Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages: “The Story of Palm Sunday”

(with Kate Sullivan and Dan Harper)

Dan: Today is the Christian holiday of Palm Sunday. Kate and I are going to tell you the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it as a Unitarian Universalist child.

Kate: We’re going to ask the children and teens to come forward, because we’d like your help as we tell the story.

Dan: 2,000 years ago there was a Jewish rabbi named Jesus who went from town to town in a land called Judea teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t an official Jewish 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.

Kate: Jesus did most of his teaching in the countryside, but at last he and his followers decided to to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews, and Passover was one of the most important holidays. Since Jesus and his followers 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. They didn’t have much money, so they had to walk the whole way. Jesus had been teaching and traveling for a long time, and he was tired. As they got close to Jerusalem, he asked his followers to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The followers went to a farm nearby, and borrowed a foal, or a young horse, for Jesus.

Dan: There were crowds of people on the road in to Jerusalem for Passover. Many them had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him. Someone began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing, and others joined in. They sang:

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
And into his courts with praise.

Kate: People were in a happy, festive mood. They picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. That’s why this is called Palm Sunday, by the way. We’d like to ask the children and teens to hand out these palms leaves to anyone who would like one, so we can all better imagine what it was like when Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem for Passover. [Kate hands palm leaves to kid.]

Dan: (When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, our UU church gave us palm leaves so we could understand what they were; growing up in New England, we had never seen palm leaves. But to return to the story….) Someone started singing again:

Serve our God Yahweh with gladness,
Come before God’s presence with singing.
Blessed are they that come in the name of God!

People gave flowers to Jesus, and waved palm leaves over him. Everyone was in a cheerful mood. There was just one big problem. The singing, the people giving Jesus 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.

Kate: But in the time of Jesus, the Romans ruled over Jerusalem. The Romans didn’t want anyone to question their authority. Treating Jesus like one of the kings of olden times was a way to question authority. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would lead a rebellion against the Romans? It was dangerous for them to even think about such things. So there’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with the people waving palm leaves over him. What will Jesus do in Jerusalem? And what will the Romans do?

Dan: If you want to know what Jesus did once he got into Jerusalem, if you want to know what the Romans did, you’ll have to wait until next week when we tell the rest of the story.


The first reading was from the Minor Dialogues of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Elder, as translated by Aubrey Stewart. Seneca the Elder was born in about the same year as Jesus of Nazareth. We’ll hear two excerpts of the first dialogue, called “Of Providence,” from chapters 2 and 3.

“Why do many things turn out badly for good men? Why, no evil can befall a good man: contraries cannot combine. Just as so many rivers, so many showers of rain from the clouds, such a number of medicinal springs, do not alter the taste of the sea, indeed, do not so much as soften it, so the pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of a brave man; for the mind of a brave man maintains its balance and throws its own complexion over all that takes place, because it is more powerful than any external circumstances. I do not say that he does not feel them, but he conquers them, and on occasion calmly and tranquilly rises superior to their attacks, holding all misfortunes to be trials of his own firmness….

“Do you consider Socrates to have been badly used, because he took that draught which the state assigned to him as though it were a charm to make him immortal, and argued about death until death itself? Was he ill treated, because his blood froze and the current of his veins gradually stopped as the chill of death crept over them? How much more is this man to be envied than he who is served on precious stones, whose drink a creature trained to every vice, a eunuch or much the same, cools with snow in a golden cup? Such men as these bring up again all that they drink, in misery and disgust at the taste of their own bile, while Socrates cheerfully and willingly drains his poison….”

The second reading was a short poem by Everett Hoagland titled “Spirit.” It is not included here due to copyright.

Sermon: “Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire”

In the moment for all ages today, Kate and I imagined what it was like for Jesus and his followers when they entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. If you’ve heard this story before, there are probably many things about it that you take for granted. But for anyone hearing this story for the first time, it is a deeply strange story. And I think it is far stranger than most of us in the twenty-first century usually assume.

