Category Archives: UU identity

Life in a Judean Village in the year 29

Readings

The first reading is from the essay “The Aims of Religious Education” by Gabriel Moran:

Teaching is what every human being and some non-humans do. Teaching is one of the most important and regular acts that we perform in life. Humans have to learn nearly everything they know; humans learn by being taught. We are shown how to do something, and we respond. In modern educational theory, teaching has been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. In most of the rest of history, including today’s actual practice, teaching means to show someone how to do something, a process that may or may not include explanations, reasons, and information. In its most comprehensive meaning, to teach is to show someone how to live….

The second reading is a poem by Everett Hoagland [not reproduced here in order to respect copyright].

Hymn — In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the English poet Clifford Bax wrote a poem about the insanity of war which began “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways.” Then, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Stephen Swartz used a version of Clifford Bax’s poem in his rock musical Godspell. We Unitarian Universalists have updated the poem with gender-neutral language — but we are still waiting for an earth made fair, with all her people free. Please rise as you are willing and able and sing hymn 120, “Turn Back.”

Sermon — “Life in a Judean Village in the Year 29”

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

“Turn back… forswear thy foolish ways….” It seems as though every generation finds itself asking: When will we have an earth made fair, and all her people free? — when will the era of justice and righteousness finally begin? And it seems as though every generation finds the same answer: Not just yet. Not just yet. Yet every generation must find something to believe in, some ethical guide for action….

And what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? The poem by Everett Hoagland that Brian led is my favorite Unitarian Universalist poem, because it captures an essential truth about us: We try to get beyond belief. Getting beyond belief does not mean that we have to be cynical and critical; getting beyond belief means getting to the realization that belief is not enough.

For most people in the United States today, “religion” means the same thing as “belief in God.” But that’s not true for us Unitarian Universalists. Our religion requires neither belief in God, nor disbelief in God. What is important is what you do with your life, and how you make meaning as you live.

This creates some very interesting side effects for us — as, for example, when we start teaching our kids about Jesus. For most of United States society, Jesus is a being that you either believe in or don’t believe in. But rather than telling kids to believe or to disbelieve in Jesus, we have them travel back in time to the year 29, to a village in the land of Judea, which was a province of the Roman Empire.

That is what our Sunday school is doing this spring — traveling in time to the year 29 in the land of Judea. And this year, for the first time, I am able to take all you people in the adult worship service back to the year 29. You see, it takes far more energy to send adults back in time, but with the solar panels on our roof and over our parking lot, we now have enough energy for our time machine to accommodate you.

Here’s our official UUCPA time machine; let’s all step inside. I’m going to set the space-time coordinates for the year 29, Roman Empire, Province of Judea. (I really wish I could cue up some eerie music right now — time machines work better if you have some eerie music.)

Ah! The time machine has stopped! Let’s open the door and step outside. We’re near the marketplace of a small village. It’s dusty and hot. Everyone we see is wearing what looks like a dress or long robe, and a cloth head covering. As we start walking around the marketplace, I’m glad that I have a ponytail, because all the men and women have long hair. However, my lily-white skin really stands out when everyone else has brown skin.

The marketplace is fascinating. Look at all the craftsmen — and most of them do seem to be men — selling all kinds of goods, from pottery to metal ware; the craftspeople are even making some of their wares as they wait for customers. Everything is so different from twenty-first century Palo Alto: nothing has been imported from China; everything is made with human or animal power, without any fossil fuel; it smells completely different; oh, and I notice that people are scratching at body lice, so I know there are no showers and no washing machines.

As we walk around the marketplace, notice how children are fully integrated into the life of the community. Children don’t go to school, they help their parents make a living. Here come some shepherds bringing their sheep to market, and sure enough there are children helping herd the sheep. There’s a potter working at his trade, with a child nearby wedging clay.

While most of the people in this marketplace seem to get along with each other, one person is obviously hated by everyone — the Tax Collector. A Tax Collector in the Roman Empire gives a new perspective on the Internal Revenue Service; the IRS, while sometimes annoying, is mostly governed by the rule of law. But in the ancient Roman Empire, there was no such thing as the rule of law; a Tax Collector could extort as much money from the people as he thought he could get away with, and that way he made a nice personal profit for himself.

The Roman soldiers who strut through the marketplace are an uncomfortable reminder that Judea is ruled by Rome. Judea had been independent for about a century under the rule of Judah Maccabbee and his successors, but the Romans first installed client kings over Judea, and then in the year 6 took direct control of the once independent land.

The current Jewish leaders, centered in the great Temple of Jerusalem, have been happy to cooperate with the Romans. The Romans gave them a major renovation of the Temple. And the Jews are the only people in the Roman Empire who do not have to publicly worship the Roman gods and goddesses. But in the village, it seems people are not entirely happy with their Roman overlords. As we walk around, we hear some people talking quietly about their dislike of Rome — but they talk very quietly, because if you’re not a full citizen of Rome, you have legal no rights. And we hear strange rumors going around, like the rumors that there are bands of rebels living in the hills, waiting to sweep down and drive Rome out of Judea.

