This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.
The first reading this morning is from A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religions at Harvard University:
“…for all the discussion about immigration, language, and culture, we Americans have not yet really thought about it in terms of religion. We are surprised to discover the religious changes America has been undergoing. We are surprised to find that there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church USA, and as many Muslims as there are Jews — that is, about six million. We are astonished to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea, along with a multitude of native-born American Buddhists. Nationwide, this whole spectrum of Buddhists may number about four million. We know that many of our internists, surgeons, and nurses are of Indian origin, but we have not stopped to consider that they too have a religious life, that they might pause in the morning for a few minutes’ prayer at an altar in the family room of their home, that they might bring fruits and flowers to the local Shiva-Vishnu temple on the weekend and be part of a diverse Hindu population of more than a million. We are well aware of Latino immigration from Mexico and Central America and of the large Spanish-speaking population of our cities, and yet we may not recognize what a profound impact this is having on American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, from hymnody to festivals.” [pp. 2-3]
Story for all ages — “What Is Palm Sunday?”
Today is Palm Sunday. Probably most of you have heard of Palm Sunday, but you may not know what, exactly, Palm Sunday is. I am going to tell you the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it as a Unitarian Universalist kid. And you should know that the things I am going to tell you about happened long ago. It is hard now to know exactly what happened all those years ago, but here’s the story I learned it.
A rabbi named Jesus lived in the land of Judea some 2,000 years ago. Jesus went from town to town in a land called Judea teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t exactly an official religious leader, as the Pharisees were. But many people listened to his teachings anyway — probably because he treated everyone with respect, even people who were poor or homeless or sick. And because what he preached made so much sense — he said religion was simple: love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and treat other people the way you would like to be treated.
Jesus did most of his teaching in the countryside, but at last he and his followers (who were called the disciples) decided they would go to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews. Since Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem was especially meaningful.
They left the town they were in, a town called Jericho, and began to walk to Jerusalem. Remember, there were no cars or planes or trains in those days, so they had to walk all the way. Jesus was tired — he had been teaching and preaching sermons and he was just plain worn out. As they got close to Jerusalem, he asked his disciples to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The disciples went to a farm nearby, and borrowed a foal for Jesus.
There were crowds and crowds of people on the way in to Jerusalem for Passover. Many them had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion, and some of these people thought Jesus was the greatest religious teacher and leader around. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him.
Meanwhile, all these people were pouring in to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the most sacred days of the year for Jews. People began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing — they sang:
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
And into his courts with praise.
Serve the Lord with gladness,
Come before his presence with singing.
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!
People were in a happy, festive mood. They gathered flowers (maybe that’s why we have so many flowers in church today), and picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. Someone started singing again:
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
All these people singing and walking into Jerusalem together! Some of the people who thought Jesus was the greatest religious teacher and leader around began to give him flowers, and wave the palm leaves over him.
I think at this point Jesus became uncomfortable. He didn’t mind that people liked him. He didn’t mind that they thought that he was a good religious teacher. But the singing, and the people giving him flowers and waving palm leaves over him — those were the kinds of things that people did for new kings of Jerusalem, back in the olden times, hundreds of years before Jesus lived.
But in Jesus’s time the Romans were the rulers of Jerusalem. It was dangerous for these people to treat Jesus like one of the kings of old. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would stand up to the Romans, or even rebel against them? Jesus knew that it was dangerous for them to even think about such things. Jesus rode into Jerusalem with all the people waving palm fronds over him, but he was thinking about what the Romans might do.
And if you want to know what Jesus did once he got into Jerusalem, if you want to know how the Romans reacted to him — well, you’ll have to wait until next week when I tell the rest of the story.
SERMON — “The Pluralism Project”
Back in 1997, I was the religious educator at First Parish in Lexington, working with senior minister Helen Cohen and assistant minister Paul Rasor. Looking back, those two years were very exciting times, because I was working with two exceptionally smart, well-educated people. Helen had been an English professor for eight years before going into ministry; Paul had been a law professor for fifteen years, then became a minister, and at that time he was pursuing his doctoral degree in theology at Harvard. Beyond that, these were two very intelligent people. Staff meetings would last for two hours: the first hour was devoted to necessary planning and other business, and the next hour was usually devoted to talking about religion and theology. I got to sit for an hour or more each week and listen to these two smart people talk about religion and theology! Often we would get so engrossed in our conversations, we would continue them at lunch, walking down the street to a cheap Chinese restaurant, where Paul would further amaze us by picking up jello with chopsticks.
One day during a staff meeting, Paul pulled out a small, cheaply-printed book, with one of those plastic comb bindings, bearing the title World Religions in Boston. The book was the work of “The Pluralism Project,” which was headed by Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard. Eck started out studying the religions of India, making trips to India to do field work, until she realized that there were enough Hindus and Sikhs and other people from India in eastern Massachusetts that she could really do her field work without ever leaving home. This started her looking for non-Christian religious groups within, say, an hour’s drive of Harvard.
