Our Universalist ancestors held that love was an unlimited resource and felt called to offer love unconditionally. Rev. Gordon McKeeman describes, “Universalists believe that all of us are going to end up together in heaven, so we might as well learn how to get along with each other now.” At this service Rev. Sue Browning will draw on this rich history as we consider modern day connections between the UU faith and social action. The choir will sing.
It’s November 2017. A year since the last presidential election. A moment in US history to be sure, and as a voting citizen I have my views.
These past weeks I’ve also been reflecting on where the results a year ago have taken me as a minister? And too I wonder, where has your Unitarian Universalist faith taken you this past year? It’s been a year of less predictability – for me, a wondering of what I can trust.
When it comes to issues of society – issues of our laws and rules, I’ve vacillated.
On the one hand, I’ve wanted to put clear stakes in the ground. I’ve felt called to take a stand; to advocate. I’ve stood in front of Paul Ryan’s office with Rev. William Barber advocating for health care. I waited with interfaith colleagues and made it to the observation deck in the Senate to advocate for health care. I’ve stood with the Dreamers by the White House on immigration. I’ve written letters for the community to sign in the wake of violence, and exclusion.
I know many of you have shared you also have been active. As a citizen, and as a minister, on issues where I was clear I took a stand.
But as I said, it’s been a year of vacillating. Many stands not taken. I worry about actions that shut down communication – actions which widen gulfs rather than build relationships. When do we assume, and judge and label?
My UU faith tradition calls me to love all, and to listen, and to explore why others see things differently than I do.
As I’ve vacillated, I come back to a question which has long been a struggle in the history of our country – and of our UU tradition: Just when is it advisable to express views on politics, government, laws, and society’s systems at church?
Your answers cover the full range, from, “Virtually never – please no politics here…” and for others, “Why else are we here? – as a congregation we should be more vocal. Bring it on.”
And I can guess at least a few of you are likely thinking, “Oh, no, a political sermon. On Thanksgiving weekend, no less.”
In my early UU experience, I would cringe when the issues of policy and government, and even some social reform issues were addressed from the pulpit. I especially cringed when the minister assumed I agreed with them. I didn’t think political issues belonged front and center in church. My husband and I had even rejected a Presbyterian church when church shopping as “too political” when the sermon mentioned to Gulf War.
And eventually we found a UU church, and there, even when I agreed with the minister, my blood pressure would soar as I imagined who there that day might feel excluded. Assumptions on ‘like-mindedness’ drove me crazy. It was not inclusive to assume agreement.
Over time though, I changed. Ironically my sense that these messy, discomforting, at times political, topics need to be raised in church is motivated by that exact reason I wanted political issues avoided. Inclusiveness.
The Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist history has helped me see the value in bringing political messiness into the sanctuary. The Universalists also remind me that this is, and will always be, a tenuous balance.
Who were these Universalists? Let’s go back to the late 1700s. The Universalists believed with in an all-loving God. Their understanding was that God loved totally and completely. No exceptions – everyone was loved. And all would be held in love at death. Everyone would of course go to heaven. God was too good to condemn anyone to hell. God didn’t make mistakes, at least not eternal ones.
Don’t get me wrong. The Universalists were not naïve. They didn’t deny there was evil in this world. They also didn’t deny that there needed to be accountability for bad actions. They were not rosy optimists seeing human nature as error free. In fact, they set the bar for behavior high.
What the Universalists denied (counter at the time to much theological teaching) was that there would be a judgment day. Universalists understood the Bible’s judgment day messages were incentives aimed at creating the kingdom of God right here on earth. Ideas of judgment were in effect stories – parables and others – to drive home the need to address evil actions now, not at some future day.
Good theology, but bad for ‘pearly gate’ jokes, though I did find one might that might have worked for Universalists! (Side note- I do note that the nurses here are all women here – it didn’t need to be that way!)
Three nurses appeared before St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter said to the first, “Tell me what you did on earth.” Said she, “I was a birthing room nurse. I helped bring hundreds of precious babies into the world.” “Enter!” said St. Peter. Then he turned to the second. “And how about you?” he asked. She replied, “I was a trauma unit nurse. I helped save hundreds of lives of people involved in terrible accidents.” “Enter!” cried St. Peter, and turned to the third. “I worked for an HMO,” she admitted. “Over the years I saved my company hundreds of thousands of dollars by refusing extended care to people who were trying to bilk the system.” “You may enter!” said St. Peter. “You really mean it?” asked the nurse incredulously. “Yes,” replied St. Peter. “You’ve been pre-approved for three days.”
