Marriage as a religious act

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California, at 11:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Reading:

Splendid to us and much sought after is the sweet smell of love, established in the time of the ancients, guided by the voices of the prophets, and sanctified by the words of the teachers: because of all beautiful things of the earth, love is the most excellent. (Same Sex Unions, John Boswell, p. 292)

The other reading was a copyrighted poem which cannot be reproduced here.

Sermon — “Marriage as a Religious Act”

I’d like to speak with you this morning about marriage as a religious act. But in order to do that, I think I had better back up and first tell you a little bit about the sexual revolution as it occurred within Unitarian Universalism. I am not a historian, so this will not be history; rather, this will be the story of the sexual revolution as I happened to have heard other Unitarian Universalists tell it.

And I’ll begin with my mother and her twin sister. My mother’s family belonged to the Salem, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. In 1942, they went off to college in Boston, a women’s college that prepared young women to become teachers; in those days, young women could become teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or housekeepers, though eventually they were expected to become wives. Being Unitarians, they went to First Church in Boston, not too far away. First Church was quite progressive for the day, and offered sex ed classes to college students. They were twins and split everything up, and my aunt was the one who went to the sex ed classes. She told me that the other students teased her when she went, but as soon as she came back they clustered into the room she shared with my mother, and wanted to know everything she had learned. This is the earliest example I know of sexuality education for unmarried persons within Unitarianism; that these classes took place outside the family, and long before marriage, represents a change in society’s understanding of sexuality.

Now we move forward to the 1950s, and turn to the Universalist side of our heritage (remember that the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t merge until 1961). I have heard it told that Kenneth Patton, the Universalist minister at the revolutionary Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston, apparently conducted same sex union or marriage ceremonies there in the 1950s; but it was not the sort of thing that could be made public, not in those days, so we know little more than that such ceremonies probably took place. Obviously, this represents the beginnings of a change in the way we Unitarian Universalists understood marriage. (1)

Beginning in the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist women began seriously questioning the gender roles established for them. My family belonged to the Concord, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist church, and sometime in the early 1960s my father was invited to become an usher, which was considered a man’s job. My mother was invited to join the Flower Committee; and the way I remember her telling the story, she tried to remain polite but she made it clear she had no interest in arranging flowers. By the end of the decade, she was serving as an usher with my father — and I remember it was a big change when women became ushers. These small changes in gender roles at church helped us begin to question the larger gender roles associated with marriage.

As we moved into the later 1960s, there was a lot more sexual freedom in wider society; partly due to changing social values, but also due to the growing availability and legalization of inexpensive and effective contraception. In many ways the growth of sexual freedom was good, but it also had its dark side. Within Unitarian Universalism, there were too many ministers who decided that growing sexual freedom meant they could have sex with women in their congregation. I later heard stories about Unitarian Universalist ministers who allegedly had sex with women in their congregations during the 1960s; in one of these stories, the people in the congregation knew a woman’s marriage was going to break up when she went to pastoral counseling sessions with their minister. These are not pleasant stories to tell, but they help show how we Unitarian Universalists were questioning the meaning of marriage. And the way I have been told some of these stories, violation of trust by ministers helped galvanize some of the early feminists. So it is not surprising that some women who had witnessed clergy sexual misconduct in their congregations in the late 1960s became leaders in the Women and Religion movement in the 1970s.

During the 1960s, we Unitarian Universalists remained ambivalent on the subject of gay rights. In 1969, the same year as the Stonewall riots, James Stoll was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to come out as gay, but after coming out he never served in a Unitarian Universalist congregation again. At the same time, we published About Your Sexuality, a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for early adolescents, which taught that homosexuality was perfectly normal. So we accepted homosexuality as normal, but we weren’t quite ready to let openly gay men or lesbians serve as our ministers. Needless to say, it remained controversial through the 1960s for a congregation to endorse same sex marriages.

The sexual revolution seemed to me to accelerate in the 1970s, perhaps because I was in my teens in those years. You began to hear about Unitarian Universalist congregations sponsoring same sex union ceremonies. The feminist movement accelerated, and we began to sing hymns that had de-genderized language for the first time. These were all positive developments.

