African Earthkeepers

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.


The first reading is titled “The Earthkeeper’s Call.” It comes from the African Initiated Churches in Zimbabwe. It tells in part how the African Initiated Churches teamed up with traditional religious groups to plant trees in Zimbabwe.

After chimurenga [the Zimbabwean revolution]
the earth was scorched and barren
and the Spirit of God urged prophets:
“Cry, the empty gullies, the dying plains —
clothe the naked land of the forebears!”
And hope returned.
Healing hands, young leaves of trees.

Heeding the call
they came:
black multitudes
churches of the poor:
billowing garments…
red, white, blue, resplendent green
bearing holy staves, cardboard crowns.
Cursed descendants of Ham,
rejects of white mission,
lift the fallen banner of Spirit
kingdom’s cornerstone
where souls of people, tree souls meet.

Prophets shouted:
Repent! Confess!
I bare earth with axe and fire
rape forests without return
sledge-rip gullied meadows
turn earth’s water to trickling mire.
Confess and baptize… the land!
Oust the demons of neglect.
From Jordan emerge
with bonded hands, new earth community…

Proclaim new heaven
new earth in black Jerusalem…
where weary traveler
finds cool in shade
rustle of leaves
fountains spring
clear water of life.

The second reading is from the book “African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission.” This passage tells about how some African Initiated Churches have used religious means to prevent environmental destruction. You should know that these particular Christian churches call evildoers “wizards,” in keeping with traditional African cultural understandings, and that as translations of Shona words, “wizard” and “wizardry” have nothing to do with Harry Potter or Gandalf.

“In the earthkeeping churches the nuances regarding wizardry are inevitably more varied and subtle than during the war [for Zimbabwean independence]. In contrast to the execution or torture of war traitors, wanton tree-fellers or poachers of wildlife will, upon prophetic detection, either be temporarily barred from taking the eucharist or, in the event of repeated transgression of the earthkeeper’s code, be excommunicated altogether. The key figures in the Association for African Earthkeeping Churches are only too aware of a common guilt which, in a sense, makes all of us ‘varoyi’ — death destroyers. To this they readily admit, which in itself is a sure sign of accepting collective responsibility for environmental restoration. There is a vast difference, however, between admitting guilt prior to committed participation in conservationist programmes, and deliberate deforestation or related destructive action in the face of a protective environmental code. It is this attitude of selfish environmental exploitation, regardless of the will of the community and the destruction caused to nature, which the prophets condemn as the evil of uroyi [wizardry], to be stamped out at all costs.” [p. 166]


This is the first in a series of three sermons for Black History Month. Although often Black History Month is a time to celebrate and explore the Black Diaspora, in today’s sermon I’m going to talk about contemporary Africa.

If you attend worship services here regularly, you will know by now that I have a special interest in ecological theology and spirituality. Nor I am alone in this interest: many other people in this congregation are also committed to ecological theology and spirituality. Speaking for myself, I find myself nodding in agreement with the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released yesterday which says there is “unequivocal series of evidence [showing that] fossil fuel burning and land use change are affecting the climate on our planet.” I feel equally strongly that my religion has to address the realities of that environmental crisis; in fact, if my religion does not address the environmental crisis in real and meaningful ways, why, I’ll go find another religion that does.

I said our whole world is involved in this environmental crisis. It’s easy to forget that. It’s all too easy to concentrate on our environmental problems right here in North America, and ignore the rest of the world. It’s easy, for example, to conveniently forget that when sea levels start rising due to global warming, the country of Bangladesh is going to be much worse off than New Bedford — thousand, even millions of Bangldeshis could be affected by even a modest increase in sea levels. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the air in some Chinese cities is so polluted that no birds can live in those cities, and that lung diseases are rampant among the human inhabitants of those cities. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predicting an increase in the already serious droughts and desertification in sub-Sahara Africa.

It’s easy for us here in North America to forget that the environmental crisis is world-wide. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think that predominantly white North America manages to ignore environmental crisis in countries where most of the people do not have white skin. In my less cynical moments, I sometimes wonder how these other places are coping with environmental crisis. Many places in the world are already deeper into the crisis than we are. Maybe we could learn from them.

A year ago, I happened to stumble across a book titled African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission, by Marthinus L. Daneel. In this book, Daneel tells the story of an interfaith earthkeeping project that unites Christians and traditional African religious groups in Zimbabwe. The project didn’t happen overnight, and the story of this interfaith earthkeeping effort goes something like this:

Before the war for majority rule in Zimbabwe, ecological problems were already appearing. Overgrazing was common — putting too much livestock onto the land had the result that the plants the animals preferred to eat couldn’t reseed themselves, leaving bare soil. Soil erosion became common, and big gullies began to appear in the land where the soil washed away. Firewood had become scarce, more and more trees were cut for cooking fires, and forests began to shrink in size. All these trends were exacerbated by the fact that a tiny white minority controlled most of the land, which they farmed for profit, not to supply local food, selling much of their crops abroad.

