Hope; Not Hell

This sermon celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.

Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.

So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.

This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.

All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?

We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.

The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.

I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.

So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.

Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?

What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?

The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.

Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.

As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.

We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.

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