16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Universalism: A Hope for Love
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 12/03/2006
John Murray, a Universalist preacher, left England in 1770, sailing for the New World and the promise of religious freedom. He came here not to practice ministry but to escape religious persecution for preaching the radical idea of the universal salvation of all. In a strange and mysterious way, he was convinced to renew his vocation when it seemed the divine hand of God required his preaching.
Murray, many years later in speaking with the many itinerant preachers carrying this message of love and hope throughout New England , he encouraged them with these words:
You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
Hosea Ballou took the Universalist theology even further by explaining atonement in a new way. Ballou pointed out that the message of God’s sacrificing his son in order to receive payment for humanity’s sins makes no sense for a loving God. God doesn’t require payment to ensure God’s restoration of love for humanity. God’s love is infinite and does not change as a result of the imperfection of humanity. God created humankind with all of our brokenness, but continues to love us even when we sin. Therefore, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross does not represent a substitutionary payment for our sins, but demonstrates God’s unbounding love for us.
The word “atonement”, of course, means “at-one-ment” - our oneness with God. Ballou explains that our atonement means our reconciliation with God, or our beginning to understand God’s love as infinite and not as small and mean as human love. With God’s love being infinite, it means that salvation or what the Universalists called “holiness and happiness” is always available to us- we just have to realize it. Salvation then becomes, not the reward for good deeds done by individual humans, but the possibility for all of us, no matter what we do or who we are.
Universalists preached against the idea of original sin, or of the idea of humanity being born depraved. Humans are certainly flawed and fall out of relation with God and need reconciliation which Ballou calls “atonement”. When we find ourselves back in relationship with God, that is a state of grace which is always available to us, no matter what we have done.
So, what does this Universalist message mean for us today as Unitarian Universalists- an organization with people of all faiths? Do we still have a faith that contains this message- a message of God’s love for all people?
Sometimes, people say to me, “If I don’t believe in God, how can these old Christian messages have relevance to me?” Some feel that since they do not believe in the kind of God that was described by our Unitarian and Universalist forebears, that they cannot relate to these early theologies.
This year, a group of us took a journey into the theology of early Unitarian and Universalists to see what they had to say to us that related to us today. We studied the source messages of people like Hosea Ballou and John Murray. Sometimes the writings were a little hard to understand. And sometimes these early theologies seemed a far cry from what we find that Unitarian Universalists believe today. But we were always able to find a thread, a strong thread leading us from the theologies of our early founders leading to the principles that we express today.
Our first principle in our Principles and Purposes says, “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” And our sources from which we draw spiritual sustenance includes “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
I believe this first principle of worth and dignity is directly influenced by the Universalist message of God’s equal love for all humanity, despite our flaws. And it is also influenced by the Universalist and Unitarian message that humanity is not born depraved and sinful, but is born good, since God created us as good.
Ballou asserted that since God is good, then God would only create beings who could be happy, not miserable in existence. And while life is sometimes difficult, it is human’s desire to be happy and God’s pleasure to help us find that happiness. And that part of our own happiness in life is in making others happy.
The Profession of Belief written by the Universalist New England Convention in 1803, says:
We believe that there is one God whose nature is love… who will restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
This Universalist God created humans with the ability to achieve this holiness and happiness and worked with us to find it.
Clarence Skinner, a Universalist minister and professor in the Crane School of Theology at Tufts University, carried the message of God’s love further in teaching that it was therefore humanity’s duty to carry this love into society by working for all of the world’s happiness. Skinner took the Social Gospel message of the day further than others, by declaring the right of every person to receive satisfaction on this earth, not just in the afterlife, because God loves us and wanted happiness for us.
When I was at a minister’s conference a couple of weeks ago the topic was Universalism. We studied Hosea Ballou and Clarence Skinner and what they had to say about the nature of God’s love.
We also watched a movie that was entitled “Oneness”. This movie was produced by some amateur movie makers who just decided one day that they wanted to make a movie about the meaning of life. They rented some equipment, learned how to use it, and went out into the streets and started asking people what they thought about the meaning of life. First they just asked people they met. And people gave them different kinds of answers. But there seemed to be a general theme to their answers. People would say, “Life is about living- about being one with everything and everyone.” Or “Life is about loving- loving the earth and everyone in it.” Or sometimes people would mention God and then the filmmakers would ask them what God was. Some said that God was “One- with the universe and with all creatures in the universe.” Some said God was the highest energy in the universe, and we were all a part of that energy. Some said simply that God was love.
The filmmakers starting writing letters to spiritual gurus and teachers and got several interviews with people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Deepak Chopra. The answers we heard from these interviews from Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Jews alike sounded very similar. Life is about being One with God, One with the Universe, about loving God and each other.
