Friday, May 26, 2006

Awesome!

Very cool news from my Alma Mater! Read the press release (here, here) about the creation of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Professorship at Harvard Divinity School. Philocrites is already speculating on candidates.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sermon: "The Minister's Report" (Delivered 5-21-06)

It is only appropriate, on the Sunday that we gather for our Annual Congregational Meeting, that I offer some thoughts and observations. And, whereas we value such things as conciseness and brevity at our Annual Meetings, and whereas those qualities of conciseness and brevity are not traits that ministers tend to embody, I decided to exercise a bit of privilege and share my report as a sermon.

Many of you, especially those of you who are newer to this church, may be wondering what a congregational meeting is all about. It is the time in the year when the congregation votes to elect officers, hears other brief informational presentations, and, occasionally, votes on other matters of congregational importance. We do this because our model of governance is rooted in democracy. The fifth of our seven principles impels us to affirm and promote the use of the democratic process in our churches and in society at large. It has been said that democracy is the human realization of a theological idea.

One thing is certain about democracy: It has worth only to the extent that it is exercised, to the extent that it is practiced. The same thing, by the way, is true of faith. And like our faith development, our system of congregational governance and organization is a hands-on enterprise. This church, right here and right now, is whatever we cause it to be. What we are, or what we fail to be, is directly correlated to whoever shows up, or doesn't show up. It is the day-to-day efforts of all of us that cause this church to be what it is, every day and in every way.

It is only proper to begin by thanking those who have been Board members, task force members, committee chairs, and committee members. These words of thanks need to begin with the work of the Strategic Planning Committee who led us in forming our Mission & Vision statements, and the next incarnation of that work, the Facilities Task Force, who are currently working to translate what our Mission and Vision mean for us in terms of our facilities. Their work is incredibly important. We should all be interested and anticipating the work of this group.

I also need to thank several people who are on their way to concluding several years of distinguished service in leadership positions here at SMUUCh. In particular, I lift up the efforts of our outgoing treasurer and Finance Committee Chair. If you aren't serving on a committee, I'd like to encourage you to pursue a position of leadership and service.

I said this sermon is going to be a report from me, and that is sort of a truth. But while I could supply a list of my various activities (this many sermons; that many committee meetings; a certain number of hospital visits and counseling sessions; some weddings; some classes taught; some work with the youth; some leadership in the community) most of the things I am excited to report are not things for which I can claim any special credit. These are things, like the Evolution Class, Rev. Barbara Pescan visiting as our Distinguished Guest Minister, our New Mission & Vision statements, our many, many service projects and collections, for which various among you can take credit.

If I had to lift up three key themes from this past year, they would be Generosity, Growth, and Engagement. Conveniently, they all begin with G (well, except for the last one.) OK, so Generosity, Growth, and Getting Out There.

First, Generosity. This is a very generous congregation. That is the truth. I refer not only to our successful stewardship campaign, of which we should be proud. We are now a financially healthy congregation, which could not always be said of us. We are moving towards a culture of abundance, where the answer is "yes" and we look forward, rather than a culture of scarcity, where we are paralyzed by anxiety and we worry about making it through the week. We are generous with our lives, generous with ourselves, and generous with our time. We are generous with the welcome we extend.

That leads me to the second thing to mention: Growth. Thirty-seven new members joined the church this year. Thirty-seven. That is very cool. Welcome! What this says to me is that we are a church that people want to come to. People are hungry for liberal religious community. People want transformation, connection, to be a part of the good things we are about.

And finally, Engagement, Getting Out There. Increasingly, we're doing this. From a member going to Rwanda and Haiti, and then bringing the major business players in Kansas City together to make a difference in global health, to a new member leading us in Habitat for Humanity, to putting up signs for Evolution, to Sara Sautter leading the children in community projects – as a congregation we are increasingly outward-facing. This is a sign of health. According to many of the best and brightest thinkers on religious systems, being too inwardly-focused is a sign of narcissism, privilege, and poor faith. These experts say that the more outward-facing a church is, the easier the work of internal institution-tending becomes.

I said I was going to give you a report, but before I do so, I'm going to do some theology with you. This theology is important. This theology we're going to do has to do with the theology, the meaning, of what we're all about when we get together as a church.

We all are familiar with Abraham Lincoln's famous quip about government being of, by, and for the people. Many of us don't know he plagiarized that line from a sermon by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. But I want to talk about the of, by, and for of church. So, my three theological questions are these: Who runs the church? Who is the church for? And, who are the stewards of the church?

To answer these questions, I want to go back nearly 400 years to a wonderful and tedious piece of writing called "The Cambridge Platform". That is the document written by our religious forebears, that spelled out to our religious forebears, how churches organized and operated. We've been doing church in this way for nearly 400 years. Some of you may say, “Well, who cares about this four hundred year old piece of paper?” Please, don’t head for the exits just yet. This document informs the way we organize, why we choose ministers the way we do, why we have annual meetings. We don't make board members and committee chairs read it anymore, only seminary students, but it is what shapes the way we do church. Go look it up. By the way, this document spelling out how we organize as a church is almost 150 years older than the constitution! And almost 100 years older than the Methodist system of governance.

First question: Whose church is this? What do you think? Well, according to the Cambridge Platform, the church actually belongs to God, and Christ is the head of the church. Clearly, that is not the theology we tend to use today. But I think our religious forebears were onto something. You notice, they didn't make the minister the head of the church. They didn't make the board president head of the church. They didn't make the loudest voice, or biggest pledger, the head of the church. Today, I think it would be more appropriate to say that the spirit of the liberal religious tradition, the great hope and vision of liberal religion, the principles of liberal religion – that is what we report to, that to which we owe our responsibility, our dedication, our commitment. We answer, finally, to the great hope of liberal religion. We answer finally to something larger than ourselves.

Next question: Who is the church for? I want to tell you how the biggest church in our district answered that question. Their board went on a retreat together and wrestled theologically with this question. They came to the conclusion that nothing in our theological tradition tells us that the church is solely for those in the congregation. This was a surprising discovery. They came to the conclusion that “the moral owners of [the church] are those who yearn for the Beloved Community and see [the church] as an instrument for its realization.” These moral owners included not only members, but also, “Potential members seeking an open, liberal, and inclusive church community. This includes but is not limited to those who do not have a church because of systemic oppression, sexual identity, race, economics, or incompatible theology…Community outreach partners… [and the] people served by community outreach partners.” Their church has decided that it is not accountable only to itself, but to the community, as well as to all those whose lives would be enriched by participation in their community. What would it mean for us to be able to say that? That the worship service, the music program, religious education, the group you're in, is not for you, but for a broader community than those presently gathered.

