Contemplating You

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington, California. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2004 Daniel Harper.

SERMON — “Contemplating You”

Do you remember the story of Prometheus? Prometheus was one of the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. When Zeus came along to lead a rebellion against Cronus, Prometheus was one of only two Titans who helped overthrow the old regime. For his support, the Titan Prometheus was accorded something of a special status by Zeus, the new ruler of the gods. Beyond that, according to the ancient Greek religion Prometheus was the one who created humankind. And Athene, the goddess of wisdom, taught Prometheus about architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, and metallurgy, among other useful arts. Prometheus in turn taught these arts to us human beings. Unfortunately, Zeus was not pleased by these increasing powers of humanity, and threatened to get rid of the whole race. It was only because Prometheus intervened that we were spared.

Prometheus also angered Zeus by taking humanity’s part in a dispute over which portion of a sacrificial bull should be offered to the gods, and which portion might be retained for use by humans. Prometheus made two piles of meat. One pile had all the best parts hidden under sinews and bones. The other pile had all the scraps and inedible parts hidden under a layer of snow-white fat. Naturally, Zeus choose what looked like the better pile. When he realized Prometheus’s deception, he angrily proclaimed that the upstart humans would not be allowed to have fire.

In an act of self-sacrificial rebellion, Prometheus slipped up the back route to Mount Olympos, on top of which Zeus and the other chief gods and goddesses lived, and there he stole a bit of fire. He concealed the glowing coal in a hollow fennel stalk, and brought it back down to share with humankind.

Zeus was outraged. Not only had Prometheus taught humanity how to cheat the gods, but he had stolen fire from Mount Olympos. In punishment, Zeus had Prometheus bound by unbreakable irons to the top of a mountain; and one a day, an eagle swooped down out of the sky and ate Prometheus’s liver. Since he was an immortal, his liver regrew each night, but then the eagle came back the next day. It sounds very painful!

You probably know the ending to the story. The mighty Hercules (or Herakles), half human and half immortal, finally freed Prometheus. But far more importantly, the self-sacrifice of Prometheus allowed humankind to learn how to make use of fire.

The Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian William R. Jones points to the myth of Prometheus as an example of how rebellion can be a saving act. Many of us were brought up with a different myth about rebellion, the myth of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In traditional interpretations of the myth of Adam and Eve, they rebelled by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and for that rebellion humankind will suffer to the end of time. Jones says he prefers the myth of Prometheus, where rebellion results in great good for all humanity — and where rebellion may be punished, but the punishment does not last forever.

I suspect most Unitarian Universalists prefer the myth of Prometheus to the myth of Adam and Eve. Like Prometheus, we believe in saving the human race, saving the world. Not only that, but most of us believe that it is acceptable to annoy the powers that be in order to save the world. We follow the precepts of Henry David Thoreau, who said that breaking laws through civil disobedience is fine, if you are working for the betterment of the world.

On the rare occasions when we use the words “saved” or “salvation,” we are most likely to mean saving the whole world. That’s one of the distinctive features of Unitarian Universalists — for us, salvation means saving the world. And when we go out to save the world, we tend to have pretty big goals. I don’t just want to give a dollar to the homeless man who sits outside the market where I go to buy my vegetables — I want to go much further than that, and create social systems that will put an end to homelessness everywhere. This is one of the things I like best about being a Unitarian Universalist: we think big, we want everyone in the whole world to lead a fully human life.

There is a bit of a problem that comes with thinking big in the way we do. Saving the whole world takes a lot out of you. It’s a big job, and even though we work together to try to make it happen, sometimes I start to feel a little burned out. I sometimes wonder if I’m feeling a little like Prometheus must have felt when he was chained up and having his liver torn out by that eagle. Saving the whole world sometimes feels like it requires a fair amount of self-sacrifice on the part of you & me.

One lesson I have absorbed over my lifetime as a Unitarian Universalist is thatsaving the world isn’t enough. I also have to save myself, as it were — I also need to have a personal spiritual practice. Meditation, prayer, yoga, a weekly session with a therapist, ritual eating of chocolate — we have a myriad of personal spiritual practices that we choose in order to ground us, to renew our minds and hearts and spirits, to keep us from feeling burned out.

I sometimes think that we Unitarian Universalists are a little like Prometheus, except that we have daily spiritual practices. We go out into the world to save humanity, and we do great things out there in the world. But, like Prometheus, we pay a price for saving the world. We stand up for feminism and anti-racism and gay rights at work, even when those views are unpopular, and we endure the consequences of our just actions. We stand up for our children, demanding adequate public schools, fighting to keep good schools open and to improve bad schools, and we do this in spite of being exhausted. This year, many of us will devote long hours of our precious spare time to registering voters, to serving with the Leagues of Women Voters, to getting out the vote. Many of us are devoted to helping organizations which promote non-violence or economic justice or other actions that will save the world.

In ways large and small, we strive to make the world a better place, and like Prometheus, we pay the price. So we go home to recover — to meditate, or to pray, or to sing Bach cantatas, or to cook, or whatever it is you do for your daily spiritual practice — and to wonder if there’s a Hercules who will come along and save us.

Two years ago, I wound up reading the Book of Revelation from the Christian scriptures. The book of Revelation is not a book that we Unitarian Universalists tend to spend much time with. If we read the Bible at all, we might read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then maybe read Genesis and Exodus as books of liberation. The book of Revelation is just a little too weird for most of us religious liberals.

My friend Ellen Spero, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, convinced me to read Revelation. She interprets Revelation as a book of liberation and of radical inclusivity. Forget what the religious right says about Revelation, says Ellen, it’s not a book about the apocalypse, about the end times. It’s a book about the here-and-now, how justice and righteousness will happen for you and me and for everyone now — in this world.

So following Ellen’s promptings, I read Revelation. And when I could read it as a book of liberation, I actually liked it. And I’ve been haunted by this one passage from it for some months now. The New Revised Standard Version — that’s the translation religious liberals tend to prefer, because it uses gender inclusive language whenever the ancient languages permit it — translates my passage as a short poem:

See, the home of God is among mortals
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

This passage really struck a chord with me, and I think it has a lot to say to us religious liberals. Nor do I think it matters if you are humanist or theist, because I think this passage is less concerned about whether we believe in God, than in whether we believe in liberation of all beings. It tells us of a liberation where people will still die, they always have, but Death will no longer be worshipped as a god, and we will know death as a natural part of life — a liberation where people will still suffer, and we will mourn and cry and weep, but we will do so in the knowledge that justice will be done, that liberation is for everyone — a liberation where someone is going to wipe away the tears from my eyes, and I will wipe away the tears from your eyes, and justice will happen, here and now.

You may think this little poem is overly optimistic. Liberation usually seems a distant dream — knowing as we do that domestic violence continues, that war continues, that people continue to be sold into slavery around the world, that homophobia continues to be such an active force that the United States Senate is even now considering a bill to make same sex marriage unconstitutional. This little poem may be overly optimistic, but as a Universalist I pretty optimistic myself. I cannot accept a universe where we have to wait for an apocalypse before things get better. Nor can I wait for gradual progress onwards and upwards forever, until some day in the distant future justice and righteousness will come down like waters. Like that great Universalist Hosea Ballou, I know that glory is just around the corner — although unlike Ballou I admit that I’m not quite so sure what glory is….

In that poem from the book of Revelation, the line from the poem that sticks with me is that line about God wiping every tear away from our eyes. we’ve all been through some hard times — some of you have been through some very hard times. I would love to have someone wipe every tear away from my eyes. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t really imagine a humaniform God, a God with arms and hands that can wipe away those tears, and I guess a divine handkerchief with which to do the wiping. My imagination doesn’t work quite that way. But it doesn’t matter. I can imagine some person I know and love wiping tears away from my eyes. I can imagine my life partner wiping tears from my eyes — for indeed in the fourteen years we have been together, she has wiped tears from my eyes. I can imagine people in my church wiping tears away from my eyes, for while that hasn’t happened in a literal sense, there have been times when I went to church to keep from crying, or when I went to church so I would have a place to shed tears.

When Herakles broke the chains the bound Prometheus, I don’t think that was enough. What I want for Prometheus is someone to wipe tears away from his eyes. Or maybe he didn’t cry. After all, Prometheus was a Titan, one of those immortal demi-gods of ancient Greece. Maybe Titans don’t shed tears — I don’t know. The problem is, when we human beings start acting like Prometheus — the way we religious liberals sometimes do — we forget that we are not Titans. We are not immortal. We cannot re-grow damaged parts of ourselves overnight, in time to be hurt again tomorrow by the vicissitudes of our work for liberation.

We Unitarian Universalists are willing to go out and save the world by the dint of our own superhuman efforts. We Unitarian Universalists are willing to save ourselves from burnout by the dint of our own individual efforts at spiritual practices. We do a lot already. I don’t want to ask us to do one more thing. But I would like us to consider one little thing….

When you consider the work of liberation, in which you are already engaged, I ask you to consider this: if you are able to wipe the tears away from one person’s eyes — if you are able to allow someone else to wipe the tears away from your eyes — you have furthered the work of liberation, and that day you have made your contribution towards saving the world, and towards saving yourself as well. You don’t even have to actually physically touch someone, which is good news for me, coming as I do from a fairly traditional New England upbringing where shaking someone’s hand is plenty of physical contact, thank you very much. But if I walk down the street and the homeless man who stands on Telegraph Ave. near Ashby asks me for some change and I give him a little change, and if I also look him in the eye and smile, and for that instant I treat him as a human being (as scared as I may be, and he is a pretty scary guy some days), in that instant the world undergoes an infinitesimal moment of complete liberation; and maybe in some way he does wipe all the tears away from my eyes and death and mourning and pain are no more.

Of course these little bits of complete liberation do not solve the problems of hunger and economic injustice and the lack of treatment for persons with chronic mental illness, and — guess what — we still have to do all that hard work. And I still have to get up in the morning and do my daily practice of yoga, which I’m really bad at but I do it anyway. Being good religious liberals, we will continues to work hard and pull ourselves up by our very bootstraps.

While we are hanging on to our bootstraps, at least we can know liberation is all around us. It could happen to you today. You could look into someone’s eyes, and it could happen. It won’t last long, perhaps, but it could happen. In that moment, and just for that moment, you and the world could be saved.

What could be better than that? Next time it happens to me, I’m going to see if I can just accept it — to know that love will overcome all obstacles.

On Keeping a Sabbath

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington, California. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2004 Daniel Harper.


Once upon a time, many years ago, there lived a great rabbi. This rabbi was a wise and particularly religious man. He observed the sabbath each and every week — precisely at sundown on Friday evening, teh beginning of the Jewish sabbath day, he lit the candels and said the blessings and began to observe the sabbath. But perhaps that was not all that remarkable — after all, many people observe a sabbath day each and every week.

Ah, but this wise and very religious rabbi did more than just observe the sabbath. He did more than think of the sabbath as a blessing. In fact, he did much more — he prayed for an hour each and every day. That’s how religious he was.

A man and a woman in his shul were most impressed with their rabbi, especially that he prayed for an hour each day. But, at the same time, they didn’t quite believe that the rabbi really prayed for a whole hour each and every day. So one day, when they met him in the street, they went up to him and asked him: “Rabbi, is it true that you pray for an hour each and every day?” asked the woman.

“Yes,” said the rabbi. “It is true.”

“Why do you do that, rabbi?” asked the man, very respectfully.

“To pray is a blessing,”said the rabbi, surprised that anyone would ask. “God has given us the blessing or religion, which includes prayer, and the sabbath, and so on. Why would I not accept such a blessing?”

The man and the woman were silent for a moment, and then the man spoke again. “But rabbi,” he said, “when you are particularly busy, when you have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, when you are feeling frazzled and overworked, surely then you do not pray for an hour on busy day like that?”

“Oh, no,” said the rabbi, “on those days, I pray for two hours.”

SERMON — On Keeping a Sabbath

The first reading today comes from the Book of Exodus, in the collection of Jewish scriptures known as the Torah:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

“Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your … slave and the resident alien may be refreshed….” [Exodus 23.10-12, trans. New Revised Standard Version]

The second reading comes from the Christian scriptures, from one of the letters written by Paul to early Christian communities; in this case, to the community of early Christians at Rome:

Some believe in eating anything, while [others] eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them….

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their minds…. [Romans 14.2-3, 5; trans. New Revised Standard Version]

SERMON — On Keeping a Sabbath

I wish to speak with you this morning on the spiritual practice of keeping a sabbath day. We have just heard two readings that place this practice into a historical context — that is, the historical context of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, the religious traditions out of which Unitarian Unviersalism has come. Hold on to that historical context — but now I’d like to turn to some more personal experiences of what it has menat ot me to keep a sabbath day.

Back in the late spring of 1981, I was living in Concord, Massachusetts, and working in a lumberyard there. I remember walking around the center of town one day when I ran into John Wlater. John and I had been in Liberal Religious Youth, or LRY, together — LRY was the name of the Unitarian Universalist youth movement in those days — and in fact we have still kept in touch all these years later. In any case, John and I hadn’t seen each other in a while — John had been away at college. I remember standing there talking, on the edge of a little field, the daffodils in bloom, the trees still bare of leaves.

John and I had both heard that there was to be a demonstration and acts of civil disobedience at the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. There were the usual objections to nuclear power plants in general, but I remember having concerns about the effects of thermal polution on sensitive saltwater wetlands, and a lack of trust that the company which was building the power plant paid adequate attention to safety. However you may feel about nuclear power, back then John and I did not want Seabrook power plant built, and we decided that we would participate in the demonstration against it. We decided to get a ride up to Seabrook, New Hampshire, and while we wouldn’t participate in the civil disobedience, we would be there to support those who did.

We found ourselves camping in the woods on land that belonged to a woman whose family had lived in Seabrook for years. We were right next to the land owned by the power company. A regular city of tents had gone up in those woods, and John and I were assigned a little patch of woods where we stretched our plastic tarp and settled down for the night.

The next day, Saturday, remains in my memory as a confusing jumble of memories. Mostly, I remember wandering around wondering what was going on. But I also remember standing with a group of supporters watching as the people doing civil disobedience sat with arms linked, blocking one of the entrances to the construction site — I recognized an old girlfriend as one of those doing civil disobedience — adn then the police came, we were pushed aside, and I lost sight of the blockade. I remember someone warning John and me that if things got tough, to watch out for the Rhode Island state troopers, as they had a reputation for being brutal. I remember being shouted at by a resident of Seabrook who supported the power plant, and who took the American flag I was flying from my daypack, saying that he wouldn’t let me have that symbol of our country. And I remember walking around in the warm spring sun, questioning what it was we were actually accomplishing at Seabrook.

That evening, back in the campsite in the woods, I ran into some friends of mine who were Quakers, and we decided we would come together for a silent meeting for worship, in the manner of the Quakers, the next morning. We spread the word throughout the campsite.

On Sunday morning, a dozen of us gathered in the woods well away from the campsite, sitting in a circle on the ground. So we observed the sabbath in our own way — sitting in silence with friends, waiting to see if any of us would be moved to speak. None of us spoke, although halfway through the hour a young man came up to us and warned us that we were, in fact, sitting on land that belonged to the power company — an act that could lead to our arrest, if we were found by the police. Now I would say an act of worship, an observance of the sabbath, will always be accompanied by risk and the possibility of major sacrifice. But then, I remember just feeling held in religious community, secure somehow despite where we sat. We all looked up at the young man in silence, smiled and nodded, and went on with our worship.

At the end of an hour, we ended the worship service in the manner of the Quakers, turning to the people on either side of us to shake hands. I felt healed, restored, reconnected with some deep spiritual source.

Looking back, this was one of those defining moments in a person’s life. Within a year, I began going to church fairly regularly — at least a couple of times a month. I did not go to hear the sermon — I have actually always had a hard time listening to sermons, as I am more strongly oriented to the visual and the musical than to the verbal. Nor did I go to spend time with friends — often, I would be the youngest person in church by twenty or more years, and I was most generally ignored by the middle-aged folks, although one or two of the elders did befriend me. I went to church as a young man to be able to spend time in religious community, to be healed, to be restored, to reconnect with some deep spiritual source.

Given that the sabbath became relatively important for me, I was fortunate to live a fairly traditional community where many people respected the concept of keeping a sabbath. The lumber company I worked for was owned by an old New England family, and in spite of the pressure from their contractor customers, this family did not believe in opening the store on Sunday. Thus I didn’t have to confront the problem of what to do were I asked to work on a Sunday. Later, I did have to tell employers that I would not work on a Sunday, and I continued that policy until I started working in churches ten years ago.

Not that I am saying that all employers should allow their employees to have Sunday off. Seventh Day adventists and Jews observe their sabbath on Saturday; for many Muslims, Friday is the day for communal prayer at the mosque. I don’t care what day of the week, but the wear of the working life demands the resorative effects of a sabbath day.

Earlier we heard a reading from the book of Exodus, that great story of gaining human freedom: “but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your … slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” In my checkered career, I have worked in a warehouse, as a salesman, as a carpenter, and I have felt like an ox, or perhaps a resident alien, and I needed that refreshment of the spirit. I would shed my day-to-day work clothes, put on good clothes, head to church, and feel once more fully human.

My younger sister worked for ten years managing a retail store, and at times was lucky to get half a day off each week. Fortunately, the owner of the store went ot the same church we went to, so my sister could always be guaranteed at least half a sabbath day. The restorative properties of even a half a sabbath day cannot be overestimated.

So it is that the sabbath is in fact an act of social justice. In our society, where we are either working at our jobs, or working at our equally demanding task of consuming and doing leisure activities and spending money to keep the economy going — in this our society, coming to church is extremely countercultural. We are countering the culture that tells us that we are human only insofar as we spend and make money. We are countering the culture by recaliming the rest of our humanness — the depths of our spirits, the feeling of being in community, the connections we try to maintain with family and with friends. We are countering the culture by healing ourselves, healing each other, healing the world.

Social justice, yes — but there is another way to picture the sabbath. On the cover of your order of service, Amalia Nelson-Croner has drawn us a delightful picture of how to keep the sabbath in the home. Put the telephone outdoors, put the TV out the door, all the distrcactions go out the door. In the second panel, you can see what happens after you remove all the distractions — you settle in to restore your soul, even though the distractions are looking throuhg the window at you, trying to get your attention. You have to be firm about keeping the sabbath — it is a spiritual discipline.

It is important to remember, however, that in our liberal religious tradition, we do not try to legislate rules for keeping a sabbath day. In Amalia’s picture, the woman is sitting with her legs crossed in some kind of meditation posture — a marvelous idea, but for some of us, our knees don’t work that way. And that’s just fine – you don’t have to sit in that exact position.

In our second reading we heard from Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, and while I take issue with many things he said, he was a great builder of institutions. In his letter to the Christian community at Rome, he made it clear that each person must decide for him- or herself the nature and extenet of religious obligations. In an example that sounds familiar to our 21st century ears, Paul says that some people eat meat, and some people are vegetarians. Persons have to make their own choices as to religious and moral dietary restrictions.

Paul writes: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” You may not choose to use the word “god,” but it should be easy enough to translate Paul’s meaning. Both vegetarians and meat-eaters are equally welcome in our religious communities.

And then Paul moves on to comment on those who “judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” Here Paul is at his liberal best — and yes, at times Paul does possess a strong strain of liberality and broad-mindedness. Paul, in this passage, refers to the sabbath day: it is up to you to make up your mind whether you observe the sabbath: “Let all be fully convinced in their minds.”

However, while you must be fully convinced in your own mind, I will add that you should not act in such a way that you prevent others from observing the sabbath, should they wish to do so. If you are an employer, you should make provision for your workers to observe their sabbath days, to the extent they may be fully convinced in their minds. If you choose not to go to church, or to observe the sabbath at home, you should not prevent others from observing their sabbath.

This has radical implications for us. I am coming to believe that this means that we should not have obligatory committee meetings on Sundays. I know that I no longer consider Sunday as my sabbath day — I now take Fridays as my sabbath day, a day when I do no work, reconnect with family and friends, restore my soul. Sundays here at UUCB have become, shall we say, frenetic, and some of us go to meetings before and after and even during the worship service. If you choose to do so, I suppose that’s fine — but if you choose to hold meetings that others must attend, then there is the possibility that you are requiring other persons to break their sabbath. This is akin to having a church meal where we do not offer a vegetarian option, thus forcing vegetarians to either not eat, or to eat against their conscience. So it is that I believe that no compulsory church business should be conducted on Sundays, that those who need to restore their souls may do so.

In the same vein, we have a special responsiblity when it comes to passing on the sabbath tradition to the next generation. In large part, our culture no longer allows children to have a sabbath day — not even a half a sabbath day — perhaps not even a sabbath hour. Children and teens are expected to attend sports practices, lessons, even school functions that interfere with their opportunity to have a time of spiritual restoration. There is always homework that must be done. Even here in church, we demand of our children that they go to Sunday school where we expect them to become religiously literate — which is all well and good, but it does not meet the additional deep need of children to restore their spirits.

We adults have enormous power over children and teens. We must use that power for good, not for ill. Let me pose this question to you: what will the children of this church do when they are out in the world fighting for justice, when they are scared and tired and questioning their very selves, what will they do if they do not know how to restore themselves? — if they have no concept of the sabbath?

Indeed, let me bring that question home to you: what will you do as you are out in the world, fighting for justice when you have the time and energy, being buffeted by the demands of your job? Many of us have spiritual practices that we engage in, but I wish to call your attention to the fundamental spiritual practice of our religious tradition, the spiritual practice of keeping a sabbath. This practice is in the very bones and blood of our religious tradition. As we heard in the first reading, keeping of sabbath is explicitly linked in the Torah with social justice: feeding the poor, allowing the land to recover, supporting wild animals. Elsewhere in the Torah, keeping the sabbath is linked with economic justice, with freeing those who are enslaved. Keeping a sabbath is a spiritual practice that aims at healing and restoring ourselves, and healing and restoring the world.

The sabbath is one of the great religious inventions of humankind, and as such it is a great blessing. Therefore, it should be no surprsie that one of the chief purposes of our religious community is for us to creat the time and place where we, and others, may keep a sabbath. As a community, we come together to co-create this insitution, this church of ours, so that we may nurture sabbath-keeping. We come together to act as role models for young people — and for each other — we join together in our shared effort to restore and renew ourselves, that we may bring justice to the world.

We come here to church to feel blessed. We come to look upon the faces of others, to sing together of our blessings. We come to church to be restored, to find time away from the fret and fever of the week, to gather together in community, celebrating our past and claiming the future as our own. Through our spiritual practice of keeping sabbath, may we renew our souls — whatever “souls” might be! — in love and justice. Amen.