Out of the Ordinary – Easter (text & audio)


Our “Sense of Place” class had its April field trip last week to the North Carolina Arboretum. It couldn’t have been a prettier day for a tour of the gardens and a walk through the woods. We had an eye out especially for those ephemeral spring flowers, and here and there we found a few – yellows, pinks, whites: tiny flowers that pop briefly out of the leaf litter before dying back without a trace before the tall trees overhead leaf out and blanket them in shadow.

Except for these flowers and a few early shrubs, the forest looks inert at this time of year. Last fall’s leaves are drained of color, and things in general have a beaten-down look from the snows and winds and frigid temperatures of winter.

We know, of course, that outside of our sight there is a lot going on. Sap is running in the trees and tiny tendrils everywhere are reaching out as daytime temperatures rise. That’s the thrill of a walk in the woods in this season: each day something new emerges or unfolds. A seemingly dry and colorless landscape is shot through with the electricity of life; out of the ordinary, the blah, the unexceptional, something exceptional, amazing and fresh is entering the world.

And so, with that image before us once again we enter the Easter story, that great tale of death and resurrection that centers the Christian tradition. It’s a story that lives with us as Unitarian Universalists as well by virtue of our historical roots in that tradition, although our practice is to give that tale a different take than Christian churches do.

As Frederick May Eliot, historic Unitarian leader, put it more than a half century ago, “When I go to church on Easter, I expect to be reminded of the elemental truth that in this universe of ours, with all its hesitancies and timidities and tragedies, the tides of life are flowing fresh, manifold and free.”

What speaks to us isn’t the magical story of bodily resurrection at Easter, which has dominated the Christian narrative for the past millennium or so, as much as the need for rebirth. Just like the forest floor in early spring we find times in our lives when we feel beaten down. Circumstances, some of them of our own making, shut us down or cause us to draw in on ourselves. We get quarrelsome and cynical and just stuck.

Easter serves as a reminder that there are stores within us, within the world around us that can lift us out of our funks and offer a way forward. There are those who will say that this is just those UUs again messing with a well-established religious tradition, picking and choosing the parts they like, but leaving the hard parts behind. Curiously, though, thanks to recent scholarship, we’ve learned that our take on the Easter story connects in interesting ways with the perspective of early Christian communities.

Several years ago, Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our seminaries, and a colleague, Rita Nakashima Brock, wrote that in studying early churches they found that for hundreds of years the image of Jesus was very different from what appears in many churches today.

Instead of the crucified Christ whose death was recompense for humanity’s sins, they discovered a figure with welcoming arms inviting followers into a luminous scene that was strongly reminiscent of the Mediterranean landscape where they were situated. Parker and Brock realized they were looking at a vision of paradise, not as a distant heaven, but as the world of those people’s experience that was infused with a brilliant energy.

Paradise, in other words, was not another world; it was a way of looking at this world that had been lost to its people. The purpose of worship and other dimensions of community life, then, was to restore this lost connection to a sense of that sacredness, and it was communities that sought to live by Jesus’ teachings of justice and compassion, rather than dwell on his death, that were offering that path.

Parker and Brock argued that there was a strong parallel to our work as religious communities today, communities that celebrate the beauty and wonder of this world while seeking to cultivate practices of what they call “ethical grace.” They describe this as living in a way that is “attuned to what is beautiful and good, and responsive to legacies of injustice and currents of harm.”

With this view in mind, Easter could offer us the opportunity to praise that which upholds life and to call forth that in us that awakens hope and courage to act in such a way that we might bring such a world into being and learn to live rightly with the Earth and each other.

OK, OK, sure: Sounds great, but often a whole lot easier to say than to do. Again, back to that funk: “praise life, awaken hope, live rightly with the Earth and each other” is just a lot of words unless something connects with us directly. So, here’s where this business of blessing comes in.