The final question: If the church is of the hope and vision and promise of the liberal religious tradition; if it is for all those who hunger and thirst for such a world as this vision would create, then, who is it by? The answer to this question is: all of us. We are the stewards, the co-creators, the foundation, the builders, the tenders, the midwives working to bring about such a world. We do this work together not for ourselves, not for our own amusement and benefit and enjoyment, but for all those who need what we envision. And we do this work not to meet our own approval, but to meet something that is asked of us that is challenging and intense and terribly demanding, but is rewarding in equal proportion to its demand.

So, that theological excursion aside, here is the minister's report: And in some ways, it has very little to do with you. That's not a slight. Actually, in many ways we are going extremely well as a congregation. We are growing in our membership. That means we are serving those who come to us seeking a meaningful community. We are looking outward, beyond ourselves. That means we understand who we are called to serve. Those are reasons why I am so happy to serve as the minister here.

But I need to tell you, my heart is restless. I have been a UU for 28 years. In that time, I have belonged to nine different UU congregations, the last four of which I've provided with professional ministry. I've served on two district committees, and I've just been asked to serve on a national-level committee. I have professional certification in its history, theology, and tradition of liberal religion. I love this faith. Some of you may even know about my flaming chalice tattoo.

But I have grave concerns about the future viability of Unitarian Universalism. As a congregation, we are growing; we’ve grown 50% in the past four years. As a movement, we are shrinking. The Unitarian Universalist Association has had flat membership for the past forty years. There are actually about 15,000 fewer UUs today than there were at merger in 1961. That's real numbers, not adjusted for population growth. More troubling, religious education enrollments are declining throughout our denomination, which is directly related to the average age of our adult members, which is climbing. The average age of an adult UU is almost sixty years old.

Beyond demographics, our denomination has not had broad program of planting new churches since the end of the Fellowship Movement thirty years ago. It hasn't had a broad national program for growing churches since the Extension Program was scrapped nearly five years ago. Increasingly, our national leaders have said, "If you’re growth oriented, you’re on your own." I consider that the anti-thesis of leadership.

For the past year I have been involved in conversations about growth with an impressive cast of characters. I've been talking with Davidson Loehr, of the UU church in Austin, TX, one of our more brilliant and more controversial ministers. I've also been talking with Stephan Papa, who has served several large UU churches. At the end of June, I have been invited to participate in a conversation about growth with members of the UUA Board, who have read a thought-piece I authored on the subject.

You might ask, what does this have to do with us as a church? More than you might think. I offer these thoughts to you as a reminder that what we do here matters – and to give you a larger context of the importance of how we do things here at SMUUCh. Unitarian Universalism is a small pond. And the ripples we make might turn into big waves.

I wonder, what if we made it our goal to effectively welcome to membership in this church one person every week? One person every week. Do you think we could transform one life a week to the extent that they would freely affiliate with the tradition of liberal religion. What if in the next year every member of this church took it upon themselves to invite in one friend who you know would grow from being here?

Here we are growing in faith. We are developing in our faith. We are actively in conversation with our history, and wise in our understanding of our roots.

Here we are generous, and generative, and growing. We welcome those seeking the hope and the vision of that the liberal religious tradition promises.

Here we are outward-looking as well as inward-looking, outward-serving as well as inward-serving. We realize that Unitarian Universalism is for more that those here gathered.

Here we know that our commitment matters. That the church, indeed the liberal religious tradition, is there for a reason that is greater than to serve us. When we gather, we help to determine the future of Unitarian Universalism and the future of the liberal religious tradition. It is far more important than we might ever realize.

Coming to church is more important than we might realize.

Serving on a committee is more important than we might realize.

Visiting one another in joy or sorrow, for celebration or comfort, is more important than we might realize.

Welcoming one who seeks us is more important than we might realize.

With the knowledge that what we do now means this church will be stronger 100 years from now.

Keep it up! Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

AIDS Walk

Last month, a group from SMUUCh's Quarterlife Quorum (Young Adult Group) walked in the Kansas City AIDS walk. Here are a few pictures:





Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Poem by Stephen Dunn

A big thank you to my colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs for introducing me to this wonderful poem: "At the Smithville Methodist Church" by Stephen Dunn.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Upcoming Da Vinci Code Sermon

On Sunday, June 11 I plan to preach a sermon about The Da Vinci Code movie and reactions to it by religious group in the United States and around the world.

For background reading, you may wish to consider the sermon I delivered on the book in December, 2003. You also may be interested in the wonderful UU World article on Mary Magdalene by Rev. Liz Lerner.

I plan to title my sermon "Misplaced Offense." I plan to examine the "controversy" created by the Da Vinci Code movie in light of two guiding lights:

First, University of Chicago Religion professor Bruce Lincoln's assertion that "Those who sustain [an] idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant fraction (sex, age group, class, [dogma] and/or caste) of a given group for the group or 'culture' itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favoured and propagated by the dominant fraction for those of the group as a whole (e.g. when texts authored by Brahmins define 'Hinduism', or when the statements of male elders constitute 'Nuer religion')."

And second, this famous quote from a sermon by Tony Campolo: "I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."


Finally, a bit of shamelessness for the search engines: Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei, Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu, Catholic Church, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Holy Grail, Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Ron Howard, conspiracy, boycott, protest, controversy, France, Knights Templar

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sermon: "How to Want What You Have" (Delivered 4-23-06)

Opening Words (From “How to Want What You Have” by Timothy Miller)

This is the precious present. When you were younger, you probably longed for many of the good things you now possess. If you have a home, a job, a car, a spouse, a child, a stereo, an education, or things of this nature, there was probably a time in your life when you thought, “If only I could have these things, I would always be happy. I would want for nothing more.” There have probably been times when you suffered severe worry or severe pain, and you thought, “If I could just have a normal, secure, and comfortable life, I would be contented, and I would always appreciate it.”

This is the precious present, but strangely, few people know it. Chances are, when you are older, you will look on back on those days back then and think, “I was younger then. I was thinner. I had better health. I had more sex. I was more spontaneous. I worried more than I should have, but I wish things could be a bit more like that now.”

Reading (From “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace)

For this essay, the author is sent by a magazine to take a Caribbean cruise. At first he is dazzled by the opulence, excess, and extravagance. But then, a few days out, they pull into a port right next to a more opulent, more excessive, more extravagant cruise ship. Wallace writes:

“Because the other boat is lined up right next to us, almost porthole to porthole… I can stand at the rails and check each other out… The other boat is blindingly white, white to a degree that seems somehow aggressive and makes our boat’s own white look more like buff or cream. The other boat’s snout is a little more tapered and aerodynamic-looking than our snout, and its trim is kind of fluorescent peach – and the beach umbrellas around its pools are also peach – ours are light orange, which has always seemed odd given our white-and-navy motif and now seems to me ad hoc and shabby. The other boat has more pools… On all its decks, the other boat’s cabins have little white balconies for private open-air sea-gazing.

