Category Archives: Christian texts & traditions

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.

Labor of Love

Opening song:
The opening song, sung by Lewis Santer, was “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin. See note (4) for the lyrics.

Readings:
The readings, chosen and read by Rev. Mary Ganz, were the following poems:
“What I Learned from My Mother” by Julia Kasdorf
“What Work Is” by Philip Levine
“Heart Labour” by Maggie Anderson

Sermon: Labor of Love

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. Notes appear at the end of the sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

I thought I’d speak with you this morning about whether you can find a job you love. One legacy of the Protestant Christian tradition which has deeply influenced United States culture is an assumption that our jobs should be both personally satisfying and good for the world. That old Protestant Christian tradition taught that each one of us had a vocation, a calling: it wasn’t just priests who were called by God, every single person in the Christian community was called by God to do their bit to make this world a kind of heaven on earth.

This morning, on the day before Labor Day, I thought I’d question this old Protestant Christian assumption. So let me offer up an old story, supposedly told by Jesus of Nazareth, and first written down about the year 70 C.E. by a member of the Jewish reform movement that later became known as Christianity.

As the story begins, a crowd has gathered around to watch that radical rabble-rousing rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, debating with the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled Jerusalem and the rest of Judea, a land which not so long before had been an independent Jewish country. When the Romans took over Jerusalem, the chief priests, scribes, and elders had to learn to get along with the Roman overlords; and at the time of this story, they derived much of their power and authority from their association with the Romans.

These chief priests, scribes, and elders are debating Jesus because they desperately want to get Jesus to say something, anything, that can be taken as critical of the Roman regime. If they can do that, then they can get the Romans political leaders to arrest Jesus and execute him. Avoiding all their verbal traps, Jesus proceeds to tell them a story, which goes like this:

A man goes out and plants a vineyard. He puts a fence around it, digs a pit for the winepress, and he builds a watchtower. Then the landowner rents the land to some tenants, and he goes off live in another country. [At this point, the crowd listening to Jesus tell the story realizes the man must be quite wealthy, since he can afford live abroad.]

Harvest season comes around, and the landowner sends a slave to go and collect the rent from the tenants. The tenants grab the slave, beat him, and send him back to the landowner empty-handed. So the landowner sends another slave; same thing happens, except the tenants also insult the slave. The landowner sends another slave, and this one the tenants kill. The landowner keeps sending slaves to collect the rent, and the tenants beat some of them up, and they kill some of them. [The crowd is getting a better sense of how wealthy the man his: he has so many slaves, he can afford to let some of them get killed.]

The landowner finally decides to send his son, thinking: Surely the tenants will respect my son. But when the tenants see the landowner’s son, they say to each other: This is our chance, if we kill the son, the landowner will give up, and the land will be ours. So they kill the son, and throw his body out of the vineyard. [The crowd is now confused: are the tenants the heroes of this story, or have they just gone too far?]]

Jesus ends the story by saying: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” [Mark 12:9] The crowd is thinking: Wait a minute, what is Jesus saying here? We thought this was an allegory of the evil Roman empire taking over Jerusalem. We thought Jesus was telling us to resist the Roman overlords. Is Jesus now telling us that “Resistance Is Futile”?

And then Jesus quotes the Hebrew scriptures, Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Many of the people in the crowd are good observant Jews who can fill in the rest of the Psalm from memory, including lines like “All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” and “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?” So Jesus is NOT saying that resistance is futile after all!

And indeed, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, all willing tools of Roman empire, know that Jesus is talking about them. Jesus is saying they are like the evil landowner who extorted too much money from the tenants, provoking the tenants to open rebellion. When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, it sounds to them like he’s calling for open rebellion. They dearly want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowd, so they do nothing.

As for the crowd, Jesus has gotten them thinking.

On the one hand, the image of the tenants killing the landowner’s son, then throwing the body outside the vineyard — that’s a pretty disgusting image. That’s the trouble with armed rebellion: you have to kill people, and you are not going to respect the dead bodies of those you kill.

On the other hand, since they are Jewish, the crowd knows about Sabbath years, and about Jubilee years. (1) According to the book of Leviticus, every seventh year is a sabbath year, when you are supposed to let the land lie fallow. Everyone in the crowd would have known that the book of Leviticus was written by Moses, and they would have known that Moses wrote down the actual words of the god of the Israelites. The god of the Israelites told Moses: “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord.” This was, by the way, an ancient Jewish practice for promoting ecological sustainability.

So every seventh year is a sabbath year. Then every seven-times-seven years is a jubilee year. In the jubilee year, the god of the Israelites charged human beings to do the following:

— let the land lie fallow, to encourage ecological sustainability;
— proclaim liberty throughout the land for all inhabitants and free those held in bondage;
— any land that was sold must be returned to the original human owners (this was because the God of the Israelites really owned the land, not humans).

When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, he gets the crowd thinking about jubilee years. The crowd knows the Romans will never abide by the rules of the jubilee year; the Romans had their own gods, ignoring the god of the Israelites. And the crowd knows that the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of Jerusalem — those among the Jewish people who should above all others uphold the laws of their God — the crowd knows that these Jewish leaders have been co-opted by the Romans; they are no longer serve truth and righteousness, they serve Rome. The Roman empire rules Jerusalem with their military might, ignoring the Jewish laws of ecological sustainability and human freedom.