As John said earlier, the traditional meaning of blessing is an act of or in the name of God. I’m wary, though, of anyone who presumes to speak or act on behalf of God or any other image of divine authority. For we fragile, fallible sorts, the source of our authority is our own authenticity. We speak for ourselves, and only ourselves. Yet, if we are fully present and true to the best within us, we are capable of conferring on each other gifts that might waken us to the wonders of the world around us, to life abundant, to the ethical grace of our lives together

The author Barbara Brown Taylor, who is also an Episcopal priest and professor of religion, writes that for many people the prospect of conferring a blessing is daunting. Who am I to do such a thing? So, she invites them to begin with something simple – say, a stick lying on the ground.

The first thing to do, she says, is to pay attention. “Did you make the stick?” she asks. “No, you did not. The stick has its own story. If you have the time to figure out what kind of tree it came from, that would be a start to showing the stick some respect. It is only a ‘stick’ in the same way that you are only a ‘human,’ after all. There is more to both of you than that. Is it on the ground because it is old or because if suffered a mishap? Has it been lying there for a long time, or did it just land? Is it fat enough for you to see its growth rings?”

This stick has a history you cannot know. Did a bird once make a nest on it? What was it like to be part of the deep mystery of drawing water up from the ground against the pull of gravity? How was it to launch green leaves from its buds in spring and only to have them drop off and float to the ground in the fall? It has arteries not so very unlike yours and tissues that as you stand there are breaking down, returning to the soil from which it sprang.

What might you say?

“Bless you, stick for being you?”

“Bless you for turning soil and water and sun into wood?”

We only need remember, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, that “the key to blessing things is that they beat you to it.”

Blessing is ultimately an act of deep appreciation and once you are in the posture of doing it, the act redounds to you. The respect, the care that comes from a blessing speaks to an unplumbed depth within you. It is the place from which the “path to plenitude” that John Donohue spoke of in our reading opens for us.

This also connects us to another way of looking at the Easter story. The scholar John Dominic Crossan has examined much of the historical record around the stories of the Bible, and he notes that as lyrical as the death and resurrection narrative is, there is nothing historical in the finding of the empty tomb.

The most that we know from the record, he said, is this: there was a movement of people organized around a man named Jesus; he was executed by the authorities; but the movement continued and spread. The final point, Crossan argues, is the key one, and how it did so is the subject of one of the final episodes in the Gospel of Luke in the story of the walk to Emmaus.

In it, two disciples are on a road leaving Jerusalem shortly after Jesus death, talking about all that happened. At some point, they are joined by a figure they don’t seem to know, but later identify as Jesus, who tells them to continue his teachings.

Crossan argues that the story is intended not to be historical, but apocryphal: in his words “a metaphoric condensation of the first few years of Christian thought and practice in one parabolic afternoon.”

In essence, he says, Jesus opened a “path of plenitude” for his followers, a blessing that helped them see the world in a new way. This lives on in the gift that Easter gives us, the reminder that death is never the final answer. There are, as Frederick May Eliot put it, “tides of life flowing, fresh, manifold and free” – just look at the green points poking through the soil in your garden – ready to be employed if we can imagine ourselves as agents in bringing the future about.

And for many of us this is perhaps the greatest reach of all. Who am I? Pretty small, let’s face it. Life abundant, living with ethical grace. Wow, yeah! But . . . well, we each have our own reasons for why we think that path is a bigger lift than we’re capable of, but more or less they all fit under that classic Facebook post: “It’s complicated.”

But think about this. Today, you scribbled a few words on a slip of paper, crammed it in a plastic egg and dropped the egg in a basket intending it for one of our children to find and read: a blessing! What was that like? How was it to imagine your words being read, or perhaps read to someone?

How will that child receive it? I don’t know, but I call tell from what I have been told in past years that our children are kind of amazed by this gesture. They may not understand all the words, but they get the gesture.

It is a step or two above blessing of a stick. It is a moment of meeting that communicates abiding care, care that every one of us is in the position to offer each other in many ways. You may not be able to move mountains, but you can communicate abiding care.

And, hey, remember there’s another one of those blessings waiting for you in a colorful plastic egg that our children have secreted somewhere in Sandburg Hall. How will you read that blessing? What will you do with it? How will you let it touch you?

Annie Dillard paints it in stark terms: there’s nobody here but us chickens, nobody else to do all that heroic work that needs doing.

