Sermons 2016-17

Binding the Strong Man

Binding the Strong Man
Rev. Douglas Taylor
June 18, 2017

Throughout the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is wandering around the countryside doing a few particular things. He is gathering disciples. He is healing the sick. And he is casting out demons. Later he starts telling parables and teaching; later he goes to Jerusalem, holds his last supper, is arrested, is killed, and his tomb is found empty. But the early part of Mark’s gospel shows Jesus wandering the countryside healing and casting our demons.

I grew up in a Humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation. I learned a very rational and thoughtful version of faith and belief. I am not Christian, but I do appreciate the wisdom found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I suspect the majority of Unitarian Universalists, like me, appreciate the ethical teachings and spiritual wisdom of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount with the beatitudes has some of our favorite passages from Jesus. “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.” (Mt 5:6) “Love your enemies.” (Mt 5:44) “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7) “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Mt 7:1) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (7:12) It is great stuff!

As some of you know from previous sermons you have heard me preach, in my adult years I have circled back to an appreciation of the healing and miracle stories in the gospels – not because I believe they are historical or factual. Rather because I find wisdom and hidden lessons in those passages. All those stories about Jesus walking on water, healing the blind, blessing and forgiving people – I have grown to love those stories as well. The exorcisms too, although they have been a little harder for me.

Did Jesus really cast out demons? In Unitarian Universalist circles, we endeavor to reject literal interpretations of scripture. When I read about Jesus performing an exorcism, commanding a demon to leave a person, I avoid literalist questions. A literalist interpretation would say “Yes – that account is factual, historical, and indeed proof of Jesus’ divine mission.” To say “No – there are no demons, the account is made-up and untrue,” is also a literal interpretation. The question, “Did Jesus really cast out demons?” asks for a literal interpretation – Yes or No. From my perspective, it is the wrong question and I refuse to answer it.

I look for mythic interpretations rather than literal interpretations. I read them like I read the parables. When Jesus talked about Sower or the Talents, it is a thin interpretation to think those stories are only about farming and money management. Although, such interpretations can still serve, it’s just that there is so much more to them if you are open to hearing them as parables, as metaphors with second and even third meanings to them. So I hear the healings, miracles, and exorcisms like parables – what are the second and third messages hidden in the stories.

There are two levels of mythic or metaphoric interpretation I look for. I read for the personal level – what are the spiritual or moral lessons for me in this passage? And I read for the communal level – what are the ethical and political lessons for us in this passage?

I have come to the opinion that looking at the exorcisms is worth my time, our time, if only because they are a fairly common event in the gospel. In Mark’s gospel there are three detailed accounts of Jesus commanding ‘unclean spirits’ or demons to leave a person. (1:23-28; 5:1-20; 9:14-29) But a few times we read: “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34) “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (1:39) The image painted of Jesus not sitting quietly extolling virtues before an enthralled crowd, but of a man hurrying from place to place with power in his hands – touching people, speaking quietly and personally to folks, moving through crowds with his eyes searching for people in need.

Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A personal interpretation of any of the exorcisms can easily focus on topics like addiction or some aspects of mental health. People talk about wrestling with their personal demons. In this way, the demon possession symbolizes something else, some inner struggle with our past, with an addiction, with our body image or self-worth even. In Chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus meets up with the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20). Jesus says, “What is your name,” and the man says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” What a powerful metaphor! I can’t figure out who I really am because it feels like there are dozens of me inside me and not all of them are attractive.

And here comes Jesus, or perhaps even Jesus in the story symbolizes something else – some power or grace – something external to the struggle that breaks the cycle. In this personalized parallel, the solution to the struggle comes from beyond our own control or power.

The basic model of Alcoholics Anonymous talks about the addiction in this exact parallel manor. Step one of the 12-step program is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” And step two is “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The alcoholism is like a demon possessing us, but there is something else more powerful that can help us to cast it out.

It is profitable to read passages in the gospels with an eye toward where you personally fit in the story. Am I like the father in that parable or like the son? Does the widow in that story reflect my own struggle? In the gospels, Jesus suggests we can do exactly this with the parables – see ourselves in parallel to the characters in the story. I say we can do this with the healings and exorcisms, not just the parables.

And, that is not the only way we can read a mythic interpretation. Finding my own personal connection is one thing. But what about a communal reading? What about a political reading?

The exorcism in Capernaum I read earlier is recorded early in Mark’s gospel – chapter one. It is Jesus’ first ‘public’ action. Mark’s version begins with Jesus being baptized by John. He is then tempted in the wilderness for forty days, after which he returns to Galilee and calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to be disciples. Then he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and starts teaching.

Think about what that would have been like. Jesus is not a scribe, he is not ordained, he was not called by the community – he just walked in one day, one Sabbath day, and started proclaiming his message about God’s Kingdom.

In a political reading, this context is important. Jesus’ ministry was a disruption and a challenge to the corrupt leaders of his day – not just to the occupying army of the Roman Empire but also to the religious leaders who sold out their own people and religion by colluding with the empire. We usually notice this passage for the exorcism, but this act of teaching in the synagogue is an act of civil disobedience! It is political theater, non-violent protest and direct action!

