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UNIVERSALISM 101

A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, October 15, 2017

I’ll assume some of you are wondering why I’m preaching two sermons about the history and heritage of our religious tradition (or traditions, some would say), and the reason is: You. In the survey, you all took in preparing your search to call a settled minister, many people expressed a desire to learn more about Unitarian Universalism, and that’s great!

It’s a complex and much debated history that is still being argued today. I’d be willing to bet there are at least five PhD dissertations being defended this year that will include aspects of our history or theology or both, to make some of its arguments.

The truth is many people are curious about what it is we, UUs, believe.

Back when I used to work as a hospital chaplain, patients I visited often asked me, “So, what’s your denomination?” Because of that very question I grew quite jealous of my Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ colleagues; despite vast differences in theology and internal denomination conflicts, they mostly agree when it comes to faith in the man Jesus, who they believe is the risen son of the one true God as told through the inspired words found in the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament.

But, if you’re like me, and you say, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” people just sort of pause and stare blankly, as if they’re waiting for a punch line; and then, after some awkward silence, they’d say, “What’s that?”

If I got the feeling they were a person in possession of a good sense of humor, I’d sometimes respond with, “We worship the god of syllables.”

But many people really did want to know what it is we, UUs, actually believe; notice I rendered that statement in the positive; I was never asked what I don’t believe in, always what I DO believe.

Now I know we UUs are notoriously fickle. And I literally love that about us, and I especially enjoy learning about peoples’ particular beliefs, especially when it comes to life and love and death. That’s one of the marvelous things about our tradition.

The fact is we have a very distinct religious heritage. Moreover, we have two: Unitarianism and Universalism. This morning we will spend our time together discussing the history and theology of Universalism.

Universalists founded this congregation, which dates back to 1870, as many of you are well aware. But there’s more than one kind of universalism. There’s the all roads lead to heaven type but that’s not the Universalism of our tradition at all.

The Universalism of our tradition is firmly rooted in Christianity, specifically that practiced by the Puritans of New England, dating back to the 18th Century. I’d go so far as to say that the Universalism of our sort is a Calvinistic expression of Christianity; after all, if it weren’t for John Calvin I don’t know that Universalism or Unitarianism, as we know it, would have come into existence at all. But don’t check out here, I’m gonna make this point.

There’s no specific moment in time where scholars uniformly agree when Universalism began. Some might point you back to the year 225CE and highlight portions of Origen’s theology. And others would be right to point to 360CE, and the writings of Arius. But to me it makes the most sense to say that Universalism in the United States of America began with a man named John Murray.

In 1770 the Methodist minister John Murray fled his home in England and his life’s work as an evangelist. You see, Murray was a Calvinist Methodist, who, in his early career, believed that there was nothing a person could do on their own to atone for their sins. This particular branch of Calvinism believed that whoever went to hell and those who went to a heavenly paradise were predetermined by God; which is to say that there wasn’t a gosh darn thing anyone could do to entice the big guy upstairs into granting them a golden ticket to climb the stairway to heaven.

Let’s play that out – infants, children, and even people born into different languages and cultures were predetermined to be either a part of God’s heavenly elect, while others would suffer mental and physical pain for all eternity in hell. Now, doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?

John Murray reacted to this kind of thinking. Inspired by the writings of the English Methodist James Relly, Murray had a breakthrough, and then a breakdown. Murray came to believe, based on sound biblical interpretation, that God’s grace is a gift of abundance that is and has forever been shared with everyone; and that the salvation of the world and the sins of all humankind can and must and will be reconciled unto God because, put simply, God is good; and God is love.

But in the 18th Century these ideas were dangerous, and there was no church or denomination that would tolerate Murray’s views on God and sin and grace. So, he fled his homeland in search of a new beginning, vowing never to step foot in another pulpit as long as he lived. So, he set sail for the new world.