Remember the image from Wendell Berry’s poem that I offered as a meditation: amid our fears and tormented dreams there is within us the capacity to see beyond our outcast state, to make ourselves available to that well of abiding care within us that connects us with each other, a source that, if we will let it, can bathe us like a quiet, summer rain.

It is a weakening and discoloring idea, Annie Dillard says, that “rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us.”

No: The absolute, the ineffable, however we might understand that unfolding possibility that moves like electricity in us and all things, is available to everyone in every age. And we who go about our busy lives – knowledgeable and important, fearful and self-aware – we well-meaning folks, who nonetheless sometimes cut corners, who promote and scheme and deceive, we who long to flee misery and escape death – we are all that we have to bring it into being.

Our destination is not clear, but as John Donohue puts it, we can trust the promise of this opening and unfurl ourselves into the grace of beginning.

Pull a Thistle, Plant a Flower (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
How do we learn what it is we must do with our lives? For the figure at the center of our service today it came to him while he was harvesting wheat on his family’s farm one bright autumn day. Only just returned from service in the Civil War as an artilleryman with the Sixth Wisconsin Battery, Jenkin Lloyd Jones didn’t see much future for himself in farming. As he joined his brothers in the field, his head was full of all that he had seen in the war – the folly and the bravery, the terror and the tedium – and he marveled over how, as he was to put it later, the war seemed, “such a wrong way to do the right thing.”


How do we learn what it is we must do with our lives? For the figure at the center of our service today it came to him while he was harvesting wheat on his family’s farm one bright autumn day. Only just returned from service in the Civil War as an artilleryman with the Sixth Wisconsin Battery, Jenkin Lloyd Jones didn’t see much future for himself in farming. As he joined his brothers in the field, his head was full of all that he had seen in the war – the folly and the bravery, the terror and the tedium – and he marveled over how, as he was to put it later, the war seemed, “such a wrong way to do the right thing.”

Then, suddenly, it occurred to him what his path was: he was to be a Unitarian minister. It’s not the kind of epiphany that occurs to most people, but then the members of the Jones family were not most people. They had immigrated to Wisconsin only a couple of decades before, when Jenks, as he was known, was just an infant. Their home had been in Cardiganshire, Wales, which at the time hosted a dozen Welsh Unitarian churches. Nine of Jenks’ uncles were Unitarian ministers, including another Jenkin who had preceded Jenks’ family to Wisconsin, and who, barely a year after they arrived, died of smallpox.

So, the family was not especially surprised by Jenkin’s announcement, even if up to that point Jenkin had never actually attended a Unitarian church.

Oh, it’s true, the family read from the old Welsh Bible, and in this literate household Jenkin had read whatever he could get his hands on. He had also experienced his father at times offer up sermons at nearby churches – not often, since their liberal theology always seemed to get them in trouble, earning them the nickname, “the God-Almighty Joneses.” It would be a decade or more before Unitarian congregations formed there. But the family affirmed the gift they saw in Jenkin and sent him off to seminary without so much as a day of formal education.

Arriving at Meadville Theological School, Jones was the proverbial farm boy: lacking social graces and struggling with the demands of school but earnest, bright, and persevering.

It may have been his unusual origins or his family’s proud heretical heritage – Jones always said that for his family “freedom was a word to conjure by” – but from early on he had a different vision of religion than most seminarians. His idea, as he put it later, was the church would be “a free congress of independent souls,” a place of, in his words, “universal brotherhood” that would “lead in the campaign for more truth rather than to indolently stand guard over some petty fragment of acquired truth.”

It was an attitude that ended up putting this Welsh Wisconsin farm boy at the forefront of what was to become an emerging movement for expansion to the west in a denomination that at the time mostly saw its proper role as offering Biblical instruction from the high pulpits of Boston.

So, no sooner had he graduated from seminary than Jenkin Lloyd Jones enlisted in the role for what was described as Wisconsin missionary. Really, it was a role that Jones created for himself: there had never before been such a position in the Unitarian church and never would be again. But it turned out to be a winner for all involved. For Jones, the position got him back to familiar territory near his family, and for the newly emerging Western Conference of Unitarian churches it got an energetic organizer in the field to drum up interest in fast-growing pioneer towns.

