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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sermon impression: “Teaching of the Holy Spirit” (June 10, 2018)

What follows is not a manuscript of the June 10 morning sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, or even a reconstruction, but an impression to share with those who were not present. The morning’s texts from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark may be found here.

I had planned to preach from a manuscript, but the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain so close together raised a consciousness and care that I knew it would be on our minds at church. Better to speak from the heart and with with short notes…

I would like us to speak clearly about suicide, generally, and about the people we’ve known and lost personally. My call to the ministry began after the suicide of a dormmate in college, nearly thirty years ago. I’m sure it has touched people here.

Spade and Bourdain’s deaths are troubling, in part, because they were styish and adventuresome and well-known. Our culture values these things but they is no protection. And their deaths reminds us of the unrecognized courage and suffering borne by unfamous (but much loved) people who died from suicide, or who struggle with it. Silence is a deadly enemy, and their deaths is both a loss in themselves and a threat to our sense of self. There is help available, and I recommend you keep these numbers handy in your phone: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

It is important as Universalists to make a public, matter-of-course profession of the hope we share, and claim God’s care for those who die in suicide. There are people who claim that “a spirit of suicide” is loose in the world, or that Spade, Bourdain and others who take their own lives will suffer hell for their act. But this is not so, and a terrible, cruel thing to say. Should someone say this to you, say back, “I’m a member of a church that believes no such thing.”

For we each rely on God’s nature and not our own actions, and God’s nature is love. Ill health (including mental health) and misfortune can afflict any of us. But God made us, and God cares for those who take thoir own lives. Hold on to that.

We could spend much time reflecting on these realities, but let’s also review the text from the Gospel of Mark. It is not easy to hear — say, “Satan casting out Satan.” What would that mean? But there is one part that stands out more and has long been a difficulty for Universalists.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the passage in Mark 3, about the eternal sin and the blasphemy against the holy spirit.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Blasphemy is one of those words that might make us chuckle because it so lost in time, like haughty, wicked or naughty. Each of these meant something very serious, but that was a long time ago. So it’s easy to under-estimate the point of the passage. In some sense, it is about demeaning or not adequately showing honor to some deity, and by extension to a text or holy person. Most of the remaining blasphemy laws are in Muslim countries, but this hides the fact that they existed in many other countries, including in western Europe until very recently. Denmark had a blasphemy law until last year, its repeal triggered by an active prosecution. The past, as the saying goes, isn’t even in the past. It has long been the perogative of civil authority to police blasphemy.

Jesus was engaging in theological jujitsu with blasphemy hunters in religious leadership. He was suspect of blasphemy and were hoping he would entrap himself. So that blasphemy against the holy spirit is blasphemy against what was working within Jesus, and as he had just commissioned the apostles, presumably the work within them. This seems not so far removed from our ideas of the violation of conscience, except that the “conscientousness” comes as a divine gift, we would call that grace. Then it seems to me that the blasphemy against the holy spirit is tied to an intrusion, a violation against our inward soul. That picking and digging that others so easily do, perhaps because they think they have the right to do.

Blasphemy against the holy spirit is insulting the grace God gives us, and souls by which we meet God. Anyone who stood out for the three and a half hours of the Pride parade yesterday saw evidence of this. The mistake grows by reading “eternal sin” as “something that needs punishment (after death) without end.”

There’s a problem here with the word translated eternal. … not a succession of years stacked end to end without beginning or end. The short version is that the word translated eternal pertains to God’s nature, much as we might speak of God as the Eternal One. A sin against God’s nature, which is not ours to forgive.

The answer is to defend the work of God as it grows in each of us, through care and forbearance, and not act in hubris against one another.

Sermon: Grace Alone

This is the manuscript of the sermon I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church. The texts, from the Revised Common Lectionary are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.


Grace Alone

Thank you for having me in the pulpit of Universalist National Memorial Church this morning, and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me.

Today, you heard this from the Apostle Paul

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved

And you have heard this from the Gospel of John

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

I’d like to walk with you briefly through these passages. To do them justice might take the rest of our lives. First, from the relative tolerance and pluralism of the early twenty-first century, it’s easy to look at these words and cringe a bit when meeting the judgment that’s implied in them. We must put aside any initial discomfort and persevere through so we can get to the meaning.