On the negative side, I later learned that during the 1970s many Unitarian Universalists experimented with so-called “open marriage,” where you could sleep with whomever you wanted and still stay married. Sometimes this was called “wife swapping” instead of “open marriage,” which gives you a sense of how sexist this was. In many congregations, there were even adult education classes in open marriage (at which the mind boggles). While I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and too many people got hurt by some of these 1970s-era experiments in redefining marriage.

Not surprisingly, this strand of the sexual revolution played out in parts of our youth movement as well. My own Unitarian Universalist youth group was pretty much squeaky clean. But in some youth groups and in some district youth programs there was a good deal of sexual activity, which mostly followed the sexual example being set by some Unitarian Universalist adults. Thus I have heard about adult youth advisors who were sleeping with teens (and of course this was mostly male advisors sleeping with girls), just like ministers were doing with congregants. And I’ve heard about teenagers having lots of sex with each other at youth events, though when you talk with women who went through this as girls, they may tell you that it was rooted in sexist assumptions and sometimes it felt like sexual harassment and/or date rape. Again, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but too many people, especially girls, got hurt.

Yet despite all this, in other ways we Unitarian Universalists made positive progress in rethinking marriage. One of the most important things we did was to change our thinking about gender roles in marriage. By the 1980s, I would say all Unitarian Universalists understood women and men to be equal partners in a marriage, and while plenty of marriages stuck with the old gender roles to a greater or lesser degree, we held up equality as an ideal. Also by the 1980s, we recognized that you could have committed, serious, long-term relationships without getting married; my current partner and I got together in 1989, and I felt no stigma from anyone in my Unitarian Universalist church because we were not married.

The 1980s was also the decade when I would say we had the most conflict about same sex unions and same sex marriages in our congregations. I know several ministers who got into real trouble in that decade for officiating at same sex marriages, and more than one Unitarian Universalist congregation got embroiled in serious internal conflict about whether or not they should affirm same sex marriages. By the end of the 1980s, I think the tide had turned. The conflicts continued — I myself witnessed one particularly nasty little conflict as late as 2002 — but increasingly we became comfortable with same sex marriages. Indeed many of us became active in advocating for the legalization of same sex marriages outside our own faith communities.

So that’s a very subjective telling of the story of how the sexual revolution moved through Unitarian Universalism, told from a very subjective perspective. This sexual revolution changed our views on a great many things, including sexuality, gender roles, and (of course) marriage. And I would like to point out three major consequences of this sexual revolution:

First major consequence: Feminism has become the norm for Unitarian Universalists. We firmly believe that women and girls are just as good as men and boys, and if you don’t feel that way, you are probably not going to feel comfortable among us. Because we believe that women are the equals of men, we have fundamentally changed the way we think of marriage between a man and a woman. In the bad old days, when a woman got married, she knew she was going to be subservient to the man; she would even give up her own name, and she would become, for example, Mrs. John Smith.

But once we figured out that women and men are equal, that did away with the old gender roles, and we no longer thought there had to be one dominant partner in a marriage, and that dominant partner was going to be a man. And that helped open up the possibility that a marriage didn’t always have to consist of a man and a woman.

Second major consequence: We Unitarian Universalists now openly affirm that sex is pleasurable. We know that sex is an important part of human experience. We emphatically do not believe that sex is bad, or “dirty.” Furthermore, we have no problems accepting new scientific advances, and so we have been perfectly willing to adopt new advances like oral contraceptives, and other new and more effective contraceptives. And the new contraceptives have meant that we don’t have to worry nearly as much as we used to about unintended pregnancies, which means that we have come of the purely pleasurable aspects of sex and sexuality. In these views, we are quite different from some other religious traditions.

Because of this, we don’t believe that marriage is primarily for the sake of reproduction. We think sex within marriage can serve to strengthen the relationship between the two partners. And that has opened us up to the possibility that a marriage does not have to be defined as a biological man and a biological woman whose main purpose is to have biological children together.