The most recent edition of this book was printed in 2000, and now it’s maintained on Harvard’s Web site. Let me list for you some of the varieties of non-Christian religious centers found within an hour’s drive of Harvard University:
Baha’is; all kinds of Buddhists, Nichiren Shu Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, Sokka Gokai Buddhists, various Tibetan Buddhists, Therevada Buddhists, Mahayana Buddhists; lots of Hindus, Hare Krishnas or ISKCON, mainstreams Hindus, a Hindu center based in the old Unitarian church in Woburn; traditional Jains and less-traditional Jains; plenty of Jews of course, Reform Jews, Hasidic Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews; lots of Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Muslims allied with the Nation of Islam, Sunni Muslims in Worcester, Sufis; indigenous Native American traditions including Nipmucs and Wampanoags; plenty of neo-Pagans including witches and Unitarian Universalist pagans; Sikhs; Taoists; Zoroastrians;– oh, and “The Pluralism Project” visited 25 Beacon Street in Boston and found the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists.
When Paul showed me this book back in 1997, I was amazed. I had heard about the book before, but I had never sat down with it and looked through its pages to see the incredible diversity of religious institutions in the greater Boston area. I never knew such diversity existed.
The book had an entry for each religious institution, and each entry gave and address and phone number, and a picture of the institution’s building. Each entry gave a short history of the religious institution, and described what took place there, including times and days for regular meetings or worship services, and for special festivals. Entries also listed the name of the main religious leader or contact person, the approximate membership of the institution, and the ethnic composition. So, for example, in the most recent edition of this book you could learn that the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area, or ZAGBA, is located at 53 Firecut Lane in Sudbury; ZAGBA sponsors lectures, classes for children, lectures for adults, and celebrations of festivals, but you have to call in advance for times and dates; Mrs. Paratsu Dubash and Mrs. Koresh Jungawala are the presidents of the association; ZAGBA has 82 members; and members are primarily of Parsi and Iranian ethnicity.
Now: I started off by saying that Helen Cohen and Paul Rasor and I had many a theology discussion, and I’ll bet when you heard the word “theology” you thought that we talked about obscure and arcane things like atheism vs. agnosticism, or inductive arguments for God vs. metaphysical arguments for God. Actually, the theology we talked about wasn’t obscure or arcane. We pretty much talked about real-world theology. And when you come right down to it, discussing the rich variety of religious institutions in the wider community is one way of doing theology.
Sometimes, in Unitarian Universalist circles, we tend to get a limited view of theology: we think theology is arguments about whether or not God exists; and mostly when we think of those arguments for or against God, we are thinking of a God that pretty closely resembles the generic Christian God. That’s what we tend to limit theology to. If we’re really radical, we can imagine adding Pagans to the conversation, so that maybe we’re talking about God, the Goddess, or nothing at all. But when we start to imagine having a religious conversation with a Zoroastrian, can we even imagine where to start? Don’t they believe life is a battleground between good and evil? Doesn’t that mean we can assume that they basically believe in God and Satan? — or do we have to leave behind all our preconceptions, and approach a conversation with a Zoroastrian with the assumption that we are essentially ignorant?
To me, the Pluralism Project, this exploration of the religious diversity around us, becomes a kind of descriptive theology. We’re doing theology at the most basic level, saying: Here is one kind of religion, and this is the building they use, and this is when they meet (by the way, they don’t meet on Sundays, or even once a week!), and here’s the name of a contact person. At this level, we don’t even know what beliefs these people hold — we have entered a religious realm where we can’t assume anything at all, where we have to start with the most basic things.
We don’t even know if the concept of “belief” is important to all these different religious groups! When the Hindu temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, was opened, the community brought a statue of Vishnu and Ganesha, two of their gods, to the temple. These statues were bathed in water and flowers, people sung hymns to them; does this mean that these Hindus believe that Vishnu and Ganesha are actually incarnated in these statues? –or is it that when we ask these question, we are imposing our understanding of Western Christianity on something completely different? Perhaps these were simply ritual actions that don’t involve belief the way we understand it? I just don’t know.
You can see that simply identifying and describing the variety of religious groups in your community can be a theological act:– and it can be a profoundly unsettling act as well. We still have a myth that the United States is basically a Christian country. Even we Unitarian Universalists fall into that trap: we sometimes feel we are a minority religious tradition because we don’t have to believe in God, and we can be pagans if we want to, or atheists if we want to. But compared to Zoroastrians or Sikhs, we can’t claim to be a minority tradition at all! We still meet in what we call a church, and our worship service looks pretty much like the Methodists down the street, and we still meet on Sundays. If we started looking at the real religious diversity of the United States, we might have to change our own self-definition.
So you see, part of the theology that results from the Pluralism Project is a better understanding of who we are. We Unitarian Universalists not really Christians any more (though of course some of us are Christians); but we sure do look a lot more like Christians than we look like Zoroastrians or Muslims or Baha’is. Getting this kind of understanding of ourselves — that we’re not quite who we thought we were — can be a little unsettling.
And indeed, Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America, talks about how our new religious landscape requires a new way of seeing thing. She says, “Envisioning the new religious America in the twenty-first century requires an imaginative leap. It means seeing the religious landscape of America, from sea to shining sea, in all its beautiful complexity. Between the white New England churches and the Crystal Cathedral of California, we see the sacred mountains… of the Native peoples,… the mosque in the cornfields outside Toledo, the Hindu temples perched atop the hills of Pittsburgh and Chicago….” [p. 11]
I’ve been trying to take that imaginative leap here in the greater New Bedford area. When I arrived here last summer, I was given the impression that most of the people in New Bedford are Christians, except the Jews. But in the eight months I’ve lived here, I have heard about Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’is, Sikhs, Wampanoags, and Hindus who live within an hour’s drive of this church. The presence of Haitians makes me wonder if there might be some Afro-Caribbean religions nearby. The presence of the large Mayan community makes me wonder if some of them brought an indigenous religion with them. And of course I can’t forget the other non-Christians: the Jews, the New Age folks, the Unitarian Universalists, the various neo-Pagans in the area such as Wiccans and Druids. So while the majority of the population of this area probably is nominally Christian, we can no longer overlook the growing religious diversity of greater New Bedford.
In this religious landscape of growing diversity, we Unitarian Universalists find ourselves in a very interesting situation. As a religious institution, we aren’t quite Christian any more, but we’re still close enough to Christianity that we can understand their language. We have a long tradition of learning what we can about other religious traditions, and we have learned a little bit about the tolerance that is required to encounter other religious traditions; I might add that such religious tolerance is one of our central values. Within our own congregations, we have atheists and Christians and Pagans and people who do Buddhist meditation and people who grew up Jewish; and with this rich mix within our own walls we have had lots of practice in conversations between quite different religious viewpoints. All of these things perfectly place Unitarian Universalists to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. (By the way, if you want to start practicing the skills needed for inter-religious dialogue, you can start in social hour after the worship service: ask someone what they believe in, and listen openly and respectfully to what they say; it’s great practice.)
Let me be more specific about how individual Unitarian Universalists can do this work in our wider community. Out of our experiences, we have learned two basic skills that we can use to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. First of all, start with the most basic details and knowledge before you get to the hard questions. Second of all, we can start practicing how to do inter-religious dialogue.
The first step is to focus on details. The first time pagans came in to my childhood Unitarian Universalist church, we had to start with the most basic things: ah ha! — you Pagans get into a circle to worship, you address a Goddess, you have eight main seasonal holidays, you pay attention to the full moon;– OK now, more traditional Unitarian Universalists sit in straight rows, we sometimes address God or we leave out deities altogether, we observe Christmas Eve and maybe Easter, and we observe summer by not having any Sunday school.
Another detail we’re good at is asking what books another religious group reads. As a kid sitting through Unitarian Universalist worship services, I heard reading from Buddhist sutras, from the Koran, from the Bhagavad Gita (actually, I had to read the Bhagavad Gita when I was in youth group), and so on. So when I ran into, say, a Buddhist, I at least knew what a sutra was, and I had actually heard a passage from the Diamond Sutra — those kinds of things are great ways to open up a conversation. And that’s the first, most important, step in inter-religious dialogue: finding some starting point for the conversation.
The second step is to find some larger goal on which to focus; that way, when we’re talking with another religious group, we have some common ground where we can start. It also gives us a purpose behind those dialogues, beyond mere curiosity. I’m sure you can imagine lots larger goals with which everyone in our community could agree: ending hunger, stopping violence in the streets, and so on. Less obviously, I have been thinking that ecological justice might be another good place to search for larger goals. There are ecological movements among many religious traditions. Could we find allies for our environmental work in places we haven’t yet considered? Maybe if we could connect with, say, some Buddhist ecologists, we could find some new ideas.
But the most important point in all this is that we don’t have to do anything special; we just have to remain open to the religious diversity that already surrounds us. We don’t have know anything about Sikhism, we just have to be ready to point it out when we see some Sikhs. When we meet someone who is Haitian, we can remember to ask: What religion do you follow? –and if they should happen to say, Santeria, then we can say: Tell me about it.
When it comes to religion, we Unitarian Universalists are pretty good at being open. In the changing religious landscape of the United States, we can be leaders in such openness. We can be leaders in listening openly and respectfully to the religious beliefs of others. When we meet someone from another religious tradition, we simply say: tell me about your religion. And that simple act has the power change the religious landscape around us.