Another kind of good neighbor

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.

The following brief story was allegedly told by the wandering rabbi and political radical, Jesus of Nazareth:

“There was a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him for dead. Now by coincidence a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him. But this Samaritan who was traveling that was came to where he was and was moved by pity at the sight of him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him up onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. The next day he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, “Look after him, and on my way back I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had. Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” [Luke 10.30-36, Scholars Version translation.]

I read you that story by way of introducing you to Dana Greeley, who in May, 1961 — fifty years ago this coming May — became the first president of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association. I knew Dana Greeley — not well, but I knew him — because in 1970, he became the minister in my home congregation in Concord, Massachusetts. And Dana Greeley was, to my way of thinking, an example of a good neighbor, a Good Samaritan. I mean this not in the popular sense, in which a Good Samaritan is a smarmy conventional do-gooder who makes the rest of us look bad. Dana Greeley was not smarmy, and he was a Unitarian Universalist, which means he was not conventional. So I had better explain to you what I mean when I say that Dana Greeley was an unconventional, but not smarmy, Good Samaritan.


To begin with, Dana Greeley was an internationalist. He understood that everyone in the world was his neighbor. And he worked hard to make connections around the world.

And when I say around the world, I mean it; I grew up thinking it was normal for ministers to travel all around the world. He was in New Delhi, India, in 1982 for the New Delhi Peace March. He was in Hiroshima for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. In 1962, he visited Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Gabon in Africa. He was an invited observer at the Second Vatican Council, and sat within thirty feet of Pope John when the council was convened. He met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House, and with United Nations secretary U Thant at U.N. headquarters. Nor did he only travel overseas: he was one of the ministers who walked arm in arm with Martin Luther King on the streets of Selma, Alabama, in 1965 during the struggle for civil rights in America. William Schulz, who later became president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and then the president of Amnesty International, said, “What Dana did for Unitarian Universalism was to convince us that we were worthy of being taken seriously as a world-class faith.” [The Premise and the Promise, Warren Ross (Boston: Skinner House), 2001, p. 31.]

Why did he do all this traveling? In a sermon delivered in October, 1972, Greeley said, “World brotherhood and world government are the realities that must more and more be recognized.” [Forward through the Ages, Concord, Mass: First Parish, 1986.] “Brotherhood” is a word we don’t use much any more; today we might say all human beings are relatives, but the truth behind the phrase remains the same. Greeley was an internationalist because he really believed that all human beings are siblings, in the best possible sense. He not only believed this, he lived it out in his life. He was a naturally gregarious person who could talk with anyone, and so it was the most natural thing for him to know people all around the world and to build friendships and relationships that over time would naturally lead towards closer ties between human beings. Dana Greeley was the kind of Good Samaritan who understood the whole world to be his neighbor.


While he understood the whole world to be his neighborhood, Dana Greeley also made the effort to create good neighborhoods in his immediate vicinity. Another way to say this is to say that he was a good institutionalist.

That word “institutionalist” is not widely used in our contemporary society, so let me define it for you. A good institutionalist is someone who is adept at building up and maintaining strong human institutions. A good institutionalist may be the kind of person who is good at serving on committees and boards, and who is good at filling elected offices. A good institutionalist may also be someone who works behind the scenes in informal ways to strengthen our various institutions.

People who are good institutionalists are essential to a healthy democracy. Of course democracies need committed citizens who participate directly in government. But democracies also depend upon citizens who participate in voluntary associations, that is, those associations outside of government and business in which we are free to mingle with other citizens. The democratic right to free association is crucial for democracies because it is in voluntary associations — groups like the League of Women Voters and citizen’s groups and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto — where democracy really takes hold. It is in voluntary associations that most of us learn and practice the skills of democracy: public speaking; public listening; leadership and followership; learning to lose gracefully and learning to win gracefully; setting and reaching goals (goals, not profits); discussing big issues with other people and learning to trust in the democratic process to get us ever closer to an ideal world.

Dana Greeley once wrote, “I have always like people and have put a sizable measure of confidence in people” [25 Beacon Street, Boston: Skinner House, 1973, p. 69]. I watched Dana Greeley act as a good institutionalist in my home congregation when he was minister there. He strengthened the democratic structures in that congregation by engaging as many people as possible in the decision-making process. When I was a member of the high school youth group of that congregation, I remember that he made sure to invite youth members to planning retreats; to his way of thinking, people should learn the skills of democracy at a young age. He went further than that: he engaged both his opponents and his supporters in the decision-making process. He always had confidence in the people around him, and they tended to live up to the confidence he placed in them.

Having confidence in people happens to be a fine way to build democratic institutions. When you understand everyone to be your neighbor, and when you treat your neighbor the way you’d like to be treated, not only do your neighbors tend to treat you the way you’d like to be treated, and not only is everyone happier, but you also tend to get things done. In the sixteen years Dana Greeley was minister at my home congregation, the Sunday morning attendance more than quadrupled.


More narrowly, Greeley also knew his neighbors to be the people who come together each Sunday morning in Unitarian Universalist congregations. He once said, “My mother jollied me always, and challenged me, by reminding me that I was born on a Sunday morning at eleven o’clock…. I admit that eleven o’clock on Sunday is the time of the week I like best.” [25 Beacon Street, p. 22] He said this, I believe, not for selfish reasons, not because he happened to like that time of week, but because he knew how many other people value that time of the week.

Consider for a moment all the reasons we have for coming to Unitarian Universalist services on a Sunday morning. I remember John (not his real name) who was a meat-cutter at a supermarket, and who liked to go to his Unitarian Universalist church because the sermon gave him something to think about all week long while he was working; and, he said, that made him a better person. Mariana told me that if she missed the worship service on Sunday morning, she felt off balance all the rest of the week; Unitarian Universalist just made her feel good. Steve, who grew up Jewish, said he decided to join a Unitarian Universalist congregation because Sunday morning services helped him map out a moral course in his job as the owner of a large construction company. Then there was Irene, who often missed the service on Sunday morning because she was out in the social hall chatting with her cronies; but Sunday mornings was the center of her community, and she wouldn’t miss it for the world.

And without going into specifics, there are the people who come here carrying a burden of grief, or illness, or despair, or many other burdens; you can come here, and have a measure of peace for just a moment while you are held in the love of this religious community. That kind of thing happens all the time in this very room, at this very time on Sunday morning; I have seen it, and I have talked to people who have experienced it. Someone who really needs it can come in here and receive a measure of comfort, maybe even a measure of healing from the love that is in this room.

We come here on Sunday mornings, and each one of us, simply by showing up, is acting as a good neighbor. Just by showing up, we are part of a human community that provides comfort and peace and maybe healing to others. Just by showing up, your presence here supports those of us who come here to map out a moral course for the week; your presence supports those who come here to find some balance in their lives; your presence makes you a part of an intellectual community. And of course your presence here is of great importance to all those who are your friends, and who maybe come here to talk with you.

Dana Greeley was on to something when he considered Sunday mornings spent in with a congregation to be the best time of the week. This is a community of good neighbors, a community that offers peace, maybe healing, intellectual stimulation, time to map out a moral course for oneself.


I began this sermon with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of that story, the wandering rabbi and political radical Jesus of Nazareth asks his audience a question designed to get them thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor. There are many answers to that question, which is why we still tell this story some two thousand years after it was allegedly first told. A good neighbor might be someone who sees the whole world as their neighborhood. A good neighbor might be someone who builds strong democratic institutions. A good neighbor might be someone who shows up here, week after week, just to be a part of this human community.

This coming May we will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association. As we look ahead to that celebration, I would submit to you that Dana Greeley represents, in these ways, some of the best aspects of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. We are good neighbors: good world citizens, good neighbors in this congregation, good neighbors who have confidence in humanity.