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?

How the Daily Service was framed

It’s amazing that they could put on a religious service each day in only 15 minutes, but what did it look like?

The BBC has an online archive of its magazine Radio Times and I looked at each day in January and July 1941. Despite the name, the Daily Service only took place from Monday to Saturday, but interestingly the book seems to have been used day by day in order, skipping over the Sundays. This fits with the goal, stated in the preface of Each Returning Day to provide a comprehensive arc of prayer each month, rather than in each service. A spot check suggest that some Services may have been omitted in order to keep the book and calendar it sync.

But since the description of each service was only a book page listing in New Every Morning and Each Returning Day we’ll have to look at contemporary accounts and other broadcast services, mainly the longer Sunday service and services for school children. It was, in essence, morning prayer, with an abbreviated psalmody, and no sermon.

The Sunday services did not have a standard format, but — in 1941 at least — oscillated between “high” and “broad” forms, appealing to an all-out audience, both those in the established churches in England and Scotland, and Dissenting churches, Catholics excluded. So it’s possible there was a standard set of texts with elements in common, but not a standard service.

But my interest isn’t re-enacting those services, but seeing how that approach might make Sunday worship easier to plan, and the conduct of worship easier to teach. For next time.

Overcoming wordiness

A word of explanation about why I care about these two (1, 2) BBC pre-war and wartime prayer books.

At some point, perhaps in the early postwar period, American Protestantism became consumed “togetherness” and word-smithing. That cozy togetherness which fit in so well in the baby boom suburbs, but which makes anyone who’s the least bit introverted writhe in the pews. And the temptation in the age of the mimeograph for ministers to craft special liturgies for every occasion, and to use ten words where one would do. (This is not an original thought on my part, and if I can find the reference I will include it later.) In short, Protestant worship (by which I include Unitarian Universalist worship) has become friendlier, more tactile, more community-focused and far wordier. Fine for some, but I can’t say I like it very much.

I appreciate the 15-minute services that the BBC broadcast, even though I’ve never heard one. Because participation is more than repeating the words that are printed the order of service, and comprehension is more than a quantum of words. In that spirit, I won’t labor the point.

Reviewing “Each Returning Day”

A few days ago, a second book arrived from the United Kingdom, the 1940 BBC prayer book Each Returning Day.

Four years had passed since the first BBC service book for the broadcast Daily Service, New Every Morning, and with those years the beginning of World War II. The new book was intended to be a supplement, but it served broader needs. The slim preface, written by F. A. Iremonger suggested its usefulness as a resource for private, family and congregational worship, though it was not specifically authorized in Anglican churches. Each days prayers were not meant to be comprehensive, but part of a monthly cycle, following. My own copy seems to have been the property of a Birmingham congregationalist minister, R. R. Osborn, who himself broadcast the Daily Service from time to time. My copy has those little pencil marks that ministers add to make the book more useful, and to keep from repeating prayers.

The tone is more patriotic, but not as much as I would have expected for a wartime supplement. As Dean Iremonger put it: “To pray about nothing but the war and their relatives may lead, in times of loss or distress — as it did frequently in the last war — to a revulsion against all religion; and for these in particular several sets of prayers are included which have no direct connexion with the war, but which may deepen and develop the sense of union with God through prayer.”

Because it’s hard to find here are the thirty daily services. (For months with thirty-one days, “it is suggested that any set of prayers be used which may be of special relevance at the time.”)

  1. For Faith in God
  2. For the King and the Royal Family
  3. For a New World
  4. For our Children
  5. For the Unemployed
  6. For Rulers and Statesman
  7. For the Grace of Perseverance
  8. For the Church of Christ
  9. For the British Empire
  10. For a Quiet Mind
  11. For all Workers, especially those engaged in war-work
  12. For the Forces of the Crown
  13. For those who Mourn
  14. For Courage
  15. For our Enemies
  16. For the High Court of Parliament
  17. For the Gift of Sympathy
  18. For the Spread of Christ’s Kingdom
  19. For the Spirit of Service
  20. For those at Sea
  21. For Peace
  22. For our Nation
  23. For the Sick and Wounded
  24. For the Protection of Almighty God
  25. For our Homes
  26. For the Spirit of Sacrifice
  27. For Chaplains, Doctors, and Nurses
  28. For Absent Friends
  29. For the Love of God
  30. For the Fallen in Battle, and all Departed Souls

Unlike the first book, this one does not have hymn suggestions, the hymns, psalms and a reading from scripture is noted in the Radio Times listing for the service.

