Mother’s Day, Teachers, and Mothering

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from “A Practical Mom” by Amy Uyematsu.

The second reading this morning is from a short story by Grace Paley, titled “Mother”:

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places — in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block… in the living room with my father….

Sermon: Mother’s Day and Teaching and Mothering

Today would have been my mother’s one hundredth birthday. For twelve years before she married, my mother taught grades K through 2 in public schools in New York, Delaware, and Massachusetts. As soon as her own children got old enough, she went back to teaching, and ended her career in a local preschool. Not surprisingly, my personal perception of motherhood was shaped by my experience of my own mother. My mother used the skills she had honed as a teacher with her own children. Thus it is no surprise that I learned to associate mothers with teaching, and that I still associate mothers with teaching. Of course all parents are teachers no matter what their gender. But on this Mothers Day, I’d like to talk about mothers as teachers. I’d also like to talk about how all of us can teach the way mothers teach.

To begin with, let’s consider what it is that mothers teach. From the beginning of a new life, mothers teach what it means to be cared for, what it means to be connected. This may seem too obvious, and too easy. But think about what happens to infants whose mothers neglect them (and before you rush into judgement against mothers who neglect their children, remember that a mother may be battling serious mental or physical illness, or having to deal with any number of other unavoidable problems): infants who are neglected can miss important learning about how to connect with, and how to trust in, other people. So it is that mothers begin teaching the moment they touch and hold a newborn. Those first lessons are lessons in love and human connection.

We tend to think of mothers as the ones who the primary teachers of love and connection, but of course a father or any parent who holds a newborn, who rocks a baby to sleep, who changes diapers and feeds an infant is also teaching important lessons of love and human connection. This is true of anyone who cares for an infant, including grandparents and other caring adults, and even older siblings.

Child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said that infants in this first stage of life are not only learning about trust, they are also learning about hope. Trust and hope do seem to go together. If we have trust in the people around us, it does seem that we are more likely to have hope. If we trust in the stability of human connections, of human community, that allows us to trust in the future, which in turn brings to us hope.

Nor is this something that we learn only in infancy. Those people who don’t learn all they need to know about trust as infants will still have opportunities to finish learning this key lesson later in life. Indeed, trust may be one of the first lessons we must learn, but pretty much every one of us has to keep re-learning it over and over again. It is one of those lesson that we keep on learning throughout the course of our lives, including long after our biological mothers have died. And this leads to an interesting conclusion. While trust and hope are lessons that we associate with mothers and mothering, but if trust and hope have to be continually relearned over the course of our lives, even after our biological mothers have died, then clearly this is one aspect of mothering that we must all do for one another. In this sense, each of us, all of human society, is responsible for mothering each other.

While this may seem obvious, it’s equally obvious that our contemporary world culture does not center around mothering. To give one obvious example, I’m willing to bet that Vladimir Putin, the dictator of Russia, thinks mothering is something that is only done by young women when they’re out of sight of the big strong men of the world. If I suggested to him that we all need to mother one another, he would scoff at the idea. A big strong man like himself? He doesn’t need any mothering. Besides, Vladimir Putin has no interest in building trust in others. He dominates others through fear; the lesson he teaches is mistrust. And because he generates mistrust through nearly every action he takes, he destroys hope for millions of people. Hope disappears, and all that is left is violent resistance, or acquiescence and resignation to brutal domination. Vladimir Putin is admired by others who want to be like him — not because they trust him, but because they too have lost a sense of trust and so they hope to emulate Putin.

Those who admire Putin seem to me to have given up hope in humankind. They have decided the only way to live in a dog-eat-dog world is to brutally dominate others. They have forgotten the lessons of trust and hope they had once learned from whomever it was who mothered them when they were young. It is easy to forget what our mothers taught us about trust and hope; we all need to learn and relearn those lessons of trust and hope over and over again as we grow older.

And given what’s going on in the world right now, contemporary society does not give us much reason to believe in trust and hope. Wars and violence, sexism and sexual assault, racism and hatred — the news is full of things that erode our trust and hope.

