[Inaugural Worship Service]
SERMON: “A Holy Host of Others Standing ’round Me”
Several weeks ago, I asked your wonderful Director of Religious Education, Nancie Shillington-Perez, what she would like to hear a new interim minister preach about at the start of this new interim ministry. Nancie’s suggestion was change, loss, and even tragedy, including helpful ways to process, adjust, and adapt to times of change. I said that was a great idea, and that I would be happy to speak to weathering times of change in ways that are comforting, reassuring, and hopeful. Personally, I am accustomed to adjusting to changes in where I work and where I call home, since I am an interim minister who moves every couple years, to serve a new congregation in a new place. But this is a time of major changes and loss for you, the members and friends of UUCC. My predecessor, the Rev. Neal Jones, served as your minister for ten years. It will be a big adjustment to process this congregation’s loss of Neal and his ministry. But I know that we all wish him well in his new ministry position, for the UU congregation in Devon, Pennsylvania.
I’m happy to have this opportunity to share with you some of the things I find most helpful in times of change, loss, or tragedy. One of the most comforting and reassuring things to me is to remember that there are always people –so many people– who are working on our behalf, to make the world more safe and fair, more loving and beautiful. There are people right at this moment who are working to make the world a better place, many of them whose names we will never know. There are people working to make the world a better place in this very room. And there have always been people who have worked selflessly to assist strangers in need, to make our communities safe, to end injustices even when that takes decades to achieve, and to create art and song, poetry and prose, and to preserve natural spaces so we can enjoy the glory of the out-of-doors. There have been people who have worked for all those things here in Columbia, from the earliest roots of Unitarianism and Universalist in this area. And, as long as we do all we can to keep UUCC healthy and thriving, then this congregation will be a center for the betterment and enlightenment of society for many generations to come.
After I had that conversation with Nancie Shillington-Perez, I looked at your congregation’s history, on its website, so that I could learn about those early Unitarian and Universalist roots in Columbia and South Carolina. In the late 1800s, two Universalist preachers helped Universalism take hold and spread here: Dr. Daniel Bragg Clayton, and Dr. Quillen Shinn. And we have a record from 1839 that a Unitarian church existed in Columbia. We speculate that it was founded by Thomas Cooper. We know that Cooper was a Unitarian, and a professor of law and chemistry at South Carolina College, and then became president of the college. And we know that Thomas Cooper was a protégé of the famous Unitarian minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley. Those early groups of Universalists and Unitarians in Columbia did not directly result in the well-established UU congregation we know and love today, here, on the corner of Heyward and South Woodrow. There was a gap in time between them and when this congregation was founded on April 30, 1950. But even so, those early gatherings of our predecessors are part of our history, as are Thomas Cooper and Joseph Priestley. And so I chose to talk about Joseph Priestley this morning because he did help us become who we are today, and he was intimately experienced with change, loss, and even tragedy, and he found comfort, reassurance, and support in groups of people who gathered to work to make the world more educated, enlightened, and fair.
Joseph Priestley and his family were called “Dissenters” or “Dissenting,” because they did not conform to the Church of England. It was very hard for them to be in the small liberal minority, both religiously and politically. And I know that you, as Unitarian Universalists in Columbia, South Carolina understand what that feels like. It was hard for Priestley, as a minister, to find liberal congregations to serve, and to make a living and find communities to live in where there would be kindred souls. But as a theologian, and scientist, and in his study of English grammar, he was brilliant. He wrote profusely. And he was a founder of Unitarianism in England.
Joseph Priestley contributed revolutionary ideas to England, America, France, and the world, at a point in world history when those revolutionary ideas’ time had come. He birthed new discoveries in science, specifically with air, water, minerals, and electricity, at a time when human beings were just beginning to understand what those things were and what they could do. His way of experimenting scientifically wasn’t to strictly follow the scientific method. Rather, he kept trying many different approaches and always shared his findings with other people who were interested in science, all with an attitude of openness and the desire to keep learning new things. In his scientific conclusions, he did make some mistakes. His “phlogiston theory” of oxygen was found to be incorrect. But he is still credited as being one of the very first people it ever occurred to, to contemplate the nature of the very air we breathe. He also invented soda pop, and it never occurred to him to make any money from that discovery.
Joseph Priestley also proposed original ideas in religion as a Unitarian minister and scholar, specifically by redacting Biblical scripture back to its original Hebrew and Greek texts, absent the miracle stories and other doctrine that were added later by the Catholic church. In that way, his work was a precursor to what we know as “The Jesus Seminar” today. [“The Jesus Seminar” is a group of scholars who discern which parts of the Bible were Jesus’s actual words, as opposed to those passages which were added later.] And Joseph Priestley’s work gave Thomas Jefferson a way to legitimately remain a Christian, and to create what we now call the Jefferson Bible. And Joseph Priestley also advocated for revolutionary ideas in politics. While living in England, he supported the American Revolution, and later the French Revolution. And also, as a resident of Birmingham, England, he protested that that city was taxed without Parliamentary representation.
Some of why those new and progressive ideas were possible in science, religion, and politics is because their time had come, and Joseph Priestley, and other Unitarians, were alive to take part in them. But there are other specific reasons new ideas are birthed. Looking at what it takes for societies to progress can help us in our efforts to make the world a better place. I learned about Joseph Priestley by reading the book by Steven Johnson called, The Invention of Air – A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Johnson writes that Priestley’s great ideas were possible because it was the time of the Enlightenment, because of the conversations and exchange of letters and papers Priestley had with other innovative thinkers, and because those ideas were being exchanged and improved upon in an interdisciplinary way. Johnson writes that, at that time, there were not firm dividing lines between the fields of science, religion, and politics. Therefore science, religion, and politics were greatly enhanced by intellectuals in all three of those fields. Johnson also noted that Priestley’s innovations were only possible because of the funding and leisure time he had through support of individuals, private industry, and family members. Many of Priestley’s great ideas were birthed in coffeehouses in London and Birmingham, and in the laboratories he built in his homes. Johnson notes that when we hear of a great idea, it seems to have appeared suddenly, but usually it began many years before, and only developed after many false starts, trials, mistakes, and collaborations.
