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.

Evil in Our Time

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 from The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11, by Richard J. Bernstein:

“This new fashionable popularity of the discourse of good and evil … represents an abuse of evil — a dangerous abuse. It is an abuse because, instead of inviting us to question and to think, this talk of evil is being used to stifle thinking. This is extremely dangerous in a complex and precarious world. The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination. In the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ nuance and subtlety are (mis)taken as signs of wavering, weakness, and indecision. But if we think that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination, then this talk about absolute evil is profoundly anti-political. As Hannah Arendt noted, ‘The absolute … spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.’”

The second reading is from A Pocketful of Rye, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. In this passage, Miss Marple and a police inspector are discussing who might have committed a murder:

“[Inspector Neele] said, ‘Oh, there are other possibilities, other people who had a perfectly good motive.’

“‘Mr. Dubois, of course,’ said Mis Marple sharply. ‘And that young Mr. Wright. I do so agree with you, Inspector. Wherever there is a question of gain, one has to be very suspicious. The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.’

“In spite of himself, Neele smiled. ‘Always think the worst, eh?’ he asked. It seemed a curious doctrine to be proceeding from this charming and fragile-looking old lady.

“‘Oh yes,’ said Miss Marple fervently. ‘I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.’”

Sermon: “Evil in Our Time”

I’ve noticed something recently. In our society today, we like to talk about evil in the abstract. We like to say that racism and sexism and homophobia are evil. We like to say that the other political party is evil — or that all politics is evil. We say that violence is evil. We like talking about evil in the abstract.

But we’re less willing to talk about the specifics of evil. When we do talk about the specifics of evil, we choose a few small examples of a greater evil, and focus on that. So when we talk about the looming global ecological disaster, we talk about how people need to drive electric cars, but we don’t talk about how first world countries like the United States need to make major policy changes regarding both corporate and private energy use. Nor are we likely to talk about the other large major threats to earth’s life supporting systems, including toxication, the spread of invasive species, and land use change.

I understand why we tend to focus on a few small examples of evil, rather than seeing the big picture; I understand why we see the trees but not the forest. When we reduce evil to abstractions, or to small specific actions, we don’t have to give serious consideration to the political and social change necessary to put an end to racism. It’s a way of keeping evil from feeling overwhelming.

But when we reduce evil to an abstraction, we cause at least two problems. First, reducing evil to an abstraction tends to stop us from thinking any further about that evil. Second, by reducing evil to an abstraction, we ignore the individuality of human beings; to use the words of philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, we “transform [human beings] into creatures that are less than fully human.” We stop thinking, and we stop seeing individuals. I’ll give an example of what I mean.

Prior to coming here to First Parish, a significant part of my career was spent serving congregations that needed help cleaning up after sexual misconduct by a minister or other staff person. (Just so you know, I’ve served in ten different congregations, many of which were entirely healthy. Although I’m going to give you an example based on sexual misconduct by a minister, I’ve changed details and fictionalized the story so innocent people can remain totally anonymous.)

Once upon a time, there was a minister who had engaged in inappropriate behavior with someone who was barely 18 years old. I was hired to clean up the resultant mess. Because I’ve done a fair amount of work with teens, I was ready to demonize this particular minister, thinking to myself, “Legally this minister may be in the clear, but morally I’m going to call this person evil.” Because I thought of this minister as evil, I assumed anything they did was bad.

But then I found out that this minister had helped someone else in the congregation escape from a domestic violence situation. This required extended effort on the part of that minister, extending over a period of several years. This minister whom I had thought of as evil helped the domestic violence survivor to get out of the abusive relationships, find safe housing, extricate the children from the control of the abusive spouse, and settle down to a new life of safety. I was very suspicious of this story — surely this evil minister must have done something inappropriate with the person whom they had helped, or engaged in some other evil act. But it slowly became clear that in this case, the minister had done nothing wrong, and by extricating that person from domestic violence, that minister’s actions were wholly good.