I happened to be making a long drive yesterday, and while I was fiddling with the radio I tuned in to an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, a writer who taught history and government at Harvard for many years. The interviewer asked her if she, as a historian, thought that ours was an especially challenging historical moment. Without minimizing the challenges we face, Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out several moments in American history which she judged to be more challenging — the Great Depression, the early part of the Second World War when it seemed the Nazis were unstoppable, and above all the Civil War and the years leading up to it. I’m not a particular fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, but as I listened to her on the radio, I felt a sense of hope. She did not minimize the dangers facing the United States today, but she offered hope that we can find a way through our current troubles, hope that we can learn to trust one another once again.

In this moment on the radio, Doris Kearns Goodwin was teaching the radio audience the way we hope a mother would teach. It brought back memories of listening to my own mother, even though Doris Kearns Goodwin and my mother were polar opposites in many ways. As a young adult in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was especially worried about the prospect of global nuclear war. Without minimizing the danger of such a war, my mother, in her no-nonsense way, talked me out of fear, and talked me into feeling trust and hope. She was continuing the lessons she had begun teaching me as an infant, although in a different way now that I was an adult.

These lessons that my mother taught me in adulthood were not like some soft-focus heart-warming TV show. The lessons my mother taught me were much closer to what we heard in the second reading this morning, as in this short excerpt from Grace Paley’s story titled “Mother”: “At the door of the kitchen [my mother] said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?” Grace Paley’s mother was saying: take care of yourself. Telling someone to take care of themselves means telling them to have hope in the future. And to have hope in the future means that you have to learn to trust. And the way you teach trust is to show someone you love them — by, for example, telling them to stop running around senselessly so they can take the time to finish their lunch.

Now, not everyone has a biological mother who can teach us trust and hope. And even if you have a biological mother like Grace Paley’s mother, who does teach you these things well into your adult years, at some point — just like Grace Paley — you’re going to lose your mother. So it is that we all need other people in our lives who can provide those lessons in trust and hope — we all need what I might call “alternate mothers.” The gender of these people is not especially important, nor is the age of these people, nor do they need to be our biological relatives. They don’t even have to be someone we have met in person. Let me give you an example, from my own life, of how someone you haven’t even met could teach these lessons of trust and hope.

My own mother died twenty-five years ago. As I look back on the years immediately following her death, I now realize that quite a few alternate mothers entered my life in that time. One of those people was Hans Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, whom I never actually met. In 2001, when he was 101 years old, an interviewer asked Gadamer if he had hope for the world. Now, Gadamer lived in Germany throughout the tumultuous twentieth century: through the First World War, through the rise of Hitler and Naziism, through the Second World War, and finally through the Soviet takeover of East Germany (Gadamer left East Germany to go live in West Germany) and the building of the Berlin Wall, through the Cold War and the ongoing threat of nuclear war. The interviewer knew all this, and asked Gadamer this question not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Did he, Gadamer, have hope for the world? Gadamer, being a philosopher, gave a suitably nuanced reply. But I will strip his reply of all nuance, and summarize it like this: In spite of everything, we still have grounds for hope; not much hope, perhaps, maybe about this much hope — hold your finger and thumb about in inch apart — but there is still hope for the world.

This was an adult-level lesson in trust and hope. Gadamer did not minimize the danger the world faced, but he made the case based on his long experience of life that there is still reason to hope; which means there is still reason to trust in humanity. Now, you may not have the same response to Gadamer that I did; philosophy is an acquired taste. But the point is that Gadamer became a sort of literary mother for me — someone I never met, but who gave me a message of hope through what he wrote and said publicly. I was convinced by his message of hope, and from that message I was able to relearn the lesson of trusting in other human beings.

Mothering from public figures like Hans Georg Gadamer is convenient. You pick up a book or listen to a podcast, and there they are. Plus, they never stand in your doorway and say, “You never finish your lunch.” For this, we still need real-life mothers. Which can pose a problem for those us of who don’t have real-life biological mothers in our lives, or whose real-life biological mothers don’t fill this role for whatever reason.

