Kenneth W. Phifer: My Sermon

Ferenc Dávid  holding his speech at the Diet of Torda in 1568, (today  Turda ,  Romania ) when the Unitarian Church was recognized legally by the Transylvanian Diet. By  Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch  (1896)    Link to the Wikipedia article “Unitarianism.”       Link to the Wikipedia article “Universalism.”

Ferenc Dávid holding his speech at the Diet of Torda in 1568, (today Turda, Romania) when the Unitarian Church was recognized legally by the Transylvanian Diet. By Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch (1896)

Link to the Wikipedia article “Unitarianism.” Link to the Wikipedia article “Universalism.”

When I left Mormonism for the Unitarian Universalism in 2000, Ken Phifer was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He gave beautiful sermons. I am grateful for his permission to reprint one of them here.

Ken’s sermon The Faith of a Humanist also appears on supplysideliberal.com. And you will find links to some of my own UU sermons here.

Below are Ken’s words.


It is a truism among those of us who have chosen homiletics, that is, preaching, as our field of expertise that we each have only one sermon in us. Since our work requires that we deliver far more than just one sermon, and preaching the same sermon every week would likely clear the pews/chairs very quickly, we have to learn how to ring the changes on our one message so that we can continue to “mount the pulpit” week by week and remain at least minimally interesting. 

In that regard, all of us who preach do well to remember the biting words of Anthony Trollope in his novel Barchester Towers: “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented.”

I, of course, have no power to compel you to do anything, much less to force you “to sit silent and be tormented.” Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of our Unitarian Universalist religion that people participate according to their free will and not some notion of eternal suffering if they fail to attend.

UU’s don’t sit in torment. They leave, as during a section of one of my sermons that dealt with money some 15-20 people did. Only later did I learn that they were all headed for their children’s RE class for a special presentation. I learned only at the coffee hour why they had gone: because they were good parents, not because they did not like what I said.

I think.

Some stay physically but leave mentally, preparing grocery lists, ruminating on a problem at work, or admiring some fine specimen across the way. Albert Shanker once noted that people generally listen to the first ten

minutes of any talk and doze through the next ten minutes. After that, he remarked, people begin to have sexual fantasies.

This is the reason that I always talk for more than 20 minutes, so that every one can come away with at least something of interest.

Whatever congregants may do, preachers, unless they are genuinely unselfaware, preach their one sermon but in different ways, using different words with different emphases, expanding, contracting, amending, finding better phrases to express their one message.

Like a jazz musician who has played a tune hundreds of times but never the same way—Coleman Hawkins playing his classic Body and Soul, for example, or Art Tatum playing anything in his virtuoso piano style—preachers try to keep the message fresh and interesting, comforting and inspiring, challenging and caring, seeking always better ways to state the message.

The work of the preacher is not unlike that of the singer in a story told by Saul Bellow. She was young and making her debut at La Scala. After a particularly beautiful but difficult aria, the applause was thunderous. There were cries for her to do it again. After the fourth such encore, worn out from the challenging music sung again and yet again, she asked her audience how many more times she must sing it. A voice cried out, “Until you get it right!!” 

Each week we preachers hope that we will get it right, or at least get closer to right than before. We know that we will likely fail, but we do not share the philosophy of the man who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, quit!”

Let me try this morning to get it a little bit right, placing before you three themes that are at the heart of my faith and, I believe, at the heart of the Unitarian Universalist faith. They form the core of my one sermon.

The first theme is history.

I majored in history in college because I saw history as an academic discipline within which I could study virtually anything. My doctoral work in Christian anti-Semitism continued this interest in the historical as the human arena within which all subjects could be studied.

As I began the process of moving into Unitarian Universalism, one of the most attractive features of the movement was its attitude towards history.                                                                                                                                                                                      In UU understanding, history, human experience, is where we find authority for our theologies and our moral values. 

UU’s see past, present, and future linked together without thinking that one part of history is more important than another. All three matter. All are intertwined. Each affects the other two.

What we know and think about the past helps us to live in the present and plan for the future.

How we live in the present helps us to redeem the past and shape the future. 

How we dream of and work for the future helps us to live meaningfully today and to accept the past.

This is in contrast to the orthodox understanding of history where some person, event, or revelation in the past is determinative. The orthodox believer says that all the truth that matters is in the past.

This rigid commitment to the past is why it was only twenty or so years ago that the Roman Catholic Church agreed that evolution was a sound theory, amounting to a fact, a position that creationists, now using the alias of intelligent design advocates, are still unable to accept.

