Principles Revisited

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.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Your World” by Georgia Douglas Johnson.


The first reading is from the book Returning by Dan Wakefield. In this memoir, the author, an avowed atheist, tells the story of how he wound up joining King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Boston.

“Many of us become wanderers, moving from city to city and job to job (as well as marriage to marriage, even family to family) as part of an accepted nomadic lifestyle, instead of putting down roots in one place…. It is little wonder that many of us become psychically disoriented, in need of medical or psychological ‘treatment,’ and suffer from a spiritual vacuum where our center should be….

“Caught in an escalation of panic and confusion in my own professional life (more painful because so clearly brought on by my own blundering), I joined King’s Chapel in May, not wanting to wait until the second Christmas Eve anniversary of my entry, as I had planned. I wanted the immediate sense of safety and refuge implied in belonging, being a member — perhaps like getting a passport and fleeing to a powerful embassy in the midst of some chaotic revolution.

“Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems — if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time — but it gave me a sense of living in a larger context, of being part of something greater than what I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential….”

The second reading is from the essay “Why I Am What I Am” by Egbert Ethelred Brown. Born and raised in Jamaica, he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church. In this story he tells how he became a Unitarian.

“On a certain day in 1907 I received two letters from America — one from the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church practically accepting me as a candidate for the ministry of that denomination, the other from the president of Meadville Theological School, [the Unitarian seminary,] accepting me as a student in the school but frankly informing me that there were no colored Unitarian churches in America, and that since at that time no white church in America was likely to accept a colored man as its minister, the school could hold out no prospect of assignment after my graduation….

“Why then am I a Unitarian minister. Because I could not be enchained by the creeds and traditions of the orthodox churches which I had long since intellectually and ethically outgrown. I wished freedom — freedom to be my own self — to express my self as myself, and I believed then as I believe now that a minister of religion must first of all be absolutely loyal to Truth…. Orthodox churches claim that all truths — at least all necessary truths — have already been proclaimed. Unitarian churches on the other hand are dedicated to the progressive transformation and enrichment of individual and social life through religion, in accordance with advancing knowledge and the growing vision of humankind….” (1)

Sermon: “Principles Revisited”

The Unitarian UniversalistAssociation, of which we are a member congregation, has a set of bylaws. Before your eyes glaze over: don’t worry, this will not be a sermon about the corporate bylaws of a nonprofit organization. Personally, I’m fascinated by bylaws and by nonprofit management, but I know this fascination is not shared widely.

The reason I want to talk about bylaws is that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association contain a section titled “Principles and Purposes.” This is where we get the well-known “Seven Principles” and the “Six Sources” of Unitarian Universalism. If you’re not familiar with these statements, you can find them in the front pages of the gray hymnal.

The seven principles served to introduce many of today’s Unitarian Universalists to Unitarian Universalism. Over and over again, I’ve heard from people who said they were checking out a Unitarian Universalist congregation — either in person, or using the congregation’s website — and when they encountered the seven principles, they said to themselves: Hey, this is what I believe in, these are my moral and ethical values. So the seven principles seem to have led a fair number of people into Unitarian Universalism

We use these seven principles — this excerpt from the corporate bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association — everywhere. Someone rewrote them in kid-friendly language, called them the “seven promises,” and if you go into the Atkinson Room where some of our children meet for Sunday school you’ll see them prominently posted. Actually, what you’ll see is a poster with the “eight promises.” A couple of years ago there was a movement to add an eighth principle, adding another moral and ethical value statement which says that racism needs to be abolished. Our congregation affirmed this eighth principle through a democratic vote, and so now we introduce our children to the eight principles.

So far, this is a story that’s all about rainbows an unicorns. Now we’re getting to the place where conflict emerges.

The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or UUA, require us to review the principles and purposes every fifteen years. Ours is a dynamic faith, informed by scientific method and the democratic process. We know that our current understandings of truth are merely partial; no one human being, no single human culture, has yet been able to understand the entire truth of the universe. We Unitarian Universalists rely on a communal search for truth, where each new individual insight is checked and reviewed by others; and slowly, the individual insights are accumulated into a greater vision. This communal search for truth is messy, and leads to argument and constant investigation and sometimes open conflict.

Our communal search for truth is currently messy. The last major revision of the UUA’s principles and purposes came in 1985, when the present seven principles were voted in. This year, we’re reaching the end of a three year democratic process which has proposed completely revising the UUA principles and purposes. These proposed revisions will be voted on this June at General Assembly, the UUA’s annual business meeting, and I think it will be a close vote. (If you want to read the proposed revisions for yourself, look for “Final Article II revisions” on the UUA website.) Our congregation can send a delegate to General Assembly, and we should probably vote at our annual meeting as to how we want to instruct our delegate to vote.

