Monday, March 28, 2011

Sermon: "Universalism: Free to a Good Home" (Delivered 3-27-11)

A few years ago I attended a lecture at William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri. The speaker was Brian McLaren, a minister, author, leader, and theologian. McLaren is considered the grandfather of a movement within Evangelical Christianity that he helped to birth. The movement is called “Emergent” or “The Emerging Church” and it is a movement that is both fascinating and has been widely criticized by conservative Christians as unorthodox and heretical and dangerous.

In addition to one curious Unitarian Universalist minister and number of college students who were clearly there for no other reason than to receive credit, the audience that evening consisted of dozens of members of local Emergent style churches as well as dozens of orthodox Evangelical Christians who came to witness to McLaren’s heresy and see if they could catch him in the act of unbiblical teaching. These Evangelicals glared at him throughout the lecture and used the question and answer time (literally!) to shake their Bibles at him and scream Bible verses at him.

After the lecture I approached McLaren and asked him to sign his newest book for me. I told him I was a UU minister. “Ah, yes,” he replied, “The Unitarians are always so kind to me.”

The reading comes from a chapter in McLaren’s newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, which came out in 2010. The paragraph I’ve selected comes from his chapter entitled, “Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?” In this chapter, McLaren argues that all beliefs about the afterlife are intimately related to how we imagine and envision the future. He writes,
Whatever the final judgment will be, then, it will not involve God (please pardon the crudeness of this) pulling down our pants to check for circumcision or scanning our brains for certain beliefs like products being scanned at the grocery checkout. No, God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christlikeness – for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful, for a visit to a prisoner or an open door and warm bed for a stranger, for a generous impulse indulged and a hurtful one denied, like Jesus. These are the parts of a person’s life that will be deemed worthy of being saved, remembered, rewarded, and raised for a new beginning.

[Musical Interlude]

My phone rang. I picked it up and it was my friend who had just been watching television. She had seen a commercial for a church. The commercial had announced, “At our church our hearts are open, our minds are open, and our doors are open.” She had heard this hook with its refrain of open hearts, open minds, and open doors and she had remarked to herself that it was a great thing that the Unitarian Universalists were advertising on television. But then the end of the commercial came and she saw it was a commercial for the United Methodist Church. “Thom, I’m calling to let you know that they’re stealing your message.”

A few years ago the United Church of Christ put out a series of commercials. One commercial showed the sanctuary of a gorgeous traditional-looking church building. The pews had been rigged with ejection seats and an usher stood off in the corner. He pushed a button and the gay couple gets ejected. Then the single mom gets ejected. Then the homeless person. Then the racial minority. The commercial’s tag line: “Jesus didn’t reject anyone. Neither do we. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

My point here is about what I felt when I saw that advertisement that proclaimed “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” When I saw that advertisement I thought for a second, “Hey, that’s our message. We’re the ones who talk about acceptance and every person having inherent worth and dignity. Don’t steal our message.” It was a selfish thought to think. Is it not a victory for us when others adopt a position of respect for all and inclusion of all, when hearts and minds and doors other than ours grow increasingly open? This loving approach, is it for us to keep for ourselves? Is it not for us to share? A loving God is always free to a good home.

This morning I want to discuss a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage and identity that has been taking root outside of our institutions and that has been attracting a great deal of attention as of late. Over the past several years, several well-known Christian leaders have independently realized that they were Christian universalists. That is to say that they view the world through a Christian framework, but they reject the idea that God condemns people to Hell. Theologically, these new Christian universalists have come to embrace a position analogous to the theological beliefs held two centuries ago or more by our Universalist ancestors like John Murray, Hosea Ballou, and George de Benneville.

Many of you probably know the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson. I told his story in a sermon a few years ago. You may have heard his story told on a special episode of This American Life that devoted a full hour to him. Carlton Pearson was a Pentecostal mega-church minister in Tulsa who went through a theological transformation and rejected the idea that God would condemn anyone to Hell. Most of his flock left him after he began to preach these ideas. He lost his congregation but he stuck by his convictions.

Or, you may have heard the story of Philip Gulley. I told the story of Gulley in a sermon I delivered in 2009. Gulley was a Quaker pastor who co-authored two books of liberal Christian theology entitled, If God is Love and If Grace is True. He was threatened with having his credentials as a Quaker pastor stripped for preaching a universalist message and for preaching acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Or, you may have heard the story of Rob Bell. That is the story I am going to tell this morning. Rob Bell is the founding minister of the ten-thousand member Mars Hill Bible Fellowship in Grandville, Michigan. Rob Bell recently made headlines when critics accused him of being a universalist. The same charges of heresy and false prophecy that were lobbed against Carlton Pearson, Philip Gulley, and Brian McLaren were also hurled at Bell, all the more forcefully because the release of Bell’s book ten days ago was an event. The controversy around this book prompted invitations for Bell to appear and defend himself on all the major networks. He even appeared on Good Morning America. I don’t watch this program, but I’m not under the impression that Good Morning America devotes a lot of time to theological inquiry.

