Peace in Our Time

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

Sermon: Peace in Our Time

In last week’s sermon I gave you a heavy dose of the Bible, but this week is going to be completely different. If you’d like to follow along, you can find this sermon online: go to and click on “Sermons.”

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the day when four jetliners were hijacked; two of those jetliners were then flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the third jetliner was crash-landed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth jetliner, after being retaken from the hijackers by passengers and crew, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In less than a month after those attacks, the United States and a coalition of other countries decided to invade Afghanistan, where the group coordinating the attacks was based. And the United States has been at war in Afghanistan ever since, so that most people under that age of 18 cannot remember a time when the United States was not at war.

You may remember, if you’re old enough, that in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was not a good time to be an Arab. The popular perception of “Arab” was somewhat unclear, and we saw a number of assaults against persons who were perceived to look like Arabs. Which meant that in least a couple of cases, Sikhs who had roots in India were attacked because they wore turbans. I think we could safely say that these assaults were not entirely rational.

With all this in mind, here’s a question to consider: Is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we’re still at war overseas, is it possible to have peace in our time? Given that we see plenty of irrational violence here at home, is it possible to have peace in our time? Or maybe we should really be asking: How is it possible to attain peace in our time?

To begin our consideration of these questions, I’d like to begin by telling you the story of Ox Mountain, traditionally attributed to the Chinese religious philosopher known in the West as Mencius. [1]

[The Wise Sage Mencius told this story:] Once upon a time, there was a mountain covered with beautiful trees; it was called Ox Mountain.

Now Ox Mountain stood on the borders of a large and prosperous nation. The people of this nation, needing wood to build houses, and wood for fires, went onto the mountain with axes and saws to cut wood. Before long, many trees were cut down, others were mangled, and the forest was no longer beautiful.

The tree roots and stumps remained vigorous, the rain and dew nourished the earth, and the trees and put forth new buds and shoots. But the people of that great nation let their cattle and goats graze on Ox Mountain, and soon all the green buds and shoots were gone.

So today the mountain is bare and stripped, and when people look at it, they can’t believe it was ever covered with a lush and beautiful forest.

[Having told this parable, the Wise Sage then asked:] Now, what is the true nature of Ox Mountain? Is it in its true nature to be covered with a lush and beautiful forest? Or is it in its true nature to be stripped bare of vegetation?

[The Wise Sage continued:] We might ask the same question of human beings. Think about your mind-heart, that metaphorical place where you both think and feel. Some would say that benevolence and righteousness make up the true nature of the mind-heart. But you can lose the “proper goodness” of your mind-heart in much the same way that Ox Mountain was stripped of trees by axes and saws. If the “proper goodness” is cut down, day after day after day, how can your mind-heart stay beautiful?

But an interesting thing sometimes happens with your mind-heart [the Wise Sage continued] “in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day.” In those quiet hours, no matter how badly your mind-heart has been cut down by axes and saws, you can still feel your proper desires and dislikes; you recover a faint feeling of what it is to be fully human. (This is like when the rain and dew fell on Ox Mountain, and the trees could recover a little bit.) Unfortunately, that feeling isn’t strong. You wake up, your kids are screaming, you get into a fight with your spouse, the boss yells at you at work, and before you know it you’ve lost the sense of being fully human.

Well [said the Wise Sage], this happens again and again, day after day. In your waking hours, things happen that hack away at the proper goodness of your mind-heart. You go to sleep, and some of that goodness comes back. But often it may be that not enough comes back to fully restore you. That happens to a great many people, and when it does, slowly you become like an irrational animal. And then when others see you, and see how you behave, they think that the your mind-heart never had any benevolence and righteousness. “But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity?” Of course not!

And so [concluded the Wise Sage], if your mind-heart receives its proper nourishment, then benevolence and righteousness will grow like a lush and beautiful forest. But if it loses its proper nourishment, then your mind-heart will be filled with decay. And the Wise Sage ended the story with a quotation from Confucius: “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it.”

So ends the parable of Ox Mountain.

According to tradition, Mencius, the Wise Sage of the story, lived during the Warring States era of Chinese history. This was an era of constant warfare. The parable of Ox Mountain is (in part) a cautionary tale for political leaders: the Wise Sage is telling political leaders that in order to rule with true humanity, they must cultivate their mind-heart; if they do not cultivate their mind-heart, then they will lose their benevolence and righteousness, and they will sink to the level of irrational animals.

