Fish for Five Thousand

The following was given at the Thursday evening worship service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at the 7:00 p.m. service. Copyright (c) Dan Harper 2011.


Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions, yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass, from “An address on West India Emancipation,” August 4, 1857.


I’d like to tell you a story about that radical rabble rouser and rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread we got right here?

The disciples looked at the food they had brought with them. “We’ve got five loaves of bread, and a couple of fried fish. That’s all.”

“That will be enough,” said Jesus.

His disciples looked at him as if he were crazy. There was no way that would be enough food for five thousand people!

But Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God — today we’d call it the Web of Life — teaching them that everyone is dependent on someone else. And while he was sitting up in front of the crowd teaching, he looked out and saw that many of the five thousand people had brought their own food with them. He watched them as they surreptitiously nibbled away at their own food, ignoring the fact that many of the people around them had no food at all.

Jesus told everyone to sit down on the grass. All five thousand people sat down. Jesus brought out the five loaves of bread. Being a good Jew, he blessed the bread using the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then, so everyone could see, Jesus broke the bread, and cut up the fish, and divided it up, so the disciples could hand it around.

Everyone saw that even though Jesus and his disciples had barely enough food for themselves, they were going to share it with everyone. From where he sat, Jesus could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. All day long, Jesus had been teaching them that the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now, if only people would recognize it. Now Jesus was giving them a chance to show they understood, and to act as if the Kingdom of Heaven truly existed.

The disciples began to pass around the bread and the fried fish, shaking their heads because they knew there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone. Yet, miracle of miracles, there was plenty of food to go around. People who had food put some of their food into the baskets so it could be shared. People who hadn’t brought food with them took some food from the baskets. By the time the followers of Jesus had passed the baskets to all five thousand people, everyone had gotten enough to eat, and there was so much food left over that it filled twelve baskets.

And that’s the story of how Jesus fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fried fish. Many people believe that Jesus performed a magical miracle when he blessed the bread and fish, and that somehow God turned a dozen loaves of bread and two fish into thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of fried fish. It’s easier to believe that God performed the miracle, than to believe that humans could perform the same miracle. Because if humans performed the miracle, that means we could do the same thing today: to share with those who need it, and to live as if the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now.

Sources: Christian scriptures, Mark 6.32-44. Theological interpretation from Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (Berkeley, Calif.: 1985), pp. 3 ff.; and Latin American liberation theology.

Heaven on Earth

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.

We all know what heaven looks like, don’t we? It has nothing to do with religion, it’s a part of our popular culture. You go to heaven and you get a long white robe, a halo, a palm frond, and a golden harp. Mark Twain parodied this version of heaven in his book Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. When Stormfield, a crusty stormy old sea captain, finally gets into heaven, after a few misadventures, he gets suited up in proper heavenly fashion, and then goes off to find a cloud:

“When I found myself perched on a cloud, with a million other people, I never felt so good in my life. Says I, ‘Now this is according to the promises; I’ve been having my doubts, but now I am in heaven, sure enough.’ I gave my palm branch a wave or two, for luck, and then I tautened up my harp-strings and struck in….”

But Stormfield knows only one tune, and everyone is playing something different, and after 16 hours of it, it gets pretty tiresome. Stormfield strikes up a conversation with the fellow on the next cloud over, and the fellow says to him:

“‘Are you glad to be here?’

“Says I, ‘Old man, I’ll be frank with you. This AIN’T just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.’”

So the two of them walk off, dump their robes and harps and halos, and go find something else to do. Now if you want to go to that kind of heaven, and get your white robe, and your golden harp, and your palm branch, and your halo, well, go for it. But I have no interest in going to that kind of heaven, and no particular interest in talking about that kind of heaven.


What if heaven has nothing to do with golden harps, and halos, and white robes, and clouds? What if heaven is not the afterlife? What if heaven is not a place separate from earth? What if heaven is for everyone?

Historically, the Universalist side of our religious tradition affirmed that everyone gets to go to heaven, based on the logical reasoning that if God is indeed good, then God would not damn anyone to eternal torment, since such damnation would be unspeakably evil. This was a radical idea in its day, but the Universalists did not stop there. Many Universalists abandoned traditional ideas of heaven, and began to wonder what it would be like if we could create a heaven on earth, here and now.

