The Four Aims of Humankind: Sermon for Sunday, June 10, 2012

Posted by admin on June 27, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

I would like to tell you that this is going to be a sermon on Hinduism. Hinduism is the majority religion in India, and is practiced by over a billion people worldwide. Hinduism is ancient and fascinating, and in every way deserves a sermon. But Hinduism is also incredibly diverse. It is practiced across ethnic and linguistic divisions. Over the centuries, local worship, local gods, and local religious practice have been absorbed into Hinduism, and Hinduism has been changed by them. The people of India have been worshiping in ways that can be traced to modern Hinduism for more than ten thousand years. There is no way I could grasp “Hinduism” as a whole in one sermon.

And I, as a Westerner rooted in the Protestant tradition, speaking to you, who are mostly Westerners and mostly rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions, confront difficulties in trying to preach on a religion of India at any rate. If I share my fascination with Hinduism, I risk putting this rich tradition up on a pedestal. If I make too much of the differences, I risk comparing it to religious traditions with which we’re more familiar. Perhaps the best approach is to explore some of these basic similarities and differences, to see what we can learn about Hinduism together, and what the religion of more than one billion people, the religion of one of the fastest-growing nations on earth, has to teach us about our own spirituality. We will proceed together with humility and curiosity about Hinduism. We will wonder together how Hinduism teaches humans to live a good life. We will see what we can learn.

You may not know this, but the Unitarians had a missionary presence in India in the nineteenth century. The American Unitarians sent a man named Charles Dall, who worked in Calcutta from 1855 to 1886. The British Unitarians were represented by Mary Carpenter, an educational reformer from the north of England. Both of these people worked with an Indian group called the Brahmo Somaj, the work of a Calcuttan Brahmin named Ram Mohan Roy. In the 1820s, he had come to the conclusion that Hinduism needed to pursue a form of monotheism, in order to grow as a religion and in order to meet the challenge of Christianity.

This view was never adopted by a majority of Bengalis, let alone a great number of Indians generally. But the movement thrived among Brahmins who felt called to leadership of their people without wanting to become priests. Ram Mohan Roy and his successor, Keshab Chandra Sen, met and worked with American and British Unitarians, including Dall and Carpenter. But the Indian leaders ultimately decided that they were destined to pursue their own path to monotheism. While the Brahmo Somaj did not become a Unitarian religion, it remained in fellowship with its Unitarian cousins in the West.

Carpenter and Dall were not necessarily interested in native forms of Unitarianism, anyway. Carpenter wanted to found schools for Indian girls, as she had done for working class girls in the north of England. Keshab Sen, on the other hand, wanted girls and women to receive education in the home and remain within their feminine sphere. Carpenter’s reforming zeal was laudable, but she could never escape her sense that India was backwards and England was better. She wrote on one occasion, “Some native houses where I had the pleasure of visiting in Bombay, had quite the air and appearance of English residences, the families living alone, the lady of the house being the central spring of all, and no more secluded than suited her own taste (61).” For Carpenter, being more like England was better.

Dall, perhaps frustrated himself from having to work with a woman who considered herself his equal, wrote, “Miss Carpenter has been very cooly received on her return to Bombay, the mischief being, in the one hand, that she walks roughshod over everybody and meets her best advisers with rebuke, saying, ‘she knows better.’ This style of hers has become so inveterate that the old lady has hardly a friend left. If she could begin to see how little she knows of India (Lavan).” Meanwhile the Brahmo Somaj would have been happy for western financial support but did not want to become more English at all. Unitarians may not have traveled the globe trying to convert people to Christianity. Yet our history of missionary activity is no less fraught with difficulties. Yes, we had a mission to India, but we were not as respectful as we could have been.

Working with and learning from other cultures can be so hard. It is very hard for us humans to recognize how many of the truths we take for granted are cultural and not absolute. We are always ready to think that the way we do things is the right way to do things. We understand that some things are cultural, such as the language we speak, the food we eat, and the way we worship. But our cultural heritage may run even deeper than that. Think about giving directions, for instance. When we give directions to someone coming to visit us, we usually say “turn left” or “turn right.” We might start on a large scale by including cardinal directions: for instance, we might say, “Head north on Route Three.” But once into the neighborhood, we give directions based on the person doing the navigating. We ask our visitor to start with her own body, and then move forward or backward, left or right. But there are cultures and languages that rely entirely on the cardinal directions. Aboriginal Australians living in north Queensland speak a language called Guugu Yimithirr. In this language, all directions are given using the cardinal compass points. As one journalist put it,

If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward (Deutscher).

This linguistic detail requires that the Guugu Yimithirr, the speakers of this language, know at all times which way north, south, east and west are. Speakers of geographic languages learn from childhood how to recognize the directions, and they encode their memories with these directions so that stories can be retold later. They always know which direction is north, regardless of whether they are indoors or out, in a familiar location or a strange one.

A journalist tells one story of a Guugu Yimithirr who happened to be filmed, twice, telling a story about how, as a young man, his boat “capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape (Deutscher).” The story is thrilling enough on its own, but it becomes even more interesting to the viewer from another culture.

In both tellings, as the man describes how the boat tipped to the north and the south, and how the sharks were coming at them from the southeast and the northwest, he gestures in these cardinal directions. Even though he is oriented in different ways in the two retellings, and so must gesture in different directions relative to his own body and to his listeners, the cardinal directions remain the same. Directionality is cultural, not innate. Since we don’t think about the directions behind, in front, or next to, we think they are universal. But they are taught to us in our language, our culture, and our lived experience.

When we learn about a religious tradition other than our own, we come with the same cultural expectations. So much of what we know and practice in religion is cultural, not absolute. We may be surprised when we encounter different religious ideas. In the Christian tradition, religion is a matter of the spirit and the mind primarily, and only secondarily a matter of the body. Many of us grew up in traditions where the real world of fulfillment and promise was the next world, which we would only encounter after a good life and death. In Hinduism, religion is woven into one’s entire life. Hinduism proclaims four aims of humankind, which are also related to four stages in life. These aims are dharma, worldly success, pleasure and release (Doniger 201).

Dharma is a Sanskrit word meaning that which holds fast, or the right way of the world, or the way things should be. We might translate it “duty.” Release in Sanskrit is the word moksha.  As a fourth aim of life, moksha was actually appended later to the original list of three. It means release from the striving after goals, enlightenment, and ultimately release from the cycle of karmic rebirth. Righteousness, enlightenment, release from the cycle: these we are familiar with in our western, Christian heritage. But prosperity and pleasure? As religious aims? This can take us outside of our understanding of religion. We must recognize that our religious values are cultural, and not absolute. We must set aside our preconceptions about religion and enter into a space of appreciative curiosity about Hinduism.

The four aims of life in Hinduism are sometimes divided up as aims over the course of a man’s lifetime. I say “man” purposefully, here, because these goals were specifically for high caste men, not for lower castes or for women. (Neither classical Hinduism nor traditional Christianity focus on women’s pleasure or women’s salvation.) So over the course of a high caste man’s life, he would first pursue worldly success as a young, chaste student; he would then become a householder, pursuing pleasure as a husband and a father. Once his children had grown he would leave his wife (as you can see, her enlightenment must follow a different path) and become a forest-dweller, seeking enlightenment and release from seeking after goals. During all these pursuits, he was carrying out his duty, or living his dharma.

The Buddha was one such man, according to legend. As a young man, he studied; then he married. After learning about the reality of suffering among humanity, he left home to become an ascetic. But after several years of wandering and deprivation, he realized that enlightenment could not be sought in this way. Finally, under the bodhi tree, the Buddha found enlightenment and release from the cycle of desire.

This is just one idealized story about how a man might pursue these four goals. Not all Hindus pursue all four. Some strands of the tradition emphasize one over the other three. Some traditions within Hinduism seek enlightenment through pleasure, and some Hindu holy symbols are the male and female organs of the gods. There are traditions alive and well within Hinduism and Buddhism that seek religious fulfillment in the earthly, the relational, and the here-and-now. There is some love imagery in the Sufi traditions of Islam–the great Sufi poet Rumi likened his love for his friend Shams to love for Allah–but seeking enlightenment through earthly love is not part of our Protestant heritage. Through encounters with other traditions, we learn other ways people approach the mundane and the holy.

Western, predominantly Christian cultures have a long history of imposing their values, often through violence, on eastern cultures and their diverse religions. American and British Unitarians were not much different in their missionary efforts in the nineteenth century. Religious liberals have spent the later decades of the twentieth century (and continue into the twenty-first) trying to undo this legacy of colonialism and oppression. We try, now, to have an understanding of our own cultural values and to learn, humbly and earnestly, from other traditions.

One of the twentieth century’s most profound lessons was one that came from India. This is another Sanskrit word, ahimsa, or non-violence (Doniger 9). This began as a value opposed to animal sacrifice, came to mean the avoidance of violence to animals, and then became the goal of nonviolence among humans. One historian of Hinduism points out that it is a shining goal more than a reality in Indian culture. Yet it is a goal which has moved our entire world toward greater freedom and understanding in the last one hundred years. This goal of nonviolence, espoused by Gandhi in his resistance to the British, influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. in his leadership of the civil rights movement. Recently Palestinian prisoners have used nonviolent protest to win more rights in Israeli prisons. Nonviolence has spread from India outward to the world, influencing western culture for the better. Recognizing what is part of our culture helps us understand it, embrace parts of it, and rid ourselves of parts of it in favor of other cultures. Sharing cultures and religions with honesty, humility and curiosity expands the possibilities for world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.