“The point is, standing here, I start to feel a covetous and almost prurient envy. I imagine its interior to be cleaner, larger, more lavishly appointed. I imagine its food being even more varied and punctiliously prepared, the ship’s Gift Shop less expensive and its casino less depressing and its stage entertainment less cheesy, and its pillow mints bigger. I spend several minutes fantasizing about what the bathrooms might be like on the other ship.

“This saturnine line of thinking proceeds as the clouds overhead start to coalesce. I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of the other ship, and still it’s painful. The Dissatisfied Infant part of me – the part of me that always and indiscriminately WANTS… is insatiable. In fact its whole essence lies in it’s a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification, the insatiable infant part of me will simply adjust its desire upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction…

“Once again, I become perturbed. The absence of 22.5 pound dumbbells in the Health Club’s dumbbell rack is a personal affront… And they don’t even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr. Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty… or at any rate extremely dissatisfying indeed."


Sermon

You wait for summer then you wait for rain
You wait for darkness then you wait for day
You wait for August then you wait for May
You wait to get up then you wait to play
You wait for someone who will make the wait worth the wait.
(Lyrics from the song “The Wait” off new Built to Spill record, “You in Reverse”.)


I'm not sure how many of you read self-help books. I don't all that frequently, but when I do, I have this tendency to turn them into "other-help" books. Maybe some of you do this too. Like, there may be a chapter on compassion and I'll think to myself, "You know who could really stand a lesson on compassion is so and so..." Or the book will bring up the subject of living generously. And I will think, "I should lend this book to so and so. He could stand to learn a thing or two about generosity." You get the idea.

I say this, self-deprecatingly speaking, so as to let you know my original chain of thought when I sat down to read the book entitled, How to Want What you Have by Dr. Timothy Miller. I ate it up. Precisely, I thought. The last person to criticize a sermon of mine: "That person should just want what they have." The last woman to break up with me. Certainly she could have used a book about wanting what she has... well, HAD if truth be told. And for that matter, my favorite baseball player who took more money to play for a rival. He could definitely stand to read this book, then he'd still be playing for my favorite. You get the idea.

So, why was I reading this book, How to Want What You Have anyways? The answer is that I had been assigned it. For the last year, a group here at SMUUCh led by a couple of psychologists have met as a small group to study this book and to try to apply its teachings to their lives. Then, at last November's Auction, a consortium of folks purchased the sermon that I annually offer to the highest bidder and gave me this topic to preach on. In preparation for delivering this sermon, I read the book and experimented with applying its principles to my own life (as opposed to applying its principles to other people's lives as I was repeatedly tempted to do). I also had a phone interview with Dr. Tim Miller who lives in California, and finally, I met with the How to Want What You Have Class and interviewed them on their experience of applying the book to their lives.

I should probably take a little bit of time and try to explain to you what this book is all about. How to Want What You Have is written by Tim Miller, a cognitive psychologist who borrows from Buddhist teachings as well as the science of psychology. When people hear the title, they tend to conclude that the book is about anti-materialism, voluntary simplicity, not being greedy for material possessions, not wanting stuff. But it is actually quite a bit deeper than that. Miller suggests that the basic Buddhist teaching that "Desire is the root of all suffering" is accurate. In fact, he says that "desire" is a biologically driven instinct within human beings. Western philosophy and religion tell us that we should cultivate our desire for and inclination to do things that are good for us and the world and that we should curtail or resist our desire (or temptation) for things that are bad for us. But Miller, following the teachings of Eastern religions, rejects such dualism insisting that almost all desire is the same. He is talking about a wanting what you have that cross-sects all parts of life. Wanting the stuff you have. Wanting the life you have. Wanting the pain you have. Wanting the negative and the positive.

Let me pause right here and say what a counter-intuitive idea this is. To say that all desire is the same is to say that your desire for a yacht is the same as someone else's desire for universal health care. It is to say that your desire for a humongous diamond ring is the same as someone else's desire to be loved. A middle class person’s desire to make enough to save a little for their children's college fund is the same as the desire of the baseball player making 10 million dollars per year to be making 12 million dollars per year.

How to want what you have would say, counter-intuitively, that after only the most very-basic conditions of your existence are taken care of (essentially having a source of food and shelter) that all desire after that is the same and it is the root of all suffering.

This is still troubling, isn't it? Because, after hearing this you are probably thinking the same thing that I was thinking: “Well, so, then what is the incentive to do anything? Why should the person who wants that promotion work hard for it? Why should the person who wants – oh, I don't know: gender equality or racial equality or no more homophobia – why should they bother to work for it? Why should we get married or stay in a relationship? And what about all those kinds of wanting that we might tend to believe are legitimate expressions of desire? – wanting to be treated with respect; wanting a healthy relationship; wanting justice to roll down like waters and peace like an ever flowing stream?”

Just when you think you've outsmarted him, Tim Miller gets all Zen on us and explains that desire can get in the way of, can sabotage, our deepest desires from coming true. The person who is so consumed by a desire for, say, prison reform, may not be able to fully appreciate a small victory, may drive off or alienate potential allies. A person who wants someone else so badly may cling to them such that they pull away. The best way to get something, may be not to want it too badly.

David Foster Wallace writes that inside each of us there is a Dissatisfied Infant that will adjust its level of dissatisfaction in order to find fault with even the most pleasing of environments. "Why can't our beach umbrellas be more like theirs? How dare you not have Mr. Pibb?... the audacity!" Doug Martsch, the lead singer of Built to Spill (this is called a point of ministerial privilege) sings that sometimes desire leads us to want to be wherever we're not. When school is in session you wait for summer vacation. When it is vacation you wait for school to be in session. You wait for the weather to get nice then you complain that it is too dry.

In the place of desire, Timothy Miller suggests a course of three spiritual disciplines designed to help you to want what you have, and to re-enchant yourself with the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence. These three disciplines are compassion, attention, and gratitude.

We naturally desire for others to be different than they are. We wish to control the way they are and take their actions personally. Miller suggests practicing compassion to others. For each person who annoys you, Miller suggests theorizing reasons to help explain, or humanize their behavior. The person who cuts you off in traffic – they probably have something extremely important to do requiring them to drive aggressively. The person who is inconsiderate: they probably misspoke, or didn't realize how hurtful their words were, or didn't intend them.

We naturally desire things to be different than they are. We spend time regretting the past or worrying anxiously about the future. We fixate on how much better things could be or how much worse they could be and, in doing so, we waste the present. Tim Miller suggests practicing Paying Attention... telling ourselves that these are the good old days. These are the good old days.

Finally, we naturally want things to be better, different. We take the world for granted. Miller suggests practicing Gratitude in order to help overcome desire. At one point, Miller suggests that if you can think of nothing else to be grateful for, be grateful for earthworms that churn the soil and helps the grass to grow.

In speaking with members of the class about their experience practicing the principles of "How to Want what you Have", all agreed that their lives were better as a result as a result. All agreed that to do it well required practice. All agreed that it was something that you can't just do once and find benefits down the road. It was something you needed to work at for years. And finally, each disagreed as to which element was more difficult to practice. One person felt that paying attention to the present moment was the hardest. Another felt that compassion was her biggest obstacle.

When I asked members of the class what part of the book was most important to share, most of them felt that I should send you away with some homework. If you were wanting to give this How to Want What you Have thing a go, here are two simple exercises I might recommend. The first exercise is to try keeping a gratitude journal. Each day, pick a different thing to try to practice gratitude for. On day one, practice gratitude for every bite of food or drink of water that passes your lips. On day two, practice gratitude for any entertainment you experience: music on the radio, etc. On day three, practice gratitude for public utilities: that you get water when you turn on the faucet, that you get electricity, that you get to drive on paved roads. On day four, practice gratitude for plants that give us the oxygen we breathe. On day five, you get the idea....

A second exercise I might recommend has to do with compassion, which is truly a difficult thing to practice. To give you an example, Tim Miller describes trying to imagine your family visiting a public park and winding up setting up your picnic right next to a group of unfamiliar, unattractive people who play loud, unpleasant music, build illegal smoky bonfires, and allow their trash to blow around in the wind. In response to this situation an uncompassionate thought would be: I just wish all the unpleasant, unattractive, bad mannered people in the world would just disappear. The compassionate response would be to think: these people wish the park was all theirs, in exactly the same way I wish it were all mine.

Your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to keep track of the people at whom you get annoyed and frustrated and angry. When you feel yourself getting this way, put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what circumstances would lead you to behave in the way they behave.
When I spoke on the phone with Dr. Miller, he called this "universalizing": what is it only human for a person in that situation to do? Of all the things in the book, this is probably the most difficult thing to, in my opinion.

Last December I had an hour-long phone conversation with Tim Miller. I assume you're interested in what he had to say. The first thing I told him was about my tendency to transform self-help books into other-help books. He laughed. He concurred with me that it was true that other people's problems are always easier to solve than your own. He offered that most people are predisposed against being persuaded. He offered an aphorism from Samuel Johnson: "Never expect agreement if a person's livelihood requires disagreement." What that means is that most people have good reasons for doing things the way they do them. Forces and factors that lead them to think their strategy for dealing is best. Montaigne once said that "If someone asks you for advice, find out what advice they are looking for and give it to them."

Another question I asked Dr. Miller was about the nature of desire. Can desire be contained within a single functional area while compassion, attention, and gratitude are practiced in another. He seemed to think that in most cases, desire in one area will cross-contaminate other areas. Take for example a person with a stimulating, successful professional life and a disappointing family life. This person will tend to develop a resentment against the former, blaming it for contributing to the former. He gave me the example of someone who long-dreamed of being the CEO of his corporation only to find, once this desire was realized, that his position was lonely, and grueling, and exhausting and that what he desired was to spend more time with family. (You could easily imagine someone with neither of these of these things -- neither family nor meaningful work saying, “If I had even just one of these, I would be happy.”)

So, based on what I've said this morning, are you buying it? Do you buy that it is possible to want what you have? And further, do you buy that you can actually want what you have without turning into a lazy, shiftless, directionless person?

I think I do and I would further note that some of the world's greatest figures – Gandhi, King, Mandela – seemed to be able to demonstrate tremendous compassion, powers of attention, and fierce gratitude in the midst of leading ambitious social change movements. Paradoxically, wanting what you have empowers transformation.

When it is August, be in August. When May, be in May. When in darkness, be attentive to the darkness. In day, be in day. These are the good old days. This is the precious present. Amen.

Sermon: "Reflections on Becoming a Grape" (Delivered 8-15-2004)

[I delivered this sermon on 8/15/2004, my 27th Birthday. A month earlier I had visited with my friend, colleague, and one-time pastor Rev. Tim Jensen who serves the First Unitarian Society in Carlisle, MA. Tim had asked me how my first year in the ministry had gone. Then he asked me what I was reading. The darnedest things, I answered: Ben Mezrich’s book about Princeton grads trading on the Asian stock-markets, Michael Lewis’ book about the founder of Netscape, and I had even thumbed through a copy of the Harvard Business Review. “Ah,” Tim responded, “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” He then recommended I read Lonesome Dove and told me the same stuff about it that I say about it in the first third of the sermon below. Become a grape and the grape changes… thank you, Tim! This sermon is dedicated to your wisdom and support.]

Epigraph

“I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting now to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable – if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.” – David Foster Wallace


Sermon

“Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” Actually, this Latin saying does not come from Cicero, or from Virgil, or from Dante. However, if you guessed that the phrase comes from the great cowboy-Western novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, you’d be correct. In the novel, the Latin saying is found on an old weathered sign in front of a South Texas ranch, that reads, “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium, For sale cattle and horses, for rent horses and rigs, goats and donkeys neither bought nor sold, we don’t rent pigs, Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.”

Not that the novel is any help translating this saying. According to the story, one of the protagonists, Augustus McCrae, while serving as a ranger carried with him on the trail a Latin primer. The primer turned out to be quite a bit more useful at starting campfires than it was at teaching Latin, and McCrae was soon left with only an appendix of Latin sayings, un-translated, and indecipherable. “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit” was chosen because it was the most handsome looking saying.

Incidentally, this caused some consternation back at the ranch when McCrae’s partner discovered that he didn’t have the slightest idea what the Latin saying meant. As the dialogue between the two partners goes,

"I don't see why you had to put them greek words on there"
"By God Woodrow, I've told you before, it ain't GREEK, it's LATIN."
"What's it say then?"
"It's a motto, it says itself..."
"You ain't got any idea what it says! Heck, for all you know it could be an invitation for people to rob us!"
"As far as I'm concerned any man who can read Latin is welcome to rob us. I'd like the chance to shoot at an educated man for once in my life."