Back in 1943, when most of the world was embroiled in war and violence and killing, the Universalist Church of America issued an “Affirmation of Social Principles” which begins as follows: “We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of me [and women] of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” To progressively establish the Kingdom of God; to progressively establish heaven on earth. Such an ideal does not require a literal belief in either God or heaven; rather, this is a statement that presents us with the possibility that we can truly live out our highest ideals.


Now that we have established what heaven does not look like — no halos, harps, or clouds — we might ask what a Unitarian Universalist heaven might look like. And I have an answer that is of great relevance to us here in Silicon Valley: a Unitarian Universalist heaven might just be the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow that developed the World Wide Web, and as it happens he is also a Unitarian Universalist. Back in 1998 on one of his personal Web pages on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web site, he posted an essay titled “The World Wide Web and the ‘Web of Life’,” in which he says that although he developed the Web before he discovered Unitarian Universalism, he feels there are parallels between the philosophies underlying each. Unitarian Universalists, says Berners-Lee, “meet in churches instead of wired hotels, and discuss justice, peace, conflict, and morality rather than protocols and data formats, but in other ways the peer respect is very similar to that of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Both are communities which I really appreciate.”

So says Tim Berners-Lee. I would explain it this way: both Unitarian Universalism and the World Wide Web are designed to foster communities based on networks of trust and mutual respect, networks where you are judged by your contributions, not by your age, race, class, or social status. Neither Unitarian Universalism nor the World Wide Web are always successful in fostering those networks of trust, but that’s what they’re designed to do. The fundamental metaphor of each is a web: a web of information and communication for the one, and an interdependent web of all existence for the other. This is an ecological metaphor, which implies that individuals are part of a non-linear, non-hierarchical system; and this metaphor helps us remember that we are all interdependent and interconnected.

I’ll let Tim Berners-Lee tell you how this relates to heaven, although he doesn’t use that word. I’ll intersperse a little commentary among Berners-Lee’s words:

“The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the Unitarian Universalists [says Berners-Lee]. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. [Commentary: Just like heaven, the ideal of the Web existed, not as something that would happen later if you were good, but something that could happen now if you put in a little effort.] The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to Unitarian Universalist philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. [Commentary: Heaven is like the World Wide Web, it will happen if each of us makes a little effort to make it happen.] Unitarian Universalism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.”

If people of good will and sacrificial spirit put their minds to it, they have the power to overcome chaos and evil and progressively make real idealistic utopian visions. By working with, not against, the power of the interdependent web of all existence, we can actually makes our ideals come true.


Believe it or not, this same basic concept can be found among the earliest Christian communities, before the creeds and dogmas mucked everything up. Those early Christians were trying to figure out how to live out the teachings of the rabbi called Jesus. Some of the parables of this rabbi named Jesus seemed to imply that heaven was about to burst upon us, not after death, but really soon, maybe now; in fact, some of those parables could be interpreted as meaning that heaven is happening here and now and you and I can be the causes of it [e.g., Matthew 13.33], or that heaven is happening here and now but its growth is obscured from view [e.g., Mark 4.26-29].

These early Christian communities tried to create institutions that would encourage the emergence of heaven in the here and now. (Mind you, the later creeds and dogmas have obscured much of this from our view, but this really did happen.) Twenty years after Jesus was executed by the Romans, Christian communities had a weekly meal that was central to their worship services; I’m not talking about communion, I’m talking about the agape meal. The idea was that the rich folks would contribute the bulk of the food and drink, so the poor people could come to church and eat their fill. People being what they are, sometimes the rich people, who did not have to go to work, would start early and eat all the food they brought before the poor people showed up after work [1 Cor. 20-21]; Paul of Tarsus chastised the Christian community of Corinth for allowing exactly this kind of behavior. But the ideal was that each person would bring as much food and she or he could, and those who couldn’t afford to bring any food could come and get one good meal each week.

This egalitarian communal meal, which was abandoned by later Christian communities, was a way of living out and actually experiencing the connectedness and interdependence of all humanity. This essential interconnectedness of all humanity was what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven [Bernard Loomer, “Unfoldings II,” pp. 2 ff.]. So the communal meal of early Christian communities was a way of teaching the whole community about the interdependent web of all existence, the Web of Life.

