More Hope, Vigor, and Strength, part 2

Our faith has never been about individual spiritual growth. Salvation, we know, having heard it in Unitarian Universalist theology and having learned it from each other, is collective, not individual. Ain’t nobody saved until we all saved. Ain’t nobody free until we all free. ‘Cause there ain’t nobody – apart from everybody.

One example of what Unitarian Universalist faith accomplishes in this world was last year’s nationwide effort among Unitarian Universalists called “UU the Vote.” We built voter engagement, voter registration, voter turnout. It was more than our denomination had ever tackled before. And it was massive, and it was awesome. Folks were ready to give generously of their time and resources because our values of justice, compassion, and democratic process – and people’s lives – were on the line and on the ballot. We UUs invested dozens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of hours and over a million dollars to vote love over division in last November’s election. The campaign reached over 3 million potential voters. We UUs were likely the largest, most organized faith-based pro-democracy effort in 2020.

One example from here at Community UU is our Hope Kitchen project. We continue, week after week, to bring the power of imagination, generosity, commitment, and collective action to meet a vital need.

Receiving inspiration and spiritual sustenance and giving of our energies for justice and compassion for others are not two different things. Those who think of spirituality as individual, as distinct from embodying compassion and justice for others will never have the inspiration, the spiritual sustenance, the joy from tending to where there is hurt.

Spirituality without actively caring for others is thin and wan. Caring for others that isn’t caring for all others is a constrained and limited joy. Caring for all others that isn’t actively engaged in building the structures of equality, respect, and fairness fails to be spiritually satisfying.

Spirituality without activism isn’t spirituality, but only a self-centered embryo of what it could grow into. Activism without spirituality isn’t activism, but only noise and ego projection.

To build peace within, build justice without. To build justice without, build peace within. It’s another positive feedback loop – or, essentially, the same positive feedback loop as gratitude and generosity.

That’s the Unitarian theology that brings joy and healing to ourselves and to our world. That’s the Unitarian Universalist vibrancy – the hope, the vigor, and the strength – that grows our souls and that our world so needs. As we find ourselves loved into being, we must work together to love our world into the fullness of its being.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, recounts a conversation she had with the scholar Gary Michael Tartakov. “This is a civilization searching for its humanity,” Tartakov told Wilkerson. “It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own.” How do we do that? How do we, as a civilization, come into our humanity? How does a whole country come into the fullness of its being?


As you and I are loved into being by love around us, a nation may be loved into being by love within it. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke often of love, meaning not a fond sentimentality or romantic attachment – nothing precious or maudlin or fey.

Love, he said,
“means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies.”
Dr. King told us
"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
And again he said:
"At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
And he said:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
He believed, he said,
“that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
He said,
“This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
And thus he saw and reminded us:
“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
There is no joy in retreating from reality, withdrawing, turning away from the systems that do harm. At the founding and foundation of our country are forces of domination, forces that said people identified as black, as indigenous, as people of color didn’t matter. It was and is a system of double exclusion, for the people identified as white have also been excluded – excluded from responsibility and accountability, which are as necessary to beloved community as respect and justice are.

There is no joy in blithe aloofness from reality. We fool ourselves when we think paying attention will only make us feel bad – just as we fool ourselves when we think keeping five dollars will make us happier than spending it on someone else. All the joy there is comes through compassion – from orienting toward the hurt and engaging in the healing.

This Unitarian Universalist congregation isn’t the only community with this power – this power that loves you into being and helps heal our world. I don’t claim that ours is the only beloved community, only that it is ours. This – this building that we long to gather in again, this place of music and song, friendship and support, inspiration and encouragement – happens to be our place. It's not a static place, but a path -- the path we walk together, stepping where we could not step alone: stepping into more hope, vigor, and strength.

Unitarian Universalist president Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray said in a message she had for us this week:
“When we give – boldly, generously, audaciously -- of our financial resources as we are able, we make our values and our ministry manifest in the world. When we give generously of our hearts and our care, and our love, to our children and families, elders and adults, young adults, and youth, we change lives. We save lives. And when we dream big – as leaders and staff – about the impact we are called to make in the wider world, lives are changed. The material conditions of our communities can chage. And we are changed” --
-- progressively loved, and loving, into being.

May it be so, and Amen.


More Hope, Vigor, and Strength, part 1

Gaudeamus Hodie (let us rejoice today) – for we are alive, and we are together, and we are embodying the good life. The good life.

In the 320-year history of Yale University, no class has been as popular as Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life, taught by Professor Laurie Santos. It was offered in 2018, and 1,200 students enrolled for the lecture course. That’s a large class. As a former professor myself, my first thought was: that’s a lot of papers to grade. Fortunately, Dr. Santos had 24 Teaching Assistants for the class.

That 2018 class was the only time it was offered in-person. Coursera made a 10-week version of the course available to the public, attracting 100s of thousands of on-line learners. Then came the lockdown of March 2020, and enrollment really took off. So far, says Coursera, 3.3 million people have enrolled for the class. The class “asks students to, among other things: track their sleep patterns, keep a gratitude journal, perform random acts of kindness, and take note of whether, over time, these behaviors correlate with a positive change in their general mood” (NYT).

In her class lectures, Dr. Santos mentions a study in which 632 Americans were asked to predict how happy they would be if they were given $5 to spend on themselves versus getting $5 and being told they must spend it on someone else. In the study, people predicted that they would be happier if they were allowed to keep the money. But participants consistently reported afterward that they had in fact derived more satisfaction from spending money on someone.

I was surprised. I was surprised that people predicted they would be happier keeping the money. I think most of you probably understand yourselves better than that – you have a better grasp on what’s conducive to joy – and the fact that giving to others makes you feel good is well-known for you. One student, inspired by the class, decided to try a practical experiment. Instead of keeping an expensive dress she had bought, she gave it to her sister. “I’m still feeling that happiness months later,” she said. No surprise there.

