Is Religion in Decline?

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. There are more than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, for which I apologize.


The first reading was an excerpt from “The Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi” by William Meredith.

The second reading is from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone To Talk:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Sermon — “Is Religion in Decline?”

I love the second reading, the one by Annie Dillard. Although she addresses her comments to Christians, I feel they apply to anyone who goes to regular religious services. Here we all are, contemplating the huge and awful mysteries of life; we should all be wearing crash helmets. And I love the first reading, too. We may not be followers of Jainism, and we may not run a bird hospital in Delhi. But we are like them every time we attempt to live out our values among the seemingly inconsequential events of life.

Keep those thoughts in mind. But now I’m going to turn to the subject of Daoist priests. To help answer the question of whether religion is in decline, I’m going to tell you about a modern-day Daoist priest named Li Bin. Journalist Ian Johnson met Mr. Li in 2009 in New York City, and then renewed their acquaintance in 2015 when Johnson went to China for an extended stay. Johnson tells Li Bin’s story in “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.”

Li Bin is a ninth generation “yinyang” man, or daoshin, a Daoist priest. He grew up in the countryside. There he learned how to be a yinyang man from his father, Li Manshan, who had learned it from his father, Li Qing, and so on back through ninth generations. Li Qing had kept the daoshin tradition alive through Mao ze Dong’s Cultural Revolution, hiding their ritual texts and ritual objects from the Red Guards. Then in the 1990s, the Chinese government began to see Chinese religion as a cultural asset. And so the Li family can now work openly as yinyang men.

Li Bin did not set out to be a yinyang man. But after he failed the test to get into high school, Li Bin joined his father and his grandfather in the family business. The main money-making business for yinyang men (and they are all men) is conducting traditional funeral services. When someone dies, the family will call in the yinyang men to organize and conduct a funeral which usually lasts for two days.

So here’s what happens when Li Bin and his father are called to conduct a funeral. First, they negotiate a fee with the family. A portion of the fee goes towards subcontractors, such as the musicians who play during the two-day service; families with more money can afford more musicians for their funerals. Li Bin and his father are both excellent musicians, but when they can they add up to four other musicians to their ensemble.

The yinyang men and the other musicians arrive at eight in the morning on the first day. One of the yinyang men writes a formal announcement of the death. This announcement is worded as if it is told by the eldest son of the deceased. The announcement is written in classical Chinese, so the yinyang men must both know classical Chinese characters (which is difficult in of itself) and must be excellent calligraphers (which is perhaps more difficult).

After the announcement has been written, they all put on the robes of Daoist priests, along with hats with the sun on the front and the moon on the back. Together they process to the family’s house, where they proceed to play music and sing Daoist scriptures. In the breaks between playing music, the yinyang men write magical symbols on pieces of paper. These strips of red paper will be used to seal the coffin. The first day is punctuated with other small ceremonies, such as burning strips of paper that represent the material goods of the deceased person, who will need those things when they arrive in the world of the dead.

The yinyang men calculate the most auspicious place for the grave. They prepare the coffin using the strips of paper they made earlier. The family bow to the coffin, while a picture of the deceased person looks down at them. After the coffin is lowered into the ground, the children of the deceased person sweep the grave.

There’s much more to it than this; I’m leaving out many details. But you get the idea. The Daoist priest must be a good musician, and a good calligrapher — so he must be something of an artist. The Daoist priest must also be skilled in geomancy and fortune-telling and other mystical arts — so he is also like what we in the West think of as a priest, a person in tune with the mystical parts of the universe. And the Daoist priest must know the traditional death rituals of his culture — so he is also what folklorists call a “tradition bearer.”

In the past, generations of yinyang men lived and worked in the same village for generations, where they knew pretty much everyone. But Li Bin realized the villages were quickly disappearing. Everyone who could was moving to the cities for economic opportunity, and for that matter the cities were expanding and taking over the villages. As a result, Li Bin decided to move to the city. He still works with his father back in his home village, but much of his business now comes from city people.

The city people are detached from tradition. They don’t know proper funeral traditions. Educated people are the worst. Not only does Li Bin have to tell them the correct things to do, they don’t want to pay for the full ritual. Because the city people don’t want to pay, Li Bin has to bring in cheaper musicians (who are not very good, but who cost less). As a result, the younger people at funerals may ignore the traditional music, and instead listen to pop music or do karaoke.

Despite the cultural changes that come with urbanization, Li Bin can still make a good living as an urban yinyang man. But when he considers his teenaged son, he does not want his son to become a yinyang man.

