01.2.2 All Corners Day

Scripture and homily in brief for the Thursday occurrence of All Corners Day, the Ultimate Thursday of the Piety dozenal of All Hallows season.

Isaiah 28:9-13

9 Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine, those just weaned from milk, and drawn from the breast?
10 For rule must be upon rule, measure upon measure; blah blah, yada yada, bit by bit:
11 Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues will he speak to this people.
12 To whom he said, “This is rest, let the weary rest with it; and this is refreshment” yet they would not hear.
13 But the word of Yahweh shall be unto them rule upon rule, measure upon measure, bit by bit; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

First Letter to the Corinthians 14

2 Those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody hears them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.
3 On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their enrichment and encouragement and consolation.
4 Those who speak in a language build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
5 Now I would like all of you to speak in languages, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in languages, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in languages, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;
19 nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words within my understanding, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown language.
20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in [regard to] evil, but in thinking be adults.
21 In the law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.
22 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.
23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.
25 After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

Homily: Speaking in Tongue and the Value of Others

In the spirit of All Corners Day, today’s lesson is ultimately about how religious truth transcends national, linguistic, cultural, and even sectarian boundaries.  Unitarian Reform celebrates All Corners Day in honor of those called the “Pious Outsiders,” virtuous persons of other nations and faith traditions.

But, given our readings from scripture, it is important to address the issue of “speaking in tongues,” an emblem of the universality of truth that spans the history of our religion from the Prophets of Judaism through the Fathers of the Christian Church.  It is a poorly understood Christian idiom that is often corrupted to mean babbling incoherently in a meaningless trance state barely distinguishable from a drug trip.

Despite folk myths about speaking in tongues, in the early days of the Church it did not refer to what we now call glossolalia1, ecstatic chattering, but xenoglossia, the miraculous ability to communicate in a language you have not learned through normal means.  Glossolalia, as it is practiced by certain sects, is believed to demonstrate something admirable about the individual who has fallen into a psycho-social ecstasy: that he or she has been touched by the Holy Spirit.  Xenoglossia, as understood in its proper Christian context, symbolizes something admirable about the teachings of Jesus Christ: that they can be communicated in all languages and understood by all nations.

The real point of this central Christian image is not to prove an individual has scored spiritual points, but to show that truth transcends the bounds of tongue and culture.

By the time of Paul, pagan recruits to Christianity had already begun corrupting the idea of “tongues” to selfish purposes; as his First Letter to the Corinthians shows, poorly supervised converts were misapplying the message of the Pentecost miracle in a way that communicated nothing and only served to glorify the self [see 14:2-4].  The original meaning of xenoglossic translation of wisdom for the benefit of unbelievers had become corrupted in the child’s play mimicry of glossolalia for self-aggrandizement among (supposed) believers [see 14:22].  In a typically conservative Pauline fashion, the Apostle simply discourages the idea altogether rather than expounding on the nuances of the Corinthians’ error, and this has contributed considerably to confusion about the concept.

However, it is clear from the writing of other early church leaders that “speaking in tongues” meant miraculous multilingualism:

In chapter 16 of the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, among the signs of “those who have believed” is that “they will speak in new languages.”  Glossolalists often claim that the tongues they are speaking represent a supposed language of Heaven or of angels, which would not be a “new” language at all.  The obvious meaning of “new languages” in Mark is that the languages are new to the speaker.

In the Acts of the Apostles, also written in the 1st Century, when the prophecy in Mark comes to pass it is described like this: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

In the 2nd Century, Irenaeus wrote that “in like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God.”

During the conflationist controversies of the 4th Century, even an apostate like Hilary of Poitiers described tongues as “gifts of either speaking or interpreting divers kinds of languages.”

Also in the 4th Century, Eusebius of Caesaria (not St. Eusebius of Nicomedia) specifically speaks against glossolalia, accusing the heretic Montanus that “he became possessed of a spirit, and suddenly began to rave in a kind of ecstatic trance, and to babble in a jargon, prophesying in a manner contrary to the custom of the Church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times.” [emphasis added]

Augustine of Hippo, who survived into the 5th century, clearly defined the meaning of speaking in tongues as xenoglossia, stating that those who did so spoke in languages “which they had not learned.”

The miracle of the Pentecost was clearly xenoglossia, and its spiritual meaning that God’s truth knows no language, no culture, no boundary of the human mind.  And that is the spirit of All Corners, when we open our hearts to the good in those who speak other languages, salute other flags, and worship using other words.

Go with God, in the impartial love of agape and the universal power of the Logos.

1 Unfortunately, the term glossolalia, which is derived from biblical Greek, has come to refer almost exclusively to the phenomenon of babbling incoherently in a mistaken demonstration of inspiration by the Holy Spirit.  Despite our objection to this unscriptural use of the scriptural term, we use it here in that context to assist in distinguishing this false interpretation of “speaking in tongues” from its proper, xenoglossic, meaning.


Discussion: Read again the scriptures for today.  Note that in both cases, a contrast is made between what is proper and what is childish.  Now, as in the Gospel, Paul recognizes the value of child-like innocence to evil, but he correctly identifies as childish the misuse of tongues as a selfish means of spiritual bragging.  Likewise Isaiah scolds his listeners for acting like children who merit only rule-based moral teaching rather than wisdom.  How does Paul’s response to the abuse of “tongues” echo the reproof of Isaiah?


01.2.1 All Hallows Day

Scripture and homily in brief for the Thursday occurrence of All Hallows Day, the First of the Piety dozenal of All Hallows season.

First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 12

12 Just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the body parts—though many—are one body, so it is with the Anointed.
13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one part but of many.
15 If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.
16 And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But as it is, God arranged the parts in the body, each one of them, as He chose.
19 If all were a single part, where would the body be?

20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’
22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable,
23 and those parts of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;
24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,
25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.
26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Homily in Brief

On All Hallows Day (also known as All Saints Day) we honor “all saints, known and unknown,” by which we mean not only the roster of officially accepted saints but also anyone who has demonstrated a noteworthy degree of virtue in the way they lived or died.

There is a common but unfair criticism among Protestants that the Catholic church, in its veneration of saints, simply replaced pagan polytheism with a new polytheism.  After all, were not pagan emperors and other celebrated figures believed to take on godhood after death, through the process known as apotheosis?  And how is the assignment of saintly patronage—for example, as Thomas is the patron of stone masons—any different from the spheres of godly influence in ancient Graeco-Roman religion?  The  argument that saints are simply refashioned gods seem bolstered by the fact that today’s holiday, All Hallows, began when Bishop Boniface of Rome (i.e., “Pope” Boniface IV) rededicated the Pantheon, or “Temple of All Gods,” to Mary and all of the martyrs.

But, there is a crucial distinction between the pagan devotion to many gods and Christian devotion to angels and saints.  The strongest clue is in the word “angel” itself, which comes from Greek ἄγγελος, a direct translation of the Hebrew מלאך meaning “messenger.”  Unlike the rag-tag collection of powers that typify Roman mythology, the angels and saints of Christianity are messengers of the One God.  As they all point toward God Most High, they remind us that all things issued from that Source.

Christian devotion to a multitude of angels and saints in charge of different aspects of life fulfills the spiritual purpose of monotheism by channeling the many facets of Creation toward the singular Creator.

In fact, the multifaceted cult of the saints and angels helps protect against the false gods of idolatry, by reminding us that the One True God is the God of all things, not merely the master of a small part of Creation.  Religion that fails to honor the entire “body” of God’s Creation by recognizing its many “parts” runs the risk of being like the eye (in 1Cor 12:21) who tells the hand it is unneeded: a piece that mistakes itself for the whole.  To paraphrase Paul: if your whole religion is an eye, where can the hearing be?

Discussion question: Many so-called polytheistic traditions conceive their various “gods” as merely expressions of a single Divinity.  How does the nature of this connection affect the moral significance of the religion?  Can believers whose “gods” are more like angels be considered monotheists?  Is the God of such a religion the same as the God of Christ Jesus?


01.1.1 Ultimate Thursday – Twelve Days of Ghosts

Scripture and homily in brief for the Ultimate Thursday of the Ghosts dozenal of All Hallows season.

Job 4:12-21

12 Now a word came stealing to me — my ear received the whisper of it
13 amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals
14 dread came upon me, and trembling which made all my bones shake
15 A spirit glided past my face — the hair of my flesh bristled
16 It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice:
17 “Can mortals be more righteous before God? Can humans be more pure than their Maker?
18 Even in his servants He puts no trust, and His angels He charges with error;
19 how much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like a moth.
20 Between morning and evening they are destroyed; they perish for ever without any regarding it.
21 Their tent-cord is plucked up within them, and they die devoid of Wisdom.”

Homily in Brief

The opening of the liturgical year evokes a key theme of genuine Christianity: facing fear and death on the path to revelation and redemption.  In the lead-up to the secularized holiday of Halloween, the Eve of All Hallows Day, we join the playful celebration of spookiness as a way of easing into the hard lessons of salvation through suffering.

In Eliphaz’s speech from Job we have a biblical ghost story, a visit from a spirit who reminds us that we are all mortal and must die.


Google Books Ngram Reveals Unitarian History

This graphic from Google’s culturomic tool, the Ngram Viewer, plots fairly well the decline of Unitarianism after the rise of Transcendentalism, which spawned the Free Religion movement that seized control of Unitarian churches in the late 19th Century, purging genuine Unitarian theology from the church in favor of political liberalism.



The Day of the Spark

On this day in the middle of the 18th century, the “Father of American Unitarianism” Reverend Jonathan Mayhew delivered a sermon on social justice that would later be called “the spark that ignited the American Revolution.”

The sermon itself had a rather cumbersome title, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, but its message was simple: rulers have the right to reign only so long as their reign is just.

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Day of the Spear King

Gense-ric (the “Spear King”) leader of the much-maligned Vandals, was one of the last Unitarian Christian leaders in the ancient world. Why would Unitarian Reform want to celebrate the life of a man who sacked Rome, persecuted other Christians, and whose people gave us the word “vandalize”?

The bad reputation of Genseric and his Vandals is a good example of history being written by the victors.

This is not to say that the Spear King and his armies were saints, particularly by the moral standards of the 21st Century. However, compared to the “ecclesiastical mafia” of Trinitarian saint Athanasius* or the cultic totalitarianism of Theodosius “The Great” who declared Nicene Christianity the only permissible religion in the Empire, Genseric was a bleeding-heart liberal of the ancient world.

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Sleds and Cannons Day

Henry Knox was the son of a ship’s captain who died when the boy was nine. Henry began working as a bookstore clerk at 12 to support his mother, and later opened his own bookstore. If Knox’s story ended there, it would be a remarkable tale of trial, strength, survival, and ingenuity.

But, Henry Knox was also a soldier during the American Revolution, commissioned a Colonel by George Washington and tasked with bringing 60 tons of artillery from Crown Point and Ticonderoga in upstate New York to the Seige of Boston, a journey of 300 miles over unimproved terrain.

To make Knox’s mission even worse, as he made his way toward the coast, snow began covering the ground. Knox refused to see the heavy snowfall as a hindrance, instead seeking in it some opportunity. Rather than plowing through the snow, he put the cannon on sleds and slid them over it.

It may seem out of place to celebrate a military maneuver as an act of piety, but by accommodating providence rather than resisting it Henry Knox exemplified the spirit of “Thy Will Be Done.” The arrival of these cannon in Boston a mere 56 days after their departure has been described as miraculous, but it was in fact the wise action of Henry Knox that achieved what many believed could not be achieved, by applying his God-given reason to a God-given blessing that others might have seen as a curse.

Today, on the 6th Day of Action, we celebrate Knox’s achievement.