What Is Growing Ethically?


How do we grow ethically? “With a bit of muddle and some hard testing,” as Louise said.

Our mission here in this church is not a “mission accomplished” kind of mission. The job is never completed. For the second and third ones – serving justly and loving radically – it’s conceivable that we might reach a plateau. I rather suspect that we haven’t, but it’s conceivable that we could. And then our job would be just to keep on serving justly and loving radically. When it comes to growing, though, there’s no plateau. If your growth plateaus, you’re not growing anymore.

Our mission directs us to, no matter what level of ethical or spiritual development we might have reached, keep on growing still further. Forever. When it comes to ethical and spiritual development, our mission does not allow any status to stay quo.

I’ll talk about spiritual growth on other Sundays. Today, let’s reflect on ethical growth. Philosopher Iris Murdoch has written: “Nothing in life is of any value except the attempt to be virtuous.” It just so happens that before going into ministry, I was a philosophy professor and taught our department’s ethics course every year. So you might think I’d have something to say on the subject of ethics. And you’d be right.

First, I want to congratulate you for recognizing the importance of the ethical and enshrining it in your mission. Too often we have seen religious bodies imagine that spiritual growth was all they needed. As vital as it is to develop the resources for making meaning of this life and this world, and to experience regularly awe and wonder and the oneness of all things, this is not sufficient.

People who show up at a Zen practice group – even more than your average Unitarian Universalist – are likely to be looking for a particular wow spiritual experience. A newcomer is likely to show up wanting to become “enlightened.” If they stick around and keep coming back, they will sooner or later hear me tell them, “You are already enlightened.” And, “whatever conception of enlightenment you may have, it’s not like that....Nor is it otherwise.” And, “The practice IS the enlightenment.” From time to time I’ll even say, “enlightenment is delusion.”

Sometimes in my talks to Zen groups the topic of the ethical transgressions of certain famous Zen masters comes up. Certain Zen masters have been abusive. Some committed sexual misconduct or other abuses of power or skimmed from the financial resources of the temple or zen center they served or were alcoholics. How could enlightened masters act that way? One answer might be to say, “they just weren’t very enlightened after all.” I don’t think that’s it.

Look, spiritual enlightenment doesn’t guarantee ethical awareness. Satori isn’t going to make you able to play the oboe if you don’t already have that skill. If you are a skilled musician, you might be able to more readily slip into “the zone” when performing, but, no, spiritual development won’t impart the basic skills if you don’t have them. Nirvana doesn’t improve your math skills. And: awakening to the vast oneness and emptiness of all things isn’t by itself going to clue you in to just how much devastation your peccadilloes can wreak upon a community that trusted you.

If you want to master the oboe, you have to learn and train at the oboe. Meditating is good for a number of things – that’s not one of them. To learn calculus, you need a calculus teacher – or appropriate book or series of internet videos. Spiritual teachers or books or internet videos will not improve your ability to solve calculus problems.

Ethical growth requires cognitive learning that is distinct from spiritual maturity. It’s not just a matter of being good, or kindhearted -- or even enlightened. It takes study to find out what the effects of actions and words are likely to be.

Some of you may remember the 1960s – though the saying goes that if you remember the 60s you weren’t really a part of them. In the 60s, a number of Unitarian Universalists – including some of our ministers, were what was then thought of as “freewheeling” when it came to sexual conduct. Our movement learned some hard empirical lessons about just how harmful that can be. All we knew then was that the sexual ethic of the puritans didn’t work for us, so we were experimenting with alternatives – and some of those experiments were disastrous. Looking back at that time we are now in the position to say that behavior was unethical even though the perpetrators might not have had any way to know any better.

We know better now: we have evolved some standards of what is inappropriate, when back in the 1960s even to invoke the word “appropriate” -- or its cognates, “propriety” and “proper” – was commonly scorned as unliberated. Of course, inappropriate conduct still happens sometimes – but we have better tools for at least naming it when it does.

When I think about what I knew when I was 25 – and what American culture understood in the 1960s – if I’d been a young minister at that time, oh, man, I hate to think what I might have done – what neither I nor our churches at that time had the brakes to put on to prevent what we hadn’t even learned yet to call abuse. I am so glad that by the time I started seminary in the last year of the 20th century they were teaching us about power dynamics, and what constitutes abuse of that power.

My point is that that was something I had to learn – cognitively learn. There were teachers and I was taught – rather like grammar. Ethics and grammar are alike in that we pick up the basics just from being socialized and learning how to talk, but the finer points have to be taught. Interestingly, the way both grammar and ethics are taught is by identifying mistakes. Grammar mistakes generally don’t hurt anyone, so, outside of classroom contexts, it’s rude to point them out – but with ethical mistakes the stakes are higher.

We’ve done a lot of learning about boundaries in the last few decades – how to respect autonomy while also making space for joyful connection. Just to learn this vocabulary – to be able to converse and think with concepts like boundary, and autonomy represents ethical growth.

We’ve done a lot of learning about privilege – and about the way White Supremacy culture infects so many ways of thinking. That’s ethical growth – and we certainly have further to go. Our words and actions have effects on other people that can be entirely independent of what we thought they meant, what we wanted them to mean, what we intended them to mean. Finding out what our words and actions might be conveying to others – what impact we might be having – takes some study -- some reading, some conversations, some listening. It’s a matter of learning. Finding out what environmental damage our consumer choices might be doing is a matter of learning.


Understanding all the effects of our actions can be a daunting task. This was illustrated in the TV sitcom “The Good Place” – a comedy about moral philosophy. The premise is that throughout life, people get points for doing good things, and lose points for doing bad things. Celestial beings in another dimension are keeping track of every human being’s point total. When you die, if you have enough points you go to the Good Place. If you don’t, you go to the bad place.

One of those celestial beings – Michael, played by Ted Danson -- has taken a particular interest in the four main character humans of the show, and is trying to get them into the Good Place – but no matter how many times he manages to get them sent back to Earth to try to be better, they can’t seem to get enough points.

In season 3, episode 10, which first aired in fall 2018, Michael makes the discovery that, in fact, no one has gotten into the good place for 521 years. For more than five centuries every single person has, upon dying, been sent to the bad place. At first, Michael thinks the demons who run the bad place have been tampering with the system, denying people their points to keep them from getting into the Good Place. But then he realizes that the ethical challenges people face in the modern world have gotten more complicated.