But we can find other people who help us re-learn the lessons of trust and hope throughout our lives. If I think about my own life, I can think of several people who have filled that role for me. These people have generally been older than me, but not all of them; perhaps half of them have been women; and to each of them I felt a strong enough bond of affection that I’d want to call it love. As I say this, maybe you’re making a mental list of the people who might fill this role in your life. This list might include your own biological mother (or it might not). But this list could include a number of people who are family, chosen family, or older friends. This list might include people who aren’t even aware that you feel as though you’ve received some mothering from them. My own mental list includes at least one person who would probably be appalled if I told him that I felt like he mothered me — that he gave me love, and helped me re-learn lessons of trust and hope. (Of course this can also be true of biological mothers who don’t want to engage in mothering once their child is past infancy.)

And as you make your mental list of people who have mothered you, perhaps you’ll become aware of people who might consider you to be giving them some mothering. If you’re an actual biological mother who still has your biological children in your life, obviously you’re mothering them. But I think almost anyone can do some mothering, starting as early as your late teens and continuing for the rest of your life. Again, this need not look like the kind of mothering you find on Hallmark greeting cards, all unicorns and rainbows. It can look like the mothering Grace Paley describes her own mother doing: “Another time [my mother] stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905.” This may not sound like mothering, but along with criticism of her actions, her mother expresses trust in Grace Paley’s abilities. You can hear the deep affection and love. Finally, you can hear concern for Grace Paley’s future (“Go to sleep for godsakes”), a loving concern which engenders hope.

There are billions of ways to be a mother. You can be a cranky critical mom like Grace Paley’s mother (or like my mother). You can be a practical mom, as we heard described in the first reading, the poem by Amy Uyematsu. Personally, I don’t want to think of myself as a mother at all; I’d rather think of myself as a sort of eccentric uncle; but even then, I can still acknowledge that I as an eccentric uncle can sometimes help young people re-learn lessons of trust and hope. There are as many ways to be a good mother — someone who teaches love and hope and trust — as there are people in the world.

On Mother’s Day we do especially honor those who served the more traditional role of mother within a nuclear family. And to all of you who fill that role, we honor you and thank you. But right now, the world needs more mothering than can fit into that traditional role. The world needs as many mothers as we can find. We need mothering to help us re-establish trust and and hope for the future; we need mothering to remind us that love is the most important force in the universe. We need people who can do public mothering — people on the radio, in books, on podcasts. But more than that, we need people who are willing to extend mothering to those in their immediate social circles — people who can help us re-learn what it means to trust one another. There are many of us who are already doing this mothering in our work lives — teachers and doctors and social workers and therapists and anyone in the helping professions. There are many of us who are already teaching trust and hope in our volunteer work, or in our day-to-day living. And if it seems too much to be a mother to people who are not your biological children, you can join me in becoming and eccentric aunt or uncle. The point is that maybe we all can think about the ways in which each one of us might actually be acting as mothers in the sense of helping people we love to re-learn basic lessons of trust and hope; for the world needs us to do this.

Why Do We Sing What We Sing?

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the poem “Darshan Singh and Christian Harmony,” by Coleman Barks, Gourd Seed (Maypop Books, 1983), p. 59.

The second reading was from John Calvin’s essay “Singing Psalms in Church.”

“As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent. One must always watch lest the song be light and frivolous; rather, it should have weight and majesty, as St. Augustine says. And thus there is a great difference between the music that is made to entertain people at home and at table, and the Psalms which are sung in church….”

The third very short reading was a Vietnamese folk poem titled “The Singer with a Bad Voice,” trans. by John Balaban, Ca Dao Vietnam (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).

Sermon: “Why Do We Sing What We Sing?”

[This sermon was interspersed with five hymns from recent Unitarian Universalist hymnals, as noted below.]

A question that I’ve been asking myself for some years now is this: why do we sing certain songs in our Sunday services, and not other songs? So I propose that we consider five songs that we often sing, then either sing them or listen to them sung, and think about why we do sing them. We can also think about why it might be strange that we sing them at all.