Or consider the power of the violent right-wing Islamic believers, who are able to justify murder in their own minds because they think that the critical truths of life took place in the seventh century.

The radical says that the most important moment is yet to be. Despise the wicked past, loath the evil present, and look only to the glorious future is the message of the radical. The 20th century saw the coming to power of various totalitarian communist governments who blithely murdered millions in order to usher in that glorious future, ignoring present day evils and their own wickedness in the process.  

Christopher Buice, a UU minister in Knoxville, Tennessee, captures the spirit of the UU approach to history, when he writes of bowling as a spiritual discipline. Bowl a ball too far to the right and you end up in the gutter of orthodoxy, trapped in the past. Bowl too far to the left and you end up in the gutter of radicalism, postponing a good life to a never-to-arrive future. To knock down the pins, you must strive to roll the ball in the lane between the gutters.

The Buddha taught the same wisdom: seek the Middle Way between the extremes that seem so tempting. Aristotle called it the Golden Mean.

UU’s respect the past, knowing in what measure it affects our lives. Our genetic inheritance, the social history of our species as well as the history of our family, and the environmental developments of the ages that have produced our present earth all have significance for us.

Historian Donald Kagan says that writers of history have “the responsibility of preserving the great, important, and instructive actions of human beings.” By knowing what has happened, we can see what good and evil are, what actions help human beings and what actions harm us.

History shows us clearly the wickedness of slavery and the oppression of women, the folly of war and of designing societies that are unjust so a few get rich and the many live in misery.  Hitler and Stalin were evil and did monstrously evil things. Clara Barton and Sophia Lyon Fahs were good and did wonderfully good things. 

Our moral values emerge out of seeing what actions and systems do good and which ones hurt people.

Then we create a vision of what might be and begin working to realize it. We understand the truth of Reinhold Niebuhr’s words that “nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.”

Worthy goals are not easily accomplished. The time to start working on them is now. We must do what we can, even if we do not see the completion of the task, and trust that others will carry on the work to make real the vision of a peaceable and just community.                                                                                                

History is about two things: remembering and dreaming.  

We remember so that we can overcome the mistakes of the past and carry forward the noblest aspirations of humanity.

We dream so that we never become complacent about who and what we are, always striving to be better and help the world to be better.

The importance of history is the first theme of my sermon.

Humility is the second.

Humility is an impossible virtue. How on earth can we ever know if we are properly humble?

If I go on a diet, I have something to measure how well I am doing—the scales, how many times I succumb to the delicious pecan pie that I love or have that gorgeous Reuben sandwich, how many days I do not exercise. I can keep a chart of how I am doing and give myself pep talks about doing better.

How can I tell if I am improving in humility? How do I know if my humble demeanor—or yours—is not really a mask for vanity and arrogance?

I have never thought of myself as a particularly humble person. I am not sure if that means that I am or that I am not humble! I just do not know.

Despite the difficulties, I am persuaded that humility is a great virtue. I like what Max Ehrmann said about humility in “Desiderata,” though he did not use the word: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

That is excellent advice for staying on course—the middle way!—but hard as the dickens to do. Most of us at one time or another do compare ourselves with others and find ourselves either desperately wanting or wallowing in self-admiration. Ehrmann was right to caution against it.                                               

The trick is to appreciate ourselves, respect others, and enjoy life. Several things can be helpful in doing this.

First, who is not humbled by an awareness of the sheer vastness of the universe: hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. In the microscopic world, we seem to keep discovering teeny, tiny, miniscule little things that count as fundamental pieces of the make-up of physical reality. The last count I saw was 64 such elemental pieces.

There is vastness in time also, billions and billions of years of time that the earth has been around, billions and billions of years since the universe started, and no one knows what came before that point of singularity.

My goodness! How could anyone be uppity in the face of that knowledge?

The earth and its various life forms are also amazing. Beetles seem to be the most prolific life form with 400,000 species. Cockroaches seem to be the most durable form of life, said to be capable of surviving and prospering even in a nuclear war. Giraffes! Hippopotamuses! Duck-billed platypuses! Monkey pod trees! Roses and thorns! Mountains! Water! The human being!

Life is strange and beautiful and full of mystery and it long predates our brief interlude as part of it.

One last element of humility is the limits that constrain us.

The first and most painful of these limits is our mortality. Religions may propose faith commitments about living beyond this life, but there is not one scrap of evidence that we do. Even if we survive for another go-round—and I would welcome that, as most people would—that does not make this life any easier.

Here’s the truth about our mortality, told in two statements a quipster thought up in the heyday of the God Is Dead movement of the 1960’s.  First came these words: “God is dead—Nietzsche.” Then came these words: “Nietzsche is dead—God.”                                                                                          

Whatever we consider the ultimate force of the universe to be, whatever our God is, it will long outlast our very short existence. 

There are limits as well in what we can do. Like it or not, no matter how hard I might apply myself, I will never be able to play the piano as well as Fats Waller or Van Cliburn. For that matter, I can’t play as well as Fats Cliburn or Van Waller!

Very few are those gifted in all aspects of life. Some of us can cook and some of us cannot. Some of us are comfortable and capable with technology and others of us are not. Some of us are good with numbers and others of us are not. Some of us can hit a curve ball and others cannot.

Nobody does everything well.

Humility is an attitude firmly rooted in the reality of our situation, an infinitesimal part of life in a vast space-time universe in which our mortal days are few and our talents limited.

Accepting our real condition frees us to enjoy life, to appreciate what we have and what we can do rather than long for what we do not have or cannot do, to respect others and take delight in their accomplishments.

In the UU movement, humility is part of the reason why we have no binding dogma, no required creeds to believe, no rituals one must perform on pain of eternal loss. Humility teaches us that no one of us has the truth, no individual, no religion. At best, we may each have a little bit of the truth. Sharing humbly we can enlarge our understanding.

Humility is the reason we celebrate diversity.

Humility is the second theme of my sermon.

The third is learning how to distinguish between that which is of enduring value and that which is of only passing worth.                                                                                                   

One of the watershed moments in UU history was the occasion of the installation of the Rev. Charles C. Shackford on May 19, 1841. At that ceremony, Theodore Parker preached a sermon called “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.”

Parker made the point that the authority of Christianity or of any religion rests on the truth of its words, not on who said the words, not on any doctrines of the faith. Doctrines are transient. So are rituals. So are people.

The permanent is found in love and morality and divine living, acting on the goodness that is part of every one of us. Parker said that what is demanded of us is “a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.”

He went on to note that living in this way does not “demand that all men...(and women) think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible to truth; not all men…(and women) to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine.”

There are many ways of speaking the wisdom in Parker’s words. That wisdom is found in the words of the prophet Micah, when he declared that what is required of us is not rituals or sacrifices properly performed  or doctrines correctly stated and believed, but that we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Jesus taught us to love not just family and friends and those who agree with us, but also to love our enemies.

The Koran instructs us in the many ways that Allah’s voice can be heard, different voices in different places to different people.

The permanent is about love and morality, not transient things like wealth or power or fame or comfort.

We live in an age that celebrates the transient. A cartoon in a recent New Yorker showed a man being held up on the street and the robber saying, “Hand over your most recently acquired technology.”                                                                                                

Not even the thieves can keep up with the rapidly changing array of technological gimcrackery that crowds our lives and demands our attention. It’s all very exciting and all very lucrative for the inventors and sellers and all very temporary.

What religions are supposed to do is to remind us of what we need, remind us of the things that endure, the things that really matter: love and morality, justice and compassion, laughter and learning, sharing and hope, respect and thoughtfulness.

What the UU religion says is that these things can be found everywhere in life, not just in the teachings of one religion.

At the 2005 commencement exercises of my alma mater, the actor John Lithgow, a member of the class of 1967, spoke of what he had learned from some of the recipients of the Harvard Arts medal, awarded each year at the springtime Arts First Festival that Lithgow founded. “I began to see,” he said, “that many of the qualities that made them great artists were the same qualities that made them good people.” He then referred to folksinger Pete Seeger, who spearheaded efforts to clean up the Hudson River, to blues guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt, who donated funds for guitar lessons for inner-city kids, and filmmaker Mira Nair, who started a film school in Uganda.

He briefly suggested four qualities these and others who have contributed to the welfare of humanity have. He urged his audience--he urged us all—to “be creative, to be useful, to be practical, and to be generous.”

That is wisdom that fits any age, truth that endures.

So is the kind of celebration of life that the poet Mary Oliver expresses in her poems, like this one:

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said: thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

—Mary Oliver, “Some Things Say the Wise Ones,” in Why I Wake Early (2004) 

To see the sacredness in every part of life, to really live the truth of being part of the “interdependent web of all existence,” is to be in tune with the universe, with that which goes on, with that which endures.

Hold fast to love, morality, life, to that which endures.

We live best when we live consciously in history, when we live with humility, and when we live with permanent values not transient ones.  

That is the central message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. When we live it, we make the world a better place and we make ourselves better people.

That is my faith.

That is My Sermon.