Why Do We Sing What We Sing?

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the poem “Darshan Singh and Christian Harmony,” by Coleman Barks, Gourd Seed (Maypop Books, 1983), p. 59.

The second reading was from John Calvin’s essay “Singing Psalms in Church.”

“As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent. One must always watch lest the song be light and frivolous; rather, it should have weight and majesty, as St. Augustine says. And thus there is a great difference between the music that is made to entertain people at home and at table, and the Psalms which are sung in church….”

The third very short reading was a Vietnamese folk poem titled “The Singer with a Bad Voice,” trans. by John Balaban, Ca Dao Vietnam (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).

Sermon: “Why Do We Sing What We Sing?”

[This sermon was interspersed with five hymns from recent Unitarian Universalist hymnals, as noted below.]

A question that I’ve been asking myself for some years now is this: why do we sing certain songs in our Sunday services, and not other songs? So I propose that we consider five songs that we often sing, then either sing them or listen to them sung, and think about why we do sing them. We can also think about why it might be strange that we sing them at all.

To begin, a quick explanation of why we sing at all in our services. In Western civilizations before the Protestants split from the Roman Catholics, most religious services did not have anyone singing singing except for some kind of rehearsed choir; if you weren’t in the choir, you didn’t sing. But Protestants like John Calvin, as we heard in the second reading, decided that everyone should sing.

The Puritans who started our congregation followed Calvin, and sang only psalms from the Bible. In the 18th century, they began singing hymns, that is, songs of praise to God that were not psalms. In the 19th century, the repertoire expanded further to include spiritual songs and gospel music, in which mention of God was less prominent. By the middle twentieth century, this congregation began singing songs that had no mention of God at all. We have come quite far from John Calvin.

And this brings us to the first song that I’d like us to consider, a song which has no explicit mention of any deity whatsoever. Let’s stay seated, and we’ll sing just the last verse of hymn #1064, “Blue Boat Home.”

[The congregation sang “Blue Boat Home,” #1064 in Singing the Journey. Recording of the songwriter, Peter Mayer, singing this song. Note that Mayer sings this song a bit differently from the version that appears in the hymnal.]

“Blue Boat Home” doesn’t mention God or any other deity whatsoever. Nevertheless, I’d call it a spiritual song. The song gives thanks, and it tries to make sense of the wonder of the universe. Expressing gratitude and wonder should be considered in some sense spiritual. “Blue Boat Home” is often considered an ecology song, which is another part of its spiritual attraction for us — we Unitarian Universalists have found the spiritual in Nature since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day.

But why have we latched onto “Blue Boat Home,” and not some other ecology song? For instance, why don’t we sing another spiritual ecology-oriented song that’s just as good, “Swimming to the Other Side,” written by Pat Humphries at about the same time? I’m glad we do sing “Blue Boat Home,” but I see no particular reason why we sing it and not the Pat Humphries song. Oftentimes, our song choices seem to be based on random chance.

There’s another one of our favorite songs that I can’t figure out why we sing, and that’s the song “There Is More Love Somewhere.” While “Blue Boat Home” is a composed song that sounds like a folk song, “There Is Move Love Somewhere” is a genuine honest-to-goodness folk song. “There Is More Love Somewhere” probably comes from Bessie Jones, who was recorded singing it for folklorist Alan Lomax in November of 1961. As is true of many American folk songs, it’s hard to say exactly where this song comes from. It probably has roots in Africa (Bessie Jones’s grandfather was born in Africa). Bessie Jones sang a couple of Christian verses that we usually don’t sing: “There is Jesus somewhere,” and “There is heaven somewhere,” so it probably has European Christian roots, too.

I’ve heard that some Unitarian Universalists have changed the words to this song so it says, “There is more love right here.” Folk songs can change over time, but once you start singing “There is more love right here,” I think you’ve just written a new song with an entirely different meaning; a song that ignore the realities of the African American tradition out of which the song originally arose. When we sing “There is more love “somewhere,” it reminds us that we do not live in a utopia; the moral arc of the universe is still trying to bend towards justice. When I sing “There is more love — somewhere,” that reminds me that we are put here on earth to help one another, and to help one another we have to understand that many of us have plenty of problems. This is a song of longing and striving for a better world. With that in mind, let’s sing the song, and see if you agree with me. No need to open your hymnal. We’ll sing two verses, “There is more love somewhere, I’m going to keep on till I find it”; and then “There is more hope somewhere….”