This is not unlike what we do with our second Sunday lunches here in our church. On the second Sunday of the month, Susan Plass and Edie Keating and their helpers put together a meal while the 11:00 worship service is going on. When the 11:00 worship service lets out, we all walk over to the Fireside Room next door, and load up our plates, and sit down at a long table with other people from our church. There is a suggested donation of four dollars to pay for second Sunday lunch. I trust that if someone is waiting in line to eat and cannot afford to pay the four dollars, the people next to him or her will say, Go ahead and eat anyway. And I know that some people contribute more than four dollars, because they have the money and they want to make sure everyone else can eat.

But there is more to the Web of Life than giving food to someone who doesn’t happen to have four dollars in their pocket on the second Sunday of the month. You never know who you’re going to wind up sitting next to at one of these second Sunday lunches. I like them because my partner and I don’t have children, so our second Sunday lunches are about the only times I sit down at a meal with children and teenagers. You might wind up sitting next to someone who grew up in another country, and there’s a good chance you’ll sit next to someone with different skin color than yours. You might wind up sitting next to someone who has a different accent than yours — as someone from eastern Massachusetts, I always wind up sitting next to someone with a strange accent unless I sit next to Phyllis Cassel who also grew up in eastern Massachusetts. This is the beauty of these second Sunday lunches — you wind up sitting near people with whom you might otherwise not share a meal. You understand your place in the diversity of humanity, and you understand how we are all connected and interdependent in the Web of Life.


I would like to return for a moment to Mark Twain’s story about heaven. It turned out all right for Captain Stormfield in the end. He left his cloud, dumped the robe and halo and harp and palm leaf unceremoniously along the road, and eventually winds up running into Sam, an old friend of his, who tells him, “‘It’s the same here [in heaven] as it is on earth — you’ve got to earn a thing, square and honest, before you enjoy it….’” — and when it comes to happiness, Sam tells Captain Stormfield that there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven, too, because, says Sam, “There ain’t a thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self — it’s only so by contrast with the other thing…. Well, there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven — consequently there’s plenty of contrasts, and just no end of happiness.” But we don’t need some supernatural heaven in the afterlife; we can institute heaven here on earth. We can, if people of good will and sacrificial spirit work together to progressively establish a world of justice and goodness. As Captain Stormfield might put it, “‘That’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve ever heard of, Sam….”

“Option D”

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon and story below are reading texts. The actual sermon as preached, and story as told, contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Story — “The Golden Calf”

This is an old, old story about the ancient prophet Moses. Moses was the man who led the Israelites out of slavery, and helped them escape into the desert. They wandered in the desert, looking for a land to call their own. At last they camped at the base of Mount Sinai.

Moses climbed up Mount Sinai, up to the very top. At the top of the mountain, the god known as Yahweh spoke to him. Yahweh said, “All of you Israelites are going to be my special, chosen people. I will take care of you, and you must promise to obey me over all the other gods and goddesses.”

Moses went back down Mount Sinai to tell the Israelites. It’s always good to have a god looking out for you, so the Israelites agreed to obey Yahweh. Moses went back up Mount Sinai. “They all promised to obey you,” Moses said to Yahweh.

“Well, just to make sure,” said Yahweh, “I’m going to appear at the top of this mountain as a dense dark cloud, filled with thunder and lightning. You come back up the mountain, and all the Israelites will know that I talk to you directly.”

Moses went back down Mount Sinai. Yahweh appeared at the top of the mountain as a dense cloud. Moses went back up the mountain to talk with Yahweh. The Israelites watched.

Moses entered the dense cloud at the top of the mountain. Yahweh told Moses about all the rules and laws the Israelites would have to obey. Yahweh started with ten basic laws, the Ten Commandments: no stealing, no murdering people, no lying; and a law saying the Israelites weren’t allowed to worship any other god or goddess besides Yahweh.

Moses brought the Ten Commandments down to the Israelites. But there were still more laws. Moses had to climb up and down that mountain quite a few times to bring back all the laws.

Once Moses stayed on top of the mountain for a really long time. The Israelites thought Moses and Yahweh had abandoned them. The Israelites decided to make a new god. They took gold and made it into the shape of a calf — a golden calf. They invented a new religion to worship the golden calf, and had a big party to celebrate. Just as the party was really getting going, Moses came back down the mountain.

