This is today’s sermon inspired by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival weekend. So much fun to do, and I hope you enjoy!
This year’s UU Christian Fellowship Revival, held here on our campus,
took as its theme “Revealing the Feminine in Christianity.”
All weekend long, participants heard stories
of prominent women leaders in early Christianity,
stories suppressed for centuries by revisionist church historians
but now being rediscovered and reclaimed.
Mary herself is the one who speaks to me personally most strongly,
mother of Jesus and a spiritual leader in her own right.
Today I want to share with you two stories about Mary especially,
not so much Mary the human being,
but she who became for Jesus’s followers
such a powerful image of the feminine divine.
One comes from Japan, at a time when Mary had to be hidden,
disguised beneath a beloved Buddhist heroine,
because it wasn’t safe to be Christian.
The other comes from the Caribbean and South America,
when Mary gave cover to African goddesses
brought over by enslaved people
for whom it was no longer safe to be anything but Christian.
So: two stories about Mary,
and even more about human beings
struggling to resist oppression and stay loyal to their traditions,
their faith, and their inner freedom.
There’s a technical term for the way these people fused their own faith
with other traditions—it’s called syncretism.
Any time when one religion borrows from another—
adapts a ritual, weaves in a custom, starts celebrating a holiday—
We Unitarian Universalists have built our own faith like this
But I hope we will always remember how lucky we are
that we get to do it by choice.
Despite all the political headlines,
religious freedom in the U.S. is alive and well.
Nobody is getting thrown in jail for their beliefs.
At other times, it’s been different.
We know that in other countries even now,
people are imprisoned and killed for their beliefs—
in China and Tibet, around the Middle East…
we still have work to do to protect religious freedom.
I offer these stories in salute to the bravery and creativity
of all the women and men who have struggled
and insisted on practicing their faith,
even when it was not safe,
even when they had to hide their true faces.
I hope their courage will be an inspiration to us all.
The first story comes from Tokugawa Japan.
Christian missionaries first came to Japan in 1549, Catholics from Portugal.
This was the moment when Portugal had set up colonies all over Africa,
the Middle East, and Asia—a major imperial power.
For a while the missionaries got along fine with the shoguns,
the rulers of Japan.
Lots of Japanese people converted and embraced Christianity.
But then the government changed.
The new rulers, first Hideyoshi and then the Tokugawa dynasty,
wanted to resist Western political and cultural domination,
and so they outlawed Christianity.
In 1614 all Western missionaries were banned.
Some were executed.
And for regular Japanese people, simply being Christian became a crime.
So what happened?
Christianity went underground.
Many Japanese continued to practice Christian rituals,
only now in disguise. Images of the Virgin Mary
have always been important to Catholics in every culture.
Now Japanese Christian artists began to create sculptures of Mary,
disguised as Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.
Do you know about Kannon?
She’s also called Kanzeon, or Guan Yin in China; Tara in Tibet.
She’s the most important female bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition.
A bodhisattva is someone who starts out as a normal human being,
Through their commitment to spiritual practice,
they reach enlightenment. If they wanted, they could enter nirvana
and know perfect peace forever.
But they turn back.
They make a vow not to enter nirvana until all beings are enlightened
and free from suffering.
In a way, they’re like the Catholic saints—
people who were so good on earth
that now they can keep on helping people from heaven.
Kannon, or Guan Yin, is the bodhisattva of compassion,
revered throughout the Mahayana Buddhist world.
So when Japanese Christians had to hide their faith,
it only made sense that they saw the commonalities
between Kannon and Mary.
They hid their Mary under the disguise of Kannon.
Here are two examples of Mary sculptures from 17th-century Japan:
Also another image I can’t resist showing you:
this is Jesus on the cross, seated in meditation as the Buddha:
Also, how many people here have ever seen a Japanese tea ceremony?
The founder of the modern tea ceremony was a man named Sen no Rikyu.
Rikyu was a young man when Christianity first came to Japan,
and when he died the government was starting to persecute Christians.