Generosity. Gratitude. And sleep. Yale undergraduates – and maybe many of the 3.3 million who took the online class -- benefitted from being disabused of the notion that high grades, prestigious internships, and good-paying jobs – or making law review -- had any relationship to happiness. But most of you, I expect, know those things have little correlation with well-being.

Sleep. Help others. Gratitude. There you have it: a full life, a life of well-being, a life that lets joy in. Congregational life provides the framework for developing gratitude, and generously helping others. It may also ease anxieties so you can get more sleep at night, but I don’t know about that one so much.

We help each other become more generous people – which enhances and deepens our happiness and well-being. The generous spirit that pervades many congregations, including this one, gives us much to be grateful for, fueling a positive feedback loop of generosity, to gratitude, to more generosity, to more gratitude. We yearn for beloved community that will love us into the fullness of our being – a community that will show us how, and provide opportunities, to love others into their being.

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have loved me into being – from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Auburn, Alabama when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, to the UU Congregation of Atlanta from 4th-grade through high school, to the UU Fellowship of Waco, Texas when I was a young adult graduate student, and the congregation that is now called Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville, Virginia – and then the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. These places shined a light straight into me that dispelled a little boy’s nihilism and despair, and then a teenager’s, and then a young adult’s, then an adult’s.

Over and over – because dark nights of the soul have a way of recurring, moments when it all seems meaningless have a way of recurring, for beings like us – composed, as W.H. Auden put it: “of eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.”

I came to these places – Unitarian Universalist congregations – for two opposite reasons: the comfort of people like me, and the delight of people not like me. Through and with those like me – which, really, has been everybody – and those not like me – which, really, has been everybody – I have loved and been loved into being, into my voice, into my place in this world.

My guess is: you have stories like this -- stories of how the values, the theology, you found here -- the music, the work, the camaraderie and friendship – maybe even helped along by some of the preaching you found here -- changed you. Grew your heart. Helped your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

Then I began serving our congregations in a professional capacity. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee, the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, the Unitarian Church of Midland, Texas, the UU Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida – and for the last 8 years, Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, where I’ve spent more Sunday mornings now than at any of those other places.

You are such wonderful people. I am so glad to be among you – a people, rich and multi-layered -- people of action – at our best, unstoppable – guided by our heart’s desire to serve others.


UU Minute #39

John Biddle

What happened in Britain in 1615? John Biddle was born, known as the father of English Unitarianism.

Queen Elizabeth’s 45-year reign had ended a dozen years before. She was succeeded by King James. The ground for Unitarianism had been laid by four key influences.

1. The Bible – in English translation. 230 years before Biddle’s birth John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible. The slow, seeping influence of English translation Bibles bolstered the idea that the only authoritative reliable guide to doctrine was the Bible itself – and thus that doctrinal matters not specifically dictated in the Bible – such as the Trinity, the precise nature of the communion bread and wine, infant versus adult Baptism – ought not to be subject to persecution, but rather, diverse persuasion should be tolerated.

2. Influx of Anabaptists and other Protestants. 80 years before Biddle’s birth, Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England – a break from Papal authority that led to this influx.

3. The Stranger Churches. Begun 65 years before Biddle’s birth, Stranger Churches grew to 5,000 members with branches in eleven towns, propagating ideas of Italian Humanists.

4. Socinian books and tracts, despite attempts to ban them, had been circulating underground urging reason in religion and tolerance of diversity.

Into this context, John Biddle was born, grew up, became a scholar convinced through his study of scripture that the Doctrine of the Trinity was not supported. For this heresy he was repeatedly imprisoned, and when he wasn’t, spent years under house arrest, during which he worked on his theological manuscripts and English translations of Fausto Sozzini works.

Imprisoned again in 1652, then released by the Oliver Cromwell government, Biddle and his adherents began to meet for Sunday worship. They were sometimes called Biddellians, sometimes Socinians, and sometimes Unitarians.

NEXT: What Unitarians Really Care About


Breathe, part 2

I have an ask. Every year, I ask you – your denomination asks you -- to read one new book. Last year, it was Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, Indigenous People’s History of the United States. The year before that it was an anthology of essays called Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class, and Environment. Every year since 2010, the Unitarian Universalist Association has selected a Common Read book for all UUs across the land to read and talk about – a text to engage together.

Over the last 11 years, we Unitarians have read together, cried together (and, yes, laughed together in the shared joy of conceiving justice together) with:
Margaret Regan, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands;
Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation;
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness;
Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door (about restaurant workers);
Paul Rasor, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square;
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption; William Barber, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear;
the anthology, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry; and
Frances Moore Lappé, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection.

This year, our common read is Imani Perry, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, published by our own Beacon Press. I ask you to buy or borrow the book, and to read it, if you haven’t. I ask you to do that in the next month, and then I ask you to get together with other UUs to share and reflect together on the experience of reading it.

In past years, we offered a class about the Common Read. This year, we’re offering a small group experience because we want each person to have a chance to share a little more in depth – to have the more intimate experience of connecting with a small group. I ask you to sign up for and attend one of the zoom conversations about Breathe. There are five to choose from – and we’ll add more as the need arises. We are collaborating in this with other Westchester UU congregations, and one of the facilitators is a member of our congregation in Croton.

The groups are scheduled for May 20 through 24. (See the available groups and how to sign up HERE.) Choose the group and time that’s convenient for you, and show up to engage with this beautiful text.

It’s one of the ways that we can do what our species was made to do, and what, at our best, we do do: build belonging together, build community – community of justice and of love. My ask is just that you read the book and come to one 90-minute session to engage with the text and with others.