The strangest rumors we hear concern a man from Nazareth named Jesus. He’s supposed to be a son of a carpenter, which means he should be a carpenter himself, but people are saying that he’s now a rabbi (although it is not clear that he actually knows how to read, so he’s not an official rabbi). Some of the rumors say that Jesus performs healing miracles — remember that in a world where only the most wealthy people can afford a doctor, people depend on faith healers. The rumors have it that Jesus is a holy man, a sort of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama for the first century. People in the marketplace repeat wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus.

And then there are the parables told by Jesus. These short pithy stories, well-suited to oral transmission, get repeated and passed along, and some of these stories we’re hearing make it seem Jesus criticizes Roman rule. The parables make it sound like Jesus treats everyone as an equal. Imagine that! He supposedly says you should treat everyone else the way you yourself would like to be treated.

I’m sure we’d all like to see more of this Judean village, but the power levels in our time machine have dropped, and we need to leave now. Let’s get into the time machine and return to our own time — and let’s hope we don’t bring any body lice back.

Now you’ve heard the story behind our Judean Village program. In part, this program is our way of teaching kids about Jesus, and we make it clear that there are many different possible opinions about Jesus. We acknowledge that some people in the year 29 probably believed that Jesus was divine — but the main arc of our story also makes it clear that Jesus was fully human, and very much a product of his time and place. (I should add an important point: in the Judean Village program, Jesus is always off stage; that way, we don’t impose one limited image of what Jesus might have looked like.)

The remarkable thing about the Judean Village program, from my point of view as an educator, is how much the kids like it. We were supposed to offer Judean Village last spring, but the Children and Youth Religious Education Committee and I decided to pilot an ecology program instead. I thought we were going to face an armed insurrection by children and middle schoolers; we had to promise them that we would definitely have Judean Village this year.

Why do the kids like Judean Village so much? I don’t think Jesus is the big draw. More important, I think, is that this is education that has NOT been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. Instead, the kids get to serve as “apprentices” to various “shopkeepers,” and they get shown how to do things like simple weaving, small-scale pottery, brick-making, making a simple musical instrument, writing with a quill pen made out of a feather, and so on. They love choosing which shopkeeper they get to learn from THIS week.

And while they’re making these simple things, there’s time to talk, to socialize with one’s peers and with other age groups — because we include all ages in the program from kindergarten to grade 8. The middle schoolers are the senior apprentices who help show the little kids how to make things, something they love to do, and something the little kids like, too. They love to try to fool the Tax Collector who comes around shaking down the various shopkeepers (please note that we try to make clear the difference between the corrupt ancient Roman Tax Collector and the IRS).

Embedded in all this fun are stories and thoughts that intrigue our kids. Our kids are confused by the many myths and stories and beliefs they hear about Jesus. To our skeptical, thoughtful Unitarian Universalist kids, the conflicting stories about Jesus in the Judean Village program help them make sense out of the cultural phenomenon of Jesus. They learn that even in his own day, people had different opinions about Jesus. They learn that Jesus was a human being, which makes sense to them. They learn that Jesus was Jewish, not Christian (because, after all, that’s true). And they learn that Jesus cared about people who were poor or homeless, that Jesus was willing to stand up to a corrupt regime.

Our way of teaching about Jesus helps our kids confront the confusing reality that some of their friends think Jesus was a god, and some of their friends think Jesus is humbug. We offer a third alternative: Jesus was a radical, rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth. I have used that phrase when I telling stories about Jesus, and I’ve heard back from parents that when their conventionally Christian relatives come over, and corner their seven year old child, and ask that child who Jesus was, some children reply: “Jesus was the radical rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth!”

We have to repeat our messages about Jesus frequently and memorably, because the wider culture around us tells our children over and over again that Jesus is a god; even atheists who say, “I don’t believe in Jesus,” are still affirming that Jesus is a god whom they don’t believe in. Our response to this societal pressure is to try to move beyond belief. Rather than focusing on the historical facts about Jesus, or the Christian dogma about Jesus, we simply tell stories about Jesus that convey important truths: Take care of people who are poor or homeless. Treat everybody the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Stand up to injustice.

Indeed, why bother children and middle schoolers with all the historical arguments for and against the historical Jesus? It makes more sense to focus on the ethical content of the Jesus stories: Jesus cared for homeless people, he stood up to injustice, he treated everyone as equals. Tell powerful and ambiguous stories, and let those stories start the process of ethical reflection.

And one way we make the Jesus stories especially powerful is by assuming that Jesus was fully human. If you’re a god, it must be pretty easy to care for poor and homeless people, stand up against injustice, and treat all humans as being equal to one another. But if you are a human, then it is NOT easy to stand up to the oppressive forces in society; it is NOT easy to care for people who were poor and homeless; it is NOT easy to treat other people the way we want to be treated. When you tell the Jesus stories with Jesus as fully human, that makes the stories far more ethically interesting.

By now, you will have noticed that this is not like the STEM education taught under a Common Core curriculum. Providing information, giving reasons, and explaining do not take center stage. We weave stories that help kids make meaning in their lives. We hope to prompt them to ask themselves: What would I do if I were faced with the massive injustice of the ancient Roman empire? — would I openly follow someone who stood up to that injustice, or would I try to live my own life and stand up to injustice quietly when I could do so without fear of reprisal against me and my family? How will I treat people who are poor or homeless? — will I ignore them so I can focus on my own needs, or will I do what I can to help out other people? More generally, how will I treat other people? — will I be able to treat all other people as true equals, as the stories say Jesus did, regardless of economic status, incarceration record, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on?

