Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”

Liberal religion and unions

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) 2013 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)



(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.

Kingdom of Heaven, Interdependent Web

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.


This reading is from a small book titled Unfoldings, lectures by Bernard Loomer.

“The Synoptic Gospels [that is, the Bible books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke] should be the possession of the Unitarian Universalists as much as any other group. What I perceive may be “old-hat” to Biblical scholars, but if so, they have failed to make it clear to us peasants….

“In the Synoptic [Gospels] we have the situation of a man born out of [or] within a covenantal tradition, a tradition in which the laws and statues of God were important. This God was the god of the people who were to follow these laws, and they were to be his people. This is the tradition out of which Jesus came, and out of this tradition arose the historical notion of the Messiah — the one who was to redeem Israel.

“Jesus has been accorded many titles. He has been called Savior, Leader, Shepherd, Counselor, son of god, Messiah. But his intellectual gifts have not been recognized (even when the term “intellectual” has been more carefully defined). It was he who discovered what he called the “Kingdom of God” — what I call the Web of Life — surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the Western world.

“As I define it, the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality. This includes the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of existence.

“Jesus discovered the reality of the Web. He began his public ministry by announcing its presence and its fuller exemplification [which he called], the “coming kingdom.”…

“…In the Synoptic [Gospels], Jesus is not the central reality. The Kingdom is the central reality. He describes this reality, but the Kingdom does not exist for his sake. He serves the Kingdom and draws his power from it. The Kingdom was not created because Jesus was of supernatural origin. The Kingdom was never created. The discovery was that the Kingdom is a given of life itself. It was not created by Jesus. It was not created at all. It is simply inherent in life itself.”


According to the retailers, Christmas started right after Hallowe’en. According to the traditional Christian calendar, the Advent season, the lead-up to Christmas, began last Sunday. However you figure it, the Christmas season is full upon us. You can’t walk into a store at this time of year without hearing sugary-sweet renditions of various Christmas songs, you can’t drive down the street without being assaulted by over-the-top Christmas decorations, you can’t listen to the radio without hearing Christmas songs written and performed by fading rock stars.

I realize that I’m letting my cynicism show through. I admit it, I’m a Scrooge. I’ll spend the next few weeks going around saying, “Bah! Humbug! Christmas humbug!” every chance I get. I know that there are plenty of people, probably many of you in this room, who love Christmas — who love the songs, who love the over-the-top decorations, who love to shop — and if you love Christmas, well then (as my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother used to say), bless your heart. We all get our joy in different ways at this time of year — some people like to shop, some people like to wear reindeer antlers on their head, and people like me enjoy saying, “Bah! Humbug!”

Yet all of us, the whole range of people from Scrooges and Grinches, all the way to Santas and Christmas elves — all of us usually stop at some point in the frenetic Christmas season and say something like this: “But you know, it’s important to remember that Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus.” I do that about once a week — for example, I’ll see some particularly egregious Christmas display in a store window, and I’ll stop and say to myself, “But you know, Christmas isn’t about consumerism, it’s really about the birth of Jesus.” That’s about as far as I get before I burst out with “Bah! Humbug!” and all thoughts of Jesus leave my brain. If you are a lover of Christmas, perhaps it happens to you when you’re singing along with the car radio, “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane,” and you’ll pause in your singing and think, “But you know, this isn’t about Santa Claus, it’s really about the birth of Jesus” — and then the chorus will come around again, and you’ll start singing, and all thoughts of Jesus leave your brain.

When I do actually find the time to think about Jesus during the Christmas season, about all I think about is that well-worn, familiar story that we tell about the birth-night of Jesus: you know the story, with angels and shepherds and the three wise men, and the stable with the animals who can talk and mean old King Herod and the star that shone above Bethelehem. None of which actually has anything to do with Jesus, when you come right down to it, and much of which isn’t even in the Bible. Baby gets born, miraculous things happen — these are myths about Jesus, but they really don’t say much about who Jesus actually was. I guess if you’re a traditional Christian, at Christmas time you can think about how Jesus was the son of God, but as a Unitarian that has very little emotional resonance with me. Even then, I’ll bet most traditional Christians are like me and spend very little actual time thinking about Jesus.

So this year, I wanted to take one Sunday during the Christmas season when I didn’t talk about the usual Christmas story, and when I didn’t just completely ignore Christmas. I wanted to take one Sunday this year to talk about the really amazing accomplishments of the adult Jesus.

I’ve decided that what really impresses me about Jesus of Nazareth is not his spiritual accomplishments, admirable as those might be; not his concern for the poor and marginalized people of the world, as much as I find that worthy of emulating; definitely not the myths about being a son of God nor the myths about supposed miracles nor the story of his miraculous birth. These are all wonderful stories, but I’ve decided that what really impresses me is Jesus’s intellectual accomplishments.

1. The first time I seriously considered Jesus’s intellectual accomplishments was when I read a short lecture titled “The Synoptic Gospels” by Dr. Bernard Loomer; and we heard an excerpt from that lecture in the second reading this morning. Bernard Loomer was a professor of theology at the University of Chicago, and later professor of theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. While he lived in California he started attending the Unitarian Universalist church in Berkeley, under the influence of his second wife, and shortly he was invited to give a series of informal talks to members of the Berkeley church; the second reading this morning is an excerpt from one of those informal talks.

In this lecture, Bernard Loomer tells us that “It was [Jesus] who discovered what he called the ‘Kingdom of God’ — what I call the Web of Life — [and this is] surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the Western world.” Loomer tells us that once you understand Jesus’s concept of the Web of Life, you will be transformed by a realization of how everything is interconnected — humans are interconnected with humans, with other life forms, even with the rocks and soil — and as you understand more and more about the Web of Life, as you trace out all these interrelationships and connections, you will continue to be transformed.

Furthermore, in another one of these informal talks, Loomer tells us that to understand the Web of Life in this way forces us to think about morality and ethics in new ways. Loomer says, “Holding the notion of the Web that I do, I do believe that what I do makes a difference…. Once I have done something, there is a sense in which that act becomes public property….” So you see, understanding the Web of Life isn’t some dry, meaningless intellectual activity — understanding the Web of Life doesn’t just change the way you understand the world, it changes the way you live your life.

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about the Web of Life. Forget what the orthodox Christians and the fundamentalists tell you about the kingdom of God — they have missed the main point. The Kingdom of God isn’t some place you go to after you die — it is a state of being that is available to you here and now. The Kingdom of God is the Web of relationships that requires you to understand how you are linked to a Web of existence that includes all other people and all other beings; the Kingdom of God is a way of understanding that what you do with your life matters a great deal.

2. Once we start to take Jesus seriously as a great thinker, once we peel away layer upon layer of ritual and creed and dogma and orthodoxy with which the church has plastered Jesus for hundreds of years — once we consider Jesus as a great thinker, suddenly some of the things he says begin to make more sense. Like the parables of Jesus, those short, pithy stories that he told to his followers — some of those parables of Jesus don’t seem to make much sense when you first hear them. Oh, you know what you’re supposed to believe they mean, because the traditional Christian churches have told us what we’re supposed to believe — but often the things the churches tell us don’t make sense. Take, for example, this misinterpreted parable:

Jesus told this story. He said: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in the shade.” [Mt. 13.31-32] Now I don’t know much about traditional orthodox Christian interpretations of the Bible, but I think most churches interpret this parable to mean something like this: have faith in God, believe in God, and your faith will grow, and you’ll get to go to heaven after you die — or something like that. To my way of thinking, that’s a narrow and even wrong-headed interpretation of this parable.

Bernard Loomer tells use that the Kingdom of God means the same thing as Web of Life, and with that in mind let’s reconsider this old familiar parable. This parable is not about what happens after you die, this is a parable that uses a vivid and convincing image to tell us what is happening all around us in the world. When you plant a seed — and I mean literally plant a literal seed in actual dirt — a plant will grow from that seed, and that plant will be a heck of a lot bigger than the original seed. And when a plant grows, it does not grow in isolation from other living beings — when a person plants a seed, the plant grows out of the soil under the influence of sun and heat and rain, and other living beings live in and under and around that plant; and all these things are connected in the Web of Life — the human being who plants, the seed which grows, the soil and sun and rain, the birds which nest, all these interrelationships are revealed in the simple act of planting a seed. Which brings us to the moral or ethical point: someone sows a seed; some human being takes action; and like every human action, this act of sowing the seed has effects that ripple throughout the entire Web of Life. This is the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus — the complex interrelationships that connect us with all other human beings and all other living beings and all non-living things. This is why harming the ecosystem is evil. All this is revealed in a simple parable about a mustard seed.

This is a different way of thinking about Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was more than some guy wandering around in the desert dressed in a bathrobe, getting born in a stable with frankincense and myrrh, and growing up to perform supernatural miracles. Jesus was a profound religious and ethical and moral thinker. And when you start to consider Jesus as a powerful religious thinker, even some of the so-called miracles begin to make sense. Take, for example, the story of the feeding of five thousand [Mk. 6.32-44]:

3. Jesus and his disciples are trying to get away from the crowds that follow him everywhere, so they take a boat and go out to this lonely place, far from any village. But the people figure out where they’re going, and by the time Jesus and his friends land, there are five thousand people waiting for him. So Jesus starts to teach them, and this goes on for hours. By now, it’s getting late, and the followers of Jesus pull him aside and say, Hey, send these people away to all the nearby villages to get some food. Jesus replies, No, you get them something to eat. His followers say, What, you want us to take a thousand bucks and go buy some bread and bring it back to them? No no, says Jesus, how many loaves of bread we got right here? His followers say, We got five loaves of bread, and a couple fried fish.

So Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the grass, and all five thousand people sit down. Being a good Jew, Jesus blesses the bread, using the traditional Jewish blessing: Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Then, so everyone can see, Jesus breaks the bread, and cuts up the fish, to be handed around. Miracle of miracles, there’s plenty of food to go around, and indeed there’s twelve baskets full of food left over when everyone has eaten enough.

Traditional Christians believe that Jesus did something magical to the bread so that it somehow multiplies. If you want to believe that old traditional interpretation, feel free to do so. But instead of some supernatural miracle, I believe what happened was an even bigger miracle, and it went like this:

Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God (what we call the Web of Life), teaching them about how every person and every thing is interrelated. And while he’s teaching them, he’s looking out at the crowd, and he sees that some of the people have brought food with them, and they’re surreptitiously nibbling away on their food, ignoring the fact that many other people have no food at all. Jesus also knows that his followers brought along five loaves of bread and two fried fish, enough food for the thirteen of them, as long as they don’t have to share it with anyone. So what does Jesus do? He gets all five thousand people to sit down, and he says to them: OK, now we’re gonna eat — here, we got five loaves bread and two fish; being a good Jew I’m going to bless them, then I’m gonna break them up and share them with all five thousand of you — and you know what? if you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying all day, we’ll have plenty of food for everyone here.

As Jesus says this, I’ll bet you could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. They had been listening to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and now he’s telling them to follow what he taught. So everyone who has food shares it around; the followers of Jesus help distribute everything. In the end, everyone has enough to eat, every single person there, with plenty of food left over.

As I say, if you want to believe in some supernatural miracle, please do so. To me, that’s a good way to let yourself off the hook — if some all-powerful daddy God is going to solve all your problems, then you don’t have to take personal responsibility. I believe Jesus is teaching us to take personal responsibility for all our relationships within the Web of Life.

And in fact, the early Christian church lived out this kind of teaching. You all know about the Christian ritual of communion, right? If you go to a Catholic church and take communion, it’s all symbolic, right? — I’ve never done it, but I’m told you get a little wafer of bread, and it’s all a symbol. Same thing in most Protestant Christian churches — you get a sip of wine or maybe grape juice, and a little crumb of bread, and it’s all a symbol. But in the early Christian church, records show that communion was a real meal — they talk about bringing olives and cheese and bread and wine and lots of other good things to eat. It was a symbolic meal, but it was also a real meal, because some of those early Christians didn’t get enough to eat all week, and they really needed that big meal on Sunday that was communion. So it was that those early Christians truly lived out the teachings of Jesus — they truly lived out their understanding of the Web of Life by sharing their food with each other.

Our church is definitely not a traditional Christian church. We stopped doing traditional Christian communion more than a century ago. Yet if you want to see a Jesus-type social-justice-oriented communion, come to our social hour after the worship service. Maybe we don’t have communion, but if you come to social hour after church you will discover that someone has made soup, and you can get a hot meal after church. And on some Sundays, we’ll have pizza of some other food out for a nominal cost, but if you don’t have any money, we don’t mind if you take some anyway. (We do ask people to come to the worship service first, to be a part of the religious community.) In other words, we live out the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand right here in our church. This is why I don’t need a supernatural explanation for that story of feeding the five thousand, because I’ve actually seen with my own two eyes how a community of people can share food among themselves, and have plenty to go around. By the way, any time you want to bring food to church, you can sign up to make soup, or just bring some good food to share.

I should add one last thing about the story of feeding the five thousand: if you really think about, which is harder to believe:– the supernatural explanation, that God made food appear? — or the other explanation, that if you give them a chance, people will be amazingly generous? Contemporary American society would rather believe the supernatural explanation than believe that we are all are capable of being amazingly generous. No wonder the traditional Christian churches emphasize supernatural miracles. But I’d rather believe people are capable of amazing generosity. And the funny thing is that each year at Christmas time, it seems to me that I see acts of generosity that equal to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. So maybe we do live out the teachings of Jesus at Christmas time, even if we don’t think much about it.

I started out by saying that each Christmas season, most of us try to stop and remember that Christmas is actually about Jesus. Now we’ve taken our obligatory time to reflect on Jesus. We’ve done it a little differently this year: we have taken the time to think about Jesus as a great intellectual leader, someone who discovered what he called the Kingdom of God, which we may prefer to call the Web of Life.

Now you’ve spent your time reflecting on Jesus. Now you can go out an indulge yourself in however you like to celebrate this holiday — shopping, decorations, saying “Bah humbug,” giving gifts, being generous to charities — whatever it is you do. And don’t forget to indulge yourself in the constantly growing knowledge that you, too, are an essential part of the whole Web of Life, that you are essentially connected with all that is.