A Unitarian Universalist Easter

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


The first reading is from the Christian scriptures, the last chapter of the Book of Mark, as translated by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish scholar of the ancient Near East. Later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Book of Mark; in this reading you will hear the original ending, filled with ambiguity.

When the sabbath was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome, brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the far right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his followers, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The second reading is “The Hailstones,” by Ai Qing [aye ching], translated in 1983 by Angela Jung Palandri. This poem was written in 1979, after the poet was released from the prison camp where he had been spent the previous twenty years, because he had fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party. The poem can be found in this online essay (scroll down to page 72).

The final reading was by Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States. The title of the poem is “Singing Everything.” This poem is reproduced at the end of this newspaper article.

[These two links go to webpages that reproduce the poems with full permission of the poets.]

Sermon: “A Unitarian Universalist Easter”

That last reading, the poem by Joy Harjo, tells a truth that is worth considering on Easter Sunday. We used to have songs for everything, “Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,” as the poet tells us, and songs “for sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” But today we are reduced to a narrow range of songs.

Admittedly, Joy Harjo exaggerates a little when she tells us, “Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and /Falling apart after falling in love songs.” We do have a few other kinds of songs such as political songs, and songs of interior landscapes by singer-songwriters. But Joy Harjo is an enrolled member of the Muscogee nation, and as a Native American she is aware of a broader range of songs that once existed. Most of those kinds of songs that once existed in indigenous cultures — including indigenous European and African and Asian cultures — have disappeared from today’s mass-produced culture.

Mind you, I love the music of today’s culture. I love Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It has to be the best falling-apart-after-falling-in-love song ever. And some of you will remember Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song at the roots of hip hop; this is a truly great political song. Perhaps you are now hearing in your head the many other great songs of our time. Even so, most of our popular songs today are love songs, or political songs, or songs of interior landscapes. We have very few songs about sunrise, or planting, or harvesting, or giving birth, or (as Harjo says in her poem) “songs of the guardians of silence.” We have many great songs today, but they mostly stick to a relatively narrow range of topics.

The same is true of much of religion in today’s world. Most of today’s religion occupies a narrow range of feeling and values and being. Popular American culture thinks of religion as having to do with the Bible, except that the Bible is merely supposed to support the assumptions and prejudices of conservative American Christianity. One of my favorite examples of this is that conservative American Christianity assumes that the God of their Bible is entirely male; except that in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28, it very clearly states that God is non-binary gender: “God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them.” God may choose to use he/him pronouns, but God’s actual body is both male and female. Somehow the conservative American Christians manage to ignore that part of the Bible. This shows you what I mean when I say that today’s American religion occupies a too-narrow range of feeling and values and being.

We might imagine for ourselves a religion with a broader range. Consider with me the story of Easter as we heard it in the first reading, as it was originally told in the book of Mark. Here’s how I would retell this story:

The Roman Empire executes Jesus of Nazareth, and he dies at sundown on Friday. The friends and followers of Jesus are all observant Jews. Since the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown of Friday, they want to wait until the sabbath is over to prepare the body for burial. So they place the body in a tomb. Promptly on the morning after the sabbath, Jesus’ mother, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and Salome (these three are leaders among the followers of Jesus, and as women would know more about preparing bodies for burial than any of the men), these three women go to the tomb to care for the body. There they encounter a stranger, a man who is strangely dressed, who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and will precede them to Galilee. The stranger tells the women not to tell the men these things. Not surprisingly, the three women find this strange and weird. They are unnerved. Fearing for themselves and for the other followers of Jesus, they quickly leave the tomb. They tell no one.

That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

Now, the book of Mark is accepted by most scholars as the earliest story we still have that tells about the life and death of Jesus. This means that all those traditional stories about Easter we hear — the stories of resurrection and triumph — that’s not the way the story was first told. The original book of Mark does not end in triumph, and so it sounds like some contemporary poetry — like the poem of Ai Qing we heard as the second reading. Ai Qing lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China; he was exiled to a labor camp for twenty years. His poem “The Hailstones” is a poetic retelling of how the Cultural Revolution brought his poetry to a violent end. Since he’s telling us this in a poem, we know that eventually his poetry was reborn. Yet when he looks back on those twenty lost years, he can only say: “What remains / Are sad memories of the calamity.”

You notice that I’m using a poem by a disgraced Chinese Communist poet to talk about Easter. I’m not talking about Easter the way we’re “supposed” to talk about Easter; at least, the way the conservative American Christians tell us is the correct, orthodox way to talk about Easter. We Unitarian Universalists have never limited our religion to the narrow confines of conservative American Christianity. For us, religion and spirituality are broad and inclusive. We can look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

We don’t feel a need to shoehorn the Easter story into a confining orthodoxy. We don’t need the Easter story to somehow prove that Jesus was a god who could not actually be killed. If you want to interpret the Easter story in that way, that’s fine. Yet for us, the Easter story contains far more complexity. As with any good literature, we find multiple levels of meaning. I’ll give you an example from my own life. This past year has been a year of loss in my household: my father-in-law died just about a year ago, and my spouse’s stepmother died the day after Christmas. So this year when I read the Easter story in the book of Mark, what I feel is the emotional truth of that story: someone you love is alive one day, and then they’re no longer alive, and you know they are gone forever. This can leave you (as the story puts it) trembling and unnerved, and you can find yourself afraid and unwilling to talk about it.

That is one emotional truth we can find in the story. We can also find another emotional truth carried in that story. After people die, we have not lost them. They live on in our love. If there’s a resurrection story that all Unitarian Universalists agree on, this it it: love transcends death.

And we can find still more emotional truths in this simple story. For example: Jesus was a brilliant spiritual teacher, who encapsulated spirituality in simple, easy-to-understand stories and formulas. His most famous spiritual teaching is quite simple: love your neighbor as yourself. (Simple in the saying, but far more difficult in actual practice.) When the Roman Empire executed him, his teachings did not die. You cannot kill truth that easily. This another emotional truth of the Easter story that all Unitarian Universalists can agree on: you cannot kill truth so easily.

With enough time, we can find still more emotional truths in this story. So it is that we can see how religion and spirituality have a much wider range than popular American culture would have us believe. Popular American culture tells us that religion is concerned with beliefs many of us find unbelievable, beliefs to which we are supposed to conform. In truth, however, religion and spirituality exist to help us understand the perplexities of life. From this, we gain comfort and support. Religion and spirituality concern the truth that never dies. From this, we remember that love transcends even death. Religion and spirituality teach a universal love that includes all people, no matter what gender or sexual preference, no matter what race, no matter what, period. And with that knowledge, we can create a world where we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s why we keep coming back here to this community. That’s why we keep our religion and spirituality alive in our personal lives. We celebrate the incredible diversity of humankind, the diversity which exists among us here today. And we celebrate that which transcends us all and which unites us all — that which is highest and best, that which keeps us going from day to day.

The Great Man Fallacy

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, lots of typos and errors in the text, which I didn’t have time to correct.


The first reading was from the essay “Where Is the Love?” by the poet June Jordan.

“…Virtue is not to be discovered in the conduct of the strong vis-a-vis the powerful, but rather it is to be found in our behavior and policies affecting those who are different, those who are weaker, or smaller than we. How do the strong, the powerful, treat children? How do we treat the aged among us? How do the strong and the powerful treat so-called minority members of the body politic? How do the powerful regard women? How do they treat us?

“Easily you can see that, according to this criterion, the overwhelming reality of power and government and tradition is evil, is diseased, is illegitimate, and deserves nothing from us — no loyalty, no accommodation, no patience, no understanding — except a clear-minded resolve to utterly change this total situation and, thereby, to change our own destiny.”

The second reading was from the Christian Scriptures, the Good News of Mark, chapter 9, verses 33-35. This translation is from “The Five Gospels,” translated by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“When [Jesus] got home, he started questioning [his followers,] ‘What were you arguing about [while we were] on the road?’ They fell completely silent, because on the road they had been bickering about who was greatest. He sat down and called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be “number one,” that person has to be last of all and servant of all.’”

The third and final reading was from the Talmud, Pirkei Avot 6:5, translated by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein.

“Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than your learning, do! And do not lust for the table of princes. For your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and your Master is trusted to pay you the wage of your work.”

Sermon: “The Great Man Fallacy”

We’re in the middle of a presidential election year, and the Myth of the Great Man dominates our understanding of leadership. I like to define the “The Myth of the Great Man” as the belief that the only way you can have an effective nation, or an effective organization, is if you have a Great Man (can you hear the capital letters?) in the top leadership slot. The Myth of the Great Man explains why Americans place so much emphasis on the election of the U.S. president and congresspeople, yet mostly ignore the role of staffers and career bureaucrats and the other people who do most of the actual work of writing and enforcing our laws. The Myth of the Great Man also explains why the chief executive officers of American companies get paid 671 times more than the average worker, because those companies believe they need to pay big bucks to attract a Great Man as CEO.