The third major consequence of the sexual revolution for Unitarian Universalists: We discovered that stable partnerships are best. During the 1970s, many Unitarian Universalists experimented with various kinds of open marriages, partner swapping, and the like. Viewed from a purely pragmatic vantage point, these experiments had more negative consequences than positive consequences; too many people got hurt (and too many of the people who got hurt were women, legal minors, and/or people in less powerful social positions). On this very pragmatic basis, we learned that stable partnerships generally cause fewer problems. At the same time, we are also quite clear that it is a good idea to end partnerships that are going badly; but we now know that we don’t want to end relationships on a whim, and that we have to consider how ending a relationships will affect children, partners, relatives, and others.

Another way of stating all this is that we know that sexual relationships have can have lasting consequences. This makes us more likely to believe same sex marriage is a good thing: we think it’s a good idea to have public ceremonies in which the partners express their commitment to each other, no matter what the gender of the partners may be.

 

To review these three results of the sexual revolution in Unitarian Universalism: (I) Feminism is the norm for Unitarian Universalism, and that means we don’t put people into strict gender roles. (II) Sex is good and pleasant parts of the human experience, and it exists for more than the purposes of reproduction. (III) We have come to find out that stable partnerships are best. Thus it is not at all surprising that we Unitarian Universalists are more willing to accept same sex marriage than quite a few other religious groups in the United States.

So far, I have looked at how our Unitarian Universalist views on sex, sexuality, and gender have changed as a result of the sexual revolution; and I’ve looked at three consequences of the sexual revolution. To wind up this discussion on Unitarian Universalist views of marriage, let’s take a look at what happens when two people get married in our tradition.

When you have a Unitarian Universalist wedding, there are three essential parts which are required: the intention, the vows, and the proclamation; that is, there is a statement that the people getting married really do mean to get married, then the people getting married exchange promises to one another, and finally, there is a statement that these two are now married. Everything else can get dropped from a Unitarian Universalist wedding ceremony.

Why are these three parts essential? They are essential because from our point of view, a marriage is a covenant between the partners in the marriage. In order to have a covenant, the parties to the covenant have to go into it freely and willingly — this is why we have the intention, to show that the parties to the marriage are entering into it freely and willingly. And in order to have a covenant, the parties involved have to exchange promises to one another — this is why we have the vows, for they are the exchange of promises between the people getting married. Finally, in our tradition a covenant should be witnessed by others in the wider community, and the wider community recognizes that you are married — this is why we have the proclamation.

Interestingly, a marriage ceremony in our tradition is not absolutely required; marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it mandated by religious law. In this, our tradition has some small similarity to the first thousand years of the Christian tradition, insofar as during the first thousand years of Christianity there was no religious imperative to get married, and marriage was a flexible matter; indeed, there were even same-sex Christian marriages throughout the medieval period. (2)

But the institution of marriage has changed enormously over the centuries: medieval marriage was very different from Renaissance marriage, which was in turn different from Victorian marriage, which is turn was different from mid-twentieth century marriage, which in its turn is quite different from marriage today. Marriage has always been an evolving institution; it continues to evolve today; and our great grandchildren may look back on what we consider progressive and think of us as quaint, alien, and old-fashioned.

To conclude, then, when we look at what UU religious marriages are today, we find that marriage is a covenant into which two people enter, promising each other their love and support. That covenant is recognized by a wider community, and ideally we hope that marriages will remain stable for as long as possible. We believe that sex is good and pleasurable and need not be limited to biological reproduction. And we do not think married couples should be restricted to mid-twentieth century gender roles.

Now let me leave you with this final important reminder: I have only been talking about religious marriage as it exists within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I have not been talking about legal marriage, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the sad truth is that while we Unitarian Universalists recognize religious marriages for same sex couples, in the state of California those religious ceremonies do not result in legal marriages; whereas when we recognize opposite-sex religious marriages, those marriages are recognized as legal by the state. But I have done what I set out to do, which was to talk with you about marriage as a religious act.

 

NOTES:

Update, August, 2013: It should be noted that this sermon was written and preached at a time when two key cases were before the U.S. Supreme Court — Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which the plaintiffs sought to require the state of California to enforce Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage; and U.S. v. Winsor, in which the plaintiff challenged the legality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided both these cases in favor of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court opinions for Hollingsworth v. Perry may be found here; that for U.S. v. Winsor may be found here. Same sex marriage became legal in California almost immediately after the Hollingsworth v. Perry decision; and and it appears that the effect of the decision on U.S. v. Winsor will be to extend federal marriage benefits to all legally married same sex couples, although this is a complex matter that is still being worked out in practice.