“What’s going on here?” Moses said. “Don’t you remember that you promised not to worship any other gods?”

The Israelites looked a little shamefaced, but no one apologized.

“Who’s on my side?” said Moses angrily. “If you still like Yahweh best, come with me!” A few people joined him. Moses made sure they all had swords, and then told them to go and kill anyone who was still worshipping that golden calf.

And they did.

This is a strange story. Moses had already told everyone that killing was against Yahweh’s laws, so when he killed people didn’t he break Yahweh’s law? On the other hand, wasn’t it stupid for the Israelites to make a golden calf, and then worship the thing they had just made?

I think this story is supposed to make us stop and think about religion. I think this story is telling us: don’t do something because someone tells you to, or because everyone else is doing it. Seek out the truth, hang out with other people who think for themselves, and remember how easy it is to make mistakes.

[Exodus 31.18-32.25, with reference to the events of Exodus 19-31. I used the New International Version when writing this story.]


Sermon — “Option D”

Get out your number 2 pencils. Do not let your mark stray outside the oval, and check off at least one, but no more than one choice. Are you ready? Here’s the question:

Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know.

Many, maybe most, people in our contemporary Western society believe those are the only three possible answers to that question. Do you believe in God? Yes. No. Don’t know or don’t care.

Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, and humanist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins, would deny that that third option exists — they believe you have to answer yes or no — they live in theological world that operates solely under Boolean logic.

Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, want option D: All of the above. Since Western society does not give us option D, we take our number 2 pencils and fill in all three ovals, which does tend to mess up the scoring of this particular multiple choice test. This morning, I would like to tell you a little bit about how we came to be this way — why it is that we refuse to restrict ourselves to simplistic answers to the question, Do you believe in God?


Let me go tell you a little bit of the historical story behind our Unitarian Universalist attitudes towards God.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Unitarian ministers like Francis Ellingwood Abbott and Octavius Brooks Frothingham caused a ruckus within Unitarianism by preaching “Free Religion” — what we today would call religious humanism [Dorrien 2001], although they still used words like “Christ” and “God.” By the end of the 19th century, free religionists were everywhere: Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the Unitarian preacher who first spread Unitarianism here in Palo Alto in the 1890s, was one of those who allied themselves with the Free Religion position in the Western Unitarian Conference. [Tucker 1990]

By the 1930s, John Dietrich and other Unitarian and Universalist ministers were preaching what they had come to call humanism — religion with humanity at its center, not God. The humanists found themselves engaged in active debate with the theists, people like William Wallace Fenn, Unitarians and Universalists who felt no need to dismiss the concept of God. In the first half of the 20th century, the debate between the theists and the humanists was vigorous, sometimes stupidly acrimonious, but often quite fruitful.

But not all Unitarians and Universalists could be characterized as either humanist or theist. There was E. Stanton Hodgin, who had been minister at the radical Los Angeles Unitarian church, and then minister at the fairly stodgy New Bedford, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. When Stanton Hodgin was asked to sign the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, he refused — he didn’t want religion reduced to anything that remotely resembled a creed. And when Hodgin wrote his autobiography in 1948, he gave it the title Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman — he refused to let himself be put into a theological box.

I give you some of this history so that you realize that the conversations between the humanists and the theists have been going on in Unitarianism and Universalism for one and a half centuries. Plenty of smart people have participated on both sides of these conversations. If one side could prove the existence or non-existence of God, they would have done so by now.

Let me move ahead in time to 1973, when William R. Jones published his controversial book titled Is God a White Racist? In that book he made a crucial advance in the debate between humanists and theists, which he further clarified in his 1975 article “Humanism and Theism: The Chasm Narrows.” [Note 1] Jones said that the battles for liberation — liberation of African Americans, liberation of women, liberation of third world peoples — would force theists to a position that he called “humanocentric theism.” Getting rid of the theological jargon, what Jones meant was simple: There are two basic types of theism. First, there’s the theism that says that everything is God’s will, and humanity has little or no freedom of decision. Second, there’s the theism that says God exists yet we human beings have freedom to make decisions — and that being the case, this second type of theism, humano-centric theism, functionally looks very much like humanism. Jones is African American, and he was active in the Civil Rights struggle; speaking as a humanist, he almost seems to be saying: Instead of arguing about whether God exists, let’s just acknowledge that humanists and theists are different, move beyond that, and work together to end racism.

