Sermon copyright (c) 2023 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. The poems were read by Carol Martin, worship associate.

There are those who find sleep to be a waste of time. Sometimes these are the same people who find night to be wasteful or fearful or something to be avoided. They may be the people who say that dreams are delusions and snares. The only good time, so they say, is the day time, the time of bright sunshine, and at night we turn on all the lights so that it looks like daytime. Day time is the good time, the pragmatic work time, the time for getting things done and working towards your goals.

But where do your goals come from? The least of our goals come from the pragmatic work time. These are the incremental goals: we make a thousand dollars and next we want to make ten thousand dollars, then a hundred thousand dollars, then a million dollars. It all seems very grand, but what does it mean?

In the time of the ancient Hebrew prophet named Joel, the nation of Israel had fallen on hard times, and they longed for a time when “the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” — the ancient equivalent of having a million dollars. But simply to have an abundance of physical pleasures was not enough, said Joel; beyond that, God would pour down God’s spirit upon all the people, and…

“Your children will prophesy.
Your elders will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.”

Dreams and visions…like the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”…

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Langston Hughes praises rest and night and dreaming in his poem, and he adds something of vital interest to those of us in the United States: he connects these things to race and racism. Western culture has traditionally thought of darkness and night and sleep as being less than brightness and daylight and wakefulness. Beginning in the fifteenth century or so, Western culture went further and began equating skin color with things like daylight and darkness. Westerners started saying that people with darker skin colors were like darkness, night, and sleep. This meant (so they said) that darker skin colors were not as good as light skin colors, which were like daylight and wakefulness. Westerners started calling Africa the ”dark continent,” and this meant several things: that Africa was populated by people with black skin, that Africa was a dangerous “heart of darkness,” that Africa was not as enlightened as Europe, that Europe had the right to send its soldiers and warships to “enlighten” Africa.

Langston Hughes turns this Western imagery upside down. Night is gentle and tender, he says, and then goes on to say that night is “black like me.” This one short poem challenges a metaphor that many in the West carry around inside ourselves: the metaphor that night and darkness and blackness are somehow bad, while day and light and whiteness are somehow good. Langston Hughes makes us ask ourselves: Why set up a hierarchy like that? Why not allow day and night to be equally good? And furthermore…why not allow White people and Black people (and all other skin colors) to be equal?

Which brings us to a poem by Emily Dickinson…

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which, on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be
By people of degree
The breaking of the Day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall Aurora be —
East of Eternity —

One with the banner gay —
One in the red array —
That is the break of Day!

Now the stereotype is that every time Emily Dickinson writes about “sleep,” she is actually writing about death. Therefore, many people will simply assum this is a poem about death, and leave it at that. But you can’t reduce Emily Dickinson’s poetry to a single simple logical explanation. There is more to this poem than meets the eye.

Emily Dickinson tells us what “Sleep is supposed to be,” a mere mechanical “shutting of the eye.” But, she says, sleep is more than that: sleep is the “station grand / Where a host of witnesses stand.” Emily Dickinson knew the Hebrew Bible well, so it’s reasonable to hear echoes of the Bible in her poems. I think I hear echoes of the prophet Joel when he prophesied about how the elders will dreams dreams, and the children will prophesy, and the young people will have visions: a host of witnesses dreaming and making prophecies for the future. Sleep is more than the mechanics of shutting your eyes; day break is more than the sun rising. First come the dreams and visions. After that, we act on those dreams and visions. Day cannot exist without night. Night cannot exist without day.

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. With that in mind, we might say this is, in fact, a poem about death: the death of the many soldiers who died in that brutal war. But I also hear this as Emily Dickinson’s statement of hope for the future. When the Civil War ended in a victory for the North, when there was a victory over the forces wanting to maintain slavery, then would the dreams and visions for racial justice begin to be fulfilled. Well, here we are, a century and a half later, still trying to complete the work of the Civil War — still trying to bring complete equality and freedom to all people. Emily Dickinson’s poem is still topical.

Perhaps we will always be striving for the perfect future that never quite arrives. Yet it is the dreams and visions that keep us moving towards that perfect future — it is sleep in the sense of the “station grand” surrounded by a host of witnesses that will bring us those dreams and visions of a perfect future.