To begin, a quick explanation of why we sing at all in our services. In Western civilizations before the Protestants split from the Roman Catholics, most religious services did not have anyone singing singing except for some kind of rehearsed choir; if you weren’t in the choir, you didn’t sing. But Protestants like John Calvin, as we heard in the second reading, decided that everyone should sing.

The Puritans who started our congregation followed Calvin, and sang only psalms from the Bible. In the 18th century, they began singing hymns, that is, songs of praise to God that were not psalms. In the 19th century, the repertoire expanded further to include spiritual songs and gospel music, in which mention of God was less prominent. By the middle twentieth century, this congregation began singing songs that had no mention of God at all. We have come quite far from John Calvin.

And this brings us to the first song that I’d like us to consider, a song which has no explicit mention of any deity whatsoever. Let’s stay seated, and we’ll sing just the last verse of hymn #1064, “Blue Boat Home.”

[The congregation sang “Blue Boat Home,” #1064 in Singing the Journey. Recording of the songwriter, Peter Mayer, singing this song. Note that Mayer sings this song a bit differently from the version that appears in the hymnal.]

“Blue Boat Home” doesn’t mention God or any other deity whatsoever. Nevertheless, I’d call it a spiritual song. The song gives thanks, and it tries to make sense of the wonder of the universe. Expressing gratitude and wonder should be considered in some sense spiritual. “Blue Boat Home” is often considered an ecology song, which is another part of its spiritual attraction for us — we Unitarian Universalists have found the spiritual in Nature since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day.

But why have we latched onto “Blue Boat Home,” and not some other ecology song? For instance, why don’t we sing another spiritual ecology-oriented song that’s just as good, “Swimming to the Other Side,” written by Pat Humphries at about the same time? I’m glad we do sing “Blue Boat Home,” but I see no particular reason why we sing it and not the Pat Humphries song. Oftentimes, our song choices seem to be based on random chance.

There’s another one of our favorite songs that I can’t figure out why we sing, and that’s the song “There Is More Love Somewhere.” While “Blue Boat Home” is a composed song that sounds like a folk song, “There Is Move Love Somewhere” is a genuine honest-to-goodness folk song. “There Is More Love Somewhere” probably comes from Bessie Jones, who was recorded singing it for folklorist Alan Lomax in November of 1961. As is true of many American folk songs, it’s hard to say exactly where this song comes from. It probably has roots in Africa (Bessie Jones’s grandfather was born in Africa). Bessie Jones sang a couple of Christian verses that we usually don’t sing: “There is Jesus somewhere,” and “There is heaven somewhere,” so it probably has European Christian roots, too.

I’ve heard that some Unitarian Universalists have changed the words to this song so it says, “There is more love right here.” Folk songs can change over time, but once you start singing “There is more love right here,” I think you’ve just written a new song with an entirely different meaning; a song that ignore the realities of the African American tradition out of which the song originally arose. When we sing “There is more love “somewhere,” it reminds us that we do not live in a utopia; the moral arc of the universe is still trying to bend towards justice. When I sing “There is more love — somewhere,” that reminds me that we are put here on earth to help one another, and to help one another we have to understand that many of us have plenty of problems. This is a song of longing and striving for a better world. With that in mind, let’s sing the song, and see if you agree with me. No need to open your hymnal. We’ll sing two verses, “There is more love somewhere, I’m going to keep on till I find it”; and then “There is more hope somewhere….”

[The congregation sang “There Is More Love Somewhere,” #95 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Bessie Jones singing this songBernice Johnson Reagon’s recording.]

One of the most popular of all hymns and spiritual songs here in the U.S., across a wide range of religious traditions, is the song “Amazing Grace.” This song was not especially popular until after the Second World War, when professional musicians began making recordings of it. We think we know exactly how “Amazing Grace” sounds, but often what we actually know is the 1970 hit recording by Judy Collins, or the 1946 recording by Mahalia Jackson. Those professionally recorded versions don’t sound like older versions of the song. So the choir is going to sing for us an old version of “Amazing Grace” from 1835, the year the words were paired with the tune we now know best.