Let me jump ahead to 2002. In that year, Carole Fontaine, a Unitarian Universalist who is professor of Biblical studies at Andover Newton Theological School, posed an interesting question: What will it take to form a global conscience for planet Earth? Part of her answer was that theists and humanists need to work together. And she contended that we Unitarian Universalists are uniquely placed to build bridges between traditional theists and secular humanists so that, for example, we can do human rights work together. Thus, Fontaine believes we Unitarian Universalists need to “reconstitute Jesus as a human rights guy…. I like Jesus. He’s my guy. The fact that he’s executed on trumped-up political charges — I mean, he’s the Stephen Biko of the first century. We can work with this!” [Note 2. Fontaine 2003.] So Carole Fontaine goes a step further than William R. Jones — not only should humanists and theists be working together on social justice — but those theists and humanists in Unitarian Universalist congregations, already so experienced in humanist-theist dialogue, have a special role in the wider world, because we are the ones who can get the traditional theists and the secular humanists to work together.

Now you begin to see why we Unitarian Universalists want to choose option D. There are those who believe in God; there are those who don’t believe in God; there are those who don’t know or don’t care; and then there’s us. We do all of the above, and that is our unique strength, that is the unique contribution we have to make to the world.


We Unitarian Universalists refuse to be boxed in by either-or theological choices. James Luther Adams, perhaps the most prominent Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century, started out as a traditional Christian. He became a Unitarian and a religious humanist at about the same time. Later on in life, he thought of himself as a theist, a liberal Christian; although he was a very liberal Christian, active in feminist critiques of God-images. When I look back at my own religious journey, I have been successively a non-traditional theist, a non-traditional humanist, and now I call myself a religious naturalist; as a religious naturalist, I can use God-talk or not as I wish, and still be theologically consistent. Someone once asked a Universalist minister what it was, exactly, that Universalists stand for. “We don’t stand,” he said, “we move.” [Fisher 1921]

And this brings us back to that story I told at the beginning of the worship service, that old, old story about Moses and the golden calf. You remember the story: Moses and the Israelites make promises to the god Yahweh; in return for Yahweh’s protection, Moses and the Israelites promise (among many other things) to refrain from killing each other, and to refrain from worshipping other gods or goddesses. Yet when Moses is gone for a while, the Israelites start worshipping a golden calf, and then Moses kills a whole bunch of the Israelites for doing so.

Before I go any further, I have to make something clear to those of you here this morning who might be new to Unitarian Universalism. We Unitarian Universalists do not take the Bible literally, any more than we take Shakespeare literally. Did Moses really go up onto Mount Sinai and speak to a god whom he called Yahweh? Yes and no. Did Macbeth really see Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”? Yes and no. In each case, there is a literal answer, an answer which is fairly trivial and ultimately rather boring; and there is also a non-literal answer, an answer which relates to moral and spiritual truths, and it is in answering this latter question that we can be transformed at our deepest levels of being.

We Unitarian Universalists have traditionally understood the story of Moses and the golden calf to be a story calling upon us to reject idolatry. Let me explain one way we Unitarian Universalists might define idolatry:

When the Israelites made the golden calf, they were guilty of idolatry: instead of coming to terms with the complexities of moral and ethical thinking encapsulated in the laws of Yahweh, the Israelites tried to take a set of religious concepts that were really quite complicated and subtle, and they tried to reduce those concepts to something that was showy but empty and useless. When Moses ignored the law of Yahweh that prohibited killing, so that he could angrily kill anyone who worshipped the golden calf, he was guilty of idolatry. He took a set of religious concepts that were complicated and subtle, and he cut out all the parts he didn’t like. So Moses ignored the law against killing so that he could enforce the law against worshipping another god; and in one of the Bible’s moments of supreme irony he exchanges one form of idolatry for another form of idolatry. Both types of idolatry are the same in that they place undue significance on something of little or no significance.