I don’t know about you, but I see this happening in the current presidential election cycle. I am not impressed with the mind-heart of either of the major presidential candidates. I’ll pick on Donald Trump first: his pronouncement that he will vastly increase the United States military makes him sound pretty much like the ancient Chinese warlords of the Warring States era. It appears that his mind-heart is mostly bare of benevolence and righteousness, which means he acts like an irrational animal that must either fight or flee; and he categorically refuses to flee.

Nor do I find Hillary Clinton’s stance on the use of military power to be much better. On September 1, she gave a speech in which she said, in part, that “we cannot impose arbitrary [spending] limits on something as important as our military.” [2] Clinton’s statement may be more nuanced than Trump’s, but I do not get a sense of benevolence and righteousness from her words. She, too, is acting irrationally.

You may reply that this is not problem that lies within Clinton and Trump themselves. The two of them are only saying what voters want to hear: Trump needed to regain momentum in the polls so he played the military-might card; Clinton was speaking to the American Legion so she said she’d strengthen the military. If you say that, I agree with you, and that makes this an even more troubling prospect. Because this implies that a great many potential voters lack benevolence and righteousness. Or, as the Wise Sage put it, a great many voters are behaving like irrational animals. The mind-heart of the candidates matches the mind-heart of the majority of the electorate.

And I daresay most of us in this room have fallen prey, to a greater or lesser degree, to the same violent emotions. We too sometimes behave like irrational animals. If you have ever reviled either of the major presidential candidates, you have behaved in a manner lacking benevolence and righteousness. If you have ever read with pleasure one of those social media diatribes against either major presidential candidate, again you have behaved in a manner lacking in benevolence and righteousness. Let us not, therefore, be smug!

What would the Wise Sage tell us to do? The Wise Sage might quote “The Great Learning,” another ancient Chinese wisdom text, where it says: “From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.” And why should we cultivate our persons, why should we cultivate the benevolence and righteousness of our mind-hearts? “It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.” [3]

When the root is neglected, what springs from it will not be well ordered. The rough-and-tumble of day-to-day life hacks away like axes and saws at the beautiful forests of our mind-hearts. We need to cultivate the roots that are left behind so that benevolence and righteousness can grow once more within our mind-hearts. We do this by recalling ourselves to that which is best within us; we do this by striving always to become more fully human.

Which sounds very abstract and maybe even impossible, doesn’t it? I’m a pragmatic guy, I want to know the specifics of what I can do. Well, hundreds of years after Mencius and Confucius lived, their followers developed a spiritual practice called “quiet-sitting.” You sit in a chair with your back straight and your hands on your knees. As you sit there quietly, you examine your mind-heart. Now, there’s an ancient Chinese metaphor that equates the mind-heart with a lively monkey which likes to run around and never sits still. When you do quiet-sitting, though, your goal is to get the lively monkey of the mind-heart to sit quietly, so you can reflect on “ren” or humaneness. You reflect on how human you are.

This quiet-sitting technique may sound a lot like Buddhist meditation, but the followers of Mencius and Confucius believed it was quite different. The goal of quiet-sitting is not to achieve a kind “quasi-independent mental state” as the Buddhists do. The goal of quiet-sitting is to cultivate your mind-heart so that you better understand yourself, and the goal of better understanding yourself is to be able to act ethically. [4]

I see a parallel between quiet-sitting and what we do in Unitarian Universalist worship services. When you watch children learning how to behave in our worship services, you will see that the first skill they have to learn is how to sit quietly. Because sitting quietly requires stilling the mind-heart, the next thing children learn is how to still their mind. And then as you get older, once you have learned how to sit quietly, once you have learned how to still your mind-heart, you next learn how to reflect on yourself, and understand yourself.

When I was in my twenties, I was in sales, and I used to attend Unitarian Universalist worship services nearly every week. I felt as though it was a time when I was restored to my best self. Selling building materials for fifty-five or sixty hours a week would take its toll, then I’d go sit quietly in a Unitarian Universalist worship service — and my mind and heart would revive again. Interestingly, this didn’t have much to do with the sermons; it was more a function of sitting quietly and reflecting on what is most important in life.

Something happens when you spend an hour sitting quietly here. If you can sit quietly — which is not something that I can manage in every worship service — if you can sit quietly, this can help your mind and heart to revive, then you may find yourself feeling more fully human. You can recover from a week at work, or a week of unemployment, or a week of mourning the death of someone you love, or any week that leaves you feeling less than whole. You can leave behind your irrational animal self, leave behind your fight-or-flee instinct. You may then find that you have the energy to cook dinner for Hotel de Zink, the homeless shelter that houses guests here on our campus every September. You may find that you are motivated to take part in the multifaith Peace Walk this afternoon, joining Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and other faith communities in a public demonstration that we can all get along. You may find yourself acting more humanely to family and friends and co-workers.

