A Unitarian 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) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Opening Words

The opening words were read responsively.

“The Middle Path”

Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, said: “There are two extremes which a religious seeker should not follow:

“On the one hand, there are those things whose attraction depends upon the passions, unworthy, unprofitable, and fit only for the worldly-minded;

“On the other hand, there is the practice of self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

“There is a middle path, avoiding these two extremes—a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.

“What is that middle path? It is the noble eightfold path: Right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct;

“Right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

“This is the middle path. This is the noble truth that leads to the destruction of sorrow.”

This noble truth was not among the religious doctrines handed down from the past.

But within the Buddha there arose the eye to perceive this truth, the knowledge of its nature, the understanding of it, the wisdom to guide others.

Once this knowledge and this insight had arisen within Buddha;
He went to speak it to others, that others might realize the same enlightenment.

[From the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra, trans. T. W. Rhys Davids. Adapted by Dan Harper.]

Story — “A Unitarian Easter”

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian version of the Easter story. This is the Easter story I heard as a child, and I thought I’d share it with you this Easter. Why is our version of the story different? When we retell that story, we don’t assume that Jesus was God. And that leads to all kinds of little changes in the usual story so that in the end — well, just listen and you’ll find out how it ends.

After a year of preaching and teaching in the countryside, Jesus and his followers went into the great city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. 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! The way I picture it, a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Then 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?

Imagine what it would be like if people were selling pigeons here in this church while we were trying to have a worship service. Very distracting… 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.

Over the next three 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 he made those powerful people look bad. 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. The Romans did not want the people of Jerusalem to get any rebellious ideas.

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.

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He was pretty sure that the Romans were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. 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.

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 his friend Joseph of Arimathea put Jesus’s 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, Jesus’s friends Mary, Mary, and Salome went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a young man whom they didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know what was going on.

When I was a child, my Unitarian mother told me that what must have happened is that some of Jesus’s friend Joseph of Arimathea had already come and buried the body. There must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’s friends were not only upset that he was dead, they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. Because of the confusion, probably not everybody got the word about when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time Mary, Mary, and Salome had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body — and they left quickly, worried that they might get in trouble if they stayed around.

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 my Unitarian mother told me that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again. And that’s the Unitarian version of the Easter story that I learned as a child.

Now, the children are invited to stay for the whole worship service. It’s good for children to attend an entire worship service once in a while, so they know what it’s like. There are Easter coloring books and pipe cleaners at the back of the church, to help children sit. If your child gets a little too squirmy, you can take them into the vestibule by the front door, and there are speakers where you can listen to the service. Or you can take your child into the Parish House to child care in the Green Room — there’s a map of the building on your order of service, so you know where the Green Room is.


The first reading was read responsively:

“The Good Is Positive”

Certain facts have always suggested the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind;

and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool;

and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.

Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity.

Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit,

which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes.

All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends,

he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.

[From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” arranged DH.]

The second reading this morning 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), Jospeh 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.


In the opening words this morning, we heard how Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment, and then went on to preach that enlightenment to others. And this is what all the great religious prophets have done. The prophet Mohammed received his great inspiration from Allah, and then spent the rest of his life preaching that inspiration to others. The great sage Lao-tze had his deep insights into the universe, and the place of humanity in that universe, and he not only taught his insights to others, he is said to have written the Tao te Ching to share his insights even farther.

Most of these religious prophets had years to preach and to answer questions from their disciples. But what happens when a great religious prophet dies at too young an age? This was the problem that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth faced. Jesus was only about thirty years old when he was tortured and then executed by order of a minor functionary of the Roman Empire on trumped-up charges of political agitation. At that point, he had only been preaching for a relatively short while — two or three years according to one story; but only one year according to most accounts of Jesus’s life.

Compare the trajectory of Jesus’s life with the trajectory of the Buddha’s life. Siddhartha Gotama became a monk at the age of 29; at the age of 35 he achieved enlightenment; and then he is said to have had another 45 years of life to preach the middle way, to travel far and wide through the countryside; until finally, at the age of 80, he departed this world to enter the state of parinirvana. Compare that to the life of Jesus. Jesus began his ministry when he was approximately 29 years old, after being baptized by John the Baptist; immediately thereafter he spent forty days in the wilderness wrestling with his inner demons and deepening his already deep spiritual insights; and then he is said to have had one short year to preach his message of love, to travel in the countryside around Jerusalem; until finally, at the age of perhaps thirty, came his untimely execution in Jerusalem.