You will find Dr. Perry’s book emotionally raw, deeply reflective, and a thing of joy and inspiration – for there is no greater joy or inspiration for people – for humans – than building belonging together, the telos for which natural selection has made us. Widening our circle – building belonging for those who have so often been excluded – is how we come into the fullest joy of our own belonging.

The greatest joy available to us is a life pointed toward justice. The progress may come in baby steps – or in surprisingly large strides in a short time – but the joy is in living “in the along” pointed toward beloved community, toward inclusion, toward justice, whatever the pace of society’s progress may be.

Imani Perry, born in 1972 in Birmingham, Alabama -- interdisciplinary scholar of race, law, literature, and African-American culture – Professor at Princeton University – has given us an unfettered expression of love — of finding beauty and possibility in life. She writes in the book’s Afterword:
“In a life of authorship and interpretation, analysis and architecture and deconstruction, love is my cipher of choice – one that I have decided is better to have than the social contract or law sitting at your core, because you have entered it rather than simply being bound. It has its own improvisation and contingent rules and ethics. Some we give to our young; some they fashion from their own living. And they teach us in the process. They are doing so. Every second-person sentence devoted to them in these pages is to all of us. It is received wisdom from their witness and passionate hope for their futures. We, you, they, do not have to fight a whole society over its terms to find another way of living as long as you love the right ones, freshly, and in the immediacy of your connection. And when you do fight, and I know you will, do not fear the humiliation of defeat. Defeat is not humiliating. Rather, passivity to evil is self-immolation. Witness the joy and the wound. Imagine and then create laughter and ideas and responsibility to one another....
Make in that love a technology to fill up the gaping holes, a gear that winds in the urgency of hope. It is from there that revolutionary possibility emerges.”
Breathe is, as you can tell, “an elixir of history, ancestry and compassion, which, together, become instruction” – as the New York Times review put it. This book is a broad meditation on race, gender, and the meaning of a life well lived as well as an unforgettable lesson in Black resistance and resilience.

If you come to this congregation looking for joy, for uplift, and inspiration: this is it. “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real,” as Marge Piercy has said. Building belonging together is the work that is real – that swells our hearts, fulfills our spirits, and sets us free.

Freedom is coming. May it be so, blessed be, and Amen.


Breathe, part 1

A couple haiku from Kobayahi Issa:
“Children imitating cormorants
Are even more wonderful
Than cormorants.”
“Even on the smallest islands,
They are tilling the fields
Skylarks singing.”
Imani Perry’s little book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, begins with these two Issa haiku. ("Issa" -- coincidentally or not -- is also the name of one of Perry's two sons.) She then offers a poem of her own:
“Through good, nothing, or ill, your mother stands
Behind you, in front of the looking glass.
The boy standing before his mother blinks.
And there is another, stalk high.
Seeing a child, and another
I know and do not know.
My own and belonging only to himself
And to himself.
Smuggling truth off the well-worn and decent corridors.
Mother to son, we race in the woods,
Through an underground railroad of all ways.
Dear sons of cotton, muscle, and bone
I am for you.”
The first chapter opens with two further epigraphs:
"I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name. My name is my own my own my own." --June Jordan
“It must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America.” --Everybody and their Mother (and Father too)
Then she begins:
Between me and these others – who utter the sentence – the indelicate assertion hangs mid-air. Without hesitation, they speculate as if it is a statement of fact. I look into their wide eyes. I see them hungry for my suffering, or crude with sympathy, or grateful they are not in such a circumstance. Sometimes they are even curious. It makes my blood boil, my mind furnace-hot. I seldom answer a word.
I am indignant at their pitying eyes. I do not want to be their emotional spectacle. I want them to admit that you are people. Black boys. People. This fact, simple as it is, shouldn’t linger on the surface. It should penetrate. It often doesn’t. Not in this country anyway.
But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one, beautiful.” (1-2)
Moving now to the end of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, Imani Perry writes:
“If I say, Follow your yearnings, that seems cliché, but it isn’t. It is a sermon, though maybe a bit crude. And it has a particularly potent meaning for us. Because at the core of American racism is the belief that the things we the Blacks desire, the fact that we the Blacks desire, are perversions, either because we get too big for our britches or because our britches are too styled and tattered at once.
Desire is such a beautiful and mysterious thing. It is dangerous too. It coils around the world as it is. We are often driven by what we are told is the source of our loneliness, our feelings of inadequacy, our suffering. And the desire that grows can become a terrible distortion of the truth, a misunderstanding of our needs. We are also, however, driven by a yearning to be seen and understood. Sometimes that yearning is so strong we allow ourselves to be eaten up by it, by those who would exploit it. But at other times, the good times, it is what makes us leave here having done something of value.
Take the time to strip yourself down to the core, to the simplest of joys. What if you dream your life but remove all money moves, all contingent material fantasies? And just fill it with connection, grace, and rituals? How would it be? What would it look like? That isn’t an ascetic's dream so much as it is a gospel of living in the along. It is a ritual of reorientation, a steadying, a sense of grace. It might not be enough, but it is something. And the fact is, if you get desire right, you will probably get love right too.”
Yes, it’s a sermon. If it’s a bit crude, it’s because this is just the short sketch. Give this brilliant and passionate woman 20 minutes to flesh out these points, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be crude.

I can’t give you that sermon – I can only give you mine – offer you this morning myself – that we might together make something we could call our sermon. In that sermon, I would ask you to sit with this phrase:
“Yearning to be seen and understood.”
Take a moment to sink into that, and let the words sink into you -- reverberate in your cranium, in your rib cage, in your pelvic bowl.
“Yearning to be seen and understood.”
How is that for you? Is it a yearning pretty much basically satisfied for you? If so, think back on times when that desire – to be seen and understood – was a driving energy of your being. Maybe it didn’t know where to drive you, but you wanted more than anything to belong – to know that you belonged, which can only be known when you see that you are seen, and understand that you are understood.

