Sermon: “Future Tense”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Genesis and Philippians.


I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me again.

I want to continue the theme of journey that he started last week and so keeping with the season of Lent. Let’s not lose momentum.

In today’s first lesson, the journey is both literal movement and spiritual development, even if the direct verbal communication with God and the animal sacrifice makes it seem very strange and very remote. Literal movement in the sense that Abram and his family were migrants. Figurative, in the sense that his relationship with God was tested and changed over time. That should feel familiar and very close to many, if not all of us.

In the second lesson, the apostle Paul writes to a young church about overcoming evil, and the effects of evil, though imitating him; this leads to a reward which he expresses in both cosmic and personal terms.

So we have two interesting lessons to consider this morning.

First, I’ll talk about how we should interpret scripture. Next, I’ll talk about the themes that these two lessons present us. Lastly, I’ll talk about what these themes have to do with us today and our lives in general.

I want to be as plain and straightforward as possible, because whenever we deal with a text as complicated and rich in meaning as the one from Genesis, difficulty is bound to follow. It is distant in time and culture; we have to go deep in order to find those human bonds — us to him — and those bonds that we share with God.

Now, about interpretation. Some basic principles. I think it goes without saying that we should know something about the passages that surround the ones we read, for context. We should know something about the writer (if we can) and something about the subjects of the passage. We should know something of the political context, geography and language. But it’s also important not to get so hung up on the facts around a reading that we miss the meaning, which isn’t always, or even often the literal reading.

We meet Abram, his wife Sarai and her handmaid Hagar in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Later, they would take on the more familiar names of Abraham and Sarah, but that’s for another sermon.

Abraham is also the common root to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam because at least these three religions have analogous relationships with the same God, with a personal relationship with the figure of Abraham, and connected in analogous ways in prayer, congregational life and revealed scripture.

Genesis is the first of five books collectively known in Jewish worship as the Torah, and so is foundational both in Jewish religious life and Christian religious life. Culturally, even if you don’t know anything else about the Torah, you will have probably heard about the creation of the world (“In the beginning”), Noah and his ark and perhaps the tower of Babel. Around Easter and Passover, you can watch that Technicolor interpretation of the Exodus, The Ten Commandments, on your televisions. But that story comes much later than the one about Abraham and Sarah.

Seen as a work of literature, the Torah is a library of myths, histories, stories, genealogies and censuses that speak of God’s relationship with the world and particularly with a group of people which became the nation Israel. But as a work of faith, its depths cannot be exhausted in a lifetime. And that doesn’t even include the other works of history, wisdom, poetry, songs and prophecies that make up the rest of the Hebrew Bible, which we commonly call the Old Testament. Collectively, these works were gathered, written and edited over centuries, millennia ago. On the one hand, it’s not a simple handbook with answers that correspond to our daily lives on a one-to-one basis. On the other, it’s not a work of magic, no matter what others say. It is meant to be read and understood. Again, it’s about the relationship between God and human beings, written in a human language if at times in an obscure way. The Bible is for human beings, not angel, and understanding takes work.

But that’s more than getting a good translation or an academic commentary. What we need is an interpretive system.

Reading the Bible as a faithful person asking, “where is God in that moment?” “how did the people respond?” “Where might I find myself in a similar situation?” “How can I adapt my life in a similar way.” You may come up with new and different questions. Interpretive systems matter. Just as people see the world in different ways, people see the Bible and its role in different ways.

I’m guessing that some of you have heard the news about the United Methodist Church. A few weeks ago, in a special session of their General Conference, the global body of the United Methodist Church, passed a conservative reading and harsher implementation of their code of conduct, the Book of Discipline. This means that GLBT persons who have have been ordained, including at least one bishop, risk expulsion, while their ministers who perform weddings for same sex couples face a year’s suspension without pay. The winning, traditionalist side declared their loyalty to scripture, implying that the opposition was only following the whims of culture and politics. Of course, conveniently not applying their same standard to divorce.

So when the liberal wing says they’re being faithful to scripture, it’s not a slogan or an evasion, but rather they’re using an interesting model and through it have seen God’s action in the world move in the direction of more inclusion. We can better identify truth from the general thrust of scripture, and not from counting this number of passages which suggest one thing as opposed to that number of passages that suggest another. We’re looking for bigger arcs in the story. That’s why I believe that God will save all, even though there are verses that talk about wrath and punishment. These are rocks and eddies in a river of God’s lovingkindess and compassion.