(1) Jeff Wilson has documented Unitarian ministers who were performing same-sex unions in the 1950s; see the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, 2011.

(2) John Boswell, Same Sex Unions (Vintage Books, 1995).

Additional notes:

The sexual revolution: My telling of this history has been shaped by a published history of the sexual revolution, Davis Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Little Brown, 2000). Despite the rather lurid title, this is a serious attempt at history, and is to my knowledge the only book-length history of the sexual revolution. The bibliography is especially useful for those who wish to study the history of the sexual revolution in more depth.

Unitarian Universalist history: Except where I have permission to retell someone’s recollections of the sexual revolution, or where I heard stories told in public, I have changed details to protect anonymity; these stories come from Unitarian Universalists who lived in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast. (As an aside, regarding legalization of contraception, it is worth noting that at least through 2012 it remained technically illegal to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons in Massachusetts, the state in which I was raised as a UU.)

History of marriage: For same sex marriages in the Western world prior to the Renaissance, see Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell (New York: Willard Books, 1994); for a brief look at the history of marriage from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, see “Reformed and Enlightened Church” by Jane Shaw, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Theological grounding: Part of the theological grounding of this sermon comes from “Sex and Secularization” by Linda Woodhead, in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, in its description of how Christian denominations try to regulate private life in a secularized world. Also useful in understanding how religions react to the secularization of society is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon, 1989), though I should say that I have serious disagreements with Hauerwas and Willimon.

Homily for a ministers’ retreat

This homily was given at the vesper’s service on 10 April 2012 during the spring retreat of the Pacific Central District chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As usual, the homily as delivered differed from the reading text below. Homily copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading

The reading comes from the Gospel attributed to Mark, chapter 10, verse 46 to the end of the chapter:

As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Homily

The reading this evening tells about an incident that took place when the wandering rabbi and rabble-rouser Jesus was making his way towards Jerusalem where he planned to celebrate Pesach, or Passover. So this little story was supposed to have taken place just a day or so before Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, just a few days before the first day of Pesach, just a few days before the Roman authorities who ruled over Jerusalem arrested Jesus on trumped-up political charges and then sentenced him to death by crucifixion.

Let’s review what happens in this story: Continue reading “Homily for a ministers’ retreat”

Liberal Religion, Silicon Valley Style

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. 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) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Reading

“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, Scholar’s Version translation.

Sermon

I’d like to speak with you this morning about liberal religion in Silicon Valley, or more precisely Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley. There are three distinctive features of Silicon Valley culture, and I think these are also distinctive features of our liberal religious congregation.

One distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the ethic of hard work: here in the Valley, people believe that the harder one works the better off one will be. And this holds true in our congregation: we work hard, and we accomplish a great deal.

Another distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is that we live in a truly multicultural and multiracial place, we’re used to it, and we like it this way. And this holds true in our congregation: though we are still majority white, we are changing, and I’d say most of us will feel more comfortable once we have a smaller percentage of white people.

A third distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the engineering and entrepreneurial drive which leads us to believe we can fix anything if we put our minds to it. This is also true of our congregation: and so, for one example, last spring even though the Great Recession is still if full swing, even though many of people in this congregation are out of work, our pledge drive was up more than 15% over the previous year.

Hard work. Multiculturalism. We can fix anything and do the impossible. Those three things help distinguish the Silicon Valley way. And those three things are also distinguishing features of our congregation.

 

Now I’d like to say a little bit more about each of these three things as it pertains to our congregation. I’ll begin with the culture of hard work.

At this point in my career as a minister, I’ve served in eight different congregations. People in this congregation work harder and accomplish more than in any of the other seven congregations I’ve served. I’ll give you some specific examples of what I mean. I once served a congregation fifty percent larger than ours, and it did not have nearly as programs and activities as we do. We carry out more social justice projects than most congregations our size: we host a homeless shelter here in our buildings one month a year and we cook all the meals for them; we serve meals at Stevenson House next door several times a year; we host innumerable lectures and talks on social justice issues, including having the former president of Amnesty International speak here. We provide excellent programs for kids, like our comprehensive sexuality education programs that are better than those offered in area schools. We have a bunch of small groups: men’s groups and women’s groups and so-called “Chalice Circles” and support groups and social groups.

