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A Revolution of the Spirit – 12/24/2016

In his novel, Hogfather, Terry Pratchet, the British fantasy-satirist, now of blessed memory, tells a story about Death. Not simply the very real fact of life, death, but the embodiment of that fact: a grim, yet affable fellow who appears as a skeleton in a black robe, carrying a scythe, and who’s duty it is to usher on the souls of the departed, when it is time for them to depart the mortal realm. In this story, Death has to sit in, temporarily for the Hogfather, another fictional character clearly styled on the person called, in the United Kingdom, Father Christmas, and who we know better, here in the United States, as Santa Claus. So it is that Death dons the red suit and the white beard and sets about the new task before him: delivering presents to all the children of his world.

Things do not go smoothly, as you might have guessed. When a little girl asks him for a gift, he hands her a sword. Not a toy sword, mind you; not a play sword made of wood or of plastic, but a very real, full-sized, excruciatingly sharp metal sword. Immediately, the nearest adult scolds him for it. “You can’t give her that! It’s not safe.”

Death – whose every line is always deadpan – explains, “It’s a sword. They’re not meant to be safe.”

Another responsible voice pipes up, “She’s a child.”

“It’s educational,” Death provides.

“What if she cuts herself?” the concerned fellow asks.

Answers Death, “That will be an important lesson.”

Tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate Christmas, and coincidentally, the beginning of Hanukkah as well. Both occasions are meant, in our culture, to be times of merriment and joy. Opportunities to gather together with family and friends, invitations to express our generosity and care towards each other, and especially a time for children – to enjoy treats and presents and be taught the songs and rituals of this season. Peace and hope and happiness are the most common watch-words of these festivals, and I wish all of that for each of us. But like Death’s gift of a sword to the girl in the story, neither Christmas, nor Hanukkah, is meant to be safe, and it would be a disservice to our children to pretend otherwise. Allow me to explain.

The Rev. Tim Yeager, labor organizer, peace activist, and Anglican priest, sets the scene for the Christmas story with these words,

Once upon a time, in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, there was a people with an ancient culture, a storied past, and a great literature, who had been conquered by a technologically advanced imperial power. They were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts of local peasants and slaves that were put down mercilessly.”[i]

Very nearly the same introduction could be used for the Hanukkah story as well. It occurred in exactly the same place, only about two-hundred years earlier, under a different empire with the same crisis of corruption, collaboration, oppression, and the merciless attitude of all tyrants towards dissent. In both stories, this predicament is not new. The people are not freshly conquered; they have labored under the yoke of empire for some time already. But there is something catalyzing in this moment, which is why the story starts here. In the Hanukkah narrative, that catalyst is a new, draconian edict from the Greek emperor Antiochus, forbidding the practice of the Jewish faith. This sparks the revolt that eventually leads to the expulsion of the Greek forces. In the Christmas story, King Herod, a collaborator who depends entirely on the occupying forces of Rome for his power, has just heard a rumor that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. So, willing to commit any evil to protect his throne, Herod turns with violent force against all the children of that city. Just after the traditional end of the Christmas story, when the shepherds and Magi have all gone home, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have to flee from their home country, to be refugees, for a time, in neighboring Egypt.

Both Christmas and Hanukkah are stories of revolution. In Hanukkah, that’s quite literal. In Christmas, it is a revolution disrupted. The teacher Jesus will come of age, and preach his message of peace and justice, and be struck down by Rome for it. Both stories have this quality of tragedy about them. For the Maccabees that led the revolt against the Greeks went on to found the Hasmonean dynasty, remembered for excesses and religious intolerance of its own, as well as for a power struggle which ultimately invited the forces of Rome into the land of Judeah. And only a handful of centuries after he preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the followers of Jesus would choose to accommodate themselves to the empire of Rome, rather than seek any longer to dismantle it. The leadership of the Christian movement chose to embrace the brutality of the imperial machine, so long as its emperors would kneel before the cross, rather than their former, pagan altars.