A kindergartner probably won’t get to this level of moral reflection. But last week, when we were talking with the middle schoolers about Judean Village, we explained that they are going to become characters in the story, which means they will help talk about the rumors about Jesus. They have to decide, as characters in the story, what opinions they would hold. Would their character support Jesus against the Romans? Would their character be pro-Roman instead? One of the middle schoolers said that their character wouldn’t be someone who would stand up to Roman oppression OPENLY, that would be too dangerous, and that their character also would be someone who’s skeptical of any rumors about miraculous people. Thinking about what their Judean Village character would do allows the middle schoolers to think about what they themselves might do in real-life situations.

So it is that the Judean Village program uses the old Jesus stories to help young people begin to think about some big ethical questions. And every time I teach in the Judean Village program, and hear again those old stories, I find that I ask myself these same big questions:

— What would I have done to stand up to Roman oppression? And how much am I willing to risk to stand up to oppression and injustice today?
— Had I lived in Judea in the year 29, would I have treated everyone as an equal? And in today’s world, how do I treat people who have a different economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation?
— How do I help people who are homeless or poor? Is there ever going to be a solution to homelessness and poverty?

Perhaps as you hear about this Judean Village program, you have started thinking about these ethical questions yourself. This is what we Unitarian Universalists do: we listen carefully those old amazing religious stories, and regardless of whether we believe them or not, we use them to make meaning out of our own lives. We listen to those old, ambiguous, rich and complex stories — and what always catches our attention are the moral questions raised by those old stories.

Questions like:
What will I do about homelessness and poverty?
How will I stand up to injustice?
Am I able to treat all others as true equals?

There is no final answer to any of these questions — there is only the never-ending effort to make meaning out of our lives.

Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

Script of a complete worship service. Reflection copyright Castor Fu. Sermon copyright Dan Harper. Castor Fu and Dan Harper retain the copyright to the questions and answers.

Community Welcome and Announcements

KERENSA FU: Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, where we come to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We begin our time together by greeting each other. Please turn and greet someone you haven’t seen in awhile or have never met, if you meet a newcomer, please ask them if they would like you to introduce them to everyone. Newcomers, you do not have to speak yourselves!

Is there anyone who would like to introduce one of our guests? I’ll bring you the microphone….Let’s all say welcome to everybody. WELCOME!

Guests, please stay for refreshments and conversation after the service. At the Information Table, with the red tablecloth (POINT), you can get a name-tag and answers to your questions about UUCPA from a friendly volunteer.

I have one very important announcement. I’m Kerensa Fu, this is my father, Castor Fu, and this is Dan Harper. The question we will be asking in this morning’s service is — Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

CASTOR FU: Dan, I have a question. Why do we have announcements in our service?

DAN HARPER: Our congregation traces its history back to the old established churches in New England in the Colonial era. Those old churches didn’t have access to cheap printing so they didn’t have printed orders of service, nor did they have telephones, email, or social media. If you wanted everyone in the congregation to hear an announcement, you had to make a spoken announcement in the Sunday service. Some twenty-first century Unitarian Universalist congregations have eliminated spoken announcements during their Sunday services, but we still hold on to this historical artifact.

KERENSA: And now, let us begin our service.

Prelude

Chalice Lighting and Centering Words — KERENSA

CASTOR: Dan, is lighting the chalice a Unitarian or Universalist thing?

DAN: Lighting a flaming chalice in the Sunday service is a ritual peculiar to Unitarian Universalists. It can probably be traced back to the Charles Street Meetinghouse, an innovative Universalist church in the 1950s. But the practice of lighting a flaming chalice during Sunday services didn’t become widespread until the 1990s.

My mother, who was born a Unitarian, didn’t like the flaming chalice — her generation of Unitarians tried to get irrational symbols out of our churches. I remember the first time we saw a flaming chalice lit in my home church — my mother shook her head, and muttered under her breath, “Graven images.” For this or other reasons, there are probably a few of our congregations that still do not use a flaming chalice. But today, most Unitarian Universalists like the flaming chalice, and feel it is a part of who we are.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

Caring and Sharing — KERENSA leads

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about Caring and Sharing; is it a Christian thing, a UU thing? At a lot of faith communities we visited with the middle school Neighboring Faith Communities class, we saw people would just light candles in silence.

DAN: It’s more commonly called “Joys and Concerns,” and it is a wide-spread custom in Unitarian Universalist congregations, and also in liberal mainline Protestant Christian churches. I don’t know where the custom came from, but I suspect Joy and Concerns spread during the feminist revolution that swept through both Unitarian Universalist congregations and liberal Christian churches beginning in the 1970s, when we decided we didn’t need a male authority figure (most ministers in those days were men) telling us about our own births, death, and illnesses.

Not all Unitarian Universalist congregations do Joys and Concerns the way we do. I remember going to services at the Arlington Street church ten or twenty years ago, and their practice was just as you described it: people went forward in silence to light candles. But the Arlington Street Church had a good reason for doing it that way: they had the first openly gay minister of any church in Boston, and during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s there would be lines of people extending the entire length of the church — and this is a church that seats some 600 people — waiting to light a candle for someone who was sick or dead or dying. Actually, in our own congregation, at times in the autumn and winter when attendance is high, the worship leader has to cut Caring and Sharing short because there isn’t enough time for everyone to speak.

Reading — KERENSA
[Not included here due to copyright.]

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about readings…why do we sometimes have readings in our services?

DAN: Our congregation traces its historical roots back to the Puritan churches of colonial New England, and each week those old churches had a reading from the Bible that the minister would then expound upon for two or three hours. Sometimes the sermons ranged far afield from the Bible, as when Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, began preaching outright rebellion against England starting in the 1770s. Samuel West’s church became a Unitarian church around 1800 — by the time that church called radical abolitionist John Weiss as minister in 1847, they had become a post-Christian church, and didn’t bother too much with the Bible. But as Unitarian Universalists became post-Christian, we retained the old custom of having readings from religious literature. In our congregation, most of our readings from religious literature come during the centering words, but sometimes we have readings just before the sermon or reflection — just as Samuel West did during the American Revolution.

Reflection — CASTOR
Copyright (c) 2017 Castor Fu; Castor’s actual reflection differed from the text reproduced here.

For the last two years I’ve been helping teach our Neighboring Faiths class. That means I got to go with middle school students to see other church services. I’ve got to go to a Muslim masjid, a Sikh gurdwara, a Quaker gathering, and Memorial Church. Each time we go on a field trip, even if it’s to someplace I’ve been before, I see things I hadn’t seen before.

At first I was fascinated just to see things which I’d heard or read about.

I thought it was great to see up close “communion” for example. The western culture class I had had focused on the idea of Transubstantiation, where bread and wine miraculously transformed into the blood and body of Christ. That seemed incomprehensible to me, because I had focused on it literally. Being there in person seeing the ritual of people silently lining up solemnly moving forward and receiving the host while organ music played and the choir sang was completely different, creating space for meditative contemplation.

I could relate it to our own flower communion and water communion ceremonies, which certainly developed (or perhaps as UU’s we might say evolved). But as time went on, and also from interesting discussions as a member of the Committee on Ministry, I found it interesting to think of these not just as historical artifacts, but also as a program which is actively created by people. Yes, ministers are people.

So as we see each of these elements, some we may like, some we don’t. So maybe ask yourself how did it get there? And remember that someone made a choice.

For example, we saw many different ways churches to deal with their finances. Here, we have a token offering, as a small reminder. In one of the catholic churches, we saw that they were literally keeping score of the amount brought in by different services. In a Mormon service, they didn’t collect money at all at the service at all, even though they are known to be pretty observant about tithing. But they did But they had a lengthy portion where they recognized the service that different members had provided or were going to be providing. In the Mormon congregation, it’s all lay led. There is no minister on the payroll. So they work hard to make sure that volunteers are recognized.

As we look at these pieces we can think about the reasons behind different elements.

Is it ritual, where repetition brings both a familiarity and a sense of order? Is the goal to emphasize community, trying to bring people together? Could it be providing space, space for other thoughts to grow? Could it be to share wisdom? Perhaps through a story or an analogy.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about singing hymns, why do we all sing, or at least try to in my case?

DAN: In Western culture, singing in worship services is a hard-won right gained during the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the only voices you were allowed to hear in a Western religious service were the voices of priests, or the voices of choirs and soloists under the control of priests. Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther started the Protestant revolution, and he insisted on the priesthood of all believers. One result of that insistence was that the voices of ordinary people were finally heard in Western religious services. The tendency continues to evolve, and our Unitarian Universalist feminist revolution took us even further, challenging the notion that only experts can do things like sing, and challenging us to make our religion be fully embodied, as it is when we sing.

There are also physiological reasons to sing together. Unitarian Universalist choral director Nick Page says the roots of group singing lie far back in our evolutionary history. And a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (vol. 160, p. 21) reports on an experiment showing how synchronized experiences enhance peer cooperation; the authors state: “Music making is … a joint creation that encourages flexibility in the face of changing patterns and dynamics.”

Castor, you say that you “try to sing,” and that points to a real problem: in today’s society we learn how to consume music, or to perform music, but not how to make music together. Fortunately, our congregation offers opportunities to learn how to sing in groups: we have two different Sunday afternoon singing groups, and our choir warmly welcomes anyone who wants to sing, regardless of skill level.

Sermon — “Why Do We Do THAT in the Sunday Service?” — DAN
Sermon copyright (c) 2017 Dan Harper.

The question that we are posing in today’s service is this: “Why do we do THAT in the Sunday service?” I’m going to try to give a few answers to this question. Mind you, I’m not going to try to provide THE answer, the final complete and utterly true answer, because there isn’t one. I’ll start by talking about our ideals, and then I’ll talk about some pragmatic and even trivial things. But although I will give you some provisional answers, my real goal is to get you thinking and wondering about why our services are the way they are.

Let me start off by repeating that we Unitarian Universalists are no longer Christians — we got kicked out of the Christian club about two hundred years ago, when we started thinking that it was necessary to get away from blind reliance on some authority figure who told us what to think and feel; as a result, we stopped affirming the Nicene creed. The Christians looked at us in horror, and said, “But you can’t be Christian unless you believe the Nicene Creed.” But we had learned the Nicene creed was something the Roman emperor shoved down the throats of the Christians in the fourth century as a condition for becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire; we had learned that creeds were fallible human inventions and we preferred to seek after truth and goodness on our own.

In short, we Unitarians and Universalists rebel against blind obedience to authority, and we have consistently refused to have creeds. We do have the so-called “Principles and Purposes,” which are printed just after the table of contents in the gray hymnal. But the two most critical sections of the “Principles and Purposes” were NOT printed in the hymnal, so I’m going to read them to you now:

First: “Systems of power, privilege, and oppression have traditionally created barriers for persons and groups with particular identities, ages, abilities, and histories. We pledge to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect. We strive to be an association of congregations that truly welcome all persons and commit to structuring congregational and associational life in ways that empower and enhance everyone’s participation.”

And second: “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”

These two statements, flawed though they might be, represent important ideals that shape our worship services, and they shape our unique identity.

The first statement has deepest roots in our Universalist heritage. The old eighteenth century Universalists shocked their Christian neighbors by declaring God was love, and therefore God would never condemn anyone to hell. Their Christian neighbors said in reply, “But if there’s no threat of hell, what’s to keep human beings from doing evil?” To which the Universalists replied, “Evil is OUR responsibility. It is not up to some Daddy God to make us behave well; WE have to make OURSELVES behave well.” This ideal of radical love drove a few nineteenth century Universalists to become radical abolitionists, because if God loved everybody equally, that meant God loved black people the same as white people. And this ideal drove the nineteenth century Universalists to be the first denomination to officially sanction the ordination of a woman, because here again women were just as worthy of God’s love as were men. These days, we may not talk about God very much — but we are still focused on the ideal of radical love: that all persons are worthy of love, and somehow we have to create a human community that embodies this love.

As to the second statement, that “nothing … shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief”: this comes from both our Unitarian and Universalist heritages. In its most debased form, this gets stated as: “No one can tell me what to believe!” But doing away with creeds is a far more radical act than the childish sentiment, “You can’t tell me what to believe!” No, this is a radical act that requires us to come together as a community of inquirers, knowing that no single person can ever serve as an ultimate authority, but also knowing that the way to make progress towards the truth is to share our knowledge and test the insights others have had, and build upon those insights. So this is no infantile individualism, but rather a freedom of belief related to the growth of knowledge that can come from scientific communities. Except that we cannot test our answers through peer-reviewed journals, because we are asking subjective, personal questions like: Who am I, what is my identity? and: What is the best way for me to live my life? and: Why is there suffering, and what can I do about it?

So it is that these two ideals help shape our Sunday services:– We want to create a human community that reflects our ideal that all persons are worthy of love; and we want to create a community of inquirers that encourages us to share and test our insights so that we can make sense out of the world, make sense out of our own actions, and progress in our search for truth and goodness.

 

By now it should be obvious that our ideals sometimes prompt us to REFUSE to do certain things in our service. In other words, sometimes there are things missing from our services because of our ideals. Let me give you a couple of examples:

First, one thing we do NOT do is we do NOT have bits of the service that are only accessible to people who have some kind of special knowledge. Thus, all the language in our services is common everyday language; we do not use Latin, like some Catholics, and we do not use Old Church Slavonic, like some Russian Orthodox churches; we want everyone to understand everything that we do in the service. However, in today’s increasingly multicultural world this impulse is leading us in some interesting directions. We have a good many non-native speakers of English in our congregation, and so we sometimes use languages other than English in our services, typically accompanied by an English translation; we have used Spanish, German, and Mandarin in this fashion. But we do NOT use obsolete, archaic languages: we want everyone here to understand.

Another thing that we do NOT do is we do NOT have any secret bits in our service that only certain people are allowed to participate in. Some Christian churches do not allow everyone to participate in communion; some Buddhists have certain rites or practices that only initiates can participate in; and so on. by contrast, we want everyone to participate in everything, as much as we can make that happen. The technical term for this is that we are an exoteric religion, not an esoteric religion.

 

I must also tell you that sometimes we do things in our services, not out of our ideals, but for historical reasons, or practical reasons, or because something evolved randomly. I’ll give you an example:

We have three main pieces of music in our service: the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude. The original purpose of these pieces of music was entirely practical; they were what we might call traveling music: the prelude covered up the sound of footsteps as people came into the service; the offertory covered up the sound of the ushers walking around collecting money; and the postlude covered up the sounds of people going out of the service. In some Unitarian Universalist congregations, that’s still the way it’s done. But in our congregation, we like our musicians so much that we want to sit and listen to them play. So now we have the prelude after people have come in and seated themselves (unless you come in late); and we sit still for the postlude, then after the postlude we applaud for our musicians as if this were a concert performance. The prelude, offertory, and postlude are examples of things that originally had practical reasons behind them, but which have since been subject to random evolution.

 

To conclude, then: Some of the things we do in our Sunday services embody our highest ideals; some of the things we DON’T do in our services also reflect our highest ideals; and some of the things we do in our services are there for purely practical or historical reasons, or no reason at all.

As I wind up this sermon, I realize that I’ve said nothing about why our services include a sermon. Well, part of the reason we have a sermon in our services is to live out our ideals: the sermon should be one locus of the ongoing conversation we have together as a community of inquirers seeking after truth and goodness. Part of the reason we have a sermon is historical: the Christian tradition we came out of had sermons to explain Christian doctrine and beliefs. And part of the reason we have a sermon is practical: most religions in North America with regular services include something that looks like a sermon (though it might be called a dharma talk or the “platform” or some other name).

And as I wind up this sermon, I also realize that an hour is not enough time to give a full answer to the question “Why do we do THAT in our services?” So we don’t have time to talk about what we do in special services, like next week’s Water Communion service, or the Flower Celebration we do in the springtime. I am also very aware that the answers I have given in this sermon are partial and incomplete; if our senior minister, Amy Zucker Morgenstern, did a sermon on the same topic she would give you more information. With this latter point in mind, there are other people I would like to hear speak on this topic: anthropologist Don Brenneis, and psychologist Susan Owicki, and artist Lynn Grant, to name just a few.

But I hope that I have at least prompted to you ask yourself: Why do we do THAT in our Sunday services? I hope that by asking this question, you are drawn into a deeper examination of what it means to be a part of a religious community committed to an ongoing search for truth and goodness. And I hope that together we may strengthen our commitment to the radical love that causes us to try to root out evil wherever we find it.

 

CASTOR: Dan, now that you are done with the sermon, I have a question about why we take an offering during the service. What good does it do to give a dollar? I noticed the Mormons do not do this, and they seem to take tithing very seriously.

DAN: Like the Mormons, we trace our historical roots back to the early Christians; they took offerings of food, not money, food which became a meal that everyone got to eat together: so the offering was actually a social justice project: rich people in the church brought more food than poor people, and if you were poor you knew you’d get at least one good meal a week. (It’s worth remembering in this context that at our Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches we ask for a VOLUNTARY donation; some people give MORE than is asked, and some people can’t afford to put any money in the basket, and so we break even; in my opinion Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches are thus historically related to the offering.)

What good does it do to give a dollar? Well, we have people in our congregation who are on very limited incomes, and a dollar is a LOT of money for them; indeed, social scientists have shown that low income people generally give a greater percentage of their income to charity than do upper middle class people. You mentioned tithing, which means giving ten percent of your income away. For some people, a dollar is tithing, and there are other people who could give a hundred dollars or more a week and that wouldn’t be a tithe. Thus, it’s not the dollar amount, it’s the relative amount that matters most.

Offering — KERENSA
As a part of the free church tradition, we accept no money from any governmental body, nor do we receive money from any ecclesiastical authority, in order that we shall remain free to govern ourselves. In addition to their annual pledges, each week our members and friends may choose to give an additional contribution as a public witness that we are, and shall remain, a free church.

Offertory — Musicians

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, we’re about to extinguish the chalice. Why do we do that?

DAN: Extinguishing the chalice is something that was started in the 1990s by Elizabeth Selle Jones; she was a Unitarian Universalist minister who insisted that if you light the chalice at the beginning of a service, then you have to extinguish it at the end. I never agreed with Elizabeth’s reasoning, but I do think it’s a pleasant ritual, and a nice way to end the service.

Chalice Extinguishing — KERENSA
[#705 in the gray hymnal]

Postlude — Musicians

[DURING THE POSTLUDE, Castor and Dan stay at the front of the Main Hall for one more question and answer, while Kerensa takes the handheld mic and walks to the back of the Main Hall to give the unison benediction.]

CASTOR: Wait, there’s more? Why do we have a benediction, and a chalice extinguishing, and a postlude, and sometimes even a sung benediction?!

DAN: Yes, sometimes it feels like this is the service that never ends. All these things — extinguishing the chalice, the postlude, the sung benediction when the choir is present, and the unison benediction — got included in our services for good reasons, but all of them together might feel a little awkward if you stop to think about it. This is a perfect example of the random evolution of the service. I guess I’d say that maybe we don’t have to think through EVERYTHING in the service; some things, to use an expression of my Pennsylvania Dutch forebears, are “just for nice.”

Unison Benediction — KERENSA [from the back of the Main Hall]
Please rise in body or in spirit, join hands as you are willing and able, and let us say together the unison benediction. There is an insert in your order of service with the benediction in three languages; please read whichever language you are comfortable with.

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings

The Silicon Valley Teen Suicides

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

You may have seen the article in the December issue of The Atlantic magazines titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” (1) It was reasonably well-written, but no one article can convey the true complexity of life as it experienced by teenagers here in Silicon Valley. Nor will I be able to convey that complexity in this sermon. But because I am a minister here in Silicon Valley who spends a significant part of my time with teens and their parents, I thought I would offer you my own perspective on Silicon Valley teenagers.

Please note that in order to protect confidentiality, I will NOT talk about any specific individual or family in this sermon. Instead, I’m going re-tell an old, old religious story about a famous religious figure. I’m going to disguise this old, old story by giving it all the trappings of Silicon Valley today. And even though I’m going to have to stretch the details of this old, old story a little, it is a story that can help us gain some insight into what it means to grow up in Silicon Valley today.

The story begins with the birth of a boy named Sid. Sid’s parents were very influential — let’s just say that they were very high up in government — and they were also quite well-to-do. Sid’s mother decided to give birth outdoors in the garden, so her personal assistant arranged everything, and her personal medical staff attended her during the birth.

Sid’s father did not attend the birth, because he was tied up with very important meetings. It was a day or so before he had time to see his wife and the new baby.

