Who Deserves Our Love?

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. Once again this week, more than the usual number of typos and errors, but I didn’t have time to correct them — sorry!


The first reading was June Jordan’s poem “Alla Tha’s All Right, but”

The second reading was June Jordan’s poem “A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades”

The final reading was from Jordan’s introduction to her book of poems titled “Passion.”

In the poetry of the New World, you meet with a reverence for the material world that begins with a reverence for human life, an intellectual trust in sensuality as a means of knowledge and unity… and a deliberate balancing … of sensory report with moral exhortation.

Sermon: “Who Deserves Our Love?”

The English language has some distinct limitations. For example, we only have one word for “love.” Contrast this with ancient Greek, which has half a dozen words that can be translated by the one English word “love.” This creates some problems for us English speakers, because we’re the inheritors of the Western intellectual tradition which extends back to ancient Greece. When you’re speaking English and you hear the word “love,” you have to automatically do some internal translation.

When this person says “love,” do they mean erotic or romantic love? Do they mean the love that can exist between good friends? What about the love that exists between parents and children, which is different than the love that exists between good friends, because where friends are more or less equal, there’s an imbalance of power between parent and child — at least there is when the child is young. Then there’s love of oneself, which is a virtue when it’s tied to ordinary self respect, but is a vice when it becomes self-obsession.

Finally, there’s a kind of selfless love, the kind of love where you continue to love even when you get nothing out of it. The early Christians picked up on this last kind of love — the ancient Greek name for it is “agape” — and integrated it into their conception of God, and their formulation of the Golden Rule. The story of the Good Samaritan is a story of agape-type love.

As English speakers, we have all these different kinds of love sort of mushed together into the one word. This can cause a certain amount of confusion. But I think it’s also useful for people like Unitarian Universalists, who spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how we can be the best people possible. We also spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to get through the day to day challenges that life throws at us, things like the death of people we love, or betrayals by people we thought we loved, and so on. Life rarely breaks down into neat, tidy categories. So I find it helpful to know that love doesn’t necessarily break down into neat tidy categories either.

And this brings me to the book of poetry that June Jordan published way back in 1980. The title of the book is “Passion.” The poems in the book cover a wide range. There are poems about passionate erotic and romantic love, as we heard in the first reading — and here I should point out that June Jordan was part of the LGBTQ+ community, so when she’s talking about passionate erotic and romantic love, she’s not restricting that love to opposite sex attraction. June Jordan also has a couple of poems in that book that are about rape. These particular poems are pretty graphic, and I find them very difficult to read — I’m giving you fair warning, in case you decide to pick up this book and read through it. But these poems are included for a reason. Jordan wants us to understand how for her as a woman, passionate erotic love can also become something twisted.

There are also poems about relationships between equals, the love of friendship between equals. That’s what we heard in the second reading, the poem titled “A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades.” I’ll read you the last few lines of the poem again:

Make up your mind! They said. Are you militant
or sweet? Are you vegetarian or meat? Are you straight
or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind

I love this poem because I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me in my own friendships. And I’ve done this to others. We humans tend to put each other into boxes. We put people into boxes based on skin color, age, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, political party…. Let me pause here and focus on political party, because that’s where people are putting other people into boxes a lot right now. And it’s pretty ugly. I hear Republicans talking about “Sleepy Joe” Biden, and I hear Democrats talking about “Dementia Donald” Trump. There’s no love lost here — there’s no love present here, none at all, just rank stereotyping and sometimes naked hatred.

This is what we humans do. We strive for love. We want to create a world where all people are loved equally. But when reality confronts us with other people who are doing things which we find distasteful or reprehensible or misguided, we can switch from universal love to individual hatred pretty quickly.