The progression from a revolution of the oppressed to an empire of oppressors is always the same. It begins by the replacement, in our ideals, of justice and mercy with strength alone. Once strength has been made the only object of our worship, there soon follows a confusion, such that we cannot even recognize strength any longer, and have to settle, instead, for cruelty.

But take heart, dear friends, take heart. For none of these tragedies has the final word on this shared holiday, tonight. Not if we are willing to take into ourselves the painful but important lesson that though hope can triumph, in our lives and in our world, it never triumphs without first being fought for. It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”[ii] In every time of crisis, whenever any people grow weary of being oppressed, the holy spirit of revolution still dwells within, waiting to be born.

The familiar carol, “O Holy Night,” which we will hear from our choir and perhaps sing along with in a moment, was written by a Christian but set to music by a Jew, and its rarely sung third verse, as translated from the original French, by an American Unitarian abolitionist, contains these lines,

Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease![iii]

Merry Christmas, and a Happy Hanukkah, to you, dear friends. Please remember this night, and in the year ahead, that these holidays were not meant to be safe. But they were meant to be beautiful, and hopeful, and glorious. May they be so this year, for us and for all the world. Amen.



[ii] The Gospel According to Matthew, 10:34

[iii] Credit is due to Rev. Yeager, again, for this observation

The End of Good Manners – 12/11/2016

At the start of JRR Tolkien’s famous novel, The Hobbit, his unlikely and erstwhile hero, Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet, comfortable life in a pastoral, quasi-medieval land called the Shire. Bilbo is a hobbit – the hobbit, of the story, in fact – a member of a small-statured branch of the human family that, at the start of the story, are renowned only for their love of good food, leisure, and the simple comforts of home.

Then, the strangers come to town. A band of adventurers pour into Bilbo’s home, uninvited, there to recruit him to join their quest for treasure and glory. Now, hobbits are hospitable folk, but these interlopers weren’t merely hungry and unlooked for – they were terribly poorly behaved. They make an utter mess of both his table, and his house. They even sing a little song about it:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—

Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

This goes on, in fact, for another two-and-a-half verses. The scene comes at the beginning of a story originally written for children; a playful-spirited adventure tale. But because it is the prelude to the much longer, much darker and more complicated Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is really the threshold of a world-spanning crisis, nothing less than an epic battle between the justice, and tyranny. And it all begins with the upheaval of a complete disruption in the social expectation of table manners.

Every society has standards for polite behavior. In Japan, it is customary to slurp one’s noodles noisily when eating them, as a sign of satisfaction. In most Arab countries, it’s considered very rude to let anyone else see the bottoms of your shoes. And, of course, the standard for whether one ought to arrive early, on time, or late for a social engagement vary wildly, not just from culture to culture, but also within them – I say this as a north-easterner who spent several years living in California. There is an order to every human group that is built not out of laws but out of habit, precedent, and expectation. When we are sufficiently comfortable with and accustomed to these, well, customs, they become invisible elements in the background of life. We only notice them again when they begin to break down. In the film, No Country for Old Men, two aging Texas law-men commiserate in a diner about the sad state of the social fabric. Their conversation quickly drifts from the serious and immediate problem of a killer on the loose, chasing after a vast sum of money, to what they see as the larger problem. One laments the sight of teenagers with, “green hair, and bones in their noses.” The other opines that, “once you stop hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon to follow.”

But it’s not just old Texas lawmen who associate manners and the unwritten expectations of society with a peaceful and healthy order. In differing amounts and for different definitions of good manners, this is actually a very common attitude. And I submit that we are, all of us, much more likely to feel attached to and defend the customs that somehow benefit or protect us personally than the ones that are irrelevant or antagonistic towards us. Complex table manners, for instance – all that business about which fork to use – may be very well-suited to folks who can afford multiple forks. To those of more modest means, the rules might still matter – but the chances are a good deal less.

