The Covenant of Martin Luther King

A sermon in honor of the 80th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.

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 improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a responsive reading.

As we get ready to inaugurate the first Black president of the United States, we read together these words by Frederick Douglass: “We deem it a settled point that the destiny of the colored people of this country is bound up with that of the white people of this country.

We are here, and here we are likely to be. To imagine that we shall ever be eradicated is absurd and ridiculous.

We can be remodified, changed, assimilated, but never extinguished.

We repeat, therefore, that we are here; and that this is our country; and the question for the philosophers and statesmen of the land ought to be, What principles should dictate the policy of the action toward us?

We shall neither die out, nor be driven out;

But shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.”

[Adapted from an essay by Frederick Douglass in North Star (November 1858); as quoted in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992), Derrick Bell, p. 40.]

The second reading this morning is from “Strength To Love,” a sermon by Martin Luther King on Luke 10.29, “And who is my neighbor?” In the sermon, Rev. King takes that question that Jesus was asked, and asks that same question of race relations in the United States in the 1960s.

“…[W]e must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine inter-group and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the eharts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love in mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”

[From “Strength to Love,” Martin Luther King (Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 37-38.]

Sermon “The Covenant of Martin Luther King”

This month I have been preaching a series of sermons on the topic of covenant. We in this church have a deep and immediate interest in this topic: first because in our religious traditions, churches are organized around their covenants; and second because in our own church here in New Bedford, we are in the process of writing a new church covenant. To write a new church covenant — that is a task of great moment. We do not rewrite our covenants very often. In our own church, during the whole of the 19th century, we rewrote our covenant perhaps twice; and in the 20th century, we did not have a written covenant, perhaps because it seemed so overwhelming to try to put our implicit covenant into writing. So it has been a century and a half since we last rewrote our covenant; and because of this, I devoted the first two sermons of this year to our own church covenant.

But there are covenants that extend far beyond our church community. Some would argue that the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all founded on the covenant of Abraham; and that being so, then perhaps two billion people are still a part of that Abrahamic covenant. This morning I would like to speak with you about a covenant that is not quite so broad as that; but it is a covenant that extends far beyond our own church. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us understand a covenant that exists in the United States — a covenant that had consisted mostly of broken promises. He spoke to us all about this covenant, he gently encouraged us to acknowledge the broken promises, and he has moved us to repair these broken promises, to repair this covenant. We are still engaged in repairing this national covenant. We most often hear this national covenant summed up in the words from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”

I would like to speak with you about how Martin Luther King articulated, and reinvigorated, our national covenant. More particularly, I would like to speak with you about the tremendous progress we have made in reinstating that covenant in the past year.

1. When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” But Rev. King also said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This second statement is another way of putting of our national covenant; but it is, I think, a fuller, more comprehensive statement of a fundamental principle of our country. From a religious and moral perspective, Rev. King was telling us that we are not merely created equal; at a deeper level, we find our destinies tied together, so that if any one of us is treated unjustly, justice for all the rest of us is threatened.

From our own religious perspective, when we hear the words “inescapable network of mutuality,” we are likely to think of what we call the Web of Life; we know that all human beings, all living beings, indeed all nonliving things, in this universe are tied together in a web of interrelationships; and when we act, we must be conscious of how our action affects the entire Web of Life. Jesus of Nazareth used a different term: Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the underlying reality of the here and now in which we are all connected, one with the other, so that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, for in truth we are so interconnected that the way we treat our neighbors is in fact the way we treat our own selves.

Rev. King drew on many religious sources to help him articulate various aspects of our national covenant. When he accepted the Nobel Prize, he drew on the story of Moses, saying: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.” As Moses had a covenant with his god to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, so we know that Martin Luther King led Americans of African descent out of the bondage of segregation and racism; and like Moses, Martin Luther King died before he saw the Promised Land of freedom. The story of Moses is a powerful story because it reminds us that it is hard work to get out of bondage; just because you start the journey to freedom doesn’t mean you’ll see its end; it took the Israelites forty years to get to the Promised Land, and even then their troubles continued for centuries.

But I believe the real center of what Rev. King taught us about covenant was not what he taught us through the story of Moses, powerful as the Moses story may be. For at the center of Rev. King’s message were the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that all of religion could be summed up in two commandments, the second of which was that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. And that is why, again and again, Rev. King asked us to consider this question: Who is our neighbor?