Now let’s circle back and consider the question of whether peace is possible in our time. In many ways, I am not at all hopeful that we can achieve peace. We have two major presidential candidates who are acting like what Mencius calls “irrational animals,” less-than-human beings that only know how to fight or flee. What makes it more worrisome is that these two presidential candidates are simply reflecting the mental state of the electorate.

From the presidential candidates down to the mass of the electorate, the root of the problem is the cultivation of our essential humanity. Cultivating our humanity takes effort — constant effort. There axes and saws everywhere, ready to hack away at our benevolence, our humaneness; ready to make us a little less human. And so again and again we must take the time to sit quietly and nourish our best selves.

If we can do this, our thoughts become sincere, and our hearts are restored. As our hearts are restored, we become more fully human. As we ourselves become more fully human, so too do our families become more human, more humane. When our families are well-regulated, we have time to reach out to others; and when we reach out to others, we will find that our leaders at the county and state level govern rightly. And when that happens, then we may have hope that the nation, and indeed the whole world, will be “made tranquil and happy.” [5]

This is how we may achieve peace in our time. Peace begins with the cultivation of our inner selves. From there, peace grows outwards, into our immediate families, out into wider communities. So you see, peace requires of us active participation “in a spiritual joint venture.” [6]

You may think that such a spiritual joint venture is going to take a long time. Even if everyone in this room manages to cultivate their own persons, thus stabilizing their families, it’s going to take a while for that influence to spread out into the wider world.

There is an old story about the king who wanted a line of majestic oak trees growing along the road leading to his castle. Upon hearing this, the gardener said, “But king, it will take a hundred years for the trees to grow big enough to be majestic!” To which the king replied, “Then perhaps you had better start planting them today.”

If we are going to have peace in our time — if we are going to replant Ox Mountain with a lush and beautiful forest — then we had better start planting today.


[1] I retold the story of Ox Mountain from James Legge’s English translation of Mencius (Mencius 6A.8). Here is Legge’s translation:

“Mencius said, ‘The trees of the Niu mountain were once beautiful. Being situated, however, in the borders of a large State, they were hewn down with axes and bills — and could they retain their beauty? Still through the activity of the vegetative life day and night, and the nourishing influence of the rain and dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth, but then came the cattle and goats and browsed upon them. To these things is owing the bare and stripped appearance of the mountain, and when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain? And so also of what properly belongs to man; shall it be said that the mind of any man was without benevolence and righteousness? The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it — the mind — retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day. This fettering taking place again and again, the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve the proper goodness of the mind; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people now see it, they think that it never had those powers which I assert. But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity? Therefore, if it receive its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow. If it lose its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away. Confucius said, “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it. Its outgoing and incoming cannot be defined as to time or place.” It is the mind of which this is said!'”

Not everyone likes Legge’s translation, e.g., some have translated the key word “mind” as “mind-heart” — and later in the sermon, I’ll use “mind-heart.” So for those who do speak Chinese, here is the parable in the original:

孟子曰:「牛山之木嘗美矣,以其郊於大國也,斧斤伐之,可以為美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所潤,非無萌櫱之生焉,牛羊又從而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人見 其濯濯也,以為未嘗有材焉,此豈山之性也哉?雖存乎人者,豈無仁義之心哉?其所以放其良心者,亦猶斧斤之於木也,旦旦而伐之,可以為美乎?其日夜之所息, 平旦之氣,其好惡與人相近也者幾希,則其旦晝之所為,有梏亡之矣。梏之反覆,則其夜氣不足以存;夜氣不足以存,則其違禽獸不遠矣。人見其禽獸也,而以為未 嘗有才焉者,是豈人之情也哉?故苟得其養,無物不長;苟失其養,無物不消。孔子曰:『操則存,舍則亡;出入無時,莫知其鄉。』惟心之謂與?」

[2] The text of this speech to the American Legion was reported by the Time Magazine Web site,

[3] The quotation from The Great Learning is from the translation by James Legge; where Legge has “the Son of Heaven,” i.e., the king, I substituted “the rulers.” Here is the full quotation in English and Chinese:

“From the [rulers] down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

“It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.”


[4] The description of quiet-sitting is adapted from John H. and Evelyn Nagai Berthrong, “Confucianism: A Short Introduction” (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), p. 34.

[5] This paragraph adapted from “The Great Learning,” trans. and notes by James Legge, in “Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893; rpt. 1971), pp. 357-359. I am indebted to Legge’s interpretation of this passage in the note on par. 4, pp. 357-358.

[6] This phrase comes from Tu Wei-ming, “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality,” in Mary Evelyn Tucker and john Berthrong, eds., “Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998), p. 4. In this passage, Tu is specifically addressing how the West might deal with ecological crisis, but the same principle applies to how we might achieve world peace.

The Parable of the Empty Jar

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


Upon seeing the title of this sermon in the church newsletter, Everett Hoagland, member of this congregation and a poet, suggested a reading from the Tao te Ching for this worship service. I was thinking about using something from the Tao te Ching as a reading, and Everett found exactly what I was looking for, in a new translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

The second reading comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of the [Father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke, and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.” [trans. Lambdin (1988)]


Back in 1945 in Egypt, Mohammed Ali Samman and his brother by pure chance happened to uncover an earthenware vase. Inside that vase were ancient handwritten manuscripts, containing many previously unknown books, what we now call the Nag Hammadi library. The most famous of the books is what we now know as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that was written down somewhere around one thousand nine hundred years ago.

I find the Gospel of Thomas to be a particularly interesting book. Although many of the sayings of Jesus recorded in it are similar to the sayings of Jesus we already knew from the gospels recognized by the Christian churches, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; yet other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are recorded nowhere else.

Now we know what we’re supposed to think the sayings of Jesus mean, because for the past two thousand years the Christian churches have been telling us what they mean. But the Gospel of Thomas is not an official Christian book. Therefore, those sayings of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of Thomas, and nowhere else are of particular interest to me. The Christian churches have not been telling us what they mean, so we can look at them with fresh eyes, listen to them with openness.

When I first read the Gospel of Thomas all the way through a few years ago, I was particularly struck by chapter 97, which we heard in the first reading this morning. I re-read that short little parable several times over, asking myself: What was Jesus trying to tell us? Part of the reason it’s so hard to understand is that it’s so short; perhaps all that got written down was the merest outline of a longer parable. So as I thought about this parable, I began to imagine it more fully. I filled it out, and this is how I imagined it went:

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story….

“Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

“She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, she just had an ordinary earthenware jar that had been made in her village. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

“She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, that is, coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

“The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

“But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

“At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”


That’s how I imagined the Parable of the Empty Jar might have been told in a fuller version. That helped me visualize the parable. Next I thought about how I could better understand the parable, and I began with three assumptions:

First, I assumed that traditional Christian theology was not going to be able to adequately explain this parable; I made this assumption because I noticed that orthodox Christians tend to ignore the Gospel of Thomas in general, and this parable in particular. (Indeed, I decided that this parable was especially interesting because I couldn’t see how traditional Christians could possibly incorporate it into their theology.) Thus, I assumed that I should go beyond the boundaries of conventional Christian theology.

Second, I assumed that “Thomas” or whoever wrote this parable down was a theologian, and so he (or she) had some kind of theological bias. It appears that whoever wrote this parable down was a Gnostic, that is, a member of that branch of early Christianity which taught that there are secret and hidden teachings of Jesus. The Gnostics seem to have believed that Jesus left secret teachings that were never written down, but which they passed on by word of mouth to those who were initiated into their religious communities. So perhaps we are meant to be confused by this parable, and this is part of the theological bias of this parable. At the same time, as a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to understanding and working around other people’s theological biases, so I assumed that, alien as it might be, I could still make some sense out of it.

Third, I assumed that even though the Gospel of Thomas is not a part of the standard Christian Bible, it’s still an interesting and useful book. I assumed that any book about Jesus that was written within two or three generations after the death of Jesus is worth reading; such ancient books are likely to have some interesting or useful insight into the world of Jesus, or at least into the world of the early followers of Jesus.

Those were my three assumptions. If we start with those assumptions, we don’t have to try to make the Parable of the Empty Jar fit into conventional Christian theology, and we don’t have to reject it simply because it’s not in the official Bible. Furthermore, we know that it has been retold by someone with a Gnostic Christian bias, but we don’t have to let that affect us. Finally, we know that it’s worth trying to understand this parable insofar as it might give us some additional insight into the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Starting with these three assumptions, let’s see what the Parable of the Empty Jar has to say to us.

The first thing I notice is the that Parable of the Empty Jar tells us that emptiness somehow is the same as the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not traditional Christian theology, where the Kingdom of Heaven means a place you go after you die — emptiness is not a place, emptiness is just empty. Not only is this not traditional Christian theology, it seems to have a passing resemblance to another great religious tradition, the tradition of Taoism. In the Tao te Ching, the central book of Taoism, we find that passage which we heard in the second reading this morning:

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

Is this just coincidence? Does the idea of emptiness occur anywhere else in the Christian tradition?

Once we start looking, we find that images of emptiness and nothingness do appear elsewhere in the Christian scriptures. I think of the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus, says he has observed all the commandments, upon hearing which Jesus tells him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Bible geeks note: this is from Mk. 10.21 [also Mt. 19.21; Lk. 18.22] RSV.) An empty bank account is equated with the kingdom of heaven. I think also of that passage in Jesus’s most famous sermon, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he says that we shouldn’t worry so much about material things; we shouldn’t even worry about clothing, he says: “And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Mt. 6.28-29) An empty clothes closet is equated with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus even empties out his family, as in the story where his mother and brothers and sisters have come to see him, to which he replies: “Who are my mothers and my brothers [and my sisters]?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3.33, 35)

Obviously, the Jesus tradition has a way of talking about emptiness that is quite different from the Taoist tradition; I’m not trying to tell you that they’re the same thing. The teachings of Jesus are more likely to advise us to pay less attention to material things, and instead pay greater attention to matters of the spirit; whereas the Taoist tradition, at least in my limited understanding of it, is more likely to instruct us in how to empty our minds as a form of spiritual discipline. Yet in both traditions, we do seem to find the idea that in order for us to be connected with that which is most important in life, we have to empty our lives of non-essential things; we even have to empty our lives of things we thought were essential, but which we are assured are in fact inessential.

While there are distinct differences, I think that both Taoism and the Jesus tradition are telling us that if we want to truly understand the world, we can’t rely on ordinary ways of thinking and being. Lao-tse, who allegedly wrote the Tao te Ching, invites us to empty our minds so that we may better know what he terms the Tao, the Way; Jesus invites us to empty our lives so that we may better know what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven — which he sometimes also calls the Way. Both traditions are inviting us to step out of the ordinary way of thinking and being, and step into a new way of thinking and being.

I believe it’s very important that both Jesus and Lao-tse talk about the “Way.” They don’t talk about “the place we’re going to get to eventually”; they talk about the way, the path, the journey. We can see this in the Parable of the Empty Jar. Jesus says that the empty jar is like the kingdom of heaven, but he also tells us the process by which the jar becomes empty: first the handle of the jar breaks, then the jar empties out over time (and we know that it must happen slowly, or otherwise the woman would immediately become aware that the jar was suddenly empty), and then the woman gets home and realizes that the jar is empty. We also know that the process will continue after that moment when the woman discovers that the jar is empty: she will be shocked, she will wonder how it happened; and then she will have to figure out what to do next — will she borrow flour form someone else? will she be forced to rely on her extended family and the community for help? In other words, will the emptiness of the jar force her to use her network of relationships? And perhaps this is this the kingdom of heaven:– not the emptiness of the jar itself, but the inescapable network of mutuality that binds each of us to the rest of humanity, to the rest of the ecosystem, to what we might call the Web of Life.

We have come a long way from the original parable; nothing that I have said can be found in that very short parable. None of this can be found there, but in the process of thinking about that parable, perhaps this is the direction we must come. We have not come down the well-trodden path of traditional Christianity, which tends to reject the Gospel of Thomas, or tends to interpret the Parable of the Empty Jar as a conventional parable telling us to accept Christian orthodoxy. Instead, by looking into the empty jar, by looking into emptiness, perhaps we have come face to face with reality — face to face with a reality that doesn’t have firm and final answers, a reality that is always changing, reality that is a process.

Not that I think that I have just uncovered the one final, correct interpretation of the Parable of the Empty Jar. This is a process, a path, a way — it is not a final definition that can be pinned down like a dead butterfly in a display case. And to make that point, let me tell you the rest of the story of the Parable of the Empty jar, as I imagined it happening:

You remember that as I imagined it happening, one of his followers asked him what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, and in response Jesus told the Parable of the Empty Jar. He concluded the parable by saying, “At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

As I imagine it, when Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the parable. But Jesus had nothing more to say. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.”

But Jesus did not explain further, and eventually he went off by himself to sleep. The followers sat up for a while talking about the story.

“It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who have nothing, who are poor and hungry and have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up.

“I don’t think any of us really understand that story,” she said, “but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of God is like. We have thought about it, and we have talked about it, and now it’s time to sleep, because just like the woman in the story, we have a long walk ahead of us tomorrow.”


