Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon: "Universalism Today & Tomorrow: How are we Saved?" (Delivered 08-13-06)

Opening Words

Of all the theological concepts that might cause us to squirm, maybe “Salvation” is the one that causes the most discomfort. Who among us hasn’t been asked, “Are you saved?” The question behind the question is often dirty: “Do we think the same way?” or, “Are you in or out?” or, even, “Are you someone for me to embrace or despise?” It all gives salvation a bad name.

It doesn’t help that we’ve participated in a battle of bumper-stickers:

“Born-again Christian” vs. “I don’t need to be born again, I got it right the first time.”

“Warning: in case of rapture, car will be unmanned.” vs. “After the rapture, can I have your car?”

“Repent! The end is near!” vs. “God is coming, and she is ‘disconcerted.’”

It’s hard to believe that salvation was once the central theological lynch-pin of our religious tradition.

We gather for worship amidst wars and strife, amidst plagues and inconvenient truths, amidst the descendents of violence and oppression: poverty, discrimination and fear. Maybe salvation isn’t that bad of an idea after all. So we gather once again in this tradition of truth-telling. We gather to explore together and to worship.


In nineteen sixty eight, when our church was celebrating its first anniversary, a sociologist named Milton Rokeach published the results of his study of a diverse sampling of American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In the study, he asked them to rank various religious values in order of importance. His research neglected Unitarians, so a minister, Robert Miller, duplicated Rokeach’s research, asking Unitarians how we would rank the same values in order of importance.

The highest ranked value, according to Miller’s study of Unitarians was “honesty.” At the other end of the spectrum, the three least important values were, from greater to least, cleanliness, obedience, and salvation. One interpretation of the low ranking that cleanliness received is that it scored so low not because we don’t value it, but because we take for granted. Obedience, on the other hand, ranked right where we would expect it to rank. (During my first year at SMUUCh I preached a sermon on obedience. This sermon is going to become the first chapter of the book I’m writing.)

The lowest ranked value, reportedly, was salvation. Not only did it come in dead last, many respondents had refused to enter it on their response sheets. Still other Unitarians lodged their protest by writing the word upside down! “Salvation” was the only value to receive a negative score. [Thanks to several of my colleagues for pointing me in the direction of this research.]

This morning I deliver the final sermon in the three part series, “Universalism Today & Tomorrow” in which we look at classic manifestations of Universalist theology and examine what they might mean for us, in our daily lives, today. In this final sermon, we turn to the doctrine of salvation and what it might possibly mean for us today.

To the earliest Universalists, salvation was very important. In fact, theirs was a theological system formulated around the workings of salvation. Like their more orthodox counterparts, they explicitly believed that salvation came through Jesus Christ; however, unlike their more orthodox counterparts, they understood that salvation was not limited or conditional. That is to say they believed that everyone was saved.

If you are interested in the history of it, these early Universalists actually did believe in Hell. However, for them Hell wasn’t infinite or eternal. These forebears of ours thought there would be a period of punishment after death, but that all souls would eventually be reconciled with God. Now, before anybody goes running for the door, I might add that this form of Universalism was short-lived, and that it was soon replaced by a form of ultra-Universalism which did away with this notion of temporal punishment, and favored a speedy, and guaranteed reconciliation with the creator for all people unconditionally.

And, if I can be historical for just another minute or two, I might add that while Salvation was central to these early Universalists, the notion was certainly not considered irrelevant to our lives here on Earth. To the contrary, salvation was supposed to inspire us to ethical lives here on Earth. The central image was of a loving, merciful God – not jealous or wrathful – and our human response naturally to the knowledge of such a God would be live lives of joy, mercy, and love. If God was merciful to us when it could be otherwise, we should be so merciful to one another. If God is gentle and loving to us when it could be otherwise, we should be so gentle with one another. If God didn’t condemn us for our faults when it could be otherwise, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Salvation wasn’t taken for granted; it was central to their lives.

