Monday, March 24, 2014



A Sermon Delivered to the Unitarian Society of
Menomonie, WI, March 23, 2914
I want to start out this morning talking about a death that affects me profoundly and maybe surprisingly. The Reverend Fred Phelps, Sr., of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, died Wednesday night about midnight.

            I don’t know what the weather was like that evening in Topeka when he died, and I don’t want to make light of his death, but I wondered if this man, a member of what the BBC had once chillingly called the most hated family in the United States, had chosen such a cold, harsh, desolate time to depart this life, as if a reminder of the desolate theology and God he served.

            I’m not about to write a eulogy for Fred Phelps but I do want to remind you of some wisdom from John Donne. In his Meditation number 27 he famously writes, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..." The quote has become so ubiquitous as to have lost much of its original impact. But it manages to retain an impact and a truth beyond its simplicity.

I don’t eulogize him but I mourn Fred Phelps. I also mourn the death of ideas and cultures and languages, of whole populations of insects and birds and mammals and fish wiped out before we ever had an opportunity to know of them, of civil discourse and sitting silently before answering and owning up to what one has said. But I mourn Fred Phelps a little differently than those because he was are a part of my experience of the world and I think I'd be the worse for not having known about him.

Unlike Phelps, and I presume unlike you, I have little room in my theology for hatred. Not of groups of people and, I hope, not of individuals. I continue to work on my intense, let’s call it disfavor, of Ronald Reagan and Dick Cheney, but for all other people I like to think I am, at worst, ambivalent. In my theology, god is everything that makes up our experience, including the way we treat one another, the thoughts we have and act on, the toast we have for breakfast and selecting the bread and toasting and smothering it with butter as well as where the bread and the toaster parts and the cows and grass and water that make up the butter came from. This idea that god is a verb, simply is the way everyone and everything behaves, is something I picked up from born-again writer Anne Lamott. But it didn't originate with her. It was probably Jewish mysticism as exemplified in the Kabbalah that came up with the idea. In the contemporary world this is called pantheism, which posits that the divine itself composes all that is the universe, and thus that God, if that’s the name we use for it, is not separate from reality but is what constitutes it. As a result, Fred Phelps, his church, his hatred and his obsession, are as much an expression of God as Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Physicists have calculated that exactly the same amount of matter resides in the universe today as did moments after the Big Bang, and if that is the case then nothing ever goes away, it simply changes form. Fred Phelps qua Fred Phelps is on his way to becoming another series of atoms in another form. (Whether the new form acheives sentience, as in reincarnation, is another matter.) What I’ve wanted to find since his death is a cartoon memorializing him by showing Jesus explaining to him, "Look, it says right there in Mark, I hate figs!" because I think that would be a funny way to eulogize him.

But as Adam Weinstein in an excellent essay on the website Gawker points out, Phelps and his Westboro family, despite whatever else we might say about them, are at least consistent in their reading of the Bible. He identifies them correctly, and the term is not meant to be pejorative—Unitarian Universalism also grew from these roots—as Primitive Baptists. The “primitive” label would be more contemporarily termed “original;” that is, these are Baptists who, in early Nineteenth Century America, refused to allow modernizing influences to water down God’s message and authority. As Weinstein notes, doing so would have made no difference anyway, since they believed in predestination, which said God already had or had not chosen you for admittance to eternal life.

Weinstein does such a good job of enumerating the Calvinist idea of what the Bible teaches, what I learned in seminary by the acronym “TULIP,” that I’m going to quote him in full.

·         The total depravity of man. This one is everything: Human beings' default mode is damnation (thanks, Adam and Eve). We are not merely headed for damnation, though: We are depraved, alienated from God and goodness and unable to return to goodness by yourselves. In short, humans without salvation are all irredeemably terrible. Does that sound bleak? Well, that's the way it is, according to Calvinists.

·         Unconditional election. This is the predestination thing. God in His omniscience and in his mercy will save some of you. He already knows whom He will save, and he's not doing it because you're nice or funny or pretty, but because He can. Deal with it.

·         Limited atonement. Jesus died to save some people. But not all people. Just the ones God has elected. You can't atone for you sins, and maybe Jesus can't, either, because at the end of the day, maybe God heard your prayers and Jesus', and said "Yeeeeeeeeeeah no."