This proposed revision to the seven principles has stirred up conflict. (Look for the “Fifth Principle Project” website if you want to read some of the objections to this revision.) Personally, I have not been following this debate. In fact, I’d like suggest that this is probably not an especially important question.

And to explain why I believe it doesn’t much matter whether we vote to revise the bylaws or not, I’d like to tell you the story of how two very different people came to Unitarian Universalism. Both these people came to Unitarian Universalism prior to 1985, that is, before the current seven principles even existed. And if we look at why they came to Unitarian Universalism, we find that it had nothing to do with bylaws, or statements of faith, or anything like that.

I’ll start by telling you the story of Dan Wakefield. I’m going to start with Dan, partly because he died just last month, on March 13, and partly because he was one of my academic mentors. His story goes something like this:

Dan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1933. Growing up, he went to church because nearly everyone in the American midwest in the 1940s went to church. But he wanted to be a writer, so he went off to college in New York City. While there, he came to question many of the assumptions he had taken for granted as a Midwesterner. One of the things he questioned was his unreflective Christianity, and he decided to become an atheist. After college, he started working as a writer and reporter. His first big story was covering the Emmet Till trial for The Nation magazine. He went on to write numerous magazine articles and a couple of nonfiction books mostly on controversial topics. Next he published five novels, and in the 1970s went off to Hollywood, where he created a TV series and worked on other projects.

So there he is in Hollywood. He’s made it as a writer. He should be sitting on top of the world. But that’s not the way he feels. This is how he describes it in his 1984 memoir Returning:

“One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming. I got out of bed, went into the next room, sat down on a couch, and screamed again. This was not, in other words, one of those waking nightmares left over from sleep that is dispelled by the comforting light of day. It was, rather, a response to the reality that another morning had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noise, moving images, and wired to electronic games that further distracted my fragmented attention from a growing sense of pain in the pit of my very being, my most essential self….” (2)

He left Hollywood, moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill, and began writing for the Atlantic magazine. And then one Christmas Eve, even though he was a nominal atheist, he decided to go to a church service. Actually, although he called himself an atheist, I would call him more of a rationalist — he did not want to have to believe anything irrational. So when he was debating where to go for Christmas Eve services, he decided on King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist church not far from where he lived. The rationalism of Unitarian Universalism was a good match for Dan’s rationalism. He also wanted a church service that was beautiful. As a writer, he especially apprediated beautiful language, and King’s Chapel uses of the Book of Common Prayer, one of the monuments of English prose style, which was Unitarian-ized by removing all references to the Trinity. Plus, the then-minister of King’s Chapel, Carl Scovel, was arguably the best preacher of any Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston.

You will notice that Dan did not choose which church to attend based on some denominational statement of principles and purposes. Back in 1982, the UUA did have a section of the bylaws that laid out Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, but that statement did not enter into Dan’s decision. He wanted a community that would support him in his own search for truth. He wanted a community that would support him in his personal struggles. He wanted a community that was filled with beauty. A set of principles and purposes probably would not have swayed him one way or another.

As it happens, Dan moved away from Boston, and away from King’s Chapel. He moved first to New York, then to Florida, and eventually back in Indiana. The last time I saw him was in 2006, when he came to New Bedford to promote a new book titled The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. At that time, he was not calling himself a Unitarian Universalist. He resisted any denominational labels and called himself “just plain Christian” (3) — I suspect in part to reclaim the label “Christian” from the extremists on the religious right. And you know what, I think of that as a very Unitarian Universalist kind of thing to do. We Unitarian Universalists have always tried to nurture connections to others with different viewpoints; we have always felt that our search for truth was more important than labels. And if denominational labels, or denominational statements of faith, get in the way of our connections of our search for truth — it is truth and connection that should win out.

I’ll end Dan Wakefield’s story there, so that I still have time to tell you about Ethelred Brown, who became a Unitarian as a child.