“We are often driven,” says Dr. Perry, “by what we are told is the source of our loneliness, our feelings of inadequacy, our suffering.”

Then maybe we want to hide. We might think we don’t want to be seen for the inadequate creature we are. When we are seen and understood, we are seen and understood for our worthiness – seen and understood INTO our worthiness. But if we don’t believe our worthiness, we might hide away from the very thing that would reveal and create it. Then, as Dr. Perry says, “the desire that grows can become a terrible distortion of the truth, a misunderstanding of our needs.”

Her hope for her sons – our hope for everyone – is to know and honor the yearning to be seen and understood, not back away from it – but also not, as she says, “allow ourselves to be eaten up by it, by those who would exploit it.” So watch out for that, too.

A lot of species are social, but humans are ultrasocial. We aren't the only ultrasocial species. Ants, bees, termites, certain species of parasitic shrimp, a couple species of mole rat, and MAYBE meerkats and dwarf mongooses, are also ultrasocial. No other apes are ultrasocial. Other apes are certainly highly social, but you’ll never see a chimpanzee in the wild pull down a branch so another chimp can pick the fruit which they then both share. You’ll never see two chimps carrying one log.

We’re cooperative – not quite as much as ants and bees, but almost – and we bring to the table about 100,000 times more neurons for creatively figuring out and coordinating cooperative projects.

We are made to belong with each other – to have a place among others – to contribute to something greater than ourselves – namely, each other -- to be known and recognized for our part – to be, in short, seen and understood. This desire, balanced and channeled, Dr. Perry says, “is what makes us leave here having done something of value.”

To do this, she recommends, “strip yourself down to the core, to the simplest of joys. . . . remove all money moves, all contingent material fantasies – and just fill it with connection, grace, and rituals.” This, she tells us, “is a gospel of living in the along.” “Living in the along” is an allusion to a Gwendolyn Brooks poem that ends with the lines:
“Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.”
Or, as Gandhi said, “The victory is in the doing.” Or as you may remember from last week’s sermon: Only thus will you attain the good you will not attain.

“Live not for battles won. Live not for the-end-of-the-song. Live in the along.”

“And the fact is,” Dr. Perry says, “if you get desire right, you will probably get love right too.” Yes. Because that's what love is: living in the along -- carried forward by the project of building belonging -- being seen and understood by seeing and understanding others.

This is what we are. People. Naturally selected over millions of years to be this species that we are – this species that was built for – and sometimes succeeds at – building belonging together. People. It’s what we do.

Thus at the end of her book, we find that Dr. Perry has brought us back to where she started -- what she said on the first page:
“I want them to admit that you are people. Black boys. People. This fact, simple as it is, shouldn’t linger on the surface. It should penetrate. It often doesn’t. Not in this country anyway.”
There’s a long and complicated story about the psychology and the sociology, the economics and the history, of how this human species -- built to build belonging together -- produced some groups with the power and the proclivity to exclude and oppress other groups – how some humans adopted strategies so profoundly counterproductive to the human functioning for which we yearn. In denying the humanity of others, oppressors denied their own. It’s a story I won’t go into – many volumes have been written, and many volumes more need to be written further fleshing out that story.

Despite that story, in the last generation are hopeful signs that we might be getting better at this being people business. Might be. I know a lot of people are still clinging to what Langston Hughes called
“the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
A lot of folks aren’t able, yet, to see a better plan. But a lot of others are. A lot of Unitarians are among them.

There is a new possibility in the land.


UU Minute #38

Stranger Churches

The first of England’s Stranger Churches -- Protestant churches for foreigners – started in 1547, led by Bernardino Ochino of Italy, (whose name just keeps popping up in our story.)[1] A few years later, 1550, the Dutch Stranger Church of London received a royal charter and was incorporated by letters patent.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, supported the Stranger Church for two reasons: The Stranger Church provided a possible model of how a reformed Protestant Church might work in England, and it also served to help suppress those heresies that went too far – such as Unitarianism. For instance, in 1551, Dutch surgeon George van Parris of the London Stranger Church, was executed by his fellow Dutchmen for denying that Jesus Christ was God. King Edward VI wrote in his diary that day:
"A certain Arian, of the strangers, a Dutchman, being excommunicated by the congregation, was, after long disputation, condemned to the fire."
When Edward was succeeded by Mary I, Stranger Churches were shut down as Mary sought to bring England back into the Catholic fold.

Mary was then succeeded by Elizabeth I, who sought compromise. Doctrine would be a compromise between Luther and Calvin. Worship and ceremony would be a compromise between Catholic and Protestant. In 1559, one year into her reign, Elizabeth permitted re-establishment of the Stranger Church, and abolished laws for burning heretics. She also, that year, enacted the Act of Uniformity requiring everyone to worship either in the Church of England or the Stranger Church.

Protestant exiles who had fled Mary’s oppression flocked home under Elizabeth. These exiles brought with them a new Protestant radicalism picked up on the Continent, and they wanted, not compromise, but a purified English church purged of every vestige of Catholicism.

Elizabeth’s compromises did not include these more Puritan Protestants. Nor did they include Unitarians questioning the deity of Jesus or the Doctrine of the Trinity.

[1] Bernardino Ochino is also mentioned in UU Minutes #16, #23, #24, #25, and #37.

NEXT: John Biddle


Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 2

6. Activism is not, most fundamentally, about producing outcomes, but about living as who we are.

Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it. The toil of body and soul, we offer up to the universe, and what the universe makes of it is not ours to say.

