Hope and Courage
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you even notice how the word “Discouraged” doesn’t mean, ‘to be without courage.’ It means to be without hope! We do well to remember that hope and courage belong to each other in our language and in our hearts. Let me tell you a story about it.
Back some time ago, in July, a man set sail from England, discouraged. He was leaving behind him a life he was eager to forget. He left behind the failure of his career, the loss of his friends, the grief over the death of his wife and their young child. He left England’s shores nearly broke and clearly broken in spirit. Several months at sea would have found him arriving in Philadelphia roughly around Sunday, September 23, (and if that date sounds familiar, yes today is Sunday September 23.) But it is hard to be certain exactly when this man was to arrive. And Philadelphia was not the man’s goal; rather the plan had been to head further on to New York harbor. As the boat and the man left Philadelphia and move up the coast, fog and miscalculations conspire to strand them on a sandbar off New Jersey shore. This would be roughly Wednesday, September 26, (which is, yes, three days from now.) Later that evening the man travels into shore to secure supplies and that evening he encounters an illiterate farmer who befriends him and persuades him to pick up his old career here in America. With reluctance the arrangements are set forth and on Sunday, September 30 the man does indeed pick up his old career by stepping into the farmer’s countryside pulpit, preaching the sermon that will re-launch the ministerial career of the Father of Universalism, John Murray. Of course I am not speaking of Sunday, September 30th, next week. I speak of something that happened 237 years ago on Sunday, September 30th, 1770.
Yes, 237 years ago next week, John Murray preached his sermon in the small chapel near Good Luck New Jersey, preaching with the title, “Give them not Hell, but Hope and Courage.” Murray preached the gospel of God’s everlasting love and the redemption of all souls after death. He rejected the fear-based theology he heard from others. Instead, he called the small gathering of neighbors to head God’s love and Jesus’ example to love other another. He called the people to share the good news that God offers not the fear of Hell but love; give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Murray had left England discouraged, but in America he received encouragement to preach the good news as he knew it.
The dominant theology at the time was a form of Calvinism, which in Europe was known as the Reformed tradition and in American became known as the Presbyterians. John Murray’s Universalist preaching did not simply discard the basic Calvinist statement of double predestination; instead he broadened the concept to include everyone, the “whole family of man.” Predestination, in John Calvin’s theology, is the idea that God has, from the beginning of time, preordained just exactly who will be going to heaven. The number is set. If you’re on the list then you’re don’t even need to RSVP, you’re going to heaven! Naturally people assumed that if you were saved, if you were on the list, you would be a pious person without significant want or suffering in life. People assumed you could spot the elect here on earth because they would be living pious righteous lives. (I’m not sure what they then did with the book of Job, but we pull that idea apart perhaps another day.) The logical and obvious next step from this Calvinist perspective is that if there is a set number going to heaven, and the only other alternative is hell, obviously everyone not on heaven’s list is going to hell. This fuller articulation is known as “Double Predestination:” there is a set number, probably a very small number, going to heaven and a set number, probably a very, very large number, going to hell. The only reason, according to this line of thinking, that anyone is going to heaven at all is because Jesus died on the cross, thus atoning for original sin for a special select number of true believers.
The death and resurrection of Christ was the pivot of salvation history. What that means is that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, people could suddenly get into heaven. It is like that door was slammed shut when Adam caused original sin, and now Jesus has thrown that door wide open again. But of course the argument is always, well how wide did he open the door, just who gets to come in?
Murray likely used both of the biblical passages I read this morning – if not for that famous first sermon he preached in America then later in one of his many other sermons. Murray was known for mining the Bible for passages that pointed toward Universalism, and them using them in abundance during his preaching. “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor 15:22) That seems fairly blunt, don’t you think? It doesn’t say all die in Adam and some will be made alive in Christ – no, all will be made alive in Christ. If you’re going to play by these rules, then this is what it says! And it doesn’t matter if you believe in Christ or not – right? It says All.
If you ever find yourself in a serious conversation with someone about Hell, try this scripture passage with them. If I say I don’t believe in the myth of Adam and Original Sin, I am told it doesn’t matter if I believe it or not – that’s just how it is: in Adam all have sinned, all are fallen, all die. It doesn’t say ‘all who believe die,’ it says ‘all die in Adam.” Well, then it goes on to say that in Christ all will be made alive! It doesn’t say ‘all who believe,’ it says ‘all!’ The doctrine of universal salvation is basically predestination taken to its most optimistic extreme. Sure, there is a set number of people going to heaven, the number is absolutely everyone.
This really has always been and continues to be the heart of Universalism and the reason it is still a radical theology today. Everyone is included. As Universalism has evolved over the years, the core thread of radical inclusion has held strong throughout. At first Universalists claimed that in Christ all will be made alive again and that eventually we will all be united with God and Christ after the final judgment. Of course there would be a time of cleansing for those who were not ready to enter the kingdom, and while that might last a really, really, really long time, it would not be eternal. The next generation after Murray offered a challenge to the timetable, saying instead that all are made alive in Christ, as they are right now! Meaning that at death all would rise to glory with the Father without needing to go through some eon’s long ‘cleansing’ punishment in Hell, waiting for the Day of Judgment.