But one person didn’t have an answer like that. It was a young homeless man who had Rostafarian braids and tattered jeans. When he was asked about the meaning of life, he just shook his head. He looked confused and lost. He asked, “Why would you ask me that? What do I know? I’m not worthy to answer that question. I don’t know nothing. And I don’t know anything about that.” When asked about God and whether he believed in God he said, he didn’t know but there sure wasn’t any God looking after him. And there wasn’t anyone who cared about him.
Some of us don’t have the experience of being loved in this world. And not having that experience makes us wonder about whether there is any meaning in life. About whether we have any value. About whether we’re loveable. And about whether there is any love in the world.
I have told you about my first husband, Scott, who died of cancer. But I haven’t told you much about Scott, as a person. Scott was an extremely bright person who believed in life. He was a scientist like many of you. And he was a Buddhist who believed that whatever we did in life created our karma. Karma is the sum of all our actions in this world and in past lives and creates our current life situation. But Scott didn’t always believe in himself.
When he got ill, at first, he didn’t tell many people about his illness. We were fairly new members at a UU church. We’d been there about two years. After a few weeks, when he was undergoing treatment and had started losing his hair, he decided to get up in Joys and Concerns and tell the congregation about his treatment. After he did that, he was overwhelmed with people coming up to him with hugs, good wishes and people wanting to help. After that, he also told people at his work about his treatment because he started wearing a cowboy hat to work and realized it was going to look funny if he didn’t tell people why he was wearing it. The people in his department at work also started wearing hats to work. And people from our church and our friends would just start showing up at our door with dinner, with books and tapes about cancer. Friends in the neighborhood would sit with him when he was ill. They would come to the hospital with music or cards.
Scott was amazed by all this. He was a very introverted person who didn’t talk about his feelings. But for the first time, I started to see him show his emotions. He would break out into a huge smile when people would show up. And he would cry. Cry at the overwhelming show of support and love we received.
I believe that he started to understand that he was loveable and that people loved him. He had had a difficult childhood with parents who never demonstrated their love openly. He had a father who believed in not sparing the strap.
With the overwhelming feeling of love and support, Scott started to change. He became more open and more willing to share his feelings. He seemed to finally understand that he was loveable and that there was love available in the universe. I felt this love coming from the universe itself, and I don’t know how he experienced it- but he felt it. He told me that while this was the most difficult time in his life, it was also the most wonderful time in his life. That he felt blessed.
Before Scott died, he talked about how lucky he was to have the family and friends we had. He talked about how while he never would have chosen to have cancer, he realized that somehow this experience had changed life for him forever. And that even if he died, he would always know that love is enough. Love is enough to live for. And to even die for.
We experience love in different ways. We may have had a loving family, but many of us did not. We might have found friends who cared for us. Some of us have loving partners. And some receive unconditional love from our children. Others of you have pets who offer simple love when they see you and they bound up with eagerness. But even when you don’t experience those kinds of love, there is still love available.
There is love present in this Beloved Community. When one of you is sick or goes through a difficult time, this community often reaches out and surrounds that person with love. When someone shares something at Joys and Concerns of great difficulty or something joyous, they are often greeted with concern or with great celebration. And when we have wonderful landmarks that we have achieved together like working on building our new church, we celebrate together as a loving community.
Some of you feel a presence in nature, a calmness, a peace. That is like a kind of love. When I take my morning walk near the reservoir, I feel the trees around me surround me with a closeness, a shared stillness.
Many of us feel there is a mystery in the universe that is unexplainable but that we sometimes feel a hint of in our lives. When we are feeling depressed and don’t feel that we can reach out to anyone, sometimes, we feel a sense of something reaching out for us, pulling us up, at least getting us out of bed in the morning. And some feel an overwhelming sense of being loved, despite all our faults, still being loved by the universe, by God, by ourselves, by those who love us.
There is love available to us all. It’s not always easy to feel. Sometimes we need help in reminding ourselves of this universal love. It’s really hard to ask for that help, but when we do, when we call someone and just say that we’re having a hard time and could that person come over and be with us. Or we pull ourselves out of our stagnation, pull on our jacket and hat and go out to be in the woods where we know we’ll find peace. Or we come to church on Sunday mornings, and we sit here, together, feeling maybe not peaceful, but feeling that there’s hope. Hope in the greeting that people here give you. Hope in the fact that we’re all here together, trying to make it work. Hope in the children’s faces as they yell out their inevitable boisterous way. There is hope for love for us all. Universal love. That is what our forebears promised us. And it’s still there.