Liberal Religion, Silicon Valley Style

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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