Now, I am not going to be spending the entirety of this morning rehashing the plot line of Lonesome Dove. But I do want to use this obscure Latin saying as a kind of jumping off point for my return to the pulpit this morning. Fortunately for me, as a Latin saying goes, “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit” is complete grammatical nonsense, which means I am more or less free to decide on whatever meaning I want it have.

The words which I am going to play around with are these, “uva uvam vivendo varia fit” which essentially mean as follows, “grape grape living changing becoming.” And I am going to suggest that there are some meanings I can tease out from these words, meanings that have to do with what it means to be a religious community together, and perhaps even some deeper meanings as well. So, these are my reflections on becoming a grape.

Here’s one translation: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. A grape ripens when it sees another grape.” Or, translated another way, “When a grape is in the presence of other grapes, wine is made.” In other words, this is an affirmation of community. It is the aphoristic opposite of, “one rotten apple spoils the batch”; it says the influence of others upon us is enriching, is beneficial, is good for us. A grape ripens, matures, its finer qualities are drawn out from it, become manifest and evident, when it sees another grape. This is an affirmation of the transformational nature of community. I want you to say it with me: “A grape ripens when it sees another grape.”

Now, I want you to turn towards your neighbor. Not the person you came to church with. I want you to turn towards somebody you don’t know too well who is sitting near you. And I want you to say to one another something like this, “A grape ripens when it sees another grape. I can learn something from you. Your being here affects me.”

Did you really believe it when you said it? I have to tell you. There are probably some here who are ambivalent about this idea that a grape ripens in the presence of other grapes. There is perhaps a tension between the individual and the community, the solitary and the corporate. Do grapes in the presence of other grapes produce fine wine, or fine whining? Or, put another way, how is truth found – by oneself or with the influence of others? I actually think it is a little bit of both. The great thinker about Faith Development James Fowler suggests that the process of faith development, of spiritual growth, includes periods of inner reflection, self-examination, and individualized expression AND community participation, identification with others, and association with a group. Fowler argues that there are aspects of human development, events that cause our faith to deepen that are impossible without the encounter with others in community. Turn again to your neighbors: “I am grateful for the opportunity to encounter you.”

There is a second translation: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. The changing vine becomes the living vine.” This aphorism is true. It speaks to one of the inherent realities of human living, an inherent reality affirmed time and time again by liberal religion: That life involves flux and change. That revelation is not sealed and that there is still more light to break forth in the world. That tomorrow will be different from today and that we should look forward to tomorrow. The changing vine becomes the living vine. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

I think that this principle is affirmed in the wonderful poem by Carl Dennis, in which he describes that our soul exerts a force in our life as strong and as imperceptible as the moon’s force upon the ocean.

Now I’m ready to posit a tug
Or nudge from the soul. Some insight
Too important to be put off till morning
Might have been mine if I’d opened myself
To the occasion as now I do.

Here’s a chance for the soul to fit its truth
To a world of yards, moons, poplars, and starlings,
To resist the fear that to talk my language
Means to be shoehorned into my perspective
Till it thinks as I do, narrowly.

“Be brave, Soul,” I want to say to encourage it.
“Your student, however slow, is willing,
The only student you’ll ever have.”


The church and our lives are opportunities for transformation, where our ideas and our habits don’t petrify, calcify, fossilize, but where like the green growing vine we are constantly putting out tendrils that grasp in shadiness upwards towards light and life.

Now a few minutes ago I had you all turn towards your neighbors and declare to your neighbors that you were glad and grateful for the opportunity to encounter them. I was wondering what action I could request that you do in order to symbolize this translation, this meaning. I was thinking of, but quickly and wisely scrapped the idea of something along the lines of interpretive dance where I asked you to embody the motion of a living vine. (Relax folks; it’s a joke.) So, I decided that sometimes for some of us it is easier to speak words of affirmation and acceptance to other people and that sometimes some of us have a much harder time speaking words of affirmation and encouragement to ourselves. So taking a cue from Carl Dennis’ poem I invite you to turn towards yourselves and say these words of encouragement to yourselves: “Now I’m ready to posit a tug or nudge from the soul.” Ready? “Now I’m ready to posit a tug or nudge from my soul.”

A grape in the presence of other grapes makes fine wine. We should be grateful for the opportunity to be transformed by the encounter with others in community. The changing vine becomes the living vine. There is an invisible but real pull on us towards change and life.

But there is a third translation to the Latin saying. It is probably the most incorrect of the translations, but it is also the most Zen and also my most favorite. “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. Become a grape, and the grape changes.” A little paradoxical ain’t it.

So even though this translation is probably the least accurate, it may have the truest meaning. In the novel Lonesome Dove, we encounter the two protagonists going through something of a late-onset mid-life crisis. They had set off fixin’ to settle the wilderness. They had dreamt of civilizing the frontier. And like any good pair of heroes, they had been remarkably successful. They hung all the horse thieves and defeated all the desperados. And having done this, having fulfilled their ambition and realized their goals, having civilized the frontier, they were faced with… well, they were faced with a civilized frontier that was not nearly as interesting now that there were no horse thieves left to hang or desperados to drive off.

There is an old-saying that a congregation would be well to ask what happened in the minister’s life this past week that made him decide to preach what he preaching. For me, this past week saw two related cognitive shifts take place. The first was the realization that this was the first time since I was seventeen that I had gone an entire year without packing up all of my possessions and moving them to a new living place, whether across town or across the country. This was actually somewhat of a relief. Four time-zone changes in five years is a lot. But it was a bit of realization… oh, so I don’t need to box up all my books, fill out a change of address form, or dig out that box that the stereo goes in.

The second realization was related to the first. “Wow,” I said, “I’m beginning my second year here at this church.” You see, for years and years it was my dream to be a minister, my dream to serve a church and now that dream is realized. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. Become a grape, and the grape changes. I don’t mean this saying in any sort of “grass is greener” sort of way. I mean it only in the sense of a dream or desire fulfilled means a loss of one thing. In this way, a dream realized involves a dream lost. A longing fulfilled involves the end of longing. You chase something and catch it and you lose the chase. What do you do with a dream realized? And believe me, being the minister here at SMUUCh, fulfilling this dream is amazingly wonderful. A dream come true.Become a grape, and the grape changes.
Well, those are my reflections on becoming a grape.

NPR correspondent Bailey White tells this story (buy her book!) about deciding to plant a wildflower meadow:

“About six years ago, like so many romantic gardening fools, I fell for it: the wildflower meadow. I don’t know whether it was the pictures on the seed packets, or the vision I had of myself, dressed all in white, strolling through an endless vista of poppies and daisies.