Zimbabwe achieved independence from white minority rule in the mid-1980’s. Many of those who fought for black majority rule hoped that a redistribution of land would lead to greater equity through better ecological balance. This was not to be so, for the war for independence, and its aftermath, devastated the countryside. Widespread destruction of forests left the land vulnerable to erosion. People were evicted from where they had lived, and wound up squatting on common lands. On top of that, a severe drought lasted through most of the 1980’s up to 1992.

In his book, Marthinus Daneel says that it was bad enough to see the poorly-conceived settlement plans lead to further environmental destruction. But it was something else to see “callous profiteers” grab up forest lands and clear-cut the trees to sell as firewood for a quick profit, leaving the land exposed to soil erosion. And it was something else to see squatters pushed into the drainage area of Lake Kyle, where they quickly cut down large sections of the forest, leaving the bare soil to drain into the lake.

“Worst of all was the invasion of Mount Mugabe,” Daneel writes. Exploitative profiteers managed to grab land on the sacred mountain, cutting down the wild fruit trees that grew there, selling them for firewood. Not only was it ridiculous to destroy a food source just to make a quick profit; the people of the area, both Christians and those who practiced traditional religion, thought of the trees as sacred. “These greedy exploiters desecrated the holy grove,” writes Daneel. “Soon the mountain was dying.” [p.9]

Daneel and others watched the land being destroyed, and slowly a resolve grew in them to somehow stop the destruction. Daneel, who is Christian, tells about a key moment for him, when he was talking with one of the leaders of the traditional religion. Both of them felt the environmental crisis had a spiritual side to it. In Daneel’s Christian churches, there was a growing feeling that the church’s must become keepers of God’s creation. For their part, the traditional religious groups were upset by the destruction of the sacred groves, and they felt that unless something was done to fix the situation they could expect retribution from the spirit world. A key moment came when the two groups decided that they must work together — that these two religions, long at odds with one another, must put aside their differences and address the problem of environmental disaster together. It’s as if Unitarian Universalists teamed up with fundamentalist Christians become earthkeepers together.

Out of the collaboration of these two groups emerged the project of planting trees. Not only was planting trees a religious act, it was also pragmatic: planting trees meant stabilizing river banks; it meant planting fruit trees that can become food sources; it meant preventing soil erosion from overgrazed lands; it meant fighting back against desertification. Remember, too, that they couldn’t just raise money and drive over to the local nursery to buy saplings; there were no commercial nurseries; if they wanted trees they would have to create nurseries and grow the trees from seeds.

The traditionalists formed a group called AZTREC, the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists, and the Christians formed a group called Association for African Earthkeeping Churches, or AAEC. Together, they declared the “war of the trees,” and set a goal of growing a million trees from seed every year, and then planting those trees where most needed. By the year 2000, the year Daneel wrote his book, they had almost reached that goal, surviving several serious droughts and overcoming serious financial and logistical challenges.

Remember that this was an interfaith religious movement. To me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the religious movement is that both the Christians and the traditionalists declared that destroying trees was evil and not acceptable from a religious point of view. This is what we heard in the second reading this morning. The Christian churches would publicly expose persons who engaged in tree-cutting or environmental destruction, ask them to repent, and if the evildoers would not repent, they would be excluded from the eucharist, the central religious rite of the church; and if their actions continued after that, they would be excommunicated. On the traditionalist side, their leaders declared that destruction of trees would lead to the most dire consequences for individuals, and for the community. Traditional spirit mediums told the people that if environmental destruction continued, the spirits would continue to withhold the rains, and the severe drought would continue. Christian prophets denounced individual evildoers and profiteers. In short, both Christians and traditionalists declared that environmental destruction was evil, that environmental destruction was against religious principles, and that individuals who participated willfully in environmental destruction would be penalized by their religious communities.

I said at the beginning that perhaps we could learn from this African movement. Now the history of North American involvement in Africa has been generally paternalistic, especially here in the United States. When we think of Africans at all, which is not very often, we have a tendency to think: Those Africans, they are so poor and ill-educated, I’ll send a check to help out one of those poor starving African children I see in the advertisements. When our government sends aid money, the money usually comes with restrictions and advice, with an underlying assumption that Africans don’t know enough to handle their money, and that their governments are all corrupt anyway (as if we have no governmental corruption here in the United States, as if the lobbyists don’t have undue influence here in out own country). We tend to look at Africa paternalistically, and we think that we can offer help to them, but how on earth could such a poor continent help us out.

Well, I think the African idea of turning environmental destruction into a religious matter is an idea we could learn from. I think the African idea of interfaith cooperation to stop environmental destruction is an idea we could learn from. I even think the idea of declaring environmental destruction to be evil is an idea we could learn from. So I say we should listen to and learn from these Africans who plant trees.