The cultural changes Li Bin is confronting in China remind me of some of the cultural changes I’m seeing as a Unitarian Universalist minister in the United States. Let me explain.

Over my twenty years as a minister, I have noticed that fewer and fewer people turn to clergy based in congregations for their memorial services. A whole cottage industry of memorial service officiants has grown up, ranging from trained clergy who specialize solely in rites of passage, to people who have no formal training but who feel deeply called to this kind of work. (The same is true, by the way, of marriages — increasingly, couples are asking professional officiants or even friends to officiate at their weddings.)

Even those people who do ask me to officiate at a memorial service are doing more and more of the service themselves. Twenty years ago, a family would come to me for a memorial service, and I’d tell them what to do. Now I’m more likely to act as a sort of consultant to support families in creating their own service. I consider this to be a good thing. A memorial service should be something that comforts the family of the person who has died. It should not be a rigid religious rite. I like that families want to be the ones deciding what to do and how to do it. I like my new role of telling families what works best from a pragmatic standpoint, helping them achieve whatever vision they have for their memorial service. The only downside I see is that sometimes families take on a lot of work, and it causes them a bit too much stress. On the other hand, families mostly like being able to come up with creative and moving ways to personalize their memorial services.

It would be nice to give you some examples, to tell you about some of the beautiful memorial services I’ve helped families arrange. But those are not my stories, and to preserve confidentiality I’m not going to talk about them. However, I can tell you what Carol and I did for her father Ed’s memorial service last March. When Ed died, he was living in a retirement community, and we knew that many of his friends were tired out from attending memorial services. So we announced that we were going to have a celebration of Ed’s life. We invited people to come to one of the community rooms, help drink up Ed’s wine cellar, have snacks, and share any memories of Ed that they liked. We didn’t want the celebration of Ed’s life to go on forever, and we scheduled it an hour and a half before the dinner hour so it would end naturally after about an hour. And we made sure people understood that we wanted to keep it positive — yes, there were tears, but everyone was grateful to keep the focus on Ed’s life.

This was a non-traditional memorial service — if for no other reason than you usually don’t drink wine and eat snacks during a memorial service. Twenty years ago, I don’t think we could have gotten away with something like that. But urbanization has changed everything. Very few people live their whole lives in the same town; most people have moved from where they were born, and we are no longer restricted to unquestioned rituals into which we were born.

Drawing again from my own family’s experiences — because it would be inappropriate for me to share some other family’s experience — I’ll give you an example of how we are no longer restricted to the old ways of doing things. When my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she made clear what she wanted when she died. Her ethnic and religious tradition called for a church service led by the minister, and burial in the family plot in a coffin without embalming. Since my mother’s family came from Nantucket, this entailed some logistical difficulties — after she died, her body had to be flown to Nantucket within a couple of days. On the island we had a Unitarian graveside service conducted by the Unitarian minister on Nantucket, who read a standard graveside service — we had no input into what he said or did. Then we returned to the mainland, where the minister led her memorial service in her Unitarian church a week after she had died.

Contrast that with what happened when my mother’s twin sister died some two decades later. My mother’s twin was cremated. The memorial service was held when it was convenient for her children and others to fly to her retirement home — and the service was not held in a Unitarian church but at the retirement home. Those who could not attend the service in person, including one of her daughters, participated via videoconference. In the memorial service itself, the Unitarian minister played a much smaller role. The old rituals no longer bound us.

These examples from my family are just a couple of specific examples of the increasing diversity of today’s memorial services. American death rituals have changed considerably just in the past twenty years. And they’re continuing to change. Even if you’ve lived your entire life here in Cohasset, even then you’re no longer bound to the rituals of the town and ethnic tradition in which you grew up. And fewer and fewer people feel restricted to the rituals of any formal religious affiliation. This does not mean that religion is in decline — this simply means that our rituals are changing.

Yet even as our religious lives change, we can still choose to find support in a congregation, in this congregation. As a part of this congregation, you can ask fellow congregants for help and support, you can draw on the minister’s experience and training, you still have a community behind you. But these are our choices; religion is not dictated to us from on high.

So it is that we can choose to have our religious life be deeply embedded in a chosen community, supported by people we know and like. And when we come to major life-changing events, the presence of this chosen community can make death and new life feel less like a mystery and more like something that’s a natural part of life and of living. Rather than being unknowable and remote, religion is now what we do together, as we live life from day to day, as we confront mystery and difficulty and sadness and joy and death and beauty.

The Parable of the Empty Jar

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) 2008 Daniel Harper.


Upon seeing the title of this sermon in the church newsletter, Everett Hoagland, member of this congregation and a poet, suggested a reading from the Tao te Ching for this worship service. I was thinking about using something from the Tao te Ching as a reading, and Everett found exactly what I was looking for, in a new translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

The second reading comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of the [Father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke, and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.” [trans. Lambdin (1988)]


Back in 1945 in Egypt, Mohammed Ali Samman and his brother by pure chance happened to uncover an earthenware vase. Inside that vase were ancient handwritten manuscripts, containing many previously unknown books, what we now call the Nag Hammadi library. The most famous of the books is what we now know as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that was written down somewhere around one thousand nine hundred years ago.

I find the Gospel of Thomas to be a particularly interesting book. Although many of the sayings of Jesus recorded in it are similar to the sayings of Jesus we already knew from the gospels recognized by the Christian churches, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; yet other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are recorded nowhere else.

Now we know what we’re supposed to think the sayings of Jesus mean, because for the past two thousand years the Christian churches have been telling us what they mean. But the Gospel of Thomas is not an official Christian book. Therefore, those sayings of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of Thomas, and nowhere else are of particular interest to me. The Christian churches have not been telling us what they mean, so we can look at them with fresh eyes, listen to them with openness.

When I first read the Gospel of Thomas all the way through a few years ago, I was particularly struck by chapter 97, which we heard in the first reading this morning. I re-read that short little parable several times over, asking myself: What was Jesus trying to tell us? Part of the reason it’s so hard to understand is that it’s so short; perhaps all that got written down was the merest outline of a longer parable. So as I thought about this parable, I began to imagine it more fully. I filled it out, and this is how I imagined it went:

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story….

“Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

“She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, she just had an ordinary earthenware jar that had been made in her village. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

“She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, that is, coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

“The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

“But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

“At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”


That’s how I imagined the Parable of the Empty Jar might have been told in a fuller version. That helped me visualize the parable. Next I thought about how I could better understand the parable, and I began with three assumptions:

First, I assumed that traditional Christian theology was not going to be able to adequately explain this parable; I made this assumption because I noticed that orthodox Christians tend to ignore the Gospel of Thomas in general, and this parable in particular. (Indeed, I decided that this parable was especially interesting because I couldn’t see how traditional Christians could possibly incorporate it into their theology.) Thus, I assumed that I should go beyond the boundaries of conventional Christian theology.

Second, I assumed that “Thomas” or whoever wrote this parable down was a theologian, and so he (or she) had some kind of theological bias. It appears that whoever wrote this parable down was a Gnostic, that is, a member of that branch of early Christianity which taught that there are secret and hidden teachings of Jesus. The Gnostics seem to have believed that Jesus left secret teachings that were never written down, but which they passed on by word of mouth to those who were initiated into their religious communities. So perhaps we are meant to be confused by this parable, and this is part of the theological bias of this parable. At the same time, as a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to understanding and working around other people’s theological biases, so I assumed that, alien as it might be, I could still make some sense out of it.

Third, I assumed that even though the Gospel of Thomas is not a part of the standard Christian Bible, it’s still an interesting and useful book. I assumed that any book about Jesus that was written within two or three generations after the death of Jesus is worth reading; such ancient books are likely to have some interesting or useful insight into the world of Jesus, or at least into the world of the early followers of Jesus.

Those were my three assumptions. If we start with those assumptions, we don’t have to try to make the Parable of the Empty Jar fit into conventional Christian theology, and we don’t have to reject it simply because it’s not in the official Bible. Furthermore, we know that it has been retold by someone with a Gnostic Christian bias, but we don’t have to let that affect us. Finally, we know that it’s worth trying to understand this parable insofar as it might give us some additional insight into the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Starting with these three assumptions, let’s see what the Parable of the Empty Jar has to say to us.

The first thing I notice is the that Parable of the Empty Jar tells us that emptiness somehow is the same as the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not traditional Christian theology, where the Kingdom of Heaven means a place you go after you die — emptiness is not a place, emptiness is just empty. Not only is this not traditional Christian theology, it seems to have a passing resemblance to another great religious tradition, the tradition of Taoism. In the Tao te Ching, the central book of Taoism, we find that passage which we heard in the second reading this morning:

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

Is this just coincidence? Does the idea of emptiness occur anywhere else in the Christian tradition?