Which brings us to the third poem, by James Weldon Johnson, titled “Mother Night.” The range of his writing was unusually broad: he wrote lyrics of hit Broadway songs, and published a well-received novel, three books of poetry, a non-fiction book, political essays, and finally perhaps the best American autobiography of the twentieth century. At the end of his autobiography, he gives a summary of his religious outlook, which makes him sound very much like a Unitarian. With that in mind, here is his poem, “Mother Night”…

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

Now this is indeed a poem that equates sleep with death. But the poem says: death is not something fear; it’s something to be welcomed when the time is right. Now it was perhaps easier for him to say that when his time to die came along, he would, “full weary of the feverish light,” welcome the night of death. He wrote this poem when he was 51, by which age he had already lived a very full life: first African American to pass the Florida bar exam, hit songwriter on Broadway, successful poet and novelist, U.S. consul to Nicaragua during a revolution, and the first executive secretary of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People. If, like James Johnson, you’ve had a successful life full of major accomplishments, I think it’s easier to say that you might “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.”

Yet there’s more going on here than the poet saying, “Hey, I’ve had a good run, when it comes time to die, I’ll be ready.” He makes a theological point: out of the chaos of darkness came the universe. (Today we might talk about the Big Bang, but that’s a scientific theory that wasn’t developed until after James Weldon Johnson died.) From the primordial Night came blazing suns, and from blazing suns came planets and life and eventually human beings. And at the end of time, human beings, planets, stars, will all return to primordial Night. From stardust we have come, and to stardust we shall return. If this is what we really believe, we too will “welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.” James Weldon Johnson is telling us that each human life is of utmost significance precisely because it participates in the great drama of the universe, from the Big Bang to the ultimate end of everything when entropy finally takes over. You may or may not agree with him, but you can see how such an attitude might reconcile him to death: like Socrates, he is a poetic rationalist who understands death as a long night of perfect sleep; not something to be feared, but something to be desired, when the time comes.

Each of these three poems tells us different things about sleep. Langston Hughes upends the old Western notions that nighttime and sleep are bad, that blackness is bad and whiteness is good, that dreams should be ignored: instead, he says that night and darkness and blackness and dreaming and sleep are things we should value. Emily Dickinson tells us that sleep need not be the mere shutting of the eye, for when we are guided by a host of witnesses it can guide us to a hopeful future. And finally, by placing our brief human lives in the context of the lifespan of the universe, James Weldon Johnson tells us that sleep is not something we need to fear.

On this day when we lose an hour of sleep, I hope I’ve convinced you that sleep is good. Sleep is more than merely good, it is cosmically good, it connects us with human striving for justice and with the life of stars and the universe. With that in mind, I think I’ll take a nap this afternoon to make up for the hour of sleep I lost last night.

Religion vs. Spirituality

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 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.


The first reading is from American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and Davide E. Campbell. Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Campbell is professor of political science at University of Notre Dame.

“…[D]uring the 1990s Americans of all ages became increasingly uneasy about mixing religion and politics. It is not surprising that younger Americans, still forming religious attachments, translated that uneasiness into a rejection of religion entirely. This group of young people came of age when ‘religion’ was identified publicly with the Religious Right, and exactly at the time when the leaders of that movement put homosexuality and gay marriage at the top of their agenda. And yet this is the very generation in which the new tolerance of homosexuality has grown most rapidly. In short, just at the youngest cohort of Americans was zigging in one direction, many highly visible religious leaders zagged in the other.

“Given these patterns, it is not at all surprising that when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked a large national sample of nones why they rejected religious identification, their objections were not theological or scientific. Instead the new nones reported that ‘they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgemental, or insincere. Large number also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.’”

The second reading is from a 2010 translation titled The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. This translation is by a group of progressive scholars who are known for not sticking to Christian orthodoxy, but instead trying to get at the original meaning of the text. This if from a translation of the first letter by Paul of Tarsus to the religious community at Thessalonica in Greece.

“Concerning your relationship with one another: I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another. You are already practicing this precept in your dealings with your fellow believers in Macedonia, but we urge you, friends, to do this extravagantly. As we’ve urged you before: live a quiet life, mind your own business, and support yourselves, so that outsiders might respect you and you might be self-sufficient.”