First of all, we always say that Jesus was a rabbi and his followers were Jewish, and we like to think we know exactly what we mean when we say this. But Judaism in Jesus’s time was very different from Judaism today. Today, we know that Jews belong to a synagogue, and each synagogue has a rabbi, and weekly sabbath services involve reading from the Torah and so on. Back then, however, Judaism was not centered around local synagogues, Judaism was centered around the great Temple of Jerusalem. The worship at the great Temple involved the sacrifice of animals, which included very different rituals from modern-day Jewish sabbath services.

Secondly, we like to imagine that ancient Rome had religions in the same way we have religions today, but that turns out not to be true. There’s an emerging consensus among scholars that the Latin words usually translated as “religion” do not mean the same thing as our modern English word “religion.” The great Temple of Jerusalem was partly a political power, partly a cult that focused on practices (not on beliefs), and partly a symbol of tribal or national identity. Politics, cultic practices, and national or tribal identity all blended together in ways we can barely imagine today.

Thirdly, ancient Roman society was utterly completely different from our society today. Most people in the ancient Roman empire were slaves; or if they weren’t slaves, they were freed slaves, who didn’t have much greater status than slaves. Among the people who were not slaves, only a very few were actual Roman citizens. Among the minority of people who were actual Roman citizens, only men were allowed to vote. Even among male Roman citizens, only wealthy males of high birth had any real political power. The one man at the top, the Roman emperor, had pretty much absolute authority over everyone else (at least until someone assassinated him). Ancient Rome was the exact opposite of an egalitarian society. No one in the Roman Empire had much freedom except for the Roman emperor.

In short, the ancient Roman Empire was nothing like American society today.

I want to emphasize this last point by referring back to this morning’s second reading, the one by Seneca the Elder. Seneca was an elite male Roman citizen, a person of power and influence, but even so he knew that the Roman emperor could tell him to commit suicide, and he would have to go and kill himself. (Indeed, his son Seneca the Younger suffered that exact fate.) Seneca the Elder’s life depended on the whim of one man.

You need to know all this in order to understand just how revolutionary Jesus was. Jesus said his teachings were quite simple: love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (This is a very Jewish teaching by the way, since the first part of this is a paraphrase of the Shema Israel, and the second part is from the Torah, a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.) When asked who we should consider to be our neighbor, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan which showed that everyone is our neighbor, even despised minority groups.

This is a radically egalitarian teaching that upended the assumptions of ancient Rome. Jesus taught his followers that everyone was worthy of God’s love. Not only did that mean that everyone single person in the world had inherent worthiness, it also meant that we should emulate God and treat everyone with love and kindness. Not only did Jesus teach this, he lived this in his life. He spent time with homeless people, he talked seriously to women and treated them as equals, he answered the questions of both rich people and poor people without regard to their wealth or poverty.

You can see, then, how the elite people who were the representatives of the Roman Empire in Judea might see Jesus as a bit of a threat. If both rich people and poor people are equally worthy of love, that might imply that someone should do something about poverty and homelessness, to say nothing of ending slavery. And if Jesus treated rich people the same way he treated homeless people, you can understand how the elite people who were in power might feel that he was undermining their social and political position. This is why the story of Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’s first day in Jerusalem, concludes with this ominous statement: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

Recently, I have come to believe this conflict between Jesus and the ancient Roman Empire was a philosophical conflict over how to value individual people. The ancient Roman Empire as a whole didn’t place a high value on anyone except maybe the emperor. Slaves were disposable property. Free people who were not Roman citizens had little value. Women were little better than property. Even elite Roman males could be forced to die by suicide at the whim of the emperor.