This little story was a useful reminder to me: individual human beings are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. A person whom I had considered wholly evil was not, in fact, wholly evil; was, in fact, capable of amazing goodness. I had been in the wrong: when I called that person evil, I stopped myself from seeing the good they had done; I transformed that person into someone who was less than fully human. Mind you, I still kept my distance from that minister, feeling it was safer to do so, but at last I could see them as more than a caricature, I could see them as a complex individual.

We human beings are complex creatures. I would venture to say that no one is wholly evil — no, not even that politician that you’re thinking about right now. Even that politician whom you love to hate has redeeming qualities, though you may not be able to see them. We must always keep an open mind, and assume that every human being has the potential of doing good.

By the same token, I’d have to say that no one is wholly good. This is point the fictional character Miss Marple makes in the second reading this morning. Even someone who is essentially good can carry out evil actions. I don’t quite agree with Miss Marple when she says, “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.” Unlike Miss Marple, I don’t go around always believing the worst of everyone. But I do live my life in the awareness that everyone is capable both of evil and of goodness. Every human being has the potential of doing evil, but also of doing good.

If every human being is capable both of evil and capable of good, then you can see why we should not brand someone as wholly evil, or as wholly good for that matter. When we brand someone as wholly evil, that stops us from thinking about the evil that they caused. In that example of the minister that I just gave, when I branded that minister as wholly evil, I stopped thinking. When I started seeing them as a human being who was capable of both good and evil, I began to think more clearly, and I realized that there were external factors that led them into misconduct — external factors that were still at play, and that could lead to someone else engaging in misconduct. As I began to think more clearly, I was able to work with others to make that kind of behavior less likely in the future. It was only when I started thinking again that I was able to begin to work with others to try to prevent evil from happening again.

From a pragmatic standpoint, then, it’s foolish to brand someone as wholly evil; but it’s also morally wrong to brand someone as wholly evil. When we do that, we remove their individuality; we turn them into something less than human. We deny their individuality and deny their freedom, their capacity to make free choices in the way they act. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein points out that this is the way totalitarianism works: he writes, “totalitarianism seeks to make all human beings superfluous — perpetrators and victims.” When we brand other people as evil, we are doing exactly what totalitarian regimes do: branding opponents as evil, denying human individuality, stopping everyone from thinking. Totalitarianism thrives when people stop thinking.

It is this tendency that troubles me about politics in the United States today. We brand our political opponents as being evil. Democrats say that Donald Trump is evil, and Kevin McCarthy is evil, and Marjorie Taylor Green is evil. Republicans say that Joe Biden is evil, and Nancy Pelosi is evil, and Barack Obama is evil. Even those who are independents — and here in Massachusetts, more people register as independent than either Republican or Democrat — even political independents play this game when they say all politicians are corrupt.

This kind of thing stops people from thinking. When Democrats brand Donald Trump as wholly evil, not only are they denying his essential humanity, but they have started walking down the road to totalitarianism. When Republicans say that Nancy Pelosi is evil, they are denying her essential humanity, and they too are starting to walk the road towards totalitarianism. When political independents claim that all politicians are corrupt, they are denying the essential humanity of all politicians, and — you guessed it — they have started walking the road towards totalitarianism.

Evil exists, but totalitarianism is not the solution for evil. Totalitarianism means that one person, or a small group of people, make all the decisions. But that one person, or that small group of people, can easily slip into doing evil themselves — and there will be no one to hold them accountable, to tell them to stop. This is what is happening in Russia right now: Russia has become a totalitarian state, so when Vladimir Putin decided to do evil by invading Ukraine, there was no one to stop him.

We can only stop evil through communal action, through cooperating with as many people as possible. This is the principle behind democracy: by cooperating widely, we minimize the chance of totalitarianism. But it’s hard to cooperate with other people when you brand half of the population as evil — as happens when Democrats brand Republicans as evil, and Republicans brand Democrats as evil, and Independents brand everyone else as evil, or at least corrupt. Calling other people evil is not serving us well. We don’t want to sound like Vladimir Putin.

There’s actually a religious point buried in all of this: Every single person has something of value in them. That something of value might be buried pretty deep, but it’s there. That’s what the Unitarian Universalist principles mean when they talk about the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” That’s what the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler meant when he said, “every person and what they do and how they do it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.” When you brand a person as evil, you deny their inherent worth and dignity, you say that person somehow lacks infinite significance. We can say that a person has done something evil; we can say that we no longer trust that person, and that we don’t want to have anything to do with them if we can help it. But that does not mean the person is evil; some of their actions were evil, yes; but the person is not evil.

There’s another religious point that goes along with this. When we recognize that each and every person is of infinite significance, we make a statement of great hope. Each person, each individual, has within them an infinite capacity for goodness; they may also have a capacity for evil, but evil is finite and good is infinite, so their capacity for evil can be overpowered by their capacity for goodness. Every person, even someone who has done something evil, can be redeemed. Remember the fictional minister I told you about: that minister did something horribly evil, but they also had within them the capacity for amazing goodness.

In the end, the collective human capacity for goodness will win out over the collective human capacity for evil. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dr. King was actually paraphrasing a sermon from the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.” So said Theodore Parker a century and a half ago.

Today, we still have a long way to go before we overcome evil. I’m pretty sure we won’t overcome evil in my lifetime. I doubt we will overcome evil in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But I’m sure that the universe bends towards justice. Like Moses leading the ancient Israelites, or like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, we know the Promised Land is somewhere ahead of us; we hope to catch a glimpse of it before we die; but we will not reach it ourselves. Yet we continue to strive towards justice.

We continue to hope. We continue to see the good in others whenever we can: so that we may cooperate as much as we are able; so that one day, justice may one day roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 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 from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiseland.

“For me, epiphanies come too infrequently to be shrugged off as unbelievable. … I had waited for a mighty revelation of God. But my epiphany bore little resemblance to the God I was expecting, or the God of my dreams. I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair — that is, the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright. I recognized [God] in the image of those judged ‘not feasible,’ ‘unemployable,’ with ‘questionable quality of life.’ Here was God for me.”

The second reading is from the 2022 book The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

“It’s radical to imagine that the future is disabled. Not just tentatively allowed to exist, not just: ‘OK, I guess there’s one white guy with a wheelchair, cool — diversity.’ But a deeply disabled future, a future where disabled, Deaf, Mad, neurodivergent bodyminds are both accepted without question as part of the vast spectrum of human … ways of existing, [and] where our cultures, knowledge, and communities shape the world….

“Some people have scoffed at me when I broached the idea of a majority disabled future — surely I don’t mean this literally? But I kind of do….

“We are in the third year of a global mass disabling event — the COVID-19 pandemic — where, as I and many other disabled activists and people have noticed and stated, the world has been [disabled]. The entire world has been immersed in a disabled reality for the past two years. Masking, hand-washing, long-term isolation, awareness of viruses and immune vulnerability, the need for disabled skills of care … are just a few of the disabled ways of being that everyone, disabled and not, have been forced to reckon with.

“The COVID-19 virus and the failure to create a just global public health and economic response to support people undergoing it is also creating a disabled world in that mass numbers of people are becoming newly or differently disabled because of getting COVID, long COVID, and/or long-term complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disabilities from the grief, loss, and stress of the pandemic….”

Sermon — The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Let’s start with some statistics. The statistics around disability in the United States are attention-grabbing numbers, and help us understand why disability is so important for us to talk about.

The Center for Disease Control issued a report in August, 2018, with the imposing title, “Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults — United States, 2016” [Catherine A. Okoro et al.]. Using data from 2016, the authors of the study determined that one in four adults in the United States, or an estimated 61.4 million adults, reported a disability.

The study covered six categories of disability. Most prevalent was mobility problems, that is, serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, with 13.7% of adults reporting this as a disability. Cognition disability, or serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions, was reported by 10.8% of adults. Disability affecting independent living, that is, difficulty doing errands alone, was reported by 6.8% of adults. Serious difficulty hearing was reported by 5.9% of adults. Serious difficulty seeing was reported by 4.6% of adults. And finally, disability affecting self-care, that is, difficulty dressing or bathing, was reported by 3.7% of adults.

Those figures are based on data gathered in 2016, data from before the pandemic. I would expect that the numbers of adults reporting cognitive disabilities would be somewhat higher today. We’re seeing an epidemic of mental illness that appears to be a direct result of the pandemic, including anxiety disorder, depression, and other ailments; this would tend to increase the numbers of adults reporting a cognitive disability. Then there’s long COVID, which can affect both cognition and independent living. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in today’s post-pandemic world, something more than one in four U.S. adults with some form of disability.

When you listen to these statistics, you come to an obvious conclusion: disability is a normal part of life. Disability is normal, yet our society tends to think of disability as somehow abnormal. I remember hearing a disability rights activist say that those of us who consider themselves to be able-bodied should really be thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied. Most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives. If we’re not disabled ourselves, someone close to us will be disabled and there’s a good chance we’ll wind up helping care for for that person. Disability is a normal part of life.

Somehow we have to get ourselves to remember that disability is normal. Religion is a powerful tool for telling ourselves stories to make sense of life. So what stories might we, as a religious people, tell ourselves to remind ourselves that disability is normal?

First of all, we have to let go of the old religious stories that say disability is always something to be cured, something to be gotten rid of. This is, unfortunately, a regular part of Western folk religion. While it is true that sometimes disability is something that can be cured, more often disability is simply a part of who we are. We are a certain gender, we are a certain race or ethnicity, we are a certain biological sex, we have a sexual orientation — these are all aspects of who we are.

This is why what Nancy Eiesland says in the first reading is so profound. Eiesland asks: What if God is a quadriplegic? What if God is disabled? What if God is disabled in any one of the many ways human beings are disabled? A central part of the teachings of Western religion is that human beings are made in the image of God. The clearest statement of this comes in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Later on in Genesis, there’s another story of how God created male human beings first, then created female human beings from ribs of the male human beings. But this later passage gives us a story that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little weird; I prefer the story in Genesis 1:27. In that first story, God creates humankind in God’s image, both male and female human beings, God creates in God’s image. (As an aside, this implies that God is actually, to use current jargon, non-binary gender; but that’s a sermon for another day.) So if all human beings are created in the image of God, then logically disabled human beings are also created in the image of God. This is Nancy Eiesland’s profound insight.

Eiesland’s insight is extremely important to Western cultures, like our culture here in the United States. Even though not everyone here in the United States is Christian or Jewish, our Western culture contains has an unexamined assumption that this story of the creation of human beings is somehow true. The Declaration of Independence of the United States claims that all men (to use the gender-specific language of the late eighteenth century) are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We human beings are created equal by God. We human beings have human rights. And the justification for human rights in the West derives in large part from the Torah, from the book of Genesis, from this story that God created all human beings in God’s image. To be able to have human rights — this is a great gift we have received from the Bible, and it’s one of the reasons we religious liberals need to reclaim the Bible as our own.

(Now at this point, those of you who are atheists, or heretics, or Buddhists, or nothing-in-particularists are saying to yourselves: This is all very fine and good, but I don’t believe in that old story. The God of the Israelites, the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians — that is not my god. But please remember we’re not talking about personal, individual beliefs here. We’re talking about the big widespread myths that underlie a shared Western culture in which we all participate, like it or not. So even if you don’t believe in this myth personally, this is a myth we want to claim for ourselves. This is one of the myths that gives us human rights in the West — surely, we can work with this, even if we personally don’t believe in it. So even for those of you for whom the Bible is not your bag, there are solid pragmatic reasons why we religious liberals want to retell this story as the shared inheritance of anyone living in our Western culture.)

To return to Nancy Eiesland: If God created all human beings in God’s image, then clearly God also created disabled people in God’s image. In other words, God is disabled. In other words, disabled persons have human rights just as able-bodied people have human rights. We all have human rights.

This is a surprisingly important conclusion. The Center for Disease Control tells us that one in four adults in the United States is disabled. If disabled people did not have full human rights — if, according to one of the founding myths of our Western culture, God did not create disabled people in God’s image — then one in four adults would not have full human rights. Clearly, we could not tolerate such a situation. Instead, we say: all people have human rights, regardless of ability.

This conclusion is surprisingly well aligned with the Universalist tradition of which we are the inheritors. The old Universalists pointed out that if God is actually as good as everyone says, God is not going to condemn anyone to an eternity of damnation in hell. Instead, the old Universalists said that all human beings are equally worthy of God’s love. Now apply this old doctrine of universal salvation to people with disabilities: all persons are equally worthy of God’s love. This is an important corrective to an unfortunate strain of the Western Christian tradition that said people with mental illness were demon-possessed, or that people with physical disabilities were either sinners or somehow cursed by God. Nonsense, we Universalists would reply. That is ridiculous. All persons are worthy of God’s love. No demons are involved, no sin is involved, and no cursing is involved. If you believe that kind of stuff and nonsense, you’re the one who is sinning. Disabilities are not marks of disfavor from God, since everyone is loved equally by God. A disability is simply that: a disability. (This notion of universal love, by the way, is one of the chief reasons I’m proud to say I’m a Universalist, even if I don’t have quite the same conception of God as the old-time Universalists had.)

All this might tend to have personal importance for the one in four among us today who happen to be disabled. But it’s also likely to be of personal importance to all of us at some point in our lives. Remember, there’s a very good chance that most of us, probably all of us, are going to be temporarily or permanently disabled at some point in our lives. I know people who have contracted long COVID, and who haven’t been able to work or to function normally for months; that would be considered a temporary disability. The pandemic has apparently caused an epidemic of mental illnesses, and some of these mental illnesses are serious enough to be considered disabilities. As I noted earlier, it seems likely that if the CDC researched the rate of disability in the United States today, more than one in four United States adults would report themselves as being disabled. This is what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they suggest that we might be headed towards a majority-disabled future.

When I think about a majority-disabled future — or even a future where one in three adults in the United States are disabled — my big concern is how we’re going to care for one another. As a whole, our society provides inadequate support for persons with disabilities. Anyone among us who are caring for an aging partner, or an aging parent, has direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to fight for accommodations for a child with disabilities has had direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to explain to an employer why we are not able to work as much as usual because of long COVID or Lyme disease has had direct experience of this — actually, while I was recovering from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago, I had to explain to the congregation I was then serving why I could no longer work fifty hours a week, but had to drop back to working just forty hours a week.

Since our society provides little support to persons with disabilities, we’re going to have to figure out how to care for one another. This is part of what Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they say that disabled people’s “cultures, knowledge, and communities [can] shape the world.” People with disabilities have had to learn how to care for one another; they have had to learn skills of interdependence. We can learn skills of interdependence from the disabled community.

Actually, here at First Parish we already work on our interdependence skills. We have the Caring Circle, where we help each other out when someone is ill or needs meals or other help. And we provide to each other not just physical care, we also give each other spiritual care. We talk to each other about our health problems or disabilities, we listen to one another, perhaps most importantly we are simply there for one another. We do that spiritual care for one another when we go to social hour after the service and talk with one another; or when we pick up the phone and call someone who can’t make it here on Sunday mornings; or when we send cards or texts or set up a videoconference call with someone who is stuck at home.

Here at First Parish, we’ve already started caring for one another. Yet we can learn more about caring for one another from the disabled community. I’ll give you one example of how we can learn from the disabled community — and I almost hesitate to say this, because I know what a hot-button issue this is — but each of us might consider wearing masks more often. I know how annoying it is to wear a mask, but wearing a mask can serve as a form of mutual aid and caring that supports the health of other people, particularly people who are immune-compromised. This is one way we can support interdependence.

And as a liberal religious people, there is another small task we can take on. We can reclaim that old story in Genesis where God creates all persons in God’s image. (Remember that this is a central myth in our Western culture; you may not believe in God yourself, but the majority of people in our society do.) If we happen to hear anything that sounds like someone is casting disabled people as less than human, we might gently challenge them. In the words of the Torah, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” However you conceive of God — as a myth or metaphor, as a cultural inheritance, as a living presence in your life, as something else altogether — whatever your conception of God, we can think of God as disabled because God created all humankind in God’s image. Or to put it in more familiar language, we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights.