Sermons

The Gentle Oppressor

A sermon on the dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology in Unitarian Universalism

The Gentle Oppressor

Rev. Douglas Taylor

September 15, 2019

Something interesting and perhaps unsettling is happening in Unitarian Universalism lately. There is a change unfolding among us, a turning. And it has to do with something deep. It is about how we do our justice work and the theology behind it – which means this unfolding change, this turning, is about our very identity as a people of faith.

My colleague Darrick Jackson serves on the UUMA executive team and recently wrote a reflection that talks about the impact of this unfolding change among us. Jackson shared about something that came up for him: 

… in response to a conversation with a young, white, male layperson. In it, [the young man] asked if there was a place for him in Unitarian Universalism. [Jackson goes on to say] This question resonated with me and had me, a gay, middle-aged man of color, asking the same thing. It struck me that we were both seeking a place in this faith, and neither of us felt like we fit. …

Let me share with you where such questions are coming from. The Black Lives Matter movement began in its current iteration back in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Unitarian Universalist churches, in solidarity started hanging Black Lives Matter banners, participating in rallies and marches, and generally getting involved in the anti-racist effort to end unchecked police violence against black and brown bodies.

A few years later, we Unitarian Universalists had moment in which people said, ‘wait a minute. We are doing all this anti-racism work out in the streets but our congregations and our regional & UUA staffing continues to be predominantly white. Let’s do some internal work.’

And 18 months ago, our congregation, along with most other UU congregations, hosted a “Teach-In about White Supremacy.” It is hard to look at our own UU culture and tease out the places in which we participate in the systems of oppression. There has been an increased attention lately to the voices of people of color, a centering of people and voices that have traditionally been at the margin of our UU culture. It’s beginning to get noticeable.

This is difficult in part because Unitarian Universalism has a long and justifiably proud history around Social Justice. It is not easy to be called out about something we’re known for being pretty good at. American history is littered with the names of Unitarian and Universalist activists. From the fight for the abolition of slavery through the 1960’ civil rights era, Unitarians and Universalists (and after our merger in 1961, Unitarian Universalists) have been part of the work.

And not just the work of racial justice. You’ll find our names involved in the women’s movement, as advocates for better health care, at the establishment of the American Red Cross and the Sanitation Commission, as early proponents for same-sex marriage, and at the southern border during the ‘80’s Sanctuary Movement and today. All of that history is borne from our Liberal theological message that says freedom is an essential spiritual necessity.

This summer at General Assembly, my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed received the award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. He has been a UU minister and scholar for many years. Mark elucidates a critical point for Unitarian Universalism along the line between liberalism and liberation and how we talk about freedom. Liberalism’s freedom is very personal. It is about freedom of thought and freedom of religion and stresses the importance of providing opportunities for individuals to be free. Liberation’s freedom is communal. It is about the shared struggle to build relationships and repair relationships that will free individuals and communities from oppressive systems.

Traditionally, we Unitarian Universalists are in the Liberal Theology camp rather than in the Liberation Theology camp. Early Universalists theology said: God is love. We are loved so the best response is to love others. Or, we are loved and so is everyone else, God doesn’t stop, so we shouldn’t either. Or, our work is to make heaven here not just wait for it later

Early Unitarians theology said: Salvation by Character, you get to heaven by being a good person, so help others and you’ll get in. Or, everyone needs the chance to develop their moral character, we need to adjust society so it can happen. Or, we are God’s hands in the world, we are the ones who bring God’s freedom and compassion to people in need.

All of those are versions of Liberal Theology. We don’t see divinity as taking sides for people and groups. Just because we are privileged does not mean God loves us more. It means we are more responsible to make things better for the whole human family. We see the holy wherever there is peace and goodness, regardless of the groups and sides. “God’s love embraces the whole human race,” is how one of our hymns puts it.

There has long been a critique of Liberal Theology, however, that says it is too entangled with colonialism to still serve. There is a patronizing element in which we offer to help the poor or the ‘least of these’ without becoming one with them. We risk perpetuating the oppressive systems even while reaching out to help those in need, we risk becoming gentle oppressors. And our Liberal Theology allows that to go unnoticed and uncritiqued.

Once place that critique does come if from Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology says that in fight against injustice, God is particularly interested in the wellbeing of the poor and disenfranchised. God has a preferential option for the poor. Liberal Theology starts with the notion that God doesn’t take sides; God is for everyone. Liberation Theology says, No. God is not neutral. Liberal Theology says, “That’s not what we meant.” Liberation Theology says, “Well, that’s how it comes out over here.” (At least, that’s what the dance sounds like in my head when I let these two Theologies interact.)

Liberation Theology starts with the analysis that some people are oppressed and other people are doing the oppressing. This can be seen as creating an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, but it doesn’t stay there because the solution from a Liberation Theology perspective is that everyone needs to get free – the Us and the Them.

I began with the story of a colleague’s story in which he and another person each wondered if they fit here. Jackson goes on to write:

I believe that we all have a place here, but it might not be the place we imagined, and it might not be the place we are used to. It is a place of mutuality, respect, and integrity.

What Jackson is articulating is a way forward based in a Liberation Theology. There is room for us all here; it means a few things need to change for that to work, but a way forward is possible. What is happening in Unitarian Universalism today, this deep turning, this unfolding change I’m pointing to is a dance we are currently in around Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.

Part of what Liberation Theology calls us into is the particular. We need to get specific. My colleague Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley has an essay in the Essex Conversations in which she writes: 

What liberalism and liberation have in common is that each is engaged in a project to extend human freedom, but liberalism’s approach is inadequate, in part, because of its tendency to view freedom in the abstract — without exploring a critical question: freedom for whom to do what?

Consider this example: Liberal Theology says “All Lives Matter.” That commitment is at the heart of Liberal Theology. It is the heart of the Universalism and the Humanism I grew up in. Of course, all lives matter. And we have banner in the front of our building that says “Black Lives Matter.” This is part of the dance, the turning we are in. Can we do both? Can we say Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Yes. Am I suggesting we put an “All Lives Matter” sign out? No. Part of what is at stake here is the sanctity of certain deep values and ideas. And part of what is at stake here is actual human lives. Our call for freedom needs to be specific.

The reading we had this morning https://www.uuworld.org/articles/power-we (last section by Betancourt and Ortega-Aponte) is taken from a presentation that happened at this summer’s General Assembly in Spokane WA. Part of why I selected this reading is because it lifts up some notable Liberation Theology as a reflection of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. They articulate a communal endeavor.

Betancourt said:

Believing that we are all saved together, that one life cannot reach its greater meaning unless we center the liberation of all, means not only a willingness to invest in one another and in the greater good, but also responding faithfully to the call to live into the work together.

The message has shifted from “We need to make room for them,” to “We need to make room for us.” This is the result of asking questions about who is on the margins and who is at the center. It is an impact of this dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.

Back in June, when I returned from General Assembly, I help bring a re-broadcasting of the big GA Sunday Morning worship service to you. The sermon was called “In This Delicate Turning” delivered by Reverend Marta I. Valentín. Some of you may remember because the video didn’t load and I read the transcript instead. One of the things Valentín said near the end of the sermon was about this question around centers and margins, about this question around is there room for everyone. Valentín offered this:

Am I saying we all must be the same? No. Am I saying that power needs to be shared? Yes. Am I saying that power needs to be given away? Yes. This is part of the delicate turning, the willingness to be led.

And this is what leads us back to that conversation Rev. Darrick Jackson had with that young, white, male layperson. When we draw the lines Liberation Theology asks us to notice, my identity lines up with that of the oppressor. I am white, male, and heterosexual. I understand what is at stake here. I find myself invited to take stock of where and how and at whom my power and privilege is at play. There is internal work for me to do.

The big work of justice-making is relational work, communal work. But there is inner work for me, as there is for all of us, to become clear. Who am I? Why am I invested in this faith and in this vision of a Beloved Community? Why am I involving myself in racial justice work? What is my part in perpetuating systems of harm? Or to get particular: How do we shift old trusted processes like Roberts Rules of Order and Freedom of Speech so they serve liberation rather than the status quo? And, is there room for me here in this faith? How can I move forward?

I’m not suggesting you change your theology from Liberal to Liberation – as if that was something a person could just do. I am suggestion you join the dance, allow the challenging interplay between them. Liberation Theology calls us into a place of what Betancourt called ‘collective salvation.’ Or as my colleague Theresa Soto puts it, “All of us need all of us to make it.” 

Our Unitarian Universalism is in a time of unfolding change, a turning. Which voices will carry the center? What is at the center? Where are we headed? These are currently open questions. But I wholeheartedly with Jackson’s conclusion – yes. Yes, there is a place for you here. And yes, that means things will need to adjust from what they used to be like. But you know what? That’s what life is like anyway. Things are going to change, let’s be intentional about where we are headed together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

A Buddhist, a Pagan, and an Atheist Walk into a Church Together

A Buddhist, a Pagan, and an Atheist Walk into a Church Together

Rev. Douglas Taylor

August 25, 2019

I was standing in the doorway of the gymnastics studio, waiting to pick up my son at the end of his class. Another dad kept glancing at me. Finally, on his way out the door, he paused and gestured to my T-shirt, remarking, “It’s impossible, you know.”

I looked down at my T-shirt, which bore various religious symbols from the world’s religions surrounding the word “unity.” Ah, this man was telling me that unity among the religions is not possible. “Oh, but it is! I’ve seen it,” I responded quickly as he continued out the door – clearly not interested in a conversation with me about this topic.

It is possible. I have seen it many times: people of differing faiths sitting down together in respect and fellowship. It happens a lot more often than people seem to think.

There is a small piece of commentary I saw online again recently. It is a picture of some people together in a coffee shop and it has the words:

A Muslim, a Jew, A Christian, a Pagan, and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop …

… and they talk, laugh, drink coffee, and become friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not a jerk.

Certainly, there are many examples of our religious differences dividing us. Certainly, a unity among different religion perspectives is not possible if we assume “unity” means we have to get rid of all of our differences. Our differences are important; they’re even beautiful. But notice that there is common call among the world’s religions to treat our neighbors well, to wish for our neighbors what we wish for ourselves, and to refrain from offering to our neighbors anything which we ourselves find hateful.

Certainly, we have differences. To seek unity is not to seek to do away with these differences. Instead, our unity is shown by a willingness to offer compassion, love and goodwill toward our neighbors.

What I am describing is a form of theological pluralism. Theological pluralism says, essentially, more than one thing can be true. I don’t have to be wrong for you to be right. And new understanding is always possible. It is not the same as ‘anything goes.’

Look at us, for example. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith tradition. We do not have a confession or statement of faith, no doctrine or creed that all must sign and adhere to before being considered a true Unitarian Universalist. You don’t need to agree to or abide by a belief statement written hundreds or thousands of years ago to be here. We are proudly non-creedal.

I hasten to add this does not make us non-theological or imply we have no beliefs as a community. Only that no one belief or theology is determinative or prescriptive. Instead, we have a lot of theology among us, we abide in theological plurality together.

We’re all over the map, theologically speaking. We are Pagans, Theists, Humanists, Buddhists, Mystics, Agnostics and more. And within each of these labels are nuances that spread us quite wide. There are as many ways to approach the Holy as there are people to approach it. As the Sufi mystic Rumi has said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

This is how we gather as a people. Our congregation encourages each person to have their own personal theology rather than asking anyone to bend to a corporate theology. We have an adult curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology” we have offered from time to time in which participants work to craft a credo statement, an “I believe” statement. Our “Coming of Age” program for youth is modeled in much the same way. We recognize that faith is built not from doctrines, but from life. Beliefs are borne from experience. We certainly do not say, “You can believe anything you want,” rather we say, “You can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.” It is a fierce commitment to the freedom of conscience.

Here is a quick version of all this: Unitarian Universalists are not belief-centric. We are values-centric. What binds us together as a community is not a set of shared beliefs, it is instead a set of shared values. One of these values is Theological Plurality.

Have you ever stumbled through one of those conversations when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is? Usually, the question comes at me in the shape of ‘What do you all believe?” Do UU’s believe in Jesus, in God, in the Bible? Here is my best advice for that kind of question. Take a deep breath. It’s a trick question. We do not have beliefs at the center of our religious community. We are a values-centric religious community, it is our common values that bind us as one. That’s how we can have Atheists, Pagans, Buddhists, Christians, seekers and skeptics all show up for a shared worship experience week in and week out as Unitarian Universalists together.

E Pluribus Unum. Our unity arises from our differences and variety. It is a good thing we are each different. Every one of us experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. And we each use the differing words that best fit that experience for us. Each person is like a fingerprint.

Every person’s fingerprints are unique. I’d heard this is not actually true; but when I looked into it more what I learned is that it is absolutely true. Every person has a unique set of fingerprints. The trouble is in the application of this truth to criminal investigations. Fingerprint impressions are always imperfect which leads to false identifications. So, there is some unreliability in fingerprints, not because of the actual fingerprints.

So, consider, then, the analogy. Every person’s way of interacting with the holy is as unique to that person as their fingerprints. Your spirit or soul or personality – whatever word you need to use from your theological framework, your essential self, if you will – has its own unique arches, loops, and whorls. There is a fit between you and the universe that is your unique experience of the universe.

Our beliefs and theology arise from our experiences. We have experiences of life, the universe, of love and trust … and then based on those experiences we shape our beliefs and theology. Your theology and beliefs will be different from mine – not because one of us is wrong but because we are different. The arches, loops, and whorls of your spirit have led you through your experiences to your own unique understandings and beliefs.

What fits you will not fit me. You must find the words and ways that fit best for you. I may use the word ‘God’ when I am talking up here; and as you listen to my words, you’ll need to translate to the words that work for you.

We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful in terms of faith and religion. It is not simply that differences are honored, accepted. They are necessary. We must be different. All of life is like this.

The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that your personal unique experience can shoot straight to the heart of a universality of experience that harkens the unity of life. In his essay, The Oversoul, Emerson wrote,

“And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him.” (Oversoul)

Your expression of divinity is your contribution to the pattern. And consider the pattern! It’s not just that you have your own special expression of the divine; so, does everyone else! The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking only with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity!

It is critical to discover the divine spark within you, as Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within.” However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in your image. It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey.

And that is the beautiful challenge of our way of faith together. We bump into each other’s differences with a promise to be together with respect; to aim not to wound one another into conformity but instead to encourage each other to live with integrity within the paths we travel.

That is the great benefit to our commitment to theological plurality here in our congregations. This is not about ‘believe whatever you want.’ It is about ‘believe as you must.’ And then come together in community and bump up against the differences and listen.

As we heard last week, we risk stepping out of our bubbles and breaking with the status quo when we listen to each other; when we – as the joke I mentioned at the beginning puts it – sit and talk and not be jerks with each other.

Do you hear how all of this is not just about what you think and believe? It is also about how you behave! The implication of abiding by our values together is that we will behave in a certain way with each other. We will behave in ways that limit harm, that engender trust, that foster respect.

Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world. Listening to the perspectives of other will lead to treat others in a certain way.

I know my own faith is deepened when I encounter another person’s faith in a way that allows me to listen and share with the other person. Listening to another person’s perspective helps me appreciate that other perspective as well as my own perspective at a deeper level.

Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said that the whole point of life is it serves as an opportunity to grow a soul. The implication in this statement from Davies is that your soul in dynamic, today we might say your spirituality is dynamic. It is not just that the people around you here will likely believe differently than you, but you may believe differently from yourself a few years back.

Interestingly, growing your soul is often not about clarifying your beliefs. It is more about clarifying your compassion and your capacity to see another person’s situation. Growing your soul is about allowing another perspective in without being threatened or feeling a need to overcome it or disprove it. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.

So, welcome. Welcome to this slightly weird way we do church here. Welcome to this journey among your fellow Atheists, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews, Agnostics, Seekers, Skeptics, and those as yet Uncommitted. We recognize that we are always changing, and your beliefs, your theology, is dynamic. Your religion and your community can never keep up with you and thus we do not even try. Here we eschew doctrines and creeds that we may hold open a space for your understanding to grow and develop free from any shackle or undue constraint.

It is not an easy path to walk alone. Which is why we have a community like this. A community build around this notion that theological plurality and other similar values can serve well as our binding values. Welcome to the work of belonging to such a community in which we both support and challenge one another in this free and responsible search.

May your contributions continue to beautify the pattern. May you be continually enlightened as you engage with the variety around you. And may you ever trust that the values at our center will carry you – as they carry us all – into the heart of our deep longing.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Every Mind Was Made for Growth

William Ellery Channing, founder of American Unitarianism

Every Mind Was Made for Growth

Rev. Douglas Taylor

5-19-19

“Every mind was made for growth, for knowledge,” says William Ellery Channing, “and its nature is sinned against when it is doomed to ignorance.” Our capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth was central for Channing. It was a theological stake in the ground for him.

Channing preached his Baltimore Sermon two hundred years ago in 1819 – on May 5, I will add, (so, two hundred years and two weeks ago.) Six years later, in 1825 – on May 25, I will add – the Unitarians organized themselves into the American Unitarian Association. The month of May is particularly rife with institutional dates for us.

More importantly, there are some key points in that Baltimore Sermon which carry forward to today, which have shaped out religious identity as Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists over the decades. “Every mind was made for growth,” Channing said.

“What does God sound like?” my oldest child once asked me.

So, of course, I dragged my then 5-year-old child outside and sat with them in the grass and said, “Listen. What do you hear?”

“Wind.”

“Good. What else.”

We were quiet for a moment. “chirping.”

“Yes, that’s birds and squirrels. What else.”

Silence stretched as we listened. “I hear insects buzzing.”

“Good. Yes. All this is what you are listening for.”

“So, God sounds like nature?”

“Yes.” I replied, “But is there anything else you hear”

“Well, cars out on the road… And you and me talking.”

I grinned. “Yes. All of that. Everything.”

I don’t remember exactly what prompted this conversation between us. I do not remember what we talked about next. And honestly, I only remember the conversation because they reminded me of it some years later. It was part of the sense of wonder they picked up as a child which still feeds their sense of what it means to be part of the universe, what it means to participate in the holy, a starting point from whence their sense of God has matured as the years have gone by.

In retrospect, I think I was striving to instill wonder and curiosity rather than instill a fact. I was endeavoring to not “stamp [my] own mind upon the young, but too stir up their own.” (STL #652) I’m not sure our conversation then is representative of my theology now. But it was a snapshot for both of us, a moment in my evolving understanding and in theirs.

How was it for you? What opened you up to awe and wonder as a child or at a point when you were younger? Where did things open for you? Is there a moment or two you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity?

These questions matter; because who you were when you were 5, asking questions and awakening to wonder, is still there in you. As Sandra Cisneros says (in her poem eleven) “Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk.” It’s why our Family Ministry program is for all the people in the congregation and beyond – not just our children. Because we all have our questioning childhood selves within us still.

So how was it for you? Where did things open up for you? “Every mind was made for growth,” Channing said.

William Ellery Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism for his landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819. He broke new ground. He brought forth a new identity. He was a reformer. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, as it is better known because that is where he was when he delivered it, outlined the radical beliefs that were coalescing within a number of liberal religious communities in New England. He delineated the theological rejections and affirmations that characterized the group of people who soon after became known as Unitarians. 

Conrad Wright, editor of the book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing Emerson, Parker characterized it this way: “Channing took the liberal wing of New England congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy-nilly, a separate and distinct Christian body.” (p3) 

This sermon was a two-part sermon of which most people recall only the second part. I will pause here a moment to reflect that while most sermons run about 15-20 minutes, Channing talked for over an hour. (Mendelsohn, Reluctant Radical 160) It was a long sermon. Primarily, the first part of the sermon emphasizes reason as the best tool for the study of scripture. “We are particularly accused,” Channing writes, “of making an unwarranted use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture.”

Channing, in the second half of the sermon, then lists out several doctrines found in scripture when reason is so applied.  The first two sound like this:

In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and only one.… [Secondly,] We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly we are, and equally distinct from the one God.  We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity; that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.

And while this is the heart of why we have the name Unitarian, this is not the heart of what has carried forward through the decades as our religious identity. Modern-day Unitarian Universalists are not doctrinally wedded to the theology of God’s unity. We have a plurality of beliefs about the nature of God. What has followed through as a thread to today is the theology Channing elucidated about what it means to be human.

William Ellery Channing preached a radical theology of human nature. This was a rebellion from the Calvinist theology of the day, a theology that spoke of humanity as being totally depraved and in need of God’s grace, of a humanity bound to sin and with no power by which to change the situation. Only though the grace of the all-powerful God above could a person be saved.

In his sermon, Likeness to God, Channing writes,

What, then, is religion? I answer; it is not the adoration of a God with whom we share no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being; but of an all-communicating parent. It recognizes and adores God, as a being whom we know through our souls, who has made man in his image, who is the perfection of our own spiritual nature, who has sympathies with us as kindred beings … (He goes on to say,) Above all, adore his unutterable goodness. But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence…

Channing, here demonstrates how radical his Christianity was at that time, indeed it might still seem radical to most Christians today. God is a model of goodness. We are beings who do good because we have within us the image of God, who is “unutterable good.” We are not disobedient sinners, flawed creatures, depraved souls bound to sin with no good in us. We each have what Channing called the Divine Seed within.

Channing didn’t claim we did only good deeds. He saw in us the connection of God; he didn’t claim we were God. That came later, through Emerson and others after him. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians of that time were Arminians. Arminianism is the doctrinal position that denies election and original sin, and supports the doctrine of free will. It is basically anti-Calvinism, if you will. Jacob Arminius was a Dutch reformed theologian from the 1500’s who said that people could respond to divine grace. He basically said everyone could be saved. John Calvin was saying, “No, only a select few could be saved, a pre-selected few in fact.” 

One could characterize it this way: Calvinists believed that every human being was born in original sin. It is like saying you begin life on a train speeding toward hell, totally depraved and unredeemable, and only a few have a chance of getting off. Arminianism – and the formative Unitarian theology of Channing – says you start your life on the platform and can choose which train you get on, and perhaps you can even change trains during the trip. There is no limit to the number of folks who can get a ticket for the heaven bound train. 

Unitarianism’s message of the innate dignity and goodness of human beings grew from the Channing’s early articulation of Unitarianism. The first of our current Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” is an echo through the decades of Channing’s theology of human nature.

When Channing said “Every mind was made for growth,” he was declaring that to be our precious inheritance as human beings. It is not sin that we inherit, but our capacity to grow and become closer to God in our goodness. He asserted that the ‘Image of God’ we all carry is our essential capacity of the mind. My favorite line from the Baltimore Sermon is when Channing says: “God has given us a rational nature, and we will be held to account for it.”

I often hear from you who worship here that you appreciate a sermon that gives you something to think about, that stirs your intellect. Do you recall what opened you up to curiosity and wonder as a child? Is there a moment or two you can recall that serve as a launching point for your intellectual or spiritual curiosity? How was it for you?

That responsive reading in our hymnal (SLT #652) by Channing comes from a talk he gave in 1837 to the Sunday School Society. It is his vision of religious education, and it still serves to this day as our vision for Family Ministry. Indeed, it serves as the vision I have for my preaching. “The great end in religious instruction is … Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth.”

The journey continues. Let us move forward boldly. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Easter Homily

from A Samaritan Easter

Homily                                             by Rev. Douglas Taylor

Tell them to rise with me, Jesus says in the poem by Edwina Gateley. Tell the people to rise with me. 

But let me start with the Samaritan story. From there I’ll circle around Easter and Passover and back to Edwina Gateley. But let me begin where we began, with the Samaritan’s Story because the story of the Good Samaritan is the essential teaching of Jesus. This is important and if nothing else connects for you today, let this be your one ‘take away’: The Good Samaritan story is the central message of the religion of Jesus. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then to illustrate that point, we hear the Samaritan Story. A man gets beaten by robbers, a priest and a Levite refuse to help and then a dreaded Samaritan steps up and offers the needed assistance. The lesson is: be like the Samaritan.

There is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan story that I want to argue against, as a setup to tell you about an interpretation that I think is very helpful. There is an interpretation that says the Jewish religious leaders were bad. By this interpretation, Jesus was telling us about how awful these elitist priests and Levites were because they were so worried about ritual purity. There were religious laws about keeping yourself clean before performing ritual, and touching that beaten man would have defiled them ahead of the rituals. Being so worried as they were about laws around the rituals, they miss the greater law of love!

But that interpretation misses something important. Aileen was showing me a Jewish interpretation that talked about how the Samaritan story is using a common trope in the Jewish storytelling from that time period which we might recognize today as a version of the rule of three. There were a bunch of stories back them in which first a priest walks by, then a Levite, and finally an Israelite. This was a common trope back then. People back then would have recognized what Jesus was doing after hearing about the first two characters. They expected the third character to do the right thing. What they didn’t expect was who the third person would be. It’s supposed to be an Israelite. It’s supposed to be someone the hearer will identify with. “Oh, that’s like me, I’m an Israelite.’

What Jesus does is subvert the ending. The important part of the story is the identity of last person, not the first two. The first two are not mentioned for the purpose of being disparaged. They are mentioned to set up the expectation which is then subverted. Israelites and Samaritans at that time were like Palestinians and Jews today, like Republicans and Democrats today, like neo-Nazis and black people. They were in deep conflict each other. But according to the trope, the hearer is supposed to identify with the third character, that’s how the story trope works. Jesus adds a twist, a surprise to the usual trope. We’re all listening along, we know where this story is headed, and suddenly it is not what we expected. What Jesus does is subvert the ending.

You may know another story where Jesus does that. It’s Easter today. The Easter story does this as well. We’re all listening along. Jesus starts doing his thing, healing people, performing miracles, challenging the Roman oppressors and the corrupt religious leaders … and we know what’s coming next.

He gets arrested, he goes through a trial which is a bit of a farce, he is put to death. It’s happened before, it happened to so many people back then. It’s still happening in places around the world today. We recognize the story line, it’s how tyrannical governments work, it is how oppressive systems keep the dissidents in check. It’s the playbill of every dictator through the ages.

But then something else happens, Jesus subverts the ending. Easter is the twist ending, the subverting of the expected narrative. The resurrection is not what normally happens. Somehow, hope continues. Somehow, death is not the final answer. I know most of the people gathered do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. I also know a few of the people here gathered do. I’m not suggesting we limit this conversation to doctrines and beliefs and who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes truth is a bigger issue than the question of ‘did it really happen?’ Sometimes truth is found in asking what does this story mean? and does it help me be a better person? 

Now, hold that thought! Because if the Easter story does not connect for your spirituality, let me circle around to Passover. To understand Jesus, it is important to first understand the Jewish context of his message. Last month I attended Jewish Seder meal for non-Jews. It was hosted jointly by Temple Concord and Temple Israel with support from the Children of Abraham interfaith group. We had a Jewish host at each table to help explain the elements and the rituals. Passover began this past Friday evening at sundown. Judaism’s story of Passover is a story of liberation and freedom.

It is a time when Jewish people remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. It is a time to seek liberation for all those in bondage today “for we remember” the people recite in the Haggadah.  “We remember what it was like to be slaves.” It is a call to treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion, for we have been foreigners and strangers ourselves.

And isn’t that essentially what the Samaritan story is all about? Treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion is simply another version of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Passover, which began this weekend, is the story of freedom and liberation of the Jewish people; it is also the call to seek freedom and liberation for others. Easter is today; it is a story for every soul that ever faced the tragic choice of love and hopelessness in the face of the world’s madness. It is a story that says even if we feel beaten down, abused, denied, and overlooked – something unexpected can still rise.

Tell them, Jesus says, to rise with me. In the poem by Edwina Gateley, we hear Jesus imploring Mary. Tell the people to rise with me. This is not just a story of something that happened thousands of years ago. It is happening today. It is our story too. Ask yourself: Who is in my path? Who should I help now? Rise. Reach out and help your neighbor. Show your compassion – that is the heart of the Easter message, Rise. Rise.

In a world without end, may it be so.

A Samaritan Easter

 “A Samaritan Easter”

Rev. Douglas Taylor

A multi-generational Easter worship service rooted in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Also, it was Passover and nearly Earth Day, reflections upon those holidays are included.

Welcome and Announcements

Good morning. Welcome to the _____ Unitarian Universalist Congregation where we join together in the search for deeper meaning and richer connections. Our service today is about Jesus’ message of the Good Samaritan, the central message of Jesus.

Egg #1            (see note at bottom of this script)                                    

Passing the Peace

Prelude                                            Choir

Opening Words    ee cummings

(Note: we did this in three voices, it is equally delightful with one dramatic voice)

A   i thank You God for most this amazing day:

B   for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;

A   and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

B   (i who have died am alive again today,

A   and this is the sun’s birthday;

B   this is the birth day of life and of love and wings:

A   and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)

B   how should

A   tasting touching hearing seeing breathing

B   any

A   –lifted from the no of all nothing—

B   human

A   merely

B   being doubt unimaginable You?

A   (now the ears of my ears awake and

B   now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

*Doxology (#381 SLT)               Composite based on Isaac Watts

From all that dwell below the skies

Let songs of hope and faith arise;

Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung

Through every land, by every tongue

*Covenant (#473 SLT)               by James Vila Blake (adapted)

            Love is the spirit of this congregation, and service is its life.

            This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,

            To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

Chalice Lighting                                       by Elizabeth Strong

We light this chalice to remember the sorrow, the loss, and the joy that are within this season of the year.

The Passover, that brought freedom from slavery and bondage for the Jewish people, continues to bring light into the world.

Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, that brought joy and the triumph of life over death for the Christian people, still bring the light of that joy to the world.

The spring equinox, that brings new life bursting forth on the land each year, brings lengthened days of sunlight to all life.

Passover for freedom, Easter for life, spring for rebirth.

We light our chalice for all three.

 (Light the chalice)

Hymn (#38 SLT)              Morning Has Broken

Egg #2                                                                                               

Story             ‘The Good Samaritan”               Luke 10:25-37 (NASB)

                                                                        (adapted from ministry-to-children.com)

Note: We called for 6-8 people to come forward to help dramatize the story. We had some simple costumes and offered very general staging instructions. This took about 2-4 minutes to organize in the moment.)

Characters
Jesus – speaking part                                  -liturgist
Lawyer / man – speaking part                   -minister
Robbers (at least 2) – non-speaking part
Priest – non-speaking part
Levite – none-speaking part
Samaritan – speaking part (line written out on cue card)
Innkeeper – non-speaking part

(Jesus and Lawyer stand to the side of the stage while others are at the other side of the stage)

Jesus (to congregation) – A lawyer stood up and put Jesus to the test.

Lawyer – Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus – What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?

Lawyer – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus – You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.

Lawyer – And who is my neighbor?

(lawyer becomes ‘man’; enter robbers)

Jesus – A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.

(robbers can pretend to hit the man and the man can fall down like he’s really hurt)

(exit robbers – enter priest)

Jesus – And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. (priest can make sure that he goes far away from the man)

(exit priest – enter Levite)

Jesus – Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Levite can make sure that he goes far away from the man)

Jesus – But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him.

(Samaritan can take good care of the man and bring him to the opposite side of the stage from where Jesus and the Lawyer is standing)

(enter innkeeper at the inn)

Jesus – On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper.

Samaritan – Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.

(innkeeper can nod in agreement – then exits)

Jesus – Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?

Lawyer – The one who showed mercy toward him.

Jesus – Go and do the same.

Egg #3                                                                                               

Offertory                                                                            

Egg #4                                                                                   

Prayer                                                                                             

Eternal Spirit

From whom all things come and to whom all things return

We who gather this morning are a people of faith in search of life’s deeper meanings and richer blessings. This is a sacred time for many of our religious siblings around the world. We would honor the stories and the meaning they find in this season, while striving to uncover resources for ourselves as well. We hold that in each of our neighbor’s religions there can be found deep understanding and life-giving truth.

We hear the story of a Samaritan, a story of how we could lead our lives with kindness and compassion toward others. We hear the story and know deep in our bones that this story is a lesson we need to keep hearing, to keep taking in, to keep trying to live out.

And in this Samaritan story we hear the echoes the larger stories of the season. In this Samaritan story we hear the echoes of our modern day lives. May our hearts be opened anew through this old story of compassion.

When we feel lost and abandoned, O Spirit, visit us and renew our faith

When we are fearful, endow us with courage

When we face painful trials, grant that we may see the possibility of new life born again within

Grant that the blessings of compassion and wisdom fill our days beyond measure.  Encourage us in our times of hardship to discover anew the power within to embrace again the world and the work which yet awaits our attention.  In learning to let go, to trust both ourselves and unexpected kindness, may we uncover the hidden reservoirs of hope.

This we pray in the name of all that is holy

May it be so

Amen

Silence

Meditative Hymn (#396 SLT)             I Know This Rose Will Open

Egg #5                                                                                               

Reading                   Tell Them    By Edwina Gately               

Breaking through the powers of darkness

bursting from the stifling tomb

he slipped into the graveyard garden

to smell the blossomed air.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,

that I have traveled far

into the darkest deeps I’ve been

in nights without a star.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,

that fear will flee my light

that though the ground will tremble

and despair will stalk the earth

I hold them firmly by the hand

Through terror to new birth.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,

the globe and all that’s made

is clasped to God’s great bosom

they must not be afraid

for though they fall and die, he said,

and black earth wrap them tight

they will know the warmth

of God’s healing hands

in the early morning light.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,

smelling the blossomed air,

tell my people to rise with me

to heal the Earth’s despair.

Anthem                                Choir 

Egg #6                                                                                               

Homily                                             by Rev. Douglas Taylor

Tell them to rise with me, Jesus says in the poem by Edwina Gateley. Tell the people to rise with me. 

But let me start with the Samaritan story. From there I’ll circle around Easter and Passover and back to Edwina Gateley. But let me begin where we began, with the Samaritan’s Story because the story of the Good Samaritan is the essential teaching of Jesus. This is important and if nothing else connects for you today, let this be your one ‘take away’: The Good Samaritan story is the central message of the religion of Jesus. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then to illustrate that point, we hear the Samaritan Story. A man gets beaten by robbers, a priest and a Levite refuse to help and then a dreaded Samaritan steps up and offers the needed assistance. The lesson is: be like the Samaritan.

There is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan story that I want to argue against, as a setup to tell you about an interpretation that I think is very helpful. There is an interpretation that says the Jewish religious leaders were bad. By this interpretation, Jesus was telling us about how awful these elitist priests and Levites were because they were so worried about ritual purity. There were religious laws about keeping yourself clean before performing ritual, and touching that beaten man would have defiled them ahead of the rituals. Being so worried as they were about laws around the rituals, they miss the greater law of love!

But that interpretation misses something important. Aileen was showing me a Jewish interpretation that talked about how the Samaritan story is using a common trope in the Jewish storytelling from that time period which we might recognize today as a version of the rule of three. There were a bunch of stories back them in which first a priest walks by, then a Levite, and finally an Israelite. This was a common trope back then. People back then would have recognized what Jesus was doing after hearing about the first two characters. They expected the third character to do the right thing. What they didn’t expect was who the third person would be. It’s supposed to be an Israelite. It’s supposed to be someone the hearer will identify with. “Oh, that’s like me, I’m an Israelite.’

What Jesus does is subvert the ending. The important part of the story is the identity of last person, not the first two. The first two are not mentioned for the purpose of being disparaged. They are mentioned to set up the expectation which is then subverted. Israelites and Samaritans at that time were like Palestinians and Jews today, like Republicans and Democrats today, like neo-Nazis and black people. They were in deep conflict each other. But according to the trope, the hearer is supposed to identify with the third character, that’s how the story trope works. Jesus adds a twist, a surprise to the usual trope. We’re all listening along, we know where this story is headed, and suddenly it is not what we expected. What Jesus does is subvert the ending.

You may know another story where Jesus does that. It’s Easter today. The Easter story does this as well. We’re all listening along. Jesus starts doing his thing, healing people, performing miracles, challenging the Roman oppressors and the corrupt religious leaders … and we know what’s coming next.

He gets arrested, he goes through a trial which is a bit of a farce, he is put to death. It’s happened before, it happened to so many people back then. It’s still happening in places around the world today. We recognize the story line, it’s how tyrannical governments work, it is how oppressive systems keep the dissidents in check. It’s the playbill of every dictator through the ages.

But then something else happens, Jesus subverts the ending. Easter is the twist ending, the subverting of the expected narrative. The resurrection is not what normally happens. Somehow, hope continues. Somehow, death is not the final answer. I know most of the people gathered do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. I also know a few of the people here gathered do. I’m not suggesting we limit this conversation to doctrines and beliefs and who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes truth is a bigger issue than the question of ‘did it really happen?’ Sometimes truth is found in asking what does this story mean? and does it help me be a better person? 

Now, hold that thought! Because if the Easter story does not connect for your spirituality, let me circle around to Passover. To understand Jesus, it is important to first understand the Jewish context of his message. Last month I attended Jewish Seder meal for non-Jews. It was hosted jointly by Temple Concord and Temple Israel with support from the Children of Abraham interfaith group. We had a Jewish host at each table to help explain the elements and the rituals. Passover began this past Friday evening at sundown. Judaism’s story of Passover is a story of liberation and freedom.

It is a time when Jewish people remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. It is a time to seek liberation for all those in bondage today “for we remember” the people recite in the Haggadah.  “We remember what it was like to be slaves.” It is a call to treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion, for we have been foreigners and strangers ourselves.

And isn’t that essentially what the Samaritan story is all about? Treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion is simply another version of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Passover, which began this weekend, is the story of freedom and liberation of the Jewish people; it is also the call to seek freedom and liberation for others. Easter is today; it is a story for every soul that ever faced the tragic choice of love and hopelessness in the face of the world’s madness. It is a story that says even if we feel beaten down, abused, denied, and overlooked – something unexpected can still rise.

Tell them, Jesus says, to rise with me. In the poem by Edwina Gateley, we hear Jesus imploring Mary. Tell the people to rise with me. This is not just a story of something that happened thousands of years ago. It is happening today. It is our story too. Ask yourself: Who is in my path? Who should I help now? Rise. Reach out and help your neighbor. Show your compassion – that is the heart of the Easter message, Rise. Rise.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Antiphonal Reading:                             “We Believe in Life”            

Liturgist:                   In the days and weeks ahead,

Congregation:          May we remember our courage and our faith

Children:                We believe in Life

Liturgist:                   The Passover story reminds us of the struggle for freedom, and the promise leading us into the journey

Congregation:          May we have courage and strength through the struggle

Children:                We believe in life

Liturgist:                   The Easter story reminds us of the transformative power of love, and hope leading us onward

Congregation:          May we have faith and trust through adversity

Children:                We believe in life

Liturgist:                   Let these holy stories remind us that love is strong than death, & that a path to freedom, though fraught with difficulty, is open to us.

Congregation:          May we be inspired to live our lives with courage and with faith

Children:                We believe in life

Egg #7                                                                                               

*Closing Hymn (#269 SLT)                 Lo the Day of Days Is here

Chalice Extinguishing (#456 SLT) (Unison)          by Elizabeth S. Jones                      

                                    We extinguish tis flame, but not the light of truth,

                                    The warmth of community, or the fire of commitment.

                                    These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

Egg #8                                                                                              

Benediction                                               by William Murry               

Now let us go forth with the faith that life is worth living, that defeat and adversity can be transformed into victory and hope, that love is eternal, and that life is stronger than death.

And may that faith inspire us to live out lives with dignity, love, and courage in the days and weeks ahead.

Postlude

Eight plastic Easter Eggs each with one of these small stories inside:


During the service, when it calls for an egg, we would step out with the basket and ask for a volunteer to come open one and read it. We gave preference to children.

(Prep note: 6 weeks earlier we had proposed a ‘Kindness Challenge’ to the congregation. “Notice the small kindnesses you give and receive over the next month,” we said. “Write a few sentences about it and send it to us at the church office,” we requested. Upon receiving the small stories, we paraphrased them and made them anonymous.)

Many years back I remember having a terrible time at work, it stretched for weeks. At one point a coworker came up and patted me on the back, smiled and said something encouraging I no longer recall. But I’ve always remembered how that small act of kindness made all the difference in the world to me.   

My kindness report: I was given a gift of a bag of yarn from a friend. She was happy to get rid of it I think, but it was so wonderful for me because I love knitting. 

This is actually two stories. A few decades ago, my wife and I helped a friend get out of a bad relationship by selling her a car for whatever pocket change she had in her purse at the time. It helped her get away from the abuse and change the path of her life. Fast forward to this past year, my car was dying and I was having trouble finding the funds to get another vehicle. A fellow congregant overheard my trouble and offered me a sum of money there on the spot. I am deeply moved by this person’s generosity every time I think about it. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this kindness. It is truly amazing.

I haven’t bestowed much kindness to others over the past month, between my illness and a family situation, but what I have received has been truly amazing – – flowers, cards, hugs, emails, invitations to talk over coffee. How wonderful.

A friend has been going through something very difficult. I wanted to help but felt there was nothing I could do. I sent a simple message letting them know I wanted to help but didn’t know what to offer. We met and talked for a bit. I’ve followed up like that as things continue to be difficult, just keeping the conversation going. I didn’t really help, just offered comfort and a listening ear.

I have developed the habit of paying attention to strangers when I’m out in public. It’s not hard to see when someone is having a hard day. I have stopped strangers and said, “You look like you could use a hug. I’ll give you one if you’d like.” It is amazing how often people respond with appreciation and even tears.

I have been helping a neighbor deal with a problem with their mail. They have so much they have to deal with for their health and other things.  It is a small act of kindness I can do to help.

I needed cilantro for a recipe I was making for dinner. In the produce section of the supermarket there was only one bunch left and I was lucky enough to grab it. Then I noticed a woman next to me with many children in tow. It became obvious to me that she too needed cilantro, and though she looked we both know there was no more loft. I know I was not going to need all the cilantro in the bunch so I unbundled it and gave her half.