Who is our neighbor? One day, so we are told, a lawyer approached Jesus. Now remember, Jesus was Jewish, and this lawyer was Jewish, and Jews take their religious laws seriously. Jesus asked the lawyer to summarize the religious laws of Judaism. The lawyer gave the correct answer, which was “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed that was the correct response. Then the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

That’s the key question, isn’t it? Like the lawyer, we all know we are supposed to treat our neighbors well. But who is our neighbor? To answer this question, Jesus told a story.

One day, a man from Jerusalem was going from Jerusalem down to the city of Jericho, along a steep, winding, dangerous road. The man was ambushed by robbers. The robbers beat him till he was bloody, took his money, and left him by the side of the road, bruised and unable to move.

Soon a priest from the great Temple at Jerusalem came down the road. The priest saw the man lying there, but instead of stopping to help him, the priest looked the other way and hurried on by.

Then a Levite came down the same road. Levites were important officials at the great Temple at Jerusalem. Like the priest, the Levite took one look at the poor man lying by the side of the road, looked the other way, and hurried on by.

Then a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, came walking along the road. The Samaritans were a despised ethnic and religious group; where the priests and the Levites were respected and honored, the Samaritans were disliked and shunned. When Jesus told this story, he knew that his listeners would immediately assume that the Samaritan, too, would walk past the man lying in the gutter; or even kick him while he was down.

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’s story. The Samaritan was moved to pity at the sight of the beaten, robbed man lying in the gutter, and bandaged his wounds. The Samaritan hoisted the beaten, robbed man onto his donkey, brought him to an inn, paid all the bills, and looked after him. The next day, the Samaritan went to the innkeeper and said, “Look after that man until he gets better. On my way back, I’ll make sure to pay you back if there’s any extra expense.”

This is how Jesus answered the question: Who is our neighbor?

Rev. King tells this story with great richness and depth. When Rev. King tells us this old story, we know he’s telling us that White folks should see Black folks as their neighbor; and we know that he’s telling us that Black folks should see White folks as their neighbors, even though the White folks have been treating them as badly as the Samaritans two thousand years ago.

But there is far more to this story when Rev. King tells it, for in his own way Rev. King was a poet, and poetry always goes beyond the mere surface meaning. The way Rev. King tells the story, we feel that the Black folks, like the Samaritan, were the best of neighbors to the White folks; but not the other way around. Frederick Douglass wrote: “We [those of us who are Black] shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.” Rev. King managed to tell those of us who are White folks, in a gentle kind of way, the same thing that Frederick Douglass said: that the status of Black folks stood as testimony against us White folks. This may have been painful to us White folks; we may have wished we could cross to the other side of the street and avert our eyes, as did the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story. But like all good preachers, Rev. King made a moral point: Our country was like the man lying in the ditch, morally speaking: our country had been unspeakably damaged by the evils of slavery and racism; and we needed to address this immorality.

Who is our neighbor? Well, we know the answer to that: everyone, people of all skin colors. And who is our neighbor? And we know another answer to that question: the neighbor is the person who attempts to heal the broken condition of the man lying in the ditch. And who is our neighbor? And we come to realize that we are all neighbors, we are all interconnected; and with that realization, we begin to take responsibility to care for all our neighbors; we are all part of the inescapable network of mutuality; we are all part of the Web of Life.

2. Nearly two years ago, we began to hear about this man named Barack Obama who was running for president. The pundits quietly told us that we could safely ignore this Obama fellow, because he was too inexperienced, which sometimes was a way of saying that a Black man couldn’t be president. Not yet, anyway. Obama and his supporters did not listen to the pundits, and they were organized, articulate, and they didn’t talk down to us. On March 18, 2008, not quite a year ago, Barack Obama gave a speech titled “A More Perfect Union.” In that speech, he responded to some racially-charged criticism, and he said in part: “I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.” Obama said, in effect: we need to see each other as neighbors; it’s time to stop fighting with our neighbors, or ignoring them, and instead bend down and pick up the man in the ditch.

I heard that speech as recalling us to our national covenant. Fighting with our neighbors get us nowhere. Pretending that racism doesn’t exist gets us nowhere. To have this public figure, this politician, acknowledge to us that race and racism are real; and say at the same time that we need to move beyond race and racism; this was a remarkable moment when a politician reminded us, not of our self-interest, but of our covenant together.

We needed this reminder. In spite of Martin Luther King’s legacy, we have not always acted like good neighbors over the past forty years. Race relations got a little better for a while, but beginning in the 1980s, in many ways racism got steadily worse. Schools are more desegregated now than at any time since Rev. King was alive. We got distracted by naked self-interest. Some politicians proclaimed that racism is done with, it’s over, we can move on — while our own eyes told us that racism still exists, it is not gone.

What Barack Obama’s speech on March 18 of last year said to us was simple: In order to move forward, yes, we do need to acknowledge that the American covenant has repeatedly been broken in the past, and over and over again our country has not treated all people equally; but we also must acknowledge that our national covenant still exists. That speech last March acknowledged that no, we’re not going to end racism tomorrow; but Obama also reminded us that we can treat each other more like neighbors.

The remarkable thing, however, was not Obama’s speech — good as that speech was. The remarkable thing was that most Americans understood his speech. Not everyone liked what he had to say, and some Americans remain frozen in naked self-interest, but I think almost all Americans understood what he said, and we recognized the truth and justice of what he said. Since the 1980s, politicians have been dumbing down their messages to us Americans; they have been treating us like children, and all too often we have acted like greedy ill-behaved children. But when someone finally talked to us like adults, when someone finally talked to us about race and racism in all its complexity — we responded thoughtfully.

Not only did we respond thoughtfully, but the American electorate responded favorably to Barack Obama. We heard what he said, and the majority of us agreed that it’s time to move forward, it’s time to get our national covenant up and running again. And so our country elected Obama as president with a healthy margin. The pundits were proved wrong: a Black man could be elected president of our country, and was elected president.

And so it is I feel that we are witnessing a huge change in our nation.

We are renewing our national covenant: a covenant that all persons shall be considered equal. We are asking ourselves: Who is our neighbor? And we are responding: we are all each other’s neighbors.

We are renewing our national covenant. Our country has been morally degraded, first by slavery, and then by racism. Racism eats away at our national conscience. We may not admit it in public, but we know that other countries are disgusted by the racism that is still endemic in our country; we try to ignore their disgust, but we know it’s there. We try to make up for our moral failing by taking the moral high ground in other areas: for example, we have taken the moral high ground against terrorism, even while we cannot admit our moral failings when it comes to race. And so, while we don’t admit it publicly, we have been ashamed at the moral failing of racism.

To elect a Black president has gone a long way to healing the national sense of shame. When we feel shame, it can paralyze us; so it is important to heal from that sense of shame. We know we still have plenty of work to do end racism, but now we have renewed energy to do that work. Whether we agree with Obama’s politics or not — I’m sure we all have reservations about some specific directions he is taking — we know that what’s happening now is bigger than one man; it’s bigger than partisan politics. We have elected have a Black president of the United States; and through that simple action, we should feel that our national covenant has been renewed. We are again committing ourselves to the dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.”


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1928. He would have been 80 years old this past Thursday. As we celebrate his birthday this week, I feel we now can remember Rev. King best by living in the present, and looking to the future.

We shall live in the present: In two days, we will inaugurate have a Black president. Let us decide that this is a renewal of our national covenant; let this renewal re-energize us to live out our dream that we will live out our belief that all persons are created equal. We know there is hard work in front of us, but may we work together as neighbors to finally end racism and heal race relations.

We shall look to the future: Of course we don’t know how the Obama presidency will work out. But we are less interested in politics this morning than in morality. Let our national morality came back into wholeness. May ours become a nation where we live out our ideals, that all persons are created equal. May the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos come true at last: “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [Amos 5.24]


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 from a sermon titled “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 by William Ellery Channing. This sermon gives the classic old Unitarian view of God

We conceive that Christians have generally leaned towards a very injurious view of the Supreme Being. They have too often felt, as if he were raised, by his greatness and sovereignty, above the principles of morality, above those eternal laws of equity and rectitude, to which all other beings are subjected. We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance. We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.

We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system….

To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. We believe that he has a father’s concern for his creatures, a father’s desire for their improvement, a father’s equity in proportioning his commands to their powers, a father’s joy in their progress, a father’s readiness to receive the penitent, and a father’s justice for the incorrigible. We look upon this world as a place of education, in which he is training men by prosperity and adversity, by aids and obstructions, by conflicts of reason and passion, by motives to duty and temptations to sin, by a various discipline suited to free and moral beings, for union with himself, and for a sublime and ever-growing virtue in heaven.

The second reading is excerpts from a poem by Lawrence Frelinghetti titled “An Elegy To Dispel Gloom: (After the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco, November 1978)”:

Let us not sit upon the ground
and tell sad stories
of the death of sanity.
Two humans made of flesh
are meshed in death
and no more need be said.
It is pure vanity
to think that all humanity
be bathed in red
because one young mad man…
lost his head.
The force that through the red fuze
drove the bullet
does not drive everyone
through the City of Saint Francis
where there’s a breathless hush
in the air today
a hush at City Hall
and a hush at the Hall of Justice
a hush in Saint Francis Wood
where no bird tries to sing…
Do not sit upon the ground and speak
of other senseless murderings
or worse disasters waiting
in the wings.
Do not sit upon the ground and talk
of the death of things beyond
these sad sad happenings.
Such men as these do rise above
our worst imaginings.


Today is Father’s Day. This year, on Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father; and I’ve been thinking about fatherhood in the most general terms: that is, I’ve been thinking not only about men who are fathers to children, but other kinds of fatherhood. George Washington is called the father of our country, and for that matter just as Lyle Ritz is called the father of jazz ukulele. The word “fatherhood” covers all these things; and I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs through all these different uses of the word “fatherhood,” for I believe there is a thread that runs through them all. In order to tell you about the thread that runs through all these senses of fatherhood, I’m going to tell you the story of a man who had no children of his own.

Back in 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco to open a camera store. Milk was an openly gay man who lived with his partner Scott Smith; remember that in 1972, it was much more difficult to live as an openly gay man than it is today. Milk was also an organizer and a community activist who not only found himself being called “The Mayor of the Castro,” a sort of figurehead for San Francisco’s gay community, but who was also adept at building solid alliances with a variety of ethnic groups in the city. With the help of these alliances, in 1977 Milk was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, an elected body which is roughly equivalent to our own city council. Harvey Milk was one of the very first openly gay persons elected to public office in the United States.

Milk only served for a short time, however. There was another member of the Board of Supervisors, a man named Dan White, who had run for office proclaiming that he was going to rid San Francisco of “radicals” and “social deviants”; White was the only openly anti-gay member of the Board of Supervisors. In 1978, Dan White decided to resign his office. The mayor at that time, George Moscone, accepted White’s resignation — and then when White changed his mind and tried to take back his resignation, George Moscone, with the encouragement of Harvvey Milk, refused to allow White to do so. This enraged Dan White so much that he got a gun, stuffed extra ammunition in his pockets, broke into San Francisco City Hall through an unlocked window in order to avoid the metal detectors at the main entrance, and then shot both George Moscone and Harvey Milk dead in their offices.

When the singer-songwriter Holly Near heard about the shootings, she wrote the song we just sang, “Singing for Our Lives,” which is sometimes called “Song for Harvey Milk.” Many San Franciscans were outraged by the shootings, and the way I was told the story, Holly Near sang this song in order to turn people’s anger away from merely destructive violence and rioting, towards lasting social transformation. And there was rioting after Dan White’s trial. He got off with a sentence of voluntary manslaughter, after a jury believed his defense attorneys who said that White’s mental capacity had been diminished by eating too many Hostess Twinkies. White was sentenced to a mere seven years in prison. The rank injustice of this light sentence led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco on May 21, 1979. In the end, Dan White was released on parole in 1985, and less than a year later he committed suicide: his hatred and the anger took over his life, and he turned it all on himself.

But let’s get back to Harvey Milk’s lasting legacy. Even though he only served as an elected official for less than two years, Harvey Milk has served as a hero and an inspiration to many people; even Time magazine recognized him as one of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century. I feel Harvey Milk’s legacy has been to show us how to build alliances with those who are different from us. When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk said to his supporters, “This is not my victory — it’s yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.” [KQED Web site] He’s not a hero because he inspired Holly Near to write a song. He’s not a hero because he was openly gay and got shot dead by some hate-filled antigay man. He’s a hero because he stood up for an eternal principle: that there is hope for us when we build bonds between ourselves and other human beings.

While Harvey Milk and his partner never had children of their own, it strikes me that Harvey Milk had the essence of fatherhood in him. He stood up for the rights of all minorities, in exactly the same way that good fathers will stand up for their children. And when I talk about good fathers who stand up for their children, I don’t mean those horrible sports fathers who assault other kids’ parents when their own kids strike out or fumble the ball; that kind of sports father is merely using his child as a means to fill his own need for power and control. No, I’m talking about the kind of fatherhood that values children as ends in themselves, the kind of fatherhood that helps children become the best that they can be without trying to reshape them into an image of what the father thinks they should be. It is the kind of fatherhood that is motivated primarily by unselfish love.

Nor is it just men with children living in their household who can exhibit this kind of fatherhood. Men whose own children are grown, or men who, like me, have no children of their own:– like Harvey Milk, these men can still attain to the kind of fatherhood motivated by unselfish love. All men can take on the best characteristics of fatherhood: we can treat all persons as ends in of themselves, rather than as means to meet our own ends; we can act as if all persons are of infinite value in and of themselves.

Our culture tries to tell us men that this is women’s work, or mother’s work. Women and mothers are supposed by our culture to be more aware of the needs of others; after all, it is women who can give birth, which seems the most intimate connection that one person can have with another person. Perhaps there is some truth in what our society tells us, but the real point is that we men are also capable of deep sensitivity to the needs and interests of another person. We too are capable of treating other people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to our own ends; we too are capable of unselfish love towards others. And I believe this unselfish love is tied to two basic liberal religious principles, one found in Universalism and one found in Unitarianism.

In the first reading this morning, we heard a classic statement of Unitarianism dating from 1819, from the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing. In the reading, Channing meditates on what it means to talk about God as a father. Channing tells us that if we are going to talk about God as a kind of father, then we must ascribe to God not just the name “Father” but also the best characteristics of a good father. If we are going to talk about God as a father figure, then we must affirm that such a God will have the same unstinting love for others that a good father has for his children; the same desire that others may improve themselves that a good father feels for his children; the same equity that good father displays; the same joy in the progress of others that a good father takes in the progress of his children; the same willingness to forgive that a good father feels towards his children; and the same ability to mete out justice when it is needed that a good father has with his children. I have to admit this sounds hopelessly idealistic — what human being can live up to such vision of fatherhood? Yet this old Unitarian description of God the Father is meant to describe a religious ideal to help guide us fallible human beings. William Ellery Channing gives us, as a religious principle, an ideal of fatherhood that combines joy, forgiveness, justice, love, and equity. Even if many of us no longer view God as some kind of father figure, we can still appreciate this religious ideal of a good father; an impossible ideal, but an ideal which can inspire us, an ideal from which we can draw strength. This serves as an example from our Unitarian heritage.

Turning to our Universalist heritage, we turn from this specific idealistic vision for fatherhood, to a more fundamental principle,– and that is the principle that all human beings are worthy of love. When the old Universalists spoke of the “Fatherhood of God,” they meant that God’s love must extend to all human beings, for each and every human being is worthy of love. The old Universalists knew that God could not be a hateful, hurtful God with flashing eyes and a thirst for vengeance; they knew that God’s core being must be love. Indeed, they said of their Father-God that “God is Love”; I take this to mean that, from their religious point of view, the essence of fatherhood is all-encompassing, forgiving love.

Their notion of fatherhood began with a love of one’s own children, but it went far beyond that. Some of the old Universalists read their Bibles pretty literally, and they indeed believed that the first humans were actual creations of God, and therefore in a very real sense God’s own children. Many Christian groups have interpreted the Bible with the understanding that the members of their little group are the only true descendants of God, the only true children of God, and that therefore God does not extend love to anyone outside their little group. But those old Universalists knew that God’s caring love extended to all human beings, to all persons. This kind of fatherly love knows no bounds: this kind of love goes beyond one’s immediate children to all of humanity, because all of humanity must all be God’s children:– this was a basic religious principle of the Universalists.

We might use different terminology today than those old Unitarians and Universalists used. Certainly, we have grown beyond the need to understand God as exclusively male, as exclusively a father; now we can understand the concept of God to include both mother and father. We can also choose to reject the concept of God completely. Nevertheless, we still draw inspiration from those old Unitarian and Universalist God images, inspiration which can help us better understand the basic religious principles at the root of fatherhood.

What are those basic religious principles? Harvey Milk, although I’m not aware that he belonged to a religious community, lived out the religious principles that I am talking about. Harvey Milk started his career of public service with those closest to him, the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco. But he extended his concern and his care — we might say, his love, except that we are unaccustomed to talking about love in relation to politics — he extended his care and concern beyond his immediate community to include other minority communities. We could say that he was the father of a broad-based coalition of people all working towards justice and equity for all. I don’t mean to elevate Harvey Milk to sainthood, but he did build alliances and relationships to include all kinds of people, and in this sense he represents a wider love for all humanity. He is not a saint, but as the father of a small but influential political movement in the city of San Francisco, he has set a worthy example for us to emulate here in our own city.

Before I end, I’d like to return for just a moment to Holly Near’s song. Holly Near wrote the song “Singing for Our Lives,” to help us turn anger into love and transformative action. When faced with rank injustice, it would be easy to let anger take over our hearts. Unfortunately, unadulterated anger only serves to drive people apart, and in the end those who harbor anger in their hearts find that anger destroys them. So I believe what Holly Near is telling us in her song is that sometimes we need to combine our love with the energy that comes in anger. Holly Near tells us that we are singing for our lives, and as a singer-songwriter she immediately thinks of music as a way to combine love with the energy that comes from anger; but we know that religion can do the same thing for us. The energy from the anger will drive us to address injustice, while the love will allow us to do justice with compassion, and to transform the world without stooping to violence. On this Father’s Day, may we remember this basic religious principle:– Love is the most powerful force in the universe; and as a religious people, our mission shall be to spread the doctrine of love.

A Unitarian Universalist Easter

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.

Story — “The Story of Easter”

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian Universalist version of the Easter story. If you were here to hear last week’s story, we left Jesus as he was entering the city of Jerusalem, being welcomed by people carrying flowers and waving palm fronds.

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem — the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus noticed that there were a number of people selling things in the Temple (for example, there were people selling pigeons), and besides that there were all kinds of comings and goings through the Temple, people carrying all kinds of gear, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and I imagine that a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer — how could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. We know he quoted the book of Leviticus, where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into fairly heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem at that time. The Romans were also concerned about Jesus. When Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder. (By the way, if you’ve ever heard of “Maundy Thursday,” which is always the Thursday before Easter Sunday, that’s the commemoration of that last meal; and while not all Bible scholars agree that least meal was in fact a Seder, many scholars do think it was a Seder.)

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t know how or when it would happen, but he was pretty sure he would be arrested sometime.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder. He was given a trial the same night he was arrested, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. (And the day of Jesus’ execution, the Friday before Easter, is called “Good Friday,” a day when many Christians commemorate Jesus’ death.)

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, which was a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill. There the body would be safe until they could bury it, after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

When I was a child, my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school teachers would tell me that what had probably happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had come along, and had already buried the body. You see, there must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’ friends were upset that he was dead, and they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not everybody got told when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body.

Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and following that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. But in our Sunday school, we say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t actually have to believe that Jesus actually arose from the dead. We can choose to believe that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

That’s our Unitarian Universalist version of the Easter story. Now, the children are invited to stay for the whole worship service, and Dan and I believe that it’s good for children to attend an entire worship service once in a while, just so they know what it’s like. There are Easter coloring books at the back of the church, to help children sit quietly through the service.


Because the children are present this Sunday, I’ll talk briefly about how we Unitarian Universalists do prayer and meditation. When it comes to prayer, there’s only one firm rule for us Unitarian Universalists: you don’t have to pray or meditate if you don’t want to, but you do have to stay quiet so you won’t disturb other people.

As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned that when you pray, you just sit comfortably and quietly, with your eyes open and your head up. I learned that the most important thing is to be quiet and peaceful inside yourself. As you get older, you may discover other ways to pray or meditate, but this is a good place to start. So now let’s begin our prayer and meditation time by sitting quietly. If you’re sitting next to someone you love, you can lean up against them, and even put your arm around them if you want.

Let us join our hearts in the spirit of prayer and mediation, first with spoken words, then with a time of silence, and ending with a musical response.

As we do each week in this time of war, we think of all those in Iraq and Afghanistan. March 20 marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. On this Easter Sunday, when we think of Jesus who is called the prince of Peace, we pray for peace in the Middle East.

Thursday marked the date of the spring equinox, when daytime and nighttime are of equal length. May we take the time to enjoy the lengthening days; may we take the time to look for signs of spring, the return of life after the long winter.

May we also take time to think of all those in our immediate community who are suffering. May those who are troubled in mind and spirit find comfort and healing; may those who need it find peace; may those who need help find it.


The first reading is Our Kind of Story:

What comes to mind when Jesus is mentioned? Where to begin?

Jesus was a Galilean Jew. Most men had beards at the time. Many men wore their hair long in a braid down their backs — maybe that’s what Jesus did. He would have eaten with his hands from a common bowl. He no doubt wore his clothes many days in a row. He would not have brushed his teeth.
We have no reason to believe that Jesus thought himself to be the Messiah, or believed in heaven, or in angels. These were ideas later ascribed to him by his followers.

Most Unitarian Universalists find it easy to imagine this kind of human Jesus.

But at this time of year, we don’t get off quite so easily, because the resurrection shows up on our calendars on Easter Day.

What are we to do? We might take a look at the Book of Mark, written 70 years after Jesus’ birth. It’s a compilation of the oral tradition that already existed about Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is crucified, and after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and Mary set off to find his body to anoint it.

But the body isn’t there. Scholars agree that the original book of Mark ends with the women fleeing in terror. The two Marys don’t tell a soul, and Jesus never shows up again.

Wow! Imagine if the early Christians had let that story stay in print as it was first told, ending as it did in a frightened failure of nerve. It took a couple hundred years, but finally someone did add a new ending to the Book of Mark. Now, at the end of the story, Jesus appears again as if he were not dead.

Some people think that resurrection has to be about the resuscitation of a corpse. Of course not. Dead people don’t come back to life. At least that’s not our kind of story.

For us, it’s like this: We know that when something as wonderful as the message of Jesus comes along, in real life it does not die forever. The message comes back to life. We know that when goodness, and righteousness, and love emerge in the midst of humanity, they continue to rise up and come back to us.

We know that hope does not die. Hope comes back to life.

[Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Jane Rzpeka published in the April, 2006, issue of Quest. Available online here.

Offertory — We are a free church, and no ecclesiastical hierarchy, and no governmental agency, has any authority over us. We maintain our status as a free church by accepting no money from any outside source. In addition to their annual pledges, our members and friends may choose to give an additional donation during our Sunday worship service as a public witness that we are and shall remain a free church. If you are a visitor or a newcomer you may let the collection boxes pass with a clear conscience.

The second reading comes from the Christian scriptures, the gospel of Mark.

When evening came, since it was the preparation day (that is to say, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished councillor, arrived who was also himself awaiting the Kingdom of God. He ventured to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that he had died so quickly, and having sent for the centurion asked if he was already dead. When the centurion confirmed it, Pilate granted Joseph the corpse. After purchasing a linen winding sheet Joseph took Jesus down, swathed him in the linen, and laid him in a tomb quarried out of the rock: he then rolled a boulder against the entrance of the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary mother of Jesus observed where he was laid.

When the sabbath day was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (it was very massive) they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his disciples, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will se him there just as I told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[Mark 15.42 – 16.8.]


Unitarian Universalism was born in May, 1961, when two long-time religious groups, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, consolidated and became the brand-new Unitarian Universalist Association. Thus the Unitarian Universalist Association will be forty-seven years old this May.

I would argue that when the Unitarians and the Universalists formally voted to consolidate and become a new legal entity, they also became a new religious entity. We’re not really Unitarians and more, and we’re not really Universalists; we’re Unitarian Universalists which is something quite different. And as religious groups go, we’re still relatively young. Yes, we can trace our Universalist churches in North America back into the 1760s, and yes King’s Chapel in Boston was calling itself Unitarian as early as 1785. And yes, if you go to Europe you can find Unitarians in the 1400s; and yes, there were people preaching unitarian and universalist doctrines not long after Jesus died. But this amalgamation called Unitarian Universalism — that’s something new and different.

What makes us different? Right off the top of my head, I can name three things that make us different. First, when the feminist revolution started in the 1960s, we were ready for it and we adopted feminist theology wholeheartedly; so that now half our ministers are women, and our principles and purposes reflect feminist theology and gender-neutral language. Second, we have made the decision that we are going to be a truly multicultural religion, in a country where most religious groups are racially divided; and in 2001 we became the first historically white denomination in the United States to elect a person of color as our president. Third, we can only be described as a post-Christian religion; for while many of us would call ourselves Christians, more than half of us would not.

And this brings us to Easter, and leads us to ask ourselves how it is that we Unitarian Universalists understand Easter. The old Unitarians had a pretty straightforward interpretation of Easter:– they knew that Jesus wasn’t God, which meant Easter became a more human drama. The old Universalists had a pretty straightforward interpretation of Easter:– they knew that hell doesn’t exist, which meant everyone gets to go to heaven, which meant that Jesus didn’t “die for our sins”. But what about us Unitarian Universalists — how is it that we understand Easter? Here’s one way we might tell the Easter story.

So on Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was put to death, and since his followers were Jewish, they didn’t want to bury him on the Sabbath day, which lasted through Saturday night. First thing on Sunday morning, then, two people who were particularly close to him, two women named Mary who were particularly important leaders in the little group of followers, went to reclaim Jesus’s body. But the body was gone — maybe the Romans took it away to discourage Jesus’s followers, maybe there was miscommunication among Jesus’s followers, who knows what happened — but the body was gone.

Looking back two thousand years later, we can understand why some people wanted to say that Jesus rose from the dead; that’s a very easy way to explain away his body’s disappearance. But as feminists, we might want to tell the story differently. Yes, someone took the body away — if it was due to political or religious skulduggery, then we say, A pox upon those who perpetrated such an evil deed. But we also admire those women for having the presence of mind to leave the tomb as quickly as possible so that they wouldn’t get arrested — as feminists, we know that sometimes you have to save your own body from destruction so that you can take care of the next generation.

And so those women went back to the other followers of Jesus, and the followers of Jesus organized themselves, and began to spread out over the countryside, forming new little communities throughout the ancient Near East. Within a generation after the death of Jesus, we know that there were many strong women leaders in those early Christian communities — we know, because we read about them in Paul’s letters. They had formed communities so that they could pass on the wisdom of Jesus to succeeding generations — they made sure that their children would be raised with the highest moral and ethical ideals.

That’s one way that we Unitarian Universalists would tell the story of Easter, based on our understanding of feminist theology. Here’s another way we might tell the story:

Jesus managed to transcend cultural and ethnic barriers. That the story he told of the Good Samaritan? — that was a story of how someone from one ethnic minority, a Samaritan, was willing to help someone from another ethnic minority, a Jew, in a time of trouble. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves — and he said that we had to do this across ethnic and racial boundaries.

Now this kind of teaching was troubling for the authorities of the Roman Empire. The Romans had united a huge empire through military force, and they kept their empire together by forcing everyone to conform to Roman religion, Roman standards, and Roman laws. The Romans ruled, not by loving their neighbors, but by dominating their neighbors.

So when, in the obscure province of Judea, there was a crazy religious prophet named Jesus who preached the radical doctrine that all peoples could learn to live together in harmony, the local officials determined that he was a possible threat to Roman rule, and for the purposes of internal Roman security he had to be arrested and put to death.

But although they managed to execute Jesus of Nazareth, they were completely unable to kill off his high ideals. His body might have died, but his teaching lived on:– that we can learn to love our neighbors, even though they may be a different racial or ethnic group than we are; that we can learn how to united and create a truly just and peaceful world, even as people around us try to exploit racial divisions to divide us.

That might be another way we Unitarian Universalists tell the story of Easter, based on our understanding of multicultural ideals. And there’s another way we might tell the story. As a post-Christian faith, we find we are not limited by the old Christian dogmas of Easter, and we are open to multiple points of view, and multiple personal interpretations of Easter. So we could even tell the Easter story like this:

So Jesus was a Jewish preacher and social activist who demanded justice for all persons, no matter what their ethnic background, no matter what economic status. In his fight for human rights and social justice, he ran afoul of powerful political figures and religious leaders in a Jerusalem that was dominated by the Roman Empire. He was arrested on trumped-up charges, and sentenced to death in a trial that proceeded without any sense of true justice. He was publicly executed using a particularly violent form of execution to serve as an example to everyone else that they had better just sit down, shut up, and toe the Roman line. And when several of his closest associates went to claim his body for burial, it was gone. But, his followers decided, what mattered wasn’t the physical body of Jesus. What truly mattered was the life of justice that Jesus lived. What truly mattered was what he taught. What truly mattered was to carry his work forward into the future, so that future generations might live better lives. In this post-Christian telling of the Easter story, we discover that we do not have to believe in some miraculous resurrection in order to believe in what Jesus taught — there are many ways to believe in Jesus

The story of Easter does matter for us. We may not understand Easter the way the older, more traditional Christian groups understand it. We may not even understand Easter quite in the same way that the older Unitarian and Universalist groups understood Easter. We may even have differing points of view about Easter among ourselves — individually we may range from liberal Christians to atheists, we might have pagan, Jewish, or Buddhist viewpoints. But we can all understand Easter as a story of how one man, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed for teaching justice and love — and we can all celebrate how the truth he taught lived on even after his death.