John 3:16 is one of the small number of biblical passages that have such an iconic status that they’re known just by the citation. The 23rd Psalm is another; so is First Corinthians 13. In fact, so iconic that we’re expected to know the passage, because the citation posted on a sign, at a ball game or a public demonstration. No biblical passage stands for evangelical Christianity—at least the American version of evangelical Christianity—so clearly as John 3:16. As a result, it stands as shorthand code for a kind of Christianity that too often is obscure, anti-intellectual and exclusionary.

And self-serving. Display the citation as a way of spreading the Gospel. The logic follows that without the gospel, you’re damned. And that it’s a Christian responsibility to spread it as widely as possible. Maybe that you’re doing something for God?

Apparently it doesn’t matter how minimal or coded this service is, but that implies that salvation is a procedure, like a mechanical process or a financial transaction. A procedure that creates a relationship with God that relieves me of pain or trouble or loss here in the world, or in the world to come, or both. And add feeling to validate the experience. Perhaps some of you grew up with this point of view. And perhaps that leads people to deep relationship with God. But if you’re here, perhaps not. So take to heart these words from the Gospel of John, which is not code, but is our hope.

Preach the gospel first with your lives. But your initiative is not enough. We need the grace of God.

Being called by grace

I think the really scandalous part of the passage from Ephesians is trusting, knowing, sensing that God looks into our hearts and knows what lies therein. Even more scandalous than God having a child and heir. God reaches out to us, in whatever condition we are, because we cannot reach out first: this is what I mean by grace.

Because that means that our well constructed face to the world will not fool or convince the Eternal God. This constructed face, or persona, is how we express our individuality out of our common humanity. Our persona is all anyone else would know about us. And maybe all we know of ourselves, and God speak to us through it.

Likewise, God is known through a face – as Christ, say, or through the Spirit. We can only receive that which is shown to us; the relationship of understanding is entirely one-sided. God can seek us out, but the inner life of God is utterly unknown to human thought. God being so unlike us, eternal, self-existent in perfectly free, we can only know what God chooses to reveal to us. Moses on the mountain knew not to look upon the face of the Eternal God. It is too much for mortal beings to bear.

Living with grace

We are finite and fragile beings. We are limited to our material bodies and our understanding is limited to what we perceive by our senses. We have the power of imagination; but we all know that wishful thinking is not the same as fact.

And perhaps this, too, is a bit of wishful thinking, but grace is a gift from God.

We can cry out for God in our pain or confusion or our workday ugh, but what words do we use and what messenger do we send? God reaches to us so that we might add our particular voice in praise in return to the Eternal. Grace breaks the ice, supplies the context and starts the conversation. It cannot be stereotyped, duplicated or mass-produced. You will not find evidence of grace on your birth certificate or genealogy. It does not seek your passport. You will not find it on your tax returns. And while it pays dividends it cannot be bought or sold. It is free, and will set you free. It is also costly, and can make your heart ache.

Because grace is not a simple or single thing, it will be interpreted as different experiences to different people. Those low in spirit might see it as serendipity or simple good luck. A glimpse of blue in an otherwise gray and clouded sky. The unspoken word of kindness from an unseen friend.

These notions are not wrong.

Just as we cannot buy or sell grace, we cannot forbid it nor deny it in others. It is not the wage for our own spiritual striving. We did not deserve it and did not buy it with our prayers, devotion, or good works. It is free, fathomless and eternal as God.

And yet to pass off grace as just a delusion or a remembered happiness is to diminish its possibility in changing our lives. Even though we did not earn this grace, it will make demands of us, sooner or later.

The slaver’s witness

I bet that when most people hear about grace one thing comes to mind more than any other: the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It certainly one of the most anthologized hymns, and probably one of the most popular.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a Wretch like me.

John Newton portrait
The wretch, or rather the author, is John Newton and his story gives us guidance about how grace works in us, and what our moral response to its power is.

He’s not exactly what you call the hero of his own story, but rather a man of his time who though some unusual experiences and—yes, the grace of God—managed to step outside the norms that he was born into.

History remembers him as the hymn writer and an evangelical Anglican minister. But started as a sailor, first impressed into a service against his will, later finding a position on a slave ship in the notorious triangle trade between Africa and the Americas.

Then, a twist of fate, at the age of twenty, he was abandoned by his shipmates and was himself enslaved in Africa, where he remained for three years until rescued. Sailing home, Newton had a religious experience leading him into evangelical Christianity and an amendment of life. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing. Slave trading? Not so fast. This you might say was his moment of grace, but only partially. That’s how Newton saw himself, looking back later in life.