I can imagine our Universalist ancestors wondering of who was impacted by insurance limits, and then mobilizing.
Universalists were called to move toward love – and in community and society this meant there needed to be accountability. All were created in the image of God, and as such, all (that’s us folks) are called to spread love. Jesus had done to do so effectively.
For Universalists the call to spread love meant their faith was not a Sunday-only experience. To live the other six days in faith, hard questions needed to be raised on Sundays. If unfair rules were made by government, and some were harmed or prevented from full inclusion, then working to change the rules was not separate from faith. Universalists found hope was held in pressing for love-grounded policies.
Universalists were also advocates of a strong view on separation of church and state. They fought against churches being ‘established’ churches supported by the state, and they helped break that linkage in Massachusetts in 1833.
The General Convention of Universalists, in principle, was reluctant to interfere with legislation. Not our business, they had decided. On paper. And they tried. Then like now, lines weren’t clear. Their Universalist theology of God not giving up on anyone got in the way. Universalists in the 19th century were, among other things, champions of prison reform and opponents of the death penalty. And while reluctant to interfere with legislation, in 1836 they broke with the reluctance and to “urge abolition of the death penalty in the United States..” (UU a narrative history, Bumbaugh, 163-164)
By 1850 these pre-Civil War Universalists had a list of 40 social concerns – from the slave trade, to fair wages, marriage and women’s rights. Creating heaven on earth – some may hear this as creating the kingdom or kindom of God – meant agendas, and naming societal issues, and getting involved in the fix.
Faith and the political process just couldn’t get out of each other’s way.
By the late 1800s Universalists and other Christian groups championed a social gospel. Other traditions, including some Baptists and Methodists (and a range of denominations) had shifted from a focus on damnation in hell and personal salvation to fixing evils on earth. A famous novel written in the late 1800s was called ‘In His Steps’ asked, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Answers focused on the gospel messages of inclusiveness.
Where does ‘all are saved’ – all are too be included – all are loved (all restated in several ways in our current UU principles) bring us in late 2017 when it comes to raising issues of gun control, or immigration, or debates on international roles and engagement – all with political linkages – in our faith home?
Where does a message of inclusiveness lead us?
Inclusiveness means ‘making room’ for those likely to enter these doors. We need all here to feel heard – listened to. There are a range of political views on issues. Perspectives go deeper than party or candidate as policies and systems are changed. I’m grateful that issues like tax reform, or immigration are multifaceted. There is hope of working creatively toward solutions.
We are called not to be afraid of difference – but to engage and listen and to explore with curiosity. Yes, at times cringing and uncomfortable as we stretch and change. This is a sort of local inclusiveness – our always stretching and emerging UUFE community.
Yet, there is a broader call to inclusiveness when we ask questions of fairness and inequity across society. When we look at healthcare, who is worthy of care – solid care, preventative care? And the questions of matching resources to the challenge. Naming challenges is easy. Working toward sustainable solutions is a harder call.
How do we hear a message of ‘all are unconditionally loved’ as we enter and participate in finding solutions? When we look at immigration policy, what is the balance of resources that needs to be considered? Where are risks borne? Who is to be protected?
Should we engage in these complex questions together here in this sanctuary? From the pulpit? In small groups? Do we have the skills to create Brave Space? Is that, at least in part, the role of this religious community? When is an issue big enough? When is it irresponsible to avoid an issue? Who and what am I accountable to? Who is my neighbor? How can I imagine the world? What do I value?
In asking these issues, we’ll come to different conclusions, and will raise different new questions. There will be tension. Our Universalist theology has the potential to bring us to a great message of hope. When we do our part to help assure all are loved, and when we see love is not finite, but abundant, we might take more risks in helping others see and feel they are loved.
When we keep our eyes on bigger inclusiveness and look to those on the margins who are trampled by the systems and messages in society… treated as ‘less than’ …and to look to systems that do need to change we might live out our Universalist heritage.
Our faith will intertwine with the political process, some. I don’t and won’t bring specific candidacies to the pulpit, or even partisan politics. I don’t find this as healthy or useful. At the same time, I don’t want to be tentative on ‘big’ inclusiveness. I don’t see ‘not offending’ as equating to being truly inclusive.
It’s not tidy. And big inclusiveness does matter, not just in social justice, but in our lives.
At its heart, the Universalist message is a reminder that we are not alone. The presence of a loving force – for some God, for others spirit of life or love, for others the embrace of community –is abundant and waiting to be sensed – is waiting to fight for full inclusion. May we close this Thanksgiving weekend reminded that love will not run out as we do our part to build heaven on earth, and yes, it will get a little messy.
May It Be So