Carpenter, Mary. Six Months in India. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868.

Deutscher, Guy. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times Magazine. 29 Aug. 2010: 42. 26 Aug. 2010. Accessed 8 June 2012.

Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Lavan, Spencer. Unitarians in India: A Study in Encounter and Response. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1991.

The Spiritual Life of a Community: Sermon for May 13, 2012

Posted by admin on May 16, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Let’s imagine a fledgling spiritual community. A dozen people, living in nearby towns, had all been meditating on their own for a few years. One couple decided they wanted to deepen their meditation practice by joining in a community with others, so they put a notice out on their blog for a meditation retreat on their farm. Ten people tentatively responded, saying they, too, would like to engage their practice in community. For a weekend, these dozen strangers and acquaintances bonded deeply over their shared spiritual practice. They spent their days in silent meditation and shared chanting. They enjoyed mindful meals, and spent time each night talking and laughing together. They found their new community immensely fulfilling, and couldn’t imagine letting it slip away from their lives. Read more of this article »

Rolling Away the Stone: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2012

Posted by admin on April 18, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

You have a stone in your hand. Turn it over a few times. Feel its heft and its rough edges. Or feel its smooth sides, eroded down by years of wear. This stone is in your hand, but all of us have a stone we carry in our hearts, a stone that blocks our way forward. For some of us, the stone is small, smooth and old; for others, it is large, jagged, and the pain of it is new and raw. All of us have a stone, and we do not know how we will roll it away. We are like those ancient people walking toward the grave. When we approach this closed off space in our hearts, we almost cry out, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” We ask: who will roll away the stone? Read more of this article »

White Anti-Racist Heroes: Sermon for February 19, 2012

Posted by admin on March 7, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Let’s begin this morning with a spiritual practice. I want you to take a moment and call to mind the name or face of an anti-racist hero in our country’s past. Go ahead and take a minute to do this.

Who are some people you thought of? I know when I do this, and I bet when you do it, you call to mind the name or face of an African American person. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Challenging myself to think of people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, I call to mind Sitting Bull or Cesar Chavez. These are all great people, and we do well to remember, admire and emulate them.

But suppose I challenge you to think of a white anti-racist heroes. This is much harder. While you think about it, let’s think for a minute about why it’s even important to be able to name white anti-racist heroes. Most of us here identify as white people, as do most people in northern New England. Still, even though we are mostly white and live in a mostly white community, we may have a desire to live in and work toward a less racist world. We want to know what we can do to fight racism in our everyday lives. We want to be ready the next time we’re at a party with white friends and someone tells a racist joke. As in the fight against so many big problems, we need concrete steps we can take here and now to try to make a difference. Being able to identify white anti-racist heroes from our present and our past–having some people in mind whom we can look up to and try to emulate–is one small step which we can take.

As inspiring as the people of color we easily think of are, they are hard for us (as white people) to emulate in fighting racism. Rosa Parks was able to combat racism by refusing to give up her seat because she was the victim of Jim Crow laws in the south. A white woman would not have been asked to give up her seat at the front of the bus. There were plenty of white people on Parks’s bus in Montgomery on that day in 1955; the reason she was asked to move to the back was because the bus was getting full. As far as history knows, none of them offered to go sit in the back or argued with the bus driver on Parks’s behalf. Parks knew what she could do, as an African American woman, to challenge Jim Crow; white people facing racism also need tools at their disposal. There is much contemporary writing and thinking about how all race is culturally constructed and society would do better to learn to treat race in that way, instead of as an essential characteristic. But essential or cultural, our society views people through a lens of race. Those of us who are white benefit from that lens a great deal. The more we can do to use our privilege to help build a more equal society, the better.

All right, so have you thought of any white anti-racist heroes?

I find this exercise harder. The Civil War ended slavery, true, but so many of the white leaders of our country at the time were pretty oppressive in their racial ideas. In addition, the Civil War was 150 years ago. A lot has happened since then. We know the secret to life, just like the governor in our story this morning. Do what is good, and don’t do what is bad. Every three-year-old knows it, and every eighty-year-old (and everyone between) finds it hard to follow. What can we actually do about the big problems of our society, like racism? To prepare ourselves to fight racism in all its forms, big and small, when we encounter them, we need some heroes to look up to. We need to know the stories of white people who have taken up the cause. It is as much a part of our education as knowing the stories of heroes of color. So this morning, I’d like to introduce you to two white anti-racist heroes, who lived and worked since the Civil War, to help us know whom in our history we can look up to.

You may know, in a sort of intellectual way, that our country treated American Indians like a defeated enemy in the nineteenth century, constantly abrogating treaties and forcibly moving Indian tribes around the country. To hear a particular story makes the wrongdoing much more real. The Ponca are a tribe in the Sioux language group, who trace their history back to what is now the eastern United States, and who were living in Nebraska when they first met the descendants of European settlers. They signed a peace treaty with the United States in 1817, and continued to work under an 1825 treaty to regulate inter-tribal trade and promote peace. In 1868, when the United States signed a treaty with the Sioux (or Lakota) Federation, the U.S. mistakenly included Ponca land in the Sioux settlement. The Sioux, believing the land had been granted to them, began to fight the Ponca for rights to the land.

In 1876, the United States decided to move the Ponca and other tribes from the northern plains to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. The Ponca chiefs examined the land and determined they would not be able to farm there. When they refused to move, the U.S. forcibly moved them. The chief, Standing Bear, moved with his people under duress.

In the first year in the Indian Territory, twenty-five percent of the Ponca died. After the death of his son, Standing Bear and other Ponca leaders decided to protest their forcible move and carry out their tribal traditions. They carried Standing Bear’s son’s body back to their ancestral lands for burial. Standing Bear was arrested for leaving the Indian Territory without permission. His case became an important civil rights case of its day. White lawyers took his case on pro bono, and the Supreme Court ultimately found in his favor, finding for the first time that American Indians were “persons under the law (“Ponca” 4).” Eventually, in 1881, the United States granted land in Nebraska back to the Ponca, and about half the tribe returned. Their health and vitality as a community continued to decline, however, under the weight of their forced wanderings.

After his acquittal, Chief Standing Bear took his story to white America on a speaking tour in the East. One person who heard him was a Boston activist named Helen Hunt Jackson. Her life was changed by hearing Chief Standing Bear speak. As soon as Jackson heard the story of the Ponca, she realized that the way our country was treating American Indians was wrong. She wrote to her friend, Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I think I feel as you must have felt in the old abolition days. I cannot think of anything else from morning to night (Mathes 21).” She used the force of her personality and her connections to people of means to raise money for Indian causes, and she used her work as a journalist to publish articles in American newspapers informing the white public about the mistreatment of American Indians. She wrote her book A Century of Dishonor to highlight the United States’ injustices toward American Indian tribes.

Jackson’s greatest work with American Indians started when she visited the Mission Indians of southern California. Franciscan monks had established missions to the Indian communities in southern and central California, in what is now Mexico and the United States. Spanish Franciscans established these missions to forcibly baptize Indians and to make them work for the good of the mission, in theory as they became fully integrated into a Christian way of life. In practice, the missions often amounted to little more than slavery, with Indians forced out of their tribal cultures and religions to work for missions whose efforts they had no reason truly to support. In the early 19th century, these missions came under the control of the government of Mexico. They were secularized and the Indians were freed from the missions, but many remained in the area and entered low-paying agricultural jobs. The tribal structure and population of California was decimated by the practice of corralling Indians into missions.

Jackson spent the latter decades of her life visiting the mission Indians and writing about them. She is best known for her novel Ramona, which is treated like a romance, but was written to highlight the plight of Indians in southern California. Jackson lobbied Congress and the Department of the Interior for better legal protections and treatment of these communities. Although Jackson did not live to see the justice she wanted for America’s Indian communities, her life was an inspiration to other reformers and allies after her. And unlike some later activists, Jackson had no desire to convert Indians to Christianity or to integrate them into the European culture of the United States. She worked for Indian rights simply because she believed that Indians were people with rights, too.

Another white anti-racist hero I have come to admire is the woman whose words we heard in the offering music, Anne Braden. Braden was a white woman born in Kentucky in 1924. Although her parents were traditional white southerners who did not challenge the racial politics of their day, Braden began to explore and embrace liberal humanist values as a teenager. She carried these values with her into college, and they deepened as she began to work as a journalist and marry fellow liberal activist Carl Braden. In 1954, the Bradens bought a house in a whites-only suburb of Louisville on behalf of black associates of theirs. They bought the house in May, and in June it was dynamited. No one was hurt. The perpetrator of the explosion was never arrested, but the Bradens were arrested for sedition, on the grounds that they were members of the Communist party and had bought the house in order to stir up trouble (Fox).

Carl Braden was convicted of sedition and served seven months in prison before his case was overturned. Anne Braden’s case never went to trial. The Bradens were arrested for sedition again in 1967, for organizing opposition to strip mining in Kentucky. After that arrest, a federal court found Kentucky’s anti-sedition law unconstitutional. In 1985, Anne Braden helped found the Rainbow Coalition. She is mentioned as a white ally to the cause of African American civil rights in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (Fox).

There were millions of southern whites who accepted Jim Crow, and thousands who championed it. But there were thousands more who thought it was wrong and didn’t know what they could do to change it. Anne Braden provides an example of concrete actions white people can take to help overturn an unjust system. Buying a house in a segregated neighborhood for African American associates was a brilliant idea. Most of us may never have an opportunity like the Bradens to disrupt racism in a big way. But Anne Braden’s actions inspire us to think of creative ways we, as white people, can combat the racism we encounter in our everyday lives.

Tim Wise, a white anti-racist writer and speaker, describes one of those situations which happened to him. He was out for a drink with a white student at a college where he had been invited to speak. Other young white people, who did not know who Wise was, joined them at the bar. In the midst of this group of white people in their early twenties, who did not know that Wise is a well-known writer and speaker on the topic of anti-racism, one man told a racist joke. As several people were laughing and others were looking on uncomfortably, Wise looked right at the joker, and said to him, deadpan, “You know, I don’t think that joke is funny, [pause] because my mother is black.”

Now here is this man who looks absolutely white, telling another white man his mother is black. The joker immediately began to backpedal and apologize. This opened up the space for Wise to tell him he was just kidding, both his parents were white, but to ask the young man why he thought it was all right to tell a racist joke. He was able to convey to the joker that not all white people will accept racism, but to throw him off enough to keep him in a conversation about the issue. Wise wasn’t confrontational, he was tricky. The joker could have gone away from an interaction like that angry; instead, I bet he went away thoughtful.

Whatever opportunities are presented to us as white people to combat racism, we need to be ready to act on them. We need whatever tools we can muster–humor, trickiness, and the admiration of heroes in our past. We need education about the dangers and difficulties faced by communities of color both in our past in and in our present. We need all these tools of power to build the world we dream of.

Please join me in prayer, adapted from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

Good and gracious Spirit of Life,
Which is love and which is the delight of all people,
we stand in awe the vast diversity of being,
in awe at the incredible spark of life within each person on earth.

Differences among cultures and races are multicolored manifestations of this Light.

May our hearts and minds be open to celebrate similarities and differences among our sisters and brothers.

We place our hopes for racial harmony in our committed action and in the presence of the Spirit in our Neighbor.

May all peoples live in Peace.


Flobots. “Anne Braden.” Fight With Tools. CD. Universal Republic, B0017PE9I6, 2007.

Fox, Margalit. “Anne Braden, 81, Activist in Civil Rights and Other Causes, Dies.” New York Times 17 Mar. 2006, nat. ed. Accessed 17 Feb. 2012.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.

“Ponca.” Wikipedia. 5 Nov. 2011. 1-11. Accessed 17 Feb. 2012.

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. “Closing Prayer.” Prayer Service: The Elimination of Racism. 2006. Accessed 17 Feb. 2012.

Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Rev. and updated ed. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

Pragmatism: Sermon for January 8, 2012

Posted by admin on January 12, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

William James’ biographer begins with the story of James in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Plagued by insomnia, he was awake just before five in the morning when the quake hit. He rode out the 48-second quake on his bed, and then went to find his wife, who was unhurt. Once he realized they were both safe, James ran out into the street. He spent the rest of the day talking to everyone he could about their experience of the earthquake: where they had been, what it was like for them, what they had seen and felt.

This is no surprise from the man who is the best known proponent of a philosophical approach called “pragmatism.” Pragmatism, and in particular the writings of William James, is one of my favorite theological and philosophical approaches. Pragmatism says, at its core, what matters is what we do–that belief will be shown through action. It says that the test of any belief is its consequent actions. It says that there is not one unified truth, but as many ways of experiencing the world as there are human beings. This is what I love about Unitarian Universalism. Our beliefs can be quite diverse, and our actions can still converge around the love within our fellowship community and the good we can do in the world.

At the core of pragmatism is the concept that our beliefs are shown through our actions. The issue of who believes what often takes center stage in our divided world. We believes that our beliefs divide us. But what do we believe, really? Take the example of two women interviewed in Pennsylvania, during the last presidential election, about whether or not they supported then-Senator Obama.

One woman looked right at the camera, and said with complete conviction that she thought Obama was an incarnation of the devil and would be terrible for America. She turned to her neighbor and said, “Don’t you agree?” And the neighbor looked at the camera and said no, she was going to wait and see what his policies were, and she might vote for him. The interviewer thanked them, and the women went back into their houses. We can imagine that the two women went on about their day and watched themselves on the evening news (Doherty).

Now the woman who believed that Obama was the devil stated her belief with every indication of really believing it. She was asked what she thought and she said it; there was no indication that she was lying or playing a joke. But in some sense, she must not really have believed it. If you believed that Satan himself was going to be incarnate in the president of the United States, it would not be all right with you for your neighbor to disagree with you on that matter. It would be a matter of the gravest concern, a matter that might prompt you to take whatever action you could to change the outcome.

Imagine that you are upstairs in your house at night and you become convinced that a strange person has entered your home downstairs. Maybe this person is a burglar; at any rate, you know they’re not supposed to be there. The nature of this belief would cause you to take immediate action. You might try to confront the person or scare them off. You might call the police. You might hide in the closet. Whatever your response, it would come as a result of an overwhelming belief that something was not as it should be. The belief that something was wrong in your house would have become real to the point of requiring action. Pragmatism is the philosophy which says that the test of our beliefs is the action we will take. Pragmatism would say that while the first woman in the interview is considering the possibility that Obama might be an incarnation of the devil, she doesn’t quite believe it yet, or she would be acting on it.

As I said, pragmatism was made most widely known by philosopher and psychologist William James, brother to the novelist Henry James and diarist Alice James. The word was coined by Charles Sanders Peirce and the ideas were explored by other friends of theirs, including George Santayana, whose poem we heard earlier. William James was a pioneer in the field of psychology in the late 19th century, and is also well known as a writer of philosophical and theological works. He pioneered the idea of a “stream of consciousness,” a flow of our ideas which was a more accurate way of understanding our minds than thinking that “mind” was a static thing. He believed that what we call our “mind” came to exist through the constant stream of experiences which make up our lives.

James arrived at his conclusions about the nature of belief and experience through his absolute commitment to the theory of evolution. He was interested in philosophy, theology and psychology that arose from the experiences of human beings. A creature’s experience in the world would select for adaptations and fit the creature for that world. When James looked at the animal kingdom, he saw that some creatures in it had consciousness and some did not. Therefore, James thought, consciousness must be an adaptive solution. We are not automata, with an observing consciousness along for the ride. And we are not divinely endowed to lord it over creation. The process of evolution has provided us with a faculty which can consider our experiences and options in time and make decisions which are not merely driven by sense experience. Each person’s consciousness is the hallmark of their free will to respond to the universe in the way that is right for them.

The freedom of this appeal to experience is bound, on the other side, by the limits of achieving a universal vision of reality. If each person interacts with the world in her or his own way, then it is hard, as an individual, to say anything conclusive about the nature of the universe itself. Many philosophies of James’ time were concerned with trying to explain life, the universe and everything. James was concerned with building a philosophy outward from the individual and collective human experience. And he was not going to leave out any experience, because everything that we perceive is part of what it means to be human.

In a way, our beliefs become our biography. What we believe becomes who we are. William James believed that part of what our mind does for us is help us select the stimuli in the world to which we wish to pay to pay attention. Animals with less consciousness, James believed, were required to pay attention to stimuli regarding food, shelter and safety. These things are still important to humans, but with the tool of consciousness, we can choose to pay attention to other things too. Even homeless people may create art, in other words, because having a mind allows people to choose to pay attention to beauty over shelter.

This concept of mind also suggests that our minds are an organ of our functioning, like other organs in our body. And our minds can function more or less well, just like other organs. Sometimes, the organ of our minds does not work as well as we wish it did. All of us have either experienced serious depression or known someone who has. I can think of a friend of mine who watched her marriage fall apart because she did not have the capacity, at that time, to take the steps necessary to improve her situation.  It was as though she had a broken leg, and the thing she needed to do to heal was to hike a mountain.

Rather than see depression as a failure of the person, we can see it as a difficulty with the organ of the mind. A therapist can even use consciousness as a tool in treating depression, by helping someone see the depression as something external to themselves. Even choosing to get help is often ambivalent. Therapists may use therapies which identify “the depression” as something external to the patient. Theory of change–pre-contemplation, contemplation, change, backsliding are part of the process.

William James believed that experience formed the core of human existence. He was interested in building up a philosophy of the human mind which was based on experience. When he considered experience, however, he did not exempt anything. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James notes the real power and of conversion and mystical experiences. He discusses many kinds of conversion: conversion to religious belief; conversion away from religious belief to atheism; and conversion from drunkenness to sobriety are just a few. He notes that people can go to sleep one night believing one thing and wake up the next morning believing something different–even something, in the case of sobriety, which they may have been contemplating for some time. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were in fact inspired by The Varieties of Religious Experience to form Alcoholics Anonymous, which relies on the experience of conversion to bring people to sobriety.

The building up of experience in oneself, which finally results in a conversion, is another way of looking at the evolution of ideas. Just as James believed that consciousness, or mind, had evolved in humans as a trait selected for the survival of the species, he believed that ideas evolved in us as competing efforts until one idea was selected as the one upon which we would act. He went so far as to say that the action itself selected the idea; in other words, it is when we get out of bed that we have the idea, “I will get out of bed now,” rather than the idea, “I will stay under the covers where it is warm.”

The moment the alcoholic decides to stop drinking is the moment at which the idea to not drink truly emerges; every moment before when she has thought to herself, “I really need to stop drinking” while pouring another drink, the idea of not drinking was not yet fully present. It was one of several competing ideas, but the idea to drink was still winning. The idea to seek treatment for depression is also a thought that may have had to prepare itself before becoming real. Psychologists encourage patients to see the all the stages of change, including the contemplation that goes on before making the change, and the backsliding that can occur later, as being integral to the change itself. The end result did not emerge out of nowhere, but was built up as a result of our experience with the world. All the experience which went into the change was part of the change, and we could not necessarily have changed without it.