·         Irresistible grace. How do you know if God has saved you? Oh, you'll know. Because he'll touch you with grace, and you won't be able to refuse. No matter what a dirty philandering murderous gay Episcopalian you may be, God might save you, and you will heed His call, because that's how He rolls.

·         Perseverance of the saints. Once you go saved, you never go back. Here's the thing about an omniscient God: If He's elected you for salvation, you're getting saved, even if you keep being a dirty philandering murderous gay Episcopalian. That's just how grace works. No takebacks!


Weinstein concludes “There's a God who saves some people and screws the rest over for eternity, and there's nothing you can really do about it. If there were, He wouldn't be God, and you wouldn't be a depraved, terrible not-God quivering mass of id urges…As the old Presbyterian joke goes (Presbyterians still take the Calvinist points quite seriously): ‘God has answered your prayers. The answer is no.’”

            Let’s not allow ourselves a moment of triumphalism, saying, “Well, that’s what’s wrong with those fundamentalists, they see the world entirely in terms of black and white, right and wrong, them and everyone else.” Because the truth is, as easy as that may seem to us to make the path through worldliness it actually makes being Christ-like (as they might say) the more difficult. Because the Bible and their tradition tell them in no uncertain terms that you can’t just live quietly with this determination. You must proclaim it, no matter who it hurts, no matter what discomfort it is to you, no matter what the consequences might be. God demands no less than complete obeisance from you and God says, quite specifically in Mark 16:15-6: “And [Jesus] said to [his disciples, ie, everyone who would be a Christian], ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.’” From the perspective of Fred Phelps and other Original Baptists what’s wrong with everyone else, including most self-proclaimed Christians, is that they won’t do that. In our arrogance we refuse to accept God knows what is right and has told us very explicitly what our responsibilities are and it is their responsibility to point that out. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists and other sects that grew out from that root, they are meant to be prophets, not telling what will happen in the future but what must happen as a consequence of disobedience.

The abolition movement, the temperance movement, the social gospel and social justice movements, the civil rights movement—all of these came about as a result of the efforts and influence of the Original Baptists, also known as Hardshells. Should we thank Fred Phelps or his clan from Westboro? Not even I would go that far. Some things should remain beyond the pale of human interaction and public displays of hatred should be among them. But we should recognize that there is great complexity in people no less than there is in life. From the 1950s until he was disbarred, Fred Phelps was an active and effective lawyer on behalf mostly of black clients, winning settlements against institutional racist practices and police abuse. In the late 80s he was given several awards by the groups Blacks in Government and the NAACP.  Indeed, no man is an island. Neither is anyone just a single attribute.

I mourn the death of Fred Phelps, then, as a fellow part of god, for the good he did in his life, for his role as a man, as a lover, as a father, and as a leader. It's sad that his legacy will be a rank hatred of people and ideas his theology couldn't prepare him to accept, and it's sad that for some people that will be reason to, if not celebrate, then dismiss his death. But life, like everything else we do, has consequences, and this is his.

            We justifiably cherish, as Americans, as members of different generations, as UUs, and as members of this congregation, our sense of social justice, of what needs to be done and undone. In the aggregate, we have had tremendous influence on the world, sometimes for ill, mostly for good. As individuals, many of us have worked in support of causes ranging from opposition to war to women’s choices to raising the minimum wage to helping the homeless and improving conditions for the mentally ill and people in poverty. Perhaps when we die the media is unlikely to cover efforts we made to change the world. But it is unlikely we will be referred to as having belonged to the most hated family in the country or as having left a legacy of angry and exclusive theology.

There is a song by a writer named Bill Callahan called, appropriately, “The Sing.” He describes having a day when he’s surrounded by people but says only two things to anyone. Now before I tell you what those two things are, I want you to think about what such a day is like. A day in which you say only two, at most two, things to people. I’m not talking about talking to people outside your immediate family or your significant other. Such a thing as that is lonely enough, I know. I’m not talking either about only wanting to say two things to people—we all have days like that, when we want no or nearly no contact with others and huddle into ourselves, keeping mum. I’m talking about days when there is almost nothing to say and nearly no one to say it to. But for a moment think about leaving your house and going through your day as you do normally and in that span of time saying only two things to anyone. That’s a lonely experience and while I’ve been lonely in my time, I don’t think I have ever been that lonely.


