As some of you know, I didn’t go to seminary at one of the two Unitarian Universalist schools for the ministry. I went to Wesley, a Methodist institution in Washington, DC. It was such a good experience for me, a kid who grew up UU, to become familiar with mainline Christian theology, one of the more dominant worldviews in this country. But it wasn’t always easy. I often found myself having to explain or defend my faith. And believe it or not, it was my Universalism that caused the strongest reactions among my classmates.
Usually at the beginning of the semester our professors would invite people to introduce themselves, name their denomination, and share what kind of ministry they felt called to do. Inevitably, in at least one class every semester someone would demand to know how I could be a Universalist. “How can you believe Hitler is in heaven?” In other words, how can anyone believe in a cosmic reality in which people aren’t held accountable for their actions?
The other common reaction when people learned I was a Universalist surprised me. “If you believe everyone goes to heaven no matter what, then what’s the point of trying to do good, to live a good life?” As I learned more about our Universalist tradition, I came to discover that this reaction was as common two centuries ago as it is today.
There is an old story about one of the earliest American Universalist preachers, Hosea Ballou, He was a “circuit rider” which meant he’d ride his horse from one church to another spreading the good news of Universalism. Anyway, one day he was riding the circuit along with a Baptist minister, arguing theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.” Hosea Ballou replied, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”
Universalism emerged as a reaction to the fire and brimstone of Calvinism. Jonathan Edwards was a famous Calvinist preacher, and in one of his more vivid sermons, he preached that humanity was so awful that God had turned away from us, as a person turns away from the stench of rotting garbage. Early Universalists heard this but believed something different. It wasn’t God who had turned away from humanity, they taught, but humanity who had turned away from God. And later Universalists came to believe that in our efforts to gain wealth and power humanity had turned away from God’s covenant of love, and that centuries of sinful living had encrusted into habits and patterns systems and cultures and governments of harm and suffering. But God’s kin-dom is a place where siblings are forgiven and lost sheep are found. Even though humans sometimes do unspeakably terrible things, every person is precious, and every single one of us, no matter how far gone, is worth fighting to save.
Gordon McKeeman, perhaps the greatest Universalist pastor and preacher of the 20th century, reminded his listeners often that at its height, Universalism came to be known as the “Gospel of God’s Success.” As the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison Reed has written and preached about, if early Universalism could be summed up in one image, “the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable…to resist the power and love of the Almighty.”
And this weekend UU congregations around the country are celebrating the 250th anniversary of John Murray bringing this theology of love with no exceptions to America. John Murray had abandoned preaching back in England after his wife and young child died of illness. He boarded a ship to New York planning on starting a new life in the New World. But toward the end of their journey, the weather turned harsh, a great fog rolled in, and the ship ran aground in New Jersey. Eventually, he and a few passengers volunteered to leave the ship and try to find someone on land who could help them get the rest of the way to New York.
As John left the ship, he spotted a farmhouse with a small church beside it. It belonged to a man named Thomas Potter, who gave John food for everyone on the ship, and then invited John to come back and have dinner with him that night. During dinner John told Thomas about his life, of the loving God he believed in, of how he had lost all that was dear to him, and how he was headed to New York to start his life all over again.
After dinner, Thomas brought John into the church he had built. Thomas told John that he, too, had come to be a Universalist.. “I built this little church for God, and I’ve been waiting for God to send me a minister. I have waited for a long time, but now God has called you across the sea, John, to be that minister.”
“I can’t preach on Sunday,” said John. “As soon as the wind changes, my boat will set sail for New York where I will begin my new life.”
“Well,” said Thomas, “the wind will probably pick up before Sunday. But if it doesn’t and your boat hasn’t set sail, then will you preach this Sunday?” Thinking it wouldn’t possibly take that long for his boat to lift anchor, John agreed.
No wind blew, so on the morning of Sunday, September 30, 1770, in the little church Thomas Potter had built, John Murray preached the first Universalist sermon in the colonies.
I’m proud of this history, but in many ways Universalism is still as controversial now as it was then. Forgiveness is hard, but it’s especially hard to imagine a forgiveness that extends even to people who have no remorse for the way they harm others. It’s hard to believe in forgiveness for wrongs that feel unforgivable.
