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I’m posting audio of my sermons as often as possible from now on. I’m hoping these will be on the UUCPA website or blog soon, but until then this is a simple way to get them out there. I welcome your responses regarding format as well as content. How do you like to get your audio? Is this format providing that?

“Free and Responsible,” given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, August 25, 2013


I’m just about to start a photo-a-day challenge. Among other things, the organizer, Michelle Favreault, predicts it will “allow you to expand ways of integrating visual arts into your ministry.” Even before I signed up for it, it had recently occurred to me that I could build an entire worship service around Annie Leibovitz’s photograph Susan Sontag, Petra, Jordan.

This photo is one of dozens on the postcard rack that lives in our house. We have many more postcards than display slots, so most are hidden behind others, emerging at different times. When we got back to our house after a month’s absence, this one was visible and turned toward the sofa, from which I have been contemplating it. I recommend backing away enough that your experience of it is something like mine when I look at a 4″x4″ square image from a distance of a few feet.

I won’t write the whole sermon today; I’m a bit preoccupied with the one I’m giving on Sunday. But my thoughts, to give them in the vague and chaotic form they take before they’re pulpit-ready, include:

  • it’s a vivid example of negative space, compelling the eye to travel between the foreground and the background. Which one is the subject? Or is neither one the subject?
  • at least three elements balance here: the very small human figure, the very tall buildings of Petra (built by people), the massive rocks (built by no one) that dominate the foreground.
  • it suggests a relationship among the natural world, human-made artifacts, and humans.
  • furthermore, one of the most memorable points about human beings and Petra is: there aren’t any there. The people who created it are long gone, and we’re not sure who they were. The only living person in the photo is a mere silhouette.
  • the overall shape of the glimpse of Petra is evocative of a standing person.
  • the three elements occupy different time scales. In the scale of Petra, Sontag’s life is a blink of an eye (she will in fact be dead ten years after this photo is taken); in the scale of the living rock into which Petra is cut, the buildings and the civilization that carved them are no more than that; and what is the lifespan of the rock, in galactic terms? Nothing more than a blink either. I’m thinking “Ozymandias” would be an appropriate verbal text to go with the visual “text” in this service.
  • the building seen in the photo is called the Treasury, evoking questions of where and what treasure is. The fact that it was probably not a treasury at all, but a mausoleum, only deepens the questions of what we claim has value, what really has value, and what any of it means in the face of impermanence. Knowing that no one and nothing lasts forever, how would we answer the question: what is most precious?

That’s enough. If I actually develop the sermon, I’ll give a heads-up here.

The Chariot, from the Phantomwise Tarot © 2004-2013 Erin Morgenstern

I have just read The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (no relation). Very few books have created a place that I longed to be able to go to in real life. I have wished Hogwarts were real, and that I could slip through the ivy-covered door into the Secret Garden; and now, oh how I wish the Cirque des Rêves were really touring around the world, bringing its exquisite magic to us. I would be a Rêveur, one of the people who follows it around, a beauty groupie. I would knit a Rêveur’s crimson scarf for me, and one for Joy, and we would go into the Cloud Maze tent, and the Ice Garden, and the Hall of Mirrors, and see the illusionist work impossibilities, and take in the intricacies of the clock, and wander through tents where everything is made of paper and covered in words. I don’t know if the Munchkin would need to come along (though she would enjoy Widget and Poppet’s acrobatic kittens). She already seems to live in a magical world.

But then, according to the author, we all do.

“Is magic not enough to live for?” Widget asks.

“Magic,” the man in the grey suit repeats, turning the word into a laugh. “This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you,” he says, waving a hand at the surrounding tables. “Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what’s worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.”

Or as Stan Shunpike, conductor of the Knight Bus, says when Harry Potter asks him why the Muggles don’t hear the bus,

“Them!” [said Stan contemptuously.] “Don’ listen properly, do they? Don’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’.”

“But,” Widget says, “some people can be enlightened.”

Jordinn Nelson Long, at Raising Faith, has posed some questions of interest to her and other seminarians, such as who ministers to ministers, if it’s true that on becoming a minister, one loses one’s church. My answers are in this guest post. Thanks for the invitation, Jordinn!

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