            Here are the lyrics to “The Sing.”

Drinking while sleeping strangers
Unknowingly keep me company
In the hotel bar

Looking out a window that isn't there
Looking at the carpet and the chairs

Well the only words I said today are "beer" and "thank you"
Beer, thank you
Beer, thank you

Giving praise in a quiet way
Like a church
Like a church
Like a church that’s far away

I've got limitations like Marvin Gaye
Mortal joy is that way

Outside a train sings its whale song
To a long, long train long, long gone
Then silence comes back alone
High as scaffolding

'Til the wind finds something to ping
When the pinging things finds the wind
We're all looking for a body
Or a means to make one sing.

Callahan conjures with the two things he says to someone a homey situation. He gets up and goes about his day and at a bar, maybe where he’s staying, maybe one he knows, he says “beer” and “thank you.” We’re left to imagine the conversation on the bartender’s side. Maybe he’s asked “what do you want?” or gives him a nod while wiping down the bar in front of him. And Callahan answers with a specific, non-specific request: “beer.” Not Budweiser or Miller Lite or even a further question, “what do you have?” which is the question I always ask. But a single word which, in its vagueness, says it doesn’t matter what the bar carries or what brand he’s given, he just wants a single taste in his mouth: “beer.”

            He’s been defeated. He’s drinking in a bar where people sleep at the tables. I’ve been in those bars. The TV’s on, not for the game or information or even entertainment, but for the company. What you’re drinking isn’t so important as the act of drinking. He looks out a window he only imagines, and at the floor and the empty chairs. He faces his limitations which are probably considerable, and he hears a train that wails in its loneliness, and even the silence with which it’s answered is alone.

But the second thing he says is much more specific. We imagine the bartender has set a glass down and Callahan says “thank you.” The bartender has given him what he asked for and now he’s thanked him. Is it possible that everything we can ever say to anyone can be reduced to those two phrases? Beer. Thank you. I mean, telling others what we want and then, after they’ve given it to us, thanking them. As Callahan says, “giving praise in a quiet way.”

            Well, if we’re not particular, that might work. But what if we are more particular? What if, in fact, what we want isn’t something as simple to supply as milk or a book or beer but something a lot of us lack? What if the something is correction of a social injustice? I’m not certain Reverend Martin Luther King’s requests could be reduced to “justice” or “equality.”      More importantly, perhaps, is the “thank you” that follows. Perhaps, had he lived to see his requests granted by the United States, King would have said “thank you,” but if so it was only out of his innate politeness. I’m not certain it was the majority’s ability to grant that request. After all, equality and justice aren’t really options on some menu society places before us. They are, per the first of our Seven Principles, a part of the inherent dignity granted every human being. And rounding out the seventh is the suggestion that such dignity is accorded every member of the interconnected web of being.

            But I am not Martin Luther King, Jr., much as it pains me to admit. Perhaps none of us is. Perhaps a Reverend King only appears every millennium while Fred Phelps’ are born daily. Perhaps in our attempts to make an impact on the world, our attempts to inculcate justice, to make amends for injustice, to encourage peace or equality or to just get everyone to live together a little more easily, we are sending out, like that train, our whale song to something or someone who’s long, long gone. And we’re answered with silence that itself is alone.

            But that isn’t all there is. Somewhere, our song touches something or someone. Something we don’t recognize, someone we don’t know. We all have at least one story—and without knowing it we’ve probably got a lot more—of people we find out we’ve touched gently, gracefully, with our lives that we hadn’t even known about. We all have stories about others who’ve touched us without knowing, why assume that’s only a one-way street? That we’re only the recipients and not the givers? The pinging thing finds the wind. It may never come back to us but that doesn’t matter. It goes on. “We're all looking for a body, or a means to make one sing.” We may never see the result, the body, of what we do, of our efforts, of the sacrifices we make. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we touch one another, somehow, somewhere. And the chord we touch in one another is what makes each of us sing.


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