SERMON: Infinite Mercy: Universalism for Contemporary UUs

This is the first time (I think) I’ve posted a sermon here with a disclaimer, but it seems important. This is not meant to be definitive, but is written as the beginning of a conversation with a specific congregation about our Universalist heritage. I also began with an extemporaneous piece about not jettisoning our connections to Christianity and claiming a voice in the moral dialogue of this nation as an heir to liberal Christian thought. It will not be enough for some readers, and may push other readers’ buttons. That’s what sermons are for.

adapted from Kenneth Patton

Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips;
Let us love the world through heart and mind and body.
We feed our eyes upon the mystery and revelation in each other’s faces…
All life flows into a great common life, if we will only open our eyes to our companions.
Let us worship, not in bowing down, not with closed eyes and stopped ears,
Let us worship with the opening of all the windows of our beings,
With the full outstretching of our spirits…
Let us worship, and let us learn to love.

by Richard Gilbert

Universalism is a powerful word in our fragmented society with its culture wars, its ethnic and racial separation, its partisan bickering. In a world of increasing divisions, the Universalist impulse to include everyone in the human family is imperative.

This universalist impulse stands in prophetic judgment over divisions of class and speaks the religious word to those powers and principalities, public and private, which increase the gap between the haves and have-nots in our land and abroad.

It stands in judgment over those policies and policy makers who increase divisions of race in our land. It rebukes homophobia wherever it surfaces.
Its breadth of moral concern compels us to consider nature, not as a commodity to be used, but as a revered community in which we live and move and have our being. It enables us to take a God’s eye view of the world, in which all peoples are worthy of respect as children of God – children of Humanity. The planet is our parish.

In the time-worn, but still apt, words of poet Edwin Markham, as he left a New York City Universalist Church after worship:

“They drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.”


Just the other day, I was talking to a new colleague in town. He is a minister too, in a liberal Christian church. We were talking about our churches—both the physical buildings and the people in our congregations, when I made an off-hand comment that as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I couldn’t presume to speak for my congregation or their beliefs. He laughed and said, “You Unitarians believe everything and nothing.”

It saddens me that our reputation in the world as UUs is that we are a church where anything goes, a sort of “religion lite” where one gets to pick and choose beliefs that feel good and are easy. From the outside, Unitarian Universalism looks like a religion without substance—a bunch of people who believe everything and nothing. And that makes me sad. It makes me sad because I believe Unitarian Universalism, with its history of religious freedom, reason, and tolerance, is a thoughtful and challenging faith. I’d like for us to understand, claim, and proclaim to the world the depth of our vision and the powerful stories of our history. I’d like us to be known for what we really are: a community that is as dedicated to the search for truth and meaning as any I have ever known.

One of our weaknesses as a movement is that we often do not know our own history. Perhaps this is because we are so passionately caught up in our current vision, or perhaps it is because we are primarily a community of “come-outers”: people who have left another faith tradition to become UU. But whatever the reasons, if we do not know our history, we lose something of great value. We have a great treasure buried beneath our feet, but if we do not know it, it is worthless to us. We can do nothing with it while it is buried in the ground.

One of the treasures of our history is the Universalist “side of the family.” In Canada, when the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists were merging, they had a bit of trouble finding a new name. In frustration, their first moderator Bill Phipps, said in 1927, “You Universalists have squatted on the biggest word in the English language. Now the world is beginning to want that big word, and you Universalists must either improve the property or move off the premises.”

Universalism is indeed, the biggest word in the English language. Not in syllables or number of letters, but in the vastness of the concept and the size of the possibilities it contains. The heart of Universalism is infinite Love: Love so large that it contains all things, so infinite that it contains all that is finite. And though it is about Love, it is neither simple nor easy. Universalism demands a lot of us.

Let me first dig up a little of the historical treasure. Universalism grew up in the shadow of Calvinism. John Calvin, in the sixteenth Century, became one of the most powerful men in Europe by articulating old ideas in new ways. He took the theology of Augustine and wrapped it around the social and political movements of his time, challenging the Catholic Church and laying claim to a new religious orthodoxy. In Calvinism, like Catholicism, every person was born sinful. But in Calvinism, God had already decided who would be saved from their sin and who would not.

“The elect” as those who would be saved were called, would be known by—surprise—two things that John Calvin himself had plenty of—piety and power. One could do nothing to change one’s lot, and could only accept that those who were more pious and powerful than you were in that position by virtue of God’s favor. If you hoped to join them, your only chance was to work as hard as you could and devote yourself to the church. If God had preordained it to be so, you might prove that you too were destined for salvation.

The Calvinist message was not only the law of the church, but the law of the land. To contradict it was to risk not only one’s soul, but one’s life. John Calvin was responsible for the pyre in which Michael Servetus, a Unitarian, was burned alive for heresy. It is not hard to understand why Calvinism was not often challenged.

Still, there were always those who were troubled by Calvinist theology. Here and there we glimpse a few who believed and quietly preached something that came to be called universalism. In the 18th century, some of these thinkers braved the long hard voyage to “The New World.” George de Benneville crossed the ocean “for reasons of health”—that is, to avoid the guillotine.