[The congregation sang “There Is More Love Somewhere,” #95 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Bessie Jones singing this songBernice Johnson Reagon’s recording.]

One of the most popular of all hymns and spiritual songs here in the U.S., across a wide range of religious traditions, is the song “Amazing Grace.” This song was not especially popular until after the Second World War, when professional musicians began making recordings of it. We think we know exactly how “Amazing Grace” sounds, but often what we actually know is the 1970 hit recording by Judy Collins, or the 1946 recording by Mahalia Jackson. Those professionally recorded versions don’t sound like older versions of the song. So the choir is going to sing for us an old version of “Amazing Grace” from 1835, the year the words were paired with the tune we now know best.

[The choir sang the original arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” Recording of this arrangement.]

“Amazing Grace” has taken on many different guises since that old 1835 version. Originally, the words were sung to a different tune. Even after the words were paired with the present tune, in 1835, the words continued to be sung to a wide variety of tunes, right up into the 1920s.

By the 1930s, the editors of songbooks and hymnals somehow settled on the present tune. Once professional musicians like Mahalia Jackson made recordings of it, I guess no one could imagine singing the words to any other tune.

During the 1950s and 1960s, “Amazing Grace” became one of the most powerful songs for African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement, providing strength and courage and vision. “Amazing Grace” had been written by a former slave-holder who saw the evil of his ways and reformed; in that story, African Americans fighting for Civil Rights saw hope for the future.

Sometimes White people heard a similar message in “Amazing Grace.” In the 1970s, country singer Johnny Cash began singing the song in his prison concerts. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Cash said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Since the 1970s, “Amazing Grace” is often played by bagpipers in cemeteries when someone is buried. Then it provides comfort to people who are in grief. (And it keeps evolving — wait till you hear the offertory Mary Beth is going to play, in which the tune to Amazing Grace goes places you won’t expect.)

The funny thing is that prior to being recorded by professional musicians, “Amazing Grace” belonged to White and Black Southerners living at the cultural peripheries. That poem by Coleman Barks we heard in the first reading describes how the song sounded when the country folk sang it: “The whinge and whang of a loudness I know….” Whinge and whang mean the song did not have the prettiness of a Judy Collins recording, nor the professionalism of a Mahalia Jackson recording. It would have sounded loud, and nasal, and unrestrained, and ecstatic, and — well, that old country singing sounded like bad singing to the educated city folks. To the city folks, it sounded like the kind of singing we heard about in the third reading, singing that causes dogs to bark and bulls to bellow.

So why did the educated city folk, after ignoring the song for over a century, suddenly decide “Amazing Grace” was worth singing? Perhaps it’s because we are slowly, over time, becoming more tolerant of the different subcultures in our country. So instead of being dismissive of uneducated whinge and whang, we can open ourselves to the strangenesses of other people’s musics. We are coming to realize, as Peter Schickele used to say, “all musics are created equal.” We are slowly broadening our perspectives.

The next song I’d like to consider with you seems very comforting and familiar, but it’s actually very strange: “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” Let’s sing that right now. Don’t bother opening your hymnals, sing from memory.

[The congregation sang “’Tis a gift to be simple” #16 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shakers singing this song.]

“’Tis a gift to be simple” — that sounds like a the familiar call for simple living. But in reality the Shaker tradition from which this song came was deeply strange.

Susan M. Setta, professor of religion at Northeastern, has written that the Shakers “proclaimed the Motherhood and Fatherhood of God, asserted that the second coming of Christ had occurred in the woman Ann Lee, fostered a social and political structure of both male and female leadership, and prohibited both marriage an private ownership of property.” (1) When the song says “’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,” the Shakers weren’t talking about some sort of personal growth or self-fulfillment in simple living (which is how we might interpret it today). They meant that after giving up all your private property and ending your marriage and fully believing that Ann Lee was the second coming of Christ, you settled into your place in a Shaker community.

