and opaque language to talk about God. 

The sommelier will say something like, “This wine is angular, austere, structured, complex, intellectually satisfying and accessible.” I am pretty sure Whitehead and some of the other process theologians once said the same thing about God. If not those exact words, something close to it. 

The 20th century Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman used abstract language for God. For him God was a natural process, an object of sensuous experience, a statement of supreme value, an intellectual conception of the source of all good, the ground of all being, creativity and transformation. Which is another way to say that God is angular, austere, structured, complex, intellectually satisfying and accessible.

However, on a practical level, what Whitehead and Wieman and feminist process theologians like Marjorie Suchocki would say is that the spiritual life is about creativity and transformation. And the good news is we do not have to have all the right words in order to live lives of creativity and transformation. We do not have to have all the right vocabulary words in order to live, move and have our being in this experience of Creativity and Transformation. 

The other day I was walking nearby in the Seven Islands State Birding Park, home to a wide variety of different kinds of birds, when I saw a bench dedicated to the memory of someone inscribed with these words, “Look for the songs hidden in eggs.” Which is to say that before we can hear the song of the woodthrush, the bobolink and the yellow warbler there has to be a transformation. 

The songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” and I would add, that’s how the bird gets out. A crack in the egg is an important part of the transformation that leads to the birdsong. So if we want to know where transformation begins, we need to look for the cracks in our lives, look where things are broken, look for the destruction that may usher in a new era of creativity. 

They say, “If you want to make an omelette you’ve got to be willing to break eggs.” Nature tells us the same thing about birdsong, after a long process of incubation, eggs will be broken in order to make birdsong.

The hatching of eggs is best done without human interference with the nesting process. We would be wise to stay away from any nests with eggs in them if we want those eggs to hatch. However, wine is different, before anyone is going to enjoy wine, someone is going to have to smash grapes. There has to be human agency. Destruction precedes creation. Indeed, grapes are 80% water, which is to say grapes are mostly water. Therefore, every drop of rain that falls, every farmer watering her vineyard is part of a creative process of turning water into wine. 

After the grapes are smashed the process of fermentation begins. Wine is not the only product of fermentation. There are yogurts, cheeses, sauerkraut, bread, pickles, beer and more. The food critic, Sandor Katz, has written a book called The Art of Fermentation with these words in it, “We reject certain food because it is rotten. Certain food we can see is fresh. But there is this creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist.” Fermentation happens in that space between freshness and rottenness, something dying and something else being born. 

As many of you know Greg Johnson and Rainey Fox lost their home in a fire over the holidays. Greg is one of our longtime Sunday School teachers who has a very calm demeanor. He is one of the most even keel guys I know. He has a gift for understatement. I first learned about the house fire when Greg posted a picture of it going up in flames on social media with the short comment, “I guess this gives us a chance to do the Phoenix thing.” 

The story of the Phoenix is one of the most well known legends in human history. The mystical bird is consumed by flames but rises again from the ashes. I am willing to bet that most of us would not be able to be that philosophical at such a moment, watching our own home go up in flames. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. And his comment in no way minimizes the very real tragedy of losing a home, losing a workshop full of tools you’ve spent a lifetime collecting, losing two beloved pets. This is body blow that will be hard to recover from, nevertheless, Greg and Rainey are already planning to rebuild and soliciting ideas for eco-friendly new housing designs, out of the flames rises the Phoenix. 

This week on the anniversary of the Insurrection at the national capitol building we learned that the fire that demolished the Planned Parenthood clinic was arson. Very likely an act of domestic terrorism. This is a demoralizing moment without question and yet with our help the Phoenix can rise from these ashes. 

There are many opportunities for transformation in our world. I remember during one election season, I won’t say which one, the Reverend Johnny Skinner of the Mount Zion Baptist church said to me that he would never pray for someone to lose an election but he was praying for “some people to get new jobs.” Which is to say, out of some losses there can be many gains. Every election season offers us the hope of transformation. And the best way we can stop the next insurrection is to revitalize our democracy and ensure that everyone has the right to vote and can exercise that right without hindrance or obstruction. We must renew our commitment to democracy. 

Of course, when you are a Unitarian minister, a tradition that welcomes dissenting views, you always know there is at least someone praying for you to find a new job. And if you have ever been in a leadership position in the church or in the community then you’ve probably had that moment when you feel like you’ve worked a miracle and someone else felt it was just an ordinary Merlot. Well, let me just say, I think we’ve all been there. It comes with the territory. 

This week Covid Act Now indicated that our community is at the Severe level of risk for transmitting the virus, which is why I am preaching to a mostly empty room. The decision to move back to online worship was a difficult one, even so I want to thank everyone for working together as a community to keep everyone safe. I understand that this decision feels like a death to many of us. The challenge for us now is – how do we turn this experience of death into new life? 

We’ve covered some heavy topics today so let me end the sermon on a lighter note by telling a story from my adolescent years. When I was a teenager I was a summer camp counselor. At summer camp there was no TV or computers or other devices of passive consumer entertainment. We had to find ways to turn our boredom into joy. 

I remember one year a fellow counselor and I decided to stage a takeover of the camp office calling ourselves the Camp Ocoee Liberation Army. We got on the camp’s public address system to make our demands. We announced that we had a book called 1001 Jokes that we found in the camp library and that every single one of them was bad. And so we declared that we would read one joke every five minutes until our demands were met. I can’t remember all our demands but I do remember us demanding two ice cold colas and surprisingly enough we got them. We demanded candy from people’s care packages and our extortionist demands were met. The reason we were successful was because these jokes were well and truly terrible jokes. The best one in the book was,

What did the hat say to the hatrack? Stay here I am going on a head. 

More representative of the low quality of the jokes was this one. 

What is big and yellow and swims the seven seas? Moby Banana. 

What is green and jumps over buildings in a single bound? Super Pickle

Like I said, these were bad jokes, very bad jokes. And so we were successful in getting our demands met. And yet occasionally a joke would be so bad it would make us laugh. Have you ever heard a joke that was so bad that it made you laugh? Well, once you start laughing at a bad joke it can be hard to stop. Once you’ve let it slip, it can be hard to reel the laughter back in. And soon you are not only laughing at the joke but laughing at the fact that you are actually laughing at such a bad joke and soon you and your friends are rolling around on the floor laughing. And as mundane and utterly silly as this sounds, this too is the power of transformation. When we are able to turn boredom into joy and joy into laughter knowing that laughter turns the water into wine.