Jones and his new wife, Susan, landed in a vacant parsonage attached to a struggling congregation in Janesville, Wisconsin, where between visits to emergent groups in growing towns he worked to give form to an evolving vision of what the church might become.

For Jones, the church was first off a center of community. So, to bring people together, among his first creations was an adult Sunday school held on Sunday evenings. Unlike the old catechism classes, the lessons were set up to explore topics ranging from the Beatitudes to the natural sciences to great religious teachers, ranging from Socrates to Buddha, Zoroaster, Muhammad and Confucius.

The classes gained a strong following in Janesville, reviving that congregation. So, Jones and his wife managed to package the lessons and send them off to others. Within six months he had a subscription list of 700.

After a few years, Jones’ success led to his being named missionary to the entire Western Conference, which at the time was vaguely defined as stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific coast. His activities, though, were mostly focused in the Midwest and Plains states, reaching from Ohio through Iowa and up north to Minnesota.

It was challenging work that he once described as like that of the woman in a Medieval story who appeared in the marketplace with a can of water in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, declaring it was her purpose to put out the fires of hell with the water and set fire to paradise with the torch, so that men and women might serve the right regardless of their own selfish interests, whether it be hope for future reward or dread of future punishment.

The schedule that his expanded duties demanded of him was insane. His first year he logged nearly 10,000 miles by train or ox cart, often sleeping in train stations and boarding coaches without enough money for the trip home, hoping for freewill offerings that would give him return fare. He mostly visited distressed or dormant churches, or isolated groups of religious liberals who sought to start churches. But it paid off with him helping to establish many new congregations.

His encouragement and support went a long way to holding struggling congregations together. And nowhere was that support more crucial than in Iowa, where women were emerging as leaders in some small congregations.

Denomination leaders in Boston had no interest in encouraging women to take on the role of clergy, but Jones had been promoting equal rights for women since he first arrived in Janesville. He was delighted to find women eager to step into the pulpit, especially since few male clergy would travel to serve those prairie towns. After arranging for the Western Conference to ordain one of those women – Mary Safford – Jones trumpeted the achievement to the wider conference, and invited other women to join her. At Jones’ urging, Meadville, his alma mater, began admitting women, and soon about half a dozen women joined Safford to minister to those country towns in what became known as the Iowa Sisterhood.

In his travels, Jones gathered allies in his work, a group who together created a magazine to communicate their views that they dubbed, “Unity.” The text Bob that read earlier by William Channing Gannett, probably Jones’ closest colleague, opened the inaugural issue of that magazine. Its forward-looking vision speaks very much to the ethos of that time, naming what he called three essentials of religion:

Freedom, which they said implies respect for the past, but reverence for the future, for the continuing unfolding of truth,

Fellowship, opposing exclusivity in religion, and seeing unities of human experience across traditions,

and Character, the view that morality, how we are to treat one another, is the focus of the religious life.

As a statement, it was none too popular with these men’s colleagues back East, since it lacked any specific reference to Christian teachings. Jones insisted there was no need, since the principles they endorsed embraced the heart of the Christian message. That argument, unfortunately, got him exactly nowhere with his opponents, and in time he found himself increasingly marginalized.

When headquarters in Boston finally got around to starting new churches, they invested their money in buildings in university towns where they could send preachers who were schooled to address this educated clientele. Jones regarded this as elitist nonsense that ignored his own efforts that in the course of a decade had helped found 40 congregations across the Midwest and Plains states.

The downside of Jones strategy, though, was that many of the congregations he helped get started were desperately poor, and lack of support for Jones from headquarters made their continued existence that much more precarious.

In time, increasing conflicts with conference leaders and Jones’ own weariness with travel led him to refocus his work. Now located in Chicago, he turned his gaze to a struggling congregation in town, Fourth Unitarian Church. He gathered the dozen remaining members and it grew rapidly, changing its name to All Souls Church. Again, he was a dynamo in the community: sponsoring weekday lecture series, helping to found the Chicago Peace Society and starting the first Post Office Mission, similar to our Church of the Larger Fellowship today, that mailed sermons and tracts to people in distant places.