And Shaker worship practices were deeply strange from our point of view. Their worship halls were set up for dancing. In 1961, Sister Lilian Phelps of the Canterbury, N.H., Shakers, described what this was like: “It was the belief of the Shakers that every faculty should be used in the worship of God, and so, various forms of physical exercise were introduced, particularly the March. A group of eight or ten singers, occupied the center of the room, around which the members marched in perfect formation. It was with a graceful, rhythmic motion of the hands as the members marched to the slow or quick tempo of the music.” (2) While this sounds interesting and attractive, it is very different from our worship services.

Yet even though Shakerism is basically alien to our own religious outlook, we still like the song “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” There is spiritual truth to be found in this song — both in the words and in the music — that transcends the narrow denominational boundaries in which we are supposed to live.

One of the functions of spiritual music should be to help us transcend the narrow religious boundaries that often restrict our understanding of other people. One of the biggest challenges facing our society today is how to deal with multiculturalism. Due to innovations in communications and transportation, our contact with people who are very different from ourselves continues to increase rapidly. Unfortunately, the increase in diversity in the United States has driven the spread of White supremacist movements, people who think their White racial and cultural identity is so fragile that it can’t survive an encounter with other races unless they are in a position of authority. Since we are not a White supremacists, we have a different experience. Our encounters with other races, ethnic groups, and cultures can actually lead us to deeper self-knowledge and a greater appreciation for our own racial and ethnic roots. When we sing songs from other races and other cultures and other religious traditions, we hope to be brought into greater contact with the wisdom of all of humanity. If we allow ourselves to appreciate the otherness of the songs we sing, our souls will be enlarged; we will become wiser and better people.

This brings me to the final song I’d like to consider: “We Shall Overcome.” Let’s sing that song together. We’ll sing two verses: “We shall overcome some day,” and then “All races together.”

[The congregation sang “We Shall Overcome,” #169 in Singing the Living Tradition. A recording of this song from the Civil Rights Movement.]

It’s hard to know exactly where this song came from. It probably comes from an old gospel song. During a strike by Black tobacco workers in North Carolina in 1946, Lucille Simmons started singing “We will overcome.” Then the Civil Rights Movement picked it up, and it became “We shall overcome” in the 1950s and 1960s.

While this song was originally sung for a very specific purpose — for nonviolent actions during the Civil Rights Movement — it taken on a wider meaning. When the song first became popular, we needed to overcome Jim Crow laws. Today, we still need to overcome racism, but in addition to that we all have personal and communal problems that we need to overcome. “We Shall Overcome” can encompass both our personal troubles, and the wider societal troubles that are all around us. We are encouraged when we sing that someday, we shall overcome. No wonder, then, that we sing this song in our Sunday services.

“We Shall Overcome” helps us see why we sing spiritual songs. We sing these songs to give us strength to face our many troubles. We sing these songs to give us courage, to help us get through the day without giving up. And somehow, it works better when we sing them ourselves. Yes, it is pleasant to listen to a recording of Judy Collins singing her sweetly polished version of “Amazing Grace.” But when we sing a spiritual song ourselves — even if we sing with a whinge and a whang — we get more out of it.

When we actually sing one of these songs ourselves, we sing to gain courage and strength. We will find more love somewhere — if we sing it ourselves. We will find amazing grace — when we sing it ourselves. We shall overcome — but we have to sing it ourselves. We don’t have to have perfect voices, or even good voices. We just have to sing with real feeling deep in our hearts.


(1) “When Christ Was a Woman: Theology and Practice in the Shaker Tradition,” in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, Wadsworth, 2001, p. 264.

(2) Sister Lillian Phelps, “Shaker Dances and Marches,” https://shakermuseum.org/learn/shaker-studies/who-are-the-shakers/shaker-dancing-and-marching/ (accessed 2 May 2024)

Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was from the essay “What Is Religious Naturalism?” by Jerome A. Stone:

“Religious naturalism is a type of naturalism. Hence we start with naturalism. This is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world. On the negative side it involves the assertion that there seems to be no ontologically distinct and superior realm (such as God, soul or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world. On the positive side it affirms that attention should be focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life. While this world is not self-sufficient in the sense of providing by itself all of the meaning that we would like, it is sufficient in the sense of providing enough meaning for us to cope.”

The second reading was the poem “In the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, Thinking of Rachel Carson,” by Anthony Walton.