Still, practicing careful manners and following standards of behavior meticulously has been a survival strategy for many people from marginalized groups. This includes African-American mothers emphasizing the importance of a neat, clean, respectable appearance to their children – because they knew their children would find themselves in dangerous situations in their lives, and that the slight edge of conforming to social expectations about clothing, hair, or manner of speech could make all the difference in those crucial moments. The same principle was at play in many of the arguments used to advance marriage equality in this country. That campaign emphasized the sameness, the normalness, the respectability of same-sex couples, and indeed, same and mixed gender couples can be very similar to each other. But they can also be different; in principle, this should have no particular bearing on whether or not any such couples, or such people, deserve respect. But in the moral universe of manners, difference is, at best, always suspect. The unwritten rules of society – any society – may comfort some, but they afflict others, or at least fail to shield them.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote,

I, too, sing America.


I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.



I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”




They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—


I, too, am America.

The stifling and unjust expectations of the table eventually give way, as Hughes describes, and the old order is ended. The breakdown in good manners isn’t always a crisis for those on the margins – sometimes, it is an opening into the possibility of liberation. In just a few weeks we will be celebrating two holidays – Christmas, and Hanukkah, which begins on the same night as Christmas Eve, this year. Both festivals recall a time and a place where the social contract had begun to unravel. In Judea in the 160s BCE, the Jewish people of that place had already lived as subjects of the Greek-speaking Seleucid empire for well-more than a hundred years. The arrangement was not just, but it was dependable, and the people of Judea were allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture so long as they obeyed Greek law and accepted Greek control. That was the case, until it wasn’t. There eventually came a Seleucid king who forbade the practice of Judaism in Judea and banned its holy texts, its festivals, and the teachings of its traditions. The polite order had become impossible to accept; it’s the uprising that followed that forms the basis for the holiday. Hanukkah is the celebration of a victory won by people who refused to continue to practice good manners in the face of colossal injustice. There is no such thing, we must remember, as a polite revolutionary.

The Christmas story, of the birth of the teacher Jesus, also opens with Judea under foreign occupation, this time by the Romans. The yoke of imperial domination weighed heavily upon them, and strained the traditional relationships between land owners and the poor. Customs of mercy that had allowed the very poor to survive, and the working poor to eke out a living were abandoned by the owners in favor of maximizing profit, spurred by the demands of the Roman economy and the pressures of its tax code. It was into this world and its unraveling social fabric that Jesus was born. His movement never quite cohered into an organized rebellion – we can argue as to why, but the most straight-forward answer is that he was murdered by the state before his campaign could have a decisive confrontation with Roman rule. But Jesus, it is sometimes strangely forgotten, was a man who did not care about manners. According to the accounts of the Gospels, he presumed to lecture his elders on scripture and religious law when he was still just a boy – hardly the last time he would speak in a manner someone else might call ‘impertinent.’ He frequently issued religious rulings to his followers that flew in the face of established practice – such as his ban on divorce, and allowance that people could work for pay on the Sabbath if it were necessary for their survival. And he instructed those who would be his followers that they must first leave their families behind to do so – a nearly unthinkable breach in a society built around family structures. Jesus’ teaching was grounded in love and justice, and a particular compassion for the poor and the oppressed; but it had no time for social convention or custom. Any such that stood in the way was tossed aside without hesitation.

My friends, we find ourselves, today, in an age when the social compact is once again unraveling. Where what once seemed unacceptable has come to pass. Where what was normal is no longer normal anymore, and in particular where the overt rhetoric of hatred based on race, religion, national-origin, gender, gender-expression and sexual identity, which many of us thought had been banished forever to the periphery of our politics and our discourse, has now come roaring back into the center of power. That old way, now gone, relied on custom to render out-and-out bigotry unacceptable in polite society. That custom never did its job properly. It was never thorough enough, never sought out the roots of injustice deeply enough, and it never did enough to change hearts. It was pleasant enough bandage over ugly wounds of our nation. Still, there is danger in the loss of that poultice – the spread of infection, the further worsening of the patient. But there is no restoring the deeply flawed spell of normalcy and “we don’t do that sort of thing here.” Instead, the work before us is to replace the passive protections of convention with the active work of loving relationship. For the best form of manners, after all, are never really manners at all, but honest expressions of care and respect for others and ourselves. As in the tale of the young man who sat at the table beside his mother, and pointed out with glee that his father had rested his elbows on the table – something the boy had been chided for many times. But then his mother pointed out that the child’s father had only made this grave social breach after his guest had done the very same. The host was not being casually offensive or intentionally disrespectful: he was simply trying to make his guest feel at ease, and reassure them that he was not judging them on arcane points of etiquette.