In a key scene, he’s looking through past records of human actions and the points that were garnered. He reads out two examples for comparison:
“In 1534, Douglas Wynegarr of Hawkhurst, England gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her. She was happy. Boom. 145 points. Now . . . yeah, here we go. In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO, who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals. Whoo!
Another character, Tahani, observes, “That Is a very odd thing to cheer.” But Michael explains:
“Don’t you understand? The Bad Place isn’t tampering with points. They don’t have to. Because every day the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder. Gather the others. We have a lot to do.”
And off they go.

So. Yes, we today need to think about the ethics of buying products manufactured in sweatshops. We need to think about whether our consumer choices are facilitating toxic pesticide use, migrant worker exploitation – and more: resource depletion, habitat destruction, species extinction, pollutants of air, of water, of soil. We need to think about our carbon footprint – and whether we’re tacitly condoning billionaire, racist, sexual-harassing CEOs.

Douglas Wynnegarr of Hawkhurst, England in 1534 didn’t have to think about any of those things. But is it really any harder to be a good 21st-century person than it was to be a good 16th-century person? Look, forget about the points – the whole concept of getting points is a silly TV conceit, and it’s funny, but it has nothing to do with trying to live a life being the best person you can. On the one hand, sure, we do have a lot to pay attention to that people in the Medieval and Renaissance periods didn’t. But they didn’t have any way to think about those things. The facts of life were different, and the knowledge about those facts was different. Yet then, as now, ethical behavior demands taking into account the effects of our actions – which entails the due diligence to find out what we can about what those effects may be.

If we, today, are called upon to consider our effects on the environment and on systems of oppression, we also have the resources to do so – sources of knowledge and understanding unavailable in previous centuries. The challenge Maya Angelou articulated was the same then as it is now: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Ted Danson’s character Michael humorously recapped some of the new ethical challenges in our age – but every age has had the task to work as best they could on how to be a good person. We have chronicles of how past ages did that work, going back to Greeks of ancient Athens and the Israelites of ancient Jerusalem.

Importantly, we need each other to do that. We have to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – "good" both in the sense of virtuous and in the sense of truly fulfilling and joyous.

In this regard, there has been a shift. The relevant shift is not in the last 500 years, but in the last 20 – and that’s what I want to talk about in the last part.


David Brooks recently pondered:
“Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years.”
Gun sales are up. Social trust is way down.
“In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.
The factors that are making us mean are, of course, also making us sad. Deaths of despair – that is, deaths from suicide or substance addiction – are rising. In 1990, according to the General Social Survey, 8 percent of Americans rated their happiness at the lowest level. By 2022, 20 percent did.

What are these factors making us mean and sad? There are a number of inter-relating factors. Social media is making us crazy. We’re more isolated -- participate less in community organizations -- and that makes us crazy. We’re becoming a more racially diverse country, and the challenge to come to grips with that has millions of white Americans in a panic. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, economic inequality has been growing and growing, leaving people increasingly afraid, alienated, and pessimistic. There are a lot of inter-relating factors.

To address them, we need each other, and to cultivate the institutions that teach us to think about and reasonably pursue a good life – how to be moral. Brooks writes:
“In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation. . . . A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another. . . . If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.”
It’s not that we don’t yearn for moral purpose and meaning. It’s just that too many of us don’t know how.

The yearning is reflected in the popularity of some TV shows. “The Good Place” was about what we owe to each other, and how we can learn to be good. And when it finished its run, there was "Ted Lasso" – the most watched show on Apple TV+. Jason Sudeikis’ character, Ted Lasso, an American coaching soccer in England, articulated a two-sentence description of moral formation. He said:
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
Ted Lasso is
“an earnest, cheerful, and transparently kind man who enters a world that has grown cynical, amoral, and manipulative, and, episode after episode, even through his own troubles, he offers the people around him opportunities to grow more gracious, to confront their vulnerabilities and fears, and to treat one another more gently and wisely.” (Brooks)
So, that’s great – and it is the lesson that we long for – but a couple TV shows are not enough. We need our schools and our leaders to put questions of how to be a good person, how to live a good life – not just a materialistic, consumerist life – at the center. And there are areas of ethical growth aside from TV shows: the growth I was mentioning earlier, growth in our understanding of how power dynamics can be abused, how to recognize where white supremacy culture is manifesting, where patriarchy is manifesting, why carbon footprints matter. All that represents real ethical growth.

To pull through this period – to more widely share the ethical growth now available -- there will need to be more places like this one: congregations that, week in and week out, affirm that we – individually and collectively – are called to grow ethically, to become better than we were: more kind, less arrogant; more respectful, less entitled; more curious, less judgmental. That’s what ethical growth is, and may it be our path.



Being a People of Covenant


Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith. Back in the aughts, a Unitarian Universalist ad campaign promoted this slogan. "Imagine a religion where people of different beliefs worship as one faith." How could that be? One faith – one religion – many beliefs?

That’s possible because religion isn’t really about belief. So when I’m asked, "What do Unitarian Universalists believe?" I usually answer: What Unitarian Universalists believe is that your religion isn’t about what you believe.

So what is religion about? I’m so glad you asked. Three things. One, it’s about how you live – that is, the ethics and values that guide your life. Two, it’s about community – the people you come together with to share in rituals that affirm your community bond. Three, it’s about a certain kind of experience – the experiences we call religious experience, or spiritual experience: moments of transcendence and awe, of apprehending the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things.

Those are three rather different things. Yet a faith institution exists to weave them together so that each one supports and reinforces the other two. The ethics and values that guide your life facilitate your community belonging, and prepare you to be open to transcendent experience. Your faith community helps reinforce certain ethics and values, and also helps lay the ground for you to have transcendent experiences. Transcendent experiences expose you to a oneness that awakens compassion, which becomes part of your ethics and values, and also draws you closer to your community. In faith community, each strand of the braid is shaped and directed so that it can reinforce the other two.

The idea that religion is about believing goes back to St. Paul. When Paul invented the religion known as Christianity, his big innovation was to make believing central. When Islam came along 6 centuries later, it followed Paul’s model, so Islam is also belief-centric. But the other world religions are not belief-centric. The Asian religions have teachings, but if you happen to not accept a few of them, that’s fine. What makes a person Jewish isn’t what they believe, but what they practice and that they have a shared history and understanding of themselves as under the laws.

From our roots in Christianity, Unitarian Universalism has traveled a long road back from belief-centric religion, and it was a road of understanding ourselves more and more as being people of covenant – not creed, which is to say, not belief.

A key step on that road was the Cambridge Platform. I’d like you to know about the Cambridge Platform if you don’t. The Puritans who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, proceeded to adopt in 1648, the Cambridge Platform. These Puritans didn’t have a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant. At first, they felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We today don’t agree with those Puritans on much. But we are their descendants. Two hundred years after the Plymouth landing – or, invasion – the Unitarian denomination formed consisting of New England congregations that split from their Congregationalist Puritan past. We’ve left behind the focus on sin, the doctrine of total depravity, and of predestination. We’ve sought – and still seek – to correct the way covenant was used to dismiss, disrespect, and oppress people, such as indigenous peoples, deemed not to be in the covenant.