But that’s exactly what the story about Joseph and his brothers is about. I chose to tell this story today because it is the story that gives shape to so much of the liturgy for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement which begins tonight and goes through tomorrow night. This brutal story of a favored son being sold into slavery by his own brothers, brought low in prison and then rising up in power and prestige as a member of Pharoah’s inner circle, coming to forgive his brothers and reunite with his family. In the book of Genesis, Joseph goes through a lot of emotional turmoil before he finally forgives his brothers. He plays tricks on them, I imagine in an effort to give them a taste of what their actions put him through. But as Methodist pastor and professor, John Holbert writes, “Revenge is a dish best served cold, it is said, but whether hot or cold, revenge muddies all waters, clouds hopes, and destroys the possibility of community.”
“Destroys the possibility of community.” I think this is at the root of why forgiveness is a tenant in just about every religion. Because it’s not just about balancing a moral ledger sheet, making sure everyone who’s been wronged gets their due, important as that sometimes is. Forgiveness is important because without it, the broken fabric of community can never be mended. I’ve always appreciated that before Jewish communities gather on Yom Kippur to atone for straying from God’s laws and commandments, all of the individual people in that community must first give and receive forgiveness, make amends, get right with one another before they try to get right with God. In this way, forgiveness is important because it makes peace, shalom, enough-ness, for the whole community possible. Did Joseph’s brothers deserve to be forgiven? After doing something so terrible to him, to their father, is there really anything they could have done to get right with him again, to earn his forgiveness?
And that’s the whole point. Heaven, redemption, the beloved community, the world we dream about, these are not realities we can earn our way into. Love and forgiveness can only be shared. We can do our best to make amends, we can atone for the wrongs we have done, but we can’t really earn forgiveness. This is the great scandal of Universalism; it rejects the whole framework that people get what they deserve, that we can earn our worth or redemption. It proclaims without apology that we’re all in this together, and that the path to salvation, whether in this life or in whatever comes after death, is found in the abundant grace all around us.
Whether we here today believe in God or an afterlife or not, I think one of Universalism’s truths is becoming undeniably clear: for any of us to be saved, all of us have to be saved. We’ve only got one planet, and we now know that the actions of some of us on one side of the globe impact the health and well-being of the people on the other side. This is why Universalism is so important today. It invites us not only to affirm that everyone matters but to live as if they do.
Calvinists used to say that humanity deserves nothing. Our culture says that we deserve only what we earn for ourselves, that we should pick ourselves up by bootstraps we may not even have and earn our worth. Universalism says something completely different. It says look around you! Just look at all of the gifts you are given every day! Notice the sunrise and sunset and how beautiful they are! Notice the children’s laughter and how they seem to know sometimes the exact moment you need a kiss or a hug or to be told you’re the best grown-up ever. Notice how beautiful the pumpkins and marigolds and chrysanthemums are all around us, the relief of the cooler air, the elderberries growing wild, free for anyone to pick. We deserve all of these things. Everyone deserves them. And it is our job to help fashion a world in which everyone has access to the blessings meant for us all.
People often talk about the good news of Universalism, but the truth is, this faith isn’t necessarily good news for everyone. It is explicitly good news for the hopeless, to indebted, the downtrodden, it’s good news for the people who have done wrong and seek to get right again. Universalism challenges us to consider the world from the perspective of those with the greatest need, and to place their well-being at the center of our concern. Because our own well-being is tied up with everyone else’s. None of us is free until all of us is free. None of us is rich until we all have enough.
The good news of Universalism is the idea that all people deserve all of life’s blessings, all people deserve to be found when they get lost. And everyone deserves these things utterly apart from who they are and what mistakes they’ve made or wrongs they’ve done. It’s up to the Spirit, the muse, the power inside and around all of us that changes our hearts to do the saving, the redeeming, the changing. But the grace, the blessings are there, all around us, waiting for us to notice and enjoy and share them. They are like the rain that falls upon the good and the wicked alike. They are like the wild elderberries that grow next to the gardens we work so hard to till and sow. Amen.