Skeletons (in our buildings, in our bodies, and in our closets)!
Rev. Jane Page
October 27, 2013
My Primary Sermon Series this year is entitled, “Building Our Church; Building Our Faith” – and I’m attempting to use the building metaphor – especially as it relates to OUR building renovation process – and tie it to our Unitarian Universalist faith – and/or our personal faith. So – since this is the Sunday before Halloween, I decided it would be a good Sunday to look at Skeletons (in our buildings, in our bodies, and in our closets).
On November 10, we will caravan after a short service here to our new building to “claim our space” there. And what you will be able to see when you walk into that big empty space is the SKELETON of our building. You won’t be able to see it later when we cover it up with walls, but you WILL be able to see it then. Now we are fortunate in that we have a STURDY skeleton. In fact, our building skeleton is made of STEEL. The skeleton (or steel frame) provides the framework for keeping this building up right and in shape. Just as the skeletons in our bodies do for us
Actually the skeletons in our bodies do more than just provide us structure. According to my sources, there are six primary functions of our skeletons: support, movement, protection, production of blood cells, storage of ions and endocrine regulation. Our Skeletons are super-important. And if you’ve ever broken a bone, or had some skeletal problem, you know this! Then why are skeletons scary!
Well, of course, skeletons represent death. Because when we die, our bodies return to dust leaving nothing but the skeleton.
The most famous use of skeletons to scare folks were the Jolly Roger flags pirates used to scare their victim ships, hoping when folks saw these they would go ahead and surrender everything. If they did not, they next would put up a blood red flag that meant that all would die.
Here are some other scary skeletons.
But not all images of skeletons are scary. The skeleton images used in Latino Day of the Dead celebrations are quite happy. You’ll hear more about the Day of the Dead next week – but I’ll share a few of the images with you now.
Why is there a difference in these images with other more traditional scary images? Well, I suppose it has to do with how we all VIEW death. And the Mexican view of death seems to be a whole lot happier!
Then what about that common phrase “Skeletons in the Closet.” What’s that about? It was first used in England. Then when they started having water closets in the houses, they changed it to Skeleton in the Cupboard. We still say “Skeletons in the Closet” here. In any case, it implies that you are hiding dead bodies that you don’t want folks to find out about. And it has come to represent anything in a family or group that you keep hidden.
Since we Unitarian Universalists are folks who more likely like to COME OUT of closets – or at least curious enough to explore them, I decided I’d take a look in our famous Unitarian Universalists and see what’s in the[JP1]ir closets and share that with you today. Because, yes, we have some skeletons in our UU closet!
Now we are very proud to have some of the founding fathers claim Unitarian as their theology. And they did some great things that we can be proud of. Here’s one of them. This is John Adams, second president of the United States. And here is his wife Abigail, also claimed by the Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, they held both Unitarian and Universalist ideas. Some have called them the grandparents of our country for the many, many good things they did for this young democracy. But that is not what this sermon is about. What we don’t lift up about Adams is his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
At the time, America was threatened by war with France, and Congress was attempting to pass laws that would give more authority to the federal government, and the president in particular, to deal with suspicious persons, especially foreign nationals. So disgusted was Jefferson with Adams' enthusiastic support of the Naturalization law that he could no longer support the president and left Washington during the Congressional vote. The first three of these acts were more related to aliens – strengthening citizenship requirements and making it easier for the administration to deport folks. There was much opposition to those, but the 4th act – the sedition act – was the one that really got him into trouble. And the outcry reminds me of those who now feel their rights are being abused in the name of security. This Sedition act gave Adams tremendous power to define treasonable activity including any false, scandalous and malicious writing. The intended targets of the Sedition Act were newspaper, pamphlet and broadside publishers who printed what he considered to be libelous articles aimed primarily at his administration. And many were arrested, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. Citing Adams' abuse of presidential powers and threats to free speech, Jefferson's party took control of Congress and the presidency in 1800.
So we say – YAY to Thomas Jefferson for standing up for our rights – right? Well we do applaud Thomas Jefferson for many great things that he did. Because of his Unitarian sympathies and theology, we claim Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian and include him in the “Famous Unitarians and Universalists” on the UUA web page. And our UUA district was even named the Thomas Jefferson District before finally being changed in recent years, after considerable struggle, to the Southeast District. After lauding his grand contributions, the UUA page devoted to him ends with this paragraph outing the skeletons from the closet.
Thomas Jefferson's genius is everywhere apparent in his thirst for and his comprehension of the best enlightened philosophy, history, science, political theory, agriculture and religion of his age. Tragically, he failed utterly to engage, in any substantively practical way whatsoever, the massive realities of American racial oppression and injustice. Jefferson's writings display deep reservations as well as moral anguish concerning Negro slavery; yet he never freed his own slaves. Much attention, in Jefferson's time and in ours, has focused on his …relations with his …slave, Sally Hemings, the …half-sister of his wife. There is now compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings' children. He did free two of Hemings' children in his will and Hemings was given her freedom shortly thereafter. But millions of African Americans have had to suffer many more decades of cruel economic slavery, even after legal slavery was ended in the 1860s, because of the common, absurd notion, which Thomas Jefferson shared and only mildly questioned, that the "dark" races were inferior to the "white." Moreover, Jefferson's presidential removal policies proved horribly destructive to Native Americans. They set the pattern for the Bill for Indian Removal, signed by President Jackson in 1830, whose cruel enforcement resulted in the Trail of Tears of 1838-39 and other atrocities. Jefferson's prophetic advancement of human liberty is deeply tainted by his shameful legacy in matters of race.
South Carolinian Senator John C. Calhoun was a Unitarian and co-founder of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC. He was a leading American politician and political theorist during the first half of the 19th century. He began his political career as a modernizer and he was a proponent of a strong national government. In fact, in 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators.
But here’s the skeleton – quoted from Wikipedia:
After 1830, his views evolved and he became a greater proponent of states' rights, limited government, nullification and free trade; as he saw these means as the only way to preserve the Union. He is best known for his intense and original defense of slavery as something positive, his distrust of majoritarianism, and for pointing the South toward secession from the Union. And yes, he himself was a slave owner. Whereas other Southern politicians had excused slavery as a necessary evil, in a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, Calhoun asserted that slavery was a "positive good." He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism. All societies, Calhoun claimed, are ruled by an elite group which enjoys the fruits of the labor of a less-privileged group.
Also, my friend and colleague Rev. Gordon Gibson pointed out this conundrum to me. He said, “We can be proud that when the Amistad case was argued before the Supreme Court the men and women who had liberated themselves and taken control of the ship were represented by Unitarian John Quincy Adams; but we also need to own that opposing counsel was John C. Calhoun, also Unitarian.”
Well, enough of politicians! There are others like Millard Fillmore (who passed the fugitive slave act) and William Howard Taft, who frustrated some Unitarians when he served as the association’s president; – but we’ll leave them and their skeletons alone for now.
What about other figures we brag about?
Well, there’s the famous architect and Unitarian - Frank Lloyd Wright, who even designed some of our churches. In addition to some unscrupulous business dealings, Wright abandoned his family and ran off to Europe with a women who was married to another man.
And there’s the popular showman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Universalist P.T. Barnum. Barnum was credited with the phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and he used that understanding in his business and entertainment practices. He rationalized that he used fraud and deceit as a way of getting attention – then gave folks the entertainment they desired. One of his hoaxes was Tom Thumb, who traveled through Europe with him as a “little man.” It was actually a little kid – that began his career at age four – and was taught how to act like a man, even smoking cigars and drinking. Here’s a picture of the two together.
And what about the women? Weren’t there Unitarian or Universalist women with skeletons in their closets? Oh yes, and there still are—of course. You can read my sermon on Julia Ward Howe to uncover some of hers. But today I’d like to tell you about Lydia Pinkham, who began as a Quaker but became a Universalist.
You may not have heard of Lydia Pinkham but in the 1880’s, she was one of the most famous women in America. Lydia Pinkham was a household name because she sold her famous vegetable tonic, a home brewed herbal remedy for female problems, under the name. The elixir promised to cure every womanly ailment possible including infertility. Advertisements claimed there was “a baby in every bottle.” And some men took it for ailments too. Lydia’s skeleton was uncovered, however, when the Food and Drug act had them reveal the ingredients and 20% of the tonic was alcohol.
SO – someone wrote a drinking song about her – and the Ballad of Lydia Pinkham became famous in the taverns. I’ve got the chorus on the wall – and you can sing it with me when you catch on.
Ballad of Lydia Pinkham
Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham
The benefactress of the human race.
She invented a vegetable compound,
And now all papers print her face,
Mrs. Jones she had no children,
And she loved them very dear.
So she took three bottles of Pinkham's
Now she has twins every year.
Lottie Smyth ne'er had a lover,
Blotchy pimples caused her plight;
But she took nine bottles of Pinkham's--
Sweethearts swarm about her each night.
Oh Mrs. Murphy (Oh Mrs. Murphy)
Was perturbed because she couldn't seem to pee
Till she took some of Lydia's compound
And now they run a pipeline to the sea!
And Peter Whelan (Peter Whelan)
He was sad because he only had one nut
Till he took some of Lydia's compound
And now they grow in clusters 'round his butt.
Well, enough of those so-called famous UUs. What about US? Do any of you have skeletons in your closet – things you are kind of ashamed of or don’t want folks to know? Well, I hope so – or otherwise you may just not quality to BE a Unitarian Universalist!
I recently sent you all an article by my colleague Rev. Tony Larsen entitled, “Why You Should Not be a Unitarian Universalist.” Did you read it? Well, I’m going to close out this sermon by quoting Larsen in this article – because I think it speaks to the acceptance of the skeletons we have in our closets. He says:
My friends, not everyone can be a Unitarian Universalist. Not everyone should be a Unitarian Universalist. Because the first criterion for getting into this church is: you've got to know how to sin. That's very important to us; and not everyone knows how to do it. We don't want people here who never do wicked things. We don't want people here who are holier than thee or thou. We don't want people who have made it in the salvation department and are just waiting around to get picked up. Because people with too much heaven in them are hell to live with.
Now don't get me wrong. If there were any perfect human beings around, we might let them in. But since there aren't any, anyone who claims he/she doesn't do wicked things is either trying to fool others, or trying to fool themselves. It is the nature of the human to be evil as well as good. And you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're not willing to admit that about yourself.
As a matter of fact, recognition of your evil has great power for mobilizing compassion. I say that from my experience in counselling. Some of the best therapists are the ones who know how to sin a little - maybe a lot. They're more tolerant of the human condition. They react with compassion rather than self-righteousness, with understanding instead of judgement.
Now, if you think you're too good - you won't like it here at UU. But with a little bit of hypocrisy and selfishness and deceit, you'll do fine. We're not asking you to try to develop those qualities, because you don't need to. Each and everyone of you already has them. We're just asking you to recognize them in yourself. It'll do wonders for your tolerance of others' foibles.
So folks – look in your closets, examine the skeletons in there, and tell them how much you appreciate them keeping you humble. And I’ll do the same.
Amen and Blessed Be.