Once we start looking, we find that images of emptiness and nothingness do appear elsewhere in the Christian scriptures. I think of the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus, says he has observed all the commandments, upon hearing which Jesus tells him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Bible geeks note: this is from Mk. 10.21 [also Mt. 19.21; Lk. 18.22] RSV.) An empty bank account is equated with the kingdom of heaven. I think also of that passage in Jesus’s most famous sermon, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he says that we shouldn’t worry so much about material things; we shouldn’t even worry about clothing, he says: “And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Mt. 6.28-29) An empty clothes closet is equated with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus even empties out his family, as in the story where his mother and brothers and sisters have come to see him, to which he replies: “Who are my mothers and my brothers [and my sisters]?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3.33, 35)

Obviously, the Jesus tradition has a way of talking about emptiness that is quite different from the Taoist tradition; I’m not trying to tell you that they’re the same thing. The teachings of Jesus are more likely to advise us to pay less attention to material things, and instead pay greater attention to matters of the spirit; whereas the Taoist tradition, at least in my limited understanding of it, is more likely to instruct us in how to empty our minds as a form of spiritual discipline. Yet in both traditions, we do seem to find the idea that in order for us to be connected with that which is most important in life, we have to empty our lives of non-essential things; we even have to empty our lives of things we thought were essential, but which we are assured are in fact inessential.

While there are distinct differences, I think that both Taoism and the Jesus tradition are telling us that if we want to truly understand the world, we can’t rely on ordinary ways of thinking and being. Lao-tse, who allegedly wrote the Tao te Ching, invites us to empty our minds so that we may better know what he terms the Tao, the Way; Jesus invites us to empty our lives so that we may better know what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven — which he sometimes also calls the Way. Both traditions are inviting us to step out of the ordinary way of thinking and being, and step into a new way of thinking and being.

I believe it’s very important that both Jesus and Lao-tse talk about the “Way.” They don’t talk about “the place we’re going to get to eventually”; they talk about the way, the path, the journey. We can see this in the Parable of the Empty Jar. Jesus says that the empty jar is like the kingdom of heaven, but he also tells us the process by which the jar becomes empty: first the handle of the jar breaks, then the jar empties out over time (and we know that it must happen slowly, or otherwise the woman would immediately become aware that the jar was suddenly empty), and then the woman gets home and realizes that the jar is empty. We also know that the process will continue after that moment when the woman discovers that the jar is empty: she will be shocked, she will wonder how it happened; and then she will have to figure out what to do next — will she borrow flour form someone else? will she be forced to rely on her extended family and the community for help? In other words, will the emptiness of the jar force her to use her network of relationships? And perhaps this is this the kingdom of heaven:– not the emptiness of the jar itself, but the inescapable network of mutuality that binds each of us to the rest of humanity, to the rest of the ecosystem, to what we might call the Web of Life.

We have come a long way from the original parable; nothing that I have said can be found in that very short parable. None of this can be found there, but in the process of thinking about that parable, perhaps this is the direction we must come. We have not come down the well-trodden path of traditional Christianity, which tends to reject the Gospel of Thomas, or tends to interpret the Parable of the Empty Jar as a conventional parable telling us to accept Christian orthodoxy. Instead, by looking into the empty jar, by looking into emptiness, perhaps we have come face to face with reality — face to face with a reality that doesn’t have firm and final answers, a reality that is always changing, reality that is a process.

Not that I think that I have just uncovered the one final, correct interpretation of the Parable of the Empty Jar. This is a process, a path, a way — it is not a final definition that can be pinned down like a dead butterfly in a display case. And to make that point, let me tell you the rest of the story of the Parable of the Empty jar, as I imagined it happening:

You remember that as I imagined it happening, one of his followers asked him what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, and in response Jesus told the Parable of the Empty Jar. He concluded the parable by saying, “At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

As I imagine it, when Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the parable. But Jesus had nothing more to say. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.”

But Jesus did not explain further, and eventually he went off by himself to sleep. The followers sat up for a while talking about the story.

“It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who have nothing, who are poor and hungry and have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up.

“I don’t think any of us really understand that story,” she said, “but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of God is like. We have thought about it, and we have talked about it, and now it’s time to sleep, because just like the woman in the story, we have a long walk ahead of us tomorrow.”


That’s what I think about the Parable of the Empty Jar: I don’t think any of us knows exactly what it means. I don’t know exactly what the Parable of the Empty Jar means, but it makes me reflect on life from a new perspective; and maybe that is the real point of any parable. And I suspect that the real point of this parable, the real point of any parable told by Jesus, is not to give us a final answer about something, but to make us think in new ways. The best teachers, the greatest teachers, are not the ones who give us all the answers. The greatest teachers are the ones who make us think for ourselves, who move us into new ways of being in the world, who turn us towards a way of being in the world that makes the world a better place while it allows us to be more human, which we might call the Kingdom of Heaven. And perhaps the first step is to empty ourselves of the old ways of being, so that we can move into the ways of being.