Is the world making any progress to being more fair, more just, more kind? I don’t know. The Covid pandemic made a number of the fault lines in our society more vividly evident. Whether there will be lasting progress, however, is unclear. It may be disheartening when desired outcomes have not been achieved. It is less disheartening if we understand that achieving desired outcomes is not the main reason for activism.

We inherit a Western philosophical tradition that has stressed consequences. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism was most explicit about this. He said you should act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But Immanuel Kant's ethics also involves imagining consequences. Kant’s categorical imperative tells you to imagine the effects of everybody else adhering to whatever ethical principle you might be following.

But what you do isn’t just about the effects it has. It’s about who you are. Your actions shape your being.

7. What Eastern traditions have to say about that

Eastern traditions are bit clearer on this point. From the Hindu tradition, for instance, comes this teaching:
“If I chop down a tree that blocks my view, each stroke of the ax unsettles the tree; but it leaves its mark on me as well, driving deeper into my being my determination to have my way in the world.”
The Bhagavad-Gita, tells us,
“Those who perform actions without attachment, resigning the actions to God, are untainted by their effects as the lotus leaf by water.... Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever austerity you practice, O Son of Kunti, do this as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondages of actions that bear good and evil results.”
And another Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana, praises those who “have no desire for the fruits of their actions.”

We lose our center when we become anxious over the outcome of our actions. “Do without attachment the work you have to do,” says the Bhagavad-Gita.

8. A Scorpion-Stung Swami

A tale tells of a yogi meditating by the banks of the Ganges. He repeatedly rescues a scorpion that falls in the river, and is repeatedly stung by it. When asked why he does this, the yogi explains, “It is the nature of scorpions to sting. It is the nature of yogis to help when they can.”

Reading that story, it occurred to me -- as it perhaps would have occurred to you -- that the yogi might have been more helpful had he placed the scorpion somewhat farther away from the water, so it wouldn't keep falling in again. We do need to take practical effectiveness into account. We also need – and this is the greater need and the one we in the West are prone to overlook entirely – to let our action flow from the depths of who we are, from the compassion and wisdom that is inherent in our nature. Let the nature of scorpions be to sting. It is our nature to live out of love.

9. A Wave to Mary's Geese Thinking about all the good you’re doing, or are going to do, is an ego projection. Setting it aside, we can also lay down the burden of worries about failure to be good. Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese," begins: “You do not have to be good.” That is: You only have be who you are.

The poem continues: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Only then, as Zbigniew Herbert said, “will you attain the good that you will not attain.” In the end we are redeemed only by the kind of person it is our nature to be – not by what we accomplish.

The scorpion will sting. That’s not what matters. As Zbigniew Herbert’s poem said, “The informers, executioners, cowards – they will win.” Not what matters. 10. In the Misty Mountains with the Fellowship of the Ring

In the J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the intrepid fellowship takes the risk of going through the mines of Moria – and their leader, Gandalf, falls to the Balrog. The rest of the company escapes, makes it out the other side, and has a brief chance to collect itself and take stock.

Aragorn soliloquizes “Gandalf . . . What hope have we without you?” He turned to the Company. “We must do without hope,” he said.

It’s a powerful line, and it’s been with me since even before Cora Diamond’s ethics seminar. We must do without hope. Doing without hope doesn’t always mean dejection, ennervating depression, inability to act, giving up, rolling over. Hopelessness is not despair.

“Let us gird ourselves and weep no more,” says Aragorn in the next line. “Come! We have a long road.”

Hopelessness can help bring us into the present moment, pull us back from the sort of hope that has us living in our imagined future instead of the present. In the realm of social action, this hopelessness means not clinging to an image in which other people have finally stopped being so foolish and pig-headed as to have values that differ from our own.

11. John Keats (1795-1821) and A.J. Muste (1885-1967)

There is another kind of hope, which isn’t about the future being different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.” It’s about acting here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. It’s about what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. It’s about doing what we are called to do, not to make the world over in our image, but only to be who we are. It’s about being courageous, joining the resistance with our hearts and our breath and our love and our being, and being comfortable not being able to predict what will come of it. It’s about listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go.

Any other kind of hope is really another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. It is fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become.

A.J. Muste, a lifelong activist who died in 1967, protested the Vietnam War outside the White House, day after day, usually alone, sometimes in the rain. One day Muste was approached a reporter.
“Do you really think you’re going to change those people?” asked the reporter indicating toward the White House.
“I don’t do it to change them,” replied Muste. “I do it so they won’t change me.”

It’s not that Muste, or I, don’t want to be changed. It’s just that we want to resist the forces that would keep us from our calling, that would occlude the compassion from flowing out from us to what end we cannot see and do not control.

Of course, strategizing is a part of doing. Goals and outcomes and plans for achieving are the manifestations of compassion. It’s possible to plan for results without expecting them, counting on them, or needing them. Our hearts turn over to grace their labor, their sweat -- all that our hearts are and have. Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.


Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 1

Today we’ll pay a visit to Jeremy Bentham, drop in on a certain ethics seminar in 1990, allude to an episode from my dating life, and then go to Nazi-occupied Poland. We’ll entertain the notion that activism is not, most fundamentally, about producing outcomes, but about living as who we are. We’ll consider what Eastern traditions have to say about that, and visit a scorpion-stung swami by the banks of the Ganges. We’ll give a wave to Mary Oliver’s wild geese, and then stand for a moment on the side of the Misty Mountains with the Fellowship of the Ring that had just emerged from the Mines of Moria. Finally, we’ll join A.J. Muste in the 1960s, on the sidewalk just outside the White House. As always, it’ll be a ride – and I thank you for joining me for it.