I feel like this has become a spiritual crisis in our country. There is a lot of demonization going on all around us. Going back to June Jordan’s poem, we all find ourselves saying unpleasant things about other people — that other people are too racist or too anti-racist, that other people are too much of a nationalist, that other people are too stupid, or too angry, or too idealistic. This kind of thing tips over into demonization very quickly. We demonize people, imagining them as demons rather than humans, when we feel those other people are too angry, or too old, or too different. To which June Jordan replies — “Hey! it’s not about my mind.” She’s right. Demonization is always about the mind of the person who does the demonizing. I’ve done my share of demonizing recently, mostly aimed at politicians and public figures with whom I don’t agree, and that demonizing that I do is more about me than about the person at whom I direct it. When I demonize someone, it damages me, and it damages our public discourse.

We need to find a way out of this — a way out of these demonizing behaviors that dominate our public discourse right now. To do so, I’m going to go back to one of our great spiritual resources, our Universalist tradition.

The early Universalists were Christians, of course, and not all of us now are Christians. But those early Universalists got at some universal truths through their liberal Christian tradition. One of those truths is encapsulated in the phrase, “God is love.” If you’re a Christian, this phrase might focus you on the Christian God. From that perspective, this phrase defines God as being all about love. If you’re not a Christian, though, this phrase can still make sense. Here in the West, the term “God” serves as a philosophical placeholder for the object of our ultimate concern. So this phrase need not be taken literally. It can be understood quite simply as saying that love is our ultimate concern.

The old Universalists wanted everyone to see the truth of that phrase, “God is love.” They understood that if God is love, there can be no such thing as eternal damnation, because love must eventually overpower hatred and evil. Instead, hell is something that happens here on earth, during our lifetimes, when we forget that love is supposed to be our ultimate concern. In particular, hell can arise here on earth when one group of people demonizes another group of people. Of course it feels hellish to be on the receiving end of the hatred that comes with racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ageism, and so on. But hell also arises in the hearts of those who demonize others. When we demonize others we throw ourselves into hell, into a place where hatred is more important than human connection.

So the old Universalists wanted us to get ourselves out of any hell that is here and now. They wanted everyone to truly feel in their bones that love is the most powerful force in the universe. They wanted to build their religious communities centered on love. The early Universalist Hosea Ballou put it like this: “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, and if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”

Over the next century or so, the Universalists pulled back from that early trust in the power of love. The power of evil seemed so strong that they returned to the old idea that there must be some kind of punishment after death. They decided that God would in fact condemn some people to hell, it just wouldn’t be forever. In other words, they decided that God might be love, but that God’s love had limits to it.

But in my view, they weren’t really thinking about God, they were thinking about themselves. They weren’t asking: Who deserves God’s love? Or to put it in non-theistic terms: Who deserves to be included in our ultimate concern? Instead, they were asking: Who deserves my love? IThey were saying: ’m not so concerned with ultimate concerns, I’m narrowly concerned with whom do I love? And whom do I not love? Even: whom do I hate?

Now remember the different meanings that the word “love” has in the English language. Of course we limit our romantic love to our romantic partners. Of course we limit parent-child love to our own families. Of course we limit the kind of love that exists in friendships to our friends. But there is also that larger love, that unconditional love, which extends to all of humanity.

It takes a truly great person to be able to extend universal unconditional love to all persons. Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to extend a universal unconditional love even to the White racists who beat him and jailed him and reviled him, the people who hated him and did everything they could to keep him in the little box they constructed for him. When I say he extended a universal love to the White racists, I don’t mean that he wanted to become best friends with them. I don’t mean that he liked them. I don’t even mean that he loved them personally. What he did was to see that even those White racists had an inherent worthiness, they had an inherent human dignity. From within his progressive Christian world view, he saw that God loved those White racists, and he respected that universal love.

By doing this, Martin Luther King, Jr., set an example for the rest of the world. In fact, he changed the world. His understanding of universal love changed the world. It might not have seemed like it at the time, but his unconditional love for all humanity, expressed through nonviolent action, changed even those White racists permanently.

Universal love is a real spiritual challenges right now. I don’t know about you, but I’m not as good a person as Martin Luther King, Jr. I find it quite difficult to turn the other cheek. Yet when I think about it, it’s pretty clear that responding to hatred and demonization with more hatred and demonization is probably just going to make things worse. I’m not as good as Martin Luther King, Jr., so I’m not sure that I can rise to the level of feeling that universal love.