His wife and three of his seven disciples were Christians.
And the tea ceremony he created
became a way for some Japanese Christians
to practice the central ritual of Christianity: communion.
Can you see how the tea ceremony, with all its careful ritual actions,
could become a sort of veiled Communion?
Some tea bowls from this era are marked on the bottom with small crosses.
We think, for the Japanese Christians, these were communion bowls,
another way to practice their faith in secret.
Would you believe, the underground Japanese Christians
survived for 250 years,
until Christianity was legalized again in 1867.
Think of their courage.
They cared so much about their tradition that they risked their lives for it.
And their creativity—the way they fused Christian and Buddhist art
is a gift to the whole world.
Now I want to take you to a very different time and place,
another part of the world
deeply and tragically marked by European imperialism.
We all remember
millions of Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas and enslaved.
Many were from the Yoruba region of West Africa,
which today we would call southern Nigeria.
The Yoruba people had and still have today
a rich and full religious tradition.
Maybe some of you know about it:
they believe in a creator God, Olodumare,
and the divine energy they call ashé,
and a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses that derive from him.
These are the orishas.
Each one has their own personality. They rule over different things.
Most people feel drawn to one or two orishas
and have a special relationship with them.
People connect with them through building altars
and leaving offerings for them, little gifts that express their personalities,
and also through spirit possession.
There’s a whole tradition of training people to alter their consciousness
and invite the felt experience of being taken over by the orisha.
When Yoruba people came to the Americas as slaves,
they brought their religion with them.
But it wasn’t safe for them to practice it openly.
Slaveowners forced them to become Christians—
or, at least, to pretend.
So, like the Japanese Christians,
they began to hide their gods and goddesses
under religious forms that were acceptable to the dominant culture.
Only this time, it was the other way around.
In Cuba, in Brazil, in Jamaica, all over the Caribbean,
the Africans disguised their orishas as saints.
And that fusion of Yoruba tradition with Catholicism
created what we now call Santería in Cuba,
Candomble in Brazil,
Voudou in Haiti.
People who follow these traditions continue to honor the orishas
with offerings and altars.
They practice spirit possession.
And they love the orishas,
in their African form and also dressed as the saints.
Let me introduce you to Oshun.
She’s the goddess of rivers, of love, beauty, and intimacy,
and also wealth, diplomacy, harmony.
In Cuba, among practitioners of Santería,
she is also known as the Virgin Mary in her form as Our Lady of Charity
(La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), the patron saint of Cuba.
Oshun’s color is yellow. She loves mirrors, honey, and anything beautiful.
This is Yemoja, or Yemaya.
In Africa, she is the mother goddess, patron of women;
In Brazil, she’s the goddess of the ocean;
in Cuba, the goddess of water and all living things.
Cubans offer to her melons, molasses, and fish.
Yemaya is also known as another manifestation of Mary,
Our Lady of Regla.
Now I invite you to watch a short video, an interview
with the owner of a store in San Francisco that carries objects used in Santería.
By the way, while she’s talking, take a look in the cabinet
and see if you can find the statue of Guan Yin!
This is just a little taste of Santería and the other traditions
that evolved out of traditional Yoruba religion,
practiced today by millions of people
all over the Caribbean and South America,
and in the United States too.
No one’s forcing them now; they don’t have to hide.
Today, the Japanese descendants of those secret Christians
are also free to practice whatever religion they choose.
They don’t have to hide.
Out of their ancestors’ struggles and fear
has come amazing beauty,
new forms, new ways of being religious.
Kannon becomes Mary becomes Oshun and Yemaya and back again.
This is how it is.
People everywhere meet their suffering
with incredible courage and creativity. Great beauty comes out of it.
But I still dare to hope that we can stop the suffering.
Mindful of all the people on our planet who are not yet free,
deeply grateful for our own freedom,
let us embody the compassion of Mary and Kannon,
the strength of the goddesses and the saints,
and stand with every one of our sisters and brothers
still dreaming of being able to worship in safety and peace.
May it be so.