In Unitarian Universalist churches, you don’t have to be a minister to give a sermon. I find that I enjoy coming up with one or two sermons a year, but I still can’t imagine how full-time ministers come up with three or four a month. Originally I did them at my home church (Bedford or Lexington in Massachusetts), and then eventually I started getting invitations from other places.
I was a little surprised when the folks at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship asked me to be the keynote speaker at their social action workshop “Conversations Toward a Better World.” What did I have to say that would be useful to them?
I decided I could tell them about the UUs who aren’t involved in social action and how they might appeal to them. Contrary to what some seem to think, I don’t think the activist vs. contemplative split is the problem here, and give the example of Thoreau as someone who belongs to both traditions.
Instead, I focus UUs who have neither a spiritual practice nor a social action commitment, who feel so overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life that they can’t imagine how they would find the energy to do either. They don’t need another demand; they need the hope of a transformed life — a message of salvation, in other words. But does “salvation” necessarily mean Heaven?
What’s the difference between talking about charity and talking about social justice? A Brazilian archbishop put it like this: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” A social justice view re-examines the system and the assumptions that justify it, rather than just mitigate the fortunate results. Building on Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, this sermon re-examines the concept of property, and how mistakes in the foundations of the economic system have separated us from our common inheritance.
One unusual thing about Unitarian Universalism is that there’s no doctrine about the afterlife. When you think about how a religion can or should work without an afterlife doctrine, you start to realize how much impact traditional afterlife visions have on everyday life. If you’re not going to build your religion on an afterlife, you may have to do a substantial redesign of the way you approach life. The sermon describes how that redesign might go. I’ve given it a few times: first in Quincy, Illinois (where they posted the audio), then in Athol, Massachusetts. I might well do it again sometime. This version is from Bedford on February 15, 2009. The children’s story from this service, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, is one of my favorites.
This is another version of the Cosmopolis sermon from 2006. This one was delivered to a chapel service of the Andover-Newton UU divinity students on April 19, 2007.
This was a chapel service I did at UUA headquarters in Boston on April 3, 2007. Why don’t more working-class people belong to UU churches? I address this question by discussing the contrast between the spiritual challenges of working class and professional class life.
The Unitarian Church of Quincy was kind enough to invite me back, so I did another “reconciliation” sermon. The short answer to what liberals and conservatives have in common is this: They’re both responding to the emptiness of the consumer culture. One reason the liberal/conservative dialog goes so badly, I think, is that neither side realizes this. We all tend to forget that the consumer culture is the dominant force in American culture today, and that it is neither liberal nor conservative. Rather than searching for the areas where they can make common cause, liberals and conservatives each imagine that the other is allied with the culture against them.
On April 2, 2006, I defied Thomas Wolfe and went home again. This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois – my hometown. Knowing that my father and maybe some of my classmates from St. James Lutheran elementary school might be there, I wanted a message that kept an ecumenical tone without sacrificing content. So I addressed this question: What if theists and atheists stopped arguing about God and started comparing their experiences of life? You can read (or leave) comments about this sermon on my blog.
Unitarian Universalism in general, and UU-Humanism in particular, has a tendency to turn into an anti-creed: a list of disbeliefs. This sermon explains why I think a healthy religious identity requires positive content. In particular, Humanism needs vision and imagination in addition to the critical thinking that it does so well. Fortunately, the history of Humanism has a lot of positive content, much of which has gotten lost. I demonstrate this by exploring one of the oldest Humanist visions: the Cosmopolis, the World City that makes all people fellow citizens. Finally, I contrast the Cosmopolis with its two rival visions, the Tribe and the Empire, and explain how this conflict of visions affects liberal and conservative responses to the War on Terror. This sermon was delivered at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury, Vermont on January 22, 2006.
The article Red Family, Blue Family in the Politics section of my web site garnered a lot of interest. In this sermon I tried to pull these themes together for a specifically Unitarian-Universalist audience. The sermon was delivered at my home church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts) on May 29, 2005.
The stereotype says that the West is rational and materialistic, while the East is spiritual. And certainly Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism do contain a great deal of spiritual wisdom as well as a lot of good meditation techniques. But does a Westerner really have to leave his native culture in order to make spiritual progress? What about a Western Humanist? These questions led me back 23 centuries to the Stoic and Epicurean origins of Humanism. I was surprised by what I found there. This sermon was given on January 21, 2001. The service includes my fractured-fairy-tale version of The Judgment of Paris.
We have many forms of surplus in our lives: material goods, opportunities, information. While these surpluses can relieve our anxieties about scarcity, they often create a new anxiety: That we will be blamed for letting it all go to waste. Usually, we think of the challenges of dealing well with each form of surplus separately, but some challenges are common. What does our culture teach us about dealing with surplus? Where are its teachings failing to keep up with a rapidly-changing world? How can we deal better with unbounded opportunities? with the Internet? And what about that box of old photos I keep saying I should do something with? This sermon was given on November 26, 2000 by Deb Bodeau.
I delivered this one at Bedford on January 16, 2000, which happened to be MLK Sunday. (I didn’t plan it that way; that’s just the date I was given.) This sermon is hard to summarize, because it is both personal and theoretical. I examine Zoroaster’s myth of the Battle at the End of the World in terms of its effect on history and on me personally — how I look at my life, how I handle my anger, and how I think about making the world a better place. I end up confessing that I have reached midlife without managing to become a hero, and that “fighting the good fight” is not a metaphor that I want to live by.
Deb delivered this sermon at Bedford on September 26, 1999. One way to look at it is as a practical follow-up to the more theoretical “Forgiveness” sermon that I had given the previous winter. Here is Deb’s summary: One of the motivating stories for the Days of Awe, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, is that at that time, God closes the book on the past year, opens the book of the new year, writes in it, and seals it. By taking time to remember, take stock, and atone, we can “close the book” on a period of time, and enable a new period to start gracefully, unencumbered by the baggage of the past. In this service, I describe our household practice of “closing the book”, some of the obstacles we’ve encountered, and lessons we’ve learned.
When I asked my Religious Questions discussion group (at Bedford in the spring of 1998) “Is the world a forgiving place?” the group got sidetracked onto a discussion of what forgiveness was — and never came to the original question. This told me that the congregation really wanted (or maybe needed) to have a discussion about forgiveness. One reason our discussion group got so sidetracked was that we all had different notions of what forgiveness means. The word forgiveness is used in many different and contradictory ways in the popular culture. In this sermon (delivered January 31, 1999) I give many examples of such uses of the word, and then come up with three very different senses of forgiveness to cover the examples.
When Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 1996, I took on the task of reading and distilling the countless books about healing. When John Gibbons (our minister at First Parish in Bedford Massachusetts) mentioned that he was planning to do a service about healing, I emailed him a summary of what the reading project had taught me. John came back with the suggestion: “Why don’t you do half the sermon?” The actual delivery of this half-sermon (in January, 1997) was hilarious, because I had a bad cold and could barely talk. (Thank God for microphones.) So there I was up in the podium, croaking out all I had learned about healing. Coincidentally, I was also sick when I gave the Envisioning the Next Religion sermon at Princeton. That time my voice performed marvelously through the sermon and the after-sermon discussion — and then it went away completely about two hours later.
Envisioning the Next Religion
I gave this sermon twice, in slightly different versions. The first time at Princeton, New Jersey in January, 1995, and the second timein Bedford, Massachusetts January 7, 1996. Both sermons are based on my essay The Shape of the Next Religion. It examines the possibility that the religious chaos caused by the decline of Christianity in America might be just an interregnum. We might be seeing a new religion develop.
Deb delivered this sermon at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts on August 29, 1993.
I presented this service at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts in February, 1993. Though the message is personalized for this congregation (we had been members at this church for almost five years), it could apply to many UU congregations, or any congregation that has a lot of intelligent, educated, high-achieving people in it. The sermon asks the question: Where is our surplus? Who gets the advantage from our abilities and accomplishments? Frighteningly, the answer might be: no one. [Don’t miss the children’s story from this service “The Wizard of Christchurch”.]
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