Ecological Spirituality and Our Congregation

Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

This sermon is one in an occasional series where I attempt to relate one of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association to current events, and to our congregation.

This week I thought I’d speak to you about the looming environmental disaster. The second reading this morning serves as an adequate reminder of the challenges we face, and I don’t think we need to rehearse the details of environmental disaster. I am sure most of us here this morning are all too aware of the problems we face. Nor do I want this to turn into one of those doom-and-gloom sermons. Instead, I’d like to reflect on what we might do as a religious community.

And it seems to me that we need a spiritual response to environmental disaster. Technological fixes will be necessary. Changes to our neoliberal capitalist economic system may be in order. Yet it seems to me technological and political and economic fixes are necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing environmental disaster.

This is not an original argument on my part. Back in 1966, historian Lynn White, Jr., presented an influential paper titled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White contended that our current ecological crisis began in the Western world when our culture made the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. During the Enlightenment, the Western world began to draw a firm boundary between human beings on the one hand, and on the other hand all non-human organisms and rocks and soil and air and everything else. Furthermore, the Western worldview began to believe that we human beings are more important than anything else. And Westerners justified this new worldview with religion. For example, there’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:28, which reads: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” [KJV] This was interpreted by many Westerners to mean that we humans were separate from the rest of Nature, and we could do whatever we want with everything else on earth. Even now, in our allegedly secular age, this religious worldview still dominates our thinking.

We may not quote the Bible any more in our secularized world, but it is an unquestioned axiom for most Westerners that we human beings have dominion over the non-human world. We humans get to make all the decisions. We humans don’t really need to consider any non-human viewpoints. If we do consider non-human viewpoints, we do so at our sole discretion.

This new Western worldview set up categories of binary opposites. We Westerners like to believe that there is humanity on the one hand, and Nature on the other hand. Nature is waiting to be tamed or subdued by humanity. Similarly, we tend to believe that mind and body are separate, with body waiting to be tamed by mind. And again, we Westerners believed for many centuries that man and woman were binary opposites, with women waiting to be tamed or subdued by men. Many people here in the United States still believe this about women. And we Westerners have believed for many centuries in a binary distinction between Civilization and Savagery, with Savages waiting to be tamed or subdued by civilized men (and I do mean men; in this worldview, it’s the men who do the subduing). So Westerners gave themselves permission to kill off the indigenous peoples of the United States, and to develop the brutal system of chattel slavery for people of African descent.

Our post-medieval Western worldview tends to categorize everything into binary opposites: mind – body; man – woman; civilized – savage; humanity – everything else. For each of these binary opposites, one of the opposites is more powerful and has dominion over the other binary opposite. This worldview helps justify colonialism, sexism slavery, and so on. This worldview gives license to the more powerful of the binary opposites to dominate the Other.

This remains the dominant worldview in the United States, and has real-world effects. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of men and women, with the result that transgender people are discriminated against, women are no longer allowed to have abortions in many states, and women still earn less than men for the same work. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of white-skinned people and non-white people, with the result that we can document significant differences in health and wealth among people simply on the basis of their skin color, and we also have a loud minority of white people who say that people of color should be ruled by white people. Many people in the United States still believe in the binary opposite of humanity versus the non-human world, with the result that it is considered perfectly acceptable to exploit the non-human world, as long as it benefits at least a few human beings.

I suggest that this is a religious or spiritual problem. We Westerners think of religion in terms of belief, but religion and spirituality are really about worldviews. Thus it becomes a spiritual exercise to stop thinking that one binary opposite should subdue or dominate the other binary opposite. We need to figure out a different worldview. And we Unitarian Universalists are especially well placed to do this work. We’re already heretics. We already know how to reinterpret Western religion so that it becomes less destructive.

Let’s return to that passage from the Hebrew Bible: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” As Unitarian Universalists, we have already come up with alternative ways to interpret this passage from the Hebrew Bible.

Our first reinterpretation of this Bible passage comes from feminism. As the second wave of feminism took hold within Unitarian Universalism, way back in the 1960s, we began to understand that “to have dominion” and “to subdue” are not the same thing as “to completely destroy.” As feminists, we would agree with Rosemary Radford Reuther, who in her book “Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing,” pointed out that the role of humans in this Bible passage is not that of “an owner who can do with it what he wills,” but rather that of a steward who is caring for the earth. We have not been given permission to cause some of God’s creations to go extinct.

Henry David Thoreau came up with another way to rethink that old passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 1862, in his essay “Walking,” he said, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It should be remembered that Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian. However, he became an ardent abolitionist, and he left Unitarianism in part because the minister of the Unitarian church in Concord, where he lived, was at best a lukewarm supporter of abolitionism. So you can see that Thoreau rejected the binary opposition of white people over black people, of free people over enslaved people. Similarly, he rejected the binary opposition between humanity and the non-human world. He acknowledged that human beings could indeed “fill the earth and subdue it.” But he felt that our preservation depended upon reserving parts of the world for wildness.

Still a third interpretation of that old passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, a Presbyterian who joined the Berkeley, California, Unitarian Universalist church late in life. Loomer said that we misinterpret Jesus. Jesus was not God, but rather proclaimed the Kingdom of God. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God was precisely what Loomer termed the interdependent web of life. (Loomer, by the way, was the one who introduced Unitarian Universalists to the phrase “the interdependent Web of Life.”) In the Kingdom of God, not a sparrow falls but God knows about it; in the interdependent web of existence, all living beings are intimately connected, and not a one dies but that all are affected. We humans have dominion, but not in the sense of having power over other living beings. Instead, God told us humans that we have dominion, God was telling us that we power with, not power over, the non-human world.

More recently, we Unitarian Universalists have been exploring yet another spiritual worldview. We have been listening carefully to other spiritual worldviews. In fact, we’re experiencing this in the musical selections that Mary Beth has chosen for us this morning. I would especially draw your attention to the offertory music, a piece by Navajo composer Connor Chee titled “Hózhó” (and I’m afraid I’m mutilating the pronunciation of this Navajo word). In the composer’s notes, printed in your order of service, Chee explains the concept of hózhó, or balance. By listening carefully and respectfully to his music and his explanation — by listening to his spiritual worldview — we can experience another understanding of how human beings could relate to the non-human world. We don’t want to be condescending or impose Western standards onto the Navajo worldview, nor do we want to try to coopt Chee’s spiritual worldview and try to take it over for ourselves. We remain who we are, but through this cross-cultural encounter we can learn and grow.

So these are just some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have already become aware of emerging worldviews, emerging spiritual outlooks. We need to shift our spiritual worldview, because the old Western religious worldview is what got us into this environmental mess. That old Western religious worldview showed us how to have absolute power over other humans and non-human beings. In these days of ecological crisis, we need to shift our focus slightly. An ecological worldview allows us to see, not how to have power over other beings, but how all beings are interconnected. The science of ecology expresses this in terms of systems theory, and interlocking feedback loops, and non-linear systems. Since all beings are connected, the harm we do to the least of those beings is harm done to the entire ecological system.

And actually, ecospiritualities aren’t really all that new. There is an ecospirituality in what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is an ecospirituality when the Dao de Jing says, “…in giving birth you do not possess it, in doing it you do not retain it, in leading it you employ no authority…” [10b, trans. Robert Eno]. There is an ecospirituality in the traditional Navajo concept of hozho, balance.

That narrow old Western worldview is still dominant in our society. I find myself slipping into that old way of thinking. That’s one reason why we bring our children here, to nurture them with a different worldview. That’s one reason why we come here each week: to remind ourselves of other ways of being in the world, so we need not slip back into that old dominionist worldview. It might look like we’re just sitting in these pews, here in this two hundred and seventy five year old meeting house. Yet what we’re really doing here, week after week, is reminding each other of another way of being in the world. And when we leave here and go out into the world each week, we begin to reshape the worldview of rest of our society. What we do here affects the rest of the world, because we are all part of the interdependent web of life.

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.

Labor of Love

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the crowd, Jesus has gotten them thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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