This was the middle of the 18th century. His business was perfectly legal, and apart from the Quakers (and the enslaved people themselves) acceptable. He continued slaving for six years when a stroke—he was still quiet young—caused to give up seafaring. So no slave trading no? Not so fast. He still retained a financial interest in human misery.

How can there be any redemption from this? Now land bound, Newton tried to enter the ministry: Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, whoever would take him. It took years but he was eventually ordained a priest in the Church of England. As luck would have it, a wealthy benefactor gave him a large allowance for the help of the poor, and his own faith drew a following. It was during this time that Newton wrote his famous hymn, and another much less known but found in our red hymnal. (#393) Later, he served a church in London filled with influential people, including the famed William Wilberforce. But though his opinion about slavery was slowly changing, he hadn’t publicly come to terms with his own part in the slave trade.

He could have very easily finished his life, the slaving life behind him, still legal if not pleasant, and no one could have accused him of doing anything worse than the next person.

But redemption follows repentance. Now an old man, Newton published a pamphlet and preached influential sermons that exposed the horrors that he saw and what he did. He allied himself with politicians like Wilberforce campaigning to abolish the slave trade—it took almost 20 years—but the law passed in 1807. And while it did not abolish slavery, it did abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It was a vital step.

Newton died later that year: after its passage, but before it became effective the following year. Fitting for a man, who walked a wavy line between two words. Slave, slaver and abolitionist. Sinner and reformer. Lost and found.

Newton’s walk was slow, certainly too slow by today’s standards. We can resist and turn, and all we’ll have is regret when we wait too late. Grace pulls, and we must respond.

The Universalist take

So far, I haven’t said anything that couldn’t be said in any number of Protestant churches—or indeed, perhaps any Christian church. The hard lines about grace and salvation that divided Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation, and the churches of the East and West are now much softer. There’s more agreement now. There’s more understanding, at least formally.

So, I’d like to look at our Universalist tradition to see what we can add. I looked back to the Winchester Profession of 1803, the cornerstone theological statement of Universalist faith. I’d like to thank the Reverend Scott Axford, the pastor of the First Universalist Church in Providence for helping me understand that the Winchester Profession better than I’m otherwise might, though any misunderstandings are entirely my fault. It starts:

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Here we see the nature of God being described as love, not a simple attribute, but that God’s nature is identified with love. This is based on God’s revelation in scripture and Jesus’ behavior. It informs our understanding of who Jesus is as the revealer of that love—and for the sermon today—the intent of the Spirit, by which we know grace. God’s personas act in love in different ways. God’s spirit breaks through to us. Grace is an act of God’s love.

And so the Winchester Profession finishes:

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

This is answer to the question, “So what now?” Holiness—that way of living which puts us in harmony with God’s ways—and true happiness go together. And why shouldn’t they? Holiness—I know it’s a loaded word— is the positive response to grace itself.

We don’t earn God’s salvation, but it does direct us towards worthy lives. That’s guidance for some, and reassurance for all.

Friends, we need to live a balanced gracious life, even as we wait for God’s grace to draw us in a divine direction.

Rarely this means acts of heroic and sacrificial giving. For most people, it means lives of the under-rated virtues of goodness, consideration, patience and generosity. It means being reflective and committed. It means being expectant and open-hearted. The spiritual gifts that map to social skills when we say, “she is truly a gracious person”; “they are truly gracious hosts.”

And if you find it hard to be gracious in the face of adversity and the face of custom, find a trusted friend—perhaps here in this church—and test out your idea. Sometimes saying what’s right makes the right action obvious and inevitable. But do try. Don’t quench the spirit. Don’t grow any older in regret. Don’t grow any older not trying.

In short, we rely on God to guide us. To guide our thoughts and guide our prayers. Only then can we begin the interplay between human minds and the divine.

For holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected.

A new, favorite minister’s binder

So, ministers: how many of you, particularly in the free traditions, have your own “book” — often a three-ring binder — where you keep sermon and service texts, and perhaps a calendar and other flat items? (I keep Geneva bands in mine.)

I’ve written about this subject before and have bought several of these books myself but they tend to be utilitarian and covered in vinyl, and the best-looking of these are perversely the ones that fall apart the fastest.

Cloth-covered board and glazed paper covers are sometimes available. There’s one book I’ve had for years, with a textured surface looking more like leather, but made of paper; it’s falling apart, and no longer for public use.

A few weeks ago I found this binder from the Martha Stewart collection. I got it on Amazon for $6 and the red color seem suitably ecclesiastic. (There is also a teal version.)