One thing that we’ve kept from our Puritan forebears is this sense of being a people of Covenant. We are not bound together by creed. Unitarians today aren’t even bound together, as the Puritans were, by a common scripture: the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible. We are noncreedal and noncanonical. We are bound by covenant – by our promise to each other to walk together on this long, strange journey called life, to have each other’s backs – to care for one another. Covenant.

By 1648, a generation after the Plymouth colony began, the Puritans, facing criticism from Presbyterians for not having a polity, decided that, after all, they did would adopt a polity. They didn’t want Episcopal Polity – rule by the bishops – which is what the Church of England had. They didn’t want Presbyterian Polity – governance by groups of elders called Presbyters – which is what, back in England, the dissenting churches (dissenting, that is, from the Church of England). The Puritans would also have been aware of the Catholic church’s structure of governance, and that was definitely out of the question for them.

They decided, in 1648, to create a polity that was none of the above. It would be a new polity, one based on covenant. They called it Congregational polity, and The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spelled out what this “Congregational Polity” meant. The Platform laid out a basic form for congregations to have: a role for pastors, for teachers, and for ruling elders who oversaw church administration. As the name "Congregational Polity" implies, the Cambridge Platform gave each congregation the fundamental authority for their own operations. A congregation did have some responsibilities to other congregations; the Cambridge Platform identified six:
  • take thought for each other's welfare;
  • consult and advise each other;
  • admonish congregations that erred;
  • allow members of one church to receive communion in other churches;
  • send letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church; and
  • financially assist poor churches.
Beyond these, each congregation was autonomous.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the foundational document of Congregational Polity – the polity we still follow today. Along with our free search for truth and meaning comes free self-governance. We make our own bylaws, elect our own board, hire our own staff, call our own minister, buy and own and maintain our own building and grounds. It is up to us alone to fund the maintenance of our home, the programs, the ministry, through which we nurture our spirits and help heal our world.

Critics of congregational polity call it a type of religious anarchism – and there’s some truth to that. Still, we share our congregational polity with a number of other denominations. The United Church of Christ – formerly known as the Congregationalist Church – also descends from those New England Puritan churches – namely, the ones that didn’t break away to become Unitarian -- so the UCC also has congregational polity. Baptists and various forms of nondominational Christianity have congregational polity, as do Quakers, Disciples of Christ, most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras, and most Islamic mosques in the US.

Some of these are also officially creedless, though they all have a shared scripture. Unitarian Universalists are, to the best of my knowledge, alone in being held together neither by the authority of a creed, nor by the authority of a common scripture, nor under the authority of a bishop, synod, diocese, presbytery, or conciliarity.

Which raises the question: What does hold us together? Sometimes, sadly, the answer is: nothing, and we come apart. Congregations acrimoniously split, or dissolve. When we are held together, the name for our sticking by each other is covenant.

Another covenant that may be more familiar is the marriage covenant. That’s also a promise to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. The words of the vow can be highly variable, but at base it comes down to promising to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. It is a committing of our lives that is ultimately beyond what any set of words can capture, whether those words are the vows spoken at a marriage ceremony or the words of a congregation’s covenant.

Yes, you can make a promise without signing a piece of paper – whether that paper is a marriage certificate or our membership book. You don’t have to sign anything to make a promise. It’s just that signing makes the promise public, makes the relationship public. Signing that paper tells the world that you have entered into a sacred relationship – with a spouse, in one case -- with a congregation, in the other.


Our greatest 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, understood “God” to be “community forming power.” That power which comes into existence when human beings gather in a group and which allows that group to form itself into a community – that’s what James Luther Adams called God. So Adams did a great deal of thinking and writing about Voluntary Associations – about the Covenants that are the community-forming power.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal issues a report every four years, and their 2021 report was called, “Unlocking the Power of Covenant.” The Commission observes that: “We are the promises we make and the vows we break.” A Covenant, it says, “is a mutual sacred promise between individuals or groups, to stay in relationship, care about each other, and work together in good faith.” The Commission goes on to say:
“No single concept is more central to our faith understanding than being in covenant. It is at the core of our identity. It is how we try to build and sustain the Beloved Community. It is the foundation of our governance structures at all levels.”
Ultimately the covenant is beyond language, beyond what words can say. It is the embodied commitment to keep on being together in love. Married couples may have long forgotten the exact words of the vow they spoke on their wedding day, yet, as long as they remain married and together they are embodying their covenant in their way of being together.

The ultimate covenant is beyond words but is embodied in our way of being together, expressed in our patterns of interaction. Still, attempting to put the wordless into words can be helpful. Giving it some words, inevitably imperfect and needing regular revision, but still some words to express our commitment to each other – that can provide guidance about how we shall be together.

For congregations, covenants come in two main forms: aspirational covenants and behavioral covenants. Behavioral covenants delineate the behaviors we promise to follow or avoid. Because behavior is publicly observable, we can notice when someone has broken covenant, and encourage zir back in to the right relationship that our covenant says we promise to uphold.

It’s a reality of being a people of covenant that we sometimes do break covenant. And that reality means that being a people of covenant also entails being a people of forgiveness, recognizing that we stray and calling each back, over and over, every time we do. The life of covenant turns out to be less about staying and more about returning – over and over and over again.

Rev. David Pyle was with us this weekend for a startup workshop that some of you were here for. Rev. Pyle has had some Zen training, as have I, and he referenced the basic teaching for Zen meditation. Focus on your breath. We usually suggest first-timers count their breaths, 1 to 10, then start over at one. Or just bring all your attention to the breath coming in, and going out. Your mind will wander off. It will start thinking about one darn thing or another. That’s OK. That’s what minds do. The mind secretes thoughts the way the liver secretes bile. The practice is, as soon as you notice you’ve wandered off, bring your attention back to the breath.

The practice is the coming back. The point of a 25-minute meditation sit is not to be so concentrated that you stay focused on the breath the whole time. The point is to spend that time coming back over and over: noticing a thought, letting it go, returning to the breath. Returning to the breath is the practice.

And as Rev. Pyle pointed out, coming back is also the point of the practice of covenant: to return over and over to mindfulness of the promises that define who you are. Our aspirational covenant is our mission: to grow ethically and spiritually, serve justly, and love radically. This is not behaviorally defined. There’s no stipulation as to what behaviors constitute growing ethically and spiritually, serving justly, and loving radically. So we can’t judge whether someone else is out of covenant.

