Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
The first reading is a tale titled “The Strength of Community,” from the book Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber, translated by Olga Marx.
It is told:
Once, on the evening after the Day of Atonement, the moon was hidden behind the clouds and the Baal Shem could not go out to say the Blessing of the New Moon. This weighed so heavily on his spirit, for now, as often before, he felt that destiny too great to be gauged depended on the work of his lips. In vain he concentrated his intrinsic power on the light of the wandering star, to help it throw off the heavy sheath: whenever he sent some out, he was told that the clouds had grown even more lowering. Finally he gave up hope.
In the meantime, the hasidim who knew nothing of the Baal Shem’s grief, had gathered in the front room of the house and begun to dance, for on this evening that was their way of celebrating with festal joy the atonement for the year, brought about the the zaddik’s priestly service. When their holy delight mounted higher and higher, they invaded the Baal Shem’s chamber, still dancing. Overwhelmed by their own frenzy of happiness they took him by the hands, as he sat there sunk in gloom, and drew him into the round. At this moment, someone called outside. The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky. [Book 1, p. 54]
The second reading is from Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge: Family Ties, Warrior Culture, Commodity Foods, Rez Dogs, and the Sacred by Vic Glover [Summertown, Tenn.: Native Voices, 2004, pp. 83-83]. In this book, Glover writes about living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, keeping alive the Lakota Sioux ways, including the sacred ceremonies of weekly sweat lodges and the annual Sun Dance.
Had a house full of people again today…. We got a load of wood [for the sweat lodge] and then met back up here, where Lupe made some bean and cheese burritos. Tom came up from base camp, the Old Man stopped by, and some other Sun Dancers came through….
While sitting around the table and drinking coffee, talk led to the Sun Dance, now only four and a half months away. A number of things were discussed, including the presumptuousness of some people who circumvented the protocols of the invitation process and thought they could just show up and start dancing, without speaking to the sponsor, Tom, or the lead dancer, also Tom.
While the discussion shifted to the preparations, the same sentiments were expressed. One of the dancers remarked about his eleven years of preparing before entering the arbor, and now, ‘after three sweat lodges, they think they’re ready to dance,’ he said….
“Overnight Indians,” said another of the men seated around the table. “Everybody wants it to happen right now, and they don’t know how to go about it. They think they’re ready, but they’re not.”…
Maybe it’s the planetary alignment. Maybe it’s the Age of Aquarius. Maybe it don’t take as long as it used to. Maybe there’s a sense of urgency now…. At this Sun Dance we’ve seen more than one person come and dance one year, never to return. “Those people don’t understand,” said Loretta, one day in her kitchen. “They don’t know what commitment means, and their lives are gonna be like that. They didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”
Sermon: “The Importance of Community”
You know the phrase “kumbayah moment.” It’s a derogatory, cynical phrase. When management tells employees they all have to come to some stupid group activity in order to build community, management is trying to create a “kumbayah moment.” During the 2008 elections, conservatives made fun of Barack Obama’s calls for unity, accusing Obama of giving “kumbayah speeches.” Liberals have balked at calls to make common cause with conservatives by saying “Stop the kumbayah.”(1) “Kumbayah” has become synonymous with sappy, manipulative platitudes calling on everyone to just get along. It comes from the folk song “Kumbayah,” which was introduced into popular culture in the 1950s by white singers of the Folk Revival. Then the song became a staple of day camps, overnight camps, and church camps: the song evokes images of camp counselors telling campers to sit around a campfire and hold hands while singing this song.
Originally, the song had an entirely different meaning. A folklorist for the Library of Congress recorded the earliest version of the song in 1926, as sung by Henry Wylie. Wylie begins the song with: “Somebody need you Lord, come by here / Oh Lord, come by here.” And he ends the song with: “In the morning, morning, won’t you come by here / Oh Lord, come by here.” According to the Library of Congress, this song was widely known in the American South. When White northern folksingers discovered the song in the Library of Congress archives, they misinterpreted the Southern Black dialect of Henry Wylie, and turned “Come by here” into “Kumbayah.” (2) In so doing, they unintentionally obscured the original meaning of the song. “Come by Here” is not a feel-good, let’s-all-get-along song. On the surface, it’s a song about hard times, and asking the Lord for comfort. Knowing that it’s an African American song reveals a deeper meaning: it’s a song about oppression and the potential for relief from oppression, and it’s a song of hope that a new day will dawn when oppression will end.
The word “community” has started to become a lot like the word “Kumbayah.” Some corporations tell their workers about the importance of community in the workplace. Some public figures talk about the importance of community in the United States, though often their notion of community only extends as far as their political allies. We give our children vague instructions to “build community,” whatever that means in practice. Like “kumbayah,” the term “community” is beginning to evoke images of camp counselors telling campers to sit around a campfire and hold hands while singing this song, whether they want to or not.
That is a serious misunderstanding of what “community” means. As we heard in the first reading, community can enable you to do things that you could not do on your own. At its best, community allows us to work with others to stop or to prevent oppression. Let me tell you two brief stories that illustrate this point.
The first story is about a young Unitarian minister named James Luther Adams; he later became the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century. But in 1927 he was in Nuremberg, Germany, watching a parade during a mass rally of the Nazi Party. Partway into this four-hour long parade, Adams asked some of the people watching the parade about the significance of the swastika symbol. He soon found himself in the middle of a heated discussion, when suddenly he was grabbed from behind and marched down a side street. The person who grabbed him, however, was not a Nazi, but an unemployed merchant marine sailor. This friendly sailor told Adams in no uncertain terms that he was a fool, that in another five minutes he would have been beaten up by the people he was in a heated discussion with, that in Germany in 1927 (six years before the Nazis officially seized power), you learned to keep your mouth shut in public. The sailor then invited Adams to his tenement apartment in the slums of Nuremberg to join his family for dinner.
During that dinner conversation, Adams learned how (to quote him) “one organization after another that refused to bow to the Nazis was being threatened with compulsion. The totalitarian process had begun. Freedom of association was being abolished.” Adams felt this last point was key: freedom of association was being abolished. Nearly a decade later, when he returned to Germany, he witnessed how churches had finally begun to offer what he called “belated resistance” to the Nazi regime; and in this resistance, Adams saw the power of free association. Adams later wrote: “At this juncture I had to confront a rather embarrassing question. I had to ask myself, ‘What in your typical behavior as an American citizen have you done [aside from voting] that would help prevent the rise of authoritarian government in your own country?… More bluntly stated: I asked myself, ‘What precisely is the difference between you and a political idiot?’”(3) So ends the first story about the importance of community.
The second story happened in New York City sometime around 1784. A group of enslaved and free people of African descent gathered together to found an organization called the New-York African Society. They formed this organization for at least three main purposes: to “promote a sense of common purpose”; to promote Christianity among people of African descent; and to provide aid and assistance to each other, and to all people of African descent. This organization was the first voluntary association organized and run by African Americans; it was organized during the early Federal period when many Americans were forming voluntary associations throughout the new country, in order to promote social welfare.
Among its early activities, the New York African Society provided education for those who were still enslaved, and of course they began organizing to bring an end to slavery. The New York African Society also felt it was imperative to organize an all-Black church. New York churches that were run by White people were not especially welcoming to Black New Yorkers. The New York African Society founded its own church, which they called African Zion, though it soon came to be known as “Mother Zion.” This was not just an group of people who got together to pray and sing hymns. They wanted a church building and a paid minister, they wanted to create a strong social institution, and they organized themselves accordingly. According to historian David Hackett Fisher: “Four of the nine [original trustees] could not write, but they knew what they were about. The trustees issued subscription books, raised money for land and a building in 1800, and paid their debts on time. … Mother Zion [church] became a major presence in New York.” Fisher documents how the Mother Zion church served not just as a spiritual resource, but also as political force. In just one small example, when crowds of young White racists disrupted Sunday morning services, the church demanded — and received — police protection from the city council.(4) So ends the second story about the importance of community, and the power of community.
And now, since this is a sermon, I’m going to draw a couple of brief lessons from these two stories.
First lesson: Many people think the sole purpose of religious congregations in our society is to support the religious beliefs of individual people. That was definitely not the case in Nazi Germany. Those German churches that stood up against the Nazis were certainly sustained by their Christian beliefs, but one of their primary purposes was working against authoritarianism. We Unitarian Universalists remember that when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the Unitarian congregation in Prague became one of those congregations resisting the Nazis; and because of that resistance, Norbert Capek, their minister, died in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.
Similarly, the African Zion church founded by the New York African Society was founded as a spiritual resource to Black New Yorkers. But that church also served as a moral and physical center where Black New Yorkers could work together against slavery, and organize themselves to influence the politics of the city of New York. In other words, religious congregations do serve as spiritual centers, but religious congregations also have long served as places where individuals join together in order to become a force for good in wider society. So ends the first lesson.
Second lesson: These days, I think many Americans have the tendency to think of congregations as a kind of leisure time activity. An American adult can spend time with Netflix and video games, or listening public radio, or indulging in sports and boating, or having fun with any number of fun hobbies. Americans with children have all the children’s activities on top of that: school plays, music lessons, Model U.N., sports, Scouting, and so on. Americans ration out their limited leisure time among all these attractive leisure activities. Americans also ration out their limited financial resources; so that, for example, a parent may tell our child that they cannot play hockey this year because they don’t have two thousand dollars to spend on equipment and rink time. With all these attractive leisure-time activities, it’s kind of hard for increasing numbers of Americans to justify spending time and money on old-fashioned religious congregations.
A new documentary film is coming out that provides an interesting response to all this. Brother and sister filmmakers Rebecca and Pete Davis have titled their new film “Join or Die.” In the film, they profile Robert Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard, whose famous book Bowling Alone documented the demise of community organizations in America. Putnam concluded that civic organizations — everything from congregations, to Parent Teacher Associations, to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows — make major contributions to democracy and good governance. Putnam, and the fmilmmakers, argue that the demise of these organizations is one of the things contributing to the erosion of trust in America today. In a recent interview, filmmaker Pete Davis puts it this way:
“A lot of people think of religion theologically. One of the ways [Robert Putnam] thinks of it is sociologically. Religions are not just beliefs. They’re organizations where people meet. They’re places where you build relationships and develop leadership. They’re places where you meet people different from you and do a lot of volunteer work and political work. Religious spaces provide half of all social capital in the U.S.”(5)
I will make a stronger statement than that: When Americans play videogames at home instead of going to Sunday services, they are actually contributing to the erosion of trust and the weakening of democracy. When we are sitting here in our historic Meeting House, we are not engaging in another leisure time activity. We are not just exploring our personal spiritual beliefs. We are participating in democracy. We are making democracy stronger. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are resisting the growing trend towards authoritarianism.
To this you might respond: But what about those Christian evangelicals who espouse Christian nationalism? They go to church, but they’re using church as a means to promote authoritarianism. This is true, but at the same time, they’re doing exactly what I’m talking about: using the power of freedom of association to promote their own particular agenda. They get it. They understand the power of freedom of association. Yes, they’re using the power of freedom of association in order to restrict the freedom of association for others. What I’m telling you is that we need to use the power of freedom of association to stop them from taking over our country.
So it is that First Parish is not merely a leisure time activity, it is one of the bulwarks of democracy. To use Robert Putnam’s term, it’s where you build social capital. In today’s political climate, I would say that religious congregations and similar organizations are critical for maintaining our democracy. Those who prioritize leisure time activities over building social capital are acquiescing to the growth of authoritarianism.
In fact, if First Parish were just another leisure time activity, I wouldn’t be here. But over and over again, I’ve seen how our Unitarian Universalist congregations actually do make a difference in the world through building social capital. We actually do change society for the better.
I’ll conclude by noting that this is Stewardship Sunday. The Stewardship Committee wants me to make to talk about our fundraising campaign. I feel this whole sermon has been about why you should support First Parish with your presence and your money. But to keep the Stewardship Committee happy, I’ll add three short sentences. It’s a matter of public record what I earn each year. To show my commitment to my principles, I’m pledging three percent of my gross annual earnings to First Parish for the coming year. I wish it were more, because I believe strongly in the power of our congregation to be a force for good and a bulwark of democracy.