Sermon – Church without Fear
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered: March 2, 2014 to The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough
It is a premise of our Unitarian Universalism that humanity can be good and worthy without walking in constant fear for our mortal souls. We believe that we create heaven and hell for one another here on Earth rather than the hereafter, and that is where we are called to act faithfully and responsibly. Join us as we explore our historical understanding of salvation and what we ask of each other today.
Every once in a while I ask you; why are you here? Some of you were born into this faith. Some of you came because your faith of origin didn’t help when you needed it. Some of you were urged to come by your spouses. Some of you are here for the music and the camaraderie. And I think some of you may be here for a broader reason.
Maybe we look for church when we realize just how big and mysterious and beautiful and terrible and unforgiving the world really is. Lousy things happen in life. Life is not fair, in fact, it is often unfair. At some point in our lives, we’ve all asked ourselves – or our children have asked us:
– Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?
– If life is going to be unfair, why should I bother trying to be a good person?
– What is a good person anyway?
– How do we know people are good? How do we know we are like them?
– What is the right thing to do, and why should I do it?
– What will happen to me if I don’t?
– What will happen when I die?
– There isn’t any justice. So-and-so did something horrible and nothing’s been done, or will be in this lifetime anyway. Where is the justice in that?
Why be good? What is good? Social scientists and philosophers have one answer that might be considered separate from religion: They tell us that, as social beings, we are engineered to be good because it is useful for society’s survival. Morality (habit) is coded survival instinct. Society’s code for individual survival. Rules of obedience to help the individual live among others. Those who adhere to morality survive within the group. Ethics (insight, belief) are the individuals’ code for society’s survival. At some point in our development, we realize that we have to act in a way the helps to preserve society more than ourselves. Evil is when we isolate ourselves from all of this.
Religion can help us cope and understand. It can bring another dimension. It can bring the size and mystery and beauty and terror into some kind of manageable focus. Heaven did help us. The belief in the afterlife helped make this life bearable, and even fair, for people who were suffering. Belief in the retributive justice of the afterlife helped us obey the rules.
[cartoon featuring the gates of heaven] I’ve been hanging on to this cartoon Non Sequitur by Wiley for a while, since August 2nd to be precise. There’s no right religion that has an inside track on heaven. And you know what, most Americans do believe that. We have become a nation of heretics, and it’s wonderful. Heresy Middle English heresie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin haeresis, from Late Greek hairesis, from Greek, action of taking, choice, sect, from hairein to take. We make a choice.
A few years ago, the Pew Research Center surveyed 35,000 Americans for their Religion and Public Life project.
Belief in an Afterlife.
Most Americans (74%) believe in life after death, with an equal number
saying they believe in the existence of heaven as a place where people who have led good lives
are eternally rewarded.
With a few exceptions, most Americans agree with the statement that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life.
Belief in hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without repenting are eternally punished,
is less common than is belief in life after death or heaven, with about six-in-ten Americans (59%)
expressing belief in hell.
I know, some of you are thinking, we know that Unitarian Universalists don’t do hell, but do they do heaven? I thought the attitude was: “I’m not sure I do, so why should I care?” The answer is, some of us do – and the ones who do not – are probably living and working with people who do. And that belief may shape the choices they make about how to act. And even more important, there wouldn’t be a Unitarian Universalism if there weren’t this idea of heaven, and conversely, the refutation of hell.
Our ancestor’s concept of salvation helped them respond to these imperatives:
– The world is not kind, life is hard, there must be a reason, and we have something to do with that reason.
– People of faith must survive and even thrive in a hostile world.
– Hostility comes in the form of outright physical threats from nature, but also from those who do not believe in the same things, and also in their very unbelief.
– Faithful people have a correct belief, and embrace God in a very particular fashion which leads to a special relationship with the Creator.
– That special relationship will guarantee that the faithful will survive and thrive.
– The creator of life is all-powerful, directing and creating all that was, is and will be. There is no challenge to that supremacy – even the laws of nature. In all of our battles over specific beliefs about what is God, the battles were over which idea best and rightly affirmed the absolute power of God.
– We do bad things. And the fact that we can do bad things still has to affirm the absolute power of God.
– We do good things, and yet still we suffer.
Our spiritual ancestors struggled with this question. It had to do with how we acted in life, but it also had to do with being in a state of purity, and acceptable in the Creator’s eyes. The way we acted in life could be social or political, but being acceptable in God’s eyes was eternal. For Jewish people, they moved in and out of a state of purity, accepting that this was part of everyday life – that they must do things that made them impure, like caring for the dead, but could engage in heartfelt rituals and prayers that would make them pure again and in that state could approach God.
Christians didn’t have that sense of moving in and out of a state of purity. For many of them it was all or nothing; and they could only assume that we all started out with nothing. To be a Christian was to try to overcome our beginnings, and the fact of living in an impure state of everyday life. To be a Christian meant to be different, set apart, gathered out of the world – a pure body in worship, practice and structure and in soul and life. There was in all things, this strong impulse to separate for purity’s sake into smaller and smaller groups. “The doors of the Church of Christ do not stand open for [everyone] ” became their understanding of how things worked.
Christians in the Church of England would confess that “my behavior indicates that I am a sinner but not a gross sinner; I submit myself to the church discipline.” The Christians who left England and settled on our shores carried that a step further. NE Puritan strategy everyone expected to attend church, but voting and participation in sacraments limited to saints. They gathered in a model of church membership where nature of church was tied to doctrine of election. They fervently hoped that their community would become of visible saints by the grace of God and the inclinations of the faithful. They needed evidence of conversion, or indication of a state of grace (“a personal and public confession and indication of God’s manner of working on the soul; repentance of sin, faith unfeigned, and effectual calling”). Such a personal confession would include how the Holy Spirit had entered and transformed and how dependent the individual was on God for salvation.
Ministers would take notes on people’s confessions, and membership would debate. Ability to testify to intense personal experience was additional requirement. Confession of faith had to be molded into it. Our ancestors tried to codify what was good, who was good, who was acceptable to worship with, and who was acceptable in God’s eyes. They had to submit to a public interrogation and a vote by people who they lived with and depended upon. Lest you think this was in the remote past, I would remind you that in 1889 and for decades afterwards, the good people who established this church voted on who would be accepted into their company.
But what happened in the 16 and 1700s? Fewer and fewer people were judged to be visible saints, and church membership declined. Not the numbers of people going to church, necessarily, but the ones who were empowered to make church happen. And there was movement away from letting church leaders and ministers determine whether one’s personal experience of transformation was genuine to knowing it for oneself, and therefore knowing that one had become acceptable in God’s eyes. Said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “I found my heart strangely warmed” and at that moment became assured of his salvation.
Along about the time in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries that this notion of instantaneous grace was beginning to flourish, there also came, or came again although they may not have known it, a different idea of God, a benevolent God rather than a stern and justice-demanding God; a God who only offered limited atonement. This God would not redeem some and not others. With these new heretical ideas, there was also a different idea of clergy, in fact, a distinct mistrust of clergy and no wonder.
The origins of Universalism are complicated, there was never one unified system of belief. But it clustered around several main arguments:
– Christ’s death on the cross redeemed the whole race.
– God was essentially benevolent.
– We can have a more optimistic view of human nature.
– We are accountable for our actions in life
– We can find our own way to truth by being enlightened by a moment of grace, or working it out for ourselves through reason, or our own study of the Bible.
And don’t trust ordained clergy! It made it hard to organize a church or a denomination. Inspired preachers preferred life on the road. Traveling itinerant ministers spoke to small informal gatherings; house churches. Like-minded neighbors grew into societies. They formed an annual convention to meet once a year for mutual edification. Universalist preachers were home-grown powerful orators and debaters.
Today, most Americans … have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion. For instance, more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions. This may be the legacy of the Universalists – the idea that there is more than one way to see the face of God.
Don’t think for one moment that we don’t struggle today. Although the pressing matter of salvation may not be at the forefront of our thoughts, there is its remnant, that principle that says: we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – that all people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice – and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life. Can I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of people who hate me? Who would act against me if they could? I can say I do not affirm their hatemongering, but do I have to affirm them? We say yes, but it isn’t easy and shouldn’t be. We have to sit and work through this, and it takes courage and authenticity. Do I have the courage to overcome my own grief and anger and proclaim that kind of love? Do you? We can thank the Universalists that we have to try and answer that question.