Monday, April 19, 2010

Sermon - Earning Hope

Earning Hope

This month in our worship services, we are focusing on the idea of salvation. That word doesn’t come up very often in Unitarian Universalist circles. In fact many of us cringe at the idea, as if it is some long forgotten baggage of other religious traditions that we have moved beyond. Well I’m willing to bet that whether you recognize it or not, some idea of salvation still affects your beliefs. Maybe you wouldn’t use that word, maybe you would simply call it hope, or reassurance, or peace. But the idea of salvation is important to us, especially as Unitarian Universalists.

I just saw a book title that pointed to this reality. It’s a new book from Beacon Press, that’s the Unitarian Universalist publisher, called “The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism.” Through humor and factual information, the book addresses the juggernaut of living a “good” life in the modern age. The choices are overwhelming. Is it better to buy locally produced food or organic products that have to be imported? Which is safer for the environment, purchasing things online or driving to the store? How do we welcome diversity without tokenizing individuals? Trying to live by one's ideals can be confusing and contradictory.

But why? Why this obsession with living up to the perfectly green, politically correct and engaged life? I think it’s wonderful that we have such commitments, but it is important to ask why.

I think it is because we are looking for some sense of salvation. We are looking for the satisfaction of doing the right thing, being GOOD ENOUGH.

Unitarian Universalists have long given up on the idea of original sin or the idea of salvation by faith alone. In our world view, it’s your actions that make the difference, not just what you believe. We have forsaken original sin and salvation by faith alone, to say I can earn hope on my own, I can be good enough on my own. See, look how good I can be.

My fear, and what I want to talk about today, is that our idea of salvation and acting out our values is an endless effort. When is enough enough? When do we get the hope?

I don’t think we can earn it through action alone. In our culture you can’t really earn hope with your actions alone. We earn our hope by doing what we can and having the courage to know that that it is enough. And we know it is enough because we trust in our brothers and sisters to follow through with their values as well. We earn our hope by doing what we can and having the faith to know that that it is enough because we are not alone.
It’s important to understand that our theological beliefs did not spring out of thin air last year. They have been around for a very, very long time. Just about any heretical belief you can find today, including those of Unitarian Universalism, have been around since theology has been written and churches have picked what is orthodoxy or right belief, and what is not. In fact, most of orthodox beliefs exist because at some point in time, people believed the opposite. And that is exactly the way it was with original sin in the Christian church.

Most of us have some notion of original sin in the Christian church. That’s the fallen or sinful state of human beings that is passed down generation to generation because of the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden when Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge. Just be being descendents, all of humanity is likewise sinful. It’s a pretty core piece of Christian theology, but it wasn’t so until the early 400s. Augustine of Hippo was the champion of this doctrine and he was one of the most powerful and influential theologians of Christian history.

But at the same time, one of our very important theological predecessors was arguing the opposite. He argued that salvation can be earned and humanity’s natural state is not original sin. Rather than the sin of a mythical predecessor, he focused on free will, and the importance of right action, not just having the right theological faith. His ideas quickly spread, which is one reason the opponents acted so promptly and firmly. In fact they acted so forcefully and so completely that nearly all of his written works have been destroyed. Most of what is known about Pelagius today is recorded in the letters and books of Orthodox theologians who argue against him.

And his work didn’t disappear because he was a nobody. He was well educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and learned in theology. Even Augustine, perhaps the most powerful Christian theologian outside of the authors of the Bible called Pelagius a “saintly man.”

I wanted to bring up Pealgius in particular because his concern echoes what I hear many UU’s talk about today. How many of you question the whole notion of salvation by faith, the idea that if you just believe the right thing, then God forgives all of your sins, no matter what it is you have done? If you say you’re sorry, all is forgotten, how many of you have problems with that?
Well, in 400 in Rome, Pelagius was concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine. He thought that Augustine’s idea of original sin and salvation by faith alone was not only contrary to the core of Christian teaching and ignore humanity’s free will. It turned people into automitons, because if it was all up to God, then why bother. No matter what we do, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

So Pelagius believed in free will, human beings could in fact be good, and their actions made a difference. What an important revelation. What we do matters in the large cosmic scale. We can be good and do good of our own free will.

So what did he do with this great theological principle? Did he advocate for the homeless, was he a great social reformer? Did he aim at creating a better world for other people.