First of all, let’s be a lot more explicit about turning environmental destruction into a religious matter. If we did that, we might come up with some interesting results. Then anything we do to stop environmental destruction could be seen as an act of prayer or meditation, a spiritual practice, which in turn could mean that whatever we do to stop environmental destruction is not a thankless chore but rather it is an act of spiritual beauty. If stopping environmental destruction becomes a religious matter, for some of us it will become easier to channel the whole force and power of mind, heart, and soul into that effort. If healing the earth becomes a religious matter, we might just find that we heal our own souls by healing the earth. Therefore, I say: let’s make earth healing, earthkeeping, a central part of our shared religion.

Second of all, let’s figure out a way to make earth healing and earthkeeping an interfaith activity. I believe interfaith cooperation should be especially important for Unitarian Universalists. We already have lots of expertise in this area — we have Christians, humanists, Jews, pagans, and Buddhists in our congregations as it is, we already know how to do interfaith dialogue at a very intimate level. We can translate religious terms on the fly. When a fundamentalist Christian says “creation care,” we can translate into secular humanist terms: “ecological sustainability” — into pagan terms: “honoring the Goddess” — and so on. In fact, I think we might borrow the two African terms, “earth healing” and “earthkeeping,” and perhaps use them to substitute for more theologically loaded terms. We Unitarian Universalists should be out there making contacts with other religious groups, and building interfaith cooperation for earth healing and earthkeeping.

Third, it’s time for us to declare that environmental destruction is evil. It is perhaps the greatest evil of our time. It is a religious evil. I know we hear too many comparisons to the evil of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but in this case I believe that comparison is apt; right now, environmental destruction is causing genocide as entire species are deliberately pushed towards extinction. It may cause further genocide as poor countries and communities of color are forced to bear the heaviest burden of environmental destruction.

We Unitarian Universalists tend to be reluctant to declare that something is evil. The term “evil” has been misused and misappropriated, especially in religious circles, and we don’t want to continue that misuse. We are even more reluctant to declare that a person is evil. We say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And from our Universalist heritage, we retain that old sense that God will save all souls, that there will be universal salvation, no matter what.

Yet I don’t think we can avoid calling the current environmental destruction “evil.” Huge numbers of people are going to die if we don’t do something about global climate change; and the people who will suffer most will be the peoples who have been historically marginalized: communities of color, the poor, those without political power. We have already seen this tendency at work in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What happened to the poor neighborhoods in New Orleans was evil, insofar as the disaster continues to have worse consequence3s than it should have had. And we can’t avoid calling the current environmental destruction evil because we know that there is a small number people, of profiteers, who benefit from environmental destruction. The big oil companies have been actively working against public policy initiatives to reduce oil consumption so that we may reduce the production of greenhouse gasses — insofar as they have done so, the oil companies and their executives are doing evil.

Those are just three things we could learn from this African movement for earthkeeping. If we had more time this morning, I would love to explore at least two other things we could learn from them. I would love to talk about how earthkeeping and earth healing could be further integrated into our worship services — for example, those African Initiated Christian churches plant trees as a part of a worship service. And I would love to talk more about the significance of planting trees, how tree planting becomes both a pragmatic act, and an act of religious earth healing.

So it is that I believe we can learn something of critical importance from an African interfaith environmental group. I hope that you see, as I do, how we can learn from the mother continent of Africa. We can learn that earthkeeping and earth healing should be a religious task, not just a political task. We can learn that such a huge task requires us to work in close cooperation with other religious groups. And I believe we can learn practical, pragmatic ways of accomplishing earthkeeping.

So may our religious tradition learn from African religious traditions; so may we learn to become earthkeepers, and earth healers.

The Pluralism Project

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 and story copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religions at Harvard University:

“…for all the discussion about immigration, language, and culture, we Americans have not yet really thought about it in terms of religion. We are surprised to discover the religious changes America has been undergoing. We are surprised to find that there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church USA, and as many Muslims as there are Jews — that is, about six million. We are astonished to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea, along with a multitude of native-born American Buddhists. Nationwide, this whole spectrum of Buddhists may number about four million. We know that many of our internists, surgeons, and nurses are of Indian origin, but we have not stopped to consider that they too have a religious life, that they might pause in the morning for a few minutes’ prayer at an altar in the family room of their home, that they might bring fruits and flowers to the local Shiva-Vishnu temple on the weekend and be part of a diverse Hindu population of more than a million. We are well aware of Latino immigration from Mexico and Central America and of the large Spanish-speaking population of our cities, and yet we may not recognize what a profound impact this is having on American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, from hymnody to festivals.” [pp. 2-3]

Story for all ages — “What Is Palm Sunday?”

Today is Palm Sunday. Probably most of you have heard of Palm Sunday, but you may not know what, exactly, Palm Sunday is. I am going to tell you the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it as a Unitarian Universalist kid. And you should know that the things I am going to tell you about happened long ago. It is hard now to know exactly what happened all those years ago, but here’s the story I learned it.