Sermon: “Religion vs. Spirituality”

In the late 1990s, when I was working as the religious educator at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, I gave a sermon in which I said that I didn’t think much of Paul of Tarsus, the person who wrote the second reading this morning, in addition to writing several books of the Christian scriptures. In that sermon, I pointed out that Paul of Tarsus was sexist — he made a special point of chasing women out of leadership roles in the early Christian communities;, and it was he, not Jesus, who said that women should be subordinate to men. I also said that Paul of Tarsus was responsible for the anti-gay sentiments that we were then hearing from the Religious Right, many of whom quoted Paul’s letters to support their contention that Christianity could not tolerate same sex relationships. I was, in fact, one of those young Americans that we heard about in the first reading this morning, who as the 1990s progressed became increasingly uneasy about the toxic combination of the Religious Right and politics. Like many younger people in the 1990s, I thought of the Religious Right as hypocritical, judgemental, and insincere. And I blamed much of the Religious Right’s hypocrisy and insincerity on Paul of Tarsus.

One of the people who heard this sermon was a remarkable man named Dan Fenn. Dan was the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Unitarian ministers, but he chose to go into politics instead of following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He was deeply involved in Massachusetts politics in the 1950s, while he was teaching at Harvard Business School. He then served on the staff of the Kennedy presidential administration, and later he became the founding director of the JFK presidential library.

After hearing my sermon sermon, Dan invited me out to lunch. He gave me a good lunch, and then explained to me, in his polite erudite way, why Paul of Tarsus was worthy of my respect. Dan contended that without Paul’s organizational and political skills, the movement that was beginning to coalesce around the followers of Jesus would have died. True, Paul was guilty of sexism and homophobia. But it is wise to remember that no human being is perfect. And, as Dan Fenn pointed out, it is wise to remember that Paul was trying to maintain the fragile organization of the Jesus followers (I call them the Jesus followers because early on they probably didn’t call themselves Christians) during a time of growing repression by the Roman Empire.

This opened my eyes to a very basic fact. The social organization of religion does not happen by accident. The social organization of any religion is the product of human striving and human effort. And the social organization of religion matters, because in the real world religion does not exist without a social organization. The big difference between religion and spirituality is that spirituality is something you can do by yourself. Your spirituality might affect your immediate family, but most people’s spirituality won’t have an effect much beyond family and close friends. By contrast, religion is social in its very nature, and it can have quite a large effect on the outside world — for good or ill.

Dan Fenn made me think better of Paul of Tarsus, because of his leadership skills. I still don’t like Paul — he was rigid, and he held grudges. But I can admire Paul. I can hear in his letters how he cared about the people who were part of the loose network of Jesus followers. In addition to caring for others in the movement, he wanted to hold them accountable to the highest ideals they had been taught by Jesus: in his letters, Paul constantly reminds his fellow Jesus followers that love is their highest purpose, that they should do what Jesus taught and love one another as we love ourselves.

This reveals another major difference between religion and spirituality. Since spirituality is your own personal way of being in the world, no one is going to hold you accountable if you don’t live up to your ideals. Perhaps you will try to hold yourself accountable to your highest ideals, but most of us human beings are pretty good at deceiving ourselves, telling ourselves that we are much better than we really are. In a religious organization, by contrast, we can remind each other of what our highest ideals are. We can reflect together on whether we are living up to our ideals.

In our culture today, this is not a popular approach. We want to maintain our individual rights. We no longer want to be part of a social group that upholds certain standards. We have reason to feel that way when it comes to religion. In the United States in the twenty-first century, many conservative Christian groups are sexist, or even misogynistic, and they ask both for the unquestioning obedience of women, and unquestioning obedience to their religious dogmas around sexism. These same conservative Christian groups tend to be homophobic as well, and they ask for unquestioning obedience to their homophobic religious dogmas. Because these conservative Christian groups have loud voices in the public square, they are what we think of when we think of religion.

No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. More and more people, when asked what religion they belong to, respond “None.” While these people do not want to be affiliated with organized religion, they still feel moved by religious impulses. Sociologists call them the “Nones,” but they might call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The vast majority of them believe in the Christian God or some deity, and the vast majority of them pray or engage in some kind of spiritual practice, but they are turned off by religious organizations.

However (you knew there was going to be a “however,” didn’t you?), there’s a small problem with being “spiritual but not religious.” To help explain that problem, I’ll go back to the nineteenth century Transcendentalists here in New England, and in particular a poet named Jones Very.

Jones Very was the son of an atheist and freethinker who would have nothing to do with organized religion, but he became interested in Unitarianism, and became a Unitarian minister. While in studying to be a minister, he began writing poetry, some of it quite good. Through his Unitarian connections, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister, who ultimately agreed to edit Very’s poetry for publication. Bronson Alcott takes up the story:

“[Jones Very] professed to be taught by the Spirit and to write under its inspiration. When his [poetry was] submitted to Emerson for criticism the spelling was found faulty and on Emerson’s pointing out the defect, he was told that this was by dictation of the Spirit also. … Emerson’s witty reply [was], ‘that the Spirit should be a better speller,’ [and] the printed volume shows no traces of illiteracy in the text.” (Journals of Bronson Alcott [1938], p. 516)

Now think about what would happen if Jones Very were alive today, and if he were spiritual but not religious. As someone who is spiritual but not religious, he would maintain his individual rights, resisting anyone telling him to modify his poetry. He’d sit at home in solitude, posting his poems to Reddit, or publishing them through a Substack newsletter, or self-publishing a book on Amazon’s Createspace. He would refuse to compromise on his vision for his poetry, including the faulty spelling. People would think of his poems as illiterate, and ignore him; his poetry would disappear into oblivion.

In real life, Jones Very reaped the benefits of being a part of a religious community. He listened to feedback from his religious community, and his poetry benefited. While his was a modest genius, he did have real talent, and his poems are still included in most major collections of American poetry. [for a small selection of his better poems:]

I tell you this story of Jones Very to make an obvious point. We human beings are social animals. We need each other. We do better when we are around other people. If we have some talent, some genius, we need other people to hone our talent, our genius. If we have some religious insight, we need other people to tell us if it makes sense. It is too easy to delude ourselves. Jones Very deluded himself when he thought that even the bad spelling in his poetry was dictated by the Spirit; he needed Emerson to gently tell him that spelling and grammar do matter, because through such conventions we are able to better communicate with others. If we do not communicate with others, if we do not participate in wider communities, then we remain isolated and alone and lonely. If we do not participate in wider communities, we start on the path towards solipsism, where the only reality becomes what lies within the narrow confines of our own skulls.

Mind you, I do think that “spiritual but not religious” is the best option for some people, especially for anyone who was traumatized by some restrictive religious group that demanded unquestioning obedience from them. If you’re healing from religious trauma, you may have a real and pressing need to get away from anything that feels at all like the restrictive religious group you’re trying to escape.

At the same time, being “spiritual but not religious” cuts you off from one of the most powerful human tools for inquiry and self-knowledge. That powerful tool is the community of inquirers. As individuals, we human beings often make mistakes. But when we join together in community, we can help correct each other’s mistakes. This is the power of the scientific method. The scientific method is a communal process whereby individuals or small groups make observations of the world and propose hypotheses that might explain those observations. Then other individuals or small groups test those hypotheses, and subject them to critical analysis. Through the scientific community, we gradually increase our understanding of the world.

This goes beyond science. Any claim to knowledge, any claim to truth or to validity, including religious claims, should be tested by a critical community of inquirers. Nor is this a sterile intellectual exercise. We test these claims by seeing how they work out in real life. You may say that you believe in God or you don’t believe in God, but the real question is what your belief or disbelief in God causes you to do in the world. You may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re sexist and homophobic I probably won’t have much sympathy with your beliefs. On the other hand, you may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re a feminist and you support LGBTQ+ rights then probably you and I will be in sympathy, regardless of whether we agree about God.

In our culture, we can find many religious organizations that ignore this fundamental principle; we can find many religious organizations that resist any questioning of their worldview. Given these religious organizations that stifle inquiry, no wonder people become spiritual but not religious. No wonder people say, I’m not going to submit myself to some religious group that claims absolute certainty. No wonder people say, I’d rather go off by myself and have my own little spiritual thing going on. But the problem is that when you go off by yourself and have your own little spiritual thing going on, you fall into the same trap as the rigid religious organizations that claim absolute certainty.

And even for religious organizations like our own First Parish, we still have to go out and actually do something in the real world. Go ahead and have long intellectual discussions about whether you believe or disbelieve in God, but what I want to know is what your beliefs call you to do in the world. And this is the final, the most important function of a religious community — it is the religious community that calls on us to live out our beliefs in real life, it is the religious community that calls on us to do something.


Sadly, Dan Fenn died in 2020. The Cambridge Chronicle published an excellent article soon after his death detailing his involvement in local politics, and his commitment to education—

Three Hundred and One

Sermon 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.


The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:

“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”

The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).

“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”

Sermon: “Three hundred and One”

On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.

I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.

But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”

In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.

This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.

Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.

Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)

But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)

And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.

I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.

So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.

For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.

Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.

In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.

When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)

As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?

First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.

We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.

First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.

Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.

Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.

In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.

When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.


(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.