1. Jeremy Bentham.

In the 18th century Bentham advanced an ethical theory called utilitarianism. The moral person, he said, is the one who acts so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. If you have ever seriously tried to live by this maxim, then you began to realize some difficulties. How do you measure good? Suppose action X has a 60 percent chance of producing exactly 3 units of good, a 10 percent chance of producing 4 or more, and a 20 percent chance of producing -8 units. Suppose action Y is mutually exclusive with action X (you can't do them both), and action Y has a 50 percent chance of producing 2 units of good and a 50 percent chance of producing -2 units, then do you do action X or Y? You’d spend all your time estimating probabilities and doing the math – and that’s assuming that there was a clear and constant way to know what 1 unit of good was. This is not how humans ever have, or could, decide what to do.

And what about diminishing marginal return – where some result would have 1 unit of good by itself, but the 100th unit of the same thing isn’t nearly so helpful. And what’s our time frame? Short-term goods can turn out to be longer-term negatives, and short-term harms can have longer-term benefits. And how much of the good depends on what other people do in response (which makes the estimating the odds essentially hopeless)?

For all these difficulties, impossibilities, really – of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham’s way of thinking about how to be a good person represented a radical shift with profound implications. His weird idea to imagine that there were measurable units of good came with a corollary: equality. Good is good no matter to whom it happens. The good of, or the harm to, the poorest peasant counts as much the good or harm to a king or queen – unless the effects on the monarch would produce effects on the populace – each member of which, again, counts equally. For Bentham, this even applied to nonhuman animals. He wrote,
“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”
We spend a lot of our lives thinking – at least a little bit – about what do. When we do, we typically include a rough guess about what sort of effects we might expect. We can and do work for desired outcomes even when we aren’t sure of the odds of attaining them, and we can’t quantify the good.

Bentham’s enduring contribution is to tell us to weigh the interests of other people – indeed, other sentient beings – equally with ourselves – to weigh each as the equal of any. This is also impractical and impossible – but the very idea of it shifted our moral imagination.

As appreciative and grateful as I am for Bentham and subsequent utilitarians for insisting that everyone’s good counts equally, and as much as working for outcomes consumes so much of our life, there’s something else. There’s more to being a good person than producing outcomes – even if your outcomes are way above average, and they benefit everyone. Last month’s theme, integrity, and this month’s theme, trust, invite us to reflect particularly on what is a good life independent of producing results.

2. Ethics Seminar, 1990

On this topic there’s a poem that means a lot to me. I’ve shared it before, but it’s been a few years. Let me tell you how it came to my awareness, and then a little background about the poet, and then I’ll share the poem.

In 1990, I was in a graduate student at the University of Virginia, taking an ethics seminar taught by Cora Diamond. We were considering various angles of critique of utilitarianism when Professor Diamond passed out photocopies of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito."

I took that photocopy of Herbert's poem home from Cora Diamond’s ethics seminar and pasted it on the side of my metal filing cabinet, and covered it with a protective layer of clear packing tape.

3. Episode from My Dating Life

Ten years and several moves went by, and one evening my date and I came back to my place and she happened to notice my filing cabinet and the poem affixed on the side. Her name was LoraKim Joyner, and I believe that was our third date.

We read together the lines of the poem -- and found ourselves crying. If I wasn't already in love with her, I was then. The poem’s themes -- “attain the good you will not attain” – the importance of what we do, and live for, even if it will produce no results – have been touchstones for us in our life and ministry together.

4. Nazi-Occupied Poland

A word about the poet. Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924. He was a month shy of his 15th birthday when the Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939 September, beginning a six-year period of occupation of his homeland. The young Herbert continued his studies in secret classes organized by the Polish Underground and in time became a member of the Polish resistance movement. Later, at age 50 in 1974, Herbert published “Mr. Cogito,” a collection of 40 poems. The titles of the book's poems almost all reference Herbert's everyman, Mr. Cogito.

The book's last poem is "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." ("Przesłanie Pana Cogito," also sometimes translated as "The Message of Mr Cogito.") Whether the titular envoy is bringing a message to or from Mr. Cogito is not clear. But the message reminds us that life includes more than utilitarian calculation. We are called to an integrity and trust that ultimately transcends producing outcomes.

As I read the poem, I imagine what it must have been like to have been in the Polish resistance. It would demand courage that could not have relied on hope, for realistically the resistance had no hope. In that world, at that time, it was evident that evil had won and would continue. Had members of the resistance acknowledged any moral relevance to utilitarian calculation, they could not have given their hearts and their lives as they did to the task by which they chose to be defined -- for all reasonable evidence pointed to the futility of that task.

A different moral understanding was necessary. Resistance, under such circumstances, is not about winning, not about accomplishing results. It's about the requirements of decency, integrity, and trustworthiness -- about what, in that situation, a decent life, however brief, would be.

Put out of your mind the idea that you might be doing any good, Herbert tells us. To join the resistance is to commit each day to activities that could easily make any hour your last, and to abandon hope that any good could come of this. You join, if you do, because you are called to be a resistor rather than a collaborator. You do it to be who you are -- until they catch and kill you, as they surely will. It’s about being a worthy person, not about getting anything done. It's about the life that leads to death, but also about the death that opens a possibility for genuine and fearless life.

5. "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Bogdana Carpenter

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns your dark star in the breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go


UU Minute #37

Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer

In 1534, England’s Henry VIII maneuvered parliament into declaring him, “Head of the Church in England,” independent of Papal authority. Yet there was no change in doctrine, liturgy, or practice – at least, not at first. Protestant ideas gradually began infiltrating the Church of England from Protestant refugees flocking into England, which Henry was obliged to welcome because, having alienated his Catholic allies, he was now dependent on fostering alliances with Protestant powers.

After Henry’s death in 1547, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was keen to bring Protestant Reform to the Church of England. He invited Protestant scholars from the mainland – which is what brought Bernardino Ochino and Lelio Sozzini (Laelius Socinus) to England, where they met each other.

