“The Sermon I Will Preach in India”

“The Sermon I Will Preach in India”
by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, January 27, 2013
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

[This is a sermon that Rev. John Gibbons delivered at First Parish in Bedford on January 27, 2013.  He then preached it to a crowd of 3500 Unitarians gathered in Jowai in Northeast India on Sunday, February 10, 2013.  The sermon was translated into Khasi by the Rev. Helpme Mohrmen.]

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next
to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn
more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.
We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge,
to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed.
And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again –
to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

–Pico Iyer


Khublei, my friends!

Ha kaba mynnyngkong U Blei u la thaw ia ka bneng bad ia ka khyndew. Bad ka pyrthei ka la long bakhlem dur bad kaba suda, bad ka jingdum ka la long halor ka khmat ka jingjylliew, bad U Mynsiem U Blei u da khih halor ki um.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

It has been nine years since I last was with you, here in the beautiful Jaintia and Khasi Hills.  It has been too long!  I have many very fond memories.  I remember listening then, as now, to great choirs of young people. Among other songs, I remember a choir singing the great anthem of the American civil rights movement: Sing with me…. “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day.  For deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

I remember, late at night, young people going from house-to-house…singing and dancing with open hymnals in their hands!  Who would think there is dance music in these books!  I remember torchlight parades and Khasi satellites launched in the open air.  I remember, in his last days, sitting by the bed of Devison Marbaniang and, with American teenagers, singing to him, “Dear friend, dear friend, let us tell you how we feel.  You have given us a treasure.  We love you so.”

Today I see that there is a new generation of energetic Unitarian leaders and I feel fortunate to have visited with Bah Carleywell Lyngdoh who now has passed the torch to you.

Since I was last with you, I have also learned of an amazing connection between my church in Bedford, Massachusetts and you.  A long time ago, in the 1850’s there was a Unitarian minister named Charles Dall who served brief and not-very-successful pastorates in several Unitarian churches, the last and briefest of which was with our church in Bedford.

Apparently, Rev. Dall got into a lot of arguments with church members, and when he did he suffered from “brain fever, delirium, uncontrollable vomiting, and extreme weakness.”  That’s not a good thing in a minister!  I don’t know what his trouble was in Bedford, but he was sacked after being the minister for only two months!

He left Bedford a broken man, but then he immediately set sail to Calcutta – he got sick during the journey and was taken ashore on a litter unconscious…but then he became the first Unitarian missionary to India, serving for 31 years until his death and, perhaps you recall from your own history, it was Hajjom Kissor Singh’s correspondence with Dall that did not convert Singh to Unitarianism but convinced Singh that he was already a Unitarian!  As a result, today there are 10,000 Unitarians here in the northeast!

I’ve been in Bedford 23 years and, in that time, perhaps we’ve added 200 new members while Charles Dall was sacked after two months in Bedford but still he may be remembered as being Bedford’s most successful minister of all time!

In the life story of Hajjom Kissor Singh there is something that I believe remains very relevant to Unitarianism today.  You know the story:  At age 15, Singh was converted to Welsh Calvinist Methodist Presbyterianism but soon he had doubts and questions.  Why so much hellfire and damnation when Jesus preached a gospel of love and peace and forgiveness and compassion?  The missionaries squinted their eyes at him, scowled and said, “Hajjom, you sound like a Unitarian!”  (This was not a compliment.)  To which, Hajjom brightened up, smiled and asked “Where can I learn more about these Unitarians?”   He corresponded with Dall, eventually another American minister named Jabez Sunderland came here to visit, and in 1887 this Jowai Unitarian church had its first service with three members and the rest is history.

One other thing about Singh is that he was a practical man. An amateur medicine dealer, he provided medicine for the ill. A member of the board of the local Khasi bank, he seized upon real estate bargains and bought houses the Unitarians could use. A surveyor, he was eventually head clerk in the deputy commissioner’s office in Shillong.

Here is what I think is important in that story.  At the heart of Unitarianism, we are only interested in how people treat one another, how we treat all living things, including our earth, and how we can live lives of love and peace and forgiveness and compassion.  We are interested in practical things – not how our religion is described in fancy theologies – but how our religion is practiced day to day.

We are not interested in how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; we are interested in how human beings can dance to the rhythms of  real life.

Ours is a this-worldly faith, we are not interested in pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die; like our young people we are interested in singing from our hymnals and making our convictions dance here and now.

There was a great theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr – he was not a Unitarian but don’t hold that against him – who said that preachers should preach with a Bible in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other.

Lately, it is a depressing thing to read the newspaper.  American newspapers are filled with reports of terrible violence.  For complicated and indefensible reasons, in America we have a terrible problem of gun violence.  Too many people have too many guns.  Recently 20 children were killed in a school – most of them 6 and 7-years old.  They  were killed by a young disturbed man with a semi-automatic assault rifle that, insanely, it is legal to own in America.

In our church newsletter, I recently wrote:

“Over the years, gun violence has touched my ministry.  I’ve had parishioners who have been shot, who have shot other people, and who have shot themselves.  Some of my parishioners killed themselves, some killed other people, some are in prison and some bear scars both physical and emotional.  At times of stress I’ve had parishioners who – for safe-keeping – have brought me rifles and hand-guns because, due to addiction and depression, they feared they might use them on themselves or someone else.”

Gun violence is an affront to our religion and our religion compels us to speak out in protest.  It is a strange thing but our small town of Bedford has now initiated a gun buy-back program and our Unitarian church has provided the money for it to work.  Bring a gun to the police station and we’ll give you $50.

All our newspapers are filled with international stories of violence and I am quick to say that America has done more than our share of exporting violence to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes and militarism.