Certain behaviors might cause us to inquire gently whether you are keeping the aspiration in mind, but, ultimately, only you can decide if you are keeping the covenant to grow, serve, and love – and only you can assess how well or poorly you are growing, serving, and loving. You haven’t broken the covenant unless you’ve stopped trying, stopped aspiring to grow, to serve, and to love – stopped bringing your mind back to this covenant every time you notice you’ve drifted off from it.

Behavioral covenants do stipulate some behaviors. Because behaviors are observable, behavioral covenant allows us to go the further step of holding each other accountable. We have a team at work on developing a behavioral covenant for this congregation.

Covenants make us. They spell out who we are. When I don’t know who “us” is, then I don’t know who “me” is. By becoming more conscious of our covenants – spoken and unspoken – we can live into them more fully, and become who we are with greater awareness and greater intentionality.

Marcia Pally’s 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant, recognizes that we need both situatedness and separability. We need to be situated — embedded in functional and caring families, and thick communities that define our values and our selves: villages of ordinariness in which you can be your plain old ordinary self without the constant expectation to prove yourself.

We also need separability. We need to have the freedom and the support “to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.”

What creates situatedness, notes Pally, is covenant. A contract protects interests, she says, but a covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”
Contracts stipulate an exchange of goods or services, but people in a covenant delight in offering their gifts.

We are here to offer each other what gifts we can – to hold open the space of grace. It’s about seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

I was once leading a Zen group that met weekly in the 2nd and 3rd grade classroom. Every week we Zen practitioners would gather in this room, and there on the wall, handwritten with marker on newsprint was the class covenant. It showed all the signs of a process in which grownups were drawing the language out of the out of 7- and 8-year-olds so that it would really be the kids’ own covenant. It said things like: “One: Listen and don’t speak when someone is holding the speaking stone.” There was: “Three: Pick up after each other and ourselves – don’t litter.” Notice: pick up after each other, not just after ourselves. The last one was: “11. Come together with a calm and open mind.” Nice. My favorite one, though, was number two: “Be kind to others even when they are not your friend.” Even our kids grasp the gist of the point that being a people of covenant means seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other.

It’s about giving of ourselves, and being called together into a different way of being in the world. I have been held and held together in covenant with Unitarian Universalists my whole life – and now I am held in covenant with you. It is such a wonder. Thank you so much.



Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's a line from a song by The Who. Some of you may be thinking, “Just who does this new guy think he is?” – so I hasten to clarify: I’m not the boss. But let me also clarify: you aren’t either. So who’s the boss? Who or what is the ultimate authority around here?

In the traditional Christian churches, the answer to that question is God. Whether such an entity be imaginary or not, this has at least the salutary effect of directing the congregation’s allegiance to something worthier – or imagined as worthier -- than ego, whether individual ego or collective ego. It can be helpful to imagine.

For Unitarian Universalists, however, the ultimate authority – that to which our allegiance is directed – worthier even than the goodness of community and togetherness – is: our mission. At this church, that’s: "Grow ethically and spiritually; serve justly; love radically." That’s the boss. That’s the sheriff in these parts.

So when I say “new boss, same as the old boss,” it is literally the same. This mission is exactly the same as it was last year and the year before that. Not a word is changed. And when I say “meet this new boss” I mean that as our church year begins together, let us begin it by reintroducing, by reacquainting ourselves with this boss whom we are here to serve. Though the same as it has been, yet let it be for us new. Let it be freshly compelling. Let it be rejuvenated, sparkling and shining as washed by the waters of our coming together.

At the year’s beginning, let us take stock. How are we doing? It is our covenant, our promise, our mission, our vow: to grow ethically and spiritually, to serve justly, to love radically. Have we been? Have we been growing ethically? Growing spiritually? Serving justly? Loving radically?

However well or poorly you would say we have been fulfilling our mission, the question before us today, as it is every day, is how shall we fulfill it now? What shall we do with this day, this week, this year to grow ethically, grow spiritually, serve justly, and love radically? What is the work that your spirit longs to take up to grow, to serve, to love? What spiritual muscle toning exercises do you need?

This church is your spiritual gym for doing those exercises, strengthening the meaning, purpose, and wholeness of your life. My colleague Rev. Victoria Weinstein has written:
“If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: 'Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.' This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what congregational life is for. Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.”
As we ingather for the 2023-24 year ahead, we come together to do the work of growing, serving, and loving. We are here to serve the mission, which includes serving others. You’re not here to serve me, and I’m not here to serve you – except insofar as doing so serves our mission. And I want to urge you to keep in mind that, actually, the staff is not here to serve you either, nor is your board. When it comes to our board, yes, your votes elected them, but you elected them to serve the mission, not you. When it comes to the staff, yes, your contributions provide their wages, but please understand that you’re paying them, too, to serve the mission, not you. So, as Rev. Weinstein put it, we won’t be addressing complaints about the pillows -- or anything else that isn’t about this church growing, serving, and loving. Eyes on the prize, good people. Eyes on the prize.

Tall order, but that is the mission we shoulder -- nothing less. To say that a church is a spiritual gym is not to forget that the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. We need salve for our woundedness, for indeed salve is the root of salvation, with which our religious forbears were particularly concerned. Yes, the church has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task to serve justice.

Thus the church’s role, as the saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is not a matter of dividing people into two groups – as if the usher at the door of this auditorium sanctuary were to ask as you came in, “are you feeling more comfortable or more afflicted this morning? Comfortable on the right, afflicted on the left.” Our morning service could then direct toward the afflicted side what balm in Gilead we have – empathy and sympathy for your troubles, assurances of our help, our loving presence. Then when we talk about the injustices of the world -- the needs of the poor, the exploited, the downtrodden, the excluded – we’ll be looking at you, comfortable side. The gist of the message to one side would be “oh, you poor baby,” and to the other side it would be, “get off your butt.”

It doesn’t work like that. The truth is each of us is simultaneously afflicted with burdens while also comfortably complacent. And the messages for your comfortability are the same messages as for your affliction:

Number one, this too shall pass – grief and loss comes for all of us, and so does healing and wholeness. Whatever is comfortable in your life will pass – as will whatever afflicts.

Number two, service to others according to whatever capacity we have is the remedy either way. Compassionate service lifts us out of complacency and equally well lifts us out of despair.

A third message that Sunday services in this space will sometimes emphasize is: life and the world are beautiful, fundamentally mysterious, transcendent, and if we pay attention they will evoke deep wonder and awe. Awe is not comfortable. It pulls us from the narrowness of complacency while it also eases our grief and fills us with the vastness that makes our sadness small.