In this “new” land, there was room for a new theology to grow up. De Benneville, John Murray, Elhanan Winchester, and others began preaching a new faith: one that asserted that God was pure love, and as such, would not and could not condemn his children to eternal torment. John Murray, who gathered around him the first Universalist congregation, sent preachers up and down the Eastern seaboard with this message:

Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only 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. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Of course, this message of infinite mercy infuriated the Calvinists. They argued that with no fear of hell to motivate them, people would simply give in to their sinful nature. Joseph Priestley, who is best known for his discovery of oxygen, was both a unitarian and a universalist. When this became known, the townspeople in the English town where he lived became so angry they descended on his home and laboratory, burning it to the ground and forcing him to flee. He too, fled to America, where he began to preach and gather congregations together.

There was no shortage of people who responded to this new message of love and hope. Contrary to the Calvinists’ fear, these new Universalists did not give into sin and lead lives of depravity. Instead, they began to form congregations and began to call for social reform and justice.

It was Hosea Ballou who came to be called the father of Universalism, who pointed out by teaching that sin is attractive and only threats keep people on the moral path, orthodoxy could never imagine and certainly never realize heaven on earth. Ballou preached that rather than teaching children that bad behavior is fun, we should teach children the truth: acts of meanness and violence make our own lives miserable, not in hell but here on earth! Happiness comes from living lives of love, cooperation, trust and kindness.

Hosea Ballou and the Universalists that followed him dared to trust love more than punishment. Ballou’s theology was based on the Bible, but it was also based on his experience of knowing his own father’s love and the love he had for his own children. Seeing this human love, he could not bring himself to believe that a God of Love could be so cruel as to condemn his own children to everlasting suffering. Instead, he believed that God had given us the task of beginning to create paradise, right here and now, in the image of the divine Love that holds us all. Early Universalists championed public education, fought slavery, and worked for humane treatment of all people, including the imprisoned and insane. This was, they believed, what a God of Love called them to do.

This is the rich history of early Universalism. This new message was so compelling that the denomination grew quickly. In 1896 there were 811 Universalist churches with about 65,000 members. At one time, Universalism was the third largest denomination in America. But it did not last. Why? Ironically, it was because the message of Universalism was so widely accepted. The message of a loving God became the mainstream message of American Protestantism. Universalism was no longer unique, and its message of building heaven on earth demanded more of people than other denominations. Slowly, the number of Universalists began to decline.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, a new kind of universalism emerged. Clarence Skinner, Clinton Lee Scott, and Kenneth Patton began to enlarge the meaning of Universalism. They envisioned a universalism that was even larger than Christianity, but embraced the whole human race. After all, if God treasured all people equally, shouldn’t we?
Skinner articulated it this way:

Humanity must enlarge the borders of consciousness to include the entire human race….The hope for peace on earth depends upon our outgrowing of smaller attachments; our religion must take the form of a larger loyalty. The religion of greatness gives us the intellectual courage to face reality, whatever it may be. There is no middle way. It is greatness — universalism or perish.

Clinton Lee Scott put it even more poetically:

A vast encompassing universalism has ever been the condition of the world. We see and sense its segments, but the wholeness is too large for our small minds. Like the pioneers, who, confronted with the immense wilderness, cleared a meager plot for a homestead, so we fence in only as much of life as fits our powers.

Tribe and family, nation and neighborhood, political party and denomination, and every other unit is but a fragment of the whole. Earth and sky, continents and seas, plants and animals, gods and persons, mind and matter, what are these but the related parts of life that embraces all? Beyond the orbit in which we move is the pulsating, ever-changing universe. Individually we grow with the growing awareness of our relatedness to all that is.

Kenneth Patton built the Charles Street Meeting House, a Universalist community that met in rooms painted with images of stars and galaxies and displaying brass symbols of world religions. The “universe” in “Universalism” had expanded beyond the theological concept of universal salvation to embrace the wonder of the universe and all the forms of human wisdom. Contemporary Universalism is the belief in the wholeness of the universe. It is the belief that all human beings and every living being is connected in a sacred and indivisible unity. It is the belief that our salvation as a people and a planet can come about only through love put into action.

This love demands that categories of race, gender, class, ability, age, and religion no longer be used to deny anyone their place in the human community. This love calls us not to wait for a far-off heaven, but to take responsibility for building as much heaven as we can here on earth. This love calls us to look on a world of suffering and injustice and still cling to our faith that it need not be that way. It calls us to put our faith into action by working to bring peace, joy, and justice to everyone.

This is the treasure of our history and the substance of our faith. We are not a religion that believes nothing and everything, but a religion that believes in universal human community, where every person is valued and deserves to be saved. In the simplest terms, our Unitarian Universalist faith is a radical belief that all are loved, that there is an human impulse to journey toward the good, and that everyone can make a difference.

May it be so. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

adapted from Jenifer Schnayer

Some might say that it is so easy to say: “let us just love one another.” But the kind of love I am talking about is not an easy love. And the Great Love I speak of is Love that comes in spite of betrayal, Love in spite of hatred, Love in spite of cruelty. It is the kind of Love that possesses the ability to forgive endlessly. It is the kind of Love that enacts justice. It is hard work. Great Love is the Love that can return us to wholeness — it is a love far greater than any love one of us might be able to demonstrate individually. But we can demonstrate it in bits. We can bring our love to the web to weave together those torn pieces and do our part to honor [and build] the oneness of creation.


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