Sermon: Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Probably most of us here this morning are firm believers in science. We believe that science is firmly grounded in the natural world. Science doesn’t need any supernatural elements — there’s no need of an afterlife, for example; no need for angels or demons or genies; no need for gods, goddesses, or other deities guiding our lives. As a result, many people give up on religions, because religions always seem to be full of supernatural elements.

This is a social trend that has been going on since at least the seventeenth century in Europe, when Baruch Spinoza rejected the idea that the Bible was divinely inspired, and raised questions about the nature of God. By the eighteenth century, a growing number of freethinkers, people who rejected many of the fundamental doctrines of Western religion, began to emerge. One such freethinker was Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlet Common Sense which did so much to further the cause of independence from Great Britain. Paine also wrote a treatise titled “The Age of Reason” which called the supernatural elements of the Bible:

“If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is,– Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.” (Pt. I, Ch. 17, The Age of Reason)

Paine said that while he liked the teachings of Jesus, many of the stories about Jesus found in the Bible are lies. It’s worth knowing about Paine because in today’s political debates we hear arguments that America was founded on the tenets of orthodox conservative Christianity; yet here is one of America’s founders arguing quite forcefully against orthodox Christianity.

The debate about miracles and supernaturalism continued in nineteenth century New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as a Unitarian minister for eight years before becoming a full-time writer, infuriated the religious establishment when he said that the miracles of the Bible have been grossly misunderstood. Here’s Emerson from his Divinity School Address:

“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul…. The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. [Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle… and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Emerson’s younger colleague Henry David Thoreau found miracles in his close observations of the natural world. Thoreau said we need to face up to reality as it actually is. This is what he wrote in his book Walden:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau was telling us that this life has miracles enough in it, and we don’t need to add any miracles to it. Thoreau remained open to the insights of traditional religious and spiritual wisdom — not just Christian wisdom, but the wisdom that can be found in all spiritual and religious traditions — but he kept his focus firmly on this world. This present life is sufficient, said Thoreau: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” So he did not reject religion. He simply wanted his religion to remain focused on this world, the world he could directly experience.

Many other religious naturalists emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Walt Whitman, whose poetry dealt with the here and now, could be called a religious naturalist. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois has been called a religious naturalist. Religious naturalists often felt uncomfortable in organized religion. So for example the poet James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the words to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,” felt he lacked religiosity, but to me it seems like he was forced into that feeling because the only definition of religiosity that he knew involved supernatural religion.

In the late twentieth century, the philosopher Jerome Stone began researching the various people who could be classified as religious naturalists. One of Jerome Stone’s most interesting discoveries was that religious naturalists cannot simply be lumped in with religious atheists. Some religious naturalists choose to use the word “God,” while others feel “God” is not a useful concept. So the biologist Ursula Goodenough, who calls herself a religious naturalist, and who feels that the natural miracles investigated by the science of biology are sufficiently miraculous, sees no need to use the word “God.” By contrast, Bernard Loomer — he’s the person who gave us the phrase “the interdependent web of existence” — is a religious naturalist who feels that God is a useful and important philosophical concept.

Thus religious naturalists interpret “God” in a variety of ways. Some religious naturalists interpret “God” as the natural laws of the universe, or as a human social construct, and so on. Other religious naturalists get along fine without God. So if you’re a religious naturalist, you can decide whether to use the word “God” or not. Yet all religious naturalists find common ground in their rejection of the supernatural and their embrace of this world. I like this aspect of religious naturalism, because it can facilitate communication across divisions. The search for truth is always communal, and anything that helps us talk across our divisions helps the search for truth.

As I’ve said before, I’m a devoted follower of Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ism — in other words, I don’t want to put a name to my ill-formed thoughts and feelings. But I guess I’d call myself “religious naturalism-adjacent.” I like the religious naturalists I’ve met in person; I took a class with Jerry Stone twenty years ago, and admired his humane and unpretentious attitude towards life.

And I appreciate the way religious naturalists have dealt with arguments about the existence of God. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and the old battle between humanists and the theists doesn’t seem to have progressed much since I was a child. Instead of arguing about the existence of God, the religious naturalists want you to define what it is that you mean when you say the word “God,” and that has deepened my own spiritual life.