That’s what I think about the Parable of the Empty Jar: I don’t think any of us knows exactly what it means. I don’t know exactly what the Parable of the Empty Jar means, but it makes me reflect on life from a new perspective; and maybe that is the real point of any parable. And I suspect that the real point of this parable, the real point of any parable told by Jesus, is not to give us a final answer about something, but to make us think in new ways. The best teachers, the greatest teachers, are not the ones who give us all the answers. The greatest teachers are the ones who make us think for ourselves, who move us into new ways of being in the world, who turn us towards a way of being in the world that makes the world a better place while it allows us to be more human, which we might call the Kingdom of Heaven. And perhaps the first step is to empty ourselves of the old ways of being, so that we can move into the ways of being.

Flowing Water

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation — more than usual in this case. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from the Chuang-Tze, translated by James Legge:

“Time never stops, but is always moving on; man’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way. Therefore men of great wisdom, looking at things far off or near at hand, do not think them insignificant for being small, nor much of them for being great:– knowing how capacities differ illimitably. They appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course. They examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of man’s lot….'”

[Section 17. From Sacred Books of the East, vol. 39, 1891.]

The second reading this morning consists of two chapters from the Tao te Ching, or Book of Changes. This translation is by James Legge (ch. 9, 15; from vol. 39, Sacred Books of the East, 1891)

9 When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven….

15 The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise. They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves)….


This is the second in a series of sermons this month on Chinese religious texts and traditions.

I begin with the assumption that there is something to be learned from all the great religious traditions of the world, and I follow that with an assumption that we can often learn from other religious traditions and apply their wisdom to some of our problems.

Now if you attend worship services here fairly regularly, you already know that I am concerned about the decline of liberal religion in the United States. Charles Gaines, a retired Universalist minister, has shown that there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists of all ages now than there were in 1968. In that time, the population of the United States has increased by 93 million people. Considered as a percentage of the total population, our liberal faith is indeed in decline. I believe that we are in decline for all the wrong reasons, and I believe wisdom from that ancient Chinese religious tradition called Taoism has something to teach us about how to reverse liberal religion’s decline.

Actually, I believe we have no excuse at all to be in decline. Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has pointed out that there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations — and another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls, but who aren’t part of our congregations! In addition, Sinkford says that if you look at the demographic data, there are between five and six million people in the United States today who are pretty much like us, people who are already Unitarian Universalists, but who are part of our congregations. The evidence does point to a slow decline in the numbers of Unitarian Universalists. The evidence also indicates that our liberal religion could easily be five times the size it is now.

That doesn’t mean that I think everyone should become a Unitarian Universalist, nor do I believe that everyone should become part of our congregation — I’m not like those conservative Christians who think everyone should be just like them, religiously speaking. Yet what I see over and over again is people who really want to become Unitarian Universalists, but who can’t seem to find a place in one of our congregations. These people already like our theology, they already like our liberal religion, so I know the problem lies somewhere else. And investigating that problem can lead us straight to the heart of a serious theological puzzle that has bedeviled us religious liberals for years:– the problem of religious authority.

In our religious tradition, each individual is his or her own religious authority. I, as a minister, have no authority to tell you what to believe, or to tell you how to live out your religious life. No member of this congregation — neither a member of the Board of Trustees, nor some member with power or money or influence, nor any other member of the congregation — can tell you what to believe, or tell you how to live our your religious life. You are the ultimate religious authority for yourself. Of course, this also means that you cannot tell anyone else what to believe, or how to live out her or his religious life. This also means that the congregation cannot tell its minister what to preach, or what not to preach (although you could certainly fire me if you don’t like what I preach). We don’t have bishops or popes or imams or Parsis or gurus, because we are each our own religious authority.

Having said this, it’s also perfectly clear that there are those among us who speak with authority;– those among us to whom others listen with some deference. I have seen some Unitarian Universalist congregations where a minister speaks with real authority. I have seen other Unitarian Universalist congregations where certain lay leaders speak with real authority. By “real authority,” I mean these are people whose thoughts and feelings carry real weight; these are people who can influence decisions, or who may even make decisions. Then there are other Unitarian Universalist congregations where no one person has a great amount of authority, where lay leaders and the minister and other members of the congregation all share authority more or less equally.

If you were counting, I just mentioned three different types of congregations: one type where a minister has the most authority, a second type where certain lay leaders have the most authority, and a third type where authority is shared and no person or group has the most authority. I can tell you from my own observations that each of these three types of congregation can work extremely well. And each of these three types of congregation can be just as Unitarian Universalist as the other two — in other words, I can find no theological difference between them. As near as I can tell, the only difference between the three different types of congregation is that larger congregations tend to have one minister who has the most authority, small and tiny congregations tend to have a small group of lay leaders with most or all of the authority, and medium sized congregations tend to be places where everyone shares authority equally.

And my observations are confirmed by Edward Koster, an attorney and a Presbyterian minister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Koster got interested in nonverbal communication, and how people communicate authority nonverbally in a congregation. Drawing on the theory of meta-communciations, Koster says we can separate out the content of what we say from the relationship between the two parties who are communicating. If we just look at the relationship between two people, Koster points out that there are only two types of relationship that are possible: there’s a symmetrical relationship where the two people are equally influential; and there’s a complementary relationship where one person is clearly the boss.

I’ll give you an obvious example: in most cases, a parent and a young child will be in a complementary relationship with each other, where the parent is in the “one-up” position, and the child is in the “one-down” position. When there’s a conflict between the two of them, the parent is generally going to “win.” I’ll give you another example: my relationship with my life partner, Carol, is a symmetrical relationship. Neither one of us is the boss. When we get into a conflict, the outcome of that conflict is uncertain.

Now remember, neither of these relationships is inherently good or bad. I know plenty of good marriages and partnerships that are complementary, where one of the partners is in the “one-up” position and the other partner is in the “one-down” position. We don’t want to make moral judgments about which type of relationship is best. But we can make judgments about which type of relationship is most proper — I think you’ll agree with me that it is appropriate for a young child to be in a “one-down” relationship with his or her parent. Once you learn this concept, you’ll start noticing it at work in many of your own personal relationships — you’ll realize that you’re in a complementary relationship with your boss, where you’re in the “one-down” position — and you’ll find lots of relationships which are symmetrical relationships.

Getting back to congregations, Koster believes we can find this kind of relationship in congregations. Specifically, he found that the relationship between clergyperson and laypeople in many smaller congregations, those with an average attendance of less than a hundred, was a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-down” position. This makes complete sense, given that small congregations often have part-time ministers, or lots of turn over in their ministers, so the laypeople have to take on more authority. Then Koster found that the relationship between clergy and laypeople in medium-sized congregations, those with between a hundred and two hundred average attendance, is a symmetrical relationship. And — you guessed it — in large congregations, with more than two hundred in attendance, it’s a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-up” position. Here again, this makes complete sense, because a bigger congregation becomes so much more complex that you pretty much need a full-time, paid person to be in charge.

I don’t think I need to point out that this is a small congregation, with less than a hundred people in attendance each week. That means that I, as the clergyperson, am in the “one-down” position, and that lay leaders are the ones with the authority to initiate change. Except for one little point, this is neither good nor bad from my point of view — it’s simply that that’s the way things work around here.

Except for one little point — if the laypeople who are the leaders, the one in the “one-up” position, decide that they want this congregation to grow, Edward Koster predicts we’re going to hit a barrier when we start getting about a hundred people each Sunday. That barrier will hit us when the laypeople who are the leaders have to give up a big chunk of their authority, and start sharing authority with the minister and with other laypeople. That will not be an easy task. With all the visitors that we have been getting this year, we could reach a hundred people in worship within twelve months — we could hit that barrier within a year.

What will we do when we hit that barrier? To help address that question, I’d like to turn to the readings we heard this morning. And I turn first to the first reading, by Chuang-tze.

Chuang-tze tells us that persons of great wisdom “appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course.” That is to say, persons of great wisdom acknowledge the past, both the distant past and the very recent past; and in acknowledging the past, they are acknowledging that the stream of time is always flowing onwards. Chuang-tze continues, saying that person of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of” humanity’s lot. Sometimes things get better, sometimes things get worse; sometimes we are in times of plenty, sometimes we are in times of great want; yet the person of great wisdom remains on an even keel, knowing that life is inconstant and always changing.

This is pretty good advice for any one of us. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Chuang-tze over the years, and he strikes me as being full of good advice. I have found that if I accept his advice, if I am able to remember the inconstancy of humanity’s lot, I am able to stay centered, stable, secure in myself. When I am able to remember to stay centered, stable, secure in myself (and I’m the first to say that I find that a difficult task), I am able to follow up on successes, and I remain clearheaded so that I can deal with the problems at hand. Getting excited by success or dragged down by failure, however, doesn’t provide any advantage at all.

So says Chuang-tze. And his thoughts are a direct outgrowth of the words of his master, Lao-tze. In the second reading, we heard similar ideas from Lao-tze, who said: “When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself.” In other words, glorying in success can lead to a downfall.

Lao-tze continues: “When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.” In other words, the wise leader is the one who pulls back from the limelight at the moment of success so that the people can say, We have done this ourselves. Lao-tze says, The best leaders look grave like a guest in awe of his host, “evanescent,” “unpretentious,” and “dull like muddy water.”