What I can do — what all of us can do — is to do a little less demonizing. Asking ourselves to stop demonizing certain very public figures, such as the leading politicians of the other political party, is probably too much to ask. If you’re a member of one political party, you don’t have to love politicians in the other political party. Start small. Start with people you know here on the South Shore who are of a different political persuasion than you. When we see people who are different from us face to face, we can disagree with them, but we can also try to remember that they, too, are deserving of universal love.

This is going to be difficult in this election year — and this is an election cycle that promises to be especially rancorous. But here’s what I’ve found. Every time I manage to stop myself from demonizing some political figure, I feel a tiny sense of relief. I feel better about myself, too; I like myself better. I find that I’m also just a little bit nicer to my spouse. It’s not a huge effect, but I can notice the difference. I’m a little bit happier, I’m a little more at peace with myself and with the world.

Perhaps this is part of what Martin Luther King, Jr., was trying to tell us with his theory of nonviolent action. Real change begins within our hearts and minds, and then spreads outwards to affect others.

No God But You and Me

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, by James Turner.

“On an autumnal day in 1869, Charles Eliot Norton sat down in his Swiss resort to write to his friend and confidant John Ruskin. Norton moved with ease among the most eminent writers of England and America. Son of the distinguished Unitarian theologian Andrews Norton, he had helped to found the magazine Nation and had recently retired as editor of the North American Review. He counted among his intimates James Russell Lowell, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Frederick Law Olmsted, and shared friendships as well with such men as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Louis Agassiz, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Few men were as well positioned to register the early tremors of any slippage in the primordial strata of Anglo-American culture.

” ‘There is a matter on which I have been thinking much of late,’ he confessed to Ruskin. ‘It does not seem to me that the evidence concerning the being of a God, and concerning immortality, is such as to enable us to assert anything in regard to either of these topics.’ As he tried to sort out the implications of his loss of faith, Norton wondered, ‘What education in these matters ought I to give my children?… It is in some respects a new experiment.’

“It was in many respects a new experiment. For over a thousand years Europeans had assumed the existence of God. Their faith might be orthodox or heretical, simple or complex, easy or troubled — and for serious, thoughtful people, it was very often troubled, complex, even heretical. Yet failing to believe somehow in some sort of deity was not merely rare; it was a bizarre aberration. Then, in Norton’s generation, thousands, eventually millions of Europeans and Americans began to abandon their belief in God. Before about the middle of the nineteenth century, atheism or agnosticism seemed almost palpably absurd; shortly afterward unbelief emerged as an option fully available within the general contours of Western culture, a plausible alternative to the still dominant theism.” [pp. 1 ff.]

The second reading is from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 12.28. In this passage, the radical Jesus has gone to Jerusalem, and has already upset the authorities.

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So end this morning’s readings.

SERMON — “No God but You and Me”

Just to warn you: this is the first in an occasional series of sermons this year on Unitarian Universalist beliefs about God.

Growing up as I did, a Unitarian Universalist in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the dominant religious influence in my life was religious humanism — or, as some people prefer to term it, religious atheism — the religious position that says that there is no God, no divine power of any kind, nothing supernatural about the world. I grew up in a church where most of the church members did not believe in God. Even though our minister at the time was an avowed Unitarian Christian, to the best of my recollection he never tried to impose his particular understanding of God on the congregation — not that it has ever been possible to impose such understandings on Unitarian Universalists.

Not that I had all that much to do with the minister of the church. As a child, my church experience was mostly shaped by Sunday school classes, by adults who were friendly to me, by children’s chapel, and, later on, by youth group. We learned about God in Sunday school, to be sure. We were even given Bibles when we got to fifth grade. We had no pictures on the walls of the Sunday school classrooms that supposedly represented God. If we wanted to believe in God, that was fine; and if we didn’t want to believe in God, that was fine, too.

When I was older and a part of the church youth group, we talked about all kinds of things, including God and whether or not each of us believed in God. Our youth advisor was the assistant minister of the church, and as it happened he did believe in God. (In fact, he later left Unitarian Universalism and became a minister in the United Church of Christ, although he later told me the reason he switched denominations had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with the fact that the United Church of Christ was more active in prison, which struck me as a very Unitarian Universalist sort of attitude.) The discussion from my youth group days that I remember most vividly had nothing to do with God; it was a discussion of Zen Buddhism, and ko-ans, and satori or enlightenment. When I was in youth group, I was much more interested in understanding what it meant to achieve enlightenment, than I was in arguing over God’s alleged nature or existence.

I tell you all this by way of an excuse. The end result of my upbringing is that I’m not particularly interested in arguments about whether or not God exists. When someone tells me that she doesn’t believe in God, I’m likely to respond, What are the characteristics of the God in which you do not believe? When someone tells me that he does believe in God, I’m likely to respond in much the same way, What are the characteristics of the God in which you do believe? In asking these questions, I have found that there are nearly as many descriptions of the characteristics of God, as there are believers and non-believers combined. That doesn’t make me any more or less likely to believe in God myself, but it does make me far less likely to argue with someone over the existence or non-existence of God, because more often than not the person you argue with is arguing about a different God than you are arguing about. Such arguments seem fruitless to me. Such arguments seem like a kind of idolatry, where idolatry means attributing too much importance to something, an importance far beyond its actual worth.

Now I’ve made my excuses about why I’m not particularly interested in arguing with you about whether or not God exists. Yet I remain very interested in the way different beliefs about God affect how people act in the world. And I suspect that my indifference to arguments about God’s existence, and my interest in how beliefs affect people’s actions, has very much to do with the fact that I was surrounded by humanists and atheists when I was a child. The humanists and atheists I knew didn’t give two hoots about what you believed, but they cared a great deal about what you did. And the humanists and atheists I knew were staunchly opposed to idolatry in any form; they taught me that action is always more important than belief.

The Unitarian Universalist humanists I have known have all cared deeply about what people do with their lives. I have a theory about why this is so. As Unitarian Universalists, we are heirs to the great traditional of liberal Western Christianity. The liberal Christian tradition in the West has emphasized one teaching above all others. Other Christians have emphasized the mysteries of the Trinity, or the rules by which Christians are supposed to live, or they have emphasized the final fate of humanity, or humanity’s sinfulness, or fear of a vengeful God, or the liberating power of a God who’s on your side, or Jesus as Lord and Savior, or one of many other aspects of Christianity. But liberal Christians have emphasized one simple teaching, summed up in the words of Jesus that we heard in the second reading: “The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Those of you who are particularly observant will have noticed that Jesus says a few different things in this passage. First, being a good observant Jew, Jesus recites the Shema Yisrael: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” — and forgive my bad pronunciation of the Hebrew. “Shema Yisrael,” which means: Hear O Israel; “Adonai,” a word we translate as “Lord” and which is substituted because it is improper to say the true, proper name of God aloud; “Eloheinu” meaning roughly “our god,” as long as you remember that this isn’t a name of God; “Echad,” which tells us that God is one, or that Jesus pays homage to God alone. This prayer formula, which comes from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4, is something Jesus would probably have said each and every day when he prayed.

Then Jesus adds the next verses from Deuteronomy, as was likely done by Jews in his time as it is by Jews in our time. In Deuteronomy, the story is told that God says to Moses: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Jesus knew this old story about Moses. So after repeating the Shema, that’s what Jesus says next: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

This is the first of two great commandments that liberal Christianity inherited from Jesus, who inherited it from Moses and the ancient writers of the book of Deuteronomy. When certain Unitarian Universalists chose no longer to believe in the God of Moses, or the God of Jesus, then as inheritors of this tradition, they were left with the second great commandment of Jesus, to wit: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This second great commandment also comes from the books about Moses, this time to the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18. In this part of Leviticus, God is speaking to Moses, giving rules for good and moral conduct, and God says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am [Adonai].” Or, as Everett Fox more dramatically translates it, “You are not to take-vengeance, you are not to retain-anger… but be-loving to your neighbor (as one) like yourself: I am [Adonai].”

Remove God from liberal Christianity, and what is left is this second commandment, this powerful moral injunction: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not take vengeance, do not retain anger: be loving towards your neighbor who is another human being like yourself. And this has proven to be an adequate foundation on which to build religious humanism in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Indeed, this has proven to be an adequate common ground for Unitarian Universalism as a whole to maintain its integrity as a coherent religious tradition, in spite of the fact that we differ widely in our views of the divine. The liberal Christians among us still repeat the other parts of Jesus’s dictum, that God is one and to love God with all your heart, etc.; and they say, love your neighbor as yourself. The Jews among us might still affirm that passage from Deuteronomy (or they might not); and they say, love your neighbor as one like yourself. The Pagans among us might pay homage to the Goddess, and they would say treat other beings with the respect you yourself are due. The humanists among us see no need for any gods or goddesses, and they affirm that we must love one another as we would ourselves be loved.

I sometimes think that could more difficult to be a humanist and not believe in God, than to be someone who believes in a God or gods or goddesses. If the universe does not include some sort of benevolent higher power, perhaps it is harder to maintain one’s faith in the goodness of the universe, and particularly the goodness of human beings. For if there is no higher power, if it’s just you and me, then who are we to blame for evil? Love other people as we would love ourselves — those are fine words to say, but in a world filled with evil, it may be hard to live those words into reality. Ours is a world in which some people torture other people; when I read the horror stories of what torturers do to fellow human beings, I find it difficult or impossible to love those torturers as my neighbor. Whereas perhaps if there is a god or goddess, he or she or it would perhaps be able to love even torturers. Or what about people who engage in genocide? –how am I supposed to love them? If there is no higher power, if it’s just you and me, then you know who we must blame for evil — we must blame humanity, we must blame ourselves.

So we come to one of the great teachings of the humanists. The humanists have taught us that we must take full responsibility for our own actions. We cannot blame evil on God, or on the devil, or on mischievous spirits. We human beings have to take responsibility for evil, because ultimately evil is caused by us human beings.

The great gift that we all have received from the humanists, from the atheists, is a great big mirror. Instead of looking up at some abstract heaven for answers, the humanists have taught us all that we should look in a mirror first, and ask ourselves for the answers. That also means looking in the mirror and seeing our own limitations. We are limited beings; we don’t have all the answers. Even if you believe in God, or in goddesses and gods, or in some kind of higher power, you must learn how to know yourself; and next you must learn how to love yourself; and you must also learn how to love your neighbor as yourself. All this comes from the great gift that humanists have given to all of us.

I said earlier that the humanists and atheists I knew were staunchly opposed to idolatry in any form; where idolatry means attributing too much importance to something, an importance far beyond its actual worth. It is fine if you are someone who finds God indispensable to your understanding of the universe; I know that I cannot understand the universe without some sort of higher transcendent power. It’s fine if you are a theist who believes in God, but religious humanism teaches us that to love your neighbor as yourself is of first importance; actions are more important than beliefs; what you do with your beliefs is far more important than the niggling little details of whatever beliefs you might have.

Jesus reduced his religion to two great commandments, but the second is greater than the first. Yes, you should love your God (or goddess, or the universe) with all your heart, mind, and being. But then, love your neighbor as yourself. The first commandment cannot be complete without the second commandment. If you believe in God, the only way to prove that you truly are a believer is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you are a humanist, and you believe that there is no God but you and me, you still show your devotion in the same way: by loving your neighbor as yourself.

The End

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.


The reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, the book called Revelation, chapter 22, verses. 1-5:

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. [New Revised Standard Version of the Bible]

The commentary on the reading comes from an essay titled “Alas for the Earth! Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12” by Barbara Rossing, from the book The Earth Story in the New Testament:

For us, the issue is to understand how Revelation’s ecological lament takes shape in our own global situation. Escapist scenarios of a “rapture” can only serve to deflect attention away from earth and away from the book’s critique of imperialism. There is no rapture of people up to heaven in Revelation. If anything, it is God who is “raptured” down to Earth to dwell with people in a wondrous urban paradise (Rev. 21.3; 22.3). The plot of Revelation ends on Earth, not heaven, with the throne of God… located in the center of the city (Rev 22.3) that has come down to earth. [p. 191]

SERMON — “The End”

One of the central stories of the Western Christian tradition goes like this: God create the world out of nothing. Everything was wonderful at first, but then somehow evil crept into that perfect world. Human beings wound up living lives of suffering and sorrow, but if we’re good enough then after we die we might get to go to a place called heaven. And one day, the world and everything in it will come to an end, because God is going to have the last day of judgment, and the earth will go away, and those who got into heaven will spend all eternity walking streets of gold through alabaster cities.

Does that story sound familiar? I expect it does. I expect many of you have heard this story over and over again. Some of you were taught this story as children; and although this is not the story we teach Unitarian Universalist children, nevertheless even those of us who grew up as Unitarian Universalists know this old central story of the Western Christian tradition.

This old story does not come from the Bible. It is based on some of the stories in the Bible, but there are other stories in the Bible which contradict this story. No, in spite of what some people may say, this old story does not come from the Bible. This old story is, in fact, a myth: the dominant myth of our time and for our culture. It is a myth that may be rooted in certain parts of the Bible but really it is a myth that is passed down from parent to child, from friend to friend. It is a myth that has so permeated our culture that even those of us who reject traditional Christianity still tell ourselves this myth.

And yes, even those of us here this morning: at some level, we, too, believe in this myth. We may tell the myth a little differently, but we still tell each other this myth. We might tell the story of this old myth like this: The universe came out of nothing, and began with the Big Bang. After billions of years, our solar system formed, and our planet formed, and life appeared on our planet. Life evolved until one day there were human beings, and we lived in harmony with the earth. But then we started polluting the earth, and we developed nuclear weapons that could end all life as we know it, so now we live lives of suffering and sorrow. If we’re good people and work very very hard, and live lives devoted to making the world a better place, we believe we might get to a point where we create a world of peace and justice and happiness. But the way things are going, either there will be a nuclear holocaust or the oceans will rise due to global warming or overpopulation will turn earth into a kind of hell; in any case, the earth will go away and that will be the end of everything.

This second myth is pretty much the same as the first myth, except that there’s more science, in it because it mentions the Big Bang and evolution and so on. But the basic trajectory of the story is the same: we come from nothing, for a time we lived in harmony with the universe, but now this is a world of suffering and woe, and someday soon everything will come to an end. Or to paraphrase Monty Python, from the movie “The Life of Brian”: “We’ve come from nuffin, we’re going back to nuffin; what ‘ave we lost? Nuffin!” Yes indeed, even if the world ends we really haven’t lost anything.

I worry about these two myths that permeate our culture. Our culture seems to assume that the world is going to come to an end. And you know something? — if you spend your time absolutely convinced that the world is coming to an end, that tends to make you a little passive. You tend to throw up your hands and say things like: Oh well, why worry about the homelessness problem, global warming is going to kill us all anyway. Or: Oh well, why worry about the way suburban sprawl is killing off woodlands and farmlands, overpopulation is inevitably going to kill us off anyway and there’s nothing we can really do about it.

But we can do something. We can stop telling ourselves the story in this way. We can start telling a new story about the way things are. And I’ll tell you where I think we should start: we should start with the book of Revelation in the Christian scriptures. The book of Revelation has been twisted and deformed by people who claim it’s a book about God putting an end to the world; people who claim it’s a book about death and destruction and violence. This twisted version of the book of Revelation has permeated popular culture. Have you heard of the “Left Behind” books? “Left Behind” is an enormously popular series of popular novels about the so-called “last days of earth,” when God comes back to earth, and all the good people get to go immediately to heaven (do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars), while the rest of us have to stay here on earth to deal with wars and rumors of wars and pestilence and God knows what else, with every expectation that God is going to send us straight to hell before long. The millions of people who read these books assume that they are going to be the ones who go straight to heaven, and they assume that people like us heretical Unitarian Universalists will wind up in hell. That’s the way popular culture twists the book of Revelation.