By contrast, Jesus said every person has value. Women, slaves, widows, orphans, immigrants, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, poor people — Jesus treated every individual as important and worthy of love. Or, in his succinct and memorable summation of this philosophical principle, you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Today, we live in a much more egalitarian society than ancient Rome. We have extended legal rights (in theory, at least) to all persons more or less equally. We have mostly gotten rid of slavery, and certainly slavery is no longer legal in this country. We have developed an egalitarian form of government that makes it possible to offer any needed support to widows, orphans, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, and so on (in theory, if not quite yet in practice).

Our society has come a bit closer to the ideal outlined by Jesus two thousand years ago — the ideal that Jesus got from Judaism, and an ideal which is present in most of the great world’s religions. Our society values each individual in a way that was pretty much foreign to the ancient Roman Empire.

At the same time, we have not fully realized a truly egalitarian world. A new philosophy has gotten in the way. Instead of repeating the words of the Torah (Lev. 19:18) and saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we tend to leave out the phrase “your neighbor as,” leaving us with the selfish injunction “you shall love yourself.” That is, instead of valuing each individual person as being worthy of universal love, our society is slowly moving towards a philosophy of selfish individualism.

Communities like First Parish exist in part to counter this creeping philosophy of selfish individualism. We can serve as a living example of a philosophy based on loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Maybe we don’t always live up to our philosophical ideals, but we keep the ideal alive through our efforts. And, because of our non-creedal nature, Unitarian Universalist congregations can also show how this ideal exists in most of the great religions of the world. Gotama Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, and many other great religious leaders passed on similar teachings. This is an important message in an increasingly multicultural society.

Our second reading, the short poem by Everett Hoagland, is one effort by a Unitarian Universalist to universalize this philosophical ideal. Everett begins the poem by naming “The ethereal entity / that sings itself in music” — this poetic formulation could point towards the Jewish or Christian God, it could point towards the goddess of Neo-Paganism, it could point towards the Buddhist Dharma, it could point to natural law or human ethics — you can read into it a hundred different spiritual interpretations. But all these spiritual approaches teach there is something larger than our individual selves.

Everett continues his poem by telling us this mysterious entity “can be seen in a kindness.” And this poetic formulation hints at a the common ethical standards that can be found nearly all of the world’s religions: to treat each other with kindness, to see ourselves as connected to all person and all beings. (The Vietnamese Buddhist philospher Thich Nhat Hanh calls this concept “interbeing.”) Everett goes on to tell us that our inherent kindness and our sense of connectedness to all persons and all beings is going to prompt us to work for justice; and when we resist injustice, we will be supported by that “ethereal entity” that is something larger than ourselves.

The poem ends by saying that that “ethereal entity” is a physically manifested in something as simple and commonplace as a hug: it “embodies itself / in the felt way / of a hug.” The point here is not that you should walk down the street hugging everyone you meet — that would be kind of creepy. The point is that something as simple as a parent hugging a child embodies everything named in the poem — something which is larger than ourselves; kindness; fighting for justice in the world. The poem also shows us how all these things exist in the power of human connection. Where do we find God, goddess, the highest and best in humanity, or whatever you call it? — we find it in human connection, we find it in the interconnected web of all existence. Where do we find justice? — in the interconnectedness of all life. Where do we find kindness and compassion and universal love? — in human connection, in the interconnected web of all being.

Now let us return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. There he was, part of the crowd of people flooding into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Based on what we know about the philosophy of Jesus, it’s clear he doesn’t see the crowd as a faceless entity of mass humanity. Nor does he see the crowd as a collection of isolated individuals. He sees the crowd as individuals who are all connected through what he called God, or what some of us today might call universal love.

Contrast this with the way the Romans who ruled Jerusalem perceived the crowd coming in to the city. For those in power, the ordinary people were merely a faceless mass to be manipulated and controlled. This is why they would have seen Jesus as a threat: he taught people how to see themselves as being both individually worthy and as being connected to others. Seeing themselves in this way gave them the collective power to resist the injustices inherent in the Roman Empire, while maintaining the dignity of their individuality.

It is tempting to us today to draw an analogy between our current political situation, and the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first century. It’s tempting to believe that Jesus entering Jerusalem has something to teach us about our relationship with Washington, D.C. Maybe there is analogy to be made, but I think you’d have to be a fairly knowledgeable historian to sort through the huge differences between the Roman Empire and the United States. Since I’m not especially knowledgeable about ancient Rome, I’m not going to turn this into a political sermon.

But I do believe something in the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem can influence the way we lead our personal lives. It is all too easy to reduce humanity to conveniently inaccurate labels. We do this very often in the United States today. In one obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to convenient racial categories: you’re Black or you’re White, or what-have-you; our society still has difficulty knowing what to do with biracial or multiracial people. In another obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to Democrat or Republican, to liberal or conservative; and we are likely to make judgements of other Americans based on political caricatures.

Instead of passing judgement on people based on convenient categories, what Jesus and other great religious and philosophical leaders are trying to tell us is that we should see people as both individuals, and as an integral part of an interconnected web of humanity.

This is a unique contribution that we Unitarian Universalists can bring to the wider conversation conversation about the upcoming Christian celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Jesus is often reduced to s religious figure who performed miracles. But we Unitarian Universalists also see him as a philosopher in the Jewish tradition of Rabbi Hillel who was his older contemporary. As a philosopher, Jesus emphasized both the radical importance of each individual, and the radical importance of the connection between individuals. This was a philosophy quite different form that which underlay the ancient Roman Empire. While it was not an entirely new philosophy, Jesus managed to state this philosophy in a particularly memorable way.

Today, this ancient philosophy sometimes gets obscured by the religious aspects of Jesus; but we Unitarian Universalists continue to highlight his philosophical ideals. Jesus took the ancient teaching from the Torah, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and made it memorable both through his words and his actions. And we carry on this philosophical tradition. We continue to highlight the importance of the individual. We continue to highlight the importance of connection between individuals. And we do this both through our words and through our actions.

Household Gods

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from book II of Virgil’s Aeneid:

[506] “Perhaps, too, you may inquire what was Priam’s fate. When he saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”

The second reading was from the Hebrew scriptures, the Prophets, Zechariah 10-12:

Ask rain from the Lord
  in the season of the spring rain,
from the Lord who makes the storm clouds,
  and he will give them showers of rain,
  to everyone the vegetation in the field.
For the household gods utter nonsense,
  and the diviners see lies;
they tell false dreams
  and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
  they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.

Sermon — “Household Gods”

Some years ago, I got in trouble in a class I was taking. This class was a creative writing workshop, and it was taught by a fellow who had published quite a few short stories in prestigious magazines. I no longer remember his name, and if you heard his name you probably wouldn’t recognize it — nevertheless, he was an experienced and accomplished writer.

Each week, we all had to submit short stories to be read over and critiqued by the class. Each week we would have to read a short story by a published writer, and all the stories written by our classmates, and comment intelligently on each of these stories. Now I have never been able to write a short story that was any good; non-fiction I can do, but fiction is beyond me; but there I was taking that class because I needed the credits and it was the only class that would fit into my schedule. Since I like to read and I’m never shy about expressing my opinions, I was always happy to read all of the week’s stories and then talk about them in class; but I wasn’t very good at writing stories.

One week I submitted yet another boring story, the inconsequential plot of which hinged on one of the characters talking about her household gods. And to make a long story short (as it were), our teacher ridiculed my story because he had never heard of household gods and wanted to know why they were in the story. What, he asked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, did I mean by household gods, anyway? Well, I knew my mother had talked about household gods, and I more or less knew that household gods were a sort of cultural metaphor for that which is important to one’s household. This did not satisfy him, and we moved on to the next story, and eventually I passed that class.

In spite of the fact that neither that teacher nor I knew what they were, household gods do indeed exist. The ancient Roman gods and goddesses included not just the major public deities like Juno and Jupiter and Diana; there were also minor deities that lived in each Roman household, and these were the household gods. Sixty years ago, when my mother was in high school, high school kids learned a certain amount of ancient Latin, and a certain amount of ancient Roman culture; and so my mother’s generation has been exposed to Latin writers such as Livy and Virgil.

These days there aren’t many people who have studied Latin, who would know what a household god might be. My writing teacher had never heard of them at all, and although I had heard my mother mention them I knew nothing more than that. Yet if you look hard enough, you can still find household gods in the nooks and crannies of our culture:– there is a science fiction novel in which Roman household gods sends a modern woman back in time to live in ancient Rome; they do crop up in literature now and then; come to find out, there’s even a folk music group called The Household Gods. I suspect that evenn those of us who never studied Latin continue to have a vague notion that there might be guardian deities within our households.

And I suspect that many of us, though we may hotly deny it, are still under the influence of some household gods. We may not admit it, but we have let unacknowledged household gods into our homes. And this prompts me to ask: what are household gods, and what function might they still carry out in our homes?

Let me begin by describing ancient Roman household gods. Not that this is going to be a historically accurate description — ancient Roman history covers hundreds of years, and the form and worship of household gods evolved continually over that time span. But a general description will suit our purposes.

The first thing to know is the ancient Roman term for household gods: they were called “lares.” An 1894 book called “The Mythology of Greece and Rome” says this about the Lares:

“The Lares… were the tutelary deities of the house and family…. They were commonly supposed to be the glorified spirits of ancestors, who, as guardian deities, strove to promote the welfare of the family. The seat of their worship was also the family hearth in the atrium, where their images of wood or wax were generally preserved in a separate shrine of their own (Lararium). The Lares received an especial degree of veneration on the first day of every month; but… they took part in all the domestic occurrences, whether of joy or sorrow. …They also received their share at every meal of particular dishes, and were crowned with garlands on the occasion of every family rejoicing. When a son assumed the toga virilis (that is, when he came of age), he dedicated his bulla (a gold or silver ornament, like a medal, which was worn round the neck during childhood) to the Lares, amidst prayers and libations and burning of incense. When the father of the house started on a journey or returned in safety, the Lares were again addressed, and their statues crowned with wreaths, flowers and garlands being their favorite offerings.”

This makes the household gods seem rather charming, doesn’t it? You have these little household gods made out of wood or wax or terracotta, which represented your ancestors or your guardians; and they lived in their own little niche next to the fireplace, and they promised to look out for you and your family. If anything happened to your family, whether good or bad, you’d go spend some time with your household gods. When you had a nice meal, you’d give them a little bit of it; if something good happened in your family, you’d put flowers on them. You’d pay attention to them before someone in your family went traveling, and you’d pay attention to them again when that person returned safely home. I particularly like the fact that the household gods liked flowers and garlands best — I’m not so happy with gods and goddesses that demand blood sacrifices (which can be disgusting and messy) or burnt offerings (which is a waste of good food), but it’s always nice to have an excuse to put flowers in your house.

Those who could afford to do so built a special wall niche into their home, a house altar or lararium, in which the household gods were placed; and some of these house altars are decorated with paintings that might show one of more of the household gods. In one of the houses in Pompei, that ancient Roman city that got buried by a volcano, archaeologists uncovered a house altar on which was painted a representation of a snake with a beard and a crest on top of its head; this was the “lars familiaris,” a sort of protective power associated with the household. So it was that these household gods had their own place within a Roman house.

And if you were a Roman, you hoped that your household gods offered you some kind of protection. Of course, it didn’t necessarily work out that way. After all, that house altar in Pompei didn’t protect its household from being buried by that volcanic eruption. And when the ancient Greeks conquered Troy and went through the city killing and looting, the household gods of Priam, the king of Troy, could not save him; as the Roman poet Virgil tells us in the Aeneid, his poetic story of the Trojan war:
“When [Priam] saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched [his wife] Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the [household] gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”
But of course the altar of the household gods did not protect Priam in the least, for the next part of the Aeneid tells how he was slaughtered by the Greeks.