Egbert Ethelred Brown, to give him his full name, was born in Jamaica, and at a young age doubted the traditional Episcopalian Christian faith in which he was raised. As he later described it, his doubts began as a child:

“I was an inquisitive youngster and a truthful child. I was disposed to ask questions. I remember very distinctly the question I asked my [Sunday school] teacher after the scripture lesson on the falling of the walls of Jericho. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘did God waste so much time when he could have brought down the walls on the first day.’ My teacher was horrified. So much for my inquisitiveness…. These two characteristics — inquisitiveness and truthfulness — had much to do with the choice I ultimately made to enter the Unitarian ministry.” (4)

Later, even though he really wanted to be a minister, Ethelred Brown decided to leave his church completely. He told the story this way:

“It was on Easter Sunday…. The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic [in the Athanasian creed] struck me forcibly — so forcibly that I decided then and there to sever my connection with a church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.” And, as he later recalled, it was on that same day that he was introduced to some Unitarian literature. Unitarianism did not conflict with either his truthfulness nor his inquisitiveness. He later said he became “a Unitarian without a church.” (5)

Fast forward a decade. At age 32, Ethelred Brown lost his job with the Jamaican Civil Service. He decided to become a Unitarian minister. To become a Unitarian minister, he had to face some extraordinary difficulties. In 1907, he was accepted to the Unitarian theological school at Meadville, but he was warned that given the state of race relations in the United States at that time, no Unitarian congregation in the United States would hire him. So he convinced the American Unitarian Association, as the denomination was then called, to fund a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica. Then with the onset of the First World War, the funding dried up.

In 1920, Ethelred Brown emigrated to the United States where he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City. This church became known among intellectuals in Harlem, and some of the early members were leaders in race relations, trade unions, and politics (the first African American woman to run for statewide office in New York was a charter member). The Harlem Unitarian Church was also one of the first congregations to welcome African Americans who wanted a religious home without being required to believe in God. Some of the sermon titles will give you a sense of what the congregation was like: “Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism”; “Science and Philosophy”; “Is Religion a Vital Factor in Human Progress?”; and “Can Christianity Solve the Race Problem?” (6) The historian Juan M. Floyd-Thomas has summed up the impact of Both Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church: “From its humble beginnings in 1920 until its dissolution in 1956, the Harlem Unitarian Church provided all interested parties in Harlem with an extraordinary venue in which to engage in open debate, social activism, and spiritual awakening through a radical brand of Black Christianity deeply infused with humanist principles.” (7)

Yet for all its intellectual influence on the African American intellectual community, the Harlem Unitarian Church rarely had more than about thirty actual paid-up members. Ethelred Brown barely got paid, and he had to work day jobs in order to support himself. For example, for five and a half years he worked full time as an elevator operator, while also serving as the minister of the Harlem Unitarian Church. The American Unitarian Association provided absolutely no funding, and very little moral support, to the Harlem Unitarian Church. Ethelred Brown’s financial situation got so bad that during the Great Depression, in 1937 at age 63, he was forced to receive public relief. At that point, Dale Dewitt, a field staffer for the American Unitarian Association, finally managed to convince the American Unitarian Association to provide Ethelred Brown with a stipend. Two years later, when he turned 65, the denomination provided him a pension. With this minimal financial support, he was able to continue his work with the Harlem Unitarian Church. (8)

When you hear Ethelred Brown’s story, you realize he was not attracted to Unitarianism by some static statement of faith. He was attracted to Unitarianism because he wanted a dynamic religious home that welcomed both his truthfulness and his inquisitiveness. Yes, he was treated shabbily by many Unitarian denominational officials. Yet he realized this was cause by the racial situation in both Jamaica and the United States at that time; it did not reflect the larger truth of Unitarianism. (9) He was able to see beyond the racial situation of his time, to grasp the larger truths of liberal religion.

And those larger truths had to do with a system of inquiry, not a statement of faith. Neither Dan Wakefield nor Ethelred Brown came to Unitarian Universalism based on a statement of faith. They each came to Unitarian Universalism for different reasons, but both of them found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism; both of them found encouragement to pursue the truth in community, encouragement to continue to grow as persons. Unitarian Universalism does not pretend to be static religion; ours is a dynamic religion that embraces truthfulness and inquisitiveness.

With those two stories in mind, let’s consider what will happen this June, when delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association general assembly will vote on whether (a) to affirm the proposed revisions to the principles and purposes outlined in the bylaws, or (b) to retain the current seven principles. Personally, I’ll be content with a vote either way. If the delegates vote to replace the old seven principles, the seven principles are not going to disappear; we can still use them as marketing materials; we can still post them in Sunday school classrooms. Or, if the delegates vote to retain the old seven principles, we can use them or not, as we choose. I like to remember that the principles and purposes are just an excerpt from a set of bylaws. As bylaws they’re important for operating the nonprofit corporation called the Unitarian Universalist Association. But they do not represent the core of Unitarian Universalism.

Whatever the delegates decide in June, it won’t have any effect on the core of Unitarian Universalism. And for the core of Unitarian Universalism, I go back to Ethelred Brown. We are a community based on inquisitiveness and truthfulness. That’s what’s really important to us.


(1) E. Ethelred Brown, “Why I Am What I Am” (circa 1947), reprinted in A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Vol. 2: From 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan (Boston: Skinner House, 2017), pp. 140-143.
(2) Dan Wakefield, Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984), p. 1.
(3) My recollection is that this is what he called himself when he gave a talk in New Bedford on April 25, 2006.
(4) Ethelred Brown, “A Brief History of the Harlem Unitarian Church,” typescript from archives on the Meadville/Lombard Theological School website; dated Sept. 11, 1949.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Joyce Moore Turner, “The Rev. E. Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Renaissance, 1920–2020,” Journal of Caribbean History, vol. 54 (2020), no. 1.
(7) Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Juan M, The Origins of Black Humanism in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
(8) Ethelred Brown, 1949.
(9) The racism and hostility with which the American Unitarian Association treated Brown is covered in some detail in Mark Morrison-Reed, “A Dream Aborted: Ethelred Brown in Jamaica and Harlem,” Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (3rd ed.) (Boston,: Skinner House, 1994), pp. 31-111. Mark Morrison-Reed also gives insight into how Brown’s own strengths and weaknesses contributed to keeping the Harlem Unitarian Church small.

For more about Ethelred Brown, the New York Public Library has a good brief biography online in the finding aid to the Egbert Ethelred Brown collection. See also Mark Morrison-Reed’s book referenced in note (9) above.

For more about Dan Wakefield, his memoir Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984) has been reissued by Beacon Press and is still in print. One obituary that captures Dan’s personality can be found at the Indy Star news website.

A Unitarian Universalist Easter

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 Christian scriptures, the last chapter of the Book of Mark, as translated by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish scholar of the ancient Near East. Later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Book of Mark; in this reading you will hear the original ending, filled with ambiguity.

When the sabbath was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome, brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the far right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his followers, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The second reading is “The Hailstones,” by Ai Qing [aye ching], translated in 1983 by Angela Jung Palandri. This poem was written in 1979, after the poet was released from the prison camp where he had been spent the previous twenty years, because he had fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party. The poem can be found in this online essay (scroll down to page 72).

The final reading was by Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States. The title of the poem is “Singing Everything.” This poem is reproduced at the end of this newspaper article.

[These two links go to webpages that reproduce the poems with full permission of the poets.]

Sermon: “A Unitarian Universalist Easter”

That last reading, the poem by Joy Harjo, tells a truth that is worth considering on Easter Sunday. We used to have songs for everything, “Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,” as the poet tells us, and songs “for sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” But today we are reduced to a narrow range of songs.

Admittedly, Joy Harjo exaggerates a little when she tells us, “Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and /Falling apart after falling in love songs.” We do have a few other kinds of songs such as political songs, and songs of interior landscapes by singer-songwriters. But Joy Harjo is an enrolled member of the Muscogee nation, and as a Native American she is aware of a broader range of songs that once existed. Most of those kinds of songs that once existed in indigenous cultures — including indigenous European and African and Asian cultures — have disappeared from today’s mass-produced culture.

Mind you, I love the music of today’s culture. I love Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It has to be the best falling-apart-after-falling-in-love song ever. And some of you will remember Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song at the roots of hip hop; this is a truly great political song. Perhaps you are now hearing in your head the many other great songs of our time. Even so, most of our popular songs today are love songs, or political songs, or songs of interior landscapes. We have very few songs about sunrise, or planting, or harvesting, or giving birth, or (as Harjo says in her poem) “songs of the guardians of silence.” We have many great songs today, but they mostly stick to a relatively narrow range of topics.

The same is true of much of religion in today’s world. Most of today’s religion occupies a narrow range of feeling and values and being. Popular American culture thinks of religion as having to do with the Bible, except that the Bible is merely supposed to support the assumptions and prejudices of conservative American Christianity. One of my favorite examples of this is that conservative American Christianity assumes that the God of their Bible is entirely male; except that in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28, it very clearly states that God is non-binary gender: “God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them.” God may choose to use he/him pronouns, but God’s actual body is both male and female. Somehow the conservative American Christians manage to ignore that part of the Bible. This shows you what I mean when I say that today’s American religion occupies a too-narrow range of feeling and values and being.