If you like this stuff, you will surely love the old Universalist stories. One of things that were handed down from our Universalist ancestors were folksy stories combining theology with domestic images.

One story involves a traveling Universalist minister passing through a town who stops in at the inn. He talks theology with the innkeeper, who is mopping the floor. The innkeeper tells the minister that he was wrong, that a unrepentant person could not be accepted into heaven. The minister turns to the innkeeper and says, “Do you require for your floor to be clean before you will consent to mop it?” “Clearly not,” replies the innkeeper, “I clean it as it is.” The minister adds, “Just as God takes us as we are.”

Another story: In this one, a Universalist preacher gives a eulogy and announces that the deceased shall go to heaven. This clearly displeases a man, who asks the minister, “How could you proclaim his salvation? That man was a liar and thief!” The Universalist preacher countered, “If your own son were a liar and a thief, would you go tie him to a stake and burn him.” “I could never do such a thing to my son,” responded the man. “But you expect God to do it to one of God’s children?” replied the minister.

So, how did we get to where we are then? If “Salvation” was such a major shaping force back then, why does it receive a low score in these modern times? And more importantly, what could it mean for us Unitarian Universalists today and tomorrow?

A new book of essays by Rebecca Parker called "Blessing the World: What can save us now" [Buy it!] takes up questions like these. Parker is the President of our UU seminary in Berkeley, California. Before that, she was a Methodist parish minister and turned to the old writings of Universalists like Hosea Ballou to inform a theology of salvation that made sense to her. The question of salvation might be said to be her life’s work, of which a major project was an earlier book disputing the notion of redemptive suffering and redemptive violence.

To give you an idea of how she thinks, I want to read from one of her essays where she takes issue with the “substitutionary theory of atonement” which is the fancy theological term for the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of all humanity. Here is what she says,

“The substitutionary theory of atonement generates a series of substitutions. Crusaders slaughtered Jews, who substituted for Muslims, who substituted for earlier “Jews” accused of killing Jesus, who substituted for the Romans who actually killed Christ. Jesus substitutes for sinful humanity to pay the debt owed to God… And committing violence substitutes for spiritual rebirth as the route to paradise.

“This theology, like violence, obliterates distinctions and replicates itself indiscriminately. Now Afghanistan can substitute for al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein can substitute for Osama bin Laden… Iraq can substitute for Afghanistan. Any Muslim can substitute for any terrorist.” [Parker, 71]

Remember, according to Pat Robertson, gays and feminists can substitute for September 11 hijackers. According to Education Secretary Rod Paige, the NEA can substitute for a terrorist network. And according to the rhetoric of the day, anybody can substitute for a nazi. Parker writes that, “Times, places, and people merge. Mass violence, in particular, fails to distinguish realities and excels at false identifications.” [Parker, 71]

How are we saved? “Not through substitution,” Parker answers. What I really want to share with you is a different essay by Rebecca Parker, by far the most thought-provoking one in her collection. The title of it is “After the Apocalypse.”

When I lived in an apartment complex just down the road, I used to receive a postcard about once a month. It was a glossy postcard with one side depicting cartoonish monsters with multiple heads and fangs and claws and forked tongues breathing fire and smoke and the other side would have the name of a Pentecostal church and an invitation to join them for a free evening seminar at the Overland Park Convention Center, where I could learn to decode the secret signs of the apocalypse. I always thought to myself, “I should go to that.” But then, I always asked myself after that thought, “Now Thom, can you promise to behave yourself there?” And I always thought that I better not go.

This would be funny, except for the fact that a whole bunch of powerful people – including people who serve in congress, who advise the President on national and international policy, and who command branches of our military – fully expect that Christ’s return to Earth according to the accounts in the Book of Revelation is imminent. They predict that his return will trigger a cosmic holy war, an apocalypse. And some of these people would love nothing more to see Iran and Syria and Egypt declare war and turn the Middle East into a full scale nuke fest. After all, if Iran substitutes for the beast with seven heads in the Book of Revelation, then we get to substitute for Christ. And it is all so completely insane and terrifying.