What if we read exorcisms as communal political events, as acts of liberation? With the personal mythic interpretation I suggested the demon symbolized a personal struggle, such as addiction. With a communal mythic interpretation I suggest the demon symbolizes a communal struggle, such as oppression: the people caught under the yoke of imperial rule and their religion coopted by corrupt leaders in the pocket of Caesar. I say it fits. The literal stories of exorcism are acts of liberation. It seems a fairly apt parallel to talk about communal exorcism, freedom for the oppressed people.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a textbook about how to read the gospel of Mark with a political interpretation. He titled it Binding the Strong Man after phrase in the passage we used this morning as our first reading. In explaining his mission, in what he is doing with these exorcisms, Jesus says, “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” (Mark 3:27) It is interesting that Mark’s Jesus used a ‘breaking and entering’ metaphor, an image of ‘plundering,’ to legitimize his actions.

And here comes Jesus, liberating the poor and disenfranchised from bondage, rebuking the demons, commanding them to leave – and they do because he knows their names! For such is the power of naming, at least in mythic experience of living. What might their names be today? What are the names of the demons of oppression today?

50 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Riverside Church on the topic of the Vietnam War and gave name to what he called the “triplets,” the triple threat against our society today: militarization, poverty, and racism. He named them as forces leading us away from our goal of Beloved Community, as forces leading us into chaos.

Our society has certainly made progress over the past 50 years, but the ‘triplets’ still possess us, still lure us away into chaos today. We don’t need a Roman Emperor to experience imperial domination. The players and politicians change, but the demons remain. Power and wealth are centralized. Local police departments are outfitting themselves with military grade equipment to be used against our own citizens. Poverty in our country continues to decline as the decades go by, but alarmingly the gap between the rich and poor expands. And all our strides against racism have had an impact yet we continue to struggle.

But what if? What if we all were exorcists? What would we be doing? In the gospel story, Jesus empowered his disciples to rebuke demons and cast them out. If we read this mythically from a political interpretation, what were the disciples empowered to do?

Gandhi recognized a solution, echoing through the ages. He said,

[the poor] cannot successfully fight [the big powers] with their own weapons. After all, you cannot go beyond the atom bomb. Unless we have a new way of fighting imperialism of all brands in place of the outworn one of violent revolution, there is no hope for the oppressed [1948, 11:8].

But there is hope. Gandhian nonviolence as a tool of direct action has been effective far more often that the most people realize. It is a form of exorcism, of rebuke against the demons. Nonviolent direct action is a communal power.

Jesus walked into the synagogue in Capernaum and began teaching. He rebuked the challenge that came and continued on his way. This story of the exorcism in Capernaum was his first of several public direct actions campaigns designed to resist the imperial rule of his day. The lesson for us is to locate ourselves in today’s imperial scenario – to see it for what it is on that mythic level. To rally our own power to resist chaos and call in Kingdom of God – the Beloved Community – using the best and most effective power we have at our disposal.

Add your voice to chorus to resistance, heeding the hidden lessons revealed in these stories of exorcism. Become exorcists yourselves. Name the demons you know, personal or communal; name them and rebuke them and help us bring in the beloved community for all.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

There Is More Hope Somewhere

There Is More Hope Somewhere
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 21, 2017

    There is more hope somewhere,
In the midst of the realities of sorrow and pain
    There is more hope somewhere,
In the face of tragedies and heartache and shame
    And I’m gonna keep on, till I find it,
Because I believe it’s true
    There is more hope somewhere.

The world we live in is not made of sunshine and daisies. There is suffering and heartache, cruelty and disease, systemic injustice and natural disasters. Yet it is also true that there is tenderness and compassion, friendship, beauty, grace, and love. 

A hallmark of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism is our insistence that we face the world with our eyes open, to engage in the travails of the day allowing that engagement to impact our faith and vice versa. It is hard to sell a gospel of hope while acknowledging a discouraging reality of suffering and injustice. Yet that is exactly what we do here. We offer a gospel of hope in the face of the world’s terrors and each individuals suffering. That’s how it works for us, or at least how we strive to have it work. The hope is grounded in reality, acknowledging both the good and the bad, the tenderness and the cruelty. Our hope is not in turning away, but in seeing it all.

“Ours is no caravan of despair.” (Rumi) Unitarian Universalism is a hopeful religion. If we began, as others do, with a statement that human nature is fallen and basically sinful it would be easier to explain evil. But we don’t do that. We, instead, boldly proclaim we are not born sick, sinful, or fallen. We say we are born blessed and able to bless others. Ours is a hopeful religion.

And yet there is an argument against hope that aligns with UU theology. I first grappled with this argument through the story of Pandora. The Greek story of Pandora is in that category of myth and creation story told to explain the existence of evil and suffering. Interestingly, Pandora’s story also asks, “what is the role of hope?”

Typically we read the Pandora story to say that hope is a final, almost forgotten blessing. But here is an interesting interpretation that claims otherwise. Is hope left in Pandora’s Box to indicate that it is readily available to us all or is it another item on the list of bad qualities like illness, war, and suffering?  Do we read it pessimistically or optimistically?  What if hope is not a final blessing but instead a final cruelty, stringing us along?  “Not only are humans plagued by a multitude of evils,” one commentator suggests, “but they persist in the fruitless hope that things might get better.”  (Beall, E. “The Contents of Hesiod’s Pandora Jar: Erga 94-98,” (1989) 227-30)  Perhaps our propensity for hope is simply one more cruel trick of the Gods to keep the game interesting, lest we all quit.