Throughout Joseph Priestley’s life, he encountered great hardship. He suffered the death of friends and family members; his Birmingham home, laboratory, and church were burned in a riot of protestors who considered his religious ideas to be dangerous. His views were so unpopular in England that he moved to the United States, where he was welcomed and treated as an esteemed dignitary. Despite all his set-backs and tragedies, Priestley never lost his optimism. He never stopped trying new things, coming up with new ideas, and sharing those innovations with other people. He never burned out, nor became lazy, not intellectually, nor religiously, nor politically. Priestley held the view that innovation and progress –when they are in keeping with the ethical principles of respect for persons and an honest, free, and responsible search for truth and meaning– are beneficial to society. That view is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, that the world is progressively becoming more compassionate and fair.
So how did Joseph Priestley sustained his motivation, productivity, openness to new ideas, and optimism, through times of change, loss, and tragedy? I think what sustained him and his spirit were those gatherings of people, in the coffee houses and study groups, and on the shores of our nation who welcomed him here, though he was an outcast in England. And this congregation is also such a gathering of people that births new ideas, and welcomes people who have been made to feel like outcasts. We are the beneficiaries of all that our predecessors achieved in their efforts to make the world more safe and fair, loving and beautiful. And I believe that, as the beneficiaries, we have a duty to continue that legacy, to strive to leave the world a better place than we found it.
That belief of mine goes back to my earliest memories. When I was a little girl, I was surrounded by the idealism of the Kennedy Administration, both the call to serve in the Peace Corps, and the excitement of space exploration. I was also inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., such that the word “brotherhood” is deeply meaningful to me. And I heard and sang along to the folk music of Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan, with their message that our words and deeds should spread love and peace to all people, in every land. One song in particular clarified, for me, the calling I was hearing from those great leaders, teachers, prophets, and singers. It was James Taylor singing, “Carolina in My Mind.” To me, Jack and Bobby and Martin; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Paul and Art and Bob were “a holy host of others standing ‘round me.” That “holy host of others” insisted that we can change the world through love and brotherhood, and therefore we must join together and try. There was bravery, boldness, and artistry in their resounding call. And some of them sacrificed their very lives for it. And so I resolved that I would try to take up their call, in whatever ways best suited my skills, and the passion in my heart.
Now that I have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for many years, to me, “God” is still “a holy host of others standing ‘round us.” To me, that which sustains, supports, comforts, and renews us is the collection of the results of efforts to improve our lives and our world. In his book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr defines “culture” as: that which human beings superimpose onto that which is natural; he means “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.” [p. 32] He calls all that the “social heritage” that we inherit, contribute to during our lifetime, and leave behind us. “Social heritage” is the result of human achievement, including “speech, education, tradition, myth, science, art, philosophy, government, law, rite, beliefs, inventions, and technologies.” [p. 33] All of these things have been created as the end result of specific values human being were trying to convey. We preserve and recreate our social heritage as a way of trying to make our values live on. As such, I imagine that, if there is a higher power out there, it is a collection of all those things– our words and deeds and remnants; our traditions, myths, and rites-of-passage; and what we’ve learned from our mistakes. I imagine it’s like a collective unconscious, that can help and support us, and that does help and support us.
That idea of mine is not unique. Not only do I not mind that it is not my idea alone, I feel supported and comforted that other scholars before me also envisioned that there is something, greater than any of us or even than all of us put together– something that, though mysterious and as yet not possible to fully comprehend, we believe is both wise and good.
Our special music this morning was written by our member Morgan Maclachlan. And so I talked with Morgan a couple weeks ago about his lovely song, and about what “a holy host of others” means to me. Morgan told me that my idea was similar to that of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who conceived of culture as “the superorganic.” To Kroeber, there were levels of things, beginning with that which is inorganic, and then the second level which is composed of living things. To him, the “superorganic” was the highest level of complexity, consisting of the ways we communicate with each other, our patterns of behavior, our symbols, and our rites and rituals. To him, this was something greater than the sum of its parts and, somehow, in its own way, animated. And though we humans carry it forward, it transcends us in ways we cannot explain. Though Kroeber is now highly-respected for his breakthroughs in anthropology, his theory of the “superorganic” was criticized in his day for being too mystical. Yet I was delighted to read that Kroeber’s most notable trait was, “his lifelong curiosity about new fields, new approaches, and new problems” [see Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences article]– just like our dear Joseph Priestley.
I’ll close this morning with this reading by the Rev. Robert Walsh called, “Like Home;” [he writes]:
“My responsibility as (a grandfather and baby sitter for my seven month old granddaughter) is to make a safe place for her, a place of comfort and security, where she is protected for a while from the venom and thorns and hostility. A place where she is wanted. A place that is home. For the world is also like that. There are forces that protect us from danger, that shield us from fire, and keep away the monsters. They are not invincible forces. They do not always work. But do not doubt that they are real. They include the power of love, justice, and mercy. We are alive, and so we have been wounded by this world. And we will be wounded again. But we are alive and we have been loved; we have received kindness and known justice. May we trust that with faithful companions we can give our goodness to the world, and transform it. There will be healing, and there will be wholeness, and there will be beauty. And the world may become a little bit more like home for everyone.”