Monday, April 26, 2010

sermon - The Challenge of Universalism

The Challenge of Universalism

It always fascinates me that many people, probably most people don’t know what the words Unitarianism and Universalism mean. Obviously we are a free-thinking religious tradition that is open to all sorts of insights. But in a theological sense, those two words, Unitarian and Universalist mean something very specific. Today I want to talk about Universalism, both what it means on paper, and what it means in our lives.

Historically, Universalism was all about salvation. In the Christian tradition that we grew out of, the central conversation was about how to get to heaven, and who would achieve that goal. And of course the converse was also a hot topic as it is today. Who would end up in Hell and how would they get there.

But Universalism came along and short-circuited that entire conversation. It has been a thread throughout Christian history but didn’t really become a major movement until the 1700s in America. These early Universalists believed that if God would save anyone, then he would save everyone. He wouldn’t arbitrarily choose some and not others for eternal bliss, or eternal punishment. That sort of arbitrary punishment is, well sadistic. If God would save some people, then clearly he would save everyone. What a liberating message. Rather than speculating who God would save and who he wouldn’t, Universalists were able to focus on how they should treat one another. And rather than living in horrible fear of a maniacal punisher, they could enjoy the world around them and respond to the divine with joy, rather than fear.

Well that Universalism of our history is fascinating and could be a sermon in itself. But Universalism took a massive and amazing shift. It’s this shift that is largely responsible for who we are as a tradition today. You see, people began to realize, well if a loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to Hell, and people believe an array of different things about God, well, maybe all those people, with all those different beliefs are all on to something. Maybe, we should encourage people to deepen their own faith, and their own understanding of the divine because it is valuable insight.

That transition, from Christian Universalism, the idea that a loving God wouldn’t arbitrarily condemn people to Hell, to the idea that a variety of religious belief helps us to build a larger and more comprehensive concept of the divine as we gather in community, well it’s that shift that makes our church what it is today.

It’s sort of like familiar with the proverb of the blind men who come in contact with an elephant. Each person feeling a different thing understands the elephant to be something different. The one who reaches out and touches the elephant’s leg thinks that it is a tree. The one who feels the elephants long muscular trunk thinks it is a snake, and the man who reaches out and grabs the tail, well he thinks he’s found a rope.
And so it is with our church. Each one of us has occasion to reach out and feel the world around us. Each one of us has the opportunity, and the responsibility to engage this amazing universe we live in, and to feel for ourselves what it has to offer. And then, when we come together, not only do we have a better picture of what the whole might be, we can sit together in wonder and this amazing and confusing thing that we feel, but may not have exactly the right words to explain.

So Universalism first was about universal salvation, and then eventually came to be about universal insight into the nature of reality. Each of us has access to a bit of that picture. Well, the next implication is equally important. If each of us has a piece of insight into that bigger picture, then that bigger picture must be well, really big, and connected.

My favorite image to describe this interconnected bigger picture is not the elephant. In fact it’s much bigger than the elephant. It is Indra’s net. In Hindu and some Buddhist traditions, it is explained that
When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true—every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy—is a pearl in Indra's net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearly by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other pearl on the net. Everything that exists in Indra's web implies all else that exists.

And so it is with Universalism. From the top, a loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to Hell. We must be Universally saved. We humans have limit but uniquely true insight into the larger nature of reality. And finally, that bigger picture that we celebrate in awe and wonder is an interconnected web of all existence, of which we are a part.

SO that’s what Universalism means on paper, but what does it mean for our lives. If theology doesn’t have some connection with our lives, then it is simply a waste of paper.

Enjoy it, revel in the bejeweled web of creation. Wonder at the great jigsaw puzzle of belief that we are building together. Enjoy it, live it deeply, and share it. Universalism is beautiful and inspiring, but it is not an easy faith.

Yes, Universalism is a faith tradition. Those who claim to be Universlists are making a faith claim. Universalists have faith that the world is in fact a good place, and they have faith that we do have valuable insights into our world.

I want to offer you a new definition of faith today. It stands in bold contrast to fear. Faith, Universalist faith is a willingness to greet the world with an open heart and love. It’s that simple. Living out our faith, Universalism means greeting the world around us with an open heart.

Unitarian Universalists can be shockingly adversarial. For a faith tradition that is to be a reflection of universal love, we can be awfully defensive. “Those people don’t understand us.” “Those people just want money.” “Those people are hateful and misguided.” “Those people aren’t educated enough.” “Why can’t they just be more like us.”

But, there is a handful of faithful people in this congregation. These are people who inspire me. There is a handful of faithful people who greet the world with an open heart.
And honestly, the world doesn’t respond gently to faithful people. The initial response of this world is to call them too nice. They are labeled as pushovers, too soft, even weak.
There are people among us who greet the world with an open heart and a hug. I thank you for your inspiration for myself, and for our church, because you are the embodiment of Universalism. You pushovers, you soft ones, you naïve people, you kind people, you loving people, you faithful people.

Please, I beg of you, please share your kindness and your faithfulness with this congregation, please share your faith with me.

A couple of weeks ago in an Adult RE class we were talking about how some people had been criticized in their work place or in the world for being too nice. Well please, bring your niceness here, for niceness, open heartedness, greeting the world with open minds, that is the message of Universalism my friends, that is living our faith.

The challenge of Universalism is two-fold, it is to respond to the brilliant and loving Universe that we are miraculously a part of. We are called to respond to that reality with gratitude and with action that gives back. As Barbara told me, I think her aunt or her mother said, “You have to pay your rent.” It’s not enough to hang out in this amazing world, you have to pay your rent. You have to give back to the beauty of creation. The challenge of universalism is to greet the world with an open heart and to give back when you can.

This second challenge of Universlism isn’t so much about what you do as an individual, but about how we live as a community. And how we open our doors to the other. The other challenge of Universalism is to open your hearts and to open the doors of this church. Because every person has access to the divine. Every person offers some grain of truth.

I have mentioned this before in a sermon, but it bares repeating. About five years ago the UU congregations in Orange County engaged in a marketing campaign. I was just moving to the area in the midst of the campaign. All the churches joined their resources to buy advertising in magazines, newspapers and radio. They even did direct mailings. One of the pieces of that campaign was the release of a bumper sticker, that read “Unitarian Universalism, The Uncommon Denomination.” It was a great idea to do bumper stickers.
But, I can’t think of a less helpful message for us to describe who we are. Who wants to be a part of a religious movement that understands itself as an elite club? Who wants to claim elitism as a part of their religious values? I don’t want to be an uncommon denomination, I want to be common as dirt, welcoming to all, in fact, The Common denominator, the place that is available for all.

It’s true that Unitarian Universalism is a unique type of religious gathering in that we welcome people of all different belief systems. We are universal in our acceptance of religious thought. We are open to an array of belief systems. We welcome everyone who comes with a yearning in their heart. And if we want to live up to that ideal, we must get over ourselves. We are not an uncommon denomination, we are not too smart for the masses, we are not, and I have heard this a lot, to difficult for people who want a religion that provides easy answers.
What we offer is common as dirt. In fact, I want to see that bumper sticker changed from, Unitarian Universalism, the uncommon denomination, to “Common as Dirt, Come grow with us.”

What we offer is common as dirt. It is a VERY simple message. Unitarian Universalism a community on a journey of deepening our lives and our faith. We believe that each person has insight into the deepest questions of life, and we gather in community to support each other as we ask those questions. That’s it. It’s simple. It’s doesn’t depend on a particular theology or cultural background and it doesn’t depend on a particular education.

I don’t want to hear that people are not smart enough to understand or appreciate our church.
That’s not the problem. The problem is that we are not smart enough to talk about our faith in a meaningful way.
It’s not a difficult message to say that our world is a wonderful place, and we each have insights into the divine. But most importantly, we are our best selves when we come together as a community to explore those insights together. It’s not a complicated message. Our children understand it.

I’m tired of hearing our members complain about “those people who aren’t like us.” As long as we talk about people who have a different background or theological difference as “Those People” who are so different, you can damn well bet that they aren’t going to find this a place that feels like home.

And just to clarify, opening our doors and our hearts, offer an invitation to find a meaningful home in this community is not about filling seats or growing our church. It is about living out our faith.

We are Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. So what, So the message of Universalism should blow the doors of this church wide open. Not just to white educated liberals.

If we are to live up to our calling of Universalism, if we are to live up to our faith, we must offer an open door to all people and an invitation to build a beloved community together.


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