So when I hear that God accounted God’s faith as righteousness, I hear that in the wider context that God’s blessing is not earned by deeds; that we are not defined by our usefulness; and that dedication is a source of strength, and its own reward. It encourages me to be more faithful.

One thing that stands out for me is that he seems more like a historical person than the people before him. Before the section of Genesis about Abram, we had a genealogy that reaches back nine generations to story of the tower of Babel. Before that we had Noah and his ark, and of course all the way back to Adam and Eve. These seem more like mythological understandings of how certain realities of the world came to be. Perhaps pre-existing stories — certainly with Noah — with a special spin to make them fit with these people’s understanding of how God related to them.

But Abram was different; he seems more like a real person with a past; he was from Ur of the Chaldees, probably a site now in southern Iraq, along the River Euphrates, settled about twenty-nine centuries ago.

He had his own ideas and ways and volition. Abram was faithful, but not God’s puppet. He made some big mistakes and you can wince at his action and reasons. Abram is faithful, but flawed and that makes him believable.

What about his life can we appreciate for ourselves?

To me, one thing about the Abram/Abraham story stands out as obvious, but is so plain that we’re bound to miss. Something so basic that we’re prone to take it for granted, but shouldn’t.

Abram is conscious of his future. The future is where we human beings plot out our lives, make plans for change, plans for redemption, plans for future generations. The eternal God needs no future. God is eternal: the past and present and future are the same; with all possibilities. So God comes to us as a god of history — within time, and working though history — for we mortal people cannot leap into eternity ourselves.

And through the promises God made to Abram, he had a future in three senses.

  • A personal future that pulled him out of an ordinary life and threw him into an unknown world;
  • a family future, where he had children with Hagar and Sarai
  • a human future, where his acts wrap you and me with this blessing

As Universalists, we naturally care about the human future. God promised Abram that through his descendants all the world would be blessed, and our forebears used that as evidence of the final harmony of all souls with God.

But our own personal and family stories are also important. The future is important, but nothing is more fragile and tentative. In it, all things are possible, which can either be a relief or a threat. A relief if the present isn’t so good: the future might be better. Or it could be worse, and so frightening and threatening. Think about the 2020 elections and whether they bring promise or dread.

The hope of the future is not the same as watching one day pass into the next. My grandmother said “don’t wish your life away” but some people today are doing just that. The future — the active, changing, living future — can be so much of a threat that the past can look better in comparison. And so much of a threat that it might be more appealing to live perpetually in the past.

Timothy Snyder, writing in The Road to Unfreedom and elsewhere has defined a double process where our ideas of the past, present and future can be manipulated to shut down democratic norms and create perpetual authoritarian states. Russian leadership being the force behind the manipulation in the United States and the United Kingdom, following the success they had at home. Snyder’s point is that Russia seems better comparatively if the US, the UK and other western powers and institutions, like the European Union and NATO, are weakened.

He writes at length about “the politics of eternity” — the situation following the end of the Cold War — where (to make the matter brief of the sake of this sermon) the United States remained the sole superpower and assumption that the hard crises of the past were over. This is sometimes also called “the end of history.” Which is news to me, and perhaps to you, having lived through it. But lacking obvious alternative futures, it’s easy enough for the powers that be to focus our attention on the past. There can be no change and thus no future; just old victories and old grudges and no progress.

Little wonder that the proponents of Brexit use Word War Two imagery, as if the UK were still at war with Germany, and that there’s still an Empire with which to do business. It’s a way to escape from the future and recall a rose-colored version of the nation overcoming an existential threat. The President does the same thing; when exactly was America great? Since he says “again” it has to be in the past. Snyder points out that the President’s “again” like more like the 1930s than anything else. And for the racist, terroristic murders in Christchurch, the message: turn back the clock to when people knew their place, silent, elsewhere or nowhere.

We cannot live like that and need not. We, too can have a future; must have a future.

St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, offers a way to be brave for our own futures. That is, to be set apart from those whose “god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” In other words, living for themselves, turned inwards, and unattuned to what life with God is like.

The faithful, on writes:

He [that is, Jesus Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

This is a promise of life with God. We must choose who we live for: the one who cares for us, or the many who care only what they can get from us.