[The choir sang the original arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” Recording of this arrangement.]

“Amazing Grace” has taken on many different guises since that old 1835 version. Originally, the words were sung to a different tune. Even after the words were paired with the present tune, in 1835, the words continued to be sung to a wide variety of tunes, right up into the 1920s.

By the 1930s, the editors of songbooks and hymnals somehow settled on the present tune. Once professional musicians like Mahalia Jackson made recordings of it, I guess no one could imagine singing the words to any other tune.

During the 1950s and 1960s, “Amazing Grace” became one of the most powerful songs for African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement, providing strength and courage and vision. “Amazing Grace” had been written by a former slave-holder who saw the evil of his ways and reformed; in that story, African Americans fighting for Civil Rights saw hope for the future.

Sometimes White people heard a similar message in “Amazing Grace.” In the 1970s, country singer Johnny Cash began singing the song in his prison concerts. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Cash said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Since the 1970s, “Amazing Grace” is often played by bagpipers in cemeteries when someone is buried. Then it provides comfort to people who are in grief. (And it keeps evolving — wait till you hear the offertory Mary Beth is going to play, in which the tune to Amazing Grace goes places you won’t expect.)

The funny thing is that prior to being recorded by professional musicians, “Amazing Grace” belonged to White and Black Southerners living at the cultural peripheries. That poem by Coleman Barks we heard in the first reading describes how the song sounded when the country folk sang it: “The whinge and whang of a loudness I know….” Whinge and whang mean the song did not have the prettiness of a Judy Collins recording, nor the professionalism of a Mahalia Jackson recording. It would have sounded loud, and nasal, and unrestrained, and ecstatic, and — well, that old country singing sounded like bad singing to the educated city folks. To the city folks, it sounded like the kind of singing we heard about in the third reading, singing that causes dogs to bark and bulls to bellow.

So why did the educated city folk, after ignoring the song for over a century, suddenly decide “Amazing Grace” was worth singing? Perhaps it’s because we are slowly, over time, becoming more tolerant of the different subcultures in our country. So instead of being dismissive of uneducated whinge and whang, we can open ourselves to the strangenesses of other people’s musics. We are coming to realize, as Peter Schickele used to say, “all musics are created equal.” We are slowly broadening our perspectives.

The next song I’d like to consider with you seems very comforting and familiar, but it’s actually very strange: “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” Let’s sing that right now. Don’t bother opening your hymnals, sing from memory.

[The congregation sang “’Tis a gift to be simple” #16 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shakers singing this song.]

“’Tis a gift to be simple” — that sounds like a the familiar call for simple living. But in reality the Shaker tradition from which this song came was deeply strange.

Susan M. Setta, professor of religion at Northeastern, has written that the Shakers “proclaimed the Motherhood and Fatherhood of God, asserted that the second coming of Christ had occurred in the woman Ann Lee, fostered a social and political structure of both male and female leadership, and prohibited both marriage an private ownership of property.” (1) When the song says “’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,” the Shakers weren’t talking about some sort of personal growth or self-fulfillment in simple living (which is how we might interpret it today). They meant that after giving up all your private property and ending your marriage and fully believing that Ann Lee was the second coming of Christ, you settled into your place in a Shaker community.

And Shaker worship practices were deeply strange from our point of view. Their worship halls were set up for dancing. In 1961, Sister Lilian Phelps of the Canterbury, N.H., Shakers, described what this was like: “It was the belief of the Shakers that every faculty should be used in the worship of God, and so, various forms of physical exercise were introduced, particularly the March. A group of eight or ten singers, occupied the center of the room, around which the members marched in perfect formation. It was with a graceful, rhythmic motion of the hands as the members marched to the slow or quick tempo of the music.” (2) While this sounds interesting and attractive, it is very different from our worship services.