In the newspapers recently we also have read about the heroism of the 14 year old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai who, shot in the head and neck by the Taliban, still she survived because she courageously defied their efforts to ban education for girls.

And, of course, two days after the school shootings in America, on December 16 a young physiotherapy intern was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi.  Nirbhaya!  She later died from her injuries, and in our newspapers we learn that in India there is an epidemic of crimes against women and that some powerful jurists and people who should know better justify such attacks, saying that a girl should not go to a movie with a boy unsupervised, or that a girl asks for it by dressing provocatively, or that women should not be educated, or that a woman’s place is somewhere under a man’s thumb.

Some nationalists would say that in Bharat these crimes are impossible.  But this is India, not the Bharat of someone’s imagination!

Our religion, the religion of Hajjom Kissor Singh, says that that kind of thinking is – excuse me – I don’t know what to say.  In my first draft of this sermon I would have spoken an obscenity here but other wiser heads convinced me that I should not distract you by being rude….but the idea that women are in any way responsible for the way they are treated by men is an obscenity.  You fill in the right word: Rubbish! Manure!  I say that no obscene word is more vile than those actions that violate the worth and dignity of any human being.

Domestic violence and crimes against women are not your problem alone for sadly we in America and the west share in the perversions, the obscenity of patriarchy, misogyny and sexism.

Ever since Hajjom Kissor Singh questioned the religion of orthodoxy, our faith demands that we get real, that we talk about the reality of our lives here and now.

Lately, through the miracle of the internet, I have been reading the Shillong Times and I am pleased to see that Unitarians are speaking out against violence against women.  Indeed Unitarian men are speaking out because, after all, while this is a women’s issue it is a men’s problem and it will be resolved only when men and boys learn respect for the worth and dignity of all sisters and brothers.

We must get real!

In the Shillong Times, I have read of the heroism of Agnes Kharshiing, the Shillong woman who champions the cause of women who have been molested and raped, fought human trafficking, caste discrimination, honor killings, corruption and – to her everlasting credit – become a thorn in the side of the government.  With you, I salute Agnes Kharshiing!

Agnes Kharshiing is one who tells the truth and, according to the dictates of our religion we too must tell the truth and get real!

In the Shillong Times, I read as well of environmental activism: Unitarians who oppose deforestation and rat-hole coal-mining and cement operations that poison the land and water.  I even read of a flash-mob that recently gathered here in Jowai to clean a portion of the precious and endangered Myndtu River.

We must get real!

I read of people here in Meghalaya who stand up for the rights of women, the rights of dalits, the rights of sexual minorities, the rights of the earth and, when I do, if I listen carefully, I hear the encouragement of Hajjom Kissor Singh and all the heroes and martyrs who have lived and died for a religion that makes a difference in the here-and-now.

We must get real!

To tell you the truth, proud as I am to be a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t really care if you call our religion Unitarian or something else.  Our faith is larger than any brand-name.

Recently I read what are the biggest brand names in India.  Do you know what the ten biggest brand names in India are?  They are:

UWEI Nokia

AR Colgate


SAW Lifebuoy

SAN Dettol

HYNRIEW Horlicks


PHRA Pepsodent

KHYNDAI Brittania

SHIPHEW Reliance Mobile

Friends, I do not care if you use Nokia or Reliance Mobile.  I care if you can communicate!  I do not care if you use Lux or Lifebuoy or Dettol.  I care if it helps you keep clean.  I do not care if you like Horlicks or Tata Salt or Brittania biscuits.  I do care if it tastes good.  I do not care if you like Colgate or Pepsodent.  I do care that you have a smile that shines.

And I do not care if Unitarianism makes the list of the top ten of religious brand names in India or in America.

Ours is a big tent and we welcome all people of good will.  Here in Meghalaya, in America and around the world, young people especially don’t care what you call your religion; they care what you do with it.

We have at our church in Bedford a poster with the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – as it is expressed by diverse religions: the same idea is present in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Unitarianism.  Last week I saw one of our members who was born in India looking at the poster, and he said to me, “This reminds me of the Sarva Dharma I was taught as a child, the affirmation of pluralism and a multiplicity of viewpoints, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth.”

Sarva Dharma is a part of Unitarianism as well:  Hajjom Kissor Singh was inspired by Charles Dall who was inspired by the Unitarian William Ellery Channing, who said, “We must shun the spirit of sectarianism as from hell. We must shudder at the thought of shutting up God in any denomination. We must think no man (or woman) the better for belonging to our communion; no man (or woman) the worse for belonging to another.”

We celebrate the miracle of the here-and-now, and human agency to make a difference.

We must get real!

I’ll end with a poem that I read regularly to my congregation in Bedford, written by someone named Edmund Vance Cooke:

A thousand cults, a thousand creeds,
Is one a rose and the rest all weeds?
Or is each one suited to meet some needs.
Is your own so great that the rest seem small?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

Pagan, or Christian, Gentile or Jew,
How may you know that your own is true?
Not for him or for me or for others, but you,
To live by, to die by, to stand or to fall,
Why, keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the wolves of the world are on your back,
Does it help you to beat the mad world back?
To laugh at the snap of the snarling pack,
Does it leap in your heart like a huntsman’s call?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the strong are cruel and the weak oppressed
Does it help you to help? Does it sting in your breast?
Does it sob in your soul with a wild unrest?
To fight against might and let nothing appall,
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the last fight comes and you take your stand,
And the sword of your strength breaks out of your hand
And the ground ‘Neath your feet turns to shifting sand,
Does your religion sing when your back’s at the wall,
Then keep it, it’s yours and that’s all.

Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold onto what is good; return to no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the suffering; honor all beings.

Amen!  May it be so!  And keep it real!

Leit suk.
Shong suk!
Go in peace!
Stay happy!
Everybody, let’s say amen!