Meanwhile, an illiterate farmer named Potter, in New Jersey, had built a church meetinghouse for himself it seems. He tried the Baptists and the Presbyterians, and even the Quakers, but found their teachings on salvation contradictory to the Bible, as he understood it.

For this illiterate farmer, the Bible, or word of God, literally existed in his heart and memory. Everything he knew about the Bible he learned from his mother who had read to him scripture every day of her short life. The message Potter heard night after night, year after year, was God is love. And finally, unable to find a church or a preacher who celebrated this truth, he built a church of his own and set out to find a minister.

Years would go by and dozens of Baptist evangelists and Methodist Circuit Riders and Presbyterian preachers would move through, and all of them refused Potter’s invitation to preach God’s loving kindness.

And then on a chilly, foggy day, a ship bound Massachusetts from England, ran aground on a breaker off the New Jersey shore.

In an effort to lighten the ship and free it from the breaker, the passengers were sent ashore in dinghies. Among those passengers was John Murray who decided to pass the time praying and walking through the nearby forests. Along this walk John Murray met a man who invited him in from out of the cold for a warm drink and meal. Murray was intrigued by this farm, and couldn’t help noticing a church meetinghouse nestled in its woods.

When Murray asked the farmer about the church, he learned the story of Potter’s mother reading him the Bible, and his struggles with churches and evangelists, and how everyone refused to preach God’s loving kindness from the pulpit. And then the farmer told Murray this, and I quote: “The moment I beheld your vessel on shore, it seemed as if a voice had audibly sounded in my ear: ‘There, Potter, in that vessel cast away on that shore, is the preacher you have been so long expecting [. . .] Potter this man, this is the person whom I have sent to preach in your house!’”

John Murray was terrified and told the farmer of his vow never to step foot in a pulpit again, and reminded Potter that his ship would soon be ready to sail to his true destination, in Massachusetts. The farmer, understanding, bid John Murray farewell. Back on board the ship Murray couldn’t get the words of the farmer, or the sight of the church meetinghouse, out of his head. Finally, he stood up, grabbed his modest belongings, and took a dinghy back to the shore; and making his way back to Potter’s farm, promised to preach God’s grace and loving kindness for the rest of his days.

Of course, Universalism preceded Murray’s arrival to New Jersey and everywhere else he traveled, but he tells the coolest story.

What would eventually be called Universalism grew and matured with Murray’s evangelism throughout New England; furthermore, its reputation as a legitimate religion blossomed as a result of the theological brilliance of Hosea Ballou, who founded Universalist publications that were printed and distributed by evangelists to the wild west of New York and Wisconsin and California.

And in 1785, John Murray successfully sued the state of Massachusetts winning, for Universalists, an exemption from having to pay taxes to local parishes, officially establishing Universalism as a legitimate Christian denomination, and shaping the future of religious freedom for centuries to come.

Universalists would go on to found colleges and seminaries, among which only St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York, remains, where Olympia Brown, the first woman in America to receive ordination, graduated from, in 1863.

The idea that God’s non-elect are to suffer because of the sin of Adam and Eve slowly but certainly lost its theological dominance. Universalists successfully changed the emphasis from God’s divine justice to God’s abundant grace and love.

“But what is the case for Universalism?” one might rightly ask. “What about the awful people in the world who commit terrifying crimes and atrocities, don’t they deserve some form of cosmic punishment, if only temporarily?” And further, aren’t there portions of the Bible one can cite to legitimately make the claim that hell exists, and that God does in fact punish wicked sinners? The short answer is: yes. But the bible, just like law and philosophy and poetry, depends on interpretation for meaning.

Christians who believe in hell would be right to point a Universalist towards the book of Matthew 25:31-46, where it is written, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. [. . .] Then the king will say to those at his at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Others may rightly point to Revelation 20:12-15: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also, another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Some Universalists, like the great Edward Turner, believed that universal salvation came after a period of punishment in the afterlife. They believed evil sinners would eventually get to heaven, but they got put into a lake of fire penalty box so God’s goodies could run a quick power play. These Universalists pointed most frequently to 1 Peter 3:18-20, which states: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.” Turner and Universalists like him believed that this portion of scripture could only be interpreted as descripting temporary punishment in the afterlife.

Other Universalists, like Hosea Ballou, believed that everyone gets a first class, non-stop flight on an airline to heaven. They’d cite St. Paul in I Corinthians 15:22 where he says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Or they’d cite Paul in his masterful letter to the Romans (5:18-19): “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

For me, I like to point to the beginning and the end. At the conclusion of Genesis 1:31, the poet J observes that “God saw everything that [s]he made, and indeed, it was very good.” In John the Revelator’s Revelation (22:1-3), he brings us along to the very end and tells us what he sees: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.”

I often tell people that the Bible is a sustained conversation across generations and amongst diverse people who are debating the nature and character of God; and therein those very people ask themselves, over and again, how can we be a better and more faithful people, learn from our mistakes, and faithfully join in God’s work of justice, reconciliation, and peace. The Universalists scandalously chose to claim for themselves a God who partners with humankind as a loving companion, as someone who binds all of creation together with hope and compassion, grace and forgiveness.

Now, I realize some of you out there are humanists or atheists or both, and have no interest in anything having to do with belief in God or faith, and I dig that; and I promise, I’ve got a sermon series in the pipes just for you. But I believe this question pertains to any of us who take Unitarian Universalism’s history and heritage seriously; and that question is this: Why does Universalism matter to us today?

It matters to us because people throughout the world continue to be victimized by preachers and supposed Christians because of the bathroom they want to use, or because they are attracted to people of the same sex; many people have been told that they deserve all of life’s hardships, and especially the suffering that awaits them after God’s divine justice renders a guilty verdict, and confines them to an eternity in hell. Universalism matters to us because it imagines an otherwise world, a world of belonging and acceptance, but even more, appreciation.

And, therefore, as inheritors of this great religious tradition of Christian Universalism, it is our duty to lift our hearts and at times our voices and bodies and proclaim what Origen and Arius and Potter and John Murray and Hosea Ballou and Olympia Brown said centuries and millennia ago, that God is Love, and that who you are is a unique and lovely and worthy part of the great tapestry of life that was not made as some cosmic experiment in punishment and reward, but as a source of life and possibility.

Many people who find themselves in the pews of UU churches do so after they’ve been hurt by a supposedly Christian message that promises salvation and acceptance selectively.

I know this because I have been one of those people. I was raised in a tradition that said people who are gay will suffer God’s punishment; I was taught that unless someone intentionally became a Christian, that they would go to hell; not to mention the dozens of other reasons that I was told guaranteed eternal damnation.

As a child, I used to lie awake at night and beg God to wait to return until after I kissed a girl; and when I’d lie to my parents or sneak out at night, I’d awaken in terror, and watch the sky fearing it might rip open at any moment, revealing and angry and vengeful god.

The most mystifying thing to me is that I was taught these things by some of the nicest and honorable people I have ever known. Many of my family members believe this way. And among them, there are some who assure me one day I’ll find my way back to their truth, and finally become a real minister.

But what makes me a real minister is the tradition upon which I stand. My authority as a spiritual leader to proclaim love and grace come from centuries of struggle to legitimize that very message. It comes to me from people like you who, as co-inheritors of this tradition, proclaim acceptance and inclusion, and love and second chances.

What makes me a minister is the sustained evolution of our tradition to be a sanctuary to non-believers and doubters alike. What makes me a minister is my firm conviction that somehow, some way, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and that love will win the day.

This is what Universalism can mean for us today.

Eventually what I’d say to those people in this hospital is this: We believe that if there is a God, that God is love; that, my dear friends, is Universalism 101. Class dismissed. Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] John Murray, Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray, in A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism From the Beginning to 1899 (Volume One), ed. Dan McKanan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2017), 153.