I hope my secret crush likes me back, I hope I passed that test, I hope we win this war, I hope someone rescues me, I hope climate change is exaggerated, I hope my check won’t bounce, I hope I remember how to spell Connecticut correctly. Is hope a trick to keep us from facing reality? Perhaps our propensity for hope as a species is simply one more cruel trick of the Gods to keep the game interesting, lest we all quit if we realized it was hopeless.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” says poet Alexander Pope; and there is scientific research that suggests we are hard-wired for hope. Yet Sigmund Freud suggested hope was merely a delusion. Karl Marx’s quote about ‘the opiate of the masses’ applies for the concept of hope as well for religion in general. And Nietzsche, at his nihilistic finest wrote: “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Nietzsche, Marx and Freud are pointing out how hope can be a tool to keep people trying when evidence suggests failure is the only possible result. Hope, in the worldview of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, is merely a shallow and unfounded optimism; an aspect of our human psyche that can be used against us. 

It makes me wonder if there is a different translation for the version of hope I usually talk about around here. You know how in ancient Greek there are 3 or 4 different words we translate as love? Perhaps there is something like that for hope. …Alas, that is not the case. I checked. There is really just the one Greek word for hope and it means pretty much what we think it means. We don’t have a separate word from another language for hope that means ‘false hope’ compared with another word that comes out as ‘true hope’ or ‘deep hope.’

So here is where I go this this. As Unitarian Universalists we try to keep our beliefs and practices grounded in our experiences, framed by reason and connected to our compassion. Thus we believe in a hope that is grounded in reality. We hope, but we do not ignore what is really out there, what’s really going on. The hope we preach here is a compelling call to engage with the world because we have a crucial role to play in making life meaningful and beautiful for ourselves and those around us. For all the atrocities recorded in the news, there are countless deeds of courage and love that are catalogued nowhere – though accumulated in the heart of each person. A hope in that reality is never false.

    There is more hope somewhere,
In the midst of the realities of cruelty and oppression
    There is more hope somewhere,
Because on balance the suffering is not the whole story
    And I’m gonna keep on, till I find it,
Because the evidence is mixed, which means…
    There is more hope somewhere.

Don’t be lulled into denial, thinking the fears of the world can’t touch you. That leads to false hope. But also don’t be tempted to despair thinking that all our hopes are unrealistic. Instead see our hope in our capacity to engage in both the joy and the sorrow and thereby to make a difference.  Having navigated that argument against hope, let me entertain another one; similar perhaps but with Buddhist nuances.

In her book “When Things Fall Apart,” Pema Chodren spends quite a bit of time talking about the Buddhist perspective of fear and fear’s impact on our living. At one point she talks about a Tibetan word that combines Hope and Fear. She says it is a common enough word, I assume because it is a common enough experience.

“Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides.” Pema Chodren writes. “As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This … is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put ‘Abandon hope’ on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like ‘Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.’”

Pema Chodren in “When Things Fall Apart,” pg 39-40)

What Chodren is lifting up is how the very concept of hope is rooted in dissatisfaction with the way things are. Hope looks ahead longingly; it is not about being mindfully present in this moment. Hope is about how ‘what is’ is not enough, it is about wanting more.

There is more hope somewhere,
Because we are afraid we don’t have enough already?

Now, being fair, there is something deeply true about this. Hope is a constant companion to fear. People cling to hope, out of fear. The two go together. However, hope is a powerful motivation leading us to work for a better world. A better world than the moment we live in now with its injustice and terror, heartache, illness, and suffering. Hope leads us to make changes. Rather than accepting our lot in life, we strive to improve it.

But to do so, there must first be dissatisfaction, trouble, concern, fear. If everything were fine, what purpose would there be for hope? Hope may be an antidote, but every antidote assumes a poison. Pema Chodren says to be rid of fear we must also be rid of hope. She writes, “If hope and fear are two sides of one coin, so are hopelessness and confidence.” (Ibid p41) To abandon hope, as she suggests, is to not let the fear prod you into reaction. It is to let go and trust in something larger than hope.

Acceptance is the key. The first Noble Truth is that suffering is true, accept it. The other three Noble Truths are not about hoping to change things so the suffering stops. They are about accepting the suffering and not letting it rule you.

If the first argument against hope, from Nietzsche and friends, claimed that what you hope for is not real; this second argument from Buddhism is that what you hope for is not yet. Don’t focus your energy on what is not yet, focus instead on what is. Accept it, but don’t be ruled by it. I feel comfortable arguing away the concept of false hope, arguing in favor of a grounded hope instead. I have a harder time arguing away this second piece.

And I think it is because what Pema Chodren says about acceptance. Can we accept what is? Where we are right now is holy and beautiful. Every person is a spark of the divine, every corner of the earth is a garden, we are always on holy ground. Hope, as we preach about it here in Unitarian Universalism, is not a devaluing of the ‘here-and-now’ in favor of a glorious hereafter. It is a hope grounded in finding the beauty and holiness that is already here among us.

What if the world you long for is already here? What if our hope to build a better world is not because this one is fallen or lost in sin, but simply because we love what already is here as beautiful and good and just, and will do our part to keep it growing.

I cannot, as Pema Chodren suggests, abandon all hope. I am not Buddhist enough to do that. But I see the wisdom in keeping my hopes based on what already is beautiful and bountiful before me today. Hope need not be borne only of dissatisfaction and fear. Hope is about a vision of love and peace and justice growing into more love and more peace and more justice.

Our world is on fire with strife and turmoil. Terrible experiences of war, disease, injustice, and pain are ever present in life. But that is not the whole story. Because there is also love and there is also kindness and there is also beauty and grace and generosity and joy and sacrifice. And these do not cancel out the terrible things and the suffering. Instead they ride alongside the suffering. All that is good and holy and beautiful deepens the well and strengthens the walls. Our ultimate hope is not that the suffering and injustice will be cancelled out, but contained; not halted, but held.

Our hope is not in turning away from the realities of injustice and heartache, or in seeking to fix them. It is in facing these things with clarity knowing that we have the resources to make a difference. This is not an optimism that hides from reality. It is a realism that sees an ultimate hope for the fulfillment of grace. 

    There is more hope somewhere,
For there is an abundance of beauty around us now
    There is more hope somewhere,
Even as difficulties surround
    And I’m gonna keep on, till I find it,
Finding it in our simple lives lived with love
    There is more hope somewhere.

In a world without end, may it be so.



Twilight Virtues

Twilight Virtues
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 14, 2017

I was a teenager when Twilight Zone came back on TV in what is now called the “first revival.” The Spielberg movie had just come out (1983) which was my personal introduction to the show. It was remarkable to stumble onto these artful, concise stories. I was drawn to them for their odd and mildly scary atmosphere. And, I loved that they were more concerned with telling a good story than simply making the audience jump in fright.

Not all the stories were spooky or scary either. I remember one – it turns out to have been Meredith Burgess’ first appearance on the show – called “Time Enough at Last.” And to be honest, as a young, bookworm-ish and awkward introvert, I identified (perhaps over-identified) with the protagonist’s plight. The guy just wanted to read his books. But his boss and his wife and the bank customers where he worked kept getting in the way. He squirreled away one afternoon in the vault at the bank where he worked and that was the moment the bomb was dropped and WW III happened killing every person on the planet … except the protagonist. When he discovers he has all the books still, he is overjoyed. Oh! So many books, and finally time enough to read without distractions. Then his glasses break and all is lost; “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

I later came to appreciate Rod Serling’s genius. “Time Enough at Last” was more unnerving than scary. He was using the medium of 30-minute television episodes to teach us to think. It was disguised as mere entertainment, as fantasy and science fiction, with aliens and bizarre circumstances, but there were lessons and messages about life and society and human nature hidden for those who looked to see them.

And, after all, telling stories to show people about the virtues and vices of humanity is far better that preaching at people about them. “Show, don’t tell” young writers are ironically told. Stories, like those Rod Serling gave us on the Twilight Zone, settle into our memories like good parables. The lessons may be uncovered right away or after years of living into them.

Our Binghamton connection to Rod Serling is a point of local pride. Sure he was born in Syracuse, but he grew up here and graduated from Binghamton High School. And we here can take pride in his connection to Unitarian Universalism is as well. Sure he was not a Unitarian as a kid, he never came to this church. But as an adult he joined the Unitarian church in Columbus OH and was very involved at the UU church in Berkley CA as well. He is one of those perfect examples for us because his life’s work, his lived values align with the deep values of Unitarian Universalism so well. It is a joy to lift him up as an example of Unitarian Universalism – The Twilight Zone was a little odd, fairly ethical, and it made you think. Unitarian Universalism is a little odd, fairly ethical, and encourages its adherents to think.

In 1968 Serling was invited to deliver the commencement address to Binghamton High School’s graduating seniors.  He developed his address around inviting the graduates to be tough enough: tough enough to take a stand for a cause, tough enough to compromise, near the end he offered a little about his own religious perspective. He said,

… And lastly, are you tough enough to have faith in the things worthy of faith? A belief in your own particular God … an adherence to the tenets of your particular religion … all this with a decent regard and respect for the God and religions of others. Believe without proselytizing. Believe without peddling. Believe without working both sides of the street, trying to sell to others that which is uniquely your own. But most major here—simply believe. There’s no alternative to faith … and God help us, there’s no salvation without it.

That is an elegant appeal for plurality, for tolerance and religious freedom, for “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth…” as it is worded in the 3rd of our 7 principles. Hold fast to the truth as you know it, to faith as it is given to you, he was saying; but make space also for the faith and truth of others. These are values we Unitarian Universalists held in the late 60’s and we share these values still today.

Now, to be clear: Serling did not make a television show out of our Unitarian Universalist values. There is nothing explicitly UU about the Twilight Zone. Instead he made a television show through the lens of his own values which align so well with our UU values. He railed against prejudice, he exposed the dangers of social conformity, he invited us to question our assumptions about authority and power and beauty. He asked us to think. I could say the same for other Unitarian Universalist luminaries and activists and leaders through the years.  

I have a clip from a series on the internet called “Nightmare Masterclass.” The creator of this series analyzes media with a focus on the dark and odd pieces, often in the horror and terror genres. This clip is from a piece published at the end of last year about Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone called “Lessons from the Twilight Zone.”             From 7:08 up to 10:10

It is interesting to me that nearly 60 years after the shows began new analysis, new interpretations, and new programs continue to be offered around Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone – this sometimes too-campy, old, black-and-white show from the 50’s and 60’s.

This clip I have offered addresses some of the background of censorship Serling had to contend with while writing for television. It also demonstrates how people underestimated the impact he could have through that medium. In a way it’s true his shows didn’t “cop a plea or chop and ax,” it was not so crass as that in the way he addressed the serious issues of his day.

I suspect that is a significant part of the continued appeal. Serling could be subtle enough to get through the censors and yet clear enough to get his point across. He referred to global annihilation by hydrogen bombs in “Time Enough at Last.” He had people taking Instant smile as a way to avoid sadness (at the cost of sameness) in “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” He anticipated the dark side of automation in the work place in “The Brain Center at Whipple’s.” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a classic example of mob mentality.  “Eye of the Beholder” is going to continue to pop up in Philosophy class syllabi and discussions.  He did an episode called “He’s Alive” in which Hitler’s Ghost coaches a promising young neo-Nazi on how to control a mob.

Let us start by your learning what are the dynamics of a crowd. (The shadowy figure says,) … when you speak to them, speak to them as if you were a member of the mob. Speak to them in their language, on their level.

Listen to this monologue from the earlier 1960’s, but listen with the ears of today:

Make their hate your hate. If they are poor, talk to them of poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr. Vollmer, if they are angry, give them objects for their anger. But most of all, the thing that is most of the essence, Mr. Vollmer, is that you make this mob an extension of yourself.

Say to them things like – things like, “They call us hatemongers. They say we’re prejudiced. They say we’re biased. They say we hate minorities- minorities. Understand the term, neighbors: ‘Minorities.’ Should I tell you who are the minorities? Should I tell you? We! We are the minorities!” That way, Mr. Vollmer. Start it that way.

In the 1960’s having ‘Hitler’s Ghost’ talk like this was seen as a gimmick, not a serious rhetorical tool. So it still counted as subtle. Today, with the amount of hate speech rattling around in our current political and social climate, it is perhaps a little less subtle as we watch.

Some of the most important lessons Serling offered us as his viewers were around issues of authority, truth, prejudice, fear and civilization. I think part of the lesson I find in these old episodes is an acknowledgement that these issues are not new today. Certainly they are different, but they are not new.

Or as Serling put it the opening narration of The Obsolete Man:

This is not a new world – it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements…technological advances…and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it – it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.

Rod liked to speak for truth and took a certain pleasure being a menace. He once said “The writer’s role is to menace the public conscience.” Serling would certainly be in the camp of people who say “Question Authority.” But he also refused to oversimplify, so he would likely add something about looking for truth as a guide for judging authority.

On the topic of truth, he urged the audience to think, think through what is happening, think about the implications, think things all the way through, and most importantly think about your own life. Following closely on that, his stories reveal that to be a thorough thinker we need to listen to the thinking of other people as well as to our own thoughts – if only so we don’t get trapped in prejudiced thinking.

All of which circles in to what I take to be one of his driving lessons, his primary lesson: beware of prejudice. Prejudice not only locks us into categories, it has the potential to hurt us and kill us. And he would go so far as to say if you are not fighting against prejudice you are complicit in the harm it brings.

The Twilight Zone was all about the messages being conveyed rather than the spooky or Sci-Fi way the message was delivered. The message is what mattered. He fought against the messages of hypocrisy and greed and prejudice within our society and our own souls by shining a light on the consequences of such attitudes. He offered us warning-signs, instructive fictions, and occasionally not-so-cryptic cautionary tales. He said:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices … And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.   The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street

You and I here gathered participate in a religious community committed to building a better world, seeking more life-giving truth, and encouraging more compassion among our fellow travelers. And quite often we get to have fun in doing that. After services we will watch and discuss two of the original episodes together.

Come, let us gather around the wisdom of the Twilight Zone for a few moments, and then let us rise and reveal our own capacity to tell the truths our world needs to hear with confidence and style as Rod Serling and others like him have done throughout the ages.

In a world without end,
May it be so.




Excitement of Change

Excitement of Change
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 9, 2017

Friends, there has been much in our common life subject to change lately. We began our church year with an intentional up-ending of a few key aspects of our congregation. We chose to explore changes to our facility, changes to how we structure our Social Action work, and changes to how we do faith development and our Sunday mornings. Yes, partly we undertook these changes in response to realities that were changing around us; but still we made a conscious decision to explore these changes. We picked them. We chose them.

And then there was a presidential election in which the nation had a choice between (to over simplify) continuing somewhat along the lines of the previous 8 years or up-ending things in favor of something completely different. And friends, our nation chose to go the route of up-ending things.

And on top of all that, things happen in my life, changes take place: changes I set in motion and changes that send me reeling. Surely you have had your share of personal changes large or small over these past several months. Personal changes tend to take priority when they loom large in our lives. It sometimes amazes me that we each have time for sustained effort at building a better world or responding to national and global situations. Our individual dramas take precedence. And yet we do have time and energy to bring to communal and societal concerns, so somehow it works! Change happens.

Now, generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are game for change. We have a proclivity for novelty, we like experiencing new things in terms of our theology and ritual. We are not a people who suffer rigid tradition or settle for centuries-old answers to life’s deep questions. And don’t get me started about social change! We love social change; we are often at the forefront of progressive movements. That is our wheelhouse! Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a wide-eyed, this-world-focused, change the world, and have-fun-doing-it type of people.

But friends, I must admit, sometimes I am not so sure about it all. I lose some of the excitement and end up with just the anxiety. I get worn down with all the newness, Innovation Exhaustion perhaps. Occasionally I lose sight of the vision we are aiming for and find myself feeling lost on the emerging edge; and all the change feels like mere chaos. Has anyone else felt that? Do you also slip sometimes?

The experiences of resistance, fatigue, fear, discomfort, and anxiety are all par for the course with change. There are ways to navigate change that ameliorate these negative experiences, ways to bring the excitement back, ways to stay grounded in the chaos of change. When I begin to feel off-balance or anxious, worn out or resistant, I have a handful of practices and perspectives that help me regain my center and stay open to what may come.

In the reading we had this morning, “Doubting Thomas,” my colleague Angela Herrera offers a valuable insight. She begins with that delightful passage from the Gospel of Thomas, (and don’t worry if you don’t recognize the passage, the Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible. It is one of the books that didn’t get included which we have since discovered.)

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth with save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth with destroy you.” Herrera does not spend her time on the question of what is within you. Instead she focuses on the question of what happens when you do or do not bring it forth. Namely, as it relates to my topic, it will change you.

And indeed, she suggests there is value in that process of honoring what you lose when you change. “…we avoid change,” She writes,

– holding what is within us at bay, burying it for the comfort of our routines. This might save us, but only by aborting the person we could have become.  If we would really live, we must be willing to die within the seasons of our lives. … The question is: Will you be reborn?

Every new day is also the ending of an old day. Every new relationship is the ending of who you were before that relationship. We tend to be enamored with the new change, excited about a new job, a new idea, a new possibility opening. Unless, of course, the change is not something we want, then we are not the least enamored.

Herrera suggests there is value in honoring what you lose when you change. That is easier when the change is not something you want. And so, honoring what is no longer comes quickly. We honor loved ones who have died, we celebrate their life. But this is more than simply holding on to what is gone, refusing the reality of what has changed. It is about honoring it as you let it go. And that is easier to do when the change is indeed something you want. The wisdom is in doing it for good changes and for bad. And, if you spend a few minutes pondering changes in your own life you might be thinking right now that few changes are exclusively all good or all bad.

In honoring what we let go, we can embrace today’s changes as reality. And perhaps, without judging each change as good or bad, we can feel that ‘excitement of change’ in letting go so we can see and even shape the positive side of moving forward. As we consider new ways of doing our Sunday morning experience, new configurations of our building and of our Social Action structures – take what time you need to honor what was, and let it go. This practice can alleviate unnecessary anxiety or resistance. And highlight and focus any necessary anxiety and resistance, depending. My point being – what’s past is past. Resistance against reality is useless. But resistance in the name of a vision for moving forward is another matter entirely. Learning to let go will help bring clarity.

As I am a learned clergy, when I offer perspective ‘on the one hand’, you can be sure that soon after I will add perspective ‘on the other hand.’ It is said one can shorten any preacher’s sermon by tying their hands behind their back. So, on the one hand, letting go is of great value. On the other hand, you would do well to learn to hold on.

“We are constantly changing. It is one of those universal truths. As faithful human beings, we grow and we change.” These are the words I often use to begin a homily when a couple has asked for one at their wedding. I am not usually asked to do a homily, but from time to time a couple will ask me to share some spiritual reflections on the topic of marriage. And my standard wedding homily has become ruminations on the dynamic aspect of change in a relationship when the couple decides to make a commitment ‘til death do we part.’

So often our culture presents the ideal marriage relationship as something other than reality – in love forever, a constant and full feeling of love at all times, for all time. And, as I say, the reality does not line up. We are constantly changing. Not only will each partner in the relationship grow and mature at their own rate and pace, the feelings of affection and attraction have more ‘ebb and flow’ to them than ‘constant current.’ So I give couples this warning. One time I got a little carried away and actually began my homily saying, “As you stand here on the cusp of a new day, I must warn you …” I may or may not have had a malicious grin when I said this. That couple took it in good humor but I have since made all effort to stay on script during such homilies.

The point I steer toward in these marriage reflections, the counter balance to change, I say, is choice.

We are not static, [I remind them] we change, grow, and mature. We adapt to the changes we choose as well as those we do not choose. People do not choose to fall in love, but they do choose to marry. Falling in love is not enough to sustain you through the years because you do not stop being a dynamic growing person when you marry, [I say to them]. You make a choice to commit to this one person beside you “through all the changes of your life together.”