Jesus lived too short a life. And perhaps that is why his followers felt his loss so keenly; and perhaps that is why they came to feel that Jesus was God. As Unitarians, we do not feel the need to think of Jesus as God; and yet, we still find immense inspiration in his religious and spiritual teachings.

Jesus said his core teaching was simple: first, to live out the Jewish shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” and to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and second to love your neighbor as yourself. [Mk. 12.28-30] It is a simple and profound teaching, and it has shaped my life for the better, and the life of many people in the Western world.

That core teaching sounds so simple, but the more you think about it, the less simple it appears. After he died, his followers wondered if non-Jews could also follow Jesus’s teachings, and they concluded that Jesus taught the Jewish shema because his audience was Jewish. His followers said that if Jesus had lived, he would have included non-Jews as well. Today, that leads people like me to wonder what, exactly, Jesus meant by the word “God” — did he mean to limit “God” to the old Jewish conception of God which is so eloquently stated in the Hebrew scriptures? — or would Jesus have felt comfortable with my understanding, that the word “God” refers to the totality of all the universe and all relationships, human and non-human, therein?

That simple statement seems to beg other questions as well. What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? While this seems so straightforward at first glance, it is not a straightforward statement at all. My friend, and fellow Unitarian Universalist minister, Helen Cohen has pointed out that there are quite a few people who, quite frankly, don’t much like themselves — does that mean that they’re supposed to dislike other people as they dislike themselves? Maybe Jesus should have said: Love our neighbors as we ought to love ourselves. There’s also the reality that in the two millennia since Jesus was executed, his Christian followers have not done a very good job at actually living out this teaching; we can only wonder if Jesus had lived longer whether he would have been able to give us better instruction in how to actually live out his teachings.

Buddha had 45 years to explain his teaching of the middle way, to answer questions from his followers, to teach by the example of his own life. Jesus had a year or so to teach his idea of radical love to his followers, before he was executed. A year is too short a time.

I’m a Unitarian. I cannot believe that Jesus was somehow God. Yes, he was a great religious prophet; personally, I’d say he was the greatest religious prophet who has yet lived. And there are some Unitarians who would go farther than that, and say that Jesus was so great a religious prophet that he was more than human. But we Unitarians know that Jesus was not God.

Having said that, we can fully understand the impulse that led some of his followers to proclaim that Jesus was, in fact, God; we can understand why, nearly three hundred years after he died, the Council of Nicea proclaimed that Jesus was somehow God. Jesus died before he should have. Gotama Buddha had 45 years to explain his teachings; Jesus should have had long years to explain his teachings. When Jesus’s life was cut short, naturally his followers would want answers to their growing questions: if we are to love our neighbors, who is our neighbor? if we are to love God, how are we to understand God? His followers could not ask questions of the man Jesus; Jesus was dead; but if they understood Jesus as God, then they felt that Jesus would be with them forever, and so they felt they could converse with him through prayer.

To those of us schooled in the ways of scientific thinking, it sounds odd to say that Jesus became God. But this is not a scientific story, it is a poetic story. This old story makes poetic, but not literal, truth. It is poetically true to say that Jesus rose from death; from a poetic point of view, his idea of radical love is too important to die when his physical body died; and so it is that his teaching of radical love rose from the dead and lives on in us.

And this is perhaps the greatest contribution of us Unitarians: we know that Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us. Radical love doesn’t live on us as individuals; it lives on in us as a gathered community. Our great genius has been to live out our covenant. Our covenant is the promise we make to one another to live up to the impossible ideal that we shall love each other, love our neighbors, as we ought to love ourselves. We come together in love each week, to seek together for the good; and in the spirit of love we care for one another, and we care for all our neighbors, human and non-human.

The great Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “All things proceed out of this same spirit, and all things conspire with it”; everything comes out of the oneness of the universe; and Emerson taught us that “Whilst we seek good ends, we are strong by the whole strength of nature.”

So it is with us here in this room this morning. Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us, it is love that is lived out into reality through our mutual covenant with one another. This is the miracle of Easter: that what Jesus taught us about radical love lives on through us. As we seek the good, those teachings gain strength within us, and we spread them into the wider community beyond these walls. That which is good can never die die, but rises again, and again, and again, the product of the one will, the one manifold power of all existence, the power of love and goodness.

So on this Easter morning may radical love for all humanity rise up in us once again. Amen.

Flowing Water

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 — more than usual in this case. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from the Chuang-Tze, translated by James Legge:

“Time never stops, but is always moving on; man’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way. Therefore men of great wisdom, looking at things far off or near at hand, do not think them insignificant for being small, nor much of them for being great:– knowing how capacities differ illimitably. They appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course. They examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of man’s lot….'”