“What a good-looking baby,” he said.

“And talented,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he tried to walk almost immediately upon being born,” she said. “And….”

“And what?” he said.

“Let’s just say that we have an exceptional child on our hands,” she said. “We need to start researching preschools that can handle gifted and talented children. This boy is destined for Stanford.” This was the college Sid’s mother had attended.

“Or Harvard,” said the father, who was a proud graduate of that institution.

“But not Berkeley,” said his mother.

The baby’s father then called in various experts to assess the child, who all agreed this was an exceptional baby. The coordinating consultant delivered the final assessment: “In addition to great intelligence, this little boy has exceptional leadership potential,” she said. “I’d say he has the potential to rise to the highest ranks of world political leadership.”

“Great!” said his father. “Fabulous!” said his mother.

“Or he could wind up going into religious leadership,” said the consultant.

“Religion?” said the father. “That’s hardly practical.”

“Forget religion,” said the mother. “He needs to be totally focused on his career goals, starting now.”

Little Sid exceeded even his parents’ highest expectations. He was a total success at preschool, in elementary school, and in middle school. With no apparent effort, he got straight A pluses. When he took the SATs, he got 800s. His sports and extracurricular accomplishments were equally impressive. And the family psychiatrists carefully controlled Sid’s anxiety disorder and clinical depression with appropriate medications.

Being mindful of the predictions of the experts, his parents kept him carefully protected from religion; and from knowledge of poverty, serious illness, death, or anything that might cause him to ask religious-type questions. “Religion just gets in the way of making a living,” said his mother. “Let’s keep him focused on STEM learning,” said his father.

Sid was admitted to Stanford at age 16. His father bought him a house near campus, mostly so his personal assistant would have an office. Soon Sid met a beautiful girl, whose parents were also high up in government, and (with a little behind-the-scenes urging from both sets of parents) even though they were only 18, the young couple got married. It was a storybook wedding in Memorial Church, a dream wedding in Silicon Valley, two motivated, attractive, talented young people in the fast lane to brilliant success.

By the time they were 19, Sid’s wife was pregnant. Being even more brilliant than Sid, she quickly finished all her course work at Stanford and made a start on her graduate study. A Nobel prize winner, with whom she had already co-authored two significant papers, had already asked her to work in his lab. She told Sid, “I’m going to enjoy the baby for six months, then I’ll lean in and finish my Ph.D.”

After the baby was born, Sid felt at loose ends. His wife was completely occupied with the baby. Somehow, he felt dissatisfied with life. He started having panic attacks again. He turned to Channa, his personal assistant, and said, “Let’s go for a drive.”

They got into Sid’s customized Tesla, and drove around the streets of Palo Alto. Suddenly, Sid noticed there were these poorly dressed men and women walking along the streets of Palo Alto. “Geez,” said Sid. “Why don’t those people get some decent clothes?”

“They’re homeless,” said Channa. “They can’t afford to.”

Sid was shocked. He never knew that people could be homeless. Questions began to rise up in his brain, but he didn’t know how to answer them.

Then in the next block, Sid and Channa saw an ambulance parked on the street. The EMTs were giving CPR to someone lying on the sidewalk.

“What’s going on?” said Sid.

They saw the EMTs stop the CPR and pull a sheet over the body. “Well,” said Channa, “it looks like someone just died.”

“Died?” said Sid. Intellectually, he knew what death was, but he had never seen someone dead before. “They died? Channa, I need to ask someone some questions about death. And maybe about homelessness. Where can I go?”

“Turn in here,” said Channa. They turned into a parking lot. “Let’s go find the minister,” said Channa. They found the minister sitting in her office. She invited Sid and Channa to sit down, and asked what was on their minds. Sid told her what he had seen: a homeless person, a dying person. He told her about the birth of his baby. He told her about his questions. She sat there and listened calmly, then after sitting in silence she said, “Those are difficult questions. You will need to find your own answers.”

Sid went home. His mind and soul were in complete turmoil. What was the point of his studies, if people were going to suffer and die? How could that minister be so calm in the face of so much that was wrong with the world? How could he answer all the questions that tumbled through his head?

“I’ve got to find answers to all these questions,” Sid thought to himself. “If I stay here, my wife will tell me to ‘lean in.’ My mother and father will tell me to focus on my career. But I need to know why there are people who have to suffer by living on the street. I need to know why people die. I need to understand better what it means to be human.”

Sid decided the only way he could answer his questions was to leave his comfortable life and wander the world as a homeless person. He looked in the bedroom, where his wife and baby were lying asleep. He reached out to pick up his baby and kiss him goodbye. But then he thought, “If I lift my wife’s hand to take my son, she will awake; and that will prevent my going away. I will come back and see him when I have become a Buddha.” And he left. (2)

So now you know that Sid is actually Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha. In the original story, Siddhartha was the son of a king, but after seeing illness, death, old age, and a monk, he abandoned the royal life to become a wandering religious mendicant. I just changed a few details and transplanted this old, old story to Silicon Valley.

I tell this story because Siddhartha reminds me of some kids who live today in Silicon Valley. Siddhartha is a LOT wealthier than most Silicon Valley kids; his family was in the top one-tenth of a percent, while most families in our area are not all that wealthy, and where there are plenty of families who are just scraping by. (3) But the high expectations, that reminds me of Silicon Valley culture. The parental drive to make their child succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way the child internalizes the drive to succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way work or vocation is more important than family, that reminds me of Silicon Valley.

This brings me to a conversation I had with an adult in our congregation, who gave me permission to mention their remarks in this sermon. When this adult from our congregation was in high school a number of years ago in another part of the United States, there was a cluster of suicides in that high school. At first glance, the young people who committed suicide appeared popular and successful. But, says this adult, what connected those young people who committed suicide in that other time and place was their misery.

Misery is powerful emotion that acts to overwhelm other emotions. When someone falls into the depths of misery, it is hard to feel pleasure, pain, happiness, or hope. Misery is an unpleasant feeling, and when someone is in the depths of misery, they really want to get out of it.

When I listen to the story of Siddhartha, and we get to the part just before he left his family to become a wandering mendicant, I imagine that Siddhartha must have felt misery. Where did that misery come from? I imagine that for Siddhartha, his misery stemmed in large part from the fact that he was valued, not for who he was now, but for who he would someday be.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are young people growing up like Siddhartha, kids who are being carefully groomed to lead lives of power and privilege. We expect these young people to get good grades and do as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they can attend a prestigious university and get a job that will provide them with a great deal of money an influence. We require them to complete a great many community service hours, but we don’t really want them to reflect too deeply on homelessness or illness or death, or what those things mean to them. Our culture does not allow young people the time to find out for themselves who they really are.

If we never let young people think and do for themselves — if we program their every waking hour, just as Siddhartha was programmed — how can they make sense out of homelessness and death? How can they make sense out of global climate change, toxics in the environment, and a war in Afghanistan that has been going on for as long as they can remember? In his reflection, Mike Abraham said: “It can very well feel to [teenagers] like there are few real options when overwhelmed, since they haven’t had the opportunity to learn through small steps how to cope with life.”

The dominant culture tells young people: Get into a prestigious university, so you can get a good job and make lots of money. When we tell teenagers that their main purpose is to be successful sometime in the future, we are telling them that their only value lies in success. We are telling teenagers that human beings are not ends in and of themselves, but rather that humans are merely means to an end.

Notice that I’m not blaming parents of teenagers. Notice that I was very careful to say: “The dominant culture tells young people….” The parents I know love their children very much, and are doing they best they can. But in the face of such relentless pressure from the dominant culture, both parents and teenagers need support as they try to stay centered on love and human value.

I would like to suggest to you that one place parents and teenagers can get that support is in a religious community like ours. Religion is often denigrated in Silicon Valley, perhaps because religions like ours treat persons as ends in themselves, not means to an end. This is in fact a central value of Unitarian Universalism. Historically, the Universalists rejected the concept of hell because eternal damnation implies that some human beings have no value and can be discarded to be eternally tortured and punished. Universalism has changed and evolved over the years, and now we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; we have changed the wording, but the value itself remains constant: we treat persons as ends in themselves, not as something to be discarded, not as means to some other end.

Because our religious community affirms that persons as ends in themselves, we are a powerful antidote to the cultural norm that treats teenagers as less than human. Our teenagers do more than feed the homeless in order to get community service hours; that would be treating homeless persons simply as means to an end. Our teenagers cook and serve dinner to people who happen to be homeless, and then sit down and talk with any of the guests who want to socialize; they treat the guests as guests, as fully human. When we treat other persons as ends in themselves, we learn and re-learn that we too are not mere means to an end, but rather we are fully human.

And our teenagers do more than receive services from this religious community. We want our teenagers to be full participants in our religious community. Depending on their interests and skills, our teenagers might teach Sunday school alongside adults, or participate in social justice projects, or serve as worship associates. We have teens who are full participating members on both the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, our two most important committees. Our teenagers may, if they wish to do so, sign the membership book, which means they can both vote in congregational meetings and make a financial pledge to the congregation. And, as is true of many adults, many teens simply show up, and make a contribution simply by being here. Our religious community does not wait for young people to become something sometime in the future; we consider them to be fully human now, fully able to contribute to and benefit from our community.

The ancient sage and prophet Jesus of Nazareth affirmed that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Do that, and you will live,” he is reported to have said. (4) I am not so idealistic as to believe we can somehow stop all suicides, but I believe we can at least get our suicide rate down to the national average. We can do this by committing ourselves to loving, and be loved by others. When we place the highest value on loving others as we love ourselves, then success will come, not with academic success, not with success in the future, but with sharing our common humanity together in community. Whether you are over the age of 18, or under that age, we can treat each other as worthy of love for who we are, worthy of love right now, worthy of love simply because we are human.

Notes:
(1) Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves in Palo Alto?” The Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 5, December, 2015, pp. 62-73.
(2) My source for Buddha’s early life is Jataka-nidana: The Story of Gotama Buddha, trans. from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
(3) It should be noted that not everyone in Silicon Valley is wealthy or even well-off. “The percentage of students that participate in the Federal free and reduced lunch program is 8.8%,” according to the “Palo Alto High School 2014-2015 School Profile” (http://paly.net/sites/default/files/PalyProfile%26GradingKey1415_2014-10-16.pdf accessed 24 Dec. 2105 11:59 UTC). And for more on the effect of inequality on the lives of teenagers, see Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
(4) Luke 10.27-28.