In her essay, Rebecca Parker describes this idea of apocalypse and says that there is a liberal version of it. The liberal apocalypse doesn’t have the violence or bloodshed or Left Behind novels. To paraphrase her,

“It involves the idea of us joining hands to dismantle the evil empires of racism, homophobia, poverty, ignorance, militarism, and environmental destruction, and build up a land of peace, equity, freedom, justice, and sustainability. This version of apocalypse doesn’t contain all the chaos or craziness of the more familiar image of apocalypse, but it does involve the end of the current world and the birth of a different world than we have known today. As one of our hymns goes, ‘We’ll be a land building up ancient cities, raising up devastations from old, restoring ruins of generations, come build a land of people so bold.’” [Parker, 17]

But she examines these two alternatives and suggests something different. What if, she wonders… what if we were to live as if the apocalypse had already happened?

After all, we live in a crazy world. Parker notes that the City of Seattle’s emergency disaster plan includes this helpful bit of advice, “In case of an evacuation due to nuclear attack, citizens may ride the metro buses without exact change.” [Parker, 20]

“We are living,” writes Parker, “in a post-slavery, post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam, post-Hiroshima world. We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and [misbegotten] war mark our bodies. We are living in the midst of rain forest burning, the rapid death of species, the growing pollution of the air and water, and new mutations of racism and violence.” [Parker, 20]

“How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?” Parker asks. If we see the 20th Century as the apocalypse, what does it mean for us now? What would that kind of salvation look like? Parker imagines salvation consisting of four aspects: truth-telling, memory, salvaging, and choosing guides.

She imagines life after the apocalypse as living among the ruins. To do this, to redeem the world in this kind of environment, the first thing that is necessary is “truth-telling”. I find this to be an interesting aspect of salvation, especially since it connects the highest-rated virtue, “Honesty” with the lowest-rated, “salvation.” Truth-telling involves simply being able to see the world as it is and tell truths about what it is that we see. What does it mean, for instance, that our church is located in an area of the city that is known as Shawnee Mission? What does that name mean?

Related to the idea of truth-telling, Parker suggests that we are also saved through memory. She calls on us to remember the voices of those who have survived devastation. To quote her again, “Without memory, society can succumb to war’s false promise…. We have allowed ourselves to forget what we know, what we have seen, and what we have experienced.” [Parker, 65] In particular, Parker is concerned with how we remember war, particularly with how we remember the effects of war on individuals, families, and communities long after the fighting has ceased. If we did a better job remembering, we would live differently here and now.

Parker also connects salvation to an act she calls salvaging. Salvaging involves creating an inventory of what is essential, important, and valuable. Sifting through all of the rubble of so many claims of what will bring us happiness, security, and transcendence and using our powers of discernment and wisdom to differentiate between false claims and true, between what is life-giving and what is life-damaging.

Finally, Parker suggests choosing and learning from guides. She stresses in particular learning from the words and deeds of those who have been historically marginalized. She informs us that they have discovered what it means to live after the apocalypse.

If I could summarize Parker’s ideas about salvation, I would probably turn to the poet Wendell Berry, and his poem, Wild Geese.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

If I’ve drifted too far away from theology and certain answers and precision, please excuse me. Salvation for us is not a matter of the right formula of words. It is not a matter of orthodox doctrine. Salvation, for us is also not a matter of one-liners, and dismissive witticisms found on bumper-stickers.

Consider salvation this way: Imagine that we are living after the apocalypse. We are called to live amidst the ruins, to live in the aftermath of all that has been torn and scarred and broken. Imagine living in that sort of world. And also this good news: what we need is here.

So, if someone asks you if you’re saved, go ahead and tell that person that we are all saved.

If someone asks you how you can be sure, tell that person that like Paul instructed, you have worked out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

And if that person tells you, “We’ll see about that when the rapture/apocalypse comes,” you can tell that person that it has already come, and what we need is here.