A rabbi named Jesus lived in the land of Judea some 2,000 years ago. Jesus went from town to town in a land called Judea teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t exactly an official religious leader, as the Pharisees were. But many people listened to his teachings anyway — probably because he treated everyone with respect, even people who were poor or homeless or sick. And because what he preached made so much sense — he said religion was simple: love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

Jesus did most of his teaching in the countryside, but at last he and his followers (who were called the disciples) decided they would go to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews. Since Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem was especially meaningful.

They left the town they were in, a town called Jericho, and began to walk to Jerusalem. Remember, there were no cars or planes or trains in those days, so they had to walk all the way. Jesus was tired — he had been teaching and preaching sermons and he was just plain worn out. As they got close to Jerusalem, he asked his disciples to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The disciples went to a farm nearby, and borrowed a foal for Jesus.

There were crowds and crowds of people on the way in to Jerusalem for Passover. Many them had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion, and some of these people thought Jesus was the greatest religious teacher and leader around. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him.

Meanwhile, all these people were pouring in to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the most sacred days of the year for Jews. People began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing — they sang:

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
And into his courts with praise.
Serve the Lord with gladness,
Come before his presence with singing.
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!

People were in a happy, festive mood. They gathered flowers (maybe that’s why we have so many flowers in church today), and picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. Someone started singing again:

Hosanna! Hosanna!
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.

All these people singing and walking into Jerusalem together! Some of the people who thought Jesus was the greatest religious teacher and leader around began to give him flowers, and wave the palm leaves over him.

I think at this point Jesus became uncomfortable. He didn’t mind that people liked him. He didn’t mind that they thought that he was a good religious teacher. But the singing, and the people giving him flowers and waving palm leaves over him — those were the kinds of things that people did for new kings of Jerusalem, back in the olden times, hundreds of years before Jesus lived.

But in Jesus’s time the Romans were the rulers of Jerusalem. It was dangerous for these people to treat Jesus like one of the kings of old. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would stand up to the Romans, or even rebel against them? Jesus knew that it was dangerous for them to even think about such things. Jesus rode into Jerusalem with all the people waving palm fronds over him, but he was thinking about what the Romans might do.


And if you want to know what Jesus did once he got into Jerusalem, if you want to know how the Romans reacted to him — well, you’ll have to wait until next week when I tell the rest of the story.

SERMON — “The Pluralism Project”

Back in 1997, I was the religious educator at First Parish in Lexington, working with senior minister Helen Cohen and assistant minister Paul Rasor. Looking back, those two years were very exciting times, because I was working with two exceptionally smart, well-educated people. Helen had been an English professor for eight years before going into ministry; Paul had been a law professor for fifteen years, then became a minister, and at that time he was pursuing his doctoral degree in theology at Harvard. Beyond that, these were two very intelligent people. Staff meetings would last for two hours: the first hour was devoted to necessary planning and other business, and the next hour was usually devoted to talking about religion and theology. I got to sit for an hour or more each week and listen to these two smart people talk about religion and theology! Often we would get so engrossed in our conversations, we would continue them at lunch, walking down the street to a cheap Chinese restaurant, where Paul would further amaze us by picking up jello with chopsticks.

One day during a staff meeting, Paul pulled out a small, cheaply-printed book, with one of those plastic comb bindings, bearing the title World Religions in Boston. The book was the work of “The Pluralism Project,” which was headed by Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard. Eck started out studying the religions of India, making trips to India to do field work, until she realized that there were enough Hindus and Sikhs and other people from India in eastern Massachusetts that she could really do her field work without ever leaving home. This started her looking for non-Christian religious groups within, say, an hour’s drive of Harvard.

The most recent edition of this book was printed in 2000, and now it’s maintained on Harvard’s Web site. Let me list for you some of the varieties of non-Christian religious centers found within an hour’s drive of Harvard University:

Baha’is; all kinds of Buddhists, Nichiren Shu Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, Sokka Gokai Buddhists, various Tibetan Buddhists, Therevada Buddhists, Mahayana Buddhists; lots of Hindus, Hare Krishnas or ISKCON, mainstreams Hindus, a Hindu center based in the old Unitarian church in Woburn; traditional Jains and less-traditional Jains; plenty of Jews of course, Reform Jews, Hasidic Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews; lots of Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Muslims allied with the Nation of Islam, Sunni Muslims in Worcester, Sufis; indigenous Native American traditions including Nipmucs and Wampanoags; plenty of neo-Pagans including witches and Unitarian Universalist pagans; Sikhs; Taoists; Zoroastrians;– oh, and “The Pluralism Project” visited 25 Beacon Street in Boston and found the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists.

When Paul showed me this book back in 1997, I was amazed. I had heard about the book before, but I had never sat down with it and looked through its pages to see the incredible diversity of religious institutions in the greater Boston area. I never knew such diversity existed.

The book had an entry for each religious institution, and each entry gave and address and phone number, and a picture of the institution’s building. Each entry gave a short history of the religious institution, and described what took place there, including times and days for regular meetings or worship services, and for special festivals. Entries also listed the name of the main religious leader or contact person, the approximate membership of the institution, and the ethnic composition. So, for example, in the most recent edition of this book you could learn that the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area, or ZAGBA, is located at 53 Firecut Lane in Sudbury; ZAGBA sponsors lectures, classes for children, lectures for adults, and celebrations of festivals, but you have to call in advance for times and dates; Mrs. Paratsu Dubash and Mrs. Koresh Jungawala are the presidents of the association; ZAGBA has 82 members; and members are primarily of Parsi and Iranian ethnicity.

Now: I started off by saying that Helen Cohen and Paul Rasor and I had many a theology discussion, and I’ll bet when you heard the word “theology” you thought that we talked about obscure and arcane things like atheism vs. agnosticism, or inductive arguments for God vs. metaphysical arguments for God. Actually, the theology we talked about wasn’t obscure or arcane. We pretty much talked about real-world theology. And when you come right down to it, discussing the rich variety of religious institutions in the wider community is one way of doing theology.

Sometimes, in Unitarian Universalist circles, we tend to get a limited view of theology: we think theology is arguments about whether or not God exists; and mostly when we think of those arguments for or against God, we are thinking of a God that pretty closely resembles the generic Christian God. That’s what we tend to limit theology to. If we’re really radical, we can imagine adding Pagans to the conversation, so that maybe we’re talking about God, the Goddess, or nothing at all. But when we start to imagine having a religious conversation with a Zoroastrian, can we even imagine where to start? Don’t they believe life is a battleground between good and evil? Doesn’t that mean we can assume that they basically believe in God and Satan? — or do we have to leave behind all our preconceptions, and approach a conversation with a Zoroastrian with the assumption that we are essentially ignorant?

To me, the Pluralism Project, this exploration of the religious diversity around us, becomes a kind of descriptive theology. We’re doing theology at the most basic level, saying: Here is one kind of religion, and this is the building they use, and this is when they meet (by the way, they don’t meet on Sundays, or even once a week!), and here’s the name of a contact person. At this level, we don’t even know what beliefs these people hold — we have entered a religious realm where we can’t assume anything at all, where we have to start with the most basic things.

We don’t even know if the concept of “belief” is important to all these different religious groups! When the Hindu temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, was opened, the community brought a statue of Vishnu and Ganesha, two of their gods, to the temple. These statues were bathed in water and flowers, people sung hymns to them; does this mean that these Hindus believe that Vishnu and Ganesha are actually incarnated in these statues? –or is it that when we ask these question, we are imposing our understanding of Western Christianity on something completely different? Perhaps these were simply ritual actions that don’t involve belief the way we understand it? I just don’t know.

You can see that simply identifying and describing the variety of religious groups in your community can be a theological act:– and it can be a profoundly unsettling act as well. We still have a myth that the United States is basically a Christian country. Even we Unitarian Universalists fall into that trap: we sometimes feel we are a minority religious tradition because we don’t have to believe in God, and we can be pagans if we want to, or atheists if we want to. But compared to Zoroastrians or Sikhs, we can’t claim to be a minority tradition at all! We still meet in what we call a church, and our worship service looks pretty much like the Methodists down the street, and we still meet on Sundays. If we started looking at the real religious diversity of the United States, we might have to change our own self-definition.

So you see, part of the theology that results from the Pluralism Project is a better understanding of who we are. We Unitarian Universalists not really Christians any more (though of course some of us are Christians); but we sure do look a lot more like Christians than we look like Zoroastrians or Muslims or Baha’is. Getting this kind of understanding of ourselves — that we’re not quite who we thought we were — can be a little unsettling.

And indeed, Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America, talks about how our new religious landscape requires a new way of seeing thing. She says, “Envisioning the new religious America in the twenty-first century requires an imaginative leap. It means seeing the religious landscape of America, from sea to shining sea, in all its beautiful complexity. Between the white New England churches and the Crystal Cathedral of California, we see the sacred mountains… of the Native peoples,… the mosque in the cornfields outside Toledo, the Hindu temples perched atop the hills of Pittsburgh and Chicago….” [p. 11]

I’ve been trying to take that imaginative leap here in the greater New Bedford area. When I arrived here last summer, I was given the impression that most of the people in New Bedford are Christians, except the Jews. But in the eight months I’ve lived here, I have heard about Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’is, Sikhs, Wampanoags, and Hindus who live within an hour’s drive of this church. The presence of Haitians makes me wonder if there might be some Afro-Caribbean religions nearby. The presence of the large Mayan community makes me wonder if some of them brought an indigenous religion with them. And of course I can’t forget the other non-Christians: the Jews, the New Age folks, the Unitarian Universalists, the various neo-Pagans in the area such as Wiccans and Druids. So while the majority of the population of this area probably is nominally Christian, we can no longer overlook the growing religious diversity of greater New Bedford.