William James’ father was obsessed with the reality and presence of God. He belonged to the Swedenborgian movement, a religious gathering that sought to move away from the traditional forms of religion and get at the mystical truth. After his father died when James was in his late thirties, he wrote, “[Religion] is not the one thing needful, as [Father] said. But it is needful with the rest (Richardson 233).” To return to conversions, James noticed that people experienced real conversion both to and away from religious faith. He sought to explain this by naming that source of religious faith the “More.”

Most experiences, James believed, came to us through the world of our senses. But we could not discount the experiences of mystics and dreamers, even experiences stemming from intoxicants or what we might call mental illness. James was out to build up a philosophy based on human experience, and he was determined to include all human experience. He called this source of experience that seemed to be outside the sensory world the “More.” He was open to the possibility that it was divine, or that it was some untapped part of our own brains, some sense we had not yet learned to name. But James insisted that we could not ignore the More, which was the source of religion, art, mystical experiences and conversion.

James’ philosophy is one of my favorites because he makes room for everybody. He insists on no dogma, but only on the test of action that comes from sincere belief.  It does not matter to me whether a person labels their belief Christian or Jewish, or theist or humanist, although all those words signify rich traditions worth celebrating. What matters to me is what you will do, as the poet says, with your one wild and precious life.


Many thanks to Carolyn Stevenson for her helpful insights into clinical depression.

Doherty, Alex and Clive Hamilton. “God, Sex and the Left (Part 1).” New Left Project. 9 Nov. 2011. Accessed 22 Dec. 2012.

Richardson, Robert D. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Different Beliefs, Common Covenant: Sermon for December 11, 2011

Posted by admin on January 11, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

“Starr King Fellowship is a multigenerational, welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant. We work together in our fellowship, our community, and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.”

That’s our Who We Are statement, drafted following mutual interviews done by dozens of attendees at worship services and adult education sessions two years ago. A small group of people went through piles of anonymous interview notes, collected the responses into thematic groups, and distilled our thoughts and hopes about what kind of community this is into those two sentences. We read them this morning as after we lit our chalice. They are printed every week on the back of your order of service and in our weekly and monthly newsletters.

All of the words in this statement are precious to me. I want us to live up to every one. But the part of it that resonates most for me right now is in the first sentence: “[We are] a welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant.” There are fewer and fewer places in our society where different beliefs truly come together. The more Starr King Fellowship can be one of those places, the better we will fulfill our mission.

When the Unitarians were first finding their voice and defining themselves as a religious movement in the early 19th century, they paid a lot of attention to what beliefs would be acceptable within their group. We might not like to think that, because Unitarianism, and later Unitarian Universalism, have always been religions without a creed, where no one need sign or assent to a statement of belief in order to be a member. But the men who gathered to consider organizing the several Unitarian churches at the beginning of the 19th century were just as eager to protect their “brand” as any creedal faith.

They called themselves the “Anonymous Association” at first. When a discussion was held about whether to form a Unitarian Association, so that they could promulgate their views of religion and organize liberal Christian churches together, some were in favor. But some were opposed. One historian writes, “[This] opinion was expressed by George Bond, a leading merchant of Boston, who was afraid that Unitarianism would become popular, and that, when it had gamed a majority of the people of the country to its side, it would become as intolerant as the other sects (Cooke IV).” Bond and others saw the danger in creating a name which would bring only like-minded men and women to their side.

The early Unitarians knew that once they formed an Association, many different kinds of people ascribing to liberal religion would join them. When that person was Theodore Parker, before the civil war, who offended the sensibilities of many Boston Unitarians with his militant abolitionism, they didn’t exactly throw him out–although all the other Boston ministers stopped exchanging pulpits with him.

Now, in our modern society, we face a new threat to the diversity of ideas. It is very possible to navigate our social and electronic worlds and only encounter people like ourselves. I have shared some of this before in terms of class: one summer I went in close succession to a show at the Silver Center, where I saw dozens of people I knew, and to a race at the now-gone Dirt Track Speedway in Wentworth, where the only person I even recognized was a check-out clerk at Hannaford grocery store. There are worlds of class difference in our area, and those worlds do not have much cause to overlap. I find the overlap at (coincidentally) the grocery store, at the hospital, and on the Concord Trailways bus. But it’s possible to go through much of your life in our part of New Hampshire, which probably has more class diversity than some parts of the country, and only interact with people like yourself.

We can also spend time only with our political allies. One of my best friends in the Plymouth area is my across-the-street neighbor. She and I run together, our families celebrate birthdays together, my son goes to her house after school three days a week. She was an incredible support to me when I was at the end of my second pregnancy and at the bottom of my emotional reserves. I enjoy her company and her friendship.

The thing is, I’m not sure, if she hadn’t moved in across the street from me, that we would have become friends at all. My friend is politically very conservative and I am very liberal; she is religiously conservative and I am liberal; our views on topics falling within the political spectrum almost always diverge; our views on religion are brought together only in the broadest sense. But the happy coincidence of becoming neighbors has allowed us to become friends nevertheless. We both enjoy crafts, we both enjoy parenting (and struggle with its frustrations, as well), we both enjoy getting outside and playing board games. We have plenty in common to be friends, and we have that enjoyment of each other’s company that is included in any good friendship. If we had vetted each other first for how we would agree, we might not have found our friendship. As it is, we are able to be friends despite our differences, and we have broadened each other’s understanding of those areas where we disagree. I wouldn’t give up that kind of connection for anything.

In our digital age, it is easier and easier to only see the opinions and ideas of those we agree with. Many of us encounter digital media through Facebook, where we can see the articles and ideas of our friends. We can watch movies recommended by friends, read books recommended by friends, get our news from the same sources as all our friends. It is possible to interact with the outside world through the bubble of our insular communities, never really learning how the other half lives and thinks, whoever that other half may be.

It has always seemed to me, however, that there is something special about our little corner of the world here in central and northern New Hampshire. Perhaps it is the same sort of thing I have heard said about Alaska, that people may be bitter political enemies, but it is still a community’s responsibility to make sure everyone gets through the winter. Our congressional districts are big enough that it is not practical to move just to be in a district with like-minded people. We live together, in our economically diverse region, helping each other and practicing the arts of neighborliness even when we disagree.

This congregation was founded as a home for liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism in the Plymouth area. As we have grown, our reach has grown, and we now welcome individuals and families from all over central and northern New Hampshire. We are diverse in many ways. We are intentionally welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, having gone through the Welcoming Congregation process ten years ago. We have had some racial diversity, as permitted by the very racially homogenous nature of rural New Hampshire. I believe we have a great deal of class diversity, which we may not even see. One of my hopes for our fellowship is that we will become a spiritual home to people of all economic backgrounds and circumstances whose journey has brought them to our liberal congregation.

One way to express the mission and values of an organization is to contemplate what difference will have been made in the world–in one year, in five years, in one hundred years–because we have been here. Let’s go back to our statement about Who We Are to see if we can paint a picture of what kind of world we will help create. First, we say we are multigenerational. Every year, as we continue to welcome children into our community, and send them out into their futures, I see a world with young people full of the commitment to tolerance and justice which they have learned here. I see them as young adults, bringing their understanding of the value of reason and the truth of diversity into their friendships and their workplaces. I see families supported by the programs we offer for young children, for elders, and for parents. I see our community continuously strengthened, not only by the support we offer directly to those who come to our programs, or those whom we serve in the community, but by the inspiration people get in worship and in the life of the fellowship to be kind, respectful, justice-making people in all aspects of their lives.

We say we are welcoming. This morning we heard two readings about how people get together in a congregation. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, James Luther Adams extolled the value of the church social action committee, which brought people together around a shared passion for justice and fomented change in the community. In the early twenty-first century, Philip Clayton argues that the minister and lay leader must be hosts and hostesses in the congregation, inviting people into shared experience both in person and on-line. We have ever more ways of being in touch with each other since Adams’ time, but our connections have not deepened as they have proliferated. The values of Adams’ committees–that they bring people together, that they provide forums for exploring dominant and minority points of view, that they knit the fabric of community ever tighter–are still present in our congregation. We must become hosts to invite people into these sorts of relationships. By being welcoming, Starr King Fellowship will create inviting spaces in our building, in our community, and on-line, where people’s human and spiritual connections may be strengthened and deepened.

We are spiritually diverse. We are a place where “different beliefs come together in common covenant.” Now, in my mind, the way we know our beliefs is through our actions. Someone said to me recently that if we can all agree to act in concert, to worship in a certain way or combat poverty together, then our beliefs must not be that diverse. But different beliefs can lead to the same shared actions. I was in a meeting with other Unitarian Universalists recently in which one older gentleman spoke fervently about his support for his local Occupy movement. His congregation was considering whether to open their church kitchen to the protesters, who were camped very near the church. He was actively involved in helping to make that happen. Later in the meeting, someone complained about congressional districts being redrawn so that there was no one to vote for except the Republican. This gentleman responded, “What’s wrong with that?” It shows us that principled, good-hearted people can agree on action while disagreeing on philosophy, theology, or religious practices. Our covenant is our agreement of how to be together. Within that covenant, we should be as welcoming as possible to all people and all philosophies of life.

The last sentence of our statement about Who We Are says that we will “work together in our fellowship, our community and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.” This is the great purpose of our covenant. We will not be a chapel, here merely for the spiritual well-being of those within our own walls. We will help to create a fairer community and a better world because we are in it. In the new year, we will begin a project in partnership with the Whole Village Family Resource Center to educate ourselves, and others who will join us from other churches, to learn more about poverty, class difference, and our own location in the class structure of America.