The “body of humiliation” Paul talks about is one that diminishes itself by only caring for its own needs. This is the opposite of humility, which is a gift we can give to others by being present but not dominating. It’s certainly not the same thing as loving the world and those who live in it. If we care about what we have so much that we can’t get over ourselves, can’t look past ourselves, then we will not have that same kind of integration that Jesus had.

And if we cannot care, we cannot hope and if we do not hope, there will be no future.

Because the approach I suggested towards scripture applies equally well when interpreting our own lives: not to focus on particular episodes of failure; not to let them veto the good that you do or attempt; and not to draw your focus away from examining your whole lives, and rejoicing in who you are. You are set on heavenly things, and those are first seen here among the living.

So love, care, think, use good judgment. Be not afraid. Extend kindness and understanding. Pray energetically. Live within the deep story that God has set among us; that story will lead you far.

May the eternal God bless our lives and bless our homes. And may God continue to bless the peoples of the earth, to every corner, and until the close of days. Amen.

 

William Ellery Channing site returns (somewhat)

I’ve been building websites since 1996: some have been lost to time, others I have taken down because they’re so behind the times. But then this Twitter conversation with Stephen Lingwood, the minister of the Unitarian church in Cardiff, Wales. He posted, and has been quoting parts of William Ellery Channing’s 1819  Unitarian Christianity, also known as “the Baltimore Sermon.” And as you can count, this is its bicentennial.

We had this chat:

So, I dusted off the version of the site from 2003; I know because the files hadn’t been changed since. I re-purposed unitarianchristian.org, and created a channing folder for the files. I  lightly cleaned up the Channing entry (index) page and knocked together a page for the domain. I know that if I didn’t just do it, I wouldn’t.

So. your blast from the past: William Ellery Channing Center

(I might fix it when I have the time. Maybe a bit by bit.)

Large list of non-contributing churches

I wasn’t going to write about the certification of UUA congregations because I didn’t think it would do any good. But one thing stuck out when I looked at the certification list — which closed on February 1 — so a few words.

I was struck by how many congregations gave no money to the UUA.

There are always some: very small or fragile ones, for instance, and I’ve noticed that Christian and Pagan congregations are over-represented. I read that as alienation, discontent with services provided or not provided and perhaps more. Non-contributing is one of the things that keeps you from having voting representation at General Assembly (big deal) so, the UUA isn’t truly being punitive for publishing this list. But I’m sure peer pressure plays into the calculus (good luck with that) — and besides, showing displeasure goes both ways.

What makes this year different is the number of non-fragile, non-tiny, middle-of-the-road congregations on the list. More than I’ve ever seen before. Not that the UUA has been the easiest to defend lately, at least on financial grounds. I can imagine the calculus of giving nothing to the UUA as opposed to planning for strategic spending or making up for losses. The UUA is a hard sell, especially as it becomes harder and harder to identify what one gets for the money. Who might be emboldened by that list, rather than embarrassed?

Many people I know have fallen for Marie Kondo’s method of de-cluttering, and her signal question, “Does it spark joy?” The list suggests that, for some at least, the UUA doesn’t.

Preaching this Sunday at Universalist National Memorial Church

Come hear me preach this Sunday at the 11 am service at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington D.C. Since the church website is down for repairs, I’m putting the details here.

The Law Dwelling Within

I’ll be drawing from passages from Nehemiah and Luke will question whether ordained ministers — indeed, even churches themselves — are necessary or even desirable as society changes. And if not these, what will take their place?

My thanks to Connor Cosenza, who will be liturgist.

Universalist National Memorial Church is a liberal Christian Universalist church.

It is at 1810 16th Street, N.W., within walking distance of Dupont Circle Metro (Q Street exit) and U Street Metro (13th Street exit.) The S2 and S4 buses stop in front of the church. There is parking behind the Masonic House of the Temple, catty-corner from the church; drive down the alley for access.

I look forward to seeing you.

Hymns of the Spirit site updated

About five years ago, I stood up a site about the joint 1937 Unitarian-Universalist hymnal and service book, The Hymns of the Spirit. It was built on WordPress and for some reason attracted a lot of bot traffic. The last thing I needed was for it to be taken over. So I moved it over to a simpler Jekyll site. It’s clean and quick to load; I’ll be fixing some gremlins but it’s ready to use. But there’s no place to leave a comment: comment through this site or email me about it at wells@universalistchristian.org.

Happy Public Domain, 1923!

The District of Columbia is mainly laid out in a grid pattern, with streets running north and south, and east and west. Avenues, named for the states, cross these at odd angles, so that throughout the city (and especially downtown) the intersections carve out small triangular plots. They’re too small to build on, but if you’re lucky, you might get a parklet.

Near my apartment is one such parklet, but it’s a sad sight. It’s dedicated to Sonny Bono (1935-1998), singer, style icon and member of Congress. There was a piece of legislation named in his honor after his death that has been a more enduring legacy than the parklet, and far uglier.

Bono memorial plaque

Bare parklet from the south
Images available under license, CC-BY (Scott Wells)

Copyright law is complex and confusing, so I won’t try to unlock that here. (Neither do I recommend confusing that which is publicly available with the public domain, as some church people fall into.) But extending copyright so long benefits the few who own those rare evergreen properties, and effectively locks down useful but mostly forgotten works. Works about Universalism, say.

Under the law, works published before 1978 went from having a 75-year copyright term to 95 years. The yearly pipeline of new works entering the public domain was cut off for twenty years. And the old term was pretty darn long. For this reason, it’s easier to get books about Universalists (and much besides) from 1840 than 1940. (The issue of “orphan works” is problem, but past the purpose of this article.)

Twenty years! I remember thinking “That’ll be forever from now.”

Forever as it happens, is next week.

On January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain, namely works copyrighted in 1923. And each year, we’ll get another year’s works.

As a Universalist, I’m looking forward to these entering the public domain. I hope Google or some other scanning project has them in the wings to share on New Year’s Day.

If you want to read more about the works entering the public domain, Smithsonian magazine as a nice treatment.

Sermon: “Unexpected Hope”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 9, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Philippians and Luke 3


I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me this morning, and you for welcoming me.

In Advent

If it wasn’t already clear, we’re in the season of the church calendar known as Advent.

Some facts: it is marked over the four weeks before Christmas. Traditional Advent observances in the Western church (of which we are a part) include the lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath, and in the Eastern church, a period of fasting and abstinence second only to Lent.

In the Western church, Advent is observed as a period of expectation, marking the events leading up to the birth of Christ, including the presence of the prophets and John the Baptist. It is a serious, theologically-intensive time, well-loved by serious, theologically-minded people.

Moving away from the facts, I am struck by Advent’s power and holiness, but will confess that I’m hard pressed to observe it. Perhaps it’s something about the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a total experience, and can get into every part of our lives if we’d let it. Christmas cookies are a thing; Advent cookies aren’t.

I can imagine the scandal of a medieval monk humming a Christmas office hymn on, say, the 23d. The prior would not approve; “oh, Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.” Today, even Thanksgiving is no match, and it’s only a matter of time when the tinsel goes up after Labor Day.

Loving Christmas early

Loving Christmas early may not be very serious or theologically-intensive, but so be it. If you’re going to celebrate Christmas at all, deliberately setting aside a prior period for fasting, contemplation and abstaining seems like a lot of trouble, and perhaps ostentatious besides.

Like that song from the musical Mame, “we could use little Christmas now.” Life’s too short to not be happy for much of it as possible. Advent, then, is going to have to stand for something else.

“Happiness and true holiness”

Universalists made the link between “holiness and true happiness,” as the phrase goes in the Winchester Profession of 1803. Universalists were (and are) sensitive to the accusation that, if you rule out hell, you offer a license for all kind of debauchery. No way, me reply. “Holiness and true happiness are inseparable connected.” And if you’re enjoying something awful, it won’t make you really happy.

In past generations, Universalists taught that wicked people were punished by their sins, but today the reverse seems more true. Holiness – that nearness and congruity to God, manifest in good living — can be accented by happiness. Happiness can bring out gratefulness, say, and that can put us in mind of all the good things God as done for us, and in us.

This is what I hear in the Paul’s words to the church at Philippi, him “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” A real and deep joy that comes from a life congruent with God, in support and care of one another, even in difficult times. From that comes a peaceful conscience and a sense of satisfaction – or perhaps consolation – that you participated on the right side of history, standing with the prophets, waiting for the birth of Christ.

Advent can take this mixture of holiness and happiness, and adopt it as its own.

John the Baptist

But I don’t know if John the Baptist would agree with that.

John the Baptist is a difficult character.

In both western art and eastern iconography, John the Baptist appears scruffy, thin, with a long beard and unkempt or matted hair. He wears skins. It might sound cruel, but he looks more animal than human, but I think that was the point. Images, say those touched by Dutch humanism, may fatten him up a bit, and make him seem more introspective than feral. But either way, he’s a figure on the margins, a radical, and as Herod would later learn, a danger.

From his point of view: while the emperor was in Rome, and his appointee controlled our land, and while their vassals divided the land, and the high priests assumed religious authority at the Temple, — while all of these things happened the word of God come into John who was in the wilderness. Luke the evangelist might be making, as we say, a point.

Hating the world

What made John that way? Today, we have a different set of words to describe a person on the margins.

Was he depressed? Was his family of origin troubled? How did imperial domination change his view of the world? What and who radicalized him? There’s a Facebook meme circulating with wildman John with the caption “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” John’s way was to preach repentance fearlessly, to baptize for the remission of sins. He was confrontational, and doubtless, to use another modern word, difficult.

It’s easy to imagine that John hated the world and the forces within it. And through him, we can identify what upsets us. Some people are afraid of the world around them. Others resent and hate it. Others still see it as a subject for plunder. Fewer seem to care for it and care for those who live on earth: too few, when so many are needed. We’ve seen people – not a few are Christians – hating the world, rejecting it and its comforts. And other, more kindly, hating its cruelty, and hoping for something else.

But we do not follow John, even though he was the forerunner. We follow Jesus, who taught us to love one another, and that love makes the difference for letting God enter our life with joy.

Loving the world or not

So, let’s make a plan. If we ought not hate the world, ought we to love it? Love is a good thing. Loving the world seems to be an agreeable thing to want, to stand for, to defend.

But let’s also be careful: is it even possible for a human being to love the world? There’s at least two problems.

First, if we love the world, does that include its violence, its cruelty, its capriciousness? Do we love the storm, the flood, the wildfire? Do we love the restless mobs, the flowing garbage dumps, the war zones? From a God’s-eye-view, these may have their own rhythm, their own sense, or even their own beauty. But I don’t have a God’s-eye view. I can’t love misery and suffering, except to celebrate it being over. I don’t even really like to see people I despise suffer. So I can’t (and won’t) presume to say that this person’s illness, or that person’s destitution is somehow lovely in God’s sight, because I know no such thing.

And, second, not knowing is the other problem with loving the world. We know relatively little about the cosmos, the depths of the seas, the working’s of each other’s minds, perhaps even the movings of our own souls. Can we say we really love what we don’t know? We can say it, but what would that mean.

We love in the space where personalities meet. I love my husband and he loves me. My mother loved me when she saw me. My dog loves me and shows me with her eyes, or a gentle nuzzle. And God loves us, for love is God’s nature and seeks us. I can imagine the possibility of love with people I don’t know. I can approach the universe with awe that resonates with love. I can and do love people (and dogs) that were once new to me. But I am incapable of loving everything, if the word love is to have any meaning. Universal love belongs to the universal God.

If we do spread the idea of love too thin, what does it become? We might apply love to things that cannot love back. We may see reflected in the gold and sparkle, but possessions can love us. We may enjoy them, and miss them when they’re gone, but we do not love them.

But warnings about wealth is pretty typical of preaching; I bet you saw that one coming.

What’s more dangerous is when we love our imagination. Our imagination creates worlds and stories; imagination invents lives and brings them to us through the voice, the written word and film. Imagination can be a comfort to the lonely or deprived, and an instrument to lift the creative soul. But it can as easily box and package other people into predictable, limited roles. My imagination about you can become your inhibition. One person’s creative force is another person’s destruction. The real world is more amazing than a single person’s imagination. And one person’s imagination of what the world could be is much, much less than what the world really is. So by imagining that we love the world, we betray it. It’s better that the world, and all who live in it, remain mysterious then incorrectly understood. For to take over other peoples’ story is to deprive them of their own story, and drive them into hopelessness.

How can we transform our feelings into hope?

Hope

German Catholic theologian, Josef Pieper wrote,

There are two kinds of hopelessness. One is despair; the other, praesumptio. Praesumptio is usually translated as presumption, although translation as anticipation is not only more literal but also catches the since quite precisely. Praesumptio is a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope. Despair is also an anticipation — a perverse anticipation of the non-fulfillment of hope: “to despair is to descend into hell” (Isidore of Seville) (Josef Pieper in von Balthasar, Dare we Hope…, 27-28.)

If one kind of hopelessness is “a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope” then what might we hope for? Our hope for personal happiness and well-being, our hope for the renewal and improvement of society, and our hope for global, even cosmic reconciliation and peace. These are not separate hopes. Inner peace recalls outer peace. Hope connects. Thinking of one reminds us of the others. But thinking of them all might leave us rueful that any hope might happen; that’s this “perverse anticipation.” Big hopes anticipate big disappointments.

As Universalist Christians, we have to be careful, as we are keen to speak of hope in the grandest of terms; the Larger Hope. A Complete Gospel. The union of all souls with God. But this isn’t about us or human ability. Insisting and concentrating on hope’s grandness is an affirmation of God’s nature, “whose nature is Love” as stated in the Winchester Profession. We can depend on God because God is just: divine law (revealed or assumed) does not contradict or overcome divine nature. And we see traces of this divine love across scripture and in our lives. It precedes the creation of the universe and gives us life. We trust God out of a sense of the greatness of divine love, down to the last soul, down to that last day.

But in daily life, when we speak of hope, it isn’t about the cosmic, but about coping with ordinary things, multiplied a thousand times. Will this interview lead to that job, which will provide that money which will resolve this debt? That’s one scenario; there are countless others. Where’s the sense of the infinite when we shuttle from need to need, or crisis to crisis? In these terms, hope is little more than getting by, and that itself is not assured. God is no less grand, or less loving, just less relevant.

The middle path

Might I suggest we take a middle path?

Really, it would be John, as seen through Isaiah: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

That is, neither hating the world, surviving through bitterness or resentment or despair for what may come— nor loving as we would want it, and not as God would have it be.

This middle path is the continuing walk of faith. It is known by patience, gentleness, maturity and generosity. It calls but does not yell. It sparks wonder, but comes to us in the everyday. It cultivates courage, but does not dominate others.

And it is a work of a lifetime. Friends, a faith worth having is a faith worth working on.

Conclusion

Advent leads us through human history and points to that moment, the coming birth of Jesus Christ, where God by taking on our nature endows the everyday with divinity. Its growing holy light is among us, tying heaven and earth. Its joyful power directs us through the middle path between hating the world, and loving it improperly. It directs us in a path towards mature, caring and thoughtful congruence with God, with the hope of the ages: that God loves us, and prepares greater wonders.

Or as Saint Paul wrote: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”

God bless you all, and happy Advent.

Sermon: “Never Conquered”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 11, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Ruth and Hebrews.


About six and a half years ago, on February 4, 2012, Florence Green died at the age of 110 years, 350 days. She was the last surviving veteran of the First World War, surviving 95 years after she enlisted.

Florence Green was an officer’s mess steward, serving in the Women’s Royal Air Force at two installations in England. The last of some 67 million in uniform, from whatever nation, and in her way standing for all of them.

I had been waiting for the news for years. One by one, the survivors died off. They thinned out to the last survivor of particular battles, or from particular countries. Henry Allingham was the last soldier to see combat and the last original member of the Royal Air Force, dying age 113 in 2009 and in advanced old age made public appearances as a public face for those who fought and died. Army corporal Frank Buckles was the last American veteran. He died in 2011, at 110, and was buried with honors at Arlington.

The last sailor was Claude Choules, who died in 2011, signed on at age 14 was also a veteran of World War Two but “shunned celebrations of the Armistice, because he was against the glorification of war.” (Wikipedia article)

Florence Green’s service was almost forgotten, only to be “discovered” when she turned 110 and drew the special attention of gerontologists. She downplayed her service, saying on her 110th birthday, “It seems like such a long time ago now.” (Cited in New York Times)

And of course it was. They’re now they’re all gone, and what remains?

This has been a very dry year in Europe. The dry weather has exposed evidence of human habitation, shadows of ancient road and foundations of lost medieval buildings. The lost evidence of battlefields appeared more clearly than usual. Like an old scar, dried by winter: itchy, tender.

We might expect people in different countries to scratch that same itch, but different countries have different views. Last Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper ran a commentary by Natalie Nou-gay-rède about how the First World War is now viewed differently in different parts of Europe, and that the longing sadness seen in Great Britain, France and to a lesser degree the United States is not shared.

Nougayrède adds: “By contrast, in German collective memory, the first world war features much less prominently – perhaps because of military defeat and the dire fate of the Weimar Republic, but also because it is largely overshadowed by the second.”

Additionally, “[f]or millions of Europeans the war did not end in 1918.” as violence rippled through eastern Europe well into the 1920s. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was also a beginning. In Poland, for example, this is the centenary of the restored independent Polish state. Indeed, examine the embassies around town and you see that this marked, however temporarily.

Filmmaker’s Robert Newman “History of Oil” sees the First World War undulating from that day to this, not through the Somme and through the trenches, but through the oil fields of Baku, through to the invasion of Iraq.

Even as we bow of heads in reverent silence, there are other people telling other stories about the same events.

My husband Jonathan and I had our honeymoon 15 years ago this week in London and Manchester. November 11th was also on a Sunday that year, and we attended services at the Unitarian Christian Church in Brixton.

The thing I most remember, other than the early appearance of mince pies which I love very much, was the minute’s silence in the middle of the service, right at 11 o’clock. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, since that seems to be more of a civil observance, but being the stranger there I didn’t think too deeply about it, but clearly it has stuck with me. There were still World War One veterans alive back then, and we saw two or three of them being driven in open-topped cars for the commemorative parade – perhaps Henry Allingham among them – which passed the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Since the British lost more in that war than the Americans did, it makes sense the commemorations are sharper and deeper.

But even in the UK, there’s a bright line between what the First World War means, demonstrated is something as everyday as what you’d wear on your lapel. Will you wear a red poppy, or a white one?

The red paper poppy is an essential part of the newscaster’s wardrobe in Britain this time of year, as a remembrance to the dead. Back in 2003, I bought one from a member of the British Legion, and while it’s not quite the same custom here, you see them from time to time. But it is so customary there, that it can easily be seen as an unquestioned, unreflective endorsement of warfare, and so peace activists offer an alternative, bloodless white poppy, with predictable derision by those – a Conservative member of Parliament, say – who see a position to score some political points by abusing a minority opinion.

And so the more I look at that war –the trenches, the mud, the tens of million dead by war, genocide and disease – the more it look less like one thing to remember at one one moment in time. It looks more like the complexity of human life pulled low with millions of ways for us – its survivors – to remember it.

This has a particular meaning in churches like ours. The glowing optimism and faith in progress that fueled and emboldened movements like liberal Christianity went cold. Universalist started to decline in the 1920s. Now, we have removed to a corner of the world’s religious experience and imagination. Our religion is not not a cheery or confident as the pre-World War One religious liberals were. Or as naive.

This building we’re in evidence of a transitional attitude in brick and stained glass. Have you ever wondered what exactly is being memorialized in the Universalist National Memorial Church?

The answer depends on who you asked. At one time, when the plans were being drawn up, it would have been John Murray, who gets the credit for being the first Universalist minister in the New World, and in essence the father of the denomination. But the Scrolls — those written panels in the vestibule — tell a different story about Universalist generally being memorialized here. Of gifts large and small to memorialize Universalist worthies and loved-ones.

The minister of this church in those day was John van Schaick. The parlor is named for him and his wife, Julia Romaine. (The two marble busts are her parents.) He went on a leave of absence from the church, and they went to serve in relief work in Belgium with the Red Cross at great personal risk. (The story recounted in his book, The Little Corner Never Conquered. And UNMC member Donna Simonton knows more about the van Schaick mission than I do.)

Also, the Peace Tower is dedicated to Owen D. Young — a late and bittersweet addition to the story of this church, about the peace deal that was too little, too late. Had it worked, the march towards the Second World War might have been slowed or stopped, as the pressure on German war reparations would have been eased.

If we cannot go as far as the religious liberals in the pre-World War One era, then we can recover the common root of optimism, awe, investigation and devotion. And add in a dose of humility and forbearance.

Last time I preached, I talked about the Revised Common Lectionary and how important for me it is both (practically an ecumenically) to hold to a common set of texts.