Arguably, Jones’ most spectacular success was as general secretary of the group the planned the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Other more prominent religious leaders captured the headlines in the event that provided the first exposure that many Americans ever had to Asian religions. But it likely could not have come about without Jones as the sparkplug to make all the logistics work.

The glow of the parliament left Jones less inclined than ever to compromise with what seemed to him a hide-bound bureaucracy in Boston and soon after he withdrew All Souls from the American Unitarian Association. He tried building another alliance of liberal religions, but it crashed.

Instead, he turned his attention to creating the Abraham Lincoln Center, a settlement house modelled after Jane Addams’ Hull House. Designed by his nephew, Frank Lloyd Wright, it included apartments for Jones and several teachers, a 900-seat hall, classrooms, a library, gymnasium, art rooms and space for all sorts of gatherings. It proved to be an important gathering center on Chicago’s South Side, where it continues to operate today, one of Jones’ most enduring legacies.

With war on its way, Jones – the avowed pacifist – found himself marginalized even more. He was among the few clergy in America who publicly and urgently opposed it, reminding his hearers of the horrors he himself had experienced a half century before. Many ministers who shared his views, including Unitarians, lost their pulpits, but Jones remained at All Souls.

In 1918, shortly after the U.S entered the war, Jones died, cared for near Madison, just down the road from a chapel his family had built at a summer camp he had created at the site of an old Civil War tower used to make shot for rifles. It is now a state park. The epitaph on his grave at the family cemetery was from a quote of Abraham Lincoln’s, a favorite of Jones’: “He sought to pull up a thistle and plant a flower wherever a flower could grow.”

I guess you can tell that I have some affection for old Jenkin Lloyd Jones – untiring activist, Welsh farm boy, visionary leader. Back when I was a student intern at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin I impersonated Jones as my closing sermon for that congregation – complete with bushy, white beard and 19th century frock coat.

It seemed a good choice, both because of Jones’ connections to Wisconsin and because the Madison church was another of those building’s was designed by his nephew, Frank. And the connection is not a bad one to raise here too, since our member Bill Moore was deeply influenced by Wright in his design of this building.

As at the Madison church, the natural materials in this structure – wood and stone – give you a sense of place, an organic connection that links us and all things in one world, and the windows from many angles that bring the outside in, that let in the light, uncolored, unaltered that reminds us how widely truth is to be found.

I also I turn to Jenkin Lloyd Jones as I wonder what our future as a congregation might be. News reports are full of speculation about the decline of religion in this country. Churches are closing, denominations are scaling back, polls show fewer and fewer identify with institutionalized religion in any form. Like every religious body, we, too, must make our case – what are we here for: what are we here to be, what are we here to do?

These are questions that your Board of Trustees and I will invite you to be asking and answering this coming year – not because we fear for the future but because we want to be clear, and we want for that clarity to drive our work together. There will be different venues to do this, but when the time comes I hope you will all be part of the conversation.

One of the abiding charms of Jenkin Lloyd Jones was his unstinting hope and optimism, derived simply from a faith in what we humans are capable of achieving, the conviction, in his words that, “salvation lies in the unmarked possibilities of the soul.”

Part of what we exist as a congregation to do is to persuade each other, and sometimes ourselves, of this truth. As Wislawa Szymborska puts it, we are each “coincidence(s) no less unthinkable than any other,” each with our own gifts and our own quirks, and all of them added together have created this incredible confluence of events that is our life. What an astonishing thing, this life, hurtling along on the knife-blade of time. How shall we use it?

Well, here again, Jenkin Lloyd Jones offers some instruction. “Nothing in this world,” he wrote, “stands alone.” Rather, all of us are measured by our expanding sympathies. And so it is by the gesture of opening, of inviting, of embracing that our measure is made, that our hopes are made real, that our destiny is realized, so that at our life’s close we might be left with that one gift that is ours alone, that realizes us better than any other: our amazement.