In this religious landscape of growing diversity, we Unitarian Universalists find ourselves in a very interesting situation. As a religious institution, we aren’t quite Christian any more, but we’re still close enough to Christianity that we can understand their language. We have a long tradition of learning what we can about other religious traditions, and we have learned a little bit about the tolerance that is required to encounter other religious traditions; I might add that such religious tolerance is one of our central values. Within our own congregations, we have atheists and Christians and Pagans and people who do Buddhist meditation and people who grew up Jewish; and with this rich mix within our own walls we have had lots of practice in conversations between quite different religious viewpoints. All of these things perfectly place Unitarian Universalists to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. (By the way, if you want to start practicing the skills needed for inter-religious dialogue, you can start in social hour after the worship service: ask someone what they believe in, and listen openly and respectfully to what they say; it’s great practice.)

Let me be more specific about how individual Unitarian Universalists can do this work in our wider community. Out of our experiences, we have learned two basic skills that we can use to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. First of all, start with the most basic details and knowledge before you get to the hard questions. Second of all, we can start practicing how to do inter-religious dialogue.

The first step is to focus on details. The first time pagans came in to my childhood Unitarian Universalist church, we had to start with the most basic things: ah ha! — you Pagans get into a circle to worship, you address a Goddess, you have eight main seasonal holidays, you pay attention to the full moon;– OK now, more traditional Unitarian Universalists sit in straight rows, we sometimes address God or we leave out deities altogether, we observe Christmas Eve and maybe Easter, and we observe summer by not having any Sunday school.

Another detail we’re good at is asking what books another religious group reads. As a kid sitting through Unitarian Universalist worship services, I heard reading from Buddhist sutras, from the Koran, from the Bhagavad Gita (actually, I had to read the Bhagavad Gita when I was in youth group), and so on. So when I ran into, say, a Buddhist, I at least knew what a sutra was, and I had actually heard a passage from the Diamond Sutra — those kinds of things are great ways to open up a conversation. And that’s the first, most important, step in inter-religious dialogue: finding some starting point for the conversation.

The second step is to find some larger goal on which to focus; that way, when we’re talking with another religious group, we have some common ground where we can start. It also gives us a purpose behind those dialogues, beyond mere curiosity. I’m sure you can imagine lots larger goals with which everyone in our community could agree: ending hunger, stopping violence in the streets, and so on. Less obviously, I have been thinking that ecological justice might be another good place to search for larger goals. There are ecological movements among many religious traditions. Could we find allies for our environmental work in places we haven’t yet considered? Maybe if we could connect with, say, some Buddhist ecologists, we could find some new ideas.

But the most important point in all this is that we don’t have to do anything special; we just have to remain open to the religious diversity that already surrounds us. We don’t have know anything about Sikhism, we just have to be ready to point it out when we see some Sikhs. When we meet someone who is Haitian, we can remember to ask: What religion do you follow? –and if they should happen to say, Santeria, then we can say: Tell me about it.

When it comes to religion, we Unitarian Universalists are pretty good at being open. In the changing religious landscape of the United States, we can be leaders in such openness. We can be leaders in listening openly and respectfully to the religious beliefs of others. When we meet someone from another religious tradition, we simply say: tell me about your religion. And that simple act has the power change the religious landscape around us.

Buddha’s Sermons

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Responsive reading

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. 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.

adapted from T. W. Rhys Davids’s translation of the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra [1881]


The first reading is from Dhamma-Kakka-Ppavattana Sutta, translated by T. W. Rhys Davids [1881]:

8. “Now this, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the way which leads to the destruction of sorrow. Verily! it is this noble eightfold path; that is to say:

“Right views; Right aspirations; Right speech; Right conduct; Right livelihood; Right effort; Right mindfulness; and Right contemplation.

“This then, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the destruction of sorrow.

9. “That this was the noble truth concerning sorrow, was not, O Bhikkhus, among the doctrines handed down, but there arose within me the eye (to perceive it), there arose the knowledge (of its nature), there arose the understanding (of its cause), there arose the wisdom (to guide in the path of tranquillity), there arose the light (to dispel darkness from it).

The second reading this morning is from an essay titled “The Historic Buddha” by P. Lakshmi Narasu.

“The [Buddha’s] method of exposition differed entirely from those of the brahmans. Far from presenting his thoughts under the concise form so characteristic of the Brahmans, he imparted his teachings in the form of sermons. Instead of mysterious teachings confided almost in secret to a small number, he spoke to large audiences composed of all those who desired to hear him. He spoke in a manner intelligible to all, and tried by frequent repetitions to impress his meaning on the least attentive minds and the most rebellious memories. He adapted himself to the capacities of his hearers….” [in A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, p. 16]

SERMON — “Buddha’s Sermons”

If you were here last week, you heard me tell about how Siddhartha Gotama sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree, and finally achieved Enlightenment.

Let me quickly review the story for you: Siddartha Gotama was the son of a king, a prince poised to inherit his father’s vast and wealthy kingdom. But Siddartha became troubled by the problem of suffering: why is it that we human beings must suffer? In search of an answer, Siddartha Gotama left the palace, left his life of ease, and went to live in the woods with the other religious seekers. At first he tried the usual methods of religious seekers in those days: he sought our religious teachers (none of whom he found satisfactory), he went to live in a temple (but was disgusted by the animal sacrifices and attendant cruelty), and finally he lived in the forest for six years with five other religious seekers who all worked hard at “keeping their senses in check, subduing their passions, and practicing austere penance” [Narusa, p. 7]. To put it more plainly, Siddhartha Gotama ate as little as possible, to the point where he almost died of starvation; at which point he realized that if he died from starvation, he wasn’t going to get any closer to whatever spiritual answer it was that he sought.

So Siddhartha Gotama went to sit in meditation under the Bodhi tree, or the tree of enlightenment. And while he sat there in meditation, he reached enlightenment. Not that I am altogether clear on what, exactly, enlightenment is; but it seems clear that Siddhartha Gotama somehow achieved a direct insight into the nature of reality, an insight which allowed him to understand the nature of suffering and allowed him to be released from further suffering. Upon which, he got up and walked back to where he had left his five companions.

When his five companions saw Siddhartha Gotama walking towards them, at first they didn’t want to talk with him. After all, he had broken their vows of austerity, and they assumed he had gone back to living a normal life. But when he approached, he seemed a changed man, and they greeted him by name. But he replied that they should no longer call him Siddhartha Gotama, for he had achieved enlightenment. Now he should be called a Buddha, an Enlightened One. And then immediately, according to ancient Buddhist tradition, the Buddha preached his first great sermon to these five religious seekers.

In this sermon, — which is known as the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra — Buddha gave the first comprehensive statement of how all human beings can achieve enlightenment, just as he did. He starts off by saying that there are two extreme approaches to spirituality. He said:

“There are two extremes, O Bhikkus [a “bhikku” is a follower of Buddha], which the religious person, one who has reunounced wordly things, should not follow: –on the one hand, the habitual practice of those things whose attraction depends on upon the passions, especially anything having to do with sensuality; –on the other hand, self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” [paraphrased from the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra].

To his five listeners, Buddha preached further that: “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 the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.”

So it was that almost as soon as Buddha had achieved enlightenment, he promptly went and told others how they, too, could find release from suffering. Not only that, but Buddha made it quite clear that he spoke from direct experience. He was not repeating to them some received tradition; he was not passing on what others had said. He spoke from what he knew directly, saying: “This… noble truth concerning sorrow, was not… among the doctrines handed down, but there arose within me the eye (to perceive it), there arose within me the knowledge (of its nature)….”

Somehow, Buddha got a direct insight into the way the universe works, an insight which did not come from tradition. It was an insight which came fresh from the universe. I won’t say it was a new insight never before realized by humankind, but it was an insight direct from what I’d call the light of the ages; and within Buddha arose the capacity with which to grasp this essential truth.

Buddha preached about this insight to his five friends in his very first sermon, and a remarkable thing happened. He told about his insight with much repetition, which of course is the natural thing to do when you are speaking aloud, for sermons and speeches should always be filled with repetition; although let’s just say that this first sermon of Buddha’s had rather a lot of repetition; this first sermon of Buddha’s was, shall we say, a little slow and redundant. Maybe even a little boring. Yet at the end of the sermon, a remarkable thing happened: Kondanna, one of the five people listening, achieved enlightenment.

Which is why Buddha ended his first sermon in a very unusual fashion, saying: “Kondanna has realized it. Kondanna has realized it!” The sermon may have been a little boring, but there was something in it that went to the hearts of his listeners, and led one of them, Kondanna, to instantaneously realize his full religious potential.

Speaking as a preacher, I would be pleased as Punch if one of my sermons ever led anyone to enlightenment. I would be just as pleased if one of my sermons would lead me to enlightenment. Indeed, I wish at least one of the hundreds of sermons I’ve listened to over the years could have brought me to full realization of my religious potential.

Yet even though sermons in my world don’t lead to instantaneous enlightenment, something powerful can and does happen when you sit together with other people and listen to a sermon. Something powerful can happen even when the sermon, or the preacher, is boring, or redundant. Some months ago, I sat and listened to a fairly boring sermon, yet I left that worship service feeling a million times better than I had felt when I went in; the experience is with me still. It wasn’t the content of the sermon that moved me; it wasn’t the preacher’s technique, for he was just an average preacher; but something moved me.

Here’s what I think happens when you listen to a sermon.