[Section 17. From Sacred Books of the East, vol. 39, 1891.]

The second reading this morning consists of two chapters from the Tao te Ching, or Book of Changes. This translation is by James Legge (ch. 9, 15; from vol. 39, Sacred Books of the East, 1891)

9 When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven….

15 The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise. They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves)….


This is the second in a series of sermons this month on Chinese religious texts and traditions.

I begin with the assumption that there is something to be learned from all the great religious traditions of the world, and I follow that with an assumption that we can often learn from other religious traditions and apply their wisdom to some of our problems.

Now if you attend worship services here fairly regularly, you already know that I am concerned about the decline of liberal religion in the United States. Charles Gaines, a retired Universalist minister, has shown that there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists of all ages now than there were in 1968. In that time, the population of the United States has increased by 93 million people. Considered as a percentage of the total population, our liberal faith is indeed in decline. I believe that we are in decline for all the wrong reasons, and I believe wisdom from that ancient Chinese religious tradition called Taoism has something to teach us about how to reverse liberal religion’s decline.

Actually, I believe we have no excuse at all to be in decline. Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has pointed out that there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations — and another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls, but who aren’t part of our congregations! In addition, Sinkford says that if you look at the demographic data, there are between five and six million people in the United States today who are pretty much like us, people who are already Unitarian Universalists, but who are part of our congregations. The evidence does point to a slow decline in the numbers of Unitarian Universalists. The evidence also indicates that our liberal religion could easily be five times the size it is now.

That doesn’t mean that I think everyone should become a Unitarian Universalist, nor do I believe that everyone should become part of our congregation — I’m not like those conservative Christians who think everyone should be just like them, religiously speaking. Yet what I see over and over again is people who really want to become Unitarian Universalists, but who can’t seem to find a place in one of our congregations. These people already like our theology, they already like our liberal religion, so I know the problem lies somewhere else. And investigating that problem can lead us straight to the heart of a serious theological puzzle that has bedeviled us religious liberals for years:– the problem of religious authority.

In our religious tradition, each individual is his or her own religious authority. I, as a minister, have no authority to tell you what to believe, or to tell you how to live out your religious life. No member of this congregation — neither a member of the Board of Trustees, nor some member with power or money or influence, nor any other member of the congregation — can tell you what to believe, or tell you how to live our your religious life. You are the ultimate religious authority for yourself. Of course, this also means that you cannot tell anyone else what to believe, or how to live out her or his religious life. This also means that the congregation cannot tell its minister what to preach, or what not to preach (although you could certainly fire me if you don’t like what I preach). We don’t have bishops or popes or imams or Parsis or gurus, because we are each our own religious authority.

Having said this, it’s also perfectly clear that there are those among us who speak with authority;– those among us to whom others listen with some deference. I have seen some Unitarian Universalist congregations where a minister speaks with real authority. I have seen other Unitarian Universalist congregations where certain lay leaders speak with real authority. By “real authority,” I mean these are people whose thoughts and feelings carry real weight; these are people who can influence decisions, or who may even make decisions. Then there are other Unitarian Universalist congregations where no one person has a great amount of authority, where lay leaders and the minister and other members of the congregation all share authority more or less equally.

If you were counting, I just mentioned three different types of congregations: one type where a minister has the most authority, a second type where certain lay leaders have the most authority, and a third type where authority is shared and no person or group has the most authority. I can tell you from my own observations that each of these three types of congregation can work extremely well. And each of these three types of congregation can be just as Unitarian Universalist as the other two — in other words, I can find no theological difference between them. As near as I can tell, the only difference between the three different types of congregation is that larger congregations tend to have one minister who has the most authority, small and tiny congregations tend to have a small group of lay leaders with most or all of the authority, and medium sized congregations tend to be places where everyone shares authority equally.

And my observations are confirmed by Edward Koster, an attorney and a Presbyterian minister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Koster got interested in nonverbal communication, and how people communicate authority nonverbally in a congregation. Drawing on the theory of meta-communciations, Koster says we can separate out the content of what we say from the relationship between the two parties who are communicating. If we just look at the relationship between two people, Koster points out that there are only two types of relationship that are possible: there’s a symmetrical relationship where the two people are equally influential; and there’s a complementary relationship where one person is clearly the boss.