We might imagine for ourselves a religion with a broader range. Consider with me the story of Easter as we heard it in the first reading, as it was originally told in the book of Mark. Here’s how I would retell this story:

The Roman Empire executes Jesus of Nazareth, and he dies at sundown on Friday. The friends and followers of Jesus are all observant Jews. Since the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown of Friday, they want to wait until the sabbath is over to prepare the body for burial. So they place the body in a tomb. Promptly on the morning after the sabbath, Jesus’ mother, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and Salome (these three are leaders among the followers of Jesus, and as women would know more about preparing bodies for burial than any of the men), these three women go to the tomb to care for the body. There they encounter a stranger, a man who is strangely dressed, who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and will precede them to Galilee. The stranger tells the women not to tell the men these things. Not surprisingly, the three women find this strange and weird. They are unnerved. Fearing for themselves and for the other followers of Jesus, they quickly leave the tomb. They tell no one.

That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

Now, the book of Mark is accepted by most scholars as the earliest story we still have that tells about the life and death of Jesus. This means that all those traditional stories about Easter we hear — the stories of resurrection and triumph — that’s not the way the story was first told. The original book of Mark does not end in triumph, and so it sounds like some contemporary poetry — like the poem of Ai Qing we heard as the second reading. Ai Qing lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China; he was exiled to a labor camp for twenty years. His poem “The Hailstones” is a poetic retelling of how the Cultural Revolution brought his poetry to a violent end. Since he’s telling us this in a poem, we know that eventually his poetry was reborn. Yet when he looks back on those twenty lost years, he can only say: “What remains / Are sad memories of the calamity.”

You notice that I’m using a poem by a disgraced Chinese Communist poet to talk about Easter. I’m not talking about Easter the way we’re “supposed” to talk about Easter; at least, the way the conservative American Christians tell us is the correct, orthodox way to talk about Easter. We Unitarian Universalists have never limited our religion to the narrow confines of conservative American Christianity. For us, religion and spirituality are broad and inclusive. We can look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

We don’t feel a need to shoehorn the Easter story into a confining orthodoxy. We don’t need the Easter story to somehow prove that Jesus was a god who could not actually be killed. If you want to interpret the Easter story in that way, that’s fine. Yet for us, the Easter story contains far more complexity. As with any good literature, we find multiple levels of meaning. I’ll give you an example from my own life. This past year has been a year of loss in my household: my father-in-law died just about a year ago, and my spouse’s stepmother died the day after Christmas. So this year when I read the Easter story in the book of Mark, what I feel is the emotional truth of that story: someone you love is alive one day, and then they’re no longer alive, and you know they are gone forever. This can leave you (as the story puts it) trembling and unnerved, and you can find yourself afraid and unwilling to talk about it.

That is one emotional truth we can find in the story. We can also find another emotional truth carried in that story. After people die, we have not lost them. They live on in our love. If there’s a resurrection story that all Unitarian Universalists agree on, this it it: love transcends death.

And we can find still more emotional truths in this simple story. For example: Jesus was a brilliant spiritual teacher, who encapsulated spirituality in simple, easy-to-understand stories and formulas. His most famous spiritual teaching is quite simple: love your neighbor as yourself. (Simple in the saying, but far more difficult in actual practice.) When the Roman Empire executed him, his teachings did not die. You cannot kill truth that easily. This another emotional truth of the Easter story that all Unitarian Universalists can agree on: you cannot kill truth so easily.

With enough time, we can find still more emotional truths in this story. So it is that we can see how religion and spirituality have a much wider range than popular American culture would have us believe. Popular American culture tells us that religion is concerned with beliefs many of us find unbelievable, beliefs to which we are supposed to conform. In truth, however, religion and spirituality exist to help us understand the perplexities of life. From this, we gain comfort and support. Religion and spirituality concern the truth that never dies. From this, we remember that love transcends even death. Religion and spirituality teach a universal love that includes all people, no matter what gender or sexual preference, no matter what race, no matter what, period. And with that knowledge, we can create a world where we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s why we keep coming back here to this community. That’s why we keep our religion and spirituality alive in our personal lives. We celebrate the incredible diversity of humankind, the diversity which exists among us here today. And we celebrate that which transcends us all and which unites us all — that which is highest and best, that which keeps us going from day to day.

Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire

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: “The Story of Palm Sunday”

(with Kate Sullivan and Dan Harper)

Dan: Today is the Christian holiday of Palm Sunday. Kate and I are going to tell you the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it as a Unitarian Universalist child.

Kate: We’re going to ask the children and teens to come forward, because we’d like your help as we tell the story.