In today’s American society, we are not familiar with this idea of leadership. The politicians in Washington set the tone for us, and too often we believe that real leaders have to be authoritarian, bossy, always in control, they have to micro-manage every detail of everything. Yet we do know what it means for a leader to be unpretentious; George Washington was unpretentious; so was Abraham Lincoln. So we do know another path of leadership, a path that values humilty over authoritarianism, a path that values evanescence over micro-managing.

And Lao-tze gives us advice about how to accomplish this second, unpretentious kind of leadership. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? he writes. Let the water remain still, and it will gradually become clear; who can secure the condition of rest? –let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

Lao-tze often uses the image of flowing water, and that image captures something of what he’s trying to tell us. Be like water, that flows effortlessly, always seeking the lowest place. Accept that change is going to happen, and don’t resist change. We even have a saying in English with a similar idea: go with the flow.

Chuang-tze writes that persons of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of humanity’s lot.” Knowing that change happens, let us examine one case of fulness, not letting ourselves be overjoyed by their success. Over the past twenty years, the fastest growing new congregation in Unitarian Universalism is Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Founded in 1987 with 34 members, they’re closing in on 400 members with a $400,00 annual operating budget.

A couple of years ago, I heard their parish minister, Dennis Hamilton, speak at General Assembly, the annual gathering of United States Unitarian Universalists. In his talk, Dennis Hamilton said that one reason Horizon has grown is that they know their congregation changes people’s lives, and changes the world. He put it more forcefully, and I’ll read you his words:

“To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision.” So writes Dennis Hamilton.

While he might disagree with me, I think Dennis Hamilton is saying something similar to Lao-tze. Change is inevitable. Therefore, we must let go of the past and move forward into the future. And how are we to do that? Hamilton says by accepting our role as a redemptive force in the community.

Dennis Hamilton tells us we “must see [ourselves] as a redemptive force in the community, that [our] presence makes a difference.” This means more than doing more social justice projects, although there’s nothing wrong with more social justice projects, as long as you don’t burn out your social justice committee. It means seeing ourselves for who we really are, in all our strengths and weaknesses. If we look at who we really are, we Unitarian Universalists are not very effective at doing social justice. If we compare ourselves to Habitat for Humanity, or to the Sierra Club, or to the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s clear that those other organizations do more social justice than we can — simply because that’s all they do. We do something more. We take our great theological message out into the world: we tell people that the search for truth is more important than trying to codify truth in creeds and doctrines. We spread the word that the world needs open conversations about deep questions, rather than fights and wars based on preliminary conclusions.

Which is to say, what really distinguishes us is our unique religious belief system. We make a difference in the community around us simply by living out our theological openness. Yes, it would be great if we did more social justice, but I think we should give ourselves some credit for the amazing things we already do here at First Unitarian. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we allow women to be clergy — this makes a huge difference in a world that still denigrates women. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we have been sanctioning religious marriages between same-sex couples for decades, and we will continue to sanction same sex marriages even if the anti-gay amendment gets added to the state constitution. Our theological openness has been moving us to the point where on any given Sunday morning, twenty percent of our congregation might be a so-called minority: non-white and/or Hispanic.

So you see, the fact that we exist at all is the most important thing we do here in New Bedford. And in fact, what we really show the surrounding community is that change is possible. When we realized that it wasn’t right to make women be second-class citizens, we changed — and it was a change for the better. When we realized that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, we changed — and it was a change for the better. Now we are realizing that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation makes sense, so we are changing for the better. We are the religion of the future, and we are making a difference in New Bedford by being the religion of the future.

That being the case, our theological openness should also allow us to change by growing. If we are to grow, I think the most difficult change for this congregation will be changing the relationship between the minister and the congregation. As a congregation grows to having more than a hundred people here each Sunday, can we change so that we create a symmetrical relationship between the minister and the congregation? To do so will result in major changes in the way we do things — organization, communications, trust. It will upset ways of doing things that go back several generations.

To grow for the sake of growth is a waste of time. But I believe we should live out our new destiny as a redemptive force in our community. That means that when people are attracted to us because of who we are, we should not chase them away, and we should not allow them to slip through our fingers. If someone walks in the door of this building, it is because they need to be here — they need to be a part of our liberal faith — the need us to be a redemptive force in their lives. They need us — they need us to welcome them, to say: join us, now you’re home.

To change for the sake of changing is a waste of time. But change is inevitable, and we should be ready for it. We should not waste the huge amount of effort it takes to resist change. Chuang-tze says: “Time never stops, but is always moving on; humanity’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way.” May we embrace change.