I believe that the Myth of the Great Man is just a myth. Actually, calling this a “myth”is a slander to real myths. After all, a myth is a form of truth, whereas this is nothing but a fallacy. Let’s be honest and call it the Great Man Fallacy.

I don’t know where the Great Man Fallacy came from. But I do know that Jesus of Nazareth is commonly misinterpreted as being one of those Great Man leaders. This means there’s a religious dimension to the Great Man Fallacy, one which even infects Unitarian Universalism. I believe the Great Man Fallacy gets in the way of our communal religious life. More insidiously, it also gets in the way of our personal spiritual lives. That’s why I wanted to talk with you about the Great Man Fallacy this morning.

The Christian scriptures tell us that Jesus of Nazareth did not believe in the Great Man Fallacy of leadership. In several places in the Christian scriptures, Jesus makes it quite clear that there is only one being who is great, and that one being is God. Even though many people now believe that Jesus is God, Jesus himself explicitly told his followers that all of his virtues come from God the parent, not from himself. Thus Jesus says (in the book of Mark, chapter 10, verse 18), “Why do you call me good?… No one is good except God alone.” [NRSV]

Not only that, but Jesus quite clearly tells his followers that none of them is any better than any of the others. We heard this in the second reading. The followers of Jesus were bickering among themselves about which one was the greatest. Jesus stopped them by saying that if anyone wants to be the greatest, that person must be the last and least, and the servant of all the others. As I understand this, Jesus’s reasoning is pretty straightforward: If you try to be a leader by being the greatest, you’re usurping the rights and responsibilities of God.

Over time, the Western Christian tradition forgot this part of Jesus’s teachings, as it increasingly relied on a hierarchy where certain men were considered greater than all other men and women. Yet anyone who looked closely at the Christian scriptures could still see that Jesus didn’t have a hierarchical understanding of leadership. Instead, Jesus clearly had an egalitarian understanding of leadership.

In some ways, the egalitarian understanding of leadership continued in the West, not in Christianity, but in rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud makes it clear that the rabbis could, and did, disagree with one other; authoritarian hierarchy is absent. For example, when a man went to Rabbi Shamai and asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi Shamai pushed him away, telling him the Torah was not something you learned in five minutes. The man went to see Rabbi Hillel, who disagreed and said the whole Torah could be summed up in the sentence, “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else,” which you could repeat while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel then said everything else in the Torah is there to explain that one simple law, which requires a lifetime of study, so maybe the two rabbis agreed more than they disagreed. Nevertheless, the rabbis could, and did, disagree. The Talmud carefullygives the opinions of different rabbis, rather than a single answer which you’re supposed to believe is the truth. This is a more egalitarian understanding of leadership.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying things. Western Christianity has also had ongoing arguments and debates. But Christianity is prone to accepting the pronouncements of those in authority as the Gospel truth. If the minister or the bishop or someone in authority says it, then it’s less likely that someone else is going to argue with it. And this has become the norm throughout Western culture. Just as Western Christians are prone to accepting the pronouncements of their leaders without question, so too in the secular West we are prone to accepting the pronouncements of our leaders without questioning them as much as we should. This is how religion supports the Great Man Fallacy. The West was shaped by Western Christianity hierarchy, and now we actually believe that those who have the most prominent positions in society, or the most money, or the most followers — these are the people who are ordained by God to be the real leaders.

You can see how this works in the corporate world. Steve Jobs didn’t consider himself to be the last of all and the servant of all the other workers at Apple; Steve Jobs was the boss man, he was the most important, he told his minions what to do. And we’re seeing this happen with increasing frequency in the political world, as we’re increasingly asked to accept the authority of leading politicians without question.

But the great Man Fallacy also plays out here in our own congregation. The Great Man Fallacy even plays out in our own personal spiritual lives. Let me explain.

We know that according to the First Parish bylaws, and according to centuries of Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is the members of the congregation who are actually in charge at First Parish. The members of First Parish have the power to call a minister, and the members of the congregation can dismiss any minister should that minister not live up to the expectations of the members. (That happened here in 1796, when this congregation dismissed Josiah Crocker Shaw when he committed adultery.) At First Parish, the members are the ultimate authority.

However, as the current minister, I can tell you that once a minister is called, there seems to be a slight tendency for the members to begin deferring to the the minister. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you’re the leader, what do you think?” Actually, I’m not the leader; it’s more correct to say I’m one of the leaders. I’m happy to give my opinion — if I have an opinion on the topic at hand — but I don’t expect my opinion to be taken as the Gospel truth. There are plenty of people here with more leadership experience, and who know far more than I do about many things. I may have my opinions about how the worship service should go, but I defer to the gathered wisdom of the Music and Worship Committee. I may have my opinions about the religious education of our children, but really members of the Religious Education Committee (most of whom are parents) and our Director of Religious Education (who has a doctorate degree in developmental psychology) are far better informed on the subject than I am. I may have my opinions about governance, but the members of the Parish Committee have much greater experience with governing this congregation than I ever will, and so while I might sometimes disagree with them, I am also happy to defer to theme when they know better than I.

The goal of a minister, or any leader, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not to be the Great Man, is not to be the Big Boss. Leaders of Unitarian Universalist congregations should not try to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Individual leaders are not the Deciders, because ultimately the Annual Meeting decides. The buck doesn’t stop with individual leaders, because ultimately the buck stops with the members.

It turns out this is true beyond Unitarian Universalist congregations. Leadership actually comes from all the people in an organization. Leadership theorist Phillip Rost points out that you can’t have good leadership unless you also have good followership. Because they’re in a mutual influence relationship, leaders and followers are constantly changing positions. Sometimes you’re a leader, sometimes you’re a follower. There’s no one Great Man in charge, because leadership is a collaborative process. Leadership involves everyone working together to make real changes that reflect our mutual purposes.

If we get rid of the Great Man Fallacy, this can change the way we do spirituality within our religious community. I, as the minister, may be a spiritual leader, but so are you. Everyone in this room will be a spiritual leader at some point. Similarly, everyone in this room will be a spiritual follower at some time (including me).

If everyone can be leader and follower, this changes how we treat the least among us. In the first reading, poet June Jordan says that virtue is not to be found by looking at how the powerful treat the strong. We learn nothing about virtue by seeing how Elon Musk treats Donald Trump, or how Joe Biden treats Mark Zuckerberg. We discover virtue by looking at how those with some power treat those with less power.

Here’s how that might work in our own congregation. We might ask: How do the adults treat the children? Robert Pazmiño, a scholar and a lay leader in his progressive Christian church, said every committee in a church should have a youth member, someone under the age of 18. As I understand Bob, this means that when your leadership teams include young people, and if those young people have real power and authority, then your religious community can make real spiritual progress. The spiritual progress of a religious community is not measured solely by how long its members can meditate, or how often they attend weekly services. The spiritual progress of a religious community is best measured by how the community treats those who are less powerful.

Our individual spiritual progress can also be measured in part by how we treat those who are less powerful than ourselves. And I also believe that our individual spiritual progress must in part be measured by our participation in the leadership of our religious community. Like any individual spiritual practice, this can feel intimidating. Leadership as a spiritual practice is hard work. Leadership as a spiritual practice means coming face to face with those areas where we fall short.

The members and friends of First Parish are actually quite good at leadership as a spiritual practice. If you’ve been a part of First Parish for more than a year or two, you’ve probably already done some kind of spiritual leadership. Teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, serving on a committee, ushering, helping make lobster rolls, setting up social hour — all these are leadership roles. But they’re not leadership in the mode of the Great Man Fallacy. When you sing bass in the choir, you’re not like Steve Jobs telling everyone else what to do. You don’t go around telling everyone that you’re the greatest, and everyone else has to kowtow to you (especially if you’re a bass). Instead, this is more what Philip Rost describes, where followership and leadership go hand in hand.

This is the kind of leadership that Jesus was talking about when he said the best leaders are servants. And providing leadership through helping others is where the real spiritual growth happens. Take the Property Committee, for example. Doesn’t seem like there’s much opportunity for spiritual growth working on the Property Committee. But if you can lead a project that helps the children in Carriage House Nursery School, or if you can help lead a project that restores the exterior and interior of our historic Meetinghouse — by so doing, you have touched people’s lives, and you will find both spiritual reward and spiritual growth. Or if you serve on the Outreach Committee, and help figure out how to make the best use of the very limited funds at the committee’s disposal, there is both spiritual reward and spiritual growth in that, too.

Or I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own life. In the Unitarian Universalist congregation of my childhood and young adult years, my family always ushered once a month, which may seem like the most mundane thing you could do in a congregation; but looking back, I felt it led to some real spiritual growth, as I learned how to be a welcoming presence and how to represent my Unitarian Universalist community to newcomers. In another example, I feel that teaching Sunday school has led me to more personal spiritual growth than anything else I’ve ever done; it’s also been the most difficult spiritual practice I’ve ever done, and it took me years to get good at it; but the spiritual benefits far outweigh anything else I’ve done. And all these leadership positions — ushering, teaching Sunday school, serving on a committee, and so on — are egalitarian leadership, because we all participate together to make our shared religious community work.

I believe the spiritual practice of participatory, egalitarian leadership can be the most fulfilling of all spiritual practices. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal the world, by using our collective and collaborative power to make the world better for those who are less powerful than ourselves. It is through the spiritual practice of leadership and followership that we help heal ourselves, by pulling ourselves out of the isolation and loneliness that is so prevalent in society today — and that is the first necessary step towards healing the whole world.

The Tree Spirit’s Mistake

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon was actually delivered by Bev Burgess, worship associate, because I was out of town on family leave.


[The first reading was the poem “Global Warming Blues” by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie. Here’s the poet reciting her poem:]

The second reading this morning is part of a poem about ecological recovery. It’s an excerpt from the poem “New Ecology” by Ernesto Cardenal. This poem takes place in Nicaragua, some years after the authoritarian Somoza regime collapsed. The poet writes:

In September more coyotes were seen near San Ubaldo.
More alligators, soon after the victory…
The bird population has tripled, we’re told…
Somoza’s people also destroyed the lakes, rivers, and mountains.
Somoza used to sell the green turtle of the Caribbean.
They used to export turtle eggs and iguanas by the truckload.
The loggerhead turtle was being wiped out…
In danger of extinction the jungle’s tiger cat,

Its soft jungle-colored fur…
But the sawfish and the freshwater shark could finally breathe again.
Tisma is teeming once more with herons reflected in its mirrors
We’re going to decontaminate Lake Managua.
The humans weren’t the only ones who longed for liberation.
The whole ecology has been moaning….

Sermon: “The Tree Spirit’s Mistake”

Here we are, just finishing one of the warmest winters on record here in New England. We have had some cold snaps, and we definitely knew that it was winter, but over the course of this year’s heating season, temperatures have been surprisingly mild. This is actually a good thing for many of us, considering how much energy prices have risen this year. But it’s also not such a good thing, insofar as it reminds us of the looming ecological crisis. Mild winter weather means we’re probably going to have to brace ourselves for more scorching weather in the summer, and maybe another drought. We might even say that the ecological crisis is no longer looming, it is upon us.

So what should we do? Of course we’re going to take political action. Of course we’ll encourage technological fixes. But I also feel that our ecological crisis must be addressed spiritually. I’ll tell you an old Buddhist story to explain what I mean.

Once upon a time, Kokālika, who was one of the followers of the Buddha, asked his friends Sāriputta and Moggallāna to travel with him back to his own country. They refused to go, and the three friends exchanged harsh words.

One of Buddha’s followers said sadly, “Kokālika can’t live without his two friends, but he can’t live with them, either.”

“That reminds me of a story,” said Buddha, and he told his followers this tale:

Once upon a time, two tree-spirits lived in a forest. One was a small, modest tree; the other was a large majestic tree. In that same forest lived a ferocious tiger and a fearsome lion. This lion and this tiger killed and ate any animal they could get their paws on. They were messy eaters, and left rotting chunks of meat all over the forest floor. Because of them, no human being dared set foot in the forest.

The smaller tree-spirit decided they did not like the smell of rotting meat. The little tree-spirit told the great tree-spirit that they were going to drive the lion and tiger out of the forest.

“My friend,” said the great tree-spirit, “don’t you see that these two creatures protect our beloved forest? If you drive them out of the forest, human beings will come into our home and cut all us trees down for firewood.”

But the little tree-spirit didn’t listen. The very next day, they assumed the shape of a large and terrible monster, and drove the tiger and lion out of the forest.

As soon as the human beings realized that the tiger and the lion had left the forest, they came in and cut down half the trees. This frightened the little tree spirit, who cried out to the great tree spirit, “You were right, I should never have driven the tiger and the lion out of our forest. What can I do?”

“Go find the tiger and the lion and invite them to return,” said the great tree spirit. “That’s our only hope.”

The little tree spirit found the tiger and the lion and asked them to return. But the tiger and the lion just growled, and rudely replied, “We shall never return.” The next day, the humans returned, cut down all the trees, and the forest was gone.

The Buddha finished telling this story, and paused. The Buddha and all his followers believed that they had lived many previous lives, and his followers knew this story was about one of his previous lives. The Buddha continued: “I’m sure you guessed that the little tree spirit was Kokālika, the lion was Sāriputta, and the tiger was Moggallāna.” To which one of his followers responded, “And you, Buddha, were the great tree spirit.”

At first, this story sounds like an ecological parable that’s easy to understand. We start with a stable ecosystem. The foolish tree-spirit upsets the balance of the ecosystem by getting rid of the large predators. The ecosystem begins to collapse. When the foolish tree-spirit tries to fix their mistake, they realize that upsetting the balance of an ecosystem is easy, but it’s difficult to restore that balance once it’s been upset.

But there is more to the story than that. The story really begins, not in the forest, but with conflict within the Buddha’s religious community. Three of the Buddha’s followers cannot get along. Their constant fighting upsets the balance of the community. The Buddha is trying to teach his followers that the quality of their human community affects the world around them. What we do in our religious communities, how we treat one another, affects more than just the people within our little communities.

We Unitarian Universalists teach ourselves something similar when we talk about respect for the interdependent web. A theologian named Bernard Loomer was one of the first to bring the idea of the interdependent web to Unitarian Universalists. Loomer had had a long career as a Presbyterian theologian when he began attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California. The Berkeley Unitarian Universalists, when they realized the spiritual depths of his teaching, arranged for him to give weekly talks. In 1984, during one of those talks, Loomer told them that most people had misunderstood Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus of Nazareth was speaking about what he called “the Kingdom of God,” he was using first century Jewish language to describe how all things are connected and dependent upon one another. While Jesus referred to this concept as the “Kingdom of God,” Loomer called it the “interdependent web of existence.” The interdependent web of existence means all human beings are connected, and we must treat each other as we ourselves wish to be treated. All living beings are connected in the same way, and all living beings are connected with the non-living world, with air and rock and water and sunlight, in one grand interdependent web of existence.

The old Universalists hinted at the same thing when they said, “God is love.” We might re-interpret that old Universalist statement for modern times something like this: God is not some transcendent supernatural being that exists outside of and beyond the world of science and reason; instead, God is the love that connects all things in an interdependent web. This is another positive statement of the power of the interdependent web of existence.

In the poem “Global Warming Blues,” Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie tells us what happens when we deny the interdependent web, when we deny our connection to all humans and to all living beings and to all non-living things. When we deny the interdependent web of existence, we get global warming and our towns become rivers, bodies floating and water high. (Or, for those of us who live here on the South Shore, we have surprisingly mild winters, and hot summers with too little rain.) The poet tells us: “Seem like for Big Men’s living / little folks has got to die.” The Big Men ignore the interdependent web; they deny their connectedness to other humans, to other living beings.

It matters how we human beings connect to one another. When we deny the interdependent web that binds all human beings together, we also deny the interdependent web that binds humans to non-human beings. The two cannot be separated. Systemic racism allows a few human beings to exploit and dominate other human beings. In the same way, the ecological crisis stems from a system that allows us human beings to exploit all living beings. Systemic sexism results in sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, and rape culture. And this is tied to a system that allows human beings to rape and exploit the earth and non-human beings.

How can we repair the damage that has been done to the interdependent web of all existence, human and non-human? You may say to yourself, I recycle, I compost, isn’t that enough? You may say, Does this mean I have to fight global climate change and racism and sexism and ableism and everything else all at the same time? That’s too much for someone who’s already working two jobs and trying to raise children.

But this does not have to be overwhelming. The Buddha taught his community a simple but profound truth: how they treated each other within their religious community made a difference in the wider world. The quality of our relationships inside our religious communities makes a difference in the wider world. As we work together to eliminate systemic racism inside our religious communities, we show the world that human relationships can be healed. As we gradually eliminate the sexism that still continues inside our religious communities, we teach both ourselves and the wider world that human relationships can be founded on something other than exploitation and dominance. What we do inside our religious communities is part of the interdependent web. As we learn to live together in love, we help heal the entire interdependent web of all existence.

We can keep on recycling and composting, working two jobs and raising our children. And direct political action is still necessary. And we can spread spiritual renewal within our religious communities, by living together in love. As we repair the interdependent web of existence within our religious communities, we also draw strength from that religious community, and with that strength we can bring love to the world around us. The love we bring to the world will combine with the love others are bringing. And so the healing of the world begins in a small way, in the interactions of this gathered community. May that healing continue to grow among us, as plants continue to grow in the depths of winter until at last springtime bursts forth in all its glory.