It’s time for us to reclaim the book of Revelation. Now Revelation is a pretty strange book, no doubt about it. I have some friends who survived the nineteen-sixties drug culture, and they assure me that the book of Revelation sounds an awful lot like a description of a bad hallucinogenic drug trip. Those of you who are into the arts might think that the book of Revelation sounds much like some of the stranger Surrealists who were writing in the early part of the 20th century. Have any of you actually read Revelation? Don’t you wonder how on earth we are going to do anything positive with it? And so you will ask: how on earth am I supposed to do anything with this crazy-talk book?

It’s easy. Remember this basic principle: religion rests on myths that require poetic thought in order to be understood. Do not attempt to apply rational, linear thought to myths, because if you do, you will find that the myths twist and turn and slide away from you; they will not change, they will simply take up residence elsewhere in the realm of myth. No, what you have to do with myths is you have to own them and retell them in a way that makes mythic sense. If you are an artist or a poet or musician or a dancer, you will be practiced at doing this; but if not, remember that this is a skill that can be learned by anyone.

Let us, therefore, see what we can do with the book of Revelation.

First principles again: do not take this book literally. Let me give you an example of how we might do that. I have picked a random selection from the book of Revelation, which I will read to you shortly; and after I read this selection, we’re going to apply mythical, poetical thinking to it, we’re going to retell it in a way that’s true for us. Here’s the random passage, from chapter 9, vv. 13-21

13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ 15 So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. 16 The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number

(…now I’m wondering about the wisdom of choosing a passage randomly….)

17 And this was how I saw the horses in my vision: the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm. 20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts. [New Revised Standard Version]

OK, that’s pretty strange — I mean, what on earth can we do with this crazy passage? The heads of the horses were like lions? with breath smelling of sulfur? and tails like serpents? What are we to do with that?

But then we read, “The rest of humankind… did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or talk.” I think I find an ecological message here. I look around me at our culture, and I see people worshipping things; in our culture, we place a high value on accumulating things; and we place a correspondingly low value on living beings, both human beings and other living beings.

This passage I randomly chose goes on to say, “And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.” So it is today, that our culture finds nothing wrong with accumulating personal wealth and possessions, even while homeless people roam our streets and a quarter of all children in the United States live in poverty; our culture finds nothing wrong with conspicuous consumption even though we are destroying whole ecosystems to support those patterns of consumption.

We are beginning to make some progress in our reinterpretation of the book of Revelation. Now I will tell you that a big part of the book of Revelation compares the mythical city of Jerusalem with the mythical city of Babylon. Babylon is the mythical fallen city, the city of sin. In chapter 18, the book of Revelation says:

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the good city, the perfect city where everything is going to be all right. In chapter 21, the book of Revelation says:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Remember, these are not the actual historical cities of Jerusalem and Babylon; these are mythic representations of cities. And some ecological theologians have become very interested in the contrast between the two mythic cities. Babylon, they say, is the city of environmental disaster. Babylon is haunted by foul spirits, which could be taken as pollution or the like; it is haunted by foul birds and foul beasts, maybe like the many invasive species that are destroying our ecosystems. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the city that is to come: a new earth, the new urbanism; a place of ecological balance, which we will get to as we solve the ecological problems we’re now facing.

My friend Ellen Spero, the minister at our church in Chelmsford, Mass., pointed out to me years ago that Revelation can easily be interpreted as telling the story of an oppressed people, trapped in the mythic city of Babylon, who will one day achieve economic and social justice; and after much turmoil this people will one day live in a new land, the mythic city of Jerusalem, a city where God (whoever God may be) will come down to live, too; and according to Revelation, a loud voice will proclaim:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

That sounds lovely to me. I wouldn’t mind living in a city where there was someone to wipe every tear from our eyes, whether it’s God that’s doing the wiping away of tears, or whether we finally get ourselves to the point where we can reach out and wipe away the tears from our neighbors’ eyes.

The way Ellen Spero interprets the story is closely related to the ecological interpretation of the story, as has been pointed out by a number of contemporary theologians. According to these theologians, the book of Revelation was written at a time when the early Christian communities were suffering under the oppression of the imperial Roman authorities; and these theologians assert that Roman imperialism is related to the kind of consumerism allows natural resources to be wasted and despoiled. (Interestingly, some of these theologians are conservative evangelical Christians, not just the usual liberal theologians!) Thus, while the writer of the book of Revelation did not know the term “ecological theology,” there is a real connection between the situation when this book was written, and the global situation today.

In the central story of the Western tradition, of course, Revelation is interpreted in a very different way. For many (but not all) traditional Christians, Revelation tells of a time when God will come back to earth to reward the righteous and punish evildoers. In this interpretation of the book of Revelation, you and I might be among the evildoers; Unitarian Universalists in particular get in trouble simply by virtue of not following a traditional Christian creed. In this interpretation of the book of Revelation, the people who tell the story this way usually put themselves in the position of the righteous persons whom God will save — with some caveats, they have to keep leading a righteous life and so on. They tell a story where God will come and whisk them off to heaven, leaving the bad old earth behind to be consumed by wars and environmental disaster.

We have all heard this other interpretation of the book of Revelation. And in general, we have conceded that this is the correct interpretation of Revelation. We are more likely to reject the Bible completely as a stupid book, or at least reject Revelation as a crazy book. In so doing, we think we have won. Reject the Bible, or at least reject Revelation; that will take care of them! But it doesn’t take care of them, because that means they get to have control over the myths that we tell ourselves in this culture. They get to tell us that the world will end; they get to tell us that only a few people (no plants or animals) will survive the end of the world; they get to tell us that they don’t think we’re going to survive the end of the world; they get to tell us to doubt ourselves.

I have come to call myself a “post-Christian.” People will ask me, Well are you a Christian?; and I respond, No I’m a post-Christian. I am post-Christian, meaning that I am not bound by the myths and creeds of traditional Christianity; but I am post-Christian, meaning that I acknowledge that my Unitarian Universalist tradition has been shaped by the old stories of the Christian tradition, and therefore those old stories are still mine to shape.

This is our work together. We cannot allow the old central story of the Christian tradition to continue unchallenged. That old Christian story tells us that the world is going to end soon, it sucks the hope out of our bodies, it leads us to act in ways of destruction; for if the world is going to end anyway it doesn’t really matter what we do with our lives aside from gaining as much pleasure as we can while we’re here.

We must challenge the old story of the Christian tradition from our Unitarian Universalist post-Christian perspective. In our retelling, Revelation is not a book about the end of the universe. Instead, it is a book that tells of a people who have been oppressed, and it offers a vision of a world without oppression; and it is a book that tells of a land that is being spoiled, and if offers a vision of a land of plenty where all beings can live together peacefully. We can retell the Christian stories so that they become stories of economic justice, stories of ecological justice.

But you can not delegate this work to your minister to do alone. If you have friends, acquaintances, or co-workers who tell the old Christian stories, listen to what they have to say and then retell their story to yourself so that it becomes a story of economic and ecological justice, so that you don’t fall into the trap of believing their story at any level of your being. If you have children in your life, you have a special responsibility: that old Christian story permeates every aspect of our culture and they will learn it from friends and popular culture, so you must tell them your version of the story so that they have an alternative, less destructive, interpretation on which they can draw; this is why our Sunday school is such a critically important part of this church, because our Sunday school supports parents and grandparents in inoculating children against that old interpretation of the Bible story.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to be an artist or performer of any kind, or a writer, or a scholar, or an educator, help reshape the Bible story for our time. You are the ones who are really going to make a difference, because you are already dealing in mythic and poetic thinking. Lead the way for the rest of us as we reshape the central myths of our culture; reshape those myths so that instead of telling us that the destruction of the world is inevitable and oh by the way most of us are going to hell, instead of that those myths become myths of economic and ecological justice, myths of hope, myths that affirm life and living beings.