It was not long after that when Universalists began to say, why not bring the timetable even closer! The Universalists still believed in God as a loving father who will call all His children home, but they thought, ‘why not strive to make heaven here on earth?’ As the passage says in 1st John, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21) and “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (4:11) A great many Universalists were compelled by their faith to speak out against injustice, to work faithfully on behalf of those in need, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give voice to the voiceless. To love our brothers and sisters because that’s what it says we should do and also because who else ought we to respond to the love that is poured out for us!
Over the generations, Universalism continued to evolve though it ever held that core thread of radical inclusion. This is not just about bit of interesting history from two hundred and thirty-seven years ago. This is about you, it is about us, it is about people way beyond what even we usually mean when we say us – ‘though we ought to know better.
This is about you because you are accepted; you are part of the family. In the old Universalist language you are loved by God as a child of God and are called by that love to love others. This is about you because you need not be discouraged by the trials of life or the burdens that you carry. Have hope, fear not! You are accepted as you are. This is about you today because there is work to be done in the world; work to heal the broken, to give voice to the voiceless, to stand up against injustice, and to tear down divisions that tell us we are not one human family at our core. There is work to be done and you are among those who have shown up to do the work
This is not just about the history, this is about you and it is about those who are here with you now. We gather as inheritors of the Universalist faith that has evolved to include so wide a range of beliefs as to be unrecognizable were any of the original Universalists or Unitarians to appear in our pews any given Sunday. Unitarian Universalism, as a creedless non-doctrinal faith, allows each member to freely uncover beliefs. We are Theists, Pagans, Humanists, Transcendentalists, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Agnostics, Mystics, and Seekers gathered together as one faith community. We’ve taken that thread of radical inclusion to heart as is shown in our theological diversity. We continue to strive to spread our diversity around other categories as well such as ethnicity and class, sexual orientation and gender identity, level of education and family status, age and ability or disability. We continue to strive to heed the call of love to live with hope and courage.
Life is tough. It is not something that can be managed well alone. From earliest times, religion has served the function of binding people together, giving people a common bond to care and concern. Any group, any group, for it even be a group must establish a base of trust, the quickest and most powerful way to establish that trust is to gather the group around a shared identity. These are the people who are in the group and those are the people who are not. We are God’s chosen people, we are Girl Scouts of America, we are the Steam Pipe Fitters Guild, we are Alcoholics Anonymous, we are the Henderson extended family. These are the people who are in the group; those are the people who are not.
Life is tough; it is not something that can be managed well alone. We need groups like these to survive. We don’t need to be mean to the people who are not in our group. Just because you are not a member of the Henderson extended family does not mean you’re not the best friend of the Henderson kids. Most of the time, your groups don’t get in the way, they serve the greater good, the greater level of connection, the greater story of humanity. Sometimes, however, your group will say, ‘these are the people who are in the group and everyone else is therefore less than us, or everyone else is wrong, or everyone else is willfully evil. Now you can probably tell I am steering this toward religion, but this is also a basic level of all oppressions: sexism, racism, classism, ethnocentrism … Major trouble brews when religion and oppression team up.
Many religions work hard to combat this element of group dynamics, dare I call it, a “demonic” element of group dynamics. Many religious have scriptures that rail against negative and dehumanizing perceptions of people who are different or people who are not members of the group; many, but by no means all. Universalism, since its inception, has boldly claimed we are all included; most assuredly those who are not in the room with us right now are nonetheless included. “God’s love embraces the whole human race.” Powerful. Of course the down side is the amount of work we need to pour into both keeping that real (because we’re just as prone to laziness and hypocrisy as the next group) and in articulating a group identity that can establish trust and allow real bonds of support to grow. When we say, “Everyone is special,” that is like saying everyone is above average: it just can’t logically be so! When we say, “Everyone is included in our group,” that is like saying we don’t have any rules and it doesn’t really matter because nobody can ever not be in the group.
The original Universalism from 237 years ago has bequeathed us a radical understanding of how to be together. Whether you are drawn, as the original Universalists were, to love your brothers and sisters because God loves you; or you are drawn to do so in recognition of the multitude of religious and ethical laws that offer a nearly identical commandment; or you are drawn to do so because you have had a glimpse of enlightenment revealing to you the oneness of all things; or you are drawn to do so because the scientific studies of anthropology and neuro-psychology have satisfactorily demonstrated the personal and global benefits to behaving in such a way – what ever has lead you to this understanding: This love will guide us to the hope and the courage needed to face the challenges of our day.
This isn’t about something that happened 237 years ago, it is about you and me and us. It is about us it the biggest sense. And you know it is evolving still! God’s love embrace’s more than just the whole human race! Surely this love is wrapped around all living things on earth and indeed all of creation. Our circle of care and concern shall not be limited – the work of love to which we are called does not stop where previous generations boldly drew a new line. Let us bring hope and courage to every need.
John Murray said, “Go out into the highways and the by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess 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 and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”