Dan: 2,000 years ago there was a Jewish rabbi named Jesus who went from town to town in a land called Judea teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t an official Jewish leader, as the Pharisees were. But many people listened to his teachings anyway, probably because he treated everyone with respect, even people who were poor or homeless or sick. And because what he preached made so much sense. He said religion was simple: love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

Kate: Jesus did most of his teaching in the countryside, but at last he and his followers decided to to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews, and Passover was one of the most important holidays. Since Jesus and his followers were Jewish, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem was especially meaningful. They left the town they were in, a town called Jericho, and began to walk to Jerusalem. They didn’t have much money, so they had to walk the whole way. Jesus had been teaching and traveling for a long time, and he was tired. As they got close to Jerusalem, he asked his followers to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The followers went to a farm nearby, and borrowed a foal, or a young horse, for Jesus.

Dan: There were crowds of people on the road in to Jerusalem for Passover. Many them had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him. Someone began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing, and others joined in. They sang:

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
And into his courts with praise.

Kate: People were in a happy, festive mood. They picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. That’s why this is called Palm Sunday, by the way. We’d like to ask the children and teens to hand out these palms leaves to anyone who would like one, so we can all better imagine what it was like when Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem for Passover. [Kate hands palm leaves to kid.]

Dan: (When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, our UU church gave us palm leaves so we could understand what they were; growing up in New England, we had never seen palm leaves. But to return to the story….) Someone started singing again:

Serve our God Yahweh with gladness,
Come before God’s presence with singing.
Blessed are they that come in the name of God!

People gave flowers to Jesus, and waved palm leaves over him. Everyone was in a cheerful mood. There was just one big problem. The singing, the people giving Jesus flowers and waving palm leaves over him — those were the kinds of things that people did for new kings of Jerusalem, back in the olden times, hundreds of years before Jesus lived.

Kate: But in the time of Jesus, the Romans ruled over Jerusalem. The Romans didn’t want anyone to question their authority. Treating Jesus like one of the kings of olden times was a way to question authority. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would lead a rebellion against the Romans? It was dangerous for them to even think about such things. So there’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with the people waving palm leaves over him. What will Jesus do in Jerusalem? And what will the Romans do?

Dan: If you want to know what Jesus did once he got into Jerusalem, if you want to know what the Romans did, you’ll have to wait until next week when we tell the rest of the story.


The first reading was from the Minor Dialogues of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Elder, as translated by Aubrey Stewart. Seneca the Elder was born in about the same year as Jesus of Nazareth. We’ll hear two excerpts of the first dialogue, called “Of Providence,” from chapters 2 and 3.

“Why do many things turn out badly for good men? Why, no evil can befall a good man: contraries cannot combine. Just as so many rivers, so many showers of rain from the clouds, such a number of medicinal springs, do not alter the taste of the sea, indeed, do not so much as soften it, so the pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of a brave man; for the mind of a brave man maintains its balance and throws its own complexion over all that takes place, because it is more powerful than any external circumstances. I do not say that he does not feel them, but he conquers them, and on occasion calmly and tranquilly rises superior to their attacks, holding all misfortunes to be trials of his own firmness….

“Do you consider Socrates to have been badly used, because he took that draught which the state assigned to him as though it were a charm to make him immortal, and argued about death until death itself? Was he ill treated, because his blood froze and the current of his veins gradually stopped as the chill of death crept over them? How much more is this man to be envied than he who is served on precious stones, whose drink a creature trained to every vice, a eunuch or much the same, cools with snow in a golden cup? Such men as these bring up again all that they drink, in misery and disgust at the taste of their own bile, while Socrates cheerfully and willingly drains his poison….”

The second reading was a short poem by Everett Hoagland titled “Spirit.” It is not included here due to copyright.

Sermon: “Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire”

In the moment for all ages today, Kate and I imagined what it was like for Jesus and his followers when they entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. If you’ve heard this story before, there are probably many things about it that you take for granted. But for anyone hearing this story for the first time, it is a deeply strange story. And I think it is far stranger than most of us in the twenty-first century usually assume.

First of all, we always say that Jesus was a rabbi and his followers were Jewish, and we like to think we know exactly what we mean when we say this. But Judaism in Jesus’s time was very different from Judaism today. Today, we know that Jews belong to a synagogue, and each synagogue has a rabbi, and weekly sabbath services involve reading from the Torah and so on. Back then, however, Judaism was not centered around local synagogues, Judaism was centered around the great Temple of Jerusalem. The worship at the great Temple involved the sacrifice of animals, which included very different rituals from modern-day Jewish sabbath services.

Secondly, we like to imagine that ancient Rome had religions in the same way we have religions today, but that turns out not to be true. There’s an emerging consensus among scholars that the Latin words usually translated as “religion” do not mean the same thing as our modern English word “religion.” The great Temple of Jerusalem was partly a political power, partly a cult that focused on practices (not on beliefs), and partly a symbol of tribal or national identity. Politics, cultic practices, and national or tribal identity all blended together in ways we can barely imagine today.

Thirdly, ancient Roman society was utterly completely different from our society today. Most people in the ancient Roman empire were slaves; or if they weren’t slaves, they were freed slaves, who didn’t have much greater status than slaves. Among the people who were not slaves, only a very few were actual Roman citizens. Among the minority of people who were actual Roman citizens, only men were allowed to vote. Even among male Roman citizens, only wealthy males of high birth had any real political power. The one man at the top, the Roman emperor, had pretty much absolute authority over everyone else (at least until someone assassinated him). Ancient Rome was the exact opposite of an egalitarian society. No one in the Roman Empire had much freedom except for the Roman emperor.

In short, the ancient Roman Empire was nothing like American society today.

I want to emphasize this last point by referring back to this morning’s second reading, the one by Seneca the Elder. Seneca was an elite male Roman citizen, a person of power and influence, but even so he knew that the Roman emperor could tell him to commit suicide, and he would have to go and kill himself. (Indeed, his son Seneca the Younger suffered that exact fate.) Seneca the Elder’s life depended on the whim of one man.

You need to know all this in order to understand just how revolutionary Jesus was. Jesus said his teachings were quite simple: love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (This is a very Jewish teaching by the way, since the first part of this is a paraphrase of the Shema Israel, and the second part is from the Torah, a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.) When asked who we should consider to be our neighbor, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan which showed that everyone is our neighbor, even despised minority groups.

This is a radically egalitarian teaching that upended the assumptions of ancient Rome. Jesus taught his followers that everyone was worthy of God’s love. Not only did that mean that everyone single person in the world had inherent worthiness, it also meant that we should emulate God and treat everyone with love and kindness. Not only did Jesus teach this, he lived this in his life. He spent time with homeless people, he talked seriously to women and treated them as equals, he answered the questions of both rich people and poor people without regard to their wealth or poverty.

You can see, then, how the elite people who were the representatives of the Roman Empire in Judea might see Jesus as a bit of a threat. If both rich people and poor people are equally worthy of love, that might imply that someone should do something about poverty and homelessness, to say nothing of ending slavery. And if Jesus treated rich people the same way he treated homeless people, you can understand how the elite people who were in power might feel that he was undermining their social and political position. This is why the story of Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’s first day in Jerusalem, concludes with this ominous statement: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

Recently, I have come to believe this conflict between Jesus and the ancient Roman Empire was a philosophical conflict over how to value individual people. The ancient Roman Empire as a whole didn’t place a high value on anyone except maybe the emperor. Slaves were disposable property. Free people who were not Roman citizens had little value. Women were little better than property. Even elite Roman males could be forced to die by suicide at the whim of the emperor.

By contrast, Jesus said every person has value. Women, slaves, widows, orphans, immigrants, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, poor people — Jesus treated every individual as important and worthy of love. Or, in his succinct and memorable summation of this philosophical principle, you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Today, we live in a much more egalitarian society than ancient Rome. We have extended legal rights (in theory, at least) to all persons more or less equally. We have mostly gotten rid of slavery, and certainly slavery is no longer legal in this country. We have developed an egalitarian form of government that makes it possible to offer any needed support to widows, orphans, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, and so on (in theory, if not quite yet in practice).

Our society has come a bit closer to the ideal outlined by Jesus two thousand years ago — the ideal that Jesus got from Judaism, and an ideal which is present in most of the great world’s religions. Our society values each individual in a way that was pretty much foreign to the ancient Roman Empire.

At the same time, we have not fully realized a truly egalitarian world. A new philosophy has gotten in the way. Instead of repeating the words of the Torah (Lev. 19:18) and saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we tend to leave out the phrase “your neighbor as,” leaving us with the selfish injunction “you shall love yourself.” That is, instead of valuing each individual person as being worthy of universal love, our society is slowly moving towards a philosophy of selfish individualism.

Communities like First Parish exist in part to counter this creeping philosophy of selfish individualism. We can serve as a living example of a philosophy based on loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Maybe we don’t always live up to our philosophical ideals, but we keep the ideal alive through our efforts. And, because of our non-creedal nature, Unitarian Universalist congregations can also show how this ideal exists in most of the great religions of the world. Gotama Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, and many other great religious leaders passed on similar teachings. This is an important message in an increasingly multicultural society.