I also appreciate that religious naturalists focus on this world. And if we don’t have to worry about some supernatural afterlife, this releases our energies to deal with the problems we face here and now. This also releases us to appreciate the beauties of the here and now. If there’s a heaven, or an afterlife, or reincarnation, it will come in its own good time; in the mean time, here we are with reality all around us waiting to be experienced. Even when beauties exist side by side with horrors, it is better to face up to the horrors and do what we can to end them, than to wait for some heaven which may never arrive.

Our contemporary society does not encourage us to face both beauty and horror. Instead, our contemporary society encourages passivity and quietism. Religious quietism pervades our society, as when we say: “It’s in God’s hands,” or “It was meant to be,” or “Whatever happens, happens for the best.” Belief in the supernatural need not deteriorate into quietism, and I am firmly allied with those who believe in a God of justice and truth and love. But we live in a world where some religious people use quietism to prevent necessary change, religions that teach that women are meant to be subordinate to men, that White Christians are meant to rule everyone else, that rich people are rich because they are favored by God. Quietism is also encouraged by secular society, by a secular culture that teaches us to remain passive consumers of media. This is a form of anesthesia no different from the numbing effects of religious quietism; both forms of quietism want to convince us that we cannot change the world.

Instead of anesthetizing us, religious naturalism encourages the kind of spiritual practices that keep us engaged with reality, with the here and now. Think of Henry Thoreau next to his cabin at Walden Pond, kneeling down in the woods in order to the closest attention to the natural world, then writing about what he observed in his journal. Remember, too, that his cabin was a station on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau was not escaping from the world through supernatural beliefs, nor was he escaping from the world by ignoring the realities of injustice. Obviously, religious naturalism is not the only kind of religion that engages fully with this world — but it does set a high standard for other religious attitudes to match.

A Unitarian Universalist Easter

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the Christian scriptures, the last chapter of the Book of Mark, as translated by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish scholar of the ancient Near East. Later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Book of Mark; in this reading you will hear the original ending, filled with ambiguity.

When the sabbath was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome, brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the far right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his followers, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The second reading is “The Hailstones,” by Ai Qing [aye ching], translated in 1983 by Angela Jung Palandri. This poem was written in 1979, after the poet was released from the prison camp where he had been spent the previous twenty years, because he had fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party. The poem can be found in this online essay (scroll down to page 72).

The final reading was by Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States. The title of the poem is “Singing Everything.” This poem is reproduced at the end of this newspaper article.

[These two links go to webpages that reproduce the poems with full permission of the poets.]

Sermon: “A Unitarian Universalist Easter”

That last reading, the poem by Joy Harjo, tells a truth that is worth considering on Easter Sunday. We used to have songs for everything, “Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,” as the poet tells us, and songs “for sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” But today we are reduced to a narrow range of songs.

Admittedly, Joy Harjo exaggerates a little when she tells us, “Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and /Falling apart after falling in love songs.” We do have a few other kinds of songs such as political songs, and songs of interior landscapes by singer-songwriters. But Joy Harjo is an enrolled member of the Muscogee nation, and as a Native American she is aware of a broader range of songs that once existed. Most of those kinds of songs that once existed in indigenous cultures — including indigenous European and African and Asian cultures — have disappeared from today’s mass-produced culture.

Mind you, I love the music of today’s culture. I love Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It has to be the best falling-apart-after-falling-in-love song ever. And some of you will remember Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song at the roots of hip hop; this is a truly great political song. Perhaps you are now hearing in your head the many other great songs of our time. Even so, most of our popular songs today are love songs, or political songs, or songs of interior landscapes. We have very few songs about sunrise, or planting, or harvesting, or giving birth, or (as Harjo says in her poem) “songs of the guardians of silence.” We have many great songs today, but they mostly stick to a relatively narrow range of topics.

The same is true of much of religion in today’s world. Most of today’s religion occupies a narrow range of feeling and values and being. Popular American culture thinks of religion as having to do with the Bible, except that the Bible is merely supposed to support the assumptions and prejudices of conservative American Christianity. One of my favorite examples of this is that conservative American Christianity assumes that the God of their Bible is entirely male; except that in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28, it very clearly states that God is non-binary gender: “God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them.” God may choose to use he/him pronouns, but God’s actual body is both male and female. Somehow the conservative American Christians manage to ignore that part of the Bible. This shows you what I mean when I say that today’s American religion occupies a too-narrow range of feeling and values and being.

We might imagine for ourselves a religion with a broader range. Consider with me the story of Easter as we heard it in the first reading, as it was originally told in the book of Mark. Here’s how I would retell this story:

The Roman Empire executes Jesus of Nazareth, and he dies at sundown on Friday. The friends and followers of Jesus are all observant Jews. Since the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown of Friday, they want to wait until the sabbath is over to prepare the body for burial. So they place the body in a tomb. Promptly on the morning after the sabbath, Jesus’ mother, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and Salome (these three are leaders among the followers of Jesus, and as women would know more about preparing bodies for burial than any of the men), these three women go to the tomb to care for the body. There they encounter a stranger, a man who is strangely dressed, who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and will precede them to Galilee. The stranger tells the women not to tell the men these things. Not surprisingly, the three women find this strange and weird. They are unnerved. Fearing for themselves and for the other followers of Jesus, they quickly leave the tomb. They tell no one.

That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

Now, the book of Mark is accepted by most scholars as the earliest story we still have that tells about the life and death of Jesus. This means that all those traditional stories about Easter we hear — the stories of resurrection and triumph — that’s not the way the story was first told. The original book of Mark does not end in triumph, and so it sounds like some contemporary poetry — like the poem of Ai Qing we heard as the second reading. Ai Qing lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China; he was exiled to a labor camp for twenty years. His poem “The Hailstones” is a poetic retelling of how the Cultural Revolution brought his poetry to a violent end. Since he’s telling us this in a poem, we know that eventually his poetry was reborn. Yet when he looks back on those twenty lost years, he can only say: “What remains / Are sad memories of the calamity.”

You notice that I’m using a poem by a disgraced Chinese Communist poet to talk about Easter. I’m not talking about Easter the way we’re “supposed” to talk about Easter; at least, the way the conservative American Christians tell us is the correct, orthodox way to talk about Easter. We Unitarian Universalists have never limited our religion to the narrow confines of conservative American Christianity. For us, religion and spirituality are broad and inclusive. We can look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

We don’t feel a need to shoehorn the Easter story into a confining orthodoxy. We don’t need the Easter story to somehow prove that Jesus was a god who could not actually be killed. If you want to interpret the Easter story in that way, that’s fine. Yet for us, the Easter story contains far more complexity. As with any good literature, we find multiple levels of meaning. I’ll give you an example from my own life. This past year has been a year of loss in my household: my father-in-law died just about a year ago, and my spouse’s stepmother died the day after Christmas. So this year when I read the Easter story in the book of Mark, what I feel is the emotional truth of that story: someone you love is alive one day, and then they’re no longer alive, and you know they are gone forever. This can leave you (as the story puts it) trembling and unnerved, and you can find yourself afraid and unwilling to talk about it.

That is one emotional truth we can find in the story. We can also find another emotional truth carried in that story. After people die, we have not lost them. They live on in our love. If there’s a resurrection story that all Unitarian Universalists agree on, this it it: love transcends death.

And we can find still more emotional truths in this simple story. For example: Jesus was a brilliant spiritual teacher, who encapsulated spirituality in simple, easy-to-understand stories and formulas. His most famous spiritual teaching is quite simple: love your neighbor as yourself. (Simple in the saying, but far more difficult in actual practice.) When the Roman Empire executed him, his teachings did not die. You cannot kill truth that easily. This another emotional truth of the Easter story that all Unitarian Universalists can agree on: you cannot kill truth so easily.

With enough time, we can find still more emotional truths in this story. So it is that we can see how religion and spirituality have a much wider range than popular American culture would have us believe. Popular American culture tells us that religion is concerned with beliefs many of us find unbelievable, beliefs to which we are supposed to conform. In truth, however, religion and spirituality exist to help us understand the perplexities of life. From this, we gain comfort and support. Religion and spirituality concern the truth that never dies. From this, we remember that love transcends even death. Religion and spirituality teach a universal love that includes all people, no matter what gender or sexual preference, no matter what race, no matter what, period. And with that knowledge, we can create a world where we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s why we keep coming back here to this community. That’s why we keep our religion and spirituality alive in our personal lives. We celebrate the incredible diversity of humankind, the diversity which exists among us here today. And we celebrate that which transcends us all and which unites us all — that which is highest and best, that which keeps us going from day to day.