A sermon by Rev. Colin Bossen
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Rev. Bossen serves the First Parish Church of Ashby, MA, and is a PhD candidate at Harvard.
It is good to be with you this morning. It is wonderful to have an opportunity to worship with you in this beautiful, light filled, sanctuary. But truth be told, the real gift of your invitation is that you have provided me the opportunity to visit with your new senior minister. Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay is a dear friend of mine. For several years we served on the C.E.N.T.E.R. committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. CENTER is the committee tasked with overseeing the continuing education of all Unitarian Universalist ministers. Working on this committee, I saw Liz do one of the most difficult things of all: minister to other ministers.
We clergy are a prickly bunch and prone to our own inward turnings. Liz is one of those rare colleagues who pushes us to move beyond an inward focus. She reminds us that though it might be a private matter, religion is something we do in public and that Unitarian Universalism has an important role making the world a better place.
So, thank you, not just giving me the opportunity to preach from this lovely historic pulpit but also giving me the chance to visit with a friend.
My sermon this morning is about how we come to know the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. The same is true of whatever path we might take towards that which is called enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana. That path is not one we travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.
The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. It seems obvious to claim that paper comes from trees that grow in forests. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeper:
“If we look into this sheet of paper… we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. …And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree[s] and brought… [them] to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.
This past year we celebrated Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World, Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson…”
My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.
When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”
“When I wrote the following pages… I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self we are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built more than two centuries ago. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet… And yet…
We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship… Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, transgender, gender nonconforming, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.
I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic… And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male… These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.
One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips, used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you’re not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from all of the privileges of economic class and racial caste that I was born into. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature…
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. He rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of… missing this highest aim as to render… life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of… [this] goal.”
We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”
But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.
This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience–and I imagine you experience–as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.
Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth–whatever it may be–that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.
There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Has that not been the true story of all of the tumultuous news of the last year? Is that not the story of the news of all of the years of our lives? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?
In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.
The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. He asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.
After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:
May my words,
and our time together,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
Amen and Blessed Be.