So ends this old Christian story. You will notice that there is no real resolution to the story. And here’s how I understand this story:

The chief religious idea of Jesus of Nazareth is what he called “the kingdom of heaven.” But for Jesus, heaven meant something different than it does in today’s United States, where our religious culture is dominated by Protestant Christian ideas. For Jesus, heaven did not mean — to quote Joe Hill — “pie in the sky, bye and bye”; for Jesus, heaven is something that exists here and now. Heaven is, in fact, what we today call the “Web of Life,” that is, the interconnected relationships that bind together all human beings, all living things, and many non-living things. When we damage those interconnected relationships, when we damage the Web of Life, we are damaging what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. (2)

In the story, the landowner set up his vineyard and rented it out to some tenants and then left town so he could live in some exotic foreign place. By doing this, landowner damaged many relationships of the Web of Life. As an absentee landlord, he damaged his direct relationship with the tenants. Because he did not live on the land, he damaged his relationship with the land, and he demanded that his tenants produce more from the land than the land could sustainably yield. He was a slave-owner, which damaged many human relationships; worse yet, he sent his slaves to do his dirty work so that he didn’t have to face up to his tenants.

This story, then, is a case study in damaged relationships: damaged relationships between people, and a damaged relationship between human beings and the land. This is a case study in how human beings damage the Web of Life.

Now let me say the obvious: this case study comes from two thousand years ago, from a place with a very different economic system than we have now. We probably can’t draw exact parallels with Silicon Valley today, much as we might be tempted to do so.

But what we can say with certainty is that most of our jobs damage our interconnected relationships with other human beings, and with other living beings. Take my job as an example: being a Unitarian Universalist minister is all about strengthening relationships between people, and between humans and the rest of the ecosystem. That’s on the plus side. On the negative side, statistics show that ministry as a profession is correlated with a higher rate of substance abuse, and a higher suicide rate, and strong anecdotal evidence suggests that many ministers work long hours to the neglect their immediate families. Ministry as a profession may strengthen some of the interconnected relationships that make up the Web of Life, but it does damage to others. And this is a good job.

You can do this kind of thinking about your own work. To get you started, I’ll give you three examples of how your work might damage the Web of Life. If there’s institutional sexism present in your workplace — and that is true of far too many workplaces in Silicon Valley — your job is doing damage to the Web of Life. If your work is not carbon-neutral — and that is true of most jobs in the United States today — that damages the Web of Life. If your workplace shows evidence of institutional racism — true of most workplaces in the United States — again, damage to the Web of Life.

Now I do believe there are some jobs, a very few jobs, which are true vocations. These rare jobs provide a balance between several things: they benefit the world, provide an adequate salary to the person holding the job, allow you adequate time for family, the democratic process, and social service; all this, without burning you out. Mind you, I don’t happen to know anyone who has one of these rare jobs, although I like to believe they exist.

But most of us have to compromise in one of these things. For example, many Silicon Valley white collar jobs provide an adequate salary and may even do good in the world by providing needed products or services; but when those jobs require you to work such long hours that you have little time to spend on democratic process, social service work, or even your family, then those jobs are damaging the relationships that constitute the Web of Life.

When you consider the vast array of jobs that you could have, a Silicon Valley white-collar job is about as good as it gets. So you see, if even though a Silicon Valley white collar job is as good as it gets, no one should count on such a job to make life fulfilling.

And this brings us around once more to that old story told by rabbi Jesus. He lived in a world where there were wealthy landowners who made their fortunes by exploiting the land, and by exploiting their tenants. When he told his story of the wealthy landowner and the rebellious tenants, Jesus did not give us a neat, tidy ending. He did not solve the problem for us. But one thing is clear: those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the human relationships around them are so strained. They are never going to find their work fulfilling as long as the land is owned by wealthy business owners who are accurately described by Psalm 17, in this translation by the eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart:

They’re swollen with fatness, as their days
To sumptuous banquets they devote;
Their mouths are filled with pompous phrase,
As on their wealth they gloat. [3]

And it is clear that those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the relationship between humans and the earth is so out of balance.

By now, maybe you have come to the same conclusion I have: those tenants are us. Many of us are like the tenants in the story: we toil in a kind of voluntary servitude, while someone else coins our life blood into gold. We are forced to live our lives out of balance with the Web of Life.

Instead of placing all our hopes and dreams into a job, then, let us place our hopes and dreams and love into a vision of what our lives could be. Our real work is, as songwriter Ralph Chaplin puts it, to build a world in which “we claim our Mother Earth, and the nightmare of the present fades away, [and] we live with love and laughter.” And how might we do that? How, to use the old Jewish phraseology of Jesus, can we live to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth? How can we stay in balance with the Web of Life? Here are three possible answers for you to consider:

First, remember the Jewish concept of the sabbath and the jubilee year, which promote ecological sustainability by letting the land rest. Humans need rest, too. Therefore, we can promote our own sustainability by letting ourselves take a sabbath and lie fallow, every now and then.

Second, remember that the Web of Life already exists all around us — the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, in that Web of Life. We are already a part of an interconnected web of relationships that binds together all human beings, and binds humans together with non-human beings. So give thanks and praise for that web of relationships of which we are already part.

Third, strengthen our relationships with other humans, and with non-human beings. Devote our best energy to family and friends and community. Spend time outdoors with non-human beings. Build wider relationships by participating in democracy, and volunteering our time.

If we can manage to do these things — to find time for rest, to give thanks for the Web of Life of which we are part, and to strengthen our relationships with all beings — if we can do these things just a little bit, we may find the beginnings of true fulfillment.

And so you see, this is our real labor, and it is labor of the heart. For our true calling, or true vocation, is not to have a fulfilling job; our true calling is to love and be loved in return.

NOTES:
(1) My interpretive methodology here is based in part on John Shelby Spong’s recent book Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (New York: Harper One, 2016).
(2) This interpretation from theologian Bernard Loomer. See, e.g., “Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer” (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), pp. 1-2.
(3) Reprinted in The Poet’s Book of Psalms, ed. Laurance Wieder (Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 25.
(4) Lyrics for “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin: Continue reading Labor of Love

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.