Even though I don’t believe that Roman household gods offer some sort of magical protection, I like this idea of having household gods. I’m not looking for household gods which can provide a comprehensive insurance policy for my house and family, but I do like the way the ancient Romans used the household gods to create a religious and spiritual center in their households. I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not want to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house, but it’s not enough for me to do religion an hour a week.

Our direct spiritual forebears, New England Protestant Christians, did not have household gods; but they did have manage to integrate religion and spirituality into their daily lives. Their religion was not limited to an hour on Sunday mornings.

These days, we Unitarian Universalists think of ourselves as “post-Christian” — some of us still consider ourselves Christian individuals, and some of us want nothing to do with Christianity. Yet although we are post-Christian, that does not mean that we have to throw out every part of the Christian tradition. We’ve taken the cross out of our church, but we still call it a church; we may not read the Christian scriptures much, but we still follow the Christian rule of meeting once a week on Sundays. So I think it is worth taking a look at the old Christian home religious practices that used to be a part of our New England religious tradition.

One of those Christian practices, once so common in New England households, was the practice of daily prayers. In our own tradition — we come from the Radical Reformation and the Free Churches — the governing principle for daily prayer is quite simple: each individual is guided by the Spirit, and so we did not require a complicated scheme of specific prayers to memorize and certain words to say. We still value extemporaneous prayer, and we sometimes still teach our children how to pray in this fashion. My favorite example of this is a bedtime prayer that the Rev. Christopher Raible wrote about. He suggested that parents sit with their children each night and use this format for bedtime prayers:

  Tonight I am thankful for… (then you say some of the good things that happened to you today)
  And tonight I am sorry for… (then you talk about the things you feel sorry for doing or saying)
  Tomorrow I hope for… (and you talk about things you hope for and how you think you can make them happen).

In the old days in New England, prayers were something everyone said on a daily basis. There were many other daily prayers that people used, the most common one being the practice of saying grace before meals.

The other common household practice from the Free Church tradition is the practice of keeping the Sabbath day. I don’t know anyone who keeps the Sabbath day any more, although a Hundred years ago, Unitarian and Universalist families did keep the Sabbath. Ellen Tucker Emerson, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughters, wrote a description of how the Emerson family kept the Sabbath day together as a family:

“Sunday was then kept rigidly the children of these days would say, but Father and Mother considered it kept easily, while Grandma thought it not strictly enough observed…. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six….”

Ellen Emerson goes in some detail, so I will skip ahead:

“I am trying to show what was Mother’s method in the religious education of her children, to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories. To accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and religious study at home. When Eddy got to be perhaps three or even earlier she began to read aloud to us when we were all in bed Mrs Barbauld’s Prose Hymns and often a story-book of a religious character…. This was not always done, for I remember as if it continued a long time the practice of singing before we went upstairs… we used to sit on our three stools round Mother and sing it with her…. She had a little blue book of morning and evening prayers, and I think she read aloud one of those prayers.”

This all sounds rather charming — if we lived a hundred and fifty years ago. But which of us today would like to devote all day Sunday to memorizing hymns, and listening to serious writing read aloud, and hearing Bible stories, and reading prayers aloud, and singing a few hymns before bedtime? Which of us would like to tear children and grand children away from video games and MySpace to participate in such things? And how many of our children or grandchildren would easily consent to such things all day every Sunday? The children I know would sooner have a wall-niche constructed next to the fireplace, and pour out libations to little statues of household gods — and they would only do that, I suspect, until they got bored with it.

Most of the households I know no longer include much religious practice at home. Some households are quite good at saying bedtime prayers with young children; I know a few households that actually eat dinner together every night and even say grace before they eat; I know a few households where families sing hymns or hymn-like songs together. But I don’t know of any households where someone regularly reads aloud from “serious writing.”

If anything, I think the pagans among us do the best job of including religion in daily life within the household. I know quite a few pagan households that regularly say grace or in some way bless food before eating it. I know quite a few pagan households that incorporate regular religious rituals in their home life; and in the best Free Church tradition, they often make up these rituals themselves, as the Spirit moves them. I know of pagan households that have some kind of house altar, not unlike the house altars of the ancient Romans. And I even know some pagan households where children are taught religious songs and chants, and where people actually read aloud to each other from religious writings.

What about my own household? Traditionally — back in the days when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children were young — clergy were supposed to be exemplars for living a good religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael is still such an exemplar — he keeps the Sabbath, and his three children keep the Sabbath. But I am not such a good role model: my life partner is pretty much unchurched, and I’m not going to impose my religious practices on her, so we don’t do any of the things I’ve talked about. Yes, I do keep a Sabbath day each week — my Sabbath day is Friday, because that’s what fits into my busy schedule, and every Friday I don’t do any unnecessary work, and I make an effort to read serious writing, and good Transcendentalist that I am I try to engage in my spiritual practices of writing and reading. But these are things I do on my own, not things I do with the rest of my household.

Many of us are no longer able to fit the old Free Church religious rituals into our home lives; and perhaps we no longer want to do so. But wouldn’t it be nice to do something at meal times besides turning on the television set? Wouldn’t it be nice to devote some time each week to a consideration of the most important things in life, rather than spending all our leisure time playing video games and sending inconsequential email messages? And if we can’t observe the old Free Church religious rituals, still less will we return to the ancient Roman rituals surrounding the household gods. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to bring fresh flowers into your house? Wouldn’t it be nice to have little rituals to observe when someone in your household was goind away on a trip, or returning home? or rituals to observe when your children or grandchildren came of age?

Of course these days most of use lead lives that no longer give us any time to observe such rituals outside of an hour-long worship service on Sunday mornings. And I want to emphasize that many of us are not going to be able to impose our religion on our households. Those are the facts of life for many of us.

But pay attention to those facts of life. A little while ago, I said that I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. I will go further than that — like it or not, we are religious beings; doing religion is one of the ways we make sense out of the world. You can choose to get rid of conscious religion in your life — you don’t have to say grace before meals or force your children to say bedtime prayers nor do you have to go to church on Sunday mornings. You can choose that you’re not going to do those things. But you will have to find some way to make sense out of the world, and if you don’t do that consciously, you will do it unconsciously.

Our culture is constantly telling us to make sense out of the world by having more stuff — we get that new video game, or that new iPhone, or that new Toyota Prius, or that new house, and suddenly our world makes sense — for a time, it makes sense. But all religious rituals have to be repeated over and over again, and so we go out and buy more stuff; and we work longer hours so we can buy more stuff; and we make our children study hard and send them to lots of afterschool activities so that they can succeed and get the best jobs with a high salary — and buy more stuff.

Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not wish to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house; I do not wish to reinstate the home religious practices of Ellen Emerson’s family. But I need something more than an hour a week to feed my soul. I know that household gods still exist, and even if we don’t acknowledge them or know what they are they are still a powerful force, and they are living in our households right now. In our Free Church tradition, we don’t have to follow certain procedures and formulas; but we do have to give ourselves space to be moved by the spirit. We should pay attention to the household gods we are willing to admit into our households.

What will our household gods be? Will we worship consumer goods? Or can we find a way to update some of the old religious practices? Can we devote some time each day to meditation and prayer? Can we set aside time each day to reflect on what we have done, and what we hope to do? Even if we do nothing more than bring fresh flowers into our households, if we do it with the intention of focusing ourselves on the highest things, if we do it as an expression of our wonder and joy and awe before the mysteries of life,– I think that will be enough.