In all of these ways, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable turn out to be the same thing. So each one of us needs the gym and the infirmary at the same time. What would that be like? Well, it would be kind of like physical therapy, wouldn’t it? Physical therapy is equal parts hospital and gym -- equal parts care for your wound and pushing you to do the exercises anyway, because that’s how you strengthen and heal.

By analogy, we are in the spiritual therapy business – pushing your spirit to stretch and strengthen because that is how you heal from the wounds and the grief that your spirit bears – and how you help heal our world.

There are two things to notice, to simultaneously bear in mind, about our mission. One is that we are doing it. We are carrying out this mission – we do grow and are growing, we do serve and are serving, we do love and are loving. The mission is simply descriptive of what we do here.

Yet simultaneously we notice that we haven’t yet grown, served, and loved in all the ways that we are coming to be able to. The mission calls us forward to ever newer heights. It is not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. We celebrate what we are – and what we yet may be. We celebrate both our being and our becoming.

Let me say a little bit about each of these three. First: "Grow ethically and spiritually." Notice it says “and.” Not “or.” Our mission is both: to grow ethically and to grow spiritually.

Grow ethically. That is: develop clarity about the principles you live by, clarity in our understanding of what it means to be a good person. Growing ethically involves deepening integrity and cultivating virtues. The classic list of virtues is Aristotle’s 12: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, truthfulness, good humor, friendliness, shame, justice, and prudence. Each of those takes unpacking, and today I’m just giving you names. Cultivating virtues is growing ethically.

Grow spiritually. Here the emphasis is on meaning and belonging – big picture meaning: what does life, your life, mean? The fundamental spiritual malady is the condition of feeling that it’s all meaningless -- and that one doesn't belong. Whatever words you might come up with to answer that question, the crux of the matter is whether those words feel sufficient and satisfactory. The words I use as reminders to evoke my sense of meaning and belonging might not feel sufficient and satisfactory to anyone else – so the words are only tags for meaning and belonging of your life that is beyond all language.

While growing ethically entails cultivating all the virtues, growing spiritually entails two that Aristotle didn’t mention: equanimity, an inner peace even in the midst of turmoil – and compassion, a readiness for presence to suffering. Those are what we may call the spiritual virtues: equanimity and compassion.

This year, in the service of our mission to grow ethically and spiritually, we are launching Connection Circles. In a small group, you’ll have the chance to explore some of the key themes for growing our ethical and spiritual understanding -- significant issues on which religions at their best have always guided people to greater insight -- issues such as this year’s monthly themes:
and Hope.

Our Connection Circles are for exploring together, and spiritually growing and deepening, each in our own way. They meet once a month, Sep through Jun. You won't want to miss a single one. However, even if you miss most of your group’s meetings, you'll still find it valuable to attend occasionally. Signing up does not commit you to attend -- we just need to know which group you'll go to when you do have a chance to go.

I have been so impressed to experience the wisdom and the connection – the love, laughter, and insight – that Unitarian Universalists can offer each other when give ourselves permission and the structure for doing that. We have a whole lot more we can learn from each other than anything weekly sermons alone can convey. So I’m asking every member to sign up for a connection circle. You can sign up on line if you haven’t yet.

When you signed the membership book, you committed yourself to this church’s mission, you committed to growing ethically and spiritually and helping others grow. Our connection circles are vitals ways to do that. Friends, and visitors are also welcome to sign up.

The second prong of this church’s mission – our mission – is to serve justly. And here I draw your attention to our social justice work. We have a number of Faith in Action options. Freestore, the Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund are the special focus this year. We also do Compassion and Choices, Green Sanctuary, Family Promise, Immigration Justice, Legislative Action, LGBTQ Justice.

Serve justly. That’s our commitment as the people of First Unitarian Church Des Moines. It’s what we’re here for – to serve justice through taking part of your church’s social justice work.

And the third part: love radically. Love. Radically – all the way to the root. To be radical requires being unconditional. Loving radically is unconditional solidarity with all people, with all animals, with all life – indeed, even with nonlife: rocks and rivers, air and sky, sun, moon, and stars.

For this one I don’t have particular church programs to point you to. Rather, radical love is the spirit to bring to everything you do through the church, and through your life.

The world needs our Unitarian Universalist voice at the table. It needs our caring hands reaching out in compassion. Let us be ingathered, for a new year stretches before us. Let us flow together, roll on together as a mighty river, and, in the words of the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


Where Do We Come From?

“It was once assumed that the rise of urban life marked some kind of historical turnstile, whereby everyone who passed through had to permanently surrender their basic freedoms and submit to the rule of faceless administrators, stern priests, paternalistic kings or warrior-politicians – simply to avert chaos (or cognitive overload)....The overall effect is to portray the violence and inequalities of modern society as somehow arising naturally from structures of rational management and paternalistic care: structures designed for human populations who, we are asked to believe, became suddenly incapable of organizing themselves once their numbers expanded above a certain threshold. Not only do such views lack a sound basis in human psychology. They are also difficult to reconcile with archeological evidence of how cities actual began in many parts of the world: as civic experiments on a grand scale, which frequently lacked the expected features of administrative hierarchy and authoritarian rule....What happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal [grain] domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 in which it did?...
Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies – say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighborhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction – will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?...
In some ways, such a perspective might seem even more tragic than our standard narrative of civilization as the inevitable fall from grace. It means we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about. It means that mass enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labor never had to happen. But on the other hand it also suggests that, even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.” (David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity)
What is our story? What I want to say today is that what the evidence is now showing about the 200,000 years homo sapiens have existed on the planet is that nothing about the predicament of modernity is inevitable, nor need we be stuck with it. We can design new ways, and live into them. It’s what we have in fact been doing since the beginning of us.

It’s a central function of our religion to tell us a story of where we came from. Genesis, the first book of the Torah and of what Christians call the Old Testament, begins with a story of where we come from. If you grew up in America, Europe, or anywhere under the cultural influence of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, then that story is a part of you. And you’ll notice it has a certain ethic built into it: after each stage of creation, the story tells us, “God saw that it was good.”

The repeated moral of that story is that creation is good. And the proper response to this goodness, for all animals, human and otherwise, is to be fruitful and multiply. Creation exists to create more of itself, for creation is good.

From the Greek, and Roman, and Norse myths, to the stories told by original peoples of the Americas, of Africa, Australia, Asia, humans have told each other origin stories. We tend to call them myths if they are not our story, but either way, there are these stories that tell us where we came from and, thus, what we are. So, again, what is our story – the Unitarian Universalist story?