Our second reading, the short poem by Everett Hoagland, is one effort by a Unitarian Universalist to universalize this philosophical ideal. Everett begins the poem by naming “The ethereal entity / that sings itself in music” — this poetic formulation could point towards the Jewish or Christian God, it could point towards the goddess of Neo-Paganism, it could point towards the Buddhist Dharma, it could point to natural law or human ethics — you can read into it a hundred different spiritual interpretations. But all these spiritual approaches teach there is something larger than our individual selves.

Everett continues his poem by telling us this mysterious entity “can be seen in a kindness.” And this poetic formulation hints at a the common ethical standards that can be found nearly all of the world’s religions: to treat each other with kindness, to see ourselves as connected to all person and all beings. (The Vietnamese Buddhist philospher Thich Nhat Hanh calls this concept “interbeing.”) Everett goes on to tell us that our inherent kindness and our sense of connectedness to all persons and all beings is going to prompt us to work for justice; and when we resist injustice, we will be supported by that “ethereal entity” that is something larger than ourselves.

The poem ends by saying that that “ethereal entity” is a physically manifested in something as simple and commonplace as a hug: it “embodies itself / in the felt way / of a hug.” The point here is not that you should walk down the street hugging everyone you meet — that would be kind of creepy. The point is that something as simple as a parent hugging a child embodies everything named in the poem — something which is larger than ourselves; kindness; fighting for justice in the world. The poem also shows us how all these things exist in the power of human connection. Where do we find God, goddess, the highest and best in humanity, or whatever you call it? — we find it in human connection, we find it in the interconnected web of all existence. Where do we find justice? — in the interconnectedness of all life. Where do we find kindness and compassion and universal love? — in human connection, in the interconnected web of all being.

Now let us return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. There he was, part of the crowd of people flooding into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Based on what we know about the philosophy of Jesus, it’s clear he doesn’t see the crowd as a faceless entity of mass humanity. Nor does he see the crowd as a collection of isolated individuals. He sees the crowd as individuals who are all connected through what he called God, or what some of us today might call universal love.

Contrast this with the way the Romans who ruled Jerusalem perceived the crowd coming in to the city. For those in power, the ordinary people were merely a faceless mass to be manipulated and controlled. This is why they would have seen Jesus as a threat: he taught people how to see themselves as being both individually worthy and as being connected to others. Seeing themselves in this way gave them the collective power to resist the injustices inherent in the Roman Empire, while maintaining the dignity of their individuality.

It is tempting to us today to draw an analogy between our current political situation, and the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first century. It’s tempting to believe that Jesus entering Jerusalem has something to teach us about our relationship with Washington, D.C. Maybe there is analogy to be made, but I think you’d have to be a fairly knowledgeable historian to sort through the huge differences between the Roman Empire and the United States. Since I’m not especially knowledgeable about ancient Rome, I’m not going to turn this into a political sermon.

But I do believe something in the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem can influence the way we lead our personal lives. It is all too easy to reduce humanity to conveniently inaccurate labels. We do this very often in the United States today. In one obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to convenient racial categories: you’re Black or you’re White, or what-have-you; our society still has difficulty knowing what to do with biracial or multiracial people. In another obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to Democrat or Republican, to liberal or conservative; and we are likely to make judgements of other Americans based on political caricatures.

Instead of passing judgement on people based on convenient categories, what Jesus and other great religious and philosophical leaders are trying to tell us is that we should see people as both individuals, and as an integral part of an interconnected web of humanity.

This is a unique contribution that we Unitarian Universalists can bring to the wider conversation conversation about the upcoming Christian celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Jesus is often reduced to s religious figure who performed miracles. But we Unitarian Universalists also see him as a philosopher in the Jewish tradition of Rabbi Hillel who was his older contemporary. As a philosopher, Jesus emphasized both the radical importance of each individual, and the radical importance of the connection between individuals. This was a philosophy quite different form that which underlay the ancient Roman Empire. While it was not an entirely new philosophy, Jesus managed to state this philosophy in a particularly memorable way.

Today, this ancient philosophy sometimes gets obscured by the religious aspects of Jesus; but we Unitarian Universalists continue to highlight his philosophical ideals. Jesus took the ancient teaching from the Torah, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and made it memorable both through his words and his actions. And we carry on this philosophical tradition. We continue to highlight the importance of the individual. We continue to highlight the importance of connection between individuals. And we do this both through our words and through our actions.