First Snow 2007

First Snow 2007

Published in: on 29 January 2007 at 1.16  Leave a Comment  

Get Your Salvation Here!

13 December 2007
Arlington Street Church
Mr. Barb Greve

SERMON:
Salvation is one of the big thea/olgoical topics that all too often we shy away from. We Unitarian Universalists tend to ignore the topic or over-intellectualize it. We poke fun at faiths that provide a solid salvific message to their followers, forgetting that we too have one. Particularly here in the United States of America, where Christianity (and more to the point, a fundamentalist and sometimes literal understanding of Christianity) concretely defines concepts like salvation; rather than engage in the conversation of what we believe we avoid the topic altogether.

But now is the time for us to turn around and face our trespasses. Now is the time to understand our historical concepts of salvation and to offer up to the world a new understanding. Now is the time to be saved – to get your salvation here!

As the Reverend Dr. Rebecca Parker writes, “You can define salvation, healing and wholeness in many ways. But you cannot hold to the view that there will be an ultimate separation of the saved from the damned in which the good are rewarded with eternal bliss and the damned are punished with eternal suffering. Unitarian Universalism is clear that all souls are of worth. There is no final solution to be had by the privileged protection of some and the destruction of others. We hold that salvation is universal.”(1)

I imagine that religious life centuries ago must have been easier than it is in today’s world. For our present day faith is not an easy one to practice. In the “good ‘ole days” The Church provided members with clear do’s and don’ts, explained what behaviors were acceptable and what ones were not. People could judge their actions by knowing what would get them into Heaven, what would put them in Purgatory, and what would land them in Hell.

But our understanding of Salvation has changed over the years. We no longer focus on what comes after life, but rather what is happening here and now. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it’s being in the process and on the right road.” We recognize that to be saved today means to be living in harmony with the divine. To celebrate the pluralism of the world. To be making spaces for all life to flourish, to putting an end to unnecessary violence, death, and destruction. To recognizing our impact on the planet and doing what we can to minimize that impact so that others may live. To be saved today is to recognize the pains of the world, hold them in our hearts, and make changes. To be saved today is to celebrate the complexity of life, for all that it is, and constantly be making room for more complexity.

Our faith is not an easy one to practice because it demands of us that we be in constant awareness and dialogue with the present world. Our faith does not give us the luxury of sitting on our haunches while other lives are snuffed out. Our faith challenges us to not expect all to be alike, but rather encourages us to celebrate the wide diversity naturally found in life. It forces us to question again and again the roles we play in life; never choosing a better life after death over the present. Our faith constantly reminds us that salvation happens now, not later.

I sometimes fantasize about living back in the “good ‘ole days.” I think I might have been one of the folks who stood on the street corners shouting “Get Your Salvation Here!” I can imagine the reactions of the people passing by – some would stop to find out what else I might have to offer, some would rush to the other side of the street, and yet others might pause to refute me.

I wonder how the same scenario would play out today. I can imagine standing on the steps of our church (preferably after the T construction is completed) and yelling “Come One, Come All – Get Your Salvation Here!” I wonder if anyone would stop by to listen to me or if everyone would quicken their pace, scurrying to the other side of the street. We don’t often experience proclamations of faith and salvation in today’s world – at least not from religions such as ours, liberal religions. But I would love to do it. I would love to stand out there and share the saving message of Unitarian Universalism.

I can look back on my life and know with certainty that the single, utmost saving grace in my life comes from my internalized sense of worth and goodness that is a direct result of being raised within Unitarian Universalism. The thea/ology I was taught as a small child, along with encouragement to always live out my thea/ology has given me a faith to sustain me, “in the hour when my reason tells [me] that [I] can not continue, that the whole of [my] life is without meaning.”(2) It has been the saving message of Unitarian Universalism that has saved mine and others’ lives time and time again.

