This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an Orphic Hymn to the ancient Greek goddess Athena:

“Only-begotten, noble race of Zeus, blessed and fierce, who joyest in caves to rove: O warlike Pallas, whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find: magnanimous and famed, the rocky height, and groves, and shady mountains thee delight: in arms rejoicing, who with furies dire and wild the souls of mortals dost inspire. Gymnastic virgin of terrific mind, dire Gorgon’s bane, unmarried, blessed, kind: mother of arts, impetuous; understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good. Female and male, the arts of war are thine, O much-formed, Drakaina, inspired divine: over the Phlegraion Gigantes, roused to ire, thy coursers driving with destructive dire. Tritogeneia, of splendid mien, purger of evils, all-victorious queen. Hear me, O Goddess, when to thee I pray, with supplicating voice both night and day, and in my latest hour give peace and health, propitious times, and necessary wealth, and ever present be thy votaries aid, O much implored, art’s parent, [bright]-eyed maid.”

[#32, The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor (1792). Modern edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.]

The second reading is from Pseudo-Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the second century of the common era. It tells the story of how the ancient Greek city of Attika came to choose Athena as their special goddess:

“Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika… In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erekhtheis. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion. But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon, but the twelve gods [and goddesses]. And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea.”

[Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1, trans. Frazer.]


This is the second of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war; but before I do so, let me remind you why I think it is a good idea to preach about Greek goddesses in a Unitarian Universalist church.

Beginning in the 1970’s, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, when it comes to religion, women were often “overlooked and undervalued.” We actively worked to root out sexism from our shared faith. In the 1980’s, we rewrote our principles and purposes using gender-neutral language, and in the 1990’s, under the influence of ecofeminism, we added a principle about our commitment to respect the interdependent web of all life. In 1993, we published a new hymnal that included feminist hymns and songs. And many of our congregations were very active in addressing sexism at the local level. Over the past thirty or forty years, we have changed our selves and our attitudes, and have done away with a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

But of course the surrounding culture is still dominated by the idea of a male father god, and it is very hard for any of us to escape this idea. It is easiest to see the effects of the surrounding culture on our children: like it or not, they do learn the idea that God is a white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky, and it can b e hard to talk t hem out of that idea. Thus we find ourselves devoting a significant amount of time in our Sunday school presenting the children with alternative ideas about God;– last year in the Sunday school, we spent much of the year with the children’s book “Hide and Seek with God,” a book which presents alternative God-images from the Christian tradition and from other world religions. This is the kind of thing we do so that our children can get past the idea that God is an old white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.

Of course, as much as we don’t want to admit it, we adults are also influenced by the surrounding culture. Sometimes we catch ourselves making the assumption that the dominant male images of God are in fact the only images of God. For example, I have noticed that when people talk about the pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the discussions of these books tend to assume that God is singular, all-powerful, all-knowing; in other words, assume that God is the typical patriarchal male God of traditional Christianity. Both the atheists and the supporters of God weaken their arguments when they ignore the fact that there is more than one god-image out there.

In spite of recent scholarship which has uncovered female god-images in the Bible, and in other world religions, too many of us adults cleave to the old god-image of a white man with a beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky. Yes, even we Unitarian Universalists fall into this trap. We forget that Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was addressing his liberal Christian prayers to father God and mother God back in the 1850’s; and we Unitarian Universalists often forget that god-images can be either male or female, or gender-neutral, or differently gendered, or that gender does not even apply to the divine.

To keep myself from falling into the trap of thinking that the divine must be male, I like to spend some time thinking about the goddesses, like the Greek goddesses, who are a part of our Western culture. It’s not that I’m going to worship or believe in these goddesses; but remembering that our Western culture has lots of female god-images helps keep me from falling into the cultural trap of assuming that all god-images must be male. It’s a way of examining and challenging my unconscious assumptions.

Now you know why I’m preaching a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. Now let me turn our attention to Athena, a goddess who challenges many of our assumptions.