The poet Rachel Kann had something to say about how the turning point we are now passing through as a nation calls for all of us to reimagine what is possible and escape from the constraints of the polite into the wide open field of the truly kind, and justice-oriented. In her recent “What to Tell the Children,” composed only a few weeks ago, she writes in part:

Tell them that everything is not ok,

And knowing that is ok.

Tell them that pretending

That what is unacceptable is fine

Is what got us to this sick and dysfunctional spot on the timeline.

Apologize for any prior attempts to teach them denial.

Tell them you were blinded by desire for comfortable numbness.

Express that you had the best of intentions,

That you were working within a broken system,

Where few benefitted at the expense of many,

That you laid low,

Kept to the status quo,

Obediently played your role,

But those days are over, because

Now you know better.

The decidedly not normal moment in which we live, in which bullying is rewarded at the ballot box and hate crimes are measurably on the rise is not an era I would have chosen for the raising of my children, or for yours. But it does allow us to face honestly how the old, polite order served few and stifled many. Now is no longer the time for good manners, if ever, in truth, there was such a time. We live now in an age that calls on us to be more bold than that. To be ready to speak out of turn, to misbehave, to endure the clucking judgement of the powerful and the comfortable – among many other hardships – in order to be true to what is right and just. This is not the work of being polite, but the work of being real, and really loving towards each other. It is not that we must abandon every standard of how we had previously been together in society, but we must re-measure them. We must be fearless in our willingness to discard any social rule which serves to accommodate corruption or follow along quietly with injustice. So as the old standards and mores fall away one by one each day, it is important not only to acknowledge that something large and crucial in our culture has changed, but to be engaged in imagining and bringing into being the far greater future that remains possible, together.


Spirit, Law, and Covenant – 12/4/2016

In the year 325, an ecumenical council of bishops in the early Christian church was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine in the city of Nicaea, in what is today North West Turkey. This First Council of Nicaea was a crucial organizational meeting in the history of the early church, and it’s most famous product is probably the Nicaean Creed, or at least the original version of it. An amended version of that creed, which begins, in English, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…” has been used in Christian liturgy and practice for nearly 1700 years. Today it is employed in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, as well as most major Protestant traditions, and is generally considered to articulate ideas essential to Christian belief. It was not in any sense the first creed in human history, and it is not the only creed ever espoused even within the Christian church, but it is the archetype of what a creed is – an example so important that it greatly shapes the definition of the word it is attached to.

Establishing that creed was not the only order of business at Nicaea. In fact, it was part of a larger project attempting to codify doctrine within the Christian movement, specifically around the exact nature and character of Jesus. The overwhelming majority of leaders at the council held that Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father – that somehow the Son was equally as old, equally as unchanging, and equally as much God as the Father – co-eternal, and co-divine. If you’re a student of doctrinal language, you may recognize this as the standing doctrine and official teaching within all of Christian orthodoxy. I would offer that a vast number of faithful, practicing Christians have theologies that differ from this, but there is always a gulf between the official teachings of a faith and the beliefs-in-practice of its membership, especially when those teachings are particularly narrow, or arcane. In any case, this was the side that won out, while on the opposing camp was represented by a Christian leader from Egypt named Arius.

Arius is, in some sense, our theological ancestor. He is sometimes credited as being the first Unitarian. In fact, he held a position that I think most of us would see as only a slightly distinguishable from the orthodox view – agreeing that Jesus was divine, but that God the Father must have come first, and created the Son. Arius and the camp he represented were condemned as heretics at Nicaea; effectively expelled from the church. Arianism became a term for anyone who questioned the orthodox position on the divinity of Christ – all the many and varied shades of Unitarianism included. In fact, the original version of the Nicaean creed ends with several sentences condemning the ideas of Arius’ faction. A small anecdote I feel I can’t ignore three Sundays before Christmas: It is reported in some sources that during the council, one of the members of the soon-to-be-orthodox wing became so offended by the very presence of Arius in the proceedings that he struck him in the face in anger. That zealous bully, who wasn’t content simply to win the argument, or to banish his opponents from the church and set up more than a thousand years of persecution for anyone who might think like them, had to start throwing punches instead. That fellow was Nicholas of Myrna – that is, Saint Nicholas, on whom the modern character of Santa Claus is very loosely based.

I provide this little history lesson to offer one of the many reasons for why we Unitarian Universalists practice a creedless faith – because when people start writing down creeds and making folks recite them, and determining who is acceptable and who is not on the basis of them, it has not gone well for us in the past. As an Association of Congregations – the way in which we organize ourselves – we have agreed to make no creedal test, either for the admission of a congregation to our ranks, or for the entrance of any person into any of our congregations as a member. And yet, we do still make statements about who we are, and what we hold dear, and how we seek to live and work in the world. The distinction between any of these statements and a creed is first that we explicitly refuse to make them compulsory – we acknowledge that they are imperfect, and incomplete, and that embracing them is not a hard-and-fast requirement to be a part of who we are. But there’s also a difference in their content – our theological statements tend to focus not on explicit truth-claims about unseen or unknowable things, but on our values and ideals and how we will put them into practice together. This morning, I’m going to focus on one-such statement that we share in together, every Sunday, as a congregation: our Affirmation of Faith. I’m going to take this line by line, and provide some stories and anecdotes to explicate each:

As we read a bit ago, Love is the Spirit of this Church. A colleague of mine once told me about a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the middle of this country. That congregation had established a tradition, in one Sunday service each year, of celebrating its status as a Welcoming Congregation – committed to actively affirming, welcoming, and including Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer folks. My colleague – a queer woman herself – tried to be both honest and kind when she explained that the service didn’t say much to her. It seemed to be more about celebrating for the straight members of the congregation than for really lifting up the voices of the GLBTQ folks it was ostensibly centered on. But then, one year on that particular Sunday, a guest in the pews stood up in the middle of the proceedings. The visitor apparently didn’t get the memo about what could be expected in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and more to the point, didn’t have the manners to keep their peace or leave. Instead, the guest stood up and called out, “What is this, some kind of gay church?”

That was enough to silence the lay person at the microphone, and there was a brief hush in the sanctuary. Until someone else stood up. A long-time member of the congregation; older, straight, sort of taciturn, with a gruff personality. This is what they said, “Yes. This is a gay church. We have gay people here, and we love them like we love everybody else. If you don’t like that, you can leave. If you want to stay, then sit down.”

The principle that comes first and foremost for who we are as a congregation, how we treat one another, how we seek to treat ourselves, our planet, and all the people we share it with, is love. It is the spirit that suffuses every other element of our community. It is not passive, it is not meek; frequently it is the animating force that stirs us to action, that demands we take a side, intervene, challenge the way things are. Right at the start of his public career as a civil rights activist, during a speech in support of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Second line: And Service is its Law. A few of you have heard me tell a Christmas story from near the beginning of my own ministry, when I served a small, rural congregation in Western New York. I had begun my time there just after serving as a chaplain at the big hospital in the city an hour away, and one day I got a phone call from my former boss. In the chapel at the hospital there was a place where anyone who needed to could write out a prayer on slips of paper. The chaplains gathered up those slips every so often, and read them aloud – all at once – as a way of honoring the intentions and the hopes they expressed, before one of the staff took them home to bury them in her garden. They’d held the prayer reading earlier that day, and gotten one of a sort they very rarely receive. It was a prayer from a mother for her children and family, because Christmas was coming, and she had nothing to give them. And on that slip of paper, was her name and address. She lived in the same little town where my little congregation was.

I could not be in church that Sunday – I was only their part-time minister. But I called up a member of the leadership, and told him the situation; I didn’t give the name, of course, but I asked if he thought the congregation might want to make some response. That was all I could do; I left any decision up to them. What they did, was to take up a special collection that Sunday. The church saw 10-15 people in its pews on a good Sunday. Together they scraped together more money than would have made it into those collection plates in three months time. And so it was that I and the chair of the board, found ourselves waiting in her car the next night, outside the dark, empty house of a stranger, wondering how we were going to get this money to her if she was not home. And then a car pulled up, and the family got out, and nervously, we approached. We explained who we were, and what we were there for. The folks were confused, and then elated. They invited us into their home. The woman who had left that prayer in the hospital chapel began to talk about how we’d be seeing them in our church real soon. And this is what the board chair said to her, in response:

“We’d love to see you, of course. You’re welcome any time. But we’re not here tonight to get you to join us. We’re here because we had a chance to answer someone’s prayer. Thank you for giving us that opportunity.”

Law, at its best, gives form and shape to spirit. In fact, it can be the thing that returns us, again and again, to that spirit, when we would otherwise have lost track and sight of it.

The next line: This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace. Another story about another congregation, this one out in California. Like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, it has its origins in the Christian tradition, and when it was built a very large, very expensive glass window in the image of the teacher Jesus was put up right at the front, right behind the pulpit, at the very center of the worship life of the congregation. The years wore on, and Unitarians became Unitarian Universalists. The Christian consensus gave way to a blessed diversity of theologies and spiritual paths. And so the congregation thought, perhaps it was time that they considered doing something about that window. There was much discussion and negotiation. A great deal of time and thought was put into it, and finally the congregation held a vote on whether or not they ought to remove the window and seek to sell it or give it away to a museum or some such and replace it with a different, more inclusive image, or simply with clear glass, to let more light into the sanctuary. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of removing that window. That was very clear when it was taken. But what else was clear from the discussion that occurred at that meeting was how dearly and closely held the members of that congregation who did identify as Christian cared about and loved that window. So after the vote had been held, someone approached the microphone from the winning side and asked if they could take another vote. That they would hold the decision to remove the window until such time as the congregation could reach a true consensus; until the side that had lost the vote could be fully reconciled to that outcome, or some new strategy for increasing the inclusivity of their worship space could be found. That motion passed unanimously.

Next line: To seek truth in love. This story comes from a mentor of mine, when she was still serving a congregation. There was a year when the chairship of an important committee fell to a person who it seemed obvious was not up to the task. She was a fine person, a beloved member of the congregation, but she was disorganized and not known for her leadership skills. And at the first meeting that year of this particular committee, everyone else was in attendance, and the chair was late. And my mentor looked around the room, and she could see it on people’s faces that they weren’t excited about the year ahead, and serving alongside this person – who was the only person who had said ‘yes’ when the question was asked, “who will chair this committee?” And so my mentor said this, (I’m going to call the person Jenny, because she needs a name for this story).

“Let’s help Jenny be a real success this year. Let’s make it a point to help her be the best chair that she could possibly be, and to make this committee’s work as successful as it can possibly be. I think she deserves that win.” And that’s what those people did. They were the best followers they could have possibly been, following through an doing everything that was asked of them. The minister mentored Jenny closely over the course of that year, making sure that she kept up with appointments and deadlines. And with help, and with her own hard work, Jenny was the best darn chairperson that that committee could have possibly had.

We often confuse the truth with unkindness. “What do you think of my casserole?” “This casserole is simultaneously lukewarm and slightly burnt. This is an objectively terrible casserole.” But the full truth is only expressed when it is said in love. “I’m grateful you made this casserole for us to eat together.” That’s the truth, if you care about the cook. Jenny had it in her to be a great leader, if other people loved her enough to help her accomplish that.

And finally: And to help one another.

There’s a congregation on Long Island that is so wealthy that the whole of our Association routinely turns to it for financial support. This is not just because they’re in a relatively well-to-do part of the world; their wealth is the direct result of their generosity of spirit as a congregation. The story goes that there was a woman who was very rich and very much alone. She was a widow and had no descendants. She did not belong to any congregation, but she was attended to by a nurse who was a Unitarian, and knew that she was sad, and lonely, and had no one else. So the nurse asked her minister to come and visit this woman who was in her care, even though she had no particular connection to his congregation, and both foolishly and wisely he said, ‘yes.’ As the story was told to me, their meeting did not make any great impression on the minister, he did not spend a great deal of time or emotional energy, he just went and visited and thought that that was that. Until this woman died, and left to that congregation the bulk of her inheritance, which included oil and gas rights for the North Sea so vast that they are still paying dividends today – the basis for the wealth of this otherwise non-descript congregation on Long Island.

Friends, I do not promise you that every time we help each other we are going to get a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. What I promise you is that every time we help each other it is as worth it as if we had gotten a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. The words share each Sunday are words only. They are empty and meaningless unless supplied with the actions that give them animating force. Our work together, Sunday and every other day of the week, is to give them that animating force. To breathe life into old language, and to make the world and ourselves better for it.

Soul Wise, These Are Trying Times

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

With these words, Thomas Paine opened the first of his 16-pamphlet series, “The American Crisis.” His text was dated December 23rd, 1776, still relatively early in the Revolutionary War – 240 years ago, this month. He wrote at a time of upheaval and division – we often forget that the War of Independence was opposed not only by troops from Britain, but also by many of the American colonists themselves. He wrote to encourage his fellow future-countrymen, to lend them courage in a conflict which would take nearly a full decade more to resolve.

Many years later, after Paine’s opening line had gained a rarefied status as an example of stirring rhetoric, the stylist E.B. White offered several counter-examples, to illustrate the sorts of phrasing that fail to inspire. His most egregious offering – “Soul wise, these are trying times” – seems to me a fitting summary of the moment we find ourselves in, as a nation. A time of upheaval and division, once again, but also a time marked by a particular ugliness of thought, word, and deed. I know from talking with many of you that you have deep fears for our country, and as one who has pledged to speak the truth to you, I must confess that I share many of those same fears. But in times such as these, when the soul of our nation is troubled, and so troubles each of our souls, the role of a church such as ours becomes all the more pressing, and all the more clear. It is simply this, friends:

To provide refuge, from the dangers posed by the most coarse and cruel elements of our society. To aid and protect those most at risk, and to offer shelter against harms both physical and moral. Shelter for the body, and shelter for the spirit.

To offer replenishment, to anyone and everyone who gives of themselves in the service of others. To renew and refuel, revitalize and restore teachers and healers and activists and organizers of every possible sort. Offering physical and spiritual sustenance to sustain them in their work, on behalf of the common good. Whether they be professionals or volunteers; no matter how great their efforts, no matter how small their contributions.

And to nurture revolution. For what is the great calling of religion in the human heart, but to challenge us to examine with profound honesty our own selves and the world of which we are a part, to notice how vast is the gulf between things as they are and things as they ought to be, and to demand of us our highest efforts in closing that gap. Revolution is not merely a synonym for armed insurrection, but rightly labels any true transformation in a person, community, or culture. And across long ages and wide continents, the struggles to upend oppression, colonization, exploitation, and tyranny have, in an uncountable number of cases, depended upon the catalyzing energy of spiritual community. This month, we celebrate two such revolutionary, anti-Imperial movements, from long ago and far away, in the festivals of Hanukkah and Christmas.

In truth, I believe this work was just as much called for and just as much our calling on November 7th as it was on November 9th. Only it seems there is now a greater urgency for it, in our hearts and in our world. This holiday season, and every month and year that comes after it, let us rededicate ourselves and our community to these three, great purposes.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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