First of all, there is the feeling that comes to you when you sit together in a community of religious seekers — a community of people who have come together as they try to figure out how to make sense out of an absurd world. When you’re sitting together with such a community, you can put aside ordinary, mundane concerns; you can focus on your deepest spiritual concerns. Being with other people helps that focus. One of the most powerful worship services I ever attended was a Quaker meeting, a silent meeting for worship in which no one was moved to stand and speak; yet the silence of that group of people, that group of religious seekers sitting together, was as powerful as any sermon I’ve ever heard. So being together in religious community is the first thing that happens.

Second, there’s something powerful about sitting and listening to a real live person speaking to you. When you sit and listen to a real live person — when hear the words coming from their mouth, still warm from their breath — there’s this direct connection between you and that person that you just can’t get by watching television, playing video games, or surfing the web. Not that I have anything against those activities, for heaven knows I spend far too much of my spare time surfing the Web. Sitting and listening to a real live person speak is, or can be, infinitely more powerful; there’s a direct, embodied connection with that person’s words.

And finally, there’s something very powerful about taking the time out of your busy life to sit and listen to someone talk about what is most important in life. You set aside time to think upon what is most important; the preacher and the congregation consider that which is most important in the universe; between you and the congregation and the preacher, something happens that is worth listening to.

I don’t know what enlightenment is, but I’ll venture a guess: enlightenment is something that happens in the intersection of you; the light of the ages; and your religious community. To see how this might be so, let’s get back to the story.

Buddha finished his first sermon, and immediately Kondanna achieves enlightenment. The Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra tells us what happened next:

“The gods of the earth gave forth a shout, saying:

“In Benares… the supreme wheel of the empire of Truth has been set rolling by the Buddha — that wheel which no one, not any Brahman, not any god, not anyone in the universe, can ever turn back!

“And when they heard the shout of the gods of the earth, the guardian angels of the four quarters of the globe gave forth a shout, saying:

“In Benares… the supreme wheel of the empire of Truth has been set rolling by the Buddha — that wheel which no one, not any priest, not any god, not anyone in the universe, can ever turn back!…”

If you think about it, that’s quite a bit of shouting! But there was more noise to come:

“And thus, in an instant, a second, a moment, the sound went up even to the world of Brahma [who was considered the ultimate god]: and this great ten-thousand-world-system quaked and trembled and was shaken violently, and an immeasurable great light appeared in the universe, beyond even the power of the gods!

“And the Buddha gave this exclamation of joy: ‘Kondanna has realized enlightenment. Kondanna has realized it!'”

And what caused all this commotion? What caused this outpouring of religious enthusiasm? Three things caused this outpouring of the universe: the Buddha, the enlightened one, both as an actual person and as the potential for religious greatness in each of us; the Dharma, or Buddha’s sermon or teaching about truth; and the Sangha, or the spiritual community as symbolized in the enlightenment of Kondanna.

When we Unitarian Universalists think of religion or spirituality, we are tempted to think that religion and spirituality are things that we can do entirely on our own. We are religious individualists; we like to think we can be religious do-it-yourselfers. We like to think that we can sit down with a popular book about Buddhism, and achieve enlightenment on our own. But Buddhism, and indeed every great religious tradition, teaches us that the capacity for religious greatness which is truly within us is, in of itself, insufficient. Of course we know pretty well we can’t realize that capacity for greatness within, that inherent Buddhahood, without reference to the Dharma, the great truths of the universe. But no more can we realize the greatness within ourselves if we don’t have a spiritual community. That’s why we come to church. That’s why we invest all this time into maintaining and building a religious community. That’s what a sermon really is: it isn’t a lecture, it isn’t an intriguing title posted on the sign outside the church, it’s an embodied version of the great Truth of the universe, and of the potential within each of us to know that truth.

Before I close, I want to leave you with one last thought. Our spiritual community goes beyond the people who are sitting here this morning. Our spiritual community goes beyond the other members and friends of this church who can’t be here this morning. Our spiritual community even goes beyond the community of all humankind.

Remember that when Buddha finished his sermon, when Kondanna suddenly achieved enlightenment, the whole of earth shook and the gods of earth shouted in praise. The poet Gary Snyder, an American Buddhist, writes that “human beings… will wish to include the non-human in their sense of community…. Our community does not end at the human boundaries; we are in a community with certain trees, plants, birds, animals. The conversation is with the whole thing.”

Remember that Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha, the enlightened one, by sitting down under a tree to meditate. The tree was a part of his meditations; he was a part of the meditations of the whole forest; the conversation got taken up by the whole universe.

Though we are Unitarian Universalists and not Buddhists, this we can learn from Gary Snyder and other Buddhists: we are nothing without our community, and our community includes the human beings in this room, all of humankind, and indeed all living beings and the whole of earth. A sermon is nothing without a community; a community can meld Truth into a boring sermon making it into something truly enlightening. When we can finally expand our community to include all living beings we will expand what we can know of the truth to its fullest extent.

So may enlightenment come to us all — whatever enlightenment may be.