And to begin to tell you how Athena can challenge our assumptions, I should begin by telling you the story of Black Athena. Back in 1987, a scholar named Martin Bernal published a book titled Black Athena. In this book, Bernal stated his belief that the roots of Greek culture — and therefore the roots of all the Western European culture that sprang from it — the roots of ancient Greek culture lay in Africa. On the face of it, this is not a particularly remarkable thing to say. All the cultures of the ancient Near East, all the gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, seem to have been interrelated. Certainly the African culture of Egypt is an older culture than ancient Greek culture. So to say that the Egyptians had tremendous influence on the later cultures of ancient Greece should not be very controversial.

And the ancient Greeks knew that Athena herself had a connection to Africa. Plato, in his dialogue the Timaeus, tells us that in Egypt, there is a city called Saïs, and the citizens of that city have a guardian goddess: “The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athena…” [Timaeus 21e, trans. Jowett]. Thus Plato said that the Greek goddess Athena was somehow related to the Egyptian goddess Neith. It was an obvious connection to make: both Athena and Neith were goddesses of war and goddesses of weaving, and they shared other characteristics as well.

But when Martin Bernal wrote his book Black Athena he created a storm of controversy. One of the things that made his book controversial was Bernal’s image of a dark-skinned Athena. In our world, which is so conscious of skin color and race, it was shocked some white people, and some people of color, to think that the goddess Athena might have been black,– when for all these years most of us in the Western world have thought of Athena as being white.

We sometimes try to erect hard-and-fast boundaries in realms where there are no hard-and-fast boundaries. Racial and cultural boundaries appear to have been more permeable in the ancient Near East than we may want to believe. Ancient Near East gods and goddesses moved from one culture to another, and from one religion to another. Indeed, when I hear Wisdom revered in the Bible as a female figure of goddess-like importance, as in the responsive reading this morning, I wonder what other goddesses she was related to, and even if she was perhaps related to Athena, who was also a goddess of wisdom.

I imagine there was a web of cultural connections throughout the ancient Near East: connections between various goddesses and gods; connections between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa; connections between peoples of all different skin colors from black to white to various shades of brown. In our minds, we have divided the world into distinct continents, and people into distinct races, but some of the divisions that we make are too arbitrary.

I started out saying that Athena might help us to be aware that the divine might just as well be female as male, or have no gender at all. The image of an African Athena can help us be aware that the divine might have black, brown, or white skin color, or be utterly beyond human racial categories. So this is another way in which thinking about Athena helps us to challenge our assumptions about our god-images.

One of the things that has bothered me about Athena is that she is both the goddess of wisdom, and the goddess of war. Since I think of war as a kind of madness, it seemed to me that Athena was combining two contradictory elements within her. How could she embody both war and wisdom?

The poet Robert Graves gives us a clue as to how this might be so. Graves says that although she is indeed the goddess of war, Athena “gets no pleasure from battle, as [the god] Ares and [the goddess] Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means.” [The Greek Myths]

What particularly interests me is that Athena does not reject violence altogether. But when she does go to war it is for good reason; and should she decide to go to war, she uses her wisdom to develop adequate strategy and tactics, so that she never loses a battle. Ares, the male god of war, likes violence for the sake of violence, and he is often defeated because of his inability to plan out his strategy and tactics. [Graves, Greek Myths, 25.a] By contrast, Athena does not like to go to war, but she will do so if justice requires her to do so. Athena’s attitude towards war has helped to challenge my assumptions about peacemaking.

Last June, Rev. William Schulz gave a talk on his Unitarian Universalist theology of peacemaking. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was president of Amnesty International from 1993 to 2006. Schulz said that in his years at Amnesty International, he “was exposed on a daily basis to the most sordid and gratuitous violence.” He saw, over and over again, and sometimes first-hand, the results of torture and government-sanctioned violence. In the face of such acts of violence, he felt that he could not uphold the ideal of complete and utter pacifism. He said he could not believe in what he called the impossible ideal of complete pacifism; instead, he believed that sometimes true justice requires military intervention.

As an example, Schulz said that if the United States military had enforced a no-fly zone over Darfur over the past three or four years — and such enforcement would include the possibility of shooting down aircraft which violated the no-fly zone — then much of the genocide now going on in Darfur could have been avoided. For that reason, Schulz does not support the way the war in Iraq has been handled because he believes that the Iraq war has so over-extended the United States military that we have been unable to respond to other, more urgent, humanitarian situations such as the genocide in Darfur.

William Schulz might get along quite well with Athena. Like Athena, he believes that any use of violence has to be guided by justice. Like Athena, he also believes that any use of violence has to be guided by long-range strategy and tactics, so that one’s military forces don’t become overextended. When I say that Schulz would get along well with Athena, I don’t mean that literally of course; to the best of my knowledge, Schulz is a humanist, and I don’t believe he is a goddess-worshipper. But like Athena, Schulz challenges us to move beyond the traditional Western Christian notions of religious pacifism, to go beyond the old Christian teachings on “just war theory.” Both Athena and William Schulz value practical wisdom over abstract adherence to principles, and they challenge us to consider the possibility of a theology of peacemaking that allows for limited use of violence in order to prevent more violence.

Athena has led us quite far afield, hasn’t she? First she challenged us to rethink our religious images of race and gender. Then she challenged us to rethink our religious notions of pacifism and peacemaking. Where will she lead us next?

In the second reading this morning, we heard how both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena tried to take possession of the city of Athens. Poseidon laid claim to Athens by striking his trident on the ground, which opened up a well filled with sea-water; but this salty water was not of much use to the Athenian citizens. Then Athena came along and planted an olive tree; this tree produced food, cooking oil, and wood for the Athenians. Presumably, no one living in Athens had ever seen an olive tree before, because cultivated olives are not native to Greece. Not surprisingly, the Athenian citizens said that Athena had made the best claim to their city, and she became their ruling goddess. This is why we call the city Athens even today; it is the city named after Athena.

In the past few months, I have found reason to think about this story of how Athena gave the olive tree to Athens. On January 19, the New York Times ran a story titled “A New Global Oil Quandary,” the opening paragraph of which read: “Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop [of cooking oil]. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material. This is the other oil shock.”

You see, for much of the world, particularly the developing world, cooking oil represents an important source of calories. Even if you grow your own food you almost have to go out and buy cooking oil because it is hard to make it on your own. Right now, the price of cooking oil is rising very rapidly around the world. All food prices are rising rapidly; in the past year, the worldwide price of food has risen more than fifty percent. In some places, people are spending more than eighty percent of their income on food. Food riots have been taking place from Mexico City to Haiti to Indonesia. Military analysts tell us that the rising price of food is contributing to global insecurity.

When we first hear the story of how Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens, it sounds — quaint. How nice! the people get a tree from Athena, and they make her the goddess of the city. But in a world with shortages of cooking oil, suddenly the story doesn’t sound so quaint. The gift of a tree that provides both food and cooking oil is a gift of survival, a gift that prevents starvation. In the modern world, such a gift could prevent wars and violence. We are already seeing violence and instability resulting from rising food prices; whereas access to reasonably-priced food and cooking oil would tend to lead to a peaceful world.

The story of Athena and the olive tree challenges us to think about the relationship between food and war and peace. No wonder those ancient Athenians prayed to the goddess Athena: they were praying for food security, which meant that they were also praying for peace. Athena challenges us to understand the relationship between food and security; she challenges us to consider food supply in any theology of peacemaking.

These old stories about the goddess Athena challenge our religious ideas of race, gender, war and peace, and food security. And these various issues seem to me to be interconnected, that they are woven together in the larger religious issue of peacemaking. True peacemaking requires us to have the wisdom to understand the underlying causes of violence; as much as I might prefer the complete pacifism of Jesus of Nazareth, true peacemaking in today’s world may well require us to have enough wisdom to know when it is appropriate to use limited military force in order to prevent further violence.


April 6, 2008 — “Artemis” — FUNB


The first reading is Callimachus’s first hymn to the Goddess Artemis, verses 1-46:

“Artemis we hymn — no light thing is it for singers to forget her — whose study is the bow and the shooting of hares and the spacious dance and sport upon the mountains; beginning with the time when sitting on her father’s knees — still a little maid — she spake these words to her sire:

”  ‘Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever: and give me to be of many names, that Phoebus may not vie with me. And give me arrows and a bow — stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver or for mighty bow: for me the Cyclopes will straightway fashion arrows and fashion for me a well-bent bow. But give me to be Bringer of Light and give me to gird me in a tunic with embroidered border reaching to the knee, that I may slay wild beasts. And give me sixty daughters of Oceanus for my choir — all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled; and give me for handmaidens twenty nymphs of Amnisus who shall tend well my buskins, and, when I shoot no more at lynx or stag, shall tend my swift hounds.

”  ‘And give to me all mountains; and for city, assign me any, even whatsoever thou wilt: for seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town. On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid even in the hour when I was born the Fates ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.’ …

“And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘…Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily. Yea, and other things therewith yet greater will thy father give thee. Three times ten cities and towers more than one will I vouchsafe thee — three times ten cities that shall not know to glorify any other god but to glorify the only and be called of Artemis. And thou shalt be Watcher over Streets and harbours.’ So he spake and bent his head to confirm his words.

“And the maiden faired unto the white mountain of Crete leafy with woods; thence unto Oceanus; and she chose many nymphs all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled. And the river Caraetus was glad exceedingly, and glad was Tethys that they were sending their daughters to be handmaidens to the daughter of Leto.”

[Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Hymn III, vv. 1-46. Trans. A.W. and G.R. Mair. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.]

The second reading are two brief myths or fables attributed to Galius Julius Hyginus, a Roman writer who lived in the first century of the common era in Spain. Since he was Roman, he calls Artemis by her Roman name, which is Diana.

Myth 180. “ACTAEON

“Actaeon, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, a shepherd, saw Diana bathing and desired to ravish her. Angry at this, Diana made horns grow on his head, and he was devoured by his own dogs.”

Myth 181. “DIANA

“When Diana, wearied from constant hunting in the thickly shadowed valley of Gargaphia, in the summertime was bathing in the stream called Parthenius,– Actaeon, grandson of Cadmus, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, sought the same place for cooling himself and the dogs which he had exercised in chasing wild beasts. He caught sight of the goddess, and to keep him from telling of it, she changed him into a stag. As a stag, then, he was mangled by his own hounds.”

(Galius Julius Hyginus then proceeds to list the names of the more than eighty dogs, separated as to males and females, who devoured Actaeon.)

[The Myths of Hyginus, trans. and ed. Mary Grant. University of Kansas Publications in Humanistic Studies, no. 34. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960.]


This is the first of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may well wonder why I would preach a sermon on a Greek goddess;– let alone why I would preach a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. And I thought I had better tell you why before I actually tell you about the Greek goddess Artemis, who is the subject of this morning’s sermon. Here is why:

When I was a teenager in the 1970’s growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, even in our denomination, women and girls were often overlooked and undervalued. We Unitarian Universalists finally figured out that sexism pervaded our shared liberal faith; and we set about changing that. We rewrote our principles and purposes. We put together a new hymnal. Many local churches went through honest self-appraisal about their attitudes towards women and girls. And to a large extent, we managed to change our selves and our attitudes, and we did eradicate a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

We were able to change our selves, but we could not change several thousand years of religious history. We could not change the culture which surrounds us, a culture which assumes that God is male. We could not change the sacred texts of the Western religious tradition we claim as our own, sacred texts which mention men far more than they mention women. Because of this, we Unitarian Universalists try to keep up with Biblical scholarship which points out where women appear in the Bible, and which tells us that women may have written parts of the Bible. But we can’t change the fact that Western religious tradition depicts God as male.

Why is this such a problem? Well, as an adult I find I can distance myself from the surrounding culture, and hold on to my own opinion that the divine does not have a specific gender. But what about our children? God is like sex and Santa Claus –they’re going to hear about it on the playground — we can say that we won’t tell the children that God is male, but they’re going to hear about it anyway.

I think about the girls that troop out of here to go to Sunday school each week — Sophia and Amanda and Jessica and Asia and Stephanie and Tahlia. I want them to know that God can be pictured as male or female. Not that I want them to believe in any particular goddess or god — as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to believe in any god at all — but I do want them to know that the divine can be female just as well as it can be male.

As it happens, many children go through a stage where they are fascinated by stories of strong, powerful beings. Early on, they love dinosaurs, especially Tyrannosaurus Rex and other huge saurian carnivores. A fascination with strong powerful dinosaurs is often followed by a fascination with gods and goddesses:– I remember when I was nine or ten, my favorite book was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. At this age, many children are fascinated by tales of gods and goddesses.

And many of us who were fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when we were children find that those old stories have sunk deep into our religious consciousness. To this day, when I hear people talking about the feminine aspects of the divine, I immediately think of powerful Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The Greek goddesses and gods are just as much a part of our Western cultural tradition as are the figures in the Bible; alhough we are unlikely to worship the Greek gods and goddesses, as Christians still worship the God of the Bible, still those Greek goddesses and Gods live deep in our cultural consciousness.

Thus I believe in teaching children about the Greek goddesses and gods — especially teaching children about Greek goddesses. Our girls, and our boys, deserve to have some knowledge of these strong, powerful religious figures; not least so that our children can begin to understand that women can be fully valued in religion, despite the fact that the dominant Western religious traditions tend to devalue and overlook women.

Now that you know why I want to preach about Greek goddesses, let me tell you about Artemis, my personal favorite Greek goddess; and tell you why I think our children, girls in particular, might want to know about Artemis.

At the most literal level, we might wish to tell our children about Artemis because Artemis choose as her followers nine year old girls. Admittedly, these nine-year-olds were not ordinary human children; these were sixty daughters of the old ocean god Oceanus, and thus had the blood of an immortal god running in their veins. (I suspect that there are some ordinary human girls who may well be disappointed to find out that they are not themselves eligible to join Artemis’s band.)

But I do think it’s worth telling children, especially girl-children, that there is at least one goddess who so values girls that she deliberately chooses girls to be her followers. I am glad that the Christian scriptures specifically mention that Jesus wanted the little children to be able to come to him. However, much of the Western religious tradition basically ignores children. That being the case, I think it’s worth telling girls that Artemis did value their contributions.

And Artemis really is a good alternative religious role model for girls. Artemis in no way represents the standard stereotyped roles that are pushed onto girls by the surrounding culture. In a culture like ours that promotes sexualized clothing for pre-pubescent girls; in a culture where you can buy Lego kits for girls which are packaged in pink and advertised as less difficult to assemble; in a culture where it has been documented that girls’ self-esteem plummets as they approach puberty — it’s not a bad thing for girls to know about a powerful goddess who is strong, self-assured, and competent.

Artemis is in no way a stereotypical girl. She wears sturdy outdoor clothing appropriate for the slaying of wild beasts; and I really doubt that she wears anything that is pink. She is adept with her bow, and she is the best of hunters. She lives on her own in the mountains, and while she has female attendants she is not dependent on any man. Indeed, Artemis is not impressed with the males who do fall in love with her, feeling no need to soothe wounded male egos:– when the river-god Alpheius fell in love with her and pursued her, she easily eluded him and sent him on his way, pursued by the mocking laughter of her attendants. Artemis is quite capable of taking care of herself.

We don’t have to encourage girls to grow up to be exactly like Artemis, of course. Not every girl is going to want to live in the mountains and hunt wild game. But we do need to offer girls a wider range of religious figures whom they can have as possible role models. The Christian tradition offers girls precious few good role models: Miriam, Esther, Ruth, and a few other strong capable women. And look how many more role models the Christian tradition offers to boys! So while we’re not going to encourage girls to be just like Artemis, nevertheless she is a goddess in the Western tradition who can be an alternative role model for our girls.

I have said that Artemis breaks down the gender-role stereotypes that so pervade the surrounding culture. One of these stereotypes is of enough importance that it deserves special mention.

In the first reading this morning, we heard how Artemis got Zeus, her father and the leader of all the other gods and goddesses, to promise that Artemis would never have to marry. Generally speaking, Western culture tells girls and women that, no matter what else they might do with their lives, marriage should be one of their ultimate goals. Even today, when so many more jobs and professions are open to women, the old feeling still persists that women should think of marriage before a career.

That’s why Artemis is such a good alternative role model for girls. Marriage simply doesn’t interest Artemis; she has other things to do with her life. Mind you, I think it’s a fine thing for people who want to get married to go out and get married;– but there are those girls and boys who would rather not get married. There is nothing in our religious views that demands we get married; marriage is a choice for us, it is a covenant into which we may enter voluntarily. Therefore, it behooves us to offer role models for those among us who choose not to get married. In the Christian tradition, Jesus never gets married, so boys have at least one powerful role model of an unmarried male religious figure. Perhaps we could offer Artemis to girls as a possible unmarried role model. True, she is not as central to our religious tradition as is Artemis; but then, Artemis is a goddess while Jesus in our view is simply human.

There’s another reason why Artemis can be a good role model for those among us who may not choose to marry. Although Artemis does not marry herself, she values children. She is the goddess of childbirth; and she likes children enough to want to have sixty nine-year-old girls for her attendants. It’s not that she hates children or marriage, it’s just that she has made a conscious choice not to have children of her own, nor to be married. In a culture that can push girls to want to be married and mothers first, and everything else second,– it’s good for girls to know that they can be feminine and be a woman without having to get married or have children.

I have one last thing to say about why Artemis deserves our attention. In the second reading this morning, we heard two different versions of the story of Artemis and Actaeon. In essence, the story goes like this: Actaeon, who is a man, is out hunting when he happens upon Artemis and her attendants skinny-dipping in a river. Actaeon is pretty creepy. When he sees Artemis and her nine-year-old nymphs attendants bathing, the obvious and polite thing would be for Actaeon to leave as quickly as possible. Depending on which version of the story you choose, Actaeon either stands there are stares at Artemis, or he tries to rape Artemis.

Women in our culture obviously have to put up with this kind of male behavior on a regular basis. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report which said that 17.6 percent of American women said they “had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life.” Worse yet, all too often the woman is made to feel that somehow she is to blame for being attacked.

But Artemis doesn’t feel that she is to blame. Whether Actaeon was trying to rape her, or was invading her privacy by staring at her, Artemis assumes that he is to blame. She takes immediate action against him: she turns Actaeon into a deer; and then she gets his dogs to bring him down and devour him. We may not like the violence that ends this story. But nevertheless it is a powerful story because it helps to counteract the message that a woman who is sexually assaulted or even just stared at is somehow to blame. The story makes it clear that Actaeon should have know better; and he has to pay the price for his inability to control his momentary impulse. Personally, I would not try to explain this story in this way to children. But I do believe it is worth telling children this and other stories about this powerful and self-reliant goddess.

I believe in telling children stories about the goddess Artemis, just as I’m telling you stories about Artemis, so that we can have a religious role model of a strong, powerful, independent woman. As with any religious story, we need not take it as literal truth; we understand that it is poetic truth. As with any religious story, we know it is not the only religious story out there; it is one among many stories that we value for their poetic truths. But it’s good for us to know that our Western religious tradition, our own cultural inheritance, has strong female role models.

One of the nice things about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we can open ourselves up to religious influences like these. I told you that when I was nine or ten, I loved the Greek myths, and I read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths over and over again. I told you that because I was fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when I was a child, now that I’m an adult I find that those old stories have sunk deep into my religious consciousness. So it is today that I have firm and very distinct images of the feminine aspects of the divine. Nor am I unique in this:– whether we come across the Greek goddesses in childhood, or when we are adults, we religious liberals know that we can accept the wisdom and the insights in these old stories;– we do not have to take theses stories literally, but still they can be a part of our religious lives.

I’m glad that Artemis is a part of my religious consciousness, so that I have an example of a strong, self-reliant woman who stands up to sexual harrassment, who doesn’t worry about gender stereotypes, and who loves living in the mountains. As we continue to work together to reshape our understandings of gender, as we work together to build a land where women and men can truly be equals, Artemis is a good goddess to have on our side.

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.