Yet even though Shakerism is basically alien to our own religious outlook, we still like the song “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” There is spiritual truth to be found in this song — both in the words and in the music — that transcends the narrow denominational boundaries in which we are supposed to live.

One of the functions of spiritual music should be to help us transcend the narrow religious boundaries that often restrict our understanding of other people. One of the biggest challenges facing our society today is how to deal with multiculturalism. Due to innovations in communications and transportation, our contact with people who are very different from ourselves continues to increase rapidly. Unfortunately, the increase in diversity in the United States has driven the spread of White supremacist movements, people who think their White racial and cultural identity is so fragile that it can’t survive an encounter with other races unless they are in a position of authority. Since we are not a White supremacists, we have a different experience. Our encounters with other races, ethnic groups, and cultures can actually lead us to deeper self-knowledge and a greater appreciation for our own racial and ethnic roots. When we sing songs from other races and other cultures and other religious traditions, we hope to be brought into greater contact with the wisdom of all of humanity. If we allow ourselves to appreciate the otherness of the songs we sing, our souls will be enlarged; we will become wiser and better people.

This brings me to the final song I’d like to consider: “We Shall Overcome.” Let’s sing that song together. We’ll sing two verses: “We shall overcome some day,” and then “All races together.”

[The congregation sang “We Shall Overcome,” #169 in Singing the Living Tradition. A recording of this song from the Civil Rights Movement.]

It’s hard to know exactly where this song came from. It probably comes from an old gospel song. During a strike by Black tobacco workers in North Carolina in 1946, Lucille Simmons started singing “We will overcome.” Then the Civil Rights Movement picked it up, and it became “We shall overcome” in the 1950s and 1960s.

While this song was originally sung for a very specific purpose — for nonviolent actions during the Civil Rights Movement — it taken on a wider meaning. When the song first became popular, we needed to overcome Jim Crow laws. Today, we still need to overcome racism, but in addition to that we all have personal and communal problems that we need to overcome. “We Shall Overcome” can encompass both our personal troubles, and the wider societal troubles that are all around us. We are encouraged when we sing that someday, we shall overcome. No wonder, then, that we sing this song in our Sunday services.

“We Shall Overcome” helps us see why we sing spiritual songs. We sing these songs to give us strength to face our many troubles. We sing these songs to give us courage, to help us get through the day without giving up. And somehow, it works better when we sing them ourselves. Yes, it is pleasant to listen to a recording of Judy Collins singing her sweetly polished version of “Amazing Grace.” But when we sing a spiritual song ourselves — even if we sing with a whinge and a whang — we get more out of it.

When we actually sing one of these songs ourselves, we sing to gain courage and strength. We will find more love somewhere — if we sing it ourselves. We will find amazing grace — when we sing it ourselves. We shall overcome — but we have to sing it ourselves. We don’t have to have perfect voices, or even good voices. We just have to sing with real feeling deep in our hearts.


(1) “When Christ Was a Woman: Theology and Practice in the Shaker Tradition,” in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, Wadsworth, 2001, p. 264.

(2) Sister Lillian Phelps, “Shaker Dances and Marches,” (accessed 2 May 2024)


Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages

Members of the Sunday school sang the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele.

Roger Weiss has posted “Garbage” sung by the songwriter online. Bill Steele had originally posted this recording on his own website, but after his death in 2018 his website disappeared. For Roger Weiss’s remembrance of Bill Steele, along with more recordings, go here.


The first reading was a poem by Ada Limon, “The Origin Revisited.”

The second reading was from “The Edge of the Sea” by Rachel Carson.

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know—rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.…

Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

Sermon: “Garbage”

The First Parish children’s programs — both our summer ecology camp, and the Sunday school — have been singing the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele. This has become a favorite song of several of our kids. Partly, it has become a favorite song because they sing it as fast as possible — maybe twice as fast as you heard it earlier this morning. Obviously, that’s too fast to really understand the words, but they all have the words memorized. They know exactly what the song means.