Cranmer produced the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1549, reflecting a significant shift toward Protestant theology. In keeping with the Protestant doctrine that salvation was by faith alone, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer removed from its source material any idea that earned merit contributed to salvation – and the Protestant doctrine of predestination is implicit throughout the prayer book.

The Catholic Queen Mary’s reign began in 1553, and revoked Cranmer’s liturgy. At that very time – the 1550s – over in Transylvania, Queen Isabella was content to be a Catholic ruler of a Protestant kingdom tolerant of both Protestant and Catholic – but not England’s Queen Mary. She tried hard to return England to the Catholic fold. Nearly 300 religious dissenters were burned at the stake.

But Parliament resisted Mary as they could, and when her 5-year reign ended, Elizabeth I re-established the Church of England as independent from Rome, and reinstated worship based on Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

NEXT: Stranger Churches


Ordinary Easter, part 2

Mark is the earliest Gospel – written around 70 CE, say most scholars. It’s also the shortest gospel: at under 15,000 words, it’s less than two-thirds the length of the average of the other three gospels. There’s no miraculous birth in Mark – in fact, no birth story at all – and no doctrine of divine pre-existence. No Christmas story, and a truncated Easter story. It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist – and it ends, like this:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)
The end. "They were afraid." That’s it. That’s the end of the whole Gospel of Mark. At least, let us say, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at that point: Women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars today believe this to be the original ending of Mark’s gospel. Statements from the early Church Fathers Eusebius and Jerome support that this is the original ending. Evidently, this didn’t feel like a satisfactory conclusion, so later manuscripts add a little more. But the original ended right there: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Silence and fear. That’s what we’re left with. That’s our Easter story. Silence and fear. Where’s the gospel – the good news – in that?

One scholar, Richard Burridge, argues that Mark’s picture of discipleship involves not knowing whether things will come right in the end. The way Mark’s Gospel ends certainly leaves open the question of whether it all comes right in the end. Burridge compares the ending of Mark to its beginning:
“Mark's narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus' arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here.”
Mark leaves us with silence and fear. Yet the very fact that he’s telling the story tells us that it didn’t end there. Someone broke that silence – the fact of the story lets us know – or there wouldn’t be the story.

I have spoken before of the women who courageously broke silence. First to lament, and in lamenting reclaim dignity and worthiness in the face of loss. And further to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to say his name, as we are today enjoined to say the names of George Floyd, Walter Scott, Breanna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and all the others. There is a power to breaking silence, to saying their names.

Further, they broke silence to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man lived on – stories to transcend fear and affirm community, stories to overcome violence by sustaining hope – stories to transform humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrect life from death.

Mark leaves us with silence and fear, yet he also leaves us knowing that the silence will be broken, that the fear will be overcome – for the fact that he’s telling the story tells us that the story, and the hope, does live on. And what is that hope? The three women encounter a “young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them Jesus has been raised. And that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Galilee: the place on the margins of Israel where Jesus was born, began his ministry, and where the first 9 chapters of Mark’s gospel take place. In other words, to find your hope, go back to the beginning. And go back out to the margins. If Jerusalem, the capital, the urban center of Ancient Near East society, represents the center of what society deems important, then our renewal lies in going to the margins.

Mark’s gospel ends so abruptly. You are left to write the end of the story. Even ancient sources couldn’t resist writing an ending, but never mind their ending, patched in from snippets of Matthew and Luke. What’s your ending? From the fear that has silenced you, what is your path back to the beginning, back out to the margins of what society centers?

What will we do with our fear? Go to Galilee, says Mark. Return to where you came from, on the margins. There you will see Jesus – see your own Christ-Nature, your Buddha-nature, the Moses of your heart. There you will meet the others with whom you may join in the ongoing work of resurrection – of bringing forth new life.

I believe that you know what I’m talking about, and know it from experience. I’m not saying, do this thing that’s nothing like anything you’ve ever done before. I think you have had moments in your life where you did this: broke from what was silencing you, answered your fear, returned to Galilee and touched what we Unitarians call your inherent worth and dignity. You’ve taken action with others to rebuild your life – to build the life we share together -- after a loss or setback. You are not, I think, a complete stranger to the work of resurrection. You got this.

The invitation that is always open, and that Easter is an occasion for remembering, is to ask in what ways, now, and again, are you called back to where you came from to see – now, and again – your true self – and in what ways – now, and again – to take up the work of resurrection?

There may be personal resurrections for you. There is also the social and political rebuilding to be done – the collective liberation that is at the heart of the Passover story, and was the original hope of the Jesus movement.

The testimony of the George Floyd trial this week has made many of us acutely conscious of the fact that we’ve created a police force so insulated from accountability that officers can commit murder at will. It has reminded us of the many ways our society oppresses people of color – and thereby oppresses all of us. Whatever our race, we are all precluded from the Beloved Community for which our hearts yearn.

Building beloved community will require going to the margins – going out to the places where people are marginalized – and going back to our origins – the values of fair treatment, of radical hospitality, of loving all our neighbors as ourselves – the values we embody when we see our own Christ-nature, the love from which we came -- before our silence and our fear made us complicit with white supremacist assumptions and complacent in the emergence of today’s police departments.

Mark’s Gospel leaves you with silence and fear, leaving you to write the end of the story. What’s the continuation to the Gospel of Mark that you will write today? What’s the continuation that you will write . . . today?


Ordinary Easter, part 1

I’ll share with you a Zen koan, and talk about ordinariness as salvific: the reliable quotidian rhythms. Then we’ll look at the larger scale hopes for social and political liberation – in the foreground of the Passover story and in the background of the Easter story. We’ll note how the four gospel accounts of Easter are different. In part 2, we’ll take a deep dive into the Gospel of Mark, and see if can emerge with a context for both the ordinary, everyday resurrection and a social liberation that we have not yet seen. I will end with a question, rather than an affirmation, so I won’t be saying Amen at the end this time. Here we go.