The description wasn’t clear but it’s the same kind of pebbled paper that my old standby has and seems sturdy, if a bit stiff. I think it’s going to be a favorite.

Christmas sermon, 2016

This is (almost) what I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. from the lessons from Titus and Luke.


I’d like to think Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back into the pulpit this morning.

Merry Christmas to you all.

The Christmas story, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke, is so familiar that we might not hear the words. Even if you were not brought up in a church and are, say, under 50 years of age, there’s a good chance you learned this passage from Luke off television, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, in Linus’s staggering but guileless spotlight speech.

Mary and Joseph on to Bethlehem. No room in the inn. The manger. The angels and the shepherds: these are familiar and friendly.

But this year, it’s hard not to hear the words with renewed meaning, starting at the beginning of the passage from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

This was no simple census. It was a foreign intrusion and assertion of power from Rome. Resented, sparking the political movement of Zealots we would meet later, in Jesus’ ministry. Judea, his home, was then administered from Syria, the eastern reach of the Roman Empire, and later united with it. The holy family were vulnerable, and then threatened under Herod’s murderous rage.

The name Syria leaps up from this passage. Aleppo, an ancient city, existed then under another name, so with our new focus on Aleppo, it’s possible to imagine how it was for Jesus’ family in those days, or others like them. The terror and the dying. The wanderings and hunger. Living just beyond the reach of help, but shaped by powerful forces.

That was a time in Judea of religious and political radicalization which ultimately led within a matter of decades to the end of the temple, a radical transformation of Judaism and the end of an independent Israel until living memory. I need not tell you the state of the world today In this telling, the gospel crashes into today.

But, apart from a historical curiosity, what does that show us? That there is suffering always? Are we stuck with endless violence and suffering. If so, what joy is there in Christmas then? Or, put another way, apart from the celebrating, what gospel is there in Christmas.

First, it’s worth owning that we have a lot invested in Christmas, perhaps too much, which has little to do with that first Christmas. Christmas today is a magical, mysterious, otherworldly, amazing, terrifying, bewildering and perplexing time of the year. Its power is palpable and recognizable. I can’t think of another religious holiday in the United States that is so easily made emotionally and socially available to all whatever their religious beliefs. In some ways it is an all-purpose celebration of goodness and hope and that should be available to everybody.

This, on its own, has religious value. As Christians, we should look towards that time that in both now and not-yet, when will we be whole and God will be all-in-all. As with the Lord’s Supper, we share our feasting and happiness in thanksgiving and preparation for that Heavenly Feast before us.

But Christmas is the foundation of an even greater hope, if we can move past the conventions of the telling — the peppermint and snow-flecked trimmings — we see the world around us is not what it seems. The Gospel of Christmas is the direction, pointing us on the way we should go.

We already know in our hearts that the world is not as it should be, as it must be. The soul craves a world refreshed and transformed, and we must bear witness to it. This is the source of true and lasting gladness.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn to grow in confidence, knowing that our relationship to God is not from what we can provide God, but because of the relationship that God has initiated with us and which is manifested through Jesus’s life which we celebrate today, “we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

We have to remember that the Christmas story is not about one child who managed to attract God’s love and attention but as one child who leads us all back to God’s care. It’s also important how this happens.

The story itself is a story of a “reversal of Fortune”: a reversal of what is important.

Did God’s approved leader appear with strength and might, from a position of power, in a center of power to conquer? None of these happened.

Jesus was born to the Jewish nation, itself very small, and not in Rome, but far from the centers of power. And the promised savior appeared not as a political or military leader but as a newborn infant.

The hope of the ages is knowing that in our smallness, and our powerlessness, and our short lives, and that we might live richly and fully and yet without hurting or dominating one another.

(If you wonder why we gather in prayer the rest of the year, it’s to learn how.)

And yet we are not left alone. God dwells with us, another girt of Christmas. And so we live in hope, and with promises from God reflected in scripture and confirmed buy an inner voice of Truth.

If we are sad or distressed or perplexed or harassed, if we are troubled or menaced or persecuted or embarrassed remember that you are a child of the Living God and that God came to Earth to lead us through a child. And so we grow as children to adulthood with earnestness curiosity joyfulness and loving kindness.

So we celebrate Christmas, even if not in the conventional way. It’s not a prize for being good, but an orientation to how life should be, particularly when everything is going wrong.

The future does not belong to us. But it is before us. Let us approach it with a Christmas spirit: with kindness, love and boldness.