(I cannot resist digressing here for just a moment to point out that the usual American method of reading the Bible is the first form of idolatry. Most Americans, when they read the Bible, take this complicated, layered, fascinating collection of literature written over a period of thousands of years, and reduce it to simplistic moralism. Most Americans read the Bible the way they’d read the latest thriller by Dan Brown, when we should be reading the Bible the way we read Shakespeare, reading it as literature that offers something to everyone from the groundlings to the most sophisticated intellectuals.)

Historically, we Unitarian Universalists have resisted idolatry with all the power of our beings. The Unitarians of my grandparents’ generation realized that the crosses that had appeared in some Unitarian churches were idols — symbols that had taken on undue significance. My aunt and uncle belonged to the Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and in the late 1940s that church developed a really beautiful Christmas eve service, where the whole church started out in darkness, and gradually a few candles were lit, then a few more, and at the end of the service everyone was holding a lit candle and the combined light of all those individual candles lit up the whole church. As this candlelight service evolved, someone threw in a dramatic moment when an internally-lit cross rose up in front of the pulpit — a nice piece of theater, a sort of dramatic reminder that Christmas is central to the Christian tradition. And so for some years, that internally-lit cross would rise up on Christmas Eve — until the year when they decided that the symbolism was heavy-handed, that it was a form of idolatry. So that big old cross got stuffed in a garbage can, and placed in front of the church, where (it is said) it provoked a great deal of comment about those Godless Unitarians among certain more literally-minded residents of the town.

I remember the first time the minister introduced the flaming chalice into a worship service in the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I was sitting next to my mother, a lifelong Unitarian, and as he lit the match she muttered under her breath, “Graven images” — which is an old-fashioned way of accusing that minister of idolatry. I don’t think the flaming chalice is inherently idolatrous, but if we place undue significance on what is essentially an insignificant object, then it becomes idolatrous. The flaming chalice began as a symbol used by the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War, and really it is a symbol of our commitment to social justice work. This congregation’s habit of extinguishing the chalice strikes me as tending towards the idolatrous, as placing undue significance on a very simple symbol.

Another obvious example of something here in our church which can be interpreted as idolatrous is the branch which hangs in this room. I don’t mind having a branch hanging on our wall; it’s a nice piece of decor. But when I am uncomfortable when I hear people attributing symbolic significance to that branch; that, it seems to me, is placing undue significance on what is, after all, just a branch. And I’m sure some of you disagree with me, and you will politely let me know about your disagreement after the worship service. We need polite disagreement if we are to keep ourselves from falling into idolatry. Because people like me — mystics who want to get rid of all symbols — we can create another kind of idolatry, an idolatry of simplicity where we try to place undue significance on plainness and complete lack of ornamentation.

Anything can become an idol, a graven image, a golden calf. Even if we got rid of all the symbols, our whole building could become a graven image, if we place undue significance on it. We don’t even need a building in order to be a congregation; all we need is each other, and the search for truth, and a commitment to make the world a better place.

The golden calf was an crude attempt to fix the truth in a calf made of gold. Let us be sure that we do not try to fix the truth in some material object — the truth will not be held in a golden calf, nor in a flaming chalice, nor in the branch, nor in this building. The truth may be held for a time in a community of people, as long as that community of people remains flexible and willing to evolve. We may be comforted, for a time, by our building, or by the flaming chalice, but do not confuse such comfort with truth. Truth and comfort are united only in a community of people. If this building crumbles into dust, we will still be able to take comfort in each other, we will still be able to take comfort in this religious community, we will still know the truth that we can change the world for the better. We gain strength from each other, from our shared religious community; and we take that strength out beyond our community to heal a world that desperately needs healing.


Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know. (D) All of the above. As Unitarian Universalists, our choice is clear: we choose option D. We choose to remember that we have debated this question for a century and a half, with very intelligent people arguing for very different answers, and we no longer expect a definitive answer. We choose an answer that puts us in a unique position to help heal the world. We choose to resist an idolatry that would limit us to simplistic answers to religious questions.


Selected References

Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Fisher, Lewis Beals. Which Way? A Study of Universalists and Universalism. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1921. [p. 9]
Fontaine, Carole. “Strange Bedfellows? human Rights, Scripture(s), and the Seven Principles.” Journal of Liberal Religion, Winter, 2003; accessed October 2009.
Hodgin, E. Stanton. Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.
Jones, William R. Is God a White Racist?. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973, 1997.
———. “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows.” The Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525.
Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.