A friend of mine is a United Church of Christ minister. We met at the Zen center where we both practice. Every couple weeks we meet on zoom to study a koan together, and from there we often talk shop about how things are at our respective congregations. We are working our way through a collection of koans called the Mumonkan – or Gateless Gate – and when we zoomed last Thursday, the one we were on was number 19:
Zhaozhou earnestly asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The ordinary mind is the Way.”
Zhaozhou said, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.”
Zhaozhou said, “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?”
At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
Ordinary mind is the way. There’s no special state to be achieved. The way does call for being mindful – and this mindfulness is simply paying attention to your ordinary life with its ordinary events. There’s no particular turning toward it that is called for. Anything special would be turning away from it.

You don’t have to learn some special knowledge – knowing is delusion. But don’t glorify ignorance either – not knowing is blank consciousness. The way is nothing special.

As my friend and I were talking about ordinariness, we got to talking what we were going to say to our congregations for Easter. I shared with him that I found this koan to be helpful. This is my eighth Easter service with Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains. All the splashy interpretations that I might have to offer have been shared in Easters past. It’s getting kinda ordinary – and ordinary is the way: the ordinary and reliable rebirth of spring – the ordinary and reliable lightening of our hearts as the days grow longer, the air warms, and the lovely blossoms push up from the earth.

He shared with me that he wished he could convince his congregation that the resurrection was nothing special. I’ve been reflecting about that. He’s a Christian, and I’m a nonChristian Unitarian – and we’re both also Buddhists. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you may be thinking there’s something special about the resurrection of Jesus – something extraordinary. You might think it’s extraordinary and true -- and is a truth that gives life much of its meaning. Or you might think it’s extraordinary and false – too extraordinary to be credible. But what if neither of those? What if it’s not extraordinary? What if it’s nothing special?

Before you die, your life has what meaning it has in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. After you die, your life continues – meaning what it means, in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. And apart from that, there's the reliable rhythm of the returning beauty of spring: so glorious – so gloriously ordinary.

The annual rhythm of the seasons is recapitulated in the ups and downs of life – the cycle of defeats and triumphs, of wounding and healing. We resurrect out of silence and into our voice – and find we still have episodes of being silenced. We resurrect out of fear and into assured confidence – and find we still have episodes of being scared. Nothing special.

I am not being the Schmeaster Bunny here. You know the Schmeaster Bunny – the dismissive little rabbit that’s through with carrying eggs all over the place – done with those pretty, brightly colored symbols of fertility – fed up with chocolate representations of itself. “Easter, schmeaster,” says the Schmeaster Bunny. Don’t be a Schmeaster Bunny.

The cycles of rebirth are wonderful, beautiful, delightful – and ordinary. These ordinary and reliable rhythms of life and death and rebirth are indeed glorious and rich – and nothing to be dismissive of. Along with these ordinary rhythms, we also have this background of large-scale liberation. There’s Passover -- the eight days of which conclude at sundown this evening – and the Passover story telling us of the Hebrew people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were then conquered by the Assyrians – though they pretty much thrived as a semi-independent Assyrian vassal. When the Assyrian empire collapsed, the area was conquered by the Babylonians, then Persians, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great, then the Romans. The Romans had been the occupying force for a little over a hundred years by the time of Jesus. And once again (or, more-or-less, still) the Jewish people were longing for liberation from their occupying oppressors.

The original hope of the Jesus movement was a political hope – that he would be the leader, the king, of an independent Israel – like David and Solomon of old. They called him the "Christ," a Latin term, calqued from the Hebrew “Messiah,” which meant anointed one. The reference is to ceremonially anointing with oil at the inauguration of a monarch.

The common thread that links Passover and Easter is the story of a people longing for freedom from oppressive rulers: the Egyptians in one case, and the Romans in the other. The hopes of the people are pinned, in the one story, on Moses, and on the other story, on Jesus. One story has a happy ending – they escape Egyptian oppression. The other story has, well, a different sort of happy ending. The people don’t get the political freedom that they wanted. The hero is executed. Instead the story offers what may be called a spiritual bypass. The message is that a spiritual freedom is offered us – though the oppression of the body continues.

I want to remember with you, that the Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning. Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four.

She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back.

In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

Each of the four different stories offers us an allegory with resources for meaning making. For this year, let’s look particularly at the account in Mark. We'll begin that look in part 2.


UU Minute #36

England: Wycliffe to Henry VIII

Our story now makes its way to England, which has its own very distinctive church history. Antitrinitarian thought had popped up in the British Isles at least as early as 1327, when Adam Duff O’Toole was executed outside Dublin for denying the Trinity.

Later that century, John Wycliffe had headed a reform movement of sorts, questioning the privileged status of the clergy, the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies, the veneration of saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the legitimacy of the Papacy.

Wycliffe, together with supporting associates, produced the first translation of the Bible into the English vernacular of the time – what we call Middle English. The project was completed the year Wycliffe died, 1384. The printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so the Wycliffe Bible didn’t have the impact it otherwise might have.

Still the Reformation didn’t come to England in the form that it swept over the mainland. England did a sort of Reformation Lite, by creating the Church of England – which, to this day, as the Anglican or the Episcopalian church, has a liturgy and worship style that’s halfway between Catholic and Protestant.

While Luther’s Reformation was based on 95 theses of critique against the abuses and corruptions of the Catholic Church, England’s Henry VIII simply wanted to be rid of a wife who, through no fault of her own, had not born him a surviving son – and who also wasn’t as young as Anne Boleyn. Since the Pope wouldn’t grant Henry an annulment, Henry prevailed upon the English church to renounce papal authority. The year was 1534.

NEXT: Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer