Springtime Poetry

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. I did not have time to correct typos and other errors in the text.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams.


The first reading was “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni.

The second reading was “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón.

The final reading was “Thank You” by Ross Gay.

Sermon: “Springtime poetry”

There’s an old Christian spiritual practice called “lectio divina.” That Latin phrase, which I’m probably mispronouncing, means “divine reading.” Supposedly, lectio divina dates back to the early sixth century when the monk Benedict, founder of the Christian Benedictine monastic order, instructed the monks under him to use it as a spiritual practice. It worked something like this: A monk would read one passage from the Bible to himself slowly, over and over again, trying to hear the voice of God in that passage. Then the monk would meditate on the passage as it related to his own life, waiting for an image or a feeling or a perception about God to arise in his mind. The third step in lectio divina would be for the monk to talk back to God about what had arisen for him, maybe even hearing some feedback back from God. In the final step, the monk is supposed to contemplate what he has felt and heard, and feel peaceful and contented, with new energy for living his monastic life. At least, that’s how I understand it. Some of you may use lectio divina as a spiritual practice yourselves, and if so please tell me about my errors after the service.

I first became aware of lectio divina in the nineties and the aughts. At that time there was a movement called the “emergent church” among both mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians. The emergent church folks saw that churches were losing the younger generation — Generation X, in those days — because the typical American church service had become too formulaic, too intellectual and lacking in spiritual depth. The emergent church movement had some real successes in attracting young people to return to churches, and some Unitarian Universalists started paying attention. (I myself started using some of the emergent church techniques when I led worship.) Lectio divina was one of the spiritual practices that gained currency among us, as both a personal and communal spiritual practice. And we Unitarian Universalists applied the lectio divina technique, not just to the Bible, but to poetry.

While I’ve never used the specific technique of lectio divina myself, I have found that reading a good poem can be a spiritual practice. To use a metaphor from electronics, I’ve found that a really good poem can rewire your brain. Back in the aughts, when I was experimenting with emergent church techniques, I was at the New Bedford Unitarian church. There were three or four published poets in that small congregation, one of whom was Everett Hoagland, the award-winning poet who came here last September to read his poetry. Not only was Everett an exceptionally good poet himself, he mentored other poets and organized events where they could read their poetry aloud. I discovered that listening to poetry being read aloud to a group of people made the poetry especially powerful for me. It did something to me. Just as listening to live music is more powerful than listening to music on your earbuds, I find that listening to live poetry is more powerful than reading it to myself.

With that overly long preface, I’d like to read some poems about springtime, and say a few words about each poem. To begin, I’ll remind you of the poem by William Carlos Williams which started our service this morning, “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams. [During the sermon, I quoted the first 8 lines of this poem.]

A couple of facts about William Carlos Williams that are not well known, but may be of interest to us: he was Latino, and he was a Unitarian Universalist. Both those things place him a bit outside the mainstream of U.S. culture. Perhaps that gave him a broader insight into human nature. He was also a physician, and was the chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital in New Jersey. This last fact helps us understand why he began a poem about spring with the phrase, “By the road to the contagious hospital….” In popular culture, spring is a season that all about pretty flowers and unicorns and rainbows. William Carlos Williams understands that the real-life season spring is much messier than the pop culture version. As he says in this poem: “…They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind — …”

No unicorns and rainbows here. Cold and warmth, winter and spring, joy and sorrow are mixed together in human experience.

The first reading, “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni, also mixes seemingly discreet things together. Nikki Giovanni is another person who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a “typical” American poet: she’s been called the Poet of the Black Revolution, she writes children’s books, she’s a feminist, she likes hip hop, and she’s proud of her down-home Appalachian roots.

“Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni

While this is in fact a springtime poem about flowers, it’s a little bit weird. The “I” of the poem, whoever it is that’s narrating the poem, starts out as a human, then becomes a snowflake, then becomes a spring rain, then becomes a flower. Winter turns into spring without sharp boundaries, and there don’t seem to be sharp boundaries between humans, snow, rain, and flowers either. It’s all an interconnected web. Or maybe more precisely, it could be an interconnected web, if we let it. Back in 2019, Nikki Giovanni told this story about growing up in Appalachia:

“…if you had a flat tire in the old days when people had flat tires, the best place to be was in Appalachia…it’s always going to be a woman [saying], ‘Pa! Somebody’s car broke down!’ And he would say, ‘Be right there!’ and they would come down and help you. They’d help fix the tire. And you’d be sitting on the porch with the woman while Pa did that. And of course you didn’t have any money and they didn’t either. So, you’d be saying thank you. But it was a safe place.”

And it was a safe place whether you were White or Black. In Nikki Giovanni’s opinion, the people in American politics who are fostering hate and divisiveness tend to be people driving expensive cars who can hire other people to fix their flat tires, and they’re using poor people for their own ends. According to the poet Asha French, “Nikki Giovanni’s deep sight sidesteps easy stereotypes to get to the heart of the matter: economic justice for all Americans.” (1) Or as we Unitarian Universalists might put it, the heart of the matter is that we are all interconnected in the web of existence.

Ada Limón, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote another atypical springtime poem, which she has titled “Instructions on Not Giving Up.”

While Ada Limón grew up in Sonoma, California, and still lives there part of every year, to me this sounds more like a New England poem. When she says that the new green leaves that come out in springtime are “Patient, plodding, a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us, a return / to the strange idea of continuous living despite / the mess of us, the hurt, the empty” — that sounds more like winter and spring in New England than in Sonoma, California. However, having spent 13 years living just south of Sonoma, California, it is true that northern California winters can can be hard in their own way. Northern California has had an especially hard winter this year: storms with hurricane force winds, intense rainstorms, flooding, landslides. A hard winter can take it out of you. All the difficult parts of life can take it out of you. Life is messy, it hurts us, it can make us feel empty. Yet like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. We can take all of life — the meanness of hurts and emptiness, and also the sublime glory of springtime.

And so it is that we conclude with final springtime poem by Ross Gay titled “Thank You.”

Parts of this poem remind me of another poem, one written twenty-five hundred years ago. When Ross Gay says, “All will one day turn to dust” I can hear echoes of the ancient poet who wrote the book Ecclesiastes: “dust returns to the earth as it was.” Yet the poet of Ecclesiastes ends by repeating the opening lines of their poem — “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — while Ross Gay ends his poem quite differently: “Say only thank you. Thank you.”

I sometimes feel that most religion today does not give thanks often enough. The first thing the conservative Christians tell us is that we are sinners. The first thing that Unitarian Universalists and other religious progressives tell us is that the world is full of injustice that needs to be corrected, which isn’t so very different from saying that we are all sinners. And what does Ross Gay do? He tells us to say thank you. This to me is something that’s missing from too much of today’s religion. Watch your breath steam out from your mouth on a cold spring morning, walk through your still-dormant garden, and say thank you. We need to give thanks more often.

It would be easy to dismiss Ross Gay as hopelessly idealistic. After all, he’s just another privileged college professor. Yet he’s also a Black man living in the United States, who said in a 2021 interview that he’s always aware of racial justice when he writes poetry. (2) Or as he put it in an NPR interview: “Joy is the evidence of our reaching across to one another in the midst of — or as a way even of — caring for one another’s sorrows.” (3) Ross Gay sees joy and sorrow as being connected. He also believes that joy does not happen in isolation; joy only happens through your connection to others. You can’t have joy unless you’re connected to other people, and to the whole universe; joy arises because we pare part of the interconnected web of all existence.

And this is why we say thank you. Yes, we know that we’re all going to die sooner or later, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. Yes, we know that there is much that is horribly wrong with this world, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. But when we reach out to others in the midst of our many sorrows, when we care for one another in the midst of sorrow, joy can arise.

I began by telling you how reading poetry can be a sort of spiritual practice. To reuse that overused electronics metaphor, a good poem can rewire your brain. And I don’t mean that it changes the way you think so much as I mean a good poem can change the way you are in the world. Poetry can change your very being.

Lately, I’ve been finding that I need to have my being changed. Between COVID and climate change and race relations and Gaza and presidential politics — all this on top of the individual sorrows and griefs that we all face in our personal lives — the past few years have been difficult for me, and I think for most of us. There’s a lot of sorrow floating around in the world.

In these times, it is all too easy to say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — and stop there. But I hope these poems about springtime prompt you to go beyond the vanity of vanities. With William Carlos Williams, may we see that even outside the contagious hospital, new life is emerging with spring. With Nikki Giovanni, may we understand that we are connected with snow and rain and flowers, and with all of humanity as well. With Ada Limón, may we realize that like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. And with Ross Gay, may we remember to say thank you. Over and over again, may we remember to say thank you.


(1) Asha French, “Deeper Than Double: Nikki Giovanniand her Appalachian Elders,” Pluck: Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture (University of Kentucky, June, 2020) https://pluckjournal.uky.edu/welcome/2020/06/03/deeper-than-double-nikki-giovanni-and-her-appalachian-elders/

(2) “Poet Ross Gay explores a joy informed by deep sorrow,” interview with Leah Rumack, 11 Jan. 2021, Broadview magazine website, https://broadview.org/ross-gay-interview/

(3) “How Ross Gay Finds Joy In The Smallest of ‘Delights’,” interview with Christina Cala, 19 August 2021, transcript of NPR “CodeSwitch” radio program, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/19/1029287927/how-ross-gay-finds-joy-in-the-smallest-of-delights

The Best Things in Life

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. More than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, but I didn’t have time to fix them — sorry!

Moment for All Ages: “Prince Gotama and the Four Sights”

Once upon a time, a prince named Gotama lived in a royal palace in the land of Kapilavastu, which was on the border between the countries we now call India and Nepal. Gotama’s family was very wealthy. As he grew up, the prince had everything money could buy. He had servants to take care of every need. He had the finest food. He had all the toys he could wish for.

The story is told that while Gotama was still young, a sage came to visit his parents, the King and the Queen. This sage was very wise. He looked at the young boy and said, “This child will grow up to be either a great king, or a great spiritual leader.”

Now his father wanted Gotama to become king after the father died. Therefore, the King decided that the young prince must never see anything that might raise spiritual questions in him. The King instructed everyone in the palace that Prince Gotama must never be allowed to go outside the palace grounds by himself, lest he fall into conversation with a wandering spiritual person. The King also ruled that Prince Toama must not see anyone who was ill, or disabled in any way, nor anyone who was old. The King also ruled that if someone died, the prince should hear nothing of it. Thus the King hoped to keep the prince from asking any spiritual questions.

To keep Gotama happy, the King and Queen gave him everything he could want, so that he would want to stay inside the palace grounds. And when he was old enough, they found the kindest and most beautiful young woman in all the kingdom to marry the Prince. Both the prince and his new wife were vary happy, and they became even more happy when they had their first child together. The King and Queen hoped that the prince had forgotten his wish to leave the palace on his own.

One day, when he was twenty nine years old, Gotama went out of the palace to go hunting, accompanied by his servant Channa. As they were riding along on their two horses, they came upon a man lying beside a rock, groaning in pain.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is ill,” said Channa.

“But why is he in such pain?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Chana. “It is just what happens when people are ill.” And they rode on.

When he was back at the palace, he tried to ask the wise men there about illness, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they passed a woman whose hair was white and whose skin was wrinkled, and who used a cane to walk.

“What is wrong with this woman?” asked Gotama.

“She is old,” said Channa.

“But what do you mean by ‘old’?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Channa. “It happens to anyone who lives a long time.”

Back at the palace, Gotama tried to ask the wise men there about being old, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they came across man lying as if asleep. But Gotama could not wake him.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is dead,” said Channa. “This is the way of life, people must one day die.”

Gotama and Channa went out hunting a fourth time and saw a wandering holy person. Gotama asked Channa who he was.

“He is a wandering holy person,” said Channa. “He wanders around the world begging for his food, and seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

This was something Prince Gotama had never heard of before. That night, Gotama could not sleep. He remembered both the suffering he had seen, and the holy man seeking enlightenment. Gotama realized that he himself would one day face illness, old age, and death.

“I must leave the palace where I’m always protected,” he thought to himself. “I must find answers to my questions.”

He got up, and told Channa to saddle his horse. The he looked in at the bedroom where his wife and their child lay sleeping. If he left the palace, he worried that his his wife and son would not be safe. He didn’t want to make them go with him.

He stood looking at them, wondering what to do. Should he stay? Or should he go?

As it happens, we know what Prince Gotama did. He left his wife and child behind, went out into the wide world, and after many hardships he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known. Knowing that, what would you do? Would you stay and become a great king, or leave and become a great spiritual leader? Would you give up the chance of being enlightened to stay with your family?


The first reading is from “The Wealth of Nations,” book 4, chapter 1, by Adam Smith.

“A rich country, in the same manner as a rich man, is supposed to be a country abounding in money; and to heap up gold and silver in any country is supposed to be the readiest way to enrich it. For some time after the discovery of America, the first inquiry of the Spaniards, when they arrived upon any unknown coast, used to be, if there was any gold or silver to be found in the neighborhood. By the information which they received, they judged whether it was worth while to make a settlement there, or if the country was worth the conquering.

“Plano Carpino, a monk sent ambassador from the King of France to one of the sons of the famous Genghis Khan, says, that the Tartars used frequently to ask him, if there was plenty of sheep and oxen in the kingdom of France. Their inquiry had the same object with that of the Spaniards. They wanted to know if the country was rich enough to be worth the conquering. Among the Tartars, as among all other nations of shepherds, who are generally ignorant of tho use of money, cattle are the instruments of commerce and the measures of value. Wealth, therefore, according to them, consisted in cattle, as according to the Spaniards it consisted in gold and silver. Of the two, the Tartar notion, perhaps, was the nearest to the truth.”

The second reading was the lyrics from the song “Money (that’s What I Want),” a song written by Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy in 1959.

Sermon: “The Best Things in Life”

What are the best things in life? We like to pretend that the best things in life are free. Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy skewered that pious sentiment way back in 1959 with their song “Money (That’s What I Want).” In the song, Bradford and Gordy said they believed that “Money don’t get everything, it’s true / But what it don’t get I can’t use.”

So what are we to believe? Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? I’d like to think out loud about this question by presenting you with some case studies.

The very brief case study is the story of Genghis Khan’s son, as told by Adam Smith, one of the primary theorists of capitalism. Genghis Khan, as you will recall, was the leader of the Mongol Empire. His people lived on the steppes of central Asia, and periodically erupted from the steppes to invade Europe, the Middle East, and China, pillaging as they went and leaving destruction in their wake. According to Adam Smith, Genghis Khan’s son did not ask how much money — how much gold and silver — there was in France, but rather he wanted to know how many sheep or oxen. The point here is that different societies measure wealth in different ways. While the Spaniards wanted to know how much gold and silver they would get before they invaded a foreign land, whereas the Mongol Empire wanted to know how many cattle they would get, they just had different ways of measuring wealth. If Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy wanted their song to be true across cultures, I guess they should have named their song “Wealth (That’s What I Want).”

However, this still doesn’t answer the question of whether the best things is life are free, or whether wealth is all that matters. So let’s turn to the case of Prince Siddhartha Gotama, which we heard in this morning’s Moment for All Ages.

As you recall, Siddartha Gotama was raised by his parents so that he was never exposed to anything that might upset him — he was never exposed to anything that might him start asking big difficult questions about the meaning of life. In particular, his parents did not want Prince Gotama to see anyone ill, anyone old, anyone who had died, nor anyone who followed a religious vocation. This desire to protect their child from everything unpleasant and difficult backfired on them. As soon as Siddhartha Gotama saw the Four Sights — an ill person, and old person, a dead person, and a religious person — he immediately conceived an intense desire to know why there was suffering in the world. This intense spiritual yearning caused Siddhartha Gotama to want to leave the wealthy and comfortable life he had been living, safe inside the palace walls, and go outside to enter into the life of a wandering saddhu [sah-doo], that is, a spiritual seeker who has renounced worldly life in order to focus on higher matters.

I will say parenthetically that I find this to be one of the most difficult stories of any major religious tradition. In order to become a saddhu, Prince Gotama basically abandons his wife and his baby — that is what I find difficult. In most retellings of the story, Prince Gotama stands looking at his sleeping wife and child. He wants to give them one last kiss and caress. But he knows that if he does so, they would awaken, and probably convince him not to leave. So he turns away and leaves them behind without even saying goodbye. I really don’t like that part of the story.

However, this does tell us something about how Siddhartha Gotama might answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or whether the best thing in life is money. And his is not a simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Siddhartha Gotama clearly believes that for him, the best thing is to leave money behind. The best things in life are not just free, the best things in life require the absence of money. It is only in the absence of money, thinks Siddhartha Gotama, that he will be able to find what he is seeking for. And of course that’s exactly what happens for Siddhartha Gotama — by living a life without wealth, he is able find the enlightenment that he seeks. He in fact becomes the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After his enlightenment, he turns to teaching others how to deal with suffering in this world; and according to some sources, after his enlightenment, he does reconnect with his wife and their son.

On the other hand, Siddhartha Gotama did not take his wife and their baby out into the world to lead the lives of wandering spiritual seekers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to become a wandering saddhu was to choose to live on the street, to become what we now call an unhoused person, to sleep outdoors and beg for your food, and more than likely to go sleep cold and hungry as often as not. That is not the kind of life that anyone would choose for their baby. Siddhartha Gotama knew that if he left his wife and baby behind, they would be cared for and cherished and loved by his parents.

So here is how Siddhartha Gotama answered the question. For himself, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are free, and he wanted to abandon all his wealth so that it could not distract him from the burning spiritual questions he had to answer. But for his child, and incidentally for his wife, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are not free, and that what they really needed and wanted was money.

Now I’ll turn to a third and even more complex case study. This is the case study of Juanita and Wally Nelson. My spouse Carol first met Juanita and Wally Nelson in the 1990s, when they used to attend meetings of the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association (or NOFA). They were hard to miss, for not only were they older than most of the other people at NOFA events, they were also some of the very few non-White organic farmers in those days. But Juanita and Wally Nelson’s story is far more complex than the story of an older Black couple who decided to become organic farmers.

Their story is worth telling in some detail. It will serve as my third and final case study. And I think it will further help us to answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or not. I’m going to focus on Juanita Nelson to tell the story, because I was able to get more details of her life from her oral history interview, which you can read on the Massachusetts Department of Education website.

Juanita Morrow was born in 1923, and grew up in Cleveland. She was a student at Howard University for two years, and in 1943 while at Howard she was arrested for the first time when she and some classmates tried to get served at a segregated restaurant.She had to drop out of college after two years for financial reasons, and began working as a reporter. In 1944, while she was a reporter, she interviewed a conscientious objector named Wally Nelson. Wally was a pacifist who refused to serve in the military for moral reasons. Juanita realized that she was a pacifist too, and when Wally was released from federal prison after the Second World War was over, they became — in her words — partners. They went on to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), helping to end Jim Crow racial discrimination in the United States.

As committed pacifists, they gradually came to the realization that they did not want to support the military industrial complex in any way, if they could help it. And so in 1970, when Juanita was 47 and Wally was 61 years old, they started farming and living off the land. Although they were not religious themselves, as pacifists they got to know many Quakers — pacifism is one of the central religious beliefs of Quakerism — and theQuakers who were running an alternative school at the Woolman Hill Quaker center in Deerfield, Massachusetts, invited them to come live there. Which they did. Wally died there in 2002, and Juanita stayed there until she was no longer able to care for herself. She died at a friend’s home in 2015.

Even though Juanita and Wally Nelson were not religious, they remind me a great deal of Siddhartha Gotama. Like Siddhartha Gotama, they decided to renounce the world of money and wealth. Instead of money and wealth, they pursued higher values — Siddhartha Gotama pursued his quest for the truth about human suffering; Juanita and Wally Nelson pursued their truth about peacemaking and pacifism. Siddhartha Gotama lived as a wandering saddhu, which was not an easy life — there were many times when he did not get enough to eat. Juanita and Wally Nelson refused to buy anything if they could help it, and while they were able to build a comfortable house using salvaged materials, they refused to have electric power or indoor plumbing. Juanita wrote a number of pieces about what it was like to live off the land, both the inconvenience of it, and the power of it. I’d like to read to you from one of these pieces she wrote, a poem called “Outhouse Blues”:

Well, I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs,
I even make my own soap and my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil and ITT and those other gouging guys….

Oh, but it ain’t easy, when it’s rainy and there’s mud
To put on my old bathrobe and walk out in that crud;
I look out through the open door and see a distant star
And sometimes think this simple life is taking things too far.

Juanita and Wally Nelson gave up a comfortable life — gave up wealth and money — in order to pursue the higher purpose of peacemaking. But in this poem, Juanita also acknowledges the attractions of having money. If she had money, she wouldn’t have to go out into the cold and the rain and the mud to use the outhouse. For Juanita and Wally Nelson, money and wealth may have their uses, but they can also distract you from following the highest purposes of life. So we can see that the Nelsons had much in common with Siddhartha Gotama. In a funny kind of a way, the Nelsons had something in common with Adam Smith, who concluded that the desire for wealth could lead to war; Genghis Khan’s son wanted to know how many cattle lived in France, so he could decide if that country were worth invading.

All this is very interesting, but we still don’t have a simple answer to the questions with which I began. Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? Siddhartha Gotama abandoned his life of wealth in the palace, because that wealth was keeping him from answering some urgent spiritual questions. But he left his wife and baby in the palace, where there was sufficient wealth to take adequate care of them. Juanita Nelson left behind a comfortable American middle class life, because the comfort that came with her relative wealth was keeping her from pursuing an urgently moral course of action. But she acknowledged the very real downsides that came with living without money.

I’m not convinced that we can ever have final answers to these questions. Yet we can reach some fairly obvious conclusions. First of all, as Siddhartha Gotama knew, poverty and life on the streets is not good for children. Children need adequate food and secure and stable homes. Secondly, money and wealth do seem to get in the way of spiritual progress. I don’t know why this is so, although perhaps it’s because wealth can cause to covetousness, and covetousness can lead to greed, and greed can end up in war and violence.

What these stories seem to be telling us is that there is a balance between having money, and not having money — and that balance is hard to find. Having too much money does seem to bring problems. Thus Siddhartha Gotama felt that the extreme wealth of his family insulated him from reality, and kept him from from making spiritual progress. Where your money comes from can also bring problems. In an extreme case, Juanita and Wally Nelson felt that all money in our society is tied in with the military industrial complex, and thus having any money kept them from making the moral and ethical path they wanted to follow. But even though money might have problems associated with it, money is good when it is used to help us to raise our children; money is good when it is used to take care of those who are weaker and more vulnerable.

More generally, perhaps money can become a good thing if it can help us turn our highest values into reality. If you can use what money you have at your disposal to support your highest moral and ethical values, then perhaps money can become a positive good. Although by doing so, you can run into other people trying to use their money to support moral and ethical values which are in conflict with yours. So for example, I support First Parish financially, in part because we’re willing to fly a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse to show that we support LGBTQ+ rights; while there are those in this town (and I’ve heard from a couple of them) who are angered by the fact that we have a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse. If money can promote our values in the wider world, then we run into the far larger problem of how to mediate between competing values; but that’s a topic for another sermon.

That’s my inconclusive conclusion for this sermon. I will only add that First Parish is beginning our annual fundraising campaign this week. Since I believe First Parish promotes my values in our community, I’ll be giving at least two and a half percent of my annual income to support First Parish and those values; this in addition to my other charitable giving.

The Great Man Fallacy

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. Once again this week, lots of typos and errors in the text, which I didn’t have time to correct.


The first reading was from the essay “Where Is the Love?” by the poet June Jordan.

“…Virtue is not to be discovered in the conduct of the strong vis-a-vis the powerful, but rather it is to be found in our behavior and policies affecting those who are different, those who are weaker, or smaller than we. How do the strong, the powerful, treat children? How do we treat the aged among us? How do the strong and the powerful treat so-called minority members of the body politic? How do the powerful regard women? How do they treat us?

“Easily you can see that, according to this criterion, the overwhelming reality of power and government and tradition is evil, is diseased, is illegitimate, and deserves nothing from us — no loyalty, no accommodation, no patience, no understanding — except a clear-minded resolve to utterly change this total situation and, thereby, to change our own destiny.”

The second reading was from the Christian Scriptures, the Good News of Mark, chapter 9, verses 33-35. This translation is from “The Five Gospels,” translated by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“When [Jesus] got home, he started questioning [his followers,] ‘What were you arguing about [while we were] on the road?’ They fell completely silent, because on the road they had been bickering about who was greatest. He sat down and called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be “number one,” that person has to be last of all and servant of all.’”

The third and final reading was from the Talmud, Pirkei Avot 6:5, translated by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein.

“Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than your learning, do! And do not lust for the table of princes. For your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and your Master is trusted to pay you the wage of your work.”

Sermon: “The Great Man Fallacy”

We’re in the middle of a presidential election year, and the Myth of the Great Man dominates our understanding of leadership. I like to define the “The Myth of the Great Man” as the belief that the only way you can have an effective nation, or an effective organization, is if you have a Great Man (can you hear the capital letters?) in the top leadership slot. The Myth of the Great Man explains why Americans place so much emphasis on the election of the U.S. president and congresspeople, yet mostly ignore the role of staffers and career bureaucrats and the other people who do most of the actual work of writing and enforcing our laws. The Myth of the Great Man also explains why the chief executive officers of American companies get paid 671 times more than the average worker, because those companies believe they need to pay big bucks to attract a Great Man as CEO.

I believe that the Myth of the Great Man is just a myth. Actually, calling this a “myth”is a slander to real myths. After all, a myth is a form of truth, whereas this is nothing but a fallacy. Let’s be honest and call it the Great Man Fallacy.

I don’t know where the Great Man Fallacy came from. But I do know that Jesus of Nazareth is commonly misinterpreted as being one of those Great Man leaders. This means there’s a religious dimension to the Great Man Fallacy, one which even infects Unitarian Universalism. I believe the Great Man Fallacy gets in the way of our communal religious life. More insidiously, it also gets in the way of our personal spiritual lives. That’s why I wanted to talk with you about the Great Man Fallacy this morning.

The Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus of Nazareth did not believe in the Great Man Fallacy of leadership. In several places in the Christian scriptures, Jesus makes it quite clear that there is only one being who is great, and that one being is God. Even though many people now believe that Jesus is God, Jesus himself explicitly told his followers that all of his virtues come from God the parent, not from himself. Thus Jesus says (in the book of Mark, chapter 10, verse 18), “Why do you call me good?… No one is good except God alone.” [NRSV]

Not only that, but Jesus quite clearly tells his followers that none of them is any better than any of the others. We heard this in the second reading. The followers of Jesus were bickering among themselves about which one was the greatest. Jesus stopped them by saying that if anyone wants to be the greatest, that person must be the last and least, and the servant of all the others. As I understand this, Jesus’s reasoning is pretty straightforward: If you try to be a leader by being the greatest, you’re usurping the rights and responsibilities of God.

Over time, the Western Christian tradition forgot this part of Jesus’s teachings, as it increasingly relied on a hierarchy where certain men were considered greater than all other men and women. Yet anyone who looked closely at the Christian scriptures could still see that Jesus didn’t have a hierarchical understanding of leadership. Instead, Jesus clearly had an egalitarian understanding of leadership.

In some ways, the egalitarian understanding of leadership continued in the West, not in Christianity, but in rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud makes it clear that the rabbis could, and did, disagree with one other; authoritarian hierarchy is absent. For example, when a man went to Rabbi Shamai and asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi Shamai pushed him away, telling him the Torah was not something you learned in five minutes. The man went to see Rabbi Hillel, who disagreed and said the whole Torah could be summed up in the sentence, “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else,” which you could repeat while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel then said everything else in the Torah is there to explain that one simple law, which requires a lifetime of study, so maybe the two rabbis agreed more than they disagreed. Nevertheless, the rabbis could, and did, disagree. The Talmud carefullygives the opinions of different rabbis, rather than a single answer which you’re supposed to believe is the truth. This is a more egalitarian understanding of leadership.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying things. Western Christianity has also had ongoing arguments and debates. But Christianity is prone to accepting the pronouncements of those in authority as the Gospel truth. If the minister or the bishop or someone in authority says it, then it’s less likely that someone else is going to argue with it. And this has become the norm throughout Western culture. Just as Western Christians are prone to accepting the pronouncements of their leaders without question, so too in the secular West we are prone to accepting the pronouncements of our leaders without questioning them as much as we should. This is how religion supports the Great Man Fallacy. The West was shaped by Western Christianity hierarchy, and now we actually believe that those who have the most prominent positions in society, or the most money, or the most followers — these are the people who are ordained by God to be the real leaders.

You can see how this works in the corporate world. Steve Jobs didn’t consider himself to be the last of all and the servant of all the other workers at Apple; Steve Jobs was the boss man, he was the most important, he told his minions what to do. And we’re seeing this happen with increasing frequency in the political world, as we’re increasingly asked to accept the authority of leading politicians without question.

But the great Man Fallacy also plays out here in our own congregation. The Great Man Fallacy even plays out in our own personal spiritual lives. Let me explain.

We know that according to the First Parish bylaws, and according to centuries of Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is the members of the congregation who are actually in charge at First Parish. The members of First Parish have the power to call a minister, and the members of the congregation can dismiss any minister should that minister not live up to the expectations of the members. (That happened here in 1796, when this congregation dismissed Josiah Crocker Shaw when he committed adultery.) At First Parish, the members are the ultimate authority.

However, as the current minister, I can tell you that once a minister is called, there seems to be a slight tendency for the members to begin deferring to the the minister. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you’re the leader, what do you think?” Actually, I’m not the leader; it’s more correct to say I’m one of the leaders. I’m happy to give my opinion — if I have an opinion on the topic at hand — but I don’t expect my opinion to be taken as the Gospel truth. There are plenty of people here with more leadership experience, and who know far more than I do about many things. I may have my opinions about how the worship service should go, but I defer to the gathered wisdom of the Music and Worship Committee. I may have my opinions about the religious education of our children, but really members of the Religious Education Committee (most of whom are parents) and our Director of Religious Education (who has a doctorate degree in developmental psychology) are far better informed on the subject than I am. I may have my opinions about governance, but the members of the Parish Committee have much greater experience with governing this congregation than I ever will, and so while I might sometimes disagree with them, I am also happy to defer to theme when they know better than I.

The goal of a minister, or any leader, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not to be the Great Man, is not to be the Big Boss. Leaders of Unitarian Universalist congregations should not try to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Individual leaders are not the Deciders, because ultimately the Annual Meeting decides. The buck doesn’t stop with individual leaders, because ultimately the buck stops with the members.

It turns out this is true beyond Unitarian Universalist congregations. Leadership actually comes from all the people in an organization. Leadership theorist Phillip Rost points out that you can’t have good leadership unless you also have good followership. Because they’re in a mutual influence relationship, leaders and followers are constantly changing positions. Sometimes you’re a leader, sometimes you’re a follower. There’s no one Great Man in charge, because leadership is a collaborative process. Leadership involves everyone working together to make real changes that reflect our mutual purposes.

If we get rid of the Great Man Fallacy, this can change the way we do spirituality within our religious community. I, as the minister, may be a spiritual leader, but so are you. Everyone in this room will be a spiritual leader at some point. Similarly, everyone in this room will be a spiritual follower at some time (including me).

If everyone can be leader and follower, this changes how we treat the least among us. In the first reading, poet June Jordan says that virtue is not to be found by looking at how the powerful treat the strong. We learn nothing about virtue by seeing how Elon Musk treats Donald Trump, or how Joe Biden treats Mark Zuckerberg. We discover virtue by looking at how those with some power treat those with less power.

Here’s how that might work in our own congregation. We might ask: How do the adults treat the children? Robert Pazmiño, a scholar and a lay leader in his progressive Christian church, said every committee in a church should have a youth member, someone under the age of 18. As I understand Bob, this means that when your leadership teams include young people, and if those young people have real power and authority, then your religious community can make real spiritual progress. The spiritual progress of a religious community is not measured solely by how long its members can meditate, or how often they attend weekly services. The spiritual progress of a religious community is best measured by how the community treats those who are less powerful.

Our individual spiritual progress can also be measured in part by how we treat those who are less powerful than ourselves. And I also believe that our individual spiritual progress must in part be measured by our participation in the leadership of our religious community. Like any individual spiritual practice, this can feel intimidating. Leadership as a spiritual practice is hard work. Leadership as a spiritual practice means coming face to face with those areas where we fall short.

The members and friends of First Parish are actually quite good at leadership as a spiritual practice. If you’ve been a part of First Parish for more than a year or two, you’ve probably already done some kind of spiritual leadership. Teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, serving on a committee, ushering, helping make lobster rolls, setting up social hour — all these are leadership roles. But they’re not leadership in the mode of the Great Man Fallacy. When you sing bass in the choir, you’re not like Steve Jobs telling everyone else what to do. You don’t go around telling everyone that you’re the greatest, and everyone else has to kowtow to you (especially if you’re a bass). Instead, this is more what Philip Rost describes, where followership and leadership go hand in hand.

This is the kind of leadership that Jesus was talking about when he said the best leaders are servants. And providing leadership through helping others is where the real spiritual growth happens. Take the Property Committee, for example. Doesn’t seem like there’s much opportunity for spiritual growth working on the Property Committee. But if you can lead a project that helps the children in Carriage House Nursery School, or if you can help lead a project that restores the exterior and interior of our historic Meetinghouse — by so doing, you have touched people’s lives, and you will find both spiritual reward and spiritual growth. Or if you serve on the Outreach Committee, and help figure out how to make the best use of the very limited funds at the committee’s disposal, there is both spiritual reward and spiritual growth in that, too.

Or I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own life. In the Unitarian Universalist congregation of my childhood and young adult years, my family always ushered once a month, which may seem like the most mundane thing you could do in a congregation; but looking back, I felt it led to some real spiritual growth, as I learned how to be a welcoming presence and how to represent my Unitarian Universalist community to newcomers. In another example, I feel that teaching Sunday school has led me to more personal spiritual growth than anything else I’ve ever done; it’s also been the most difficult spiritual practice I’ve ever done, and it took me years to get good at it; but the spiritual benefits far outweigh anything else I’ve done. And all these leadership positions — ushering, teaching Sunday school, serving on a committee, and so on — are egalitarian leadership, because we all participate together to make our shared religious community work.

I believe the spiritual practice of participatory, egalitarian leadership can be the most fulfilling of all spiritual practices. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal the world, by using our collective and collaborative power to make the world better for those who are less powerful than ourselves. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal ourselves, by pulling ourselves out of the isolation and loneliness that is so prevalent in society today — and that is the first necessary step towards healing the whole world.