“’A garden in a can,’ the seed catalogs said. The pictures showed a scene of rolling hills and dales, an area about the size of Georgia and Alabama combined, covered solid as far as the eye could see with billowing drifts of lupine and phlox.

“But I wasn’t born yesterday. I had been tricked by those pictures before. I come from down south, where vegetation does not know its place. I knew what Lady Bird Johnson was talking about when she gave the wildflower romantics a look and said, ‘You can’t just scatter the seeds around as if you were feeding chickens.’ Even the more responsible plant catalogs, in their offer of wildflower seed mixes for the various regions of the country admitted, ‘We have not been able to develop a mixture suitable for Zone 9.’ So I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“But it’s hard to squash a romantic. I made a plan. I would prepare my ground, about a half acre, and plant the wildflowers in rows. I would keep the weeds out for five years, by cultivating between the rows with a push plow and a hoe, and weeding by hand within each row. By the end of those five years, I figured I would have eliminated any perennial weeds and weed seeds.

“Then the garden would be on its own. The wildflowers would spread, eventually taking up the spaces between the rows, and I would get out my white dress and begin my leisurely strolls.

“My garden’s first spring: the seeds arrived. I planted by hand. The rows, neatly set out with stakes and string, seemed endless. I crawled up and down and up and down every afternoon examining each seedling as it sprouted. My hands got hard and callused. They took on the curve of the hoe handle so that everywhere I went, I looked as if I were gripping a ghostly hoe.

“The first summer, my annual plants bloomed. The Coreopsis tinctoria was spectacular, a glowing red, and the cosmos was shoulder high. Its lavender petals brushed my face as I scritched and scritched up and down each row. I loved the sight of the clean brown earth stretching away from the blade of my hoe. On my hands and knees I weeded between plants. My knees ached, but the smell down there was nice, damp ground and bruised Artemisia. I developed a gardener’s stoop and a horticulturist’s squint.

“That first winter, I could relax only a little. Bermuda grass can establish itself during a winter and get away from you the following spring. So every evening at dusk, I would stalk up and down my garden like a demented wraith, peering at the ground for each loathed blue-green blade, my cloak billowing in the wind and my scarf snagging on the bare gray branches of last summer’s sunflowers.

“At night, I would lie in my bed under the quilt listening to the wind outside and pinching and sniffing the little bunches of sweet Annie I had harvested and dried in July. I dreamed of that summer, only four years away now, when the garden would be finished. My white dress would be linen, I decided.

“The second summer was very fine. Some of the annuals had reseeded, and the perennials and biennials bloomed for the first time. But I had a real problem with something called Old Horrible Snakeroot, one of the terrifying mints, creeping in around the edges. Every afternoon, dressed in a wide straw hat, big boots, and little else, and pouring sweat, I violently hoed the perimeter of my garden. I wore out my first hoe that year with sharpening the blade, and the handles of my Little Gem cultivator became as smooth as ivory.

“During the third and fourth years the rows began to close in. There were great irregular patches of gaillardia spanning several rows, with Queen Anne’s lace and moss verbena weaving themselves among clumps of black-eyed Susans

“When I stood up to ease my back and looked across the garden, I could see that it was truly as beautiful as the picture in the Park’s seed catalog. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and washing my face in the watering can. My white linen dress would have lace.

“The fifth summer, I had to go to the doctor about my knees. ‘You’ve got to quit squatting down,’ he told me. ‘I can’t quit squatting down,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a garden.’ He sighed and gave me a pair of elastic bandages. I had a problem with thistles that year. The seeds must have blown in from somewhere. I wore gloves to pull them out, and every time I took out a thistle, I would transplant a wildflower in its place. Every one of the transplants thrived and multiplied, and by the end of that summer, there was not a spot of bare ground for a weed seed to settle in. My garden was complete. That winter I bought the linen and the lace and sewed my white dress.

“In March I went out to the garden. The linaria was the first thing to bloom. I knew it would be. I knew that a week later the verbena would show up, then the Shasta daisies and the gaillardia – a clump here, here, and here. In midsummer the Queen Anne’s lace would begin to bloom. I knew exactly how it would be. I knew the name of every plant. I could recognize each one even before it got its true leaves.

“I sighted down the length of the garden. There was no trace of the neat rows I had worked and worked for all those years. The garden had taken over itself, just as I had planned. I walked back to the house. I looked at my soft, limp hands. I looked at my white linen dress, with lace. It seemed like the stupidest thing I had ever thought up. ‘The fact is,’ I said to myself, ‘I want something to hoe.’ I’ve started reading about intensive gardening. It involves double digging and raised beds. Every season you pull out the old plants and put in new ones. It’s a garden that never gets finished.

“I gave the white dress to my sister, Louise. Sometimes she comes for a visit and strolls in the wildflower meadow. She ooohs and aaahs and brings her friends to see it. They pick armloads of flowers. I sit on the edge and draw diagrams of my next season’s garden in the raised beds. I’m learning about companion planting. In the wildflower meadow, the Queen Anne’s lace waves its filigree heads over the marsh pinks, and the sweet alyssum tucks up neatly around the clumps of painted daisies. But I hardly notice. I’ve got a new garden now.”


No one ever told us we had to study our lives, make of our lives a study. Listen for and posit tugs and nudges from the soul, that we may respond to if only we open ourselves to the occasion. A grape ripens when it sees another grape. The changing vine becomes the living vine. Become a grape, and the grape changes. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. May it ever be so.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dr. Paul Farmer coming to Kansas City

This event is happening because of the vision and passion of one of our members here at SMUUCh:

I hope you will attend the upcoming public forum featuring Dr. Paul Farmer on Thursday, May 18 at the Jewish Community Center's Lewis and Shirley White Theatre, 5801 West 115th Street, Overland Park, KS. Dr. Farmer will speak on "AIDS in Africa: What's to be done?" Dr. Farmer is founding director of Partners in Health, the international charity organization that provides direct health care services and undertakes research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty.

Admission is free but RSVPs are required by calling (816)221-1100 Ext 239 or emailing bioethic@practicalbioethics.org.

For more information, click on www.practicalbioethics.org.

Essay featured on UU Planet

Peter Bowden is a UU who operates as a free-lance consultant to UU congregations. Peter specializes in Small Group Ministry, Growth, Leadership, and more! His web-site, UU Planet, is a wonderful resource.

This month he is featuring an essay I wrote on UU Growth. Thanks Peter!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Mainstream Voices of Faith Press Release

I hope you'll join me this Sunday afternoon for this important event:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MAINstream Voices of Faith: A Call to Action Rally

(Olathe, KS) Mainstream Voices of Faith (MVOF), a program of MAINstream Coalition, announces that it will hold a rally on Sunday, May 7, 2006 at St. Andrew Christian Church, 13890 West 127th Street, Olathe, KS from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm. Keynote speaker The Rev. Dr. Bob Meneilly will energize people about ways to be an alternative religious voice to those who the media has named the “Religious Right.”

“Mainstream Voices of Faith is a fairly new program of the MAINstream Coalition and was developed at the request of our membership,” said Boo Tyson, its executive director. “Our members often express their frustration with having their faith questioned because they are more moderate than the radical right. In America, especially, religious liberty should be celebrated rather than denigrated.” The rally was planned to bring moderate/liberal people of faith together.

“We need to organize, mobilize, and empower the silent majority — those for whom the vocal Religious Right does not speak,” said Rev. John Tamilio III, co-chair of Mainstream Voices of Faith. “This rally is just the beginning of the work we will be doing to bring mainstream religious views back into the mainstream.”

Date: May 7, 2006
Time: 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Location: St. Andrew Christian Church
13890 West 127th Street
Olathe, KS 66062
(913) 764.5888

Sermon: "There's Something About Mary" (Delivered 12-28-03)

[A sermon from the archives in honor of the upcoming release of The DaVinci Code movie.]

Nothing these days is trendier, it seems, than Mary Magdalene. She has appeared recently on the front cover of Time and Newsweek. Stroll through the religion section of Borders or Barnes & Noble and there she is, featured in dozens of new books about her, everything from credible texts by some of the world’s finest religious scholars, to popular treatments that seem like they should appear in the super-market check-out tabloids. All of this recent hullabaloo about Mary Magdalene can probably be traced to a single phenomenon, a recent work of fiction by Dan Brown entitled, The DaVinci Code that has sold over 40-million hardcover copies so far.

Last October members of this congregation began asking me if I had read this novel, and what I thought of it, and my opinion about it as someone with formal training in religious studies. I was invited to read it, and invited to share my thoughts about it once I had. This is something I plan to do, from time to time: mix things up a little bit, by offering commentary on books or films or other pieces of contemporary culture that are your mind. And I encourage you to recommend to me books and films and other products of contemporary culture about which you might want me to speak.

And so it is fitting that in the slow moments between Christmas and New Year, a time that is perfect for putting on your wool socks, grabbing a blanket, stretching out on the couch, sedated and contented by so much rich Holiday feasting, and pie, and eggnog, to cozy up and drift away with a good book. This morning’s sermon will really be this kind of a sermon, sort of an indulgent and fanciful sermon, an in-between-one-thing-and-another sermon, kind of an after Christmas, before New Year, escapade sort of sermon.

For those who haven’t read The DaVinci Code, let me set the scene for you with a basic plot summary. While in Paris to give a lecture, a young dashing Harvard professor by the name of Robert Langdon, described as “a Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” is summoned to a murder scene. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered by a renegade faction of the powerful and manipulative Catholic organization called Opus Dei. Working off a series of vague clues, Langdon, along with an attractive, young French secret agent Sophie Neveu, must race to put together the pieces of the mystery before Opus Dei figures out the clues, and all the while with the French authorities hot on their heals. In other words, all just another day’s work for the scholar of religion. Sort of what they told me ministry would be like…

And did I mention that solving these clues and codes and riddles will lead to the Holy Grail?

That is what makes The DaVinci Code more than a rather pedestrian fluffy action novel; the novel claims to reveal all these secrets and conspiracies about Christianity, namely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had kids and that the Holy Grail is really not a physical cup, but a set of documents that prove the genealogy of Jesus’ offspring, and that the Catholic church has been involved in a massive cover-up conspiracy to keep the real truth of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene a secret. Now, maybe it is just me, but the idea of a Church covering up a scandal involving sex is just too far-fetched to be believed.

But seriously, seriously, where do you begin? The book is intentionally misleading in that it claims on page one that all descriptions of artwork, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate. Well, that’s not quite the truth. While it is clear that Dan Brown has dabbled in church history, he has played fast and loose with historical evidence. In fact, Brown appears he could use a qualified researcher with a background in religious studies, not that I would know anybody qualified for that post. As an aside, when I first announced I was going to preach this sermon, I received a call from a member of this church who is fluent in Italian, and she informed me that Dan Brown’s earlier book Angel and Demons, which is set in Rome, contains dozens and dozens of Italian grammar mistakes. And in The DaVinci Code, Brown is far from scholarly rigorous. Margaret M. Mitchell, writing for Sightings magazine, lists dozens of historical errors in Brown’s book and also many gray errors in which complex issues are misrepresented and distorted. There is a reason Dan Brown’s novels sell 40 million copies while the new book about Mary Magdalene, by the world’s foremost expert on Mary Magdalene, Karen King, will be read mainly by seminary students. The scholarly approach to the story is complex, nuanced, ultimately given to uncertainty, and, well, it’s not that sexy. The conspiracy theory that wraps it all up in one tight package is flashy, juicy, sexy.

I was a student of religion for seven years at two of the world’s finer religion programs. While at Harvard I took New Testament from Karen King, who has her picture featured prominently in a recent edition of Newsweek. And one of the major outcomes of such an extensive study of religion, what I am now going to share with you, and what will sort of hold or encapsulate what I want to say to you, is this: as with all things, history is messy; there are layers and layers of complexity and nuance, and there is no simple master narrative. That is because people are nothing if not complicated creatures. And the first reaction to learning about all this muddledness, inconsistency, messiness is to dismiss it, to feel threatened by it, but after time, you can come back to it and glory in the mixed up nature of it all. But rather than caricaturing historical figures, we should come to expect and even marvel in their inconsistencies, quirks, shortcomings, failures, and so forth… for we are equally complicated creatures ourselves, and history would not be able to tell our stories in a simple way either. We long for simple, clear-cut truths that tell us right and wrong, good and bad, pure and impure, hero and villain… but the evidence always points to the contrary, on the one hand and on the other hand.

I want to touch on a couple of things the book points out. First of all, it touches on aspects of paganism that Christianity borrowed, which is true, but The DaVinci Code goes wrong when it makes it all out to be a big conspiracy. It plays on our desire for a clean, consistent story. Teabing and Langdon give Sophie Neveu a history lesson about early Christianity that says, in essence, “Nothing in Christianity is original. It was all stolen from paganism for political reasons.” But scholar Margaret Mitchell counters saying that, “The relationship between early Christianity and the world around it, the ways in which it was culturally embedded in that world, sometimes unreflectively, sometimes reflexively, sometimes in deliberate accommodation, sometimes in deliberate cooptation, is far more complicated than any simplistic myth of cultural totalitarianism.”

The same thing with the Council of Nicea. It is true, the Council of Nicea did establish the Divinity of Jesus as doctrine, did formalize the canon of the New Testament, did set the liturgical calendar and did formalize the ecclesiastical structure – all of this was decided by a bunch of men 300 years after the death of Jesus, by vote. And it was a close vote. As one of my colleagues has said, “Maybe there weren’t any hanging chads, maybe the other side didn’t win the popular vote but lose the electoral college, but it was certainly contentious.” Contentious is an understatement, by the way, most of the bishops attending the council of Nicea came with bodyguards. The bodyguard of the bishop of Alexandria beat up the bishop of Constantinople!

[As an aside, I should mention that I studied as an undergraduate with a leading expert on Shenoute of Atripe, the monk who was the bodyguard of the bishop of Alexandria. (What a claim to fame!) And you may find it interesting to know that this monk Shenoute of Atripe did not just go around beating up bishops. When he wasn’t beating up bishops he was leading the Coptic community on the outskirts of Alexandria that operated a soup kitchen that fed over 10,000 people a month and an orphanage that rescued infants from trash-heaps. What a complicated character!]

So, I suppose my point is this. As soon as we learn how messy and complex it was, we dismiss it. Nothing like a bunch of Unitarian Universalists sitting around saying, “it can’t be real; it was decided by a vote.” Well, so were our Principles and Purposes. So are the statements of social conscience we adopt at the denominational level. The only difference though is that we realize that we are part of a changing historical process, but we can tend to forget that educated Christians are equally aware that their religion has been changing and evolving from day one. No wonder some should find the idea of evolution so threatening – it is a complex theory of change and transformation, variation – it defies the idea that everything can fit into a nice, neat package.

But I want to get to Mary Magdalene. The belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute did not surface until nearly 600 years after Jesus had died. This belief was promulgated by a Pope, but it is unclear as to his motivations. As it turns out, Mary was a very common name. There are at least three Mary’s in the gospel accounts. There is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha. There are also a large number of unnamed women including the woman caught in adultery and the “sinful” woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. This Pope just sort of mashed all these unnamed women together and assumed that they were all Mary Magdalene. Was it a case of Biblical ineptitude? Was a smear campaign against Mary Magdalene by men in the church who feared a female disciple? Was a twisted attempt at Augustinian logic, the more seedy the sin the more sweet the salvation? It is unknown.

But here is what the best scholars today have to say about Mary Magdalene: she was definitely not a prostitute (in fact, the Catholic Church declared she wasn’t back in 1969). She was a close acquaintance to Jesus, part of his inner circle, most likely in a relationship in which she was his disciple. She was likely a woman of some affluence, likely inherited, and possibly was a financier of Jesus’ ministry. There is no way to know for sure whether their relationship was romantic.

And this raises the whole interesting issue of women in the early Christian communities. There were. And many of them were in rather prominent leadership positions. And it is probably safe to assume that Jesus and even Paul had more liberal ideas about women than many of their contemporaries, but it is likely that they were not all out radicals, and they likely did not even understand the full significance of some of the radical things they were saying. When Paul said in Galatians 3:28 that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female” he probably didn’t even fully grasp what he was suggesting.

One of my classmates in seminary once showed me a feminist reconstructionist version of the Bible. One of the features of it, was that whenever a woman is mentioned but not named, or whenever it was clear that women were present but not mentioned, they put a big bold-faced X right there in the scripture. The point was that the real identities of these women had been erased from these traditions, and one should remember them. Sort of like how Malcolm X took the name X to symbolize how the last name of his ancestors had been lost. It was powerful to see thousands of X’s as you flipped through the pages.

And that is sort of what The DaVinci Code is hinting at, bringing back Mary Magdalene into the story as a female presence; bringing back the female Spirit of Sophia as a balance to the male Logos (by the way, the female protagonist in the book’s name is Sophia Neveu – Sophia is Greek for wisdom and neveu is etymologically similar to new, “nuevo” in Spanish, “nouveau” in French.) But the book is too simple when it gives Christianity all the blame for being sexist and anti-woman. It is true, there have been aspects of Christianity that have been harmful for women, and also aspects of it that were liberating. The pagan culture then was no better, parts oppressive, part liberating. And Judaism is a mixed bag too. And even Islam, even Islam, even though we are more familiar with Islamic oppression of women, there are strains within Islam that are liberating for women. Hinduism and Buddhism have had their parts that were liberating for women, and their parts that were oppressive. And sociology has been sexist and oppressive and liberating. And psychology has been sexist and oppressive and liberating. And science has been oppressive and liberating.

So, how does the book end? Well, I won’t give it away entirely. But I will tell you that they do not find the Holy Grail, or do they… but then again, a literal Grail appearing in a nice, neat package would inevitably turn out to be disappointing. Quoting from The DaVinci Code, “It is mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself. And the beauty of it lies her ethereal nature. For some, the Grail is a literal chalice that will bring everlasting life. For some it is a quest for lost documents, secret history, literal truths. But for most, let the Holy Grail be simply a grand idea, a glorious yet unattainable treasure that inspires us, even in our world of chaos… Ah, but even this Grail cannot remain hidden and lost forever… look around you, find it in art and music and books. As we sense the dangers of our history, of our destructive paths, we are beginning to sense the need to restore all that is sacred. Those songs are worth singing and the world needs modern troubadours.” (p. 444)

So, we are going to start doing that this morning. Before the sermon we sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the words “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” addressed to a presumably male Christian God. But after we take the offering and extinguish the chalice, we will sing the original words, “Joy thou goddess, fair immortal, offspring of Elysium.” It was those words of Friedrich Schiller that Beethoven had in mind when he wrote Ode to Joy.

And perhaps that is the Holy Grail we seek… a world large enough to contain multitudes with Moses and Miriam, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Einstein and Madame Curie, Bill and Hillary, Krishna and Shiva, Zeus and Athena, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of Glory, God of Love,” and “Joy, thou goddess, fair immortal, offspring of Elysium.”

“I suspect the Holy Grail is simply a grand idea, a glorious unattainable treasure that inspires us even in this world of muddled chaos… may we sing such a song, may we be modern troubadours of such a song.”

Easter Sermon Featured

My Easter Sermon delivered three weeks ago has been featured on the web-site of the UU Christian Fellowship.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Evolution Redux

Don Skinner has written this piece for the UU World on-line magazine about our Evolution Class last month.