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.

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.

What the World Needs Now

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo.

The second reading was from the essay “Friendship” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Gender-specific language has NOT been changed, since it may be central to Emerson’s argument.

Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds. I knew a man, who, under a certain religious frenzy, cast off this drapery, and, omitting all compliment and commonplace, spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty. At first he was resisted, and all men agreed he was mad. But persisting, as indeed he could not help doing, for some time in this course, he attained to the advantage of bringing every man of his acquaintance into true relations with him. No man would think of speaking falsely with him, or of putting him off with any chat of markets or reading-rooms. But every man was constrained by so much sincerity to the like plaindealing, and what love of nature, what poetry, what symbol of truth he had, he did certainly show him. But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age is worth a fit of insanity…. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him.

Sermon: “What the World Needs Now”

Back in the 1960s, lyricist Hal David was working regularly with pop composer Burt Bachrach. One day, while commuting in to New York City to work with Bachrach, Hal David came up with the line, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Then for more than a year, he couldn’t make any progress with the lyrics. He knew the song was talking to God, but he wasn’t quite sure what the song wanted to say to God.

Now it would be easy to jump to conclusions about what Hal David meant by the word “God.” In this decade of the 2020s, it seems like the only people who talk about God are the right-wing Christians; as a result, when we hear the word “God,” we often think of their god, the stereotypical old white guy sitting on a cloud wearing long white robes and advocating for school prayer and the Ten Commandments displayed in every classroom. Hal David was most definitely not a right wing Christian. He was the child of Jewish immigrants who left Austria in the 1920s and settled in New York City, where they ran a delicatessen. On his website, when discussing this song, he left the interpretation of God wide open; it could, he said, be the “someone or something we call God.” In other words, not the narrow, sectarian notion of God so beloved by right-wing Christians, but an open expansive understanding that could include a range of ideas from a traditional Jewish God, all the way to “God” as a humanistic or even atheistic metaphor.

In any case, Hal David finally figured out what he wanted to say to God: we don’t need some transcendent all-powerful God to create any more mountains, we don’t need any more oceans, we don’t even need any more rivers or meadows; what we really need is enough love to go around. Once the lyrics were done, Burt Bachrach wrote music for it, they both looked at the song, and decided it was “a flop.” (1) Burt Bachrach had hoped that Dionne Warwick, whom they felt was the singer who was best at performing their songs, would record it. But, as he later recalled, “Dionne rejected that song. She might have thought it was too preachy and I thought Dionne was probably right.” (2)

Well, Dionne Warwick was right. The song is indeed too preachy. It begins with the chorus: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing there’s too little of.” How very mid-1960s. Not only is it too preachy, but it’s hard not to make fun of the lyrics. If we all had just a little more love, then all those 1960s problems would just go away — the racial prejudice, the Vietnam War, the assassinations — just a little more love, and they’d go away. Just another pop song about love, and the problems will all go away.

In 1965, Jackie DeShannon finally recorded the song, and to the surprise of the songwriters, it became a top ten hit. Since then, it has been recorded and performed over and over again — by singers, by jazz groups, by hardcore punk rockers, by high school bands. It even got performed at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. The song still sounds preachy. It still sounds too much like a willfully naive and saccharine 1960s pop song. Most performances of it wind up sounding schlocky. But somehow the song has managed to strike a chord in our popular unconscious.

There’s a good reason for that. Hal David was actually correct. The world actually does need more love. Maybe it wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems, but with all the hatred and violence in the world — yes, we do in fact need more love.

Though we need to be careful what kind of love we’re talking about here. The English language uses the single word “love” to smush together several different concepts: romantic love, love between family members, love of oneself, love among good friends, love extended to strangers, a kind of selfless love that includes all beings, and so on. Even though this was a 1960s pop song, Hal David’s lyrics are not talking specifically about romantic love. Nor are Hal David’s lyrics talking specifically about love between family members, or love of oneself, though these might be a part of what the world needs now. The song is talking about a love that is “not just for some, but for everyone.” This is a love that is inclusive, that includes all of humankind.

Back in the 1960s, there was an ol-fashioned term for this kind of love. They called it “brotherhood.” Brotherhood meant that people should extend idealized feelings of sibling love to all of humanity. Political conservatives like Hubert Humphrey referred to “brotherhood” in their speeches. Progressives like Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of lifting “our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to solid rock of brotherhood.” Indeed, some Unitarian Universalists in the 1960s, when asked what they believed, might have responded with the words of Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress of mankind onward and upward forever. Brotherhood, the brotherhood of man — those old words and phrases aimed to capture the kind of love that the world needs now. If all men are truly my brothers, how could I do anything hateful to them? — brotherly love would prevent me from acting with hate.

Of course, we now know the big problem with the word “brotherhood” — it ignores women. The second wave feminists pointed out this uncomfortable fact in the late 1960s. At first, some people pushed back against the second wave feminists saying that of course the word “brotherhood” included women and girls. In response, there were a great many women and girls who bluntly replied that they did in fact feel left out; oh, and by the way, if that’s the way things worked, then they were going to start using the word “sisterhood” to include all people. The men who liked the word “brotherhood” decided they didn’t want to substitute the word “sisterhood.” By the 1980s, we Unitarian Universalists had stopped using the term “brotherhood.”

We really haven’t come up with another word to put in its place. I’ve been thinking about this recently. We know what we want to say: that all human beings are interdependent, we are all connected, we are all part of the same human race. What single word or short phrase might we use that communicates this rather complex idea? And it is a complex idea. Rabbi Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” (3) Here is a very simple statement that gets at the same basic idea — If you wouldn’t do it to yourself, don’t do it to someone else — but then Rabbi Hillel ends by telling us to go study the Torah. It looks like a simple idea on the surface; then we need to study the rest of the Torah to help us fully understand this seemingly simple idea.

It is this same seemingly simple idea that Emerson was getting at in his essay on friendship. Friendship, in Emerson’s essay, is the meeting of souls. Friendship is when we can be utterly genuine with another person, speaking directly to each other’s consciences; not speaking falsely, not falling into gossip or chit-chat, but a meeting of souls that is entirely honest and lacking in pretense. If we could be this genuine with others, if we could know another’s soul in this way, then we would naturally follow Rabbi Hillel’s maxim; if I fully encounter another’s soul, how could I possibly do anything hateful to them?

But I’ve finally decided that Emerson is missing something in this essay in this essay. Yes, there are those intense friendships where you feel like your soul is directly meeting another person’s soul. Emerson writes, “to most of us, society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back.” But I realized that many of my best and strongest relationships with other people have taken place, not face to face and eye to eye, but side by side.

For example, I think about the times when I helped prepare a meal for a certain homeless shelter that aimed to provide not just food and warm housing, but human interaction as well. While we were cooking dinner at this homeless shelter, we spend quite a lot of time seeing the sides and backs of other people, because everyone was working; not just the volunteers, but some of the guests would also come help prepare the meal. Then, before COVID hit, an essential part of this homeless shelter was that the people cooking the meal would sit down with the guests and everyone would eat dinner together. When you’re eating a meal with other people, you don’t spend all your time staring at their faces and eyes. When you’re sitting at a table with half a dozen others, you’re going to see the faces of some people and the sides of others — and maybe the backs of other people who are sitting at other tables. And then when everyone joins in cleaning up together, once again, more often you’d be side-by-side than face to face. Emerson would say, this was society showing its side and back. But it seems to me that there was just as much real connection happening in that setting as in some intense one-on-one face-to-face conversation with a Transcendental friend.

Emerson levels another criticism at society: “We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements….” And in every homeless shelter I’ve volunteered at, in every communal living situation, in every family — there are always the little dramas going on, just as Emerson pointed out: people who are temporarily angry with each other, people who have stopped being angry with each other, and so on. But I think Emerson got it exactly wrong. Gossip, compliments, amusements: these are how we hold our fellow human beings at arm’s length; these are all ways that human communities can become more closely interwoven. When you think about it this way, Emerson’s use of gender-specific male language actually makes sense. In nineteenth century America, middle class and upper class men were able to have time to have intense face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with other men, because women took on much of the burden of housework. Since women were considered inferior to men, the kind of social interaction associated with women — small talk, exchanging news with others, keeping each other entertained while working around the kitchen table — these kinds of social interactions would also be considered inferior. Yet it is in these daily mundane tasks that the complex love of human communities becomes apparent.

Which brings me to the first reading, the excerpt from the poem by Joy Harjo. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” she tells us, and then she lists all the other things that happen at kitchen tables: food is prepared and served; babies teethe; children are instructed in how to be human; we gossip; we dream; we laugh when we fall down; we pull ourselves back together again. Births happen next to the kitchen table, bodies are prepared for burial there. We sing there, we pray, we give thanks, we laugh, we cry, we eat “the last sweet bite.” Joy Harjo says the world begins and ends at the kitchen table.

Emersonian friendship is a lovely ideal, especially for those who have the time for it. But I think it is the kitchen table kind of love that the world needs much more of. It begins with the love that comes when preparing food and eating it together. This love includes gossip too: not hateful hurtful gossip, not the mean gossip of junior high school, but gossip that is actually the exchange of everyday life-and-death matters: who is ill, who is caring for whom, who is well, who is falling in love with whom, all the little bits of news that come with the ordinary life of a human community. It is through this kind of talk around the kitchen table, this talk of ordinary life — who is dying; who just gave birth, who has grown up, who has become a wise elder — this is how children learn to become human. It is through these ordinary conversations that adults are reminded how to remain human, to remain humane. And sometimes the deepest conversations on becoming human happen when we are working side by side with our elders, with our children.

Maybe this is what we should mean if we want to talk about the kind of love the world needs more of. I would not call this brotherhood, nor would I call this sisterhood; but it is a way of being human together. Like Emerson, I want to be genuine and to stand in true relation with other people; but in my own life I’ve found that is most likely to happen when human beings are cooking a meal together, when we are cleaning up together, when we are gossiping (in the best sense), when we are helping one other.

Not that sitting around a kitchen table is going solve all the world’s problems. No more did “brotherhood” solve the problems of racism and war in the 1960s. No more did “sisterhood” solve the problems of sexism in the 1970s. But in a era when we spend more time staring at screens than we spend sitting around a kitchen table, I would say that it would be worth our while to spend more time sitting around kitchen tables than staring at screens. It is more difficult to do something hateful to another person if you have sat down with that person at a kitchen table. Once someone sits down to dinner with a homeless person, they have to see that person as just another human being. We also saw this phenomenon during the fight for marriage equality: acceptance for same-sex marriage increased as more and more heterosexual people had friends who were same sex couples. These experiences are even changing the right-wing Christians: younger conservative Christians are more likely to be tolerant of same sex marriage than older conservative Christians. We are slowly seeing this phenomenon play out in the struggle against racism: as our society becomes more and more racially diverse, racial attitudes are being changed; when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with your cousin or in-law who is of a different race than you are, it’s harder for you to be racist.

This is where it begins, and this is where it ends: seeing ourselves in the other, and seeing the other in ourselves. For some, this might happen in great Emersonian moments of Transcendental friendship. But for most of us, it happens in day-to-day life. It happens around the kitchen table, if we would just notice it. This is the love, sweet love, that the world needs more of.


(1) Hal David, “Words: What the World Needs Now,” Hal David: Official Website, https://www.haldavid.com/words.htm accessed 28 April 2023.
(2) Burt Bachrach in an interview with Ken Sharp, “Burt Bachrach: What the World Needs Now,” Record Collector [UK magazine], May, 2006, issue 323.
(3) Talmud Shabbat 31 a