Bell tells the following story which prompted him to write the book. He begins,
Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings of peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
Bell continues,
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
Another story the author tells amplifies this point,
Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.”
Which prompts Bell to ask,
No hope? Is that the Christian message? “No hope”? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians – to announce that there’s no hope?
Bell’s book, Love Wins, is the work of a fiercely committed Christian who is unafraid of asking hard questions about his own tradition. He does not avoid taking on the fact that the message that is so often equated with Christian orthodoxy seems to present a God who is, to put it kindly, a bit schizophrenic. Bell writes of this message,
[We’re told that] God loves us. [We’re told that] God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless [of course] you do not respond the right way. Then [we’re told that] God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?
In this book that came out ten days ago, Love Wins, Rob Bell sides powerfully with that side of the Christian story that is love-filled and hope-filled. He declares that it is contrary to the Christian message to declare that salvation is impossible for anyone. And he says that casting judgment is misguided and toxic.

Now, I’m not telling you to go out and buy Love Wins. I’m not telling you that you should read it. You might not enjoy it. The book is heavy, heavy on Christianity. And, most of us, I’m going to guess, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the afterlife. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the fate of our immortal soul. And, we definitely don’t live in fear of hell. Simply put, the issues that deeply concerned our Universalist Christian forebears some two centuries ago, the issues that Rob Bell and Carlton Pearson tackle in their writings, are not the types of issues that we spend a lot of psychic energy wrestling with. Am I right here? Are you tracking? I’m saying that you, you here in this congregation, probably didn’t wake up and come to church and think, “I’m hoping Thom will tell me about the afterlife.”

Just so nobody here can accuse me of ducking the issue, here is my theology of the afterlife in one sentence:
I do not know what will become of me after I die, but I am completely confident that if, by some mystery, my conscious self or some eternal soul should continue after my body dies, that what will come next, whatever it is, will be gentle, and kind, and peaceful.
I am an agnostic on this issue, but I am an extremely confident agnostic. For me it is that simple and I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it.

And, if I said that in almost any other denomination I would get tossed to the curb, just as a Methodist minister in North Carolina got tossed to the curb earlier this week for saying positive things about Rob Bell.

So, if Rob Bell’s theology is not ours really, if this hasn’t been our issue for 200 years, why should we care? What skin could we possibly have in this game?

I think we should care for two reasons.

The first reason we should care is that the idea that love wins is contagious. The critics of Rob Bell aren’t going to like this, but when you embrace the idea of God’s love, your own love magnifies. Love is like the opposite of a slippery slope. As love grows it does not take us off a cliff. It takes us to the mountain top.

How many of you have read Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement? It is the most important early work in Universalist theology. Written is 1805, this book is long and dry. I tried to read it and couldn’t get through it, and I’m such a nerd for this stuff. But, it is foundational. In this theological work, Ballou discovered a God who, to paraphrase Brian McLaren, does not punish but reconciles; who does not diagnose, but heals; who does not expose but transforms; and who does not evaluate, but revalues and redeems. [p. 204] When you view God in this way it opens us up to move in all of the wonderful directions that our theology allows us to move. Case in point: the reading from Brian McLaren’s book I mentioned earlier, the reading from the chapter about finding a better way of viewing the future. The very next chapter in McLaren’s book deals with the question of how Christians should relate to non-Christians. Predictably, McLaren takes a position that demonstrates an open mind and an open heart. Crudely put, when you stop worrying that you are going to go to hell for being in mutual relationship with someone of a different faith and when you stop labeling them as damned, you’re able to be in relationship. We take the “no hell” part for granted, and for that reason we can engage in powerful interfaith work and value pluralism. And, that is important to us. And we can do that because we’ve worked out the judgment stuff. When love wins, love has a tendency to keep on winning.

I am tempted to say that the second reason that we should care about this Love Wins book is that if there is a public discourse going on about Universalism, we definitely want to be a part of that conversation. We have something to add. We have a personal testimony to give. We should be the ones going on Good Morning America and talking about what Universalism means. But I want to put aside those delusions of grandeur and take a much more modest approach. I want to go back to the very beginning when I talked about my conversation with Brian McLaren. “You Unitarians are always so kind.” That was a blessing that he spoke. And, it was a charge.

You see, Brian McLaren had just stood up there in front of his Christian family and spoken a message that I found profound and beautiful. And, members of his Christian family had shaken their Bibles at him, and literally screamed at him with foam gathering in the corners of their mouths. In their Biblical literalism they thought that their Christian faith demanded that they curse him. Matthew 23:33, they quoted, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of Hell?” The scene was ugly and tragic.

So, when McLaren told me, “You Unitarians are always so kind to me,” he was not pandering to someone who bought his book. He was saying that his heart was hurt by seeing members of his Christian family act with such hostility. Just as Rob Bell was hurt that a member of his church would feel inclined to deface someone’s art. Just as Rob Bell was hurt that a Christian would take the tragedy of a fatal car accident, or the tragedy of a Tsunami, as an opportunity to pronounce judgment on someone else.

Maybe it is our role in the wide world of religion, the wide world of humanity, to be the ones who practice kindness. Inclusive. Accepting. Forgiving. Kind. Open minds. Open hearts. Open doors. Being the ones who practice gentleness is not a bad way to be.