All these things have been accomplished by hard work. People in our congregation put in hundreds of volunteer hours to make all this work. Any congregation requires hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and we’re no different than other congregations in this respect. And it’s something of a misnomer to label this work, because most of what we do around here offers opportunities to socialize and to have time away from job and home responsibilities. Nevertheless, my sense is that we in this congregation tend to be more purposeful and more serious and more focused in our volunteer work than other congregations I’ve known. We may have fun doing our volunteer work here, but it’s purposeful fun, it’s serious fun, it’s very focused fun.

Not only do we work hard, but we are convinced that the harder we work, the better off we will be. I say this based on the following evidence:– Even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we are not doing enough. And even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we need to do more in order to feel barely adequate.

And isn’t this the way most people in Silicon Valley treat their jobs? We are convinced that hard work pays off, which implies that working harder and longer pays off even more, so some people estimate that the average work week in Silicon Valley is something like 60 hours a week. That would translate to 8.57 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a lot of hard work.

 

Having demonstrated that hard work is one distinctive feature of liberal religion, Silicon Valley style, I’d like to turn your attention to another such distinctive feature. We are convinced that we can fix anything and do the impossible.

Silicon Valley is full of tales of people who can do the impossible. In 1939, two guys named Hewlett and Packard started a business in their garage. That business turned into a major corporation. In 1977, two guys named Wozniak and Jobs incorporated another business in a different garage. That business is now one of the top three biggest companies in the world by market capitalization. And in 1947 a bunch of religious liberals started a congregation which they called the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. In less than a decade, they built it up from a tiny congregation to a big one.

All these people did something that seemed impossible to others. That Palo Alto Unitarian Church, for example, started with fewer than fifty people in a rented space, and in ten years they had built their own building and offered three services with hundreds of adults and hundreds of children in attendance each week. Yes, I know they were riding a demographic trend: the congregation was formed at the peak of the Baby Boom, during the years when this region was experiencing huge population growth as a result of its then affordable housing. But that again is typical of Silicon Valley: successful companies ride trends; as do successful congregations. Hewlett Packard rode the trend of individuals and businesses owning personal computers. Apple rode the personal computer trend for a while, but they moved into mP3 players and smartphones, and now they’re bigger than Hewlett Packard. Our congregation rode the Baby Boom.

I’m going to come back to that notion of following trends in just a minute. But first I’d like to use Apple as an example of a Silicon Valley company that did things that people said were impossible, or at least improbable. Take their mP3 player, the iPod. The first iPods had little hard drives in them, because people said it would be too expensive to manufacture flash drives; but Apple did just that. Another thing that Apple did that was impossible was to rebound from mistakes and reverse downwards trends. Perhaps you remember the Apple Newton, a handheld device of the type known as a personal digital assistant. The Newton was a commercial failure, although medical doctors loved them and used them for years. After the Newton failed, other companies like Palm Computing came in and developed commercially successful personal digital assistants, and the common wisdom was that would be impossible for Apple to become a major player in that market ever again. But Apple did the impossible, combined the personal digital assistant with a cellphone, and dominated the new smartphone market with their iPhone.

 

Now let me come back to this notion of following significant demographic trends; and this relates directly to a third distinctive feature of both Silicon Valley, the multiracial and multicultural character of this area.

Demographers tell us that within a generation, the United States will be a majority minority country: that is, white Anglo people will no longer constitute a majority of the population. Well, Silicon Valley is already there. A couple of days ago, I was in the little supermarket across the street from here, and I heard five different languages within five minutes: English and Spanish of course, but also French, what sounded to my ears like Chinese, and what might have been Russian. There were white people, black people, East Asians, South Asians. We who live in Silicon Valley already know what it’s like to live in a majority minority country. This is the biggest demographic trend that’s going on right now.