I’ll give you an obvious example: in most cases, a parent and a young child will be in a complementary relationship with each other, where the parent is in the “one-up” position, and the child is in the “one-down” position. When there’s a conflict between the two of them, the parent is generally going to “win.” I’ll give you another example: my relationship with my life partner, Carol, is a symmetrical relationship. Neither one of us is the boss. When we get into a conflict, the outcome of that conflict is uncertain.

Now remember, neither of these relationships is inherently good or bad. I know plenty of good marriages and partnerships that are complementary, where one of the partners is in the “one-up” position and the other partner is in the “one-down” position. We don’t want to make moral judgments about which type of relationship is best. But we can make judgments about which type of relationship is most proper — I think you’ll agree with me that it is appropriate for a young child to be in a “one-down” relationship with his or her parent. Once you learn this concept, you’ll start noticing it at work in many of your own personal relationships — you’ll realize that you’re in a complementary relationship with your boss, where you’re in the “one-down” position — and you’ll find lots of relationships which are symmetrical relationships.

Getting back to congregations, Koster believes we can find this kind of relationship in congregations. Specifically, he found that the relationship between clergyperson and laypeople in many smaller congregations, those with an average attendance of less than a hundred, was a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-down” position. This makes complete sense, given that small congregations often have part-time ministers, or lots of turn over in their ministers, so the laypeople have to take on more authority. Then Koster found that the relationship between clergy and laypeople in medium-sized congregations, those with between a hundred and two hundred average attendance, is a symmetrical relationship. And — you guessed it — in large congregations, with more than two hundred in attendance, it’s a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-up” position. Here again, this makes complete sense, because a bigger congregation becomes so much more complex that you pretty much need a full-time, paid person to be in charge.

I don’t think I need to point out that this is a small congregation, with less than a hundred people in attendance each week. That means that I, as the clergyperson, am in the “one-down” position, and that lay leaders are the ones with the authority to initiate change. Except for one little point, this is neither good nor bad from my point of view — it’s simply that that’s the way things work around here.

Except for one little point — if the laypeople who are the leaders, the one in the “one-up” position, decide that they want this congregation to grow, Edward Koster predicts we’re going to hit a barrier when we start getting about a hundred people each Sunday. That barrier will hit us when the laypeople who are the leaders have to give up a big chunk of their authority, and start sharing authority with the minister and with other laypeople. That will not be an easy task. With all the visitors that we have been getting this year, we could reach a hundred people in worship within twelve months — we could hit that barrier within a year.

What will we do when we hit that barrier? To help address that question, I’d like to turn to the readings we heard this morning. And I turn first to the first reading, by Chuang-tze.

Chuang-tze tells us that persons of great wisdom “appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course.” That is to say, persons of great wisdom acknowledge the past, both the distant past and the very recent past; and in acknowledging the past, they are acknowledging that the stream of time is always flowing onwards. Chuang-tze continues, saying that person of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of” humanity’s lot. Sometimes things get better, sometimes things get worse; sometimes we are in times of plenty, sometimes we are in times of great want; yet the person of great wisdom remains on an even keel, knowing that life is inconstant and always changing.

This is pretty good advice for any one of us. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Chuang-tze over the years, and he strikes me as being full of good advice. I have found that if I accept his advice, if I am able to remember the inconstancy of humanity’s lot, I am able to stay centered, stable, secure in myself. When I am able to remember to stay centered, stable, secure in myself (and I’m the first to say that I find that a difficult task), I am able to follow up on successes, and I remain clearheaded so that I can deal with the problems at hand. Getting excited by success or dragged down by failure, however, doesn’t provide any advantage at all.

So says Chuang-tze. And his thoughts are a direct outgrowth of the words of his master, Lao-tze. In the second reading, we heard similar ideas from Lao-tze, who said: “When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself.” In other words, glorying in success can lead to a downfall.

Lao-tze continues: “When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.” In other words, the wise leader is the one who pulls back from the limelight at the moment of success so that the people can say, We have done this ourselves. Lao-tze says, The best leaders look grave like a guest in awe of his host, “evanescent,” “unpretentious,” and “dull like muddy water.”

In today’s American society, we are not familiar with this idea of leadership. The politicians in Washington set the tone for us, and too often we believe that real leaders have to be authoritarian, bossy, always in control, they have to micro-manage every detail of everything. Yet we do know what it means for a leader to be unpretentious; George Washington was unpretentious; so was Abraham Lincoln. So we do know another path of leadership, a path that values humilty over authoritarianism, a path that values evanescence over micro-managing.

And Lao-tze gives us advice about how to accomplish this second, unpretentious kind of leadership. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? he writes. Let the water remain still, and it will gradually become clear; who can secure the condition of rest? –let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

Lao-tze often uses the image of flowing water, and that image captures something of what he’s trying to tell us. Be like water, that flows effortlessly, always seeking the lowest place. Accept that change is going to happen, and don’t resist change. We even have a saying in English with a similar idea: go with the flow.

Chuang-tze writes that persons of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of humanity’s lot.” Knowing that change happens, let us examine one case of fulness, not letting ourselves be overjoyed by their success. Over the past twenty years, the fastest growing new congregation in Unitarian Universalism is Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Founded in 1987 with 34 members, they’re closing in on 400 members with a $400,00 annual operating budget.

A couple of years ago, I heard their parish minister, Dennis Hamilton, speak at General Assembly, the annual gathering of United States Unitarian Universalists. In his talk, Dennis Hamilton said that one reason Horizon has grown is that they know their congregation changes people’s lives, and changes the world. He put it more forcefully, and I’ll read you his words:

“To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision.” So writes Dennis Hamilton.

While he might disagree with me, I think Dennis Hamilton is saying something similar to Lao-tze. Change is inevitable. Therefore, we must let go of the past and move forward into the future. And how are we to do that? Hamilton says by accepting our role as a redemptive force in the community.

Dennis Hamilton tells us we “must see [ourselves] as a redemptive force in the community, that [our] presence makes a difference.” This means more than doing more social justice projects, although there’s nothing wrong with more social justice projects, as long as you don’t burn out your social justice committee. It means seeing ourselves for who we really are, in all our strengths and weaknesses. If we look at who we really are, we Unitarian Universalists are not very effective at doing social justice. If we compare ourselves to Habitat for Humanity, or to the Sierra Club, or to the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s clear that those other organizations do more social justice than we can — simply because that’s all they do. We do something more. We take our great theological message out into the world: we tell people that the search for truth is more important than trying to codify truth in creeds and doctrines. We spread the word that the world needs open conversations about deep questions, rather than fights and wars based on preliminary conclusions.

Which is to say, what really distinguishes us is our unique religious belief system. We make a difference in the community around us simply by living out our theological openness. Yes, it would be great if we did more social justice, but I think we should give ourselves some credit for the amazing things we already do here at First Unitarian. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we allow women to be clergy — this makes a huge difference in a world that still denigrates women. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we have been sanctioning religious marriages between same-sex couples for decades, and we will continue to sanction same sex marriages even if the anti-gay amendment gets added to the state constitution. Our theological openness has been moving us to the point where on any given Sunday morning, twenty percent of our congregation might be a so-called minority: non-white and/or Hispanic.

So you see, the fact that we exist at all is the most important thing we do here in New Bedford. And in fact, what we really show the surrounding community is that change is possible. When we realized that it wasn’t right to make women be second-class citizens, we changed — and it was a change for the better. When we realized that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, we changed — and it was a change for the better. Now we are realizing that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation makes sense, so we are changing for the better. We are the religion of the future, and we are making a difference in New Bedford by being the religion of the future.

That being the case, our theological openness should also allow us to change by growing. If we are to grow, I think the most difficult change for this congregation will be changing the relationship between the minister and the congregation. As a congregation grows to having more than a hundred people here each Sunday, can we change so that we create a symmetrical relationship between the minister and the congregation? To do so will result in major changes in the way we do things — organization, communications, trust. It will upset ways of doing things that go back several generations.

To grow for the sake of growth is a waste of time. But I believe we should live out our new destiny as a redemptive force in our community. That means that when people are attracted to us because of who we are, we should not chase them away, and we should not allow them to slip through our fingers. If someone walks in the door of this building, it is because they need to be here — they need to be a part of our liberal faith — the need us to be a redemptive force in their lives. They need us — they need us to welcome them, to say: join us, now you’re home.

To change for the sake of changing is a waste of time. But change is inevitable, and we should be ready for it. We should not waste the huge amount of effort it takes to resist change. Chuang-tze says: “Time never stops, but is always moving on; humanity’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way.” May we embrace change.


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Responsive reading

“The Book of Changes”

Anciently, when the sages wrote the Book of Changes, it was their design that its images should conform with the principles underlying the nature of humanity and things, and the ordinances for them appointed by Heaven

With this view, the sages described the way of heaven, naming yin and yang; and the way of earth, naming the weak and the strong; and the way of humanity, under the names of benevolence and righteousness.

The symbols of heaven and earth took their determinate positions; the symbols for mountains and collections of water interchanged their influences;

The symbols for thunder and wind excited each other the more; and the symbols for water and fire did each other no harm.

Then among these eight symbols there was a mutual communication.

Thunder serves to put things in motion; wind to scatter the genial seeds of them; rain to moisten them; the sun to warm them;

The crash of thunder to arrest them and keep them in their places; water in a lake to give them joyful course; the strong and undivided to rule them; and the weak and divided to store them up.

The Supreme God comes forth in the crash of thunder; brings processes into full and equal action in wind;

Processes are manifested to one another in brightness; the greatest service is done in the weak and divided;

The Supreme God rejoices in the water in a lake; and struggles in the strong and undivided;

The Supreme God is comforted and enters into rest in water; and completes the work of the year in the crash of thunder.

When we speak of Spirit we mean the subtle presence and operation of the Supreme God with all things.

Water and fire contribute together to the one object; thunder and wind do not act contrary to one another;

Mountains and collections of water interchange their influences.

It is in this way that they are able to change and transform, and to give completion to all things.

Arranged DH, from the Legge translation of the Yi Jing.


The first reading this morning comes from an essay about the I Ching, written by the famed psychologist Carl Jung as the Foreword to the Richard Wilhelm. Cary Baynes translation of the I Ching. Jung writes:

“I can assure my reader that it is not altogether easy to find the right access to [the I Ching,] this monument of Chinese thought, which departs so completely from our ways of thinking. In order to understand what such a book is all about, it is imperative to cast off certain prejudices of the Western mind. It is a curious fact that such a gifted and intelligent people as the Chinese has never developed what we call science. Our science, however, is based upon the principle of causality, and causality is considered to be an axiomatic truth. But a great change in our standpoint is setting in. What Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason failed to do, is being accomplished by modern physics. The axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations: we know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions. We have not sufficiently taken into account as yet that we need the laboratory with its incisive restrictions in order to demonstrate the invariable validity of natural law. If we leave things to nature, we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance….

“…whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with [that moment] in quality no less than time. To him the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast…. This assumption involved a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since [causality] is merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.” [p. xxii; xxiv]

The second reading this morning comes from the best-known English translation of the I Ching, the translation by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes. I could not decide which piece of this huge work would be the most suitable introduction for a sermon about the I Ching, so I took my cue from Carl Jung, and decided to consult the I Ching using standard divinatory practices, and use the resulting text as my reading. For this purpose, I had to pose a question, so I used a question that has been on mind from last week’s sermon: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”

Upon consulting the I Ching oracle, I was referred to the hexagram Sun; which, translated into English, is Decrease.

The Judgment:

    Decrease combined with sincerity
    Brings about supreme good fortune
    Without blame.
    One may be persevering in this.
    It furthers one to undertake something.
    How is this to be carried out?
    One may use two small bowls for the sacrifice.

Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense. If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings. Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form. There is no need of presenting false appearances to God. Even with slender means, the sentiment of the heart can be expresses.

The image:

    At the foot of the mountain, the lake:
    The image of Decrease.
    Thus the superior man controls his anger
    And restrains his instincts.

The lake at the foot of the mountain evaporates. In this way it decreases to the benefit of the mountain, which is enriched by its moisture. The mountain stands as the symbol of a stubborn strength that can harden into anger. The lake is the symbol of unchecked gaiety that can develop into passionate drives at the expense of the life forces. Therefore decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched….


To come up with the second reading this morning, I consulted an ancient Chinese oracle, or tool of divination. I daresay the more skeptical among you this morning have probably concluded that I have gone off the deep end — consulting an ancient Chinese oracle, for pity’s sake! For someone like me who claims to be pro-science, who started out his academic career studying physics, consulting an oracle is close to heresy. The word “woo-woo” comes to mind.

So before I go any further, and before you convict me in your minds of the peculiarly Unitarian Universalist heresy of being non-rational, I had better explain why consulting the I Ching is not necessarily “woo-woo.”

Ordinarily, we human beings rely on the principle of causality. We think that a certain cause will always lead to a certain effect. Drop a ball, and it will always hit the ground. The principle of causality tells us that a given cause will produce the same effect every time. Measure something more than once, we’ll get the same measurement every time. That’s what we ordinarily believe. But when I was studying physics, I learned that modern physics shows that cause-and effect doesn’t always work. Let me give you two examples.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg showed that you can’t accurately measure both the momentum and the location of a sub-atomic particle. If you accurately measure the velocity of a certain subatomic particle, you cannot accurately measure its location; in fact, it could be way over on the other side of the galaxy. We cannot measure anything to perfect accuracy; some uncertainty will always creep into our measurements. This is called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Second, there’s the “observer effect.” It turns out that whenever we observe something, we change what we’re trying to observe simply by observing it. There’s the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat, which goes like this: Let’s say you have a cat in a box, and in that box you set up a Geiger counter that can measure the decay of some radioactive substance that has a fifty-fifty chance of setting off the Geiger counter in any one hour. Then set it up so that if the Geiger counter goes off, it trips a mechanism that releases poisonous gas into the air, killing the cat. Until you open up that sealed box, you can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. Schrödinger says the box has inside it “the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.” Similarly, if you hitch up an voltmeter to a circuit, by so doing you change the voltage. In the medical world, researchers can alter the outcome of research unless they use double-blind research techniques.

So you see, the principle of causality is not quite so universal as we ordinarily believe. And this has a direct impact on religion.

For many people — maybe for most people in the Western world — religion depends on the principle of causality. Many Westerners believe that if you do something wrong, God is going to get you, and throw you into hell when you die. That’s straight-forward cause-and-effect: you do something bad, you get thrown into hell. Conversely, many people believe that if you are good, if you read the Bible as the literal word of God, and if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you get to go to heaven when you die. Straightforward cause-and-effect: do the right things, go to heaven.

Modern physics has been telling us that causality, cause-and-effect, is not quite so straightforward. Modern physics tells us: we cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that a certain effect will always arise from a certain cause. We might be able to say that some effect will arise from some cause with, say, ninety-nine point nine percent certainty. Certainly that’s good enough for everyday life. But when it comes to getting thrown into hell for all the rest of eternity, I for one would prefer to have one hundred percent confidence that I’m either going to go to heaven or I’m going to go to hell. If we start to doubt the principle of causality, that raises some really interesting religious questions.

Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters tell us that we can have one hundred percent certainty: just accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, they tell us, and you are one hundred percent assured of going to heaven. Although from what I see, that’s not how they live out their lives. They are constantly observing one another to make sure every good Christian is sticking to the straight and narrow path, because if you stray you could go to hell; which implies that even if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are not one hundred percent certain that you’ll get to heaven. According to this kind of Christian belief, we’re sort of like Schrödinger’s cat, because we can’t determine whether we’re saved or damned until God observes us after we die. In any case, we Unitarian Universalists do not think life is quite that simple.

The ancient Chinese book the I Ching gives us another way of looking at the world. The ancient Chinese who wrote the I Ching didn’t believe in an all-powerful God who ran the world. Instead, they saw the world as a complex web of relationships. That’s what we heard in the responsive reading this morning: that there is a “mutual communication” between things; that different things “interchange influences.” The person who translated what we heard in the responsive reading used the term “Supreme God,” but he certainly didn’t mean “God” in the usual Christian sense. Instead, the term “Supreme God” means process and change.

The psychologist Carl Jung claims that there’s an interdependence between the events around us — and that there’s a link between those outside events and what’s going on inside us. We’re not just observers of the world, we’re fully immersed in the world. We’re connected in many and various ways to each other and to everything around us. Our hearts and minds and bodies are connected to the world, not merely through linear cause and effect, but through a vastly complex web of chance and synchronicity.

That’s why I decided that if I’m going to be true to the I Ching in this sermon, I should skip all this dry and logical explanation, and treat it as an oracle. So I did. I asked the I Ching a question that came up in last week’s sermon. I asked: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”

And the I Ching gave me a thoughtful “answer.” Here’s how I got that thoughtful “answer” : — I asked the question. Then, according to an accepted method of consulting the I Ching oracle, I threw three coins down on the table six different times. According to an established formula, the various combinations of heads and tails generated by random chance pointed me to certain passages in the book. I copied those passages down, and read them as if those passages were an answer to my question. Considered as strict cause-and-effect, I know that sounds a little goofy; but according to the internal logic of the I Ching, I asked a question of the oracle and it gave me an answer.

I asked the oracle, “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?” The oracle said this: “Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense.” That’s a moderately wise and fairly cogent response to my question. When we talk about personal responsibility, chances are that we are talking about our responsibility for mistakes, failures, or for inability to live up to high expectations. I did not ask, “How can we take credit for the good things we have done?” nor did I ask, “How can we understand it when good things happen to us?” The phrase “personal responsibility” implies the possibility of, or the reality of, something having gone wrong. The oracle tells us that even when it seems as though things are going downhill, that doesn’t always mean something bad. The path our life takes is never all uphill to glory; inevitably, there are downhill runs. The oracle tells us that when things are headed downhill, that too is a natural part of life’s path. We need not try to pretend everything is hunky-dory when it’s not — sound advice indeed.

The oracle continues: “If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings.” This is a profound truth. Of course times of decrease are normal in the world around us: warmth and growth decrease in the autumn and winter, light decreases at dusk. But the oracle tells us that times of decrease can allow us to see inner truths: when the leaves fall off the trees in autumn, we can see the inner structure of the trunks and branches; when light decreases at dusk, we can at last see the stars which are always there. More prosaically, the oracle tells us that simplicity, or the stripping away of inconsequentials, can grant us the strength to move forward in new endeavors. Day leads to night, and night leads to day; just so, times of decrease can lead to times of increase.

I believe the next part of the oracle’s answer pertains directly to us as a congregation. I like our congregation quite a bit: we are a group of interesting, smart people who are doing exciting things with our lives. Knowing what a great group we are, I have a hard time understanding why there are only forty or fifty of us here on a given Sunday — there should be two or three hundred of us! The oracle tells me: “Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form.” Thus, the oracle tells me that even though we don’t have three hundred people here this morning — nor do we have a 60 voice choir, nor a particularly polished preacher and worship associate — nonetheless there is power in our simplicity. There is power in simply being who we are. The power of our being, the message of our liberal faith, is what counts. The oracle continues: “There is no need of presenting false appearances to Heaven.” We don’t need to try to be something we are not, because who we really are is more than good enough.

Having given us this judgment, the I Ching goes on to give us an image to think about. For me, this affirms that what we are hearing is a kind of poetic truth: not simple linear truth based in cause-and-effect relationships, but poetic truth that works through a web of connected images and ideas. The image that the oracle presents is this: “The superior man controls his anger / and restrains his instincts…. Decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched.” I would add: while anger may an appropriate and necessary emotion at certain times, it is useless to get angry at the natural process of decrease. At such times, the instinct to become angry must be kept in check; by so doing, the higher aspects of our souls will be enriched. For example, we need not become angry because our congregation is small while the Religious Right seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Instead of anger, we can pursue a path that enriches the higher parts of our soul.

In the image, the moisture of the lake evaporates, and the trees and plants growing on the mountain benefit from the lake’s moisture. Even though the lake decreases, its decrease is necessary for life elsewhere. And this image assures us that the decrease of the lake is not permanent: the rains will surely come again, and replenish the lake. Decrease is part of the natural cycle of life.

So ends the major part of the oracle’s answer to my question. It goes one to give an piece of advice.

The oracle tells us: “Perseverance brings good fortune. / It furthers one to undertake something.” I began by asking the oracle: How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? The oracle has already told us that decrease is a natural phenomenon, and we are not personally responsible for natural occurrences. The oracle has also told us that luck and chance always play a part in life — no matter how well prepared you are, there is a chance you can run into bad luck. But now the oracle is telling us to persevere; it is telling us that we should undertake something. Luck, chance, and natural phenomena play large parts in our lives. Yet that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and simply give up. At some point we have to do something — at some point, we have to act as if we are in control of our destiny, we have to act as if we are mostly responsible for our actions. And the oracle adds this line: “Through perseverance and zealous work a man wins success and finds helpers as they are needed.” If we engage in worthwhile and meaningful work, other people will see what we are doing, they will see that what we are doing matters, and they will join our work.

How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? We tend to accept personal responsibility for everything; we often act as if we are the cause of everything in the world, and that we must take responsibility for every effect; we take the weight of the world on our shoulders. Sometimes, we Americans seem to think we can solve all the world’s problems. We say, for example, if we invade Iraq the Iraqi people will seize the chance to become a democratic society, and we will be able to leave Iraq within a year. We say, if only I had the right job, or the right clothes, or the right spouse, then life would be perfect. We say (at least, quite a few of us say), if I am good and read the Bible and accept Jesus, I’ll go to heaven when I die. But we cannot use such simplistic notions of cause and effect.

From our religious point of view as Unitarian Universalists, we know that life is not that simple. We know that chance and luck, and natural processes over which we have no control, all are a part of life. We know that we have to act as if we can take full responsibility for our own actions; but we understand the role of chance and luck and synchronicity in life. Thus we don’t have to take the weight of the world on our shoulders. We know that life is complex, that all of life is interconnected. And so we find ourselves in partial agreement with the ancient wisdom of the I Ching: knowing that we must act as if we are responsible, but acknowledging the interconnections of all life, and acknowledging the role of chance and luck and natural processes.