Unfortunately no, Pelagius was an ascetic. Instead of thinking that his good actions could create a better life for other people, he focused on his own life. Ascetics generally reject any sort of worldly pleasure with the aim of pursing spiritual goals. They live the simplest lifestyle possible to prepare themselves for spiritual transformation. Rather than exerting their energy to help those around them, the focus of asceticism is to purify one’s own self to seek personal enlightenment.

Pelagious realized that what humanity does matters, and he sqandered that realization. He wanted to prove that he was “Good enough.” He thought he could earn his salvation by denying himself of earthly pleasures and distancing himself from all sin. So he suffered in isolation, to earn his hope.

I don’t know much about his last days. Like I said, Pealgius is a difficult historical figure to track because so much of his writing was destroyed. But I wonder, was he fulfilled? Was he able to earn his hope? Was he able to do enough to prove himself?

And I wander the same thing about many tormented do-gooders of today. I know I feel this way sometimes. If I just make my carbon footprint a little smaller, and donate a little more to the right charities, will I prove myself? How can I earn my hope, my salvation? What do I have to give or do to get there? What do I have to do to prove that I am good enough?

Well Pelagius has been all but buried in the pages of Christian history and doctrine, there’s another figure that has not. William Ellery Channing took up the same theological principle that Pelagius held, that we do have the power to work for our salvation, and he turned it outward.

As a minister in the early 1800’s Channing faced an theological atmosphere strikingly similar to the one Pelagius dealt with. A millennia and a half later, Christian orthodoxy was still supporting original sin and predistination, and still faced very little challenge in that belief.
But Channing and the early Unitarians said, hold up. We humans have something special, a special ability to use our intellect and our compassion to become better people. And becoming better people should be the focus of religious life, not simply being fearful of a God who might arbitrarily condemn us to Hell for a mistake made by a mythical woman in the Garden of Eden.

Religious Liberals demanded that we use reason. We were intelligent beings, not robots. We are called to use our brains when possible to come up with the best understanding of our world, whether that is in science or medicine or theology.

And along with that insistence on the use of reason, came an understanding that we humans were not completely depraved. In fact, if we tried, we could better ourselves, and that should be the focus of religious life. We should focus on the development of our intellect and moral lives. Meaningful religion was not an emotional reaction or instantaneous salvation through a profession of faith.

In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached the landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” For the first time, he accepted the label Unitarian, and at that critical moment made a distinction between his Liberal peers and the Christian orthdox. That sermon was the catalyst that made our church what it is today.

The thrust of the sermon was two fold. First, he insisted that we must use reason to develop our faith. After all we were endowed with this great capacity and it would be irresponsible not to apply it to religious life. Second, we as humans are capable of moral development, and this, above all else, should be the thrust of religious life in America.

So we have the ability and responsibility to use free thought and act on it. But this is where he split from Pelagius and his asceticism. Channing took that importance of human moral and mental capacity and put it to action making the world a better place.

With the likes of Dorthea Dix, Horace Mann, and other reformers of his time, Channing railed against slavery, against poverty, against alcoholism. He advocated for the creation of hospitals for the mentally ill and encouraged progressive approaches to education. Most importantly, Channing’s unique contribution to these causes was an undying interest in the moral potential of the individual.

He knew that with effort, people could become more ethical people. We could mold ourselves into better people, and that work of improving ourselves would in turn improve the world around us.

He writes, “The inward moulds the outward. The power of the people lies in its mind; and this mind, if fortified and enlarged, will bring external things into harmony with itself. It will create a new world around it, corresponding to itself.” For Channing, the equation was simple. If social ills of war, slavery and economic oppression were moral issues, then the solutions should be as well. And that’s where he earned hope. Channing earned his hope by doing what we could and having the faith in the will of other people to do the same. He believed deeply in the moral fiber of humanity. He did what he could and had faith that others would do the same.

Unitarian Universalists don’t talk a lot about salvation today. At least not in those terms. We talk about responsibility, and we talk about community. But we don’t talk about at the end of it all, where do we find comfort and hope. I think it’s an important question. At the end of it all, how do we know we have been “good enough?” How do we know that it’s okay? Where do we find hope?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that that kind of hope is not something that we can totally earn through our actions. We can be so Puritanical in our guilt. Those are also our historical roots after all. If I don’t have my reuseable shopping bags at the grocery store, or I am uneducated about a proposition, I feel bad. If I don’t live up to my ideal of a good person every day, I feel some guilt. Am I good enough? Will I every be good enough