If you look around you this morning, you’ll see that our congregation remains mostly white. Last time I checked for myself, about 85 percent of the people who show up on Sunday morning are white. Mind you, we are still way ahead of other suburban Unitarian Universalist congregations, most of which are 98% white Anglo; the only Unitarian Universalist congregations I know of that are more than 20% non-white and non-Anglo are in the middle of cities. Yet in true Silicon Valley style, I am not satisfied that we are performing better than any other suburban congregation — I want us to be better than anyone else. When I hear that we are only 15% non-white and non-Anglo, I feel inadequate, and my first thought is that we need to work harder so that we can become a majority minority congregation as soon as possible.

But fostering multiculturalism is one thing that no longer yields to conventional hard work. In the past fifty years we have done an enormous amount of hard work, and we have made great progress, both within this congregation, and in the country at large. It is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, and it is this congregation’s policy that we aim to be completely inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. We have gone about as far as hard work can take us. And we’re still not there yet. And this brings me back to the reading from the Gospel of Thomas with which we began this service.

The Gospel of Thomas was one of the books that didn’t make it into the final approved and authorized version of the Christian Bible. It is, in fact, a heretical book, and therefore perfect for Unitarian Universalists. Chapter 97 of the Gospel of Thomas says this:

“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

What Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven is what we today would call the Web of Life; it is that network of inescapable bonds and connections that tie us to one another. The Web of Life exists whether you believe in it or not. Many people do not believe in the Web of Life; these people do not believe that all living organisms are interconnected in one planet-wide ecosystem that is tied together through the complex interaction of many different feedback loops. But whether you believe in it or not, the Web of Life exists.

Human relations are just a more specific part of this Web of Life. We human beings are all interconnected with each other, our destinies are intertwined with the destinies of all other human beings, whether we like to admit that fact or not.

This is the nature of existence. It does not matter whether you want it to be this way or not; it is this way, we are all connected. You do not have to work hard to make all human beings connect to one another; we are already connected to one another. Indeed, more often than not, hard work can actually obscure or even damage the connections between human beings. If I work more than 50 hours a week — something that I have to admit I have done more than once in the past month — I may get more work done, but I won’t make my connections with other human beings any stronger, and I may make them weaker. If I work too much, I won’t see Carol, my partner, as much as I should, and I will actively damage that relationship. If I work too much, I will get grumpy, and that grumpiness will play out here at church, and that’s only going to annoy people, and again damage my connections with other people.

This does not mean we should stop working. This does not mean that if we stop working altogether, some kind of utopia will emerge. Work, too, is part of the Web of Life; all organisms have to work to get the food and shelter they need to stay alive. But problems arise when we work too much. When we are working so hard that we are not paying adequate attention to what’s going on around us, we may find that the huge ceramic jar that we have been carrying slung over our backs has broken, and the flour that we were carrying has spilled out along the road behind us. And then we get home, and put the jar down, and look inside it, and find to our surprise that it is empty.

It is in that empty jar that we may find the Kingdom of Heaven. That empty jar is a wake-up call, a call for us to pay attention. Pay attention, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, it is not some distant happy land you go to after death, nor is it some distant utopia that we will create one day in the future. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now; the Web of Life is here and now.

As people who live in Silicon Valley, we are accustomed to doing the impossible. Given the long history of racial division in this country, creating a truly multicultural congregation is impossible. Yet we can do it. We can do it, but not by adding even more hard work to the hard work we have already done.

One of the things I like best about the ideal of Silicon Valley is the way playfulness is to Silicon Valley culture. In one paradigmatic example of this, I am told that when you go into one of Google’s buildings, there are places where you can play with Legos.

I would like to suggest to you that if we are going to achieve our dreams, if we are going to achieve the impossible and become a multicultural congregation that reflects the demographics of Silicon Valley — if we are going to be the first truly multicultural, multiracial, Unitarian Universalist suburban congregations — we will achieve that through ratcheting back on the hard work, and turning instead to playfulness.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the parable does not say that the Kingdom of Heaven is hard work. It is a playful parable that tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is like an empty jar. Yes, we still need some hard work. But we also need more Legos, more playfulness, more Second Sunday lunches, more conversations on the patio, more peering into an empty jar and laughing at ourselves for having not noticed that the flour had poured out on the road behind us.

 

And for your amusement, here’s a video I made using Xtranormal of this morning’s reading, as told by a robot: