Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon: "Salvation: Liberal Religion Saves Lives" (Delivered 11-18-12)


This morning is our fourth Sunday in our new church home, and it is the fourth and final service in a series on what I’ve called four foundations of liberal religion.  We began by taking a look at what it means to be radically welcoming.  Next we explored how we are a tradition that does not unite around a set of shared beliefs but instead around shared commitments about how we want to be together, an idea captured in the saying “We need not think alike to love alike.”  Then, last Sunday, we explored how liberal religion demands that we follow our own conscience rather than accept a set of external rules.  This morning I want to spend a few moments talking about salvation and what liberal religion has to say about it.

Salvation is a word that you don’t hear that often in liberal religious communities.  It is an idea that we’ve pulled away from, perhaps because we’ve come to associate it with more forward and assertive forms of conservative religion.  Has someone ever come right out and asked you if you are saved?  The question may have come from a co-worker or a classmate or perhaps even a relative.  The question, as it is phrased, does not invite discussion or the sharing of understandings of faith and life.  No, the question is asked in a way that draws an absolute distinction between black and white, yes and no, sheep and goats, heaven or hell.  Religion should not be rendered into binary code.  Or, maybe you were asked if you are saved by a stranger on the street corner trying to hand you a tract, and as you walked by you thought to yourself, “I do not want whatever this guy is selling.”

Historically, as the reading by Forrest Church told us, the Universalist side of our tradition boldly declared that hell does not exist.  The Universalists believed that God was too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too decent, too humane, too generous and too profligate – in a word, too liberal – to condemn anyone to eternal torment and suffering.  The early Universalists supported this position through their interpretation of scripture and also through moral reasoning.  It was repulsive, they believed, to imagine God as a tyrant or a torturer or a terrorist.  Surely, any God worth worshipping would not manifest the same characteristics as the world’s worst genocidal maniacs.  It is problematic if your idea of God is a being who deserves to be brought up on charges for crimes against humanity.

As the world became modern, the old ideas about salvation being reserved for those with the right beliefs no longer fit with emerging ideas about a global community.  Colonialism, we should remember, was undergirded and rationalized by the arrogant notion that the colonial powers were actually helping the people they colonized.  We’re doing them a favor, they told themselves.  We’re saving them from themselves and from God’s eternal judgment.  Now, in a diverse world made smaller by globalization and in an ever increasingly multi-cultural America, the idea that salvation is limited to right-believing Christians is a scandal and an embarrassment.  It is an idea that is inadequate to life in the modern world.

It is a humorous irony that Unitarian Universalism is named after two doctrines that are no longer commonly held by the members of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Unitarianism is the doctrine of the oneness, the unity, of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity that holds that the godhead consists of three distinct expressions of God.  In reality, the early Unitarians did not have much of a stomach for metaphysical debates about the nature of the godhead.  Rather, they were inspired by Jesus’ life, and teachings, and ministry much more than by the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Jesus that spoke to them was the human Jesus and over time the importance of believing Jesus to be God diminished.  Nowadays, we might joke that Unitarians believe in only one God or fewer.

On the Universalist side, Universalism is named for the doctrine of universal salvation that holds that God is too loving and merciful to condemn anyone to hell.  However, nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a single Unitarian Universalist church that spends any significant amount of time talking about the afterlife or heaven.  A few days before his death, Henry David Thoreau’s friend asked him if he had any ideas about life after death.  Thoreau’s response was to say, “One world at a time.”

“One world at a time” is probably how most of us tend to see things.  Forrest Church puts it like this, “No experience of being, unknown to us and probably unknowable, that has taken place before this life or will take place after it, could possibly be more remarkable, more wonderful, or stranger than this life we share today.  Life is a miracle couched between mysteries.  It is a miracle incarnate, not a given, but a gift, an unaccountable gift.  When we take life for granted, or beg for something more, we do it violence.”

The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way,

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.

The early Universalists believed that every single person would be saved, but today Unitarian Universalists tend to spend extremely little time worrying about any world other than the one on which we live.  So, what does salvation mean to us today?  Can we in any sense speak about salvation today?

I believe that we can and that we should.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this life in the here and now, rather than being saved for some future paradise.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this world, this miracle couched between mysteries.  In fact, we should remember that Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven were more this-worldly than other-worldly, more immediate than distant.

It makes sense to talk about salvation because liberal religion saves lives.  It saves lives quantitatively and qualitatively.  This is to say that liberal religion can make a difference in helping people not to die unnecessarily and that it can make a difference in helping people to live better lives.  One pair of heroes from our tradition was Waitstill and Martha Sharp.  Waitstill served as the minister of a Unitarian church in Massachusetts during the 1930s but with the rise of Nazi Germany he and his wife left two small children in the United States and traveled to Europe to help with humanitarian relief efforts.  First in Czechoslovakia and later in Portugal, the Sharps helped hundreds of Jews receive safe passage away from the German occupation.  They saved hundreds of lives.

Another heroic moment for many of our congregations occurred in the 1980s when Unitarian Universalist churches joined forces with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and others to form the Sanctuary Movement.  The Sanctuary Movement was formed as a response to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central American nations like Guatemala and El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States because of civil war in their home countries.  These civil wars resulted in massacres of entire villages, people being disappeared by the tens of thousands, and the widespread use of torture on the population.  The US government played an enormous role in training and arming those who carried out these human rights abuses.  As part of the sanctuary movement, congregations – in direct violation of US law – housed refugees from Central America.  As many of these asylum seekers were killed upon being returned to their home countries, the sanctuary movement literally saved lives.

It is impossible however to say exactly how many lives liberal religion has saved.  One of my mentors in ministry, former Unitarian Universalist Association president John Buehrens, was known to say, “On any given Sunday you never know who has slipped through the doors determined to give church or life one more chance.”  How many youth find in our youth groups a place of safety and acceptance rather than the bullying of their schools?  How many lives has liberal religion saved?  How many people have found in our communities a place of warmth and connection that has made all the difference by lessening the despair of aloneness and isolation?

When we speak about salvation, though, it is important to note that we are not only speaking about lives that are literally saved – the literal difference between life and death – but that we are also speaking in a qualitative sense – the difference between living life in all its fullness or squandering the gift of life.  The salvation that we often need, writes Forrest Church, is “not from others, but from ourselves.  Saved from self-absorption, self-pity, self-hatred.  Saved from self-righteousness.  Saved from unwarranted displays of conspicuous piety.  Saved by love.”

I remember the first sermon I ever preached.  It was thirteen years ago and during the sermon I quoted Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the receiving line after the service I was approached by a woman in the congregation who snarled at me, “How dare you tell me to love my neighbor?  You don’t know my neighbor.  I hate my neighbor and you can’t tell me not to.”

You don’t have to believe in eternal damnation to know that there are some souls that are just lost.  You’ve probably met a lost soul, a person lost to anger, lost to fear, lost to hate, lost to cynicism or despair or negativity.  And if salvation is understood as this-worldly, not as saving us for the afterlife but as saving us for this life, then we know what a shame it is to waste the gift of this life.

The hell that we need to be saved from is not any hell that exists in the afterlife, but the hell that we make for ourselves on this earth.  It is the hell of warfare, oppression, poverty, and hunger.  It is also the hell of anger, fear, hatred, and indifference.  It is a hell of human making, but it is also one that we can overcome.  We can be saved for this life.  What we need is here.  One world at a time.