But there are some people within Unitarian Universalism who claim that we are a dying faith because we don’t offer salvation; that we don’t provide a salvific story… As the Reverend Davidson Lohr claims, our tradition does not have an “understanding of the human condition, its malaise, and its prescription for satisfying the deep yearning that has always marked serious religions, and its sense of how and why living out of this story makes our lives more fulfilling and useful to the larger world.”(3)

I would argue that Lohr is wrong. Historically, our Universalist forbearers offered a Universal salvation – a salvation for all. Regardless of faith, practice, and life lived. They left the how up to G*d but they believed and proclaimed that all souls would be saved. At the time, and even still to this day, that is a radical proclamation. All souls will be saved – not some, not a chosen few, but ALL souls. As the Rev. Robert Hardies, senior minister at All Souls Church in Washington D.C., points out, you don’t often see a church called ‘Some Souls’.

The Reverend Sean Parker Dennison writes, “Our Universalist theology makes it impossible for us to treat some human beings as expendable evildoers. It makes it impossible for us to justify violence as a means to salvation. Instead, we are urged to creativity, healing, love, and justice. We are called to repair the world, to be part of our own soteriology—continually acting in ways that will save ourselves and the world.”(4)

Lohr claims that we Unitarian Universalists have “no distinctive understanding of the human condition, its problems, or the solution…” I would argue that we have a deep understanding of these three, for otherwise we would not be involved in efforts to change the world. I believe it is because we are a covenantal faith, which holds living in community essential, that we have a broader understanding of the human condition that that with which Lohr credits us. Our churches and communities constantly struggle with how best to live in community when there are competing needs and desires. We listen to, learn from, and trust one another’s life experiences so that we can work together to make a better world; to bring Paradise into existence here and now.

“Many Unitarian Universalists question the very need to be saved. “Saved from what?” they ask. Our Universalist forbears have an answer for this that continues to be relevant: We create heaven or hell right here on earth. We need to be saved from ourselves, and the hells that we create. Looking at the current state of the world, it is hard to disagree.”(5)

During my years working in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns I heard countless stories from people about how finding our churches saved their lives. For may queer folks, the religion of their childhoods guaranteed that if they continued to be queer they would be barred entrance to paradise. Finding Unitarian Universalism offered these individuals an opportunity to no longer fear for their souls, to enjoy religious life and hold on to an integrity of self not otherwise available.

My childhood minister, the Rev. Charles Gaines offers us this insight. He writes, “I learned from my years in ministry comes from my own Universalist theology. It concerns the idea that a loving God does not condemn anyone to eternal damnation. And when I apply this concept here on earth, I feel it is my responsibility to work for inclusion in all contexts.”

He continues, “I have always felt that ostracism of any kind is a hell on earth, imposed by those who have power to control through their own sense of superiority. Yet I believe that every person, no matter how evil, has the seed of goodness within. And no person, because of [hir] past, must forever be alienated from the trust and goodwill of the community.”(6)

Historically, religions have been used to create and reinforce the very boxes that limit a person’s possibility. I believe that at its core, any and all religion can (and should) be used to provide a wealth of possibility for becoming.

Christina K. Hutchins writes,
The space of becoming resides in the instability and incompleteness of the categories we live by, always shrinking or expanding according to the ways in which we iterate and articulate our becomings. The expansion of public space for the discourse of becoming carries significance for and beyond the political. In the language of religious institutions, such expansion embodies the motion of the holy.(7)

To depict the holy as something in motion and not as a fixed entity is of importance in this discourse. Process theology lends itself nicely to this piece of the conversation, providing room for the holy to exist as events constantly in motion, with infinite possibilities yet to become. When considered as such, divinity can then be found in the differences between people rather than within the sameness.

Such a concept begins to challenge our very understanding of Imago Dei. That is to say that if our image of God shifts from a static image to a dynamic image, one that is always becoming, than I believe we can begin to embrace difference as part of the holiness of life rather than view difference as a threat to life and/or what is considered “sacred.”

The biological, physical, and metaphysical world teaches us that life is pluralistic. From micro-organisms through to the stars and beyond, difference is in abundance. The boundaries that separate these differences are porous, not closed. Yet we mere humans continue to attempt to treat the differences between us as threats to fixed boundaries rather than as examples of the holy.

One of the greatest strengths our faith offers us is an image of life that is in motion and pluralistic. Through our focus on community and covenant, we learn that the holy takes place in our connections to one another. We are constantly reminded that we need not think alike to love alike. Nor do we need to become a uniform body of people; looking, and acting the same. Through our willingness to embrace a diversity of thought and action, we provide spaces for life to flourish. Always making room for that which we have yet to discover.

Howard Thurman, in his book Building Common Ground stated “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”(8) I believe that until we humans are ready to embrace the pluralism of all life, this task is not possible and we will continue to build hells on earth rather than paradise.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” I would add that the burden of imagination is put on those individuals who transgress the boundaries because these boundary crossers are already in the uncomfortable role of bringing the unimagined into being. In order to both survive and thrive, a new world must be imagined and in this new world, a new understanding of religion must be brought into existence.

As Beverly Harrison writes in her article, The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,
“One sort of otherworldly religion appears…It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppression here and now.”(9)

The Unitarian Universalist faith in which I was raised and whose thea/ologies I ascribe to teaches that all things in this life are connected, not just to each other but also to what was, what is, what is becoming, and what could have been. It teaches us that the interconnectedness of all life is what is core to salvation. When we recognize and celebrate our connections to one another and to what is holy we create paradise here and now. When we forget these connections, we create our own hells.

In closing, I offer these words from the Reverend Dr. Rebecca Parker, “…you can see this world as tragically flawed, wondrously gifted, or all of the above, but you cannot hold the view that salvation is to be found solely beyond this world – in some life after death or a world other than this world. While remaining open to mysteries that may be revealed beyond the grave or in realms beyond what we know at present, UUsm is clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within this limited frame of our mortal existence. This means we do not hold to a hope that is only attained in the sweet by and by. We hold that this world, this life, these bodies are the dwelling place of the sacred.

Within these theological boundaries there is room for tremendous variety, diversity, and dissent. But there is also a defining focus: a devotion to the flourishing of life.”(10)

May it be so.
Amin. Ashé. Blessed Be.

Endnotes:

1) Parker, Rebecca, Keep the Circle Whole: The Challenge of Unitarian Universalist Theology, Pacific Central District Annual Conference (UU), Concord, 29 April 2006.

2) Babylon 5, Episode no. 422, first broadcast 27 October 1997. Directed by Stephen Furst and written by J. Michael Straczynski (Although this episode is part of the fifth-season production run, it’s actually the fourth-season finale. The fifth-season finale, “Sleeping in Light,” was shot during the fourth-season production run because it wasn’t clear that the show was being renewed; once the renewal was announced, another episode had to be substituted. For some reason the onscreen credits at the end of the episode don’t reflect that; they list a production number of 422 rather than the more accurate 501.)

3) Loehr, Davidson. Why “Unitarian Universalism” is Dying, Theme Talk at SUUSI, 21 July 2004.

4) Dennison, Sean Parker. Our Theological House, South Valley Unitarian Universalist Church; Salt Lake City, UT, 17 September 2006.

5) ibid.

6) Owen-Towel, Tom. The Gospel of Universalism: Hope, Courage, and the Love of God. (Boston: Skinner House Books 1993) 25.

7) Keller, Catherine and Anne Daniell, editors, Process and difference: between cosmological and poststructuralist postmodernisms (Albany: State University of New York Press 2002) 132.

8) Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground. (Richmond: Friends United Press 1971), xiii.

9) Harrison, Beverly Wildung, Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press 1985) 6.

10) Parker, Rebecca, Keep the Circle Whole: The Challenge of Unitarian Universalist Theology, Pacific Central District Annual Conference (UU), Concord, 29 April 2006.

Published in: on 14 January 2007 at 20.19  Comments (1)