Two things: one, the UU story is plural, and, two, the UU story is changing. We have lots of stories. The Genesis story is one of our stories, and its allegorical and poetic resonances affirm for us that creation is good and creating is good. Maybe the Greek myths also resonate with us in these poetic or allegorical ways. Or maybe we cherish certain Native American origin stories.

Aside from our poetical and allegorical narratives, we Unitarian Universalist also have available to us the evidence-based stories – the stories of physics and archeology that tell us about how our universe emerged and how human society formed and evolved. The thing about evidence-based stories is that they keep changing as the evidence changes -- as we make new discoveries, and adopt different interpretations of old discoveries. So to ask what is our story is to ask what is our story now.

This is a pretty radically different way of being religious. Hundreds of generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims learned the Genesis story as children, and they lived their lives and died with that as their only human origin story. But Unitarians and, to a lesser extent, Universalists, were early adopters of the very different Darwinian story. Darwin amassed a huge amount of evidence, and we are a people who tend to respect the evidence.

Certain aspects of that story have changed just in my adult life. And it is those changes – the emerging evidence-based part of the story – that I will talk about today. I will talk about what I have experienced as three phases of the story about agriculture.

Phase 1, with which I entered young adulthood, was a story of the agricultural revolution as a dramatic break from our primitive past as foragers: a brilliant innovation which set us on the way to all the wonders of the modern world we enjoy today. About 12 thousand years ago, the basic story goes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors domesticated grain crops. We settled down, started forming cities, had some surplus, which allowed for people to specialize and develop expertise, which fueled innovation, and we were off to the races. And it was good. Human ingenuity produced this progress and hoorah for that.

That was the story that I had – gosh, even as recently as 10 years ago. When I started as your minister, that was the story I had.

Then, phase 2: I started learning about the evidence for a different story – that the agricultural revolution led to standing armies, so that wars, which had been small-scale skirmishes between bands, were now massive-scale slaughter. In 2017 I read in a New Yorker article by John Lanchester about one side effect of grain agriculture. Drawing on a book by James Scott, Lanchester explained:
“Grain, unlike other crops, is easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) are buried and so can be hidden from the tax collector, and, even if discovered, they must be dug up individually and laboriously. Other crops (notably, legumes) ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season rather than along a fixed trajectory of unripe to ripe—in other words, the taxman can’t come once and get his proper due. Only grains are, in Scott’s words, “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’ ”
So grains led to taxation, which led to standing armies, and the powerful getting more powerful on the backs of the laborers. Hunter gatherers didn’t have to put up with that. Also foragers had a lot more leisure time, without the constant arduous toil of the agricultural laborer.

Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens:
“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of human kind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
Here Harari is harkening back to Jared Diamond, best known for his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond says agriculture was the “Worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Why would we make such a mistake? Harari explains:
“The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life. … Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.... But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty. Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a villages population from a hundred to 100, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.”
Some writers have stressed the separation from nature and the psychic damage wrought upon our species by the transition from foraging to agriculture. Chellis Glendinning wrote in My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.”
It's the Genesis story all over again, isn’t it? – only with the twist that we didn’t get kicked out of Eden for eating a fruit. We kicked ourselves out by growing grain.

John Lanchester, Jared Diamond, James Scott, Yuval Harari, and Chellis Glendinning are all people whose work I’ve learned about in the last 10 years – and they have made scattered appearances in sermons I gave from the CUUC pulpit. Both the phase 1 story and the phase 2 story center on something called an agricultural revolution and they both have an air of inevitability about them. The phase 1 story tells of inevitable onward and upward progress of homo sapiens. The phase 2 story depicts our species unable to avoid the tragedy of agriculture.

I was also, along the way, picking up some hints that things might not have been so inevitable. There have, throughout, been people and peoples who somehow managed to avoid getting suckered. In a sermon four years ago, I preached about the importance of community – of having a tribe. I drew on Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger’s point is that we need community, and that modern life isn’t well set up for what we humans most need. On the one hand, Junger underscored for me my emerging understanding that the path from agriculture to urbanization to, eventually, industrialization was all a bad turn. But on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t inevitable. In that sermon I said:

In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more. They were making "progress" happen. Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
On Tuesday we’ll be observing the anniversary of the date in 1776 when American colonists declared independence from Britain.Six years later, in 1782, Hector de Crèvecoeur described the people who were making much more radical declarations of independence – independence from European ways of life. Crevecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”

Tribal life was 95 percent of human history, and it meets the needs we evolved to have. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, said Junger,
“would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left... alone.

The legacy of the agricultural revolution – hierarchy, inequality, plagues (because now we were packing ourselves into cities), famines (because we had larger populations but sometimes the crops failed or were terribly mismanaged), arduous toil for most people, until finally the industrial revolution replaced back-breaking labor with isolation and alienation and loneliness – well, maybe that whole deal wasn’t so inevitable if peoples of the Americas and other forager cultures scattered around the globe had avoided the trap well into modernity.

Through that crack, that maybe the whole thing wasn’t inevitable, comes phase 3 of the evidence-based story of where we come from. As more and more evidence has come to light, it turns out that it’s a lot more complicated than either of the first two fairly simple stories, either the triumphant or the tragic. Archeologists and anthropologists are starting to tell us – as anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow say in their 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything: “The course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.”

We now see a lot more diversity of human culture – and a lot of pretty thoughtful reflection and intentionality about how they wanted to live. We know of peoples who went a little bit agricultural – who had gardens but didn’t go full-in on grain dependence – and who lived that way for thousands of years. We know of peoples who did develop intensive grain agriculture, and then rejected it and went back to a mixed system of some gardening and some foraging. We don’t have to get sucked in by our own technology, whether that technology is grain agriculture or smart phones.

In fact, in the dawning light of evidence, the very idea of an agricultural revolution starts to get fuzzier and fuzzier until finally disappearing into the complexity of different ways that different cultures have at different times approached the cultivation of plants. Per Graeber and Wengrow, there was no agricultural revolution. Yes, some peoples did gradually come to increasingly depend on grain agriculture, but even those that did, slowly got there over about 3,000 years. They write:
“In the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, long regarded as the cradle of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, there was in fact no ‘switch’ from Paleolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production took something in the order of 3,000 years.”
A 3,000-year unfolding is not accurately called a “revolution.”

Nor does agriculture mean the inevitable rise of hierarchy and inequality. Graeber and Wengrow continue:
“And while agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the centuries between, people were effectively trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you will, switching between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth.” (248)
Nor does the rise of cities mean that we had to have a ruling class and structures of authority to keep such large collections of people in line and more-or-less coordinated. Graeber and Wengrow write:
“Contemporary archeology shows, among other things, that surprisingly few of these early cities contain signs of authoritarian rule. It also shows that their ecology was far more diverse than once believed: cities do not necessarily depend on a rural hinterland in which serfs or peasants engage in back-breaking labor, hauling cartloads of grain for consumption by urban dwellers.”
The shape of any given human society has a lot less to do with universal forces of economics, ecology, or evolution, and a lot more to do with human beings discussing, deliberating, and imagining together. The way we live is not dictated by material conditions, but created through our collective invention. Graeber and Wengrow note that “humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views.” When we’re thinking something through, we have an inner dialog. Through dialogs within ourselves and with other people, we work out who we are and our place.

Humans have been creatively and pretty intentionally working out their social and political arrangements in diverse ways for as long as there have been humans. There are a lot of details here that I can’t go into – and that’s the point: the story is vast and sprawling and complicated and highly, highly various. No simple story can do justice to the evidence. What that means is that nothing about the predicament of modernity is inevitable, nor need we be stuck with it. We can design new ways, and live into them. It’s what we have in fact been doing since the beginning of us.



Prayer Jun 18

Dear world of all color -- the yellows and reds of blossoms, the bountiful green of plant life in June in our hemisphere, the blue sky and orange sunset, the ultraviolet that we humans cannot see but many birds and some mammals can, and the infrared that some other animals can sense – and all the beiges, tans, olives, pinks, browns, ebonies, bisques and alabasters of human skin -- dear world of colorful people, colorful languages, colorful cultures, colorful beings:

We breathe in to breathe in a new day. We hear birds singing, and see the squirrels frisk and chatter. We are swimming in mystery; floating in beauty – even as we also bear the burdens of pain, of loss, grief, and tragedy.

As the water recedes in Lake Powell, the second-largest US reservoir, we know the water shortage is impinging on many lives even as the falling water level reveals a beauty of deep red-rock canyons and other-worldly arches. Beauty and tragedy forever blend and mesh.

Our hearts go out to people of the Philippines where the Mount Mayon volcano has made nearly 13,000 evacuated their homes. Our hearts go out to persecuted religious minorities throughout the world. In Pakistan more than 50 non Muslims are currently incarcerated, some facing execution under the countries Blasphemy Laws. Elsewhere, it is Muslims who face suspicion, hostility, or worse.

May we remember that we all belong to one another. May we be advocates of the powerful truth of inclusive love – and may we thus enhance the color of the world.

Our hearts go out to the four Indigenous children who survived 40 days in the Amazon jungle in Colombia after their plane crashed, and to the military and Indigenous communities who worked jointly to find them.

Our hearts rise in hope as we learn that Australia has taken the step of making consent education mandatory in all schools from Kindergarten to High School. We are grateful for the work of Chanel Contos who started the campaign for public schools to teach the need that sexual relations have affirmative consent. May we all embrace the variety of colors that permeate our world, and may no one be embraced against their will.

May we see one another with loving eyes and an open heart.

Our hearts go out to the migrants drowned Wednesday when an overloaded boat capsized in open Mediterranean waters off Greece. Hundreds are dead or feared dead as about 750 people were believed to be on the boat.

Our hearts are troubled by the news that Russian nuclear weapons have been moved to Belarus – and that the United States has sent a nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine to South Korea in a show of force.

May our hopes for peace and justice give us courage to make it so. May we delight always in what is good, confront what is cruel, and heal what is broken. Amen.



"All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values – everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact – now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego." --Carl Jung
"Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” --Carl Jung
“This day our days are diminished by one” a line from a Zen gatha reminds us. The time is precious: every moment of it. In particular, our time together grows short. I’ll be officially your minister until July 31, though I’ll be on vacation for the last part of July. I am planning to be in the pulpit for two summer services on July 2 and July 9. Next week is RE Sunday, the week after that is a Juneteenth service being organized by Jeff Tomlinson and Joe Majsak, and the week after that we’ll be streaming the General Assembly service. So this is my last regular-church-year sermon.

As I come to the end of the time I have been honored to occupy your pulpit, I want to return to an idea I shared with you the very first time I preached here. It was April 28, 2013, and I was not then your minister. I was a candidate to become your minister, pending a congregational vote that would happen a week later.

During times of ministerial transition, there are various currents going through the congregation – and when a candidate actually shows up, there’s a current of sentiment, “this one will do.” And then there’s a different current: one of skepticism. This is all normal and natural. During candidating week, the candidate knows that, behind the scenes, out of hearing, these currents are playing out in conversations. The skeptics will be saying, “he seems brusque” – or “she’s a little smarmy” – or, “there seems to a tendency to impulsivity,” – or “I wish they could be more spontaneous.” And the folks in the “this one will do” camp, say, “look, nobody’s perfect.”

As I stepped into the pulpit on that late April day over 10 years ago, I knew those conversations would inevitably already be rippling through the congregation, just based on the advance circulation of my resume. And I knew they would be going on for the next week before the vote – just as I know now that similar conversations will be going on next year as this congregation again considers a candidate for its ministry.

What I wanted to do on that first candidating Sunday 10 years ago, and what I want to do again now, is urge a re-framing of that conversation. Please understand that it isn’t about nobody being perfect. Begin from the understanding that we are all, actually, in fact, perfect. In this institution for grounding and growing our spirits, we need to be coming from that awareness: that we are whole, perfect, and complete just as we are.

Yes, we all have our shadow. And, yes, some care must be taken to discern who to call into any vocation because, no, not everyone is cut out for every calling. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all perfect. It means that the shadow is part of the perfection. It also means that discernment of calling takes a community – that even though we are perfect, we cannot, by ourselves, hear our own calling. We need others to help us hear what we are most called to, and sometimes that help comes in the form of being turned down for a position that we really wanted.

The work of your search committee for the next year to select a candidate to be the next settled minister to stand here behind this Spirit of Truth is the work of holy discernment. And your task next spring when another candidating week culminates in a congregational vote on whether to call: that is also a task of holy discernment. But I think it matters that you enter that holy discernment with the understanding that everyone is perfect – rather than that no one is.

The shadow side we all have isn’t just some unfortunate flaw that we wish could be fixed without damaging the gift. The shadow IS the gift, or, at least, is the enabling condition that makes the gift possible. What we can’t do is what makes possible what we can do. If there were no shadow, there would be no gift. What we aren't and don't makes possible what we are and do. I wanted us to know that about the ministerial candidate this congregation was considering in 2013, and I want to re-emphasize the point as you prepare to consider a ministerial candidate in 2024.

