This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
The first reading is from a sermon titled “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 by William Ellery Channing. This sermon gives the classic old Unitarian view of God
We conceive that Christians have generally leaned towards a very injurious view of the Supreme Being. They have too often felt, as if he were raised, by his greatness and sovereignty, above the principles of morality, above those eternal laws of equity and rectitude, to which all other beings are subjected. We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance. We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.
We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system….
To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. We believe that he has a father’s concern for his creatures, a father’s desire for their improvement, a father’s equity in proportioning his commands to their powers, a father’s joy in their progress, a father’s readiness to receive the penitent, and a father’s justice for the incorrigible. We look upon this world as a place of education, in which he is training men by prosperity and adversity, by aids and obstructions, by conflicts of reason and passion, by motives to duty and temptations to sin, by a various discipline suited to free and moral beings, for union with himself, and for a sublime and ever-growing virtue in heaven.
The second reading is excerpts from a poem by Lawrence Frelinghetti titled “An Elegy To Dispel Gloom: (After the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco, November 1978)”:
Let us not sit upon the ground
and tell sad stories
of the death of sanity.
Two humans made of flesh
are meshed in death
and no more need be said.
It is pure vanity
to think that all humanity
be bathed in red
because one young mad man…
lost his head.
The force that through the red fuze
drove the bullet
does not drive everyone
through the City of Saint Francis
where there’s a breathless hush
in the air today
a hush at City Hall
and a hush at the Hall of Justice
a hush in Saint Francis Wood
where no bird tries to sing…
Do not sit upon the ground and speak
of other senseless murderings
or worse disasters waiting
in the wings.
Do not sit upon the ground and talk
of the death of things beyond
these sad sad happenings.
Such men as these do rise above
our worst imaginings.
Today is Father’s Day. This year, on Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father; and I’ve been thinking about fatherhood in the most general terms: that is, I’ve been thinking not only about men who are fathers to children, but other kinds of fatherhood. George Washington is called the father of our country, and for that matter just as Lyle Ritz is called the father of jazz ukulele. The word “fatherhood” covers all these things; and I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs through all these different uses of the word “fatherhood,” for I believe there is a thread that runs through them all. In order to tell you about the thread that runs through all these senses of fatherhood, I’m going to tell you the story of a man who had no children of his own.
Back in 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco to open a camera store. Milk was an openly gay man who lived with his partner Scott Smith; remember that in 1972, it was much more difficult to live as an openly gay man than it is today. Milk was also an organizer and a community activist who not only found himself being called “The Mayor of the Castro,” a sort of figurehead for San Francisco’s gay community, but who was also adept at building solid alliances with a variety of ethnic groups in the city. With the help of these alliances, in 1977 Milk was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, an elected body which is roughly equivalent to our own city council. Harvey Milk was one of the very first openly gay persons elected to public office in the United States.
Milk only served for a short time, however. There was another member of the Board of Supervisors, a man named Dan White, who had run for office proclaiming that he was going to rid San Francisco of “radicals” and “social deviants”; White was the only openly anti-gay member of the Board of Supervisors. In 1978, Dan White decided to resign his office. The mayor at that time, George Moscone, accepted White’s resignation — and then when White changed his mind and tried to take back his resignation, George Moscone, with the encouragement of Harvvey Milk, refused to allow White to do so. This enraged Dan White so much that he got a gun, stuffed extra ammunition in his pockets, broke into San Francisco City Hall through an unlocked window in order to avoid the metal detectors at the main entrance, and then shot both George Moscone and Harvey Milk dead in their offices.
When the singer-songwriter Holly Near heard about the shootings, she wrote the song we just sang, “Singing for Our Lives,” which is sometimes called “Song for Harvey Milk.” Many San Franciscans were outraged by the shootings, and the way I was told the story, Holly Near sang this song in order to turn people’s anger away from merely destructive violence and rioting, towards lasting social transformation. And there was rioting after Dan White’s trial. He got off with a sentence of voluntary manslaughter, after a jury believed his defense attorneys who said that White’s mental capacity had been diminished by eating too many Hostess Twinkies. White was sentenced to a mere seven years in prison. The rank injustice of this light sentence led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco on May 21, 1979. In the end, Dan White was released on parole in 1985, and less than a year later he committed suicide: his hatred and the anger took over his life, and he turned it all on himself.
But let’s get back to Harvey Milk’s lasting legacy. Even though he only served as an elected official for less than two years, Harvey Milk has served as a hero and an inspiration to many people; even Time magazine recognized him as one of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century. I feel Harvey Milk’s legacy has been to show us how to build alliances with those who are different from us. When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk said to his supporters, “This is not my victory — it’s yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.” [KQED Web site] He’s not a hero because he inspired Holly Near to write a song. He’s not a hero because he was openly gay and got shot dead by some hate-filled antigay man. He’s a hero because he stood up for an eternal principle: that there is hope for us when we build bonds between ourselves and other human beings.
While Harvey Milk and his partner never had children of their own, it strikes me that Harvey Milk had the essence of fatherhood in him. He stood up for the rights of all minorities, in exactly the same way that good fathers will stand up for their children. And when I talk about good fathers who stand up for their children, I don’t mean those horrible sports fathers who assault other kids’ parents when their own kids strike out or fumble the ball; that kind of sports father is merely using his child as a means to fill his own need for power and control. No, I’m talking about the kind of fatherhood that values children as ends in themselves, the kind of fatherhood that helps children become the best that they can be without trying to reshape them into an image of what the father thinks they should be. It is the kind of fatherhood that is motivated primarily by unselfish love.
Nor is it just men with children living in their household who can exhibit this kind of fatherhood. Men whose own children are grown, or men who, like me, have no children of their own:– like Harvey Milk, these men can still attain to the kind of fatherhood motivated by unselfish love. All men can take on the best characteristics of fatherhood: we can treat all persons as ends in of themselves, rather than as means to meet our own ends; we can act as if all persons are of infinite value in and of themselves.
Our culture tries to tell us men that this is women’s work, or mother’s work. Women and mothers are supposed by our culture to be more aware of the needs of others; after all, it is women who can give birth, which seems the most intimate connection that one person can have with another person. Perhaps there is some truth in what our society tells us, but the real point is that we men are also capable of deep sensitivity to the needs and interests of another person. We too are capable of treating other people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to our own ends; we too are capable of unselfish love towards others. And I believe this unselfish love is tied to two basic liberal religious principles, one found in Universalism and one found in Unitarianism.
In the first reading this morning, we heard a classic statement of Unitarianism dating from 1819, from the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing. In the reading, Channing meditates on what it means to talk about God as a father. Channing tells us that if we are going to talk about God as a kind of father, then we must ascribe to God not just the name “Father” but also the best characteristics of a good father. If we are going to talk about God as a father figure, then we must affirm that such a God will have the same unstinting love for others that a good father has for his children; the same desire that others may improve themselves that a good father feels for his children; the same equity that good father displays; the same joy in the progress of others that a good father takes in the progress of his children; the same willingness to forgive that a good father feels towards his children; and the same ability to mete out justice when it is needed that a good father has with his children. I have to admit this sounds hopelessly idealistic — what human being can live up to such vision of fatherhood? Yet this old Unitarian description of God the Father is meant to describe a religious ideal to help guide us fallible human beings. William Ellery Channing gives us, as a religious principle, an ideal of fatherhood that combines joy, forgiveness, justice, love, and equity. Even if many of us no longer view God as some kind of father figure, we can still appreciate this religious ideal of a good father; an impossible ideal, but an ideal which can inspire us, an ideal from which we can draw strength. This serves as an example from our Unitarian heritage.
Turning to our Universalist heritage, we turn from this specific idealistic vision for fatherhood, to a more fundamental principle,– and that is the principle that all human beings are worthy of love. When the old Universalists spoke of the “Fatherhood of God,” they meant that God’s love must extend to all human beings, for each and every human being is worthy of love. The old Universalists knew that God could not be a hateful, hurtful God with flashing eyes and a thirst for vengeance; they knew that God’s core being must be love. Indeed, they said of their Father-God that “God is Love”; I take this to mean that, from their religious point of view, the essence of fatherhood is all-encompassing, forgiving love.
Their notion of fatherhood began with a love of one’s own children, but it went far beyond that. Some of the old Universalists read their Bibles pretty literally, and they indeed believed that the first humans were actual creations of God, and therefore in a very real sense God’s own children. Many Christian groups have interpreted the Bible with the understanding that the members of their little group are the only true descendants of God, the only true children of God, and that therefore God does not extend love to anyone outside their little group. But those old Universalists knew that God’s caring love extended to all human beings, to all persons. This kind of fatherly love knows no bounds: this kind of love goes beyond one’s immediate children to all of humanity, because all of humanity must all be God’s children:– this was a basic religious principle of the Universalists.
We might use different terminology today than those old Unitarians and Universalists used. Certainly, we have grown beyond the need to understand God as exclusively male, as exclusively a father; now we can understand the concept of God to include both mother and father. We can also choose to reject the concept of God completely. Nevertheless, we still draw inspiration from those old Unitarian and Universalist God images, inspiration which can help us better understand the basic religious principles at the root of fatherhood.
What are those basic religious principles? Harvey Milk, although I’m not aware that he belonged to a religious community, lived out the religious principles that I am talking about. Harvey Milk started his career of public service with those closest to him, the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco. But he extended his concern and his care — we might say, his love, except that we are unaccustomed to talking about love in relation to politics — he extended his care and concern beyond his immediate community to include other minority communities. We could say that he was the father of a broad-based coalition of people all working towards justice and equity for all. I don’t mean to elevate Harvey Milk to sainthood, but he did build alliances and relationships to include all kinds of people, and in this sense he represents a wider love for all humanity. He is not a saint, but as the father of a small but influential political movement in the city of San Francisco, he has set a worthy example for us to emulate here in our own city.
Before I end, I’d like to return for just a moment to Holly Near’s song. Holly Near wrote the song “Singing for Our Lives,” to help us turn anger into love and transformative action. When faced with rank injustice, it would be easy to let anger take over our hearts. Unfortunately, unadulterated anger only serves to drive people apart, and in the end those who harbor anger in their hearts find that anger destroys them. So I believe what Holly Near is telling us in her song is that sometimes we need to combine our love with the energy that comes in anger. Holly Near tells us that we are singing for our lives, and as a singer-songwriter she immediately thinks of music as a way to combine love with the energy that comes from anger; but we know that religion can do the same thing for us. The energy from the anger will drive us to address injustice, while the love will allow us to do justice with compassion, and to transform the world without stooping to violence. On this Father’s Day, may we remember this basic religious principle:– Love is the most powerful force in the universe; and as a religious people, our mission shall be to spread the doctrine of love.