The other reason I think they like the song is because it has meaning for them. Today’s kids seem to be very aware of problems like plastic pollution of the ocean, so even though this was a topical song written back in 1969 to convince peopple to stop filling in San Francisco Bay, it still has meaning for today’s kids. In 2009, Steele told an interviewer, “Writing topical songs can be frustrating because they go out of currency very quickly. What’s frustrating about this one is that 40 years after it was written, it is still current. From the environmental standpoint, it’s frustrating that we haven’t done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time.”

I don’t know how the kids feel about it, but for me the most powerful verse is the third verse. That’s the verse that tells us that we’re not only filling up the Bay with garbage, and filling the air with garbage, we’re also filling up our minds with garbage. The song tells how Mr. Thompson goes home after a hard day at work, and settles down to read a newspaper story about “the mayor’s middle name,” which he finishes just in time to watch the All-Star Bingo Game on television. Today it’s more likely to be TikTok and Instagram than newspapers and television, but the phenomenon remains the same — most of us spend way too much time on trivia. While it is important to stay abreast of the news in a democracy, we don’t really need to know about the mayor’s middle name, any more than we need to know about Joe Biden’s dog’s behavior, or that Donald Trump does not own a dog.

We fill our minds with information of no value, and Bill Steele wanted us to convince us that that was analogous to the way garbage was being dumped into San Francisco Bay back in 1969. I’d even extend that metaphor somewhat. Great tracts of San Francisco Bay were filled in with garbage and other landfill during the 1960s and 1970s. But that kind of landfill liquifies during an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey tells us that “When the ground liquefies, it may lose its ability to support buildings and other structures.” Thus, don’t build your house on garbage, because the garbage won’t provide stability in moments of crisis. If we fill our minds with garbage, we will not have a secure foundation on which to build wisdom or ethics. The first time our mind is shaken by some catastrophic event, all that garbage will turn to mush.

Of course there are alternatives to filling our minds with garbage. This is supposed to be the role of the great spiritual and ethical traditions throughout human history. And indeed, the environmental movement has been cast as a kind of spiritual battle. We are told that we must recycle more, and buy electric cars, and eat more plant-based food. If we could just rid ourselves of our individual spiritual failings — our lack of recycling, our consumption of meat, our gas-guzzling cars, and so on — we could solve the environmental crisis.

I’ve become convinced that the environmental crisis we’re currently facing does have spiritual roots, but I don’t believe that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in ridding ourselves of our individual spiritual failings. We’re not going to solve the environmental crisis by addressing our individual sins of not recycling enough, not eat plant-based foods, and so on. Instead, I feel one of the main roots of the environmental crisis comes from a collective misinterpretation of the Bible. Specifically, I feel that our society collectively buys into a gross misinterpretation of the so-called “dominion clause” in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, which goes like this:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

This passage has been widely interpreted by Western Christians, Jews, and atheists to mean that God gave humankind god-like powers over every other living thing, meaning we humans have permission to do whatever we like to the non-human world. The historian Lynn White thought this misinterpretation of the Bible dated back to medieval times. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in the late twentieth century a theological viewpoint called Dominion theology became very influential. This theology is based on a misinterpretation of that passage in Genesis, teaching that God has given god-like powers to humans, so they can do whatever they want. Dominion theology goes further than this, teaching that men should have dominion over women. And dominion theology also teaches that Christians should be in charge of all human political affairs. Humans have power over non-humans; male humans have power over female humans; male Christian humans have power over everyone else.

In my opinion, dominion theology is spiritual and religious garbage. Nevertheless, a great many people are filling up their minds with this garbage — not just conservative Christians, but secular people are also being influenced by it. Now the secular people should know better, but let’s look at why dominion theology is religious and spiritual garbage.

According to Genesis, God created all the creatures that live on the earth, in the seas, and in the skies; God also created all the plants and every other living thing. Periodically during this creation process, God stopped, looked at the latest creations, and “saw that it was good.” That is: God did not stop, look at the latest creations, and say, “Gee, I hope some day the human beings make this animal or that plant go extinct.” Nor does God ever say, “Gee, I hope the humans use their garbage to fill in San Francisco Bay, which by the way I created to be a home for ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm’.” Nowhere in the Bible does God say that humankind is supposed to trash the world.

Not only that, but the very next passage in the Bible states that men and women are equal. This upends another major tenet of dominion theology. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You’ll notice that God had both male and female characteristics, since both males and females were created in God’s image (if this is hard for you to imagine, that’s no surprise since we limited mortals can’t entirely comprehend God anyway).

Contrary to what the proponents of dominion theology claim, here’s what those passages in the book of Genesis actually say: Humankind may have a great deal of power over the nonhuman world, but we are supposed to use that power to take care of God’s creation. God created both women and men in God’s image, which means that women are just as good as men. As for Christians being in charge of everyone else, nowhere in the book of Genesis does that come up. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians are supposed to run the United States. This is garbage theology. Yet this is the garbage that has been filling many people’s minds.

So why do people allow their minds to be filled up with this kind of garbage? I suspect that part of the problem is that more than a few people in the United States today feel a sense of spiritual emptiness. They’re tired of conventional organized religion — and let’s face it, too much of conventional organized religion today feels spiritually empty — but they want something that fills that spiritual void they sense within. Then they hear about this spiritual movement that sounds pretty convincing, that gives them a purpose, that makes them feel a part of something larger than themselves, and they decide it fills the spiritual void they have been feeling.

There are also a good many people who don’t consciously accept dominion theology, but still act in accordance with some of of its values. Yet these people have unthinkingly accepted the tenets of dominion theology. Even though these people may not want conservative Christians running the United States; even though these people may believe that women are just as good as men; they are providing unthinking support to dominion theology.

So what are we to do about dominion theology? How can we promote the opposite of dominion theology — how can we promote the careful stewardship of planet Earth, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state?

Today, a great many liberal Christians and Jews are pushing back against dominion theology. These liberal Christians and Jews are saying: Hey, this is our God and our Bible, and dominion theology has gotten it all wrong. Yes, we believe God created the nonhuman world; but while we humans may have dominion over the nonhuman world, dominion was given to us in order to care for God’s creation. And our Bible teaches that “God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them”; that is, women are just as good as men. Oh, and by the way, it says nothing in the Bible about Christians running the United States. This is some of what liberal Jews and Christians are saying. And if you’re a liberal Christian or a liberal Jew, you can be a part of this; you can say: Hey, stop trying to throw your dominionist garbage into our religion.

In addition to that, what all of us can do — whether we’re Christians or Jews or atheists or Buddhists or Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ists — we can all offer a compelling spiritual alternative to dominion theology. Part of our spiritual alternative will be that we have reverence for all life; we respect all life. We have equal reverence for all human beings, equal respect for all human beings, no matter what their gender. We value all the wonders of Nature and all the wonders of humankind; or, as we might phrase it, we affirm and support the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Lastly, we can talk about love being the most powerful force in the universe, and we can teach that principle to other people by doing our best to live it out in our own lives.

We can offer a positive spirituality to replace a negative spirituality. Dominion theology is essentially a negative spirituality; it is not cheerful and filled with love, it is depressing and filled with feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. We want to replace that with a positive spirituality, a spirituality of hope and of love; a spirituality that helps us live our lives as if we are all connected.

One way we communicate our positive spirituality is the way we live our lives. Another way we communicate our positive spirituality is through the arts. This is exactly what we did with the two readings we heard this morning. Ada Limon, poet laureate of the United States, wrote about a positive poem about how the beauty of the non-human world can support us and sustain us spiritually. Rachel Carson wrote a prose passage about feeling connected to everything. By reading this poem and this prose aloud, we are creating a positive spirituality. That’s one of the most important things we do here in the Meetinghouse each week: we use the arts to create positive spirituality together.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The concrete environmental problems we face — invasive plants and plastics in the ocean and so on — require concrete action. But concrete actions will be so much the stronger when they are supported by a positive spirituality; concrete actions are more effective when they are backed up by hope, and by love.