And all this applies to situations other than marriage; particularly the point about choice serving as the counterbalance to change. There are changes we choose and changes we do not choose – but even for those we do not choose, we still can choose how we respond.

Acknowledging my capacity, my agency in the face of change helps keep me stay centered. Instead of lamenting as things happen to me, I can bow to the whims of circumstance and still act within my integrity. I can still let go of what was – and – I can hold on to my capacity to choose my way forward.

In many ways this is about finding what you still hold while all else changes. It is about discovering your guiding values, your integrity, the vision leading into the change in the first place. With the various changes and experimentations we’ve had here in the congregation have you made choices about them, have you responded, have you changed? You have a choice of what you hold while all else changes.

Knowing what you hold on to will help you weather the changes, help you stay grounded and headed in your chosen direction through the changes – even the changes you do not choose and cannot control. Let go, that you may be open. Hold on, that you may stay true.

And as I am a learned clergy, I will now deliver point number three, for every good ministry student doth learn that a good sermon shall have three points “Three shall be the number of the [points in thy sermon] and the number of the [points] shall be three. Four shalt thou not [offer], neither shalt thou [offer] two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out.” (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)

So, point number 3: the rubber band theory of change. There are, I am sure a multitude of versions of the rubber band theory; some of them probably copyright protected. What I am offering is a simple analogy rather than a full blown theory. And it is simply this: We can stretch ourselves to reach a goal. Like stretching a rubber band, we can stretch the systems and institutions, and that will create significant tension. When you stretch a rubber band it goes from loose to tight, right? Similarly, we can stretch; it is possible, and it causes tension.

And the other part of this is that eventually the rubber band will snap back to its relaxed position. Christian theologian and ethicist Paul Tillich suggested something very similar in his Systematic Theology book. In his chapters on Human Nature, he spoke of growth this way. Imagine a dot on a piece of paper as the center point of your Self. When we stretch, when we receive some challenge, some new learning, some opportunity to become “more fully actualized” – imagine an arrow arcing in a semicircle away from the point to a new spot … and then continuing in circle back to the original point of your Self. Much like the rubber band theory of change, we can stretch but we also return.

Now, Tillich goes a step further. And so he should, for we all know that change does happen while the rubber band analogy suggest a futility of change. No. Tillich says instead, using the image of a circle drawn from the starting point of Self out to a new learning and back to the start again, and suggests that the circle now defines a new center and thus a new Self.

Tillich says we do stretch, but we also then integrate new learning into our current Self which then creates a new Self. You are not the person you were ten years ago, ten months ago, or maybe even ten minutes ago. We are always growing and changing in small ways and large. And our outer most stretch is not the definition of who we are, it is the integration of that stretching into a new sustainable Self we are striving for.

Tillich’s process for the growth of the Self is also a fair outline for communities and institutions. We as a congregation have stretched ourselves in several ways. We would do well to remember to also work on integration each step of the way. Social and spiritual change does not happen all at once, it is a building and integrating evolution.

Friends, as we work our way through changes as a congregation, as a nation, each in our own ways as individuals, I caution us each to be wary of our reactions and the reactions of others. Resistance, fatigue, fear, discomfort, and anxiety are all par for the course with change. Such experiences are not to be avoided. There are ways to ameliorate these negative experiences, ways to bring the excitement back, ways to stay grounded in the chaos of change.

Let us honor what we lose that we may stay open to what may come; let us hold close to our guiding vision and values that we may stay grounded as we move forward; and let us allow time for integrating new learnings that we may keep our integrity as we and the world around us change; and a new day again dawns.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

Narcissus Revisited

Narcissus Revisited
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 26, 2017

I have spent the past several years, the past several months in particular, speaking from this pulpit about the importance of compassion for the ‘other,’ kindness for ‘the least of these,’ forgiveness, and the importance of ‘loving your neighbor.’ All my words about being an ally and resisting injustice are rooted in the most basic and universal of ethical guidelines: the Golden Rule; the call to love your neighbor as yourself. And I am not going to step back from that, but today I am going to step deeper into where that all starts.

Self-care is essential not only for healthy living and spiritual wellbeing; it is also critical for sustained social action and justice-making in the world. The phrase from scripture says to love your neighbor as yourself. Thus, I must begin with loving myself.

It is your own center that you caress,
[Our choir sings this morning.]
Your own reflection gives you light.
And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.
(Dirait-on from “Les Chansons des Roses” by Morten Lauridsen)

Our choir offers us this song as part of our consideration of the topic. “Your own reflection gives you light … Narcissus is redeemed.” I think bringing up Narcissus strikes at the very heart of the problem presented by the concept of self-love.

The story of Narcissus has been reduced to a warning in our culture today. There are various versions of the Greek myth but in essence, the man Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in the water. In one version Narcissus spurns the affections of a would-be lover and as that lover dies he asks the gods to curse the vain Narcissus. The curse the gods choose is that Narcissus must fall in love with the next person he lays eyes on, and then the gods trick him to look at his own reflection in the water. Narcissus is vain and loves only himself. The story is a warning from antiquity against the vices of self-love and vanity.

Occasionally an ancient story like this can still shed light on contemporary experience. I spent a bit of time looking for updated or modernized versions of this story, something that might capture the struggles of today’s society but echoing themes from this old Greek story. All I could find was the psychological profile of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Self-love in our contemporary times is characterized as a disorder. I soon feared my sermon might be reduced to a complaint against narcissism in our nation. Yet since I am here anyway, let me say: I think it is a mistake to try to be armchair psychiatrists labeling celebrities and politicians with mental illnesses. What we really want to do is name moral failings as moral failings.

And while such political commentary will not be our focus this morning, it is related in this: the old story of Narcissus has, unfortunately been reduced to a single interpretation. It is a warning story: be not vain like Narcissus, don’t fall in love with yourself. As such, there is little nuance nowadays between feelings of self-worth and selfishness. Yet the choir sings this piece about how “Your own reflection gives you light. And … Narcissus is redeemed.”

Narcissus redeemed? What would that look like? It would perhaps be something about self-love being a virtue rather than a moral failing, yes?

The only way I see to redeem Narcissus is to shift the story away from the theme of romantic love and certainly away from the theme of personality disorders. Can we perhaps shift the story into the perspective of ethics? The self-love I would speak of in redeeming Narcissus is not love as a romantic feeling, affection, and attraction; rather it is love as unconditional positive regard. Here I am making the distinction between two Greek concepts which are both translated into English as the word love: Eros and Agape. There are indeed several Greek words translated as Love in our English language, but for today let us focus on these two

The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of many religious people – Christian and non-Christian alike – through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is not Eros or any of the other Greek concepts we translate as love; it is Agape.

The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” People use this passage at weddings all the time – but it was not written to lovers, it was written to a congregation. In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.

The story of Narcissus – a Greek myth – is about a man falling in love with his own reflection. I strongly suspect the Greek word in the story is Eros. It doesn’t make sense as any of the other Greek loves. I suspect redeeming Narcissus might be found in a version of the story in which the character finds self-love in the form of Agape – self-respect and dignity which had not been present before.

Agape love, what Jesus, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others talked about, is not a feeling; it is a choice, a decision to treat others in a particular way. It is not a romantic feeling; it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, mean, even cruel but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.

So, do you extend that respect and treatment to yourself? Certainly the basic version of the Narcissus story warns against an unhealthy form of self-love: Narcissism. But perhaps there can be a story about the healthy version of self-love; a love that expands our capacity for all the other forms of love.

And maybe narcissism is merely the pale shadow of the true self-love every human being can and should have. The healthy version of self-love is that if you are comfortable with yourself, secure in who you are, then it is easier for you share your love with others. The pastoral and the prophetic mingle at this point. The ethical injunction to “wish for others what you wish for yourself” goes both ways. If you wouldn’t talk about others that way or treat others that way, why do you say negative things about yourself or treat yourself so poorly?

And here is why this matters. Public health issues ranging from addiction and depression to body image and cutting are rooted in some degree of self-hatred, a stark absence of this healthy form of self-love. Perhaps you do not have a connection to these things in your life, but such ills are becoming more prevalent in our society.

In our reading this morning (“The Radical Politics of Self-Love and Self-Care” by SooJin Pate) the author writes,

Love turned inward heals the scrapes and wounds you’ve accumulated through daily living. Love turned inward weaves a cocoon of protection, where you can recharge, rejuvenate, and restore. Love turned inward conjures a reservoir where you can tap into your own power and manifest the highest expression of yourself.

When I caution people to be gentle with every soul they meet and to recognize that everyone is walking through their own private struggle – some successfully and some not so much. I extend that admonition not just for how you treat others but for how you treat yourself as well.

Self-love is the first ingredient of basic ethical behavior. Treating others as you would want to be treated begins with a positive appreciation of how you treat yourself. Hillel, the famous Jewish sage and scholar, articulated the balance of it when he said:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?
And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?
And if not now, when?

Hillel lived and thought about a generation before Jesus was born. He is remembered for the story in which a gentile challenged him to explain the Torah while standing on one foots. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

The interesting thing is how Hillel is also using self-love as the root for ethical behavior. All the Golden Rule examples throughout the world’s religions make the same assertion. Confusion says, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” And it is written that Muhammed said “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”  Aristotle said, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Again and again the root is to begin with love for yourself, and understanding of what you want and do not want. From there you offer the same to others because you understand for yourself and you love yourself. From a religious perspective, spiritual health is the root of ethical health. Activists who would fight for justice would do well to know how to nourish their spirit as well, so they will be able to stay the course and not falter. Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

To redeem Narcissus is to enact the same story, but with the shift from Eros to Agape. It is to learn to love yourself not in the vain, self-obsessed manner we equate with narcissism, but instead with the positive regard and respect of Agape love. It is to choose to respect yourself. To redeem Narcissus is to see your reflection in the mirror and see your best self – not as a delusion but as what is possible. To redeem Narcissus is to love yourself enough to believe you can make a difference and that others deserve the same love, the same respect, the same compassion – not less.

To redeem Narcissus is to recognize yourself as beautiful because all the universe is filled to overflowing with beauty. And every human is a reflection of the universe. Even the least of these, even your neighbor, even your enemies, even you.

In a world without end
May it be so.