And, of course, it’s not just about ministers. It’s a way to understand each other, and understand ourselves: our shadow is our gift. To illustrate this, 10 years ago I related a parable from the great Universalist minister, Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, and I now share it with you again:
"Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, 'Come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad.'
And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, 'What manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest?'
And they answered and said unto him, 'We seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up, yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that puts the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed.'"
You get the point. It’s not about, “well, no one’s perfect.” Rather, what it’s about is: no one simultaneously exhibits contradictory qualities. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, it’s not a fault to not have youthful exuberance. If your gift is youthful exuberance, it’s not a fault to not have the wisdom of experience. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do.

So the shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow, to repeat, is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.

Now let’s go a little further with that. The shadow is not merely what makes the gift possible, but actually is the gift itself. Our broken-ness is itself the very thing that is our strength. That’s the paradoxical truth: the weakness is the strength.

Last night [Sat Jun 3], here in this sanctuary I was so honored and touched by this congregation’s appreciation of our time together. If you weren’t there, the festivities included a version of Bingo, with squares to fill in that were all references to some aspect of our time together in the last 10 years. One of the squares on some of the bingo cards was: “Broken vase – first sermon.” And, indeed, in that sermon on April 28, 2013, I did relate a story, from a book by Rachel Naomi Remen, that used the metaphor of the broken vase.

It was a story of a young man, 24-years-old, whose leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. He was angry and bitter. It seemed so deeply unfair that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly, he began to shift, to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. On one visit, he was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered the hospital room of a young woman who had lost both her breasts to cancer. She was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'”

That man’s broken-ness was now his gift. Later, as the man was meeting with Dr. Remen, they were reviewing their two years of work together. She showed him a drawing that he had made early on when she had invited him to draw a picture that represented his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was his image of his body -- and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again, grinding his teach with rage with each stroke. It seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again -- could never hold water. Now, a couple years later, he looked at that picture and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ So Dr. Remen extended a box of crayons and “said ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body. (Remen)

That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness is the gift.

Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem” reverses the direction of the light. He sang,
“There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
So is the light getting in, or is it shining out? Both. Through our brokenness, the light of the world can get in, and also, through that same crack, the light from our souls shines out.

There’s a verse in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that says:
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring.”
From the shadow: from the dark recesses, from maybe the parts of you that you think of as flaws, that you don’t like about yourself, the parts that are wrong. It may be from or through those very parts that the light comes forth.

According the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said,
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Within you, tucked away in that inner dark, is the shadow of the you that you present to the world. The shadow is a little wild, a little crazy. The shadow doesn’t fit with the goals and purposes you have laid out for yourself.

The shadow makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. But that shadow has a light to shine. As Carl Jung said, “to confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.” If you bring forth what is within you – bring forth your shadow – then what you bring forth will save you, said Jesus, per the Gospel of Thomas.

Maybe you don’t bring it forth in the midst of your work-a-day life. Maybe the professionalism you have carefully cultivated to serve you well is appropriate for large parts of your life. But there needs to be somewhere -- some aspect of your life -- where the shadow can be acknowledged and welcomed as a part of your wholeness – your perfect, complete wholeness. “If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you,” said Jesus.

If it isn’t brought into consciousness, it will operate unconsciously – and the return of the repressed will not be pretty. Writes Jo Farrow:
“If we cannot bear to bring our unacknowledged fears or feeling into the light of consciousness, we shall continue to need ‘enemies’ onto which we can off-load the suppressed self-hate or fear of being overwhelmed which is simmering below the surface of our lives.”
The shadow might be the part of you that you learned in childhood to tuck away as you adapted to parental expectations. Or, as with the young man who lost his leg, it might be a limitation suddenly and surprisingly imposed. Either way, it’s something about yourself that you don’t like. It’s the demons you haven’t yet learned to embrace.

Returning to Rachel Naomi Remen, she writes:
“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”
We are perfect, just as we are. But we have a hard time believing that we are. Failure weighs on us. We failed – or something failed. Our bodies failed, our relationship failed, our job failed, our brain failed. There was a failure of something in ourselves or in our world to be what we were so sure it should be, was supposed to be. Brokenness, the blessing of our affliction, arrives as failure, arrives as the breaking of our "should."

Somewhere in growing up our lives became as a vase, shellacked with “should” until opaque. And the light within us does not shine out until something breaks us. Some very important “should” fails, and we crack. We break open. And a little more of our perfection hatches. It was always there – we were always perfect – but a bit more of our perfection gets brought forth and shines out.

If I hadn’t been cracked, if I hadn’t failed, if things had gone as I was once so sure they “should,” I might still be teaching philosophy, still living in my head, still assessing everything other people said as either something I agreed with or something I had an argument against, rarely simply present to the beauty and fascination of another person – concerned only with whether they were right, rather than with where they were coming from.

I’d have been perfect then, too, but I wouldn’t have known it – and I wouldn’t have known perfect you and this perfect congregation.

I still don’t entirely believe that I’m perfect, but I try every day to honor the part of me that does know that all of me, and all of you, are perfect, whole, and complete just as you are.



You cannot defeat darkness by running from it, nor can you conquer your inner demons by hiding them from the world. Bring forth what is within you, and be saved and saving. There is always more that is waiting to see the light – waiting to become the light. Go in peace.


UU Minute #121

People With Different Beliefs

Let’s recap: as the civil war ended in 1865, Unitarianism, which had been stagnant for decades, got a boost from holding its first ever national convention. Almost immediately, a conflict broke out when delegates adopted a constitution, the preamble of which expressed a creed.

In response, the Free Religious Association formed to fight against creeds, and, almost 30 years later, the 1894 Saratoga Compromise did remove the creedal language.

Then in the late 19-teens and 1920s, Humanism emerged, led by Unitarian ministers John Dietrich and Curtis Reese, and the Humanist-Theist Controversy ensued, with renewed efforts from the theists to adopt a Unitarian creed.

The 1933 Humanist Manifesto, coming in the midst of the depression, affirmed a new hope.

By the 1930s, the theists were no longer lobbying for a theist creed, and by the end of the 1930s, the humanist-theist controversy had petered out. Most Unitarians had come to see that the once-heated conflict should be regarded as history.

The issue continued to be discussed, more or less calmly, as we continued to process it. A very widely distributed pamphlet first published in 1954 was titled, “Why the Humanism-Theism Controversy is Out of Date.”

What was ultimately so persuasive was not any argument in a Unitarian periodical or from a Unitarian pulpit, but the simple fact that humanists and theists really could sit side by side in our pews and committee meetings, stand side by side in social action projects. Our denomination had learned again what we periodically must re-learn: "We need not think alike to love alike." And: "people with different beliefs can come together in one faith."