Indeed, the form is spare. An opening sentence, a versicle and response, a brief themed call to prayer, a few appropriate collects, and a notion for use of additional prayers and the Grace.

The appendix has those additional prayers, including the hoary Book of Common Prayer’s collect “for all conditions of men” and the General Thanksgiving; these also show up in the Universalist prayer books, and are worthy for use as-is or in modern editions.

Sermon: Guiding One Another

I preached this sermon — in fact, I jettisoned a part in the middle for time — at Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 30, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Numbers and James.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit his morning, and to you, for welcoming me to the pulpit today.

A couple of weeks ago I got a partial root canal. It turns out that I’ve been grinding my teeth and eventually a cracked one of them. I may end up still losing the tooth. I might lose other teeth besides, because I keep gritting and grinding my teeth. Lately, I’ve been grinding my teeth every day. Perhaps you understand.

The last two times I preached in this pulpit, the president had done something awful and I thought it was my responsibility to address that in theological terms. The hearings of the Senate last week, including the harrowing testimony we heard, also counts as something awful. But I want to continue with my prepared remarks, and hope that what I have to say might spare me some teeth, and spare you some pain, by giving you strength and resources that the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary can neither give nor take away.

I looked at the texts assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical readings calendar that breaks up the bulk of the Bible into a three-year cycle. It’s online; you can search for it. You might be interested in the scope of readings, what thoughts and feelings they evoke and how the readings relate to one another. (It’s also a point of pride. The committee that produced the Revised Common Lectionary included Unitarian Universalist Christians, and we don’t often have a place at the ecumenical table.)

So, we have for today a lesson from Esther, about her daringly exposing Haman as the plotting enemy of the Jews, with a psalm to match, used today in the opening words. There’s a gospel reading from Mark, with teachings from Jesus, including the well-known phrase “Whoever is not against us is for us.” But to be frank, Esther’s passage ended in violent death for the baddy and Jesus teaches one of those passages that makes Universalists itch, and I did that last time. And I saw something the other two had in common: teaching about the practice of faith itself.

So, I’d like to visit some of the practical and pastoral guidance the Bible has passed down the generations, and pull out some parts that apply to us today. And while I already have the curtain pulled back, and looking at how the sausage is made, let’s be clear about about what we might find in scripture.

Despite how some big-platform preachers might act, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between what the Bible records and what people do, much less what people ought to do. The Bible, in this sense, does not speak. It is not a guide book, instruction manual or cookbook. When I was a youth in Georgia, there was a popular bumper sticker that read “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” which is entirely the wrong approach, because that all too easily becomes “I believe it. I will show that the Bible backs me. Don’t you dare cross me.” We have to be continuously on guard against self-validating appeals to divine power: self-validation that empowers bullies and fanatics, and builds walls between us and where God might lead us. The world is loud and scripture whispers.

There’s another risk. Take the current political moment. I find it intensely frustrating and often frightening. It would be all too easy to withdraw from awkward conversations, rigorous engagement and public participation and enjoy a private life. That’s what the Amish did; they are descended from one of the most radical Christian traditions of the Reformation and were so brutally persecuted that they withdrew from society.

And one last thing. And if we’re honest, we know these works have been compiled and edited within a particular historical and cultural contexts. This human hand does not distract from its divine origin, but reminds us that while they were lived in the Iron Age, we do not. We have to interpret these words for our time. We have to figure out what these words meant in their time, and hear that anew. This is what distinguishes the liberal approach.

Now, let’s review the reading book of Numbers (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29).

Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and in the Torah, the heart of scripture, so shared by Jews and Christians. The Hebrew name translates to “in the Wilderness” and the English name refers to the censuses recorded in it. On the whole, it can be drowsy reading; this is practically an action scene, so it does take special care to uncover its meaning.

If you have not read Numbers — there was no homework — have not read it, or heard much about it, the “storyline” follows much what we find in the second half of that monumental film, “The Ten Commandments.” The Hebrew people had been released from captivity in Egypt through God’s action. Numbers covers the time from God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai to the entrance of the people Israel into the land of Canaan.

But what’s this “mixed multitude” really forty years in the wilderness? At least one English Baptist scholar (Harold Henry Rowley; see note in Plaut’s Torah, p. 1011.) thinks that the Exile in the wilderness was only 2 years long: the 2 years that are mentioned in Numbers as the first and last year. The other 38 years were slotted in between.

Why would someone do that?

The Exodus narrative here and in the book of Exodus show how the people stopped being slaves, went out of Egypt and became a people in their own right, seeking a new homeland. But that it was a challenge and a process, and that they failed to hear and mind God along the way.

It’s easier to believe this idea of a nation developed over the course of generations, and not a single trip through the scorching and hostile desert, however long. What the point of the story is to say that one generation died that another generation and people would live.

And the number 40 is important to suggest a long duration. Where else do we see this number? The 40 days of the flood. Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. A number which suggests a long time, and not to be understood literally. But the meaning is clear enough, once you understand the intent. It’s not a matter of deception or exaggeration, but coding the story with extra meaning. Which is fair, if you know what the code is.

One way to understand scripture is to understand where you are in the story. In this view, you have to think of yourself as being a part of the story rather than it happening to someone else. This way, we grow in empathy and see if there are parallels in how those people found God in their lives to see if we can find God in our own. A borrowed life lesson that provides a common language.

And also a link that provides context for other parts of the Bible. For example, Jesus would have known this passage, of course, and alludes to the manna in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which cometh down out of heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. (vv. 47-50, Revised Version)

This changes our understanding of John: that Jesus was the renewal of promise, provision for the liberated, and reward for the wandering. It makes comments about pride or cannibalism seem silly and doctrinaire.

So, a few passages before today’s reading, we headed out into the wilderness with the people Israel, from the mountain of the Eternal, following the cloud that rose from the Ark of the Covenant. They went out in ranks, like an army. The people moved, and encamped, and grumbled. A mixed crowd; a little bit of everyone. A “motley crew” long before that became the name of a metal band.

What makes this telling of the story different from the one in Exodus (or Cecil B. DeMille) is how it was edited and what it focuses on.

Also, since we ascribe great worth to the Bible, it’s worth knowing how it came to be. The usual, pious understanding is that the first five books of the Bible — the Torah — were written by Moses personally. But there have also been serious and faithful questions for hundreds of years. But a simple reading of scripture should throw that into doubt. For one thing, how could Moses be the author if it records his death?

The work of “lower criticism” looks at the books, their structure and vocabulary, and try to understand the sources that we were developed to make these works as we know them. Written works don’t last forever. We don’t have a “first edition” or manuscript of any part of the Bible, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950, the oldest portions of the standard Masoretic version of the Torah we have is about eleven centuries old. The oldest biblical text we have today — say, 26 centuries old — is a in a rolled up silver amulet, so fragile that it had to be read with modern imaging technology: a part of the priestly blessing, from Numbers.

According to lower theory, there are four main sources for the Torah. Two — known as the E and the J sources, based on how God in named in the text. A D source, for Deuteronomy, which seems to be its own thing, and a P, or “priestly” source.

(We see a similar kind of development in play in the the four Gospels.) So where critics of scripture see contradictions and foolishness we see development, versions and alternatives.

Numbers relies on the priestly source, suggesting the book is about 25 or 26 centuries old, and based on the older E and J sources. That is, the underlying question in Numbers is “what is the role of priests in the community?” That doesn’t mean so much for us today, but it means there’s an editorial viewpoint that means the text cannot be read at face value, leading us to the historical or “higher” criticism.

This is where we pick up our lesson. Our passage skips over the manna. This strange, monotonous food; I imagine it would be like eating nothing but chia seeds. And, what do we have now? What is this? But, oh, remember the food in Egypt! he people are on their last nerve, “the Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed.” (11:10, Plaut trans.) Then the Eternal God bid Moses bring seventy of the “elders and officers” of the people to the presence of the Eternal God, with Moses so that he would not bear the responsibility of leadership alone. (10:17) Those gathered with Moses spoke in an ecstatic voice when the spirit of the Eternal God came upon them, but not those leaders alone. Two others, named Eldad and Medad, did too: Moses would not restrain them. And then the feast of quail come down — maybe 50, 100 bushels full. The people were hit with a plague, and the motley crew, having buried their dead at the place named “graves of craving” set out again.

And perhaps the hunger for meat meant a return the familiar life of Egyptian captivity. One of relative ease and luxury; something more than literal meat, and something manna couldn’t feed.

Dear friends, we have the ability to be a great blessing to ourselves and to others. We have within ourselves the seed of greatness; “the kingdom of God is within you.” This is not an escapist fantasy. It however does take imagination. An imagination that resists the deadening pall of convention and the limitations of second guessing: an imagination and a direction that bubbles up possibilities inside us, and that God has set before us. Possibilities that create a hunger for something different, and before you know it, this faith has us wanting something better and seeking to make it real. I believe that there is a Divine path that we can take — one that we have no monopoly over — and welcomes companions. A way described in our passage from James:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Now, none of us alone can make the world right, but each of us can do our part to make it better.

As we proceed, we must ask ourselves: in what way do we mean better? A thin 51% control over the other 49%? Luxuries that we enjoy that others could not possibly also have? Sympathy that stops at the D.C. line or some other border? Lip service to full participation in the economic, moral, political and spiritual matters but acquiescence to the various systems that make this participation impossible? Not any of these, of course.

So taking the love of God, a humble and prayerful heart and a great deal of hard work; we must pray God to raise up scouts and guides for the journey, wherever they may come from; to apply ourselves to prayer and praise; confession and healing; guidance and counsel; and no less than all of these to use our minds and good sense to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thes. 5:21)

This is what we may enjoy and offer future generations. May God bless us now and forever.

How the wartime Daily Service might have sounded, first notes

It’s been more than a month since I order my copy of the BBC’s wartime supplement prayer book, Each Returning Day: A Book of Prayers for Use in Time of War and I’ve not gotten it, so let’s move ahead with a few notes on New Every Morning I’ve picked up while we wait. This helps us understand how the book was used. I started this series here.

  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship described the Daily Service as “a simple daily office comprising a sentence of scripture, a hymn, a prayer, a Bible reading, psalmody, intercessions and thanksgivings, a closing hymn and blessing.” With descriptions in the Radio Times it should be possible to figure out how the service was set out.
  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship also notes that “[w]omen as well as men led the service.” Notes elsewhere about BBC staff leading the prayers suggests that it was a lay office. (Ordained women ministers from Dissenting churches did lead the fuller broadcast Sunday service in this period.)
  • Winter’s Tale describes how tight the service was timed. For example, the Lord’s Prayer might be read at “anything between a brisk 24 seconds and a reverent 36” with blessings timed to choose one to fit the remaining time. It was 15 minutes long.
  • In the article “Hymns on the Air” by Cyril Taylor (Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland bulletin, October 1947), we learn that the Daily Service “contains two hymns, the first being linked with the opening prayers of worship, thanksgiving, or confession, the second with the closing prayers of intercession.”
  • The hymns came from Hymns Ancient and Modern and Songs of Praise (and didn’t vary as listeners followed along in their own books at home) plus metrical psalms and paraphrases “which we know will be particularly appreciated by listeners in Scotland.” Hymns were often shortened for time, and the tune was selected for its suitability for an octet, so none of the grand ones like “NUN DANKET or EIN’ FESTE BURG, or even OLD HUNDREDTH.”
  • Not so relevant to our concern, but interesting all the same: the BBC had a studio specially consecrated, looking something halfway between a period office and a chapel, used until destroyed by German bombs. It was lovely and must have made religious broadcasting seem that much more special.

“New Every Morning” for radio worshipers

I’ve neglected my public writing far too long, but neither have I had much to say. About a month ago, I started reading documents related to World War Two. This is not a new interest, but the occasion was accidental: I found a set of official bulletins from the Office for Emergency Management — entitled Victory — and that prompted a search for more. Turns out there’s a BBC history project, where years of the magazine Radio Times were scanned and the schedules digitized. All of 1939 are available to read, and with them the opening months of the war for the British. Add other documents and you get an amazing story that I’ve just begun to investigate.

The BBC had a basic problem: German bombing could knock out a part of the pre-war regionalized service. The solution was to consolidate the various radio programs into a single Home Service with transmitters blanketing the country. At first, the whole country’s broadcast service was reduced to news bulletins, recorded music and exceptional amounts of theater organ. This was during Hitler’s Phony War, and the BBC developed a other entertainment, documentary and informative programs, plus regional segments, including news and notices in Welsh. Religious broadcasting was a conspicuous part of the programming, including the Daily Service, which marked its ninetieth anniversary earlier this year. Naturally, I’m interested in what they came up with, not the least because they were responsible for a pan-Christian audience. (I’ve yet to find reference to Jewish or other religious programming during this period.)

Since 1936, and through the war and post-war period, the BBC Daily Service used a service book, New Every Morning, with a supplemental book Each Returning Day published during the war. How were they used? Did they appeal to an ecumenical audience? What limitations were put on the service to perfectly hit the fifteen minute broadcast window? I ordered copies of each book from British booksellers, and New Every Morning has since been delivered.

I think there are probably lessons for worship services with wide appeal, worship services for dispersed groups, and brevity. (Brevity being one of my ongoing beefs with Protestant liturgy.)

I’ll let you know what I find.

Sermon: How Not to Be a Prophet

This is a synopsis of the sermon I preached at Universalist National Memorial Church on July 15, 2018, based on the notes and manuscript I prepared for the occasion. The texts were Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me to the pulpit today.

I say “welcome” because there’s an old joke that a preacher has one sermon, preached in hundreds of different ways. At the worst, that suggests uncreative preaching; at best, it means that we are dealing with issues of such depth and importance that they must be approached from different directions in various ways over the course of years, perhaps a lifetime. And if we’re lucky, we can sketch the outlines of the eternal truths, and delve into one or more of them. I hope I can honor your welcome by building on past sermons; this is how theology develops.

I won’t keep you in suspense; what do I have to preach? What’s the one sermon? In a nutshell, Live with God, and grow into a godlike way. The rest is commentary, detail and a lifetime of work.

So, today I’d like to talk about a particular kind of ministry – that of prophecy – and how it fits into our life with God, and growing in a godlike way.

Let’s start by dispelling the biggest misunderstanding about prophecy. It’s not fortune-telling. Rather, prophets are intermediaries with God, and when God deigns to speak through them, it is often a word of judgment and warning. A judgment and warning attuned to the times they live in, and its failings. These failing can be of morals, of religious observance, of justice, or of peace. But they are prophecies to the time and place they are spoken in.

The funny thing is that human behavior doesn’t change so much, even over the centuries. So a prophetic word about greed or violence, spoken twenty or twenty-eight centuries ago, can sound like it was meant for us today. And I have to think this twin observation – a prophecy to a long-dead king being heard and stirring later generations – lead to these words becoming recognized as scripture.

The prophet Amos is particularly universal this way, so little wonder Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail, could quote words…

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” …

as if they were meant for our age, too.

But that ability to identify with an ancient prophetic text can be misleading. There’s a strong tendency in the liberal churches to de-emphasize law and commandments and apply that emphasis to the prophets instead. We are moved by their words, particularly those which image a universal order of goodness, fairness and plenty. Our own tradition, as you can image, is particularly smitten.

The prophet’s word is ecstatic and mystical. If you don’t buy that it is at least courageous and deeply intuitive. And you can’t order up people touched by God. Worse, you have to be on guard for those. Just because the prophecy sounds universal, that doesn’t mean prophets are universally present. Indeed, they are very rare, but false prophets are always around the corner.

(I’m thinking of Jim Jones and his followers, more than nine hundred in all, who died at Jonestown forty years ago this November. One thing I can give credit to the UUA for, if rumor holds, is that he sought ministerial fellowship, but was rejected.) Beware prophets, even if they look the part.

And we should beware sounding like prophets just because we like the force and clarity of the prophet’s voice. It’s hard to live with God, and grow into a godlike way, when you’re mad all the time. Or shooting the upset with diversions, pleasant or otherwise. So then, what shall we do?

The church has a responsibility to look at the world, first to see that we approach it through the right lens and then offer means to cope with it. The most important of these means, I think, being the plain proclamation that God will gather us together, to be All in All. An ethics of care flows from that. But we live in the world that have, and not one we would choose.

It has become a standard response in the liberal church to maintain a prophetic witness, and perhaps even a cliché. I’m not sure I could define a prophetic response, but you know it when you see it. They are noisy, inconvenient, angry in tone or some combination of these.

And you’ll forgive me if a lot of “prophetic action” seems to be the action of people confused about what better could be done. Appealing to God’s prophets of old, and kindling their fire in this age, draws attention to those seeking justice.

We can admire the prophets. We can try to follow their teaching, perhaps also resent their wrath. We can teach their lessons to each other and our progeny. It is not at all clear that we should act like them. In any case, we’re not learning about the breadth and width of prophecy as if it were as new as it was in Amos’ day. Ours is a responsibility to act not as prophets but as responsible people who heed the prophets in the right time. Because the right time is the missing piece. Amos spoke out of a particular moment in his nation’s history. There was a context that called for a particular response. We can—and do—draw out guiding values from his words, but it’s clear that it’s not a universal prescription. Perhaps we do not need prophets because we have other spiritual offices – namely the pastors and deacons – who supply care in the ways particular to those offices.

In Amos, high in the heritage of the prophets, God has upset heritage itself. He was not born to prophecy, but for lack of a better term had it imposed upon him for the sake of his people.

Many of us are practical people who want sensible, approachable and actionable ideas to the world’s problems, even shaping our careers to help others. Ask generous people what they do to make life more fair and just. Good habits – including the good habits of being fair and just – good habits need models, practice, patience and reinforcements. Ask how others how to live with God, and grow into a godlike way — and do it.