Which is all fine and well until you preach on Veterans Day, and more than this, the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that brought it into being. And it’s all fine and well until all of the options for the day are problematic. The lesson from Ruth assumes a woman’s dependence on a man for security, and the letter to Hebrews can easily be used to assert that Christians replaced Jews as the subject of God’s care and purpose, the sinful doctrine of supercessionism. And these were the easier texts!

What can we learn from today’s lessons? First, Ruth. Let’s not forget that Ruth is featured by name in Jesus’ genealogy, and that’s important because she was an outsider and that’s nothing to be hidden or ashamed of. She was a foreigner, and God blessed her. This isn’t an appeal to tribalism, nationalism or racism, and that’s something to be glad about.

The lesson from Hebrews is a bit more complex. It’s author is trying to convince the reader that Jesus Christ himself is the new and better High Priest, who takes the sins of the people upon himself once for all. This is important because God has intervened for our sake; the age of sacrifice is over, and the age of an unity between heaven and earth has begun. Its vision is cosmic, a vision of the eternal that reminds us that successes and failures don’t depend on any particular thing we do. We are not God.

Together, these themes make a powerful combination. A cautious approach, not putting too much stock in one version of a story. An appreciation of variety and diversity. A cautionary tale against hubris, naivety, bias and cruelty. The unexpected nearness of the past times and foreign lands. The dull throb of loss that softens power into honor. These are the virtues that make humane life possible, that are the blessing of surviving literal and figurative wars — and which bring me to my last point.

There has been another subject that had been grinding at us for months, and would have been at the heart of today’s sermon had we not had Veterans Day: the midterm elections. Because if the people in this church are anything like my friends, you were either sick with worry or sick to death. Our country is divided, anxious and politically immobilized. There no trust to let down one’s guard, and it’s easier to antagonize and be antagonized than just about anything else. And, yes, personally I feel that the virtues I value have been discarded by my political opponents in a cheap bid to claim permanent power. It make me sick, but not so sick as to despair.

I rely on my faith to give a context to virtue, and hold me accountable to them. I rely on my faith to know that there is something greater than me, and that God guides, care and judges us personally and collectively. I rely on my faith to snap me out of lazy, sloppy or callous thinking. I rely on my faith to knock me down a peg when I need it and to comfort me when I need it. In short, I rely on my faith to be a decent-ish, responsible human being.

But for the American church, there’s always the risk of being co-opted by American culture. That to be a good Christian is to be a good American, and vice verse. But what part of that equation is in control? Little wonder that people can and do and perhaps should try to build their faith apart from churches.

This is very big problem. Our identity as a church does not come from our national identity, or should not. Treating it as aligned with American values makes the church just one more organization and not a conduit to God’s love and will. Just one more thing to be co-opted. The point is to remember that the church is always political.

There was a good commentary published on September 29 in the New York Times, recently about the question is there a political party for Christians? Rev. Timothy Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church –hardly what you’d call liberal – observed that

“Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel,'”

“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t”)

What we – as a church – should never be partisan.

Our faith challenges to see the world in a way that normal political processes don’t understand or won’t abide.

We must engaged in a world that is often unfair and cruel, where well-organized and powerful forces conspire to minimize and hurt weaker and isolated people, ideas and causes. But our approach relies on imagination, patience, mercy, kindness, vulnerability, persistence, curiosity, and compassion. Like grace, it can have unexpected outcomes. Like love, this different way of approaching the world can break your heart and lift you up at the same time.

Political theories and parties cannot comprehend our own messy, complex ideas, challenged as they are by divine mercy. It’s what let’s us look at the battlefield of the First World War and all wars and pray earnestly for the fighters and the dead, and say “but no, not again.”

It is the strength that makes peace more that the cessation of fighting, and so is our greatest pledge and tribute this Veterans Day.

Where to use the shorter services

Dog at closed elevator door. Caption: "Help"So, I was trapped in an elevator this morning with my dog, so I thought I’d dash out a few good reasons why you’d want a short, structured service if that’s not your usual practice.

  • Additional services at Christmas, Holy Week and other times where demand might outstrip staffing.
  • Trial additional weekly services.
  • Services in a small or mission church, to provide continuity and support quality.
  • Special services in nursing and retirement homes, airports or any place where worship is handled on a shared community basis.
  • As the basis of streaming or broadcast services.
  • For minority-language services.

Other suggestions?