From there, we will see what kind of outreach and support we can offer to poorer families in our neighborhood, or those families with whom Whole Village works. We will not engage as “do-gooders,” offering solutions to those who have none, but as partners, offering our resources and willingness to help to those who might benefit from them. Because we have been here, children have been served in after-school programs, civil marriage rights for all couples have been defended, and intercultural understanding was promoted after September 11th. Because we are here, in the future, we will continue to create a world where more people find justice, respect and love than if Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was not part of our community.

I want to share with you something I’ve shared with our new member classes this year. It is first that membership in the fellowship means finding that your own mission and the fellowship’s mission are in alignment, and that you can adopt the fellowship’s mission as part of your own. But it also means that we will all be like those 18 people who founded our fellowship in 1980. If we suddenly woke up one morning and this fellowship were no longer here, each one of us would be the stem cells in the body of this community who could recreate it. The fellowship is us, it resides in us, and our spirits will carry it forward into the future. Every one of you here today is a part of what makes our community special and spiritually powerful, and every one of you will help us step into the mystery of faith together.


Adams, James Luther. An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment. Ed. George K. Beach. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Clayton, Philip. “Theology and the Church After Google.” The Princeton Theological Review. 43 (Fall 2010): 7-20.

Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America: A History of Its Origin and Development. 10th ed. Project Gutenberg, 2005. iBiblio. Web. Accessed 10 Dec. 2011.

The Five Points of the New Theology: Sermon for November 9, 2011

Posted by admin on November 22, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Nineteenth century Universalism and Unitarianism were home, for a while, to a minister with the wonderful name of Orestes Brownson. When Orestes was twenty-one years old and teaching school in Stillwater, New York, he left the strict Calvinist Presbyterian church of his childhood and converted to Universalism. Two years later he was ordained as a Universalist minister in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and became a circuit riding preacher, periodical editor and political organizer in the northeast. Despite his conversion, Brownson continued to explore and wonder about religious truth. In 1830, having read the sermon “Likeness to God” by the founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, Brownson converted to Unitarianism. He continued his work for social change, especially working with the Workingman’s Party for justice for the working classes. He was caught up in the Transcendentalist movement which was a main thrust of Boston Unitarianism at the time. Brownson founded the Society for Christian Union and Progress in Boston in 1836, hoping that it would be a vehicle to “bring progressive religion to the working class (Robinson 224).”

Brownson served the Society and Unitarianism until 1844, when he entered another period of spiritual crisis. He could not understand how the conservative Whig party won the presidential election in 1840. Brownson needed his spirituality, and his beliefs, to serve the working class. He could see that his country, caught in a terrible economic depression, was doing nothing for working people. In 1844, Brownson converted to Catholicism. He remained an active political writer and organizer, and lived out his life as a Catholic layman.

For some of us, religion is something we got when we were children, by virtue of the practices in the family and the home we grew up in. We inhaled our religion as we inhaled our family’s culture. It became part of us, part of our essence as a person. We could no more be something other than Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist than we could have a different ethnic identity or love different comfort foods.

But for others of us, religion and faith are a journey we have been on for our entire lives. We started out somewhere, and we have journeyed to get where we are now. We may have journeyed from a strictly religious Christian home, and now find ourselves in a mystical, wondering place. Or we may have been on a journey from no religious identity at all, to finding our search for human meaning within this fellowship community. Religion is often discussed in the public sphere as if it is a final answer. Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism all make truth-claims about God and the proper way to worship that hedge out the others. We are right, each camp says; all other ways are wrong! You would think that if there were a supernatural force communicating to us the correct way to be in relationship with that which is beyond ourselves, that it would be able to get the message right the first time. You would think we would not have such diversity.

But if we look at religion not as something handed to us from on high, but as our attempts to understand those moments when human understanding transcends our everyday experiences, than it is only surprising that there are not more examples of religion than we already know. And, given what we know of human nature, it’s not surprising that when a group of people comes to share a new understanding of the nature of the divine, they tend to think that they have arrived at the one and only true answer. Moses meets the great I AM on top of Mt. Sinai; Jesus speaks in parables and acts through healing in Galilee; Mohammed receives a new revelation from the angel; Joseph Smith finds sacred tablets in his back yard. The communities that each of these men spoke to came to believe, over time, that their leaders had finally led them to The Truth.

Of course, spiritual truth does not stand still. Other people have mystical experiences, other leaders come forward with charisma and a path for their people. Both Islam and the Church of Latter Day Saints have become major religious forces in the world since the advent of Christianity. Faithful Christians might wish that their revelation was the last word on the subject of religion, but clearly it is not. And Islam and Mormonism will not remain, either. Revelation continues to capture the imaginations and devotions of human communities.

Unitarian Universalism comes out of the Protestant tradition, which places a high value on the individual’s experience of the divine. In mainline Protestant churches, it is expected that this experience will be informed by, and be in line with, Christian scripture and Christian tradition. In Unitarian Universalism, for a long while, it has been understood that understanding of the Spirit of Life and Love may take many forms. The first person to claim the name “Unitarian” for the new liberal movement in Congregational churches in the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing, was definitely Christian. But by the time of the Transcendental movement, Unitarian ministers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker were reading not only Christian and Jewish scripture, but also Hindu and Islamic holy books. They were exploring meaning found in the human spirit, and in the natural world.

We can see the crucial difference between traditional Protestantism and Unitarianism by comparing the five pillars of Calvinism to the “five points of the new theology.” John Calvin was a Reformation leader in 16th century Switzerland. He promoted a strict theology of preordained salvation and damnation. The five points of his theology are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

Total depravity means that Calvin and his followers believe that human beings are born into and live in a world of sin, utterly disconnected from God’s world of grace. Unconditional election and limited atonement are connected. Calvin believed that God decided at the beginning of time who among humans would be saved and who would be damned. Only a limited number would be saved, and nothing humans did could change who those people were. So some people will be “elected” to be saved regardless of what they do, and the rest of us only participate partially in Christ’s atonement of humankind. The knowledge of being saved comes upon people, and (Calvinists believe) transforms them utterly, so that even if they lived a sinful life before, they become holy afterward. Finally, the perseverance of the saints means that whoever is so called by saving grace shall remain one of the elect forever.

This theology was predominant in New England congregational churches in the 17th and 18th centuries. But by the beginning of the 19th century, some of the faithful began to have other ideas. The Universalists founded their churches in protest to the  beliefs that people were utterly sinful and that some would go to heaven some to hell. They believed that everyone would go to heaven. Unitarians believed, too, that people were a mix of good and bad impulses, rather than being basically evil. They also believed that people had to use their reason and understanding to know what was good in the world. In 1886, when the American Unitarian Association had been in existence for about sixty years, James Freeman Clarke published his own answers to Calvin’s five pillars of theology. He called them the “Five Points of the New Theology,” and if you grew up in a Unitarian church, you may have learned them in Sunday school. They were: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of humankind onward and upward forever (Robinson 235).

The fatherhood of God means that God relates to humans with both the love and chastisement of a parent. The brotherhood of Man means we’re all in this together. The leadership of Jesus builds on earlier Unitarian theology, affirming that Jesus’ value to humans comes through his teachings and example, not anything mystical that happened when he died. Salvation by character is the exact opposite of unconditional election. It means human beings become better in their spirits by becoming better people. Finally, the progress of humankind onward and upward forever meant that we could see the results of Jesus’ leadership and the improvement of our characters in human history. The basic categories are the same as in Calvinism. There are people, there is God, and Jesus, and we acknowledge that things on earth aren’t as great as they could be, and that humans turn to religious understanding to try to make things better.

The categories continued to change. By the time of the merger of the Unitarian and the Universalist churches in 1961, it was accepted that different people experienced the divine differently. Today, the “Who We Are” statement of this congregation says we are a community where “different beliefs come together in common covenant.” To me, this means that although we may believe different things, we all claim this shared community as our own. “We need not think alike to love alike.” We no longer all agree on God, or Jesus, or the need for salvation, or eternal progress. Our progress continues. We can’t, after the terrible wars of the twentieth century, think that humankind progresses onward and upward forever, even if we can see the huge strides forward we have taken. Our understanding of the sacred changes as human existence continues.

When I was in search for my first ministry position, the year before Starr King Fellowship called me as a minister, I had a telephone interview with a Christian Unitarian Universalist church. I was interested in the work because my family lives in that region of the country, and I thought I could serve a Christian congregation that was also Unitarian Universalist. They asked me about my theology. They said, “In your description of yourself, you say you currently identify as a Christian Unitarian Universalist. What does that mean? Why do you say ‘currently’?”

I told them: yes, my spirituality had brought me to a realization that I was going to find meaning and wrestle with questions of life in reference to the teachings of Jesus. But I said “currently,” I told them, because if it had been a journey to bring me where I was then, I had to be open to the possibility that the journey would continue. Just because I had come to the place where they were, did not mean I would stay there theologically. Just because they were one kind of Christian Unitarian Universalist church right then, did not mean they would always be that kind of a church. Change is always happening. It was not the right answer. I did not get another interview.

In the story we heard this morning, the young monk knows the teachings of his community inside and out. He knows that it is paramount to follow the rules. The older monk, on the other hand, has come to know that the ethic of compassion is more important than the letter of the law. Even within the same spiritual community, he has grown and changed and moved in his thinking. Spirituality is like an ocean we swim in without knowing it. It is all around us, waiting to show us moments of beauty, of right, of horror, of a world waiting to be made better. Our experiences shape us. Unexpected moments of grace touch our hearts. We are called to be open to change with a spirit of humility. We are called to stand by our beliefs with a spirit of strength. Balancing the two, we are called to be open to the beliefs of others, even when we disagree. We must always be ready to be touched by the wonder in the world, to have it break through our habits and expectations and truly amaze us.

Please join me in a time of reflection.

Here, in this space, I invite you to find your center and your inner spirit. Become aware of yourself, from the crown of your head to your feet on the floor. Feel your breath enter your body, enliven you, and flow out again. Become yourself, in this place, at this time.

Now let us reach out our spirits to all the human spirits around us. We connect to the spirits in this room, to all the people in this sanctuary, who sit and share a time of peace with us. We reach further, and connect to all the people in this fellowship community who cannot be with us this morning; and further still, to all in our communities of love and friendship. We reach out further yet, to all those in our communities whom we do not know, to the people of our country, to the people of our world, to living beings across the earth.

We ask one another for acceptance and grace. We ask for the room to change and grow, and for the stability to remain the same. We promise to hold our love wide to all who will enter into community with us. Our thoughts may differ, but our hearts are alike.



Clarke, James Freeman. “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology.” Ed. Mercy Aiken. Tentmaker Ministries. Accessed 15 Oct. 2011.

Conover, Sarah, ed. Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010.

Dabney, R. L. “The Five Points of Calvinism.” Ed. Phillip R. Johnson. The Hall of Church History. Ed. Phillip R. Johnson. 1-5. Accessed 7 Nov. 2011.

Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Denominations in America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Suffering and Compassion: Sermon for November 6, 2011

Posted by admin on November 8, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

You know the story of Siddhartha Gautama. How, when he was born, a wise man  gave his father a prophecy that little Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father, knowing where the money was in that choice, determined that his son would never know suffering or want, never experience human hardship, never have any cause to turn to the ascetic life of a holy man. Siddhartha grew to adulthood without any wants in the world. He took a wife and started a family. One day, wanting to know what the world was like beyond the palace walls, Siddhartha asked his driver to take him out among the people. On that drive, for the first time in his life, Siddhartha Gautama saw an aged man, bent over with his years. “What is this?” Siddhartha asked Channa, his charioteer. “This is old age,” Channa replied.

Siddhartha realized he needed to know more. With Channa as his guide, he took more and more trips beyond the palace gates. He saw a person whose body was ravaged with disease. He saw a person’s corpse, decaying and open to the elements. He saw the thinnest man he had ever seen, and learned from Channa that this man was an ascetic, who had given up the pleasures of the world in order to become closer to the  Essence of Life. Realizing that he would never attain enlightenment by living a privileged and protected life within the palace, Siddhartha left his wife and family, his father and his hopes and dreams, and went into the world to become an ascetic himself.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who was to become the Buddha, realized that he could not attain enlightenment or true happiness without understanding suffering. He had been given a life without want: a life of wealth, and love, and power; but he knew that the contentment he might have felt in that life was not the same as true spiritual enlightenment. For that, his journey had to take him into the human world of decline, disease and death; in other words, into the world of suffering.

We think of suffering as a bad thing. We try to avoid it when we can. But the word “to suffer” doesn’t exactly mean “to have bad things happen.” It means “to undergo.” We “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” whether that fortune be good or bad. We “suffer the little children,” at least before bedtime. From a certain point of view, simply being alive is an act of suffering, of allowing things to happen to us at a minimum, or of actively seeking out engagement with the world. The less fear we have of life, the more of life can happen to us and with us. And the more we engage with our own spirits and the world around us, the more we take the risk that the “suffering” we undergo will sometimes be “suffering” terrible things.

When I think about the sorrows and losses I have suffered in my life, one of my first thoughts is that I ought to be grateful that my life has been so blessed. And I am, because it has. I’m aware that the struggles and losses I have had are much less than some people face. My husband and I lost a pregnancy before I became pregnant with our oldest son, and nothing in my life had prepared me for the utter loss I felt during that time. More recently, I have realized how a career in ministry will mean an accumulation of losses, as people who I come to know and love in ministry will fall ill, or age, and ultimately die. I say “in ministry,” but I could say “in life.” The fact that some people face more loss or face it sooner does not mean my own losses and suffering do not have meaning for my life.

Last year, when members of our fellowship were facing long illnesses which were likely to (and did) end in their deaths, I imagined myself skimming over the surface of my sadness. I thought I had a role to occupy in the fellowship, a role which would be hindered if I allowed myself to become too sad or too moved by these women and the illnesses they faced. But finally I realized I would never be able to minister to them and their families if I maintained that attitude. The way for me to make meaning out of my suffering has been to go deeper into it, to enter the sadness like a room with shuttered windows, to allow myself to feel the pain for as long as it takes and then to become a new person again on the other side. Through experiencing this sadness and suffering I connect more genuinely to those around me, for we are united in our suffering as in nothing else.

I say “make meaning out of suffering,” and this is a tricky thing. Because while we have the capacity, as human beings, to make meaning out of our suffering–out of all the things we undergo, whether great or small–that is not the same thing as saying we are suffering for a reason. There is no reason for the suffering of humanity. Disaster is not visited upon us on purpose. It is not a message from on high; we are not “given what we can handle”; there is no cosmic plan. All of us suffer in our lives. If meaning is to come out of that suffering, it is meaning we, working within our communities create. We are free to fight against suffering, to try to avoid it in the future, and (especially) to try to create a world where fewer people suffer unnecessarily. This is also part of our task as meaning-makers. We can’t abdicate that task to a divine agent any more than we can avoid suffering altogether.

However, to say that our troubles are not visited upon us on purpose, and to affirm that we have done nothing to deserve our losses, or our illnesses, is not to say that there is no reason for why some suffer more than others in life. Very human differences and inequalities lead to differences in the difficulties of our lives. I am hesitant to bring illness into this, because I feel we in modern society have an illusion that a perfect life can yield a life free from illness, which is an illusion. But many suffer because of the station of life they are born to. Recent research has shown that intelligence quotient differences in children worldwide can often be attributed to childhood infectious disease (Sample). If an infant has to spend precious resources fighting off illness, her brain does not have the same capacity for growth and expansion as if she had been healthy. Poverty, illness, and war all visit suffering upon people unfairly, targeting some individuals and communities much more than others. These inequities are owing to humans, and it is our calling in life to make the world more fair and equal. Suffering is inevitable, but suffering is not fair. There is so much more hardship in the world than there needs to be.

For a long time, Siddhartha Gautama pursued the life of an ascetic. He ate very little, and wandered India, begging for his bread. He was a wise man, and gathered a group of seekers around him. Together they vowed to take less and less sustenance from the world, striving to end their dependence on a cycle of want, deprivation and satiation. But Siddhartha could not resist when a woman approached him with a bowl of milk, desiring to share it with him. Disgusted with his weakness, his friends left him. Siddhartha began to wonder if the path of the ascetic would lead to enlightenment after all.

Sitting under a lotus tree, Siddhartha almost dozed off in the warmth of a summer afternoon. His mind drifted back to when he had been a boy, sitting in the grass as the workers cut the grain in his father’s fields. He remembered the sound of the men calling to each other, and the buzz of the insects amidst the flowers. His mind detached from wanting and striving; and Siddhartha realized that recapturing this childhood moment, this detachment from the cycle of desire and loss, was the path to enlightenment. It was no more about starving the body than it was about stuffing the body; no more about seeking suffering than about avoiding it.

Unitarian Universalist theology has taken this discovery to heart. A few years ago, two theologians who are also women, one a Unitarian Universalist and one a Christian, wrote the book Proverbs of Ashes about the dangers of thinking we need to suffer in order to be spiritually whole. They especially took aim at what is called “atonement theology” in Christianity, which is the belief that people must suffer as Christ suffered on the cross in order to be in right relationship with God. The authors, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima-Brock, pointed out how a theology of suffering asked people who were being abused by other people to accept their abused in the name of religion. They also pointed out that such a theology turned God into an abusive parent. They held up healthier models of relating to God within Christianity, models that affirmed human life and well-being, models that celebrated God’s love. Suffering is not a path to enlightenment.

But we must also remember where Siddhartha started, because avoidance of suffering is not a path to enlightenment either. It is not hard to see that poor people suffer more than the rich in our society. Both can lose loved ones too soon, both can fall ill, but the rich have many more resources at their disposal to avoid suffering and to cope with it. But their efforts may still be futile. The social scientist Richard Wilkinson has found that the healthiest human societies are those where the gap between the rich and the poor is small, and where cohesiveness and social capital are thick. We all prosper when we have a sense of “being in it together.” Our health and longevity comes not from the objects we acquire, or even the services to which we have access, but from our connection to our neighbor. In the United States today, where the gap between the rich and the poor is so great and so stark, we are all opening ourselves up to greater suffering. Neither Siddhartha the pampered prince nor Siddhartha the ascetic found enlightenment. Once Siddhartha embarked upon the middle way, seeking connection to his fellow beings, he became the Buddha.

So how do you make meaning out of your life? How do you understand the losses and struggles you have suffered through? I liked the invitation in our reading this morning, by the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church. Church invites us to consider what we would put in a time capsule for the children we love today to open in 100 years. What of our lives would we bequeath to them? We could give them money, or the shares of stock, or the secret to financial success, if we have it. But would that really be the best of us? What if we could give them the sense of being loved? What if we gave them the compassion we have learned to have for ourselves and others? We could give them a memory of time shared with people we love. We could give them their own memories of our embrace. We could bequeath to them the meaning we have learned to make in our own lives, in the hopes that it will help them and their grandchildren make meaning of their own. These are the things that sustain us in this life and which will carry us forward into the deep. Our children, and our children’s children, will no more be able to avoid suffering than we have. Our greatest gift to them can be the love we have known which carried us through, in the hopes that their own hearts will open wider than ours ever could.


Church, Forrest. Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Nakashima-Brock, Rita and Rebecca Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Sample, Ian. “Lower IQs found in disease-rife countries, scientists claim.” The Guardian.  29 June 2010, online ed., main sec.: 13.

Wilkinson, Richard G. Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Goddesses, Past and Present: Sermon for October 30, 2011

Posted by admin on November 3, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

One of the great gifts Unitarian Universalism has given me was an entry into goddess spirituality when I was a teenager. The minister who had served my church since my family and I started attending when I was eleven was leaving. He needed help packing his books up before his move, and my parents nominated me to help him.

I remember standing in his sunny study at church, putting books in boxes, when Michael handed me a few thin volumes of poetry and said, “Here. I think you might like these.” While I had never been unhappy with my liberal Christian upbringing, since becoming a Unitarian Universalist, I had become aware that there were teachings in traditional Christianity which could not be true, and which were harmful to people of other faiths. These poems, written by women about their experience with a divine which was fully female, were the opening of a wide door into other ways of encountering holy wonder in the world.

I explored this way of being through poetry and ritual. My mother and I went to women’s singing events and spinning lessons, which seemed connected to the feminine divine, somehow. She took the class on goddess spirituality taught at our church, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, although I either was not old enough or too busy with school to attend. It was a wonderful spiritual place to spend some years, but ultimately my own journey took me elsewhere. By the time I left for college, I did not know what I believed. By the time I finished divinity school, I had re-engaged with my Christian heritage, locating my struggle to name and relate to the divine within those terms and that story.

One thing that stuck with me from goddess spirituality was a fierce commitment to women’s spirituality and women’s involvement in the divine. Some of this came from our church. After Michael’s ministry, the church hired a woman as an interim minister and then called a woman to be the settled minister. These women helped launch me toward the ministry.  Some of my nascent feminism came from my mother: from going to League of Women Voters events with her when I was small; from seeing her go back to work when my brother was a toddler; and from seeing her move her career forward in the male-dominated banking industry. By the time I entered the ministry, women were fast becoming the majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers. My foremothers helped shape my sense of women’s place as leaders in the spiritual community.

The spiritual community includes women and men. It includes people whose journey has taken them from one gender identity to the other, and people who find themselves most at home in the spaces between gender. Therefore, because our gathered human community contains such rich diversity, we must be capable of imagining symbols of the holy which contain this diversity, too.

One of those things about traditional Christianity which always bothered me was the notion that a God, who must be vast beyond our comprehension if not outright infinite, would limit God’s revelation of truth to a single human being who lived in Israel, spoke Aramaic and read Hebrew in the first decades of the Common Era. Surely it makes more sense to consider these limitations to be limitations of our own understanding or imagination, and not limitations of the Ultimate Reality. Our commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning as Unitarian Universalists pushes us to look beyond inherited understanding to make our own meaning in the world.

That same imperative, to always test the limits of what we understand to be true, has caused me to look with interest recently at research which challenges some treasured aspects of goddess worship today. People throughout history and across cultures have worshipped the divine in its feminine form. But beginning in the mid-twentieth century, women’s communities began to focus on archaeological research which seemed to show evidence of widespread prehistorical goddess-worship. This wasn’t believed to be worship of a goddess within a pantheon, but rather worship of a single mother goddess as the primary understanding of the divine. One archaeologist in particular, Marija Gimbutas, applied her encyclopedic knowledge of Indo-European languages and archaeology to explore evidence of Neolithic goddess-worship at sites across Europe.

Gimbutas imagined a source of Indo-European culture, perhaps located in Turkey, which was peaceful and goddess-worshipping until a period, about 3,000 years ago, when this matriarchy was disrupted by invaders from the north (Eller 37-40, 46). This matriarchy is imagined to have been many things our current, patriarchal culture is not: peaceful, women-led, in harmony with nature and its cycles, and much less hierarchical. With the patriarchal invasion (or revolution–some theorists imagine patriarchy came from within these communities) came men’s dominance over women, humanity’s dominance over nature, and the dominance of the sword over the ways of peace. The power of claiming ancient goddesses lies in this loss. Modern women are aware that while they have achieved more success in the secular world, it has often come at the price of what they perceive as their essential “femaleness.” Women are looking for some hope that there was a time when things were different.

This is the hope we heard in our reading this morning, written by a woman and a goddess worshipper about the rituals for this time of year. She claims the power women need to let go of damaging relationships, let go of an understanding of themselves as weaker or unworthy, and connects these strong, feminist claims to the rituals of letting go which accompany Samhain. In her spirituality, based in the past she claims of ancient goddesses, she finds strength to let go of the damaging aspects of patriarchy and claim her own feminine power.

The only problem posed by claiming this powerful, matriarchal prehistory, when a single mother goddess was worshiped and life was peaceful, is that further archaeological and anthropological research does not support it. In the cultures we know of now which live as hunter-gatherers, men are dominant. When other archaeologists (women and men alike) have examined drawings and sculptures of women from Stone Age European sites, they have either not seen representations of women, or they have seen representations of women which may or may not be goddesses. From the moment the historical record begins, we have evidence of cultures across Europe which were much more male-dominated than our American culture is today.

One example of the disagreement in the field of archaeology is how to interpret the meaning of frescos found in Knossos, Crete, which were part of the Minoan culture, which flourished from the 27th century to the 15th century BCE. One fresco, called the “grandstand” fresco and dated at around 1600 BCE, shoes several women relaxing, draping their arms over one another’s waists, and seemingly enjoying conversation with each other. Other frescoes from the same period show men and women interacting companionably together, or competing in sports and hunting (Eller 152). Those who favor an interpretation supporting a feminist matriarchy read these frescoes as evidence that women and men were equals, and that women participated in all aspects of life which were later reserved for men: sport, hunting, and ample time for relaxation.

Other archaeologists point out that we do not have enough information to draw these conclusions. One classicist points out, “If the[se frescoes] were our only evidence for the position of Minoan women, we could give no answer. The subject is similar to that of the Parthenon frieze where Athenian maidens play a conspicuous role, and fifth century Athens was definitely not a matriarchal society (153).” In fifth century Athens, women were either the property of their father or their husband; women were cloistered inside their homes; infant girls were often left outside to perish; and teenage boys were the preferred sex-partners of upper-class men. Despite the prominent representation of women in its art, it is possible for a society to treat its women very poorly.

Recent archaeology does not say that it is impossible there was a feminist matriarchy in prehistorical Europe and Asia Minor. It only says that the evidence can be read in a number of ways, and that there is no strong evidence for a matriarchal prehistory. There is plenty of evidence for goddess worship, both prehistorically, historically, and today. But these goddesses were usually part of a pantheon, and goddesses were often seen as the special protectors of women–not primary, mother goddesses worshiped by men and women alike. There is no clear evidence that goddess worship, either in the past or today, is related to improved status for women in the society which worships them.

Scholars think, for instance, that the Demeter and Persephone story we heard this morning mirrored the experience of mothers and daughters in ancient Greece, where teenaged daughters were forcibly married to much older men–but were able to reunite with their mothers for long visits once they were wed. Demeter was not a powerful, protective mother goddess to ancient Greek women, who were used as property by their husbands and fathers; but she did provide comfort and a way for women to understand their plight.

I looked through the curriculum Cakes for the Queen of Heaven while preparing this sermon, a class published by the Unitarian Universalist Association and which many of you may have taken. It was popular in the late 1980s, and was followed several years later by the class Rise Up and Call Her Name. Both of these curricula seek to connect women to images and understandings of ancient, powerful goddesses. These goddesses are linked to a mythical time of matriarchy and peace. Images of female statues, identified as goddesses, are round of belly, breast and hip. These images help counter the contemporary image of female attractiveness as impossibly slender and frail. The feeling of the curriculum is one of women reclaiming power they know they have always had, but which society has rarely recognized.

Here is the impetus behind the hope and dream of a prehistorical feminist matriarchy. While women have achieved more fairness in American society, there is still a long way to go. Women see what a male-dominated society has wrought–war, inequality, injustice–and they imagine that, if they had more power, things would be different. We women want to be able to reach back into our history to find an example of when things were different and better, when women had the power we wish we had now.

However, when we imagine that past, we often imagine right along with it very traditional roles for women. In that matriarchal prehistory, we often imagine that women were revered and personally fulfilled as mothers and that technological advancement was limited. Many women now, women who also hunger for more righteousness and justice, find their sense of being in their work, and not in their children; they may choose not to have children, a choice only available very recently; they may want to make their way in male-dominated fields which are all about the advancement of technology. Feminism today and a matriarchal prehistory do not necessarily match up well.

But what of goddesses? Even if there was no feminist matriarchal prehistory, even if there was no widespread worship of a mother-goddess, seeing the divine as feminine today has powerful implications for women and men alike. The divine, whatever that may be–or the totality of human possibility, whatever that might look like–these are not limited by the imagination of any one group of humans.

The Source of Life is limited only by the possibility of human imagination, which adorns it and gives it form. If we imagine the Source of Life and Love as male, then we are more likely to imagine religious leaders as male, and more likely to give more worth to male humanity. If, on the other hand, we imagine the Source as female, or as possessing both genders, or a spectrum of gender identities, then we can lend more human possibility to what we imagine as infinite. Specifically imagining the divine as female gives so much power to women of faith who have felt for so long that they had none. It allows us to imagine ourselves as ministers, as rabbis, as congregational presidents, as theologians, as women who can shape the future of their faith. Our imaginations and our worship are not bounded by the past. Our understandings of the divine can flourish in the freedom of the future.

Please join me in prayer.

We give thanks for our foremothers who have shown us strength and love. We ask that their power may be with us today. We reach out this morning to those women who have gone before us, who helped us along our way and whose example we follow. If you treasure the name of a woman in your heart–a mother, a relative, a teacher, an example–a woman who helped you understand what it was to be good in the world, I invite you to say her name now.

Infinite Source of Peace and Love, we give thanks for all these women and all they have taught us. Be with us, women and men alike, as we move toward a world of more equality and justice, where Your ways may become our ways. Amen.


Eller, Cynthia. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Ranck, Shirley Ann. Cakes for the Queen of Heaven: A Ten-Session Adult Seminar in Feminist Thealogy. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Assn., 1986.

Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food?: Sermon for October 16, 2011

Posted by admin on October 26, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

If I can start with a little plug for the Fundraising Committee, which has just been doing an excellent job for our fellowship, one of the things you will be able to bid on in our spring service auction will be a sermon topic of your choice. I offer this item every year. Last spring, Joe Kelaghan won the sermon topic. He knew right away what he wanted me to preach on. Joe is a man who puts his values into action.

Joe asked me to preach a sermon which the Rev. Rob Hardies, minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington, had suggested but never had the chance to preach, and it had the same title as this sermon: Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food? Joe takes ethical eating seriously as a vegan, and he is also concerned with the human workers who grow, harvest and process the food we eat.

He tells a story about being in Traverse City, Michigan with his spouse Thad at a family wedding in a vineyard. It was late in the season; the grapes had all been harvested from the vines. No workers were in sight. But for all the homage paid to the beauty of nature and the setting, and all the enjoyment of the food afterward, no mention was made of the human laborers who must have harvested the grapes for the wine and all the food the party enjoyed that day.

The workers who grow and harvest our food are largely invisible. Up here in rural New Hampshire, we are fortunate to have easy access to family farms where we can (if we are willing to pay a premium) buy food grown and harvested by our neighbors. However, even if we choose that option (and we recognize that not everyone can pay the higher prices), we can’t eat New Hampshire-grown vegetables year round. At some point all of us participate in an unfair labor market for getting the food we eat.

How unfair? Take the example of tomatoes. Most of the tomatoes eaten in America are grown in south Florida, on the border of the Everglades, in a climate and location completely unsuited to the growing of tomatoes. The environmental and food safety travesties aren’t our focus here, though, so let’s just consider the workers. Tomatoes, unlike many crops, must be picked by hand. In the name of keeping tomato costs low, some growers have actually enslaved their Central American pickers to force them to pick tomatoes. By 2010, nine slavery cases had been brought against Florida tomato growers for the way they treated their laborers, including forcing them, on pain of physical punishment, to work all day for very little pay, and not allowing escape (Coalition).

The Florida tomato pickers, through a collective bargaining and rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the region of Florida which is the hub of tomato production, has recently won rights for tomato pickers. The tomato buyers, such as Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC restaurants; Burger King; Subway; McDonald’s; and food service providers such as Sodexho and Aramark; have agreed to support an additional penny per pound in the cost of tomatoes, which is to be passed on to the workers. They have also agreed to buy only from growers which promise to afford their workers basic human dignities like taking breaks twice a day in the shade,  a time clock to ensure they are paid for all the hours they work, and being allowed to use the toilet.

However, one major sector of tomato buyers has refused to sign on to the Immokalee agreement: grocery stores. Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix and even Trader Joe’s have all refused to sign. In a statement, Trader Joe’s said that its refusal to sign stemmed from the technical language of the agreement and not from the substance of more rights for tomato pickers. Of course, that technical language did not stand in the way for major fast food chains and food service providers. Trader Joe’s is a haven for liberal, urban grocery shoppers, but here they are, taking a hard line on fair practices in labor in order to protect their prices and their competitive edge. When it comes to tomatoes, shoppers would be doing more to support workers’ rights by eating at Burger King or McDonald’s than by shopping at Trader Joe’s. The tomato example shows how hard it is, as individuals, to use our purchasing power to influence the greater good. The path from the food in the ground, through the grocery store, to our table is circuitous and far-removed from us. So are the lives of those who grow and harvest it.

Migrant workers are laborers who travel from state to state following the harvest, picking fruits and vegetables for our grocery stores and restaurants. The readings we heard this morning, one a prayer by Cesar Chavez and one an essay by an 11-year-old migrant worker, date from the 1970s, when Chavez’s United Farmworkers Unoin successfully protested the terrible working conditions on California’s large farms. Yet thee conditions persist today, partly because of a surplus of labor owing to immigration, both legal and illegal. According to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, among migrant workers today:

  • 88 percent are men, many of them in the U.S. on their own so that they can send money back to families in their home countries.
  • 55 percent are married. Of those, 71 percent are not living with their spouses.
  • Their mean age is 31. Many start the migrant life in their early 20s and return to their home countries within a few years to live in the homes that were built with U.S. money. “They may return to the United States several more times before they are too old to work such hard jobs.
  • They have a sixth-grade education, on average.
  • 93 percent are foreign-born, up from 88 percent 10 years ago.
  • 65 percent are here illegally, up from 62 percent 10 years ago (“Migrant”).

Migrant workers used to be Americans–think of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. But when hiring Americans came to mean  dealing with a unionized labor force in the 1970s and 1980s, employers and owners were happy to turn to illegal immigrants desperate for a better way of life.

One of the arguments against mass deportation of illegal immigrants is that such a move would cripple our economy, depriving many industries of the labor they rely on. Arizona businesses have pushed back against that state’s efforts to pass ever stricter immigration laws which would imprison undocumented workers. It’s why immigration laws like the one Alabama has just enacted are so insidious, laws which make it illegal for undocumented workers to seek basic services, and which even pressure children who are American citizens to out their parents as undocumented immigrants to the schools. Laws like these threaten to create a permanent underclass of workers here outside the law, not forced to leave, not welcomed in, and not allowed to participate in the basic goods and right of our society.

Or perhaps this underclass already exists. Although the people occupying it have changed, the existence of a group of poorly treated people who pick our agriculture has always been with us. In the colonial era they were indentured servants. In the early decades of our nation they were African American slaves. Then they were sharecroppers like the Joads, strapped to the land by crushing debt. Now they are illegal immigrants. We have never wanted to create the society necessary to pay agricultural workers a living wage.

Joe Kelaghan, in talking to me about this sermon, told the story of getting pizza at a pizzeria in Norway during a vacation once. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, just a place to grab a pizza and a beer. It wasn’t that much different from Pizza Hut. The big difference was that the pizza cost $40 and the beer $15. Norway has organized its economy so that the workers all along the line of the pizza’s creation are paid a living wage. And they’ve put social safety nets into place to help those in need buy food–even if those in need can’t go out to eat pizza. In such a system, local farms would be more competitive, and home gardening might become more attractive. Our economic system, in which food subsidies for the poor are meager and the gap between the rich and the poor is vast, relies upon labor so cheap it is almost free to tend, pick and often serve our food.

We sing a hymn which begins, “Earth was given as a garden…” In the ancient myth of the garden of Eden, told two ways in the Hebrew Bible, the first humans are given the earth to tend and work. God gives them instructions: in one version of the story, God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food (Gen. 1:29).” Even after Adam and Eve have been expelled from the garden, God cures Adam with working the land by the sweat of his brow. Neither in paradise or out of it, in this founding myth of Judaism and Christianity, are people given the fruits of the earth by the labor of other hands. Buddhism exhorts us to recognize the sacred nature in all living things, and certainly in other people. Islam demands fair treatment of members of the community, one of the most sacred concepts of that faith. All the world’s major religions demand fair treatment of one another and stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

These are hard questions, but our commitments as Unitarian Universalists require us to grapple with them. Part of what we affirm as Unitarian Universalists is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Having inherent worth and dignity means that a person should not be condemned because of the honest work which occupies her days. The right of the democratic process means workers should have the right to organize and work together for greater justice in the workplace. Honoring the interdependent web of all existence means that we acknowledge how we are tied to migrant workers in American fields, even if we have never done that work; even if we never know them; even if they are Central American; even if they have come to this country illegally. Our Unitarian Universalism requires us to see in these workers a common humanity with us, a common human spirit and dignity which cannot be bartered away. May we work toward a social system where the labor of all is given fair value.

Please join me in a Blessing Prayer, used by the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Bless the hands of the people of the earth,
The hands that plant the seed,
The hands that bind the harvest,
The hands that carry the burden of life.

Soften the hands of the oppressor and
Strengthen the hands of the oppressed.

Bless the hands of the workers,
Bless the hands of those in power above them
That the measure they deal will be tempered
With justice and compassion. Amen.


All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

“Blessing Prayer.” National Farm Worker Ministry. Accessed 15 Oct. 2011.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “CIW Anti-Slavery Campaign.” Accessed 14 Oct. 2011.

“Migrant Labor in the United States.” Politics and Economy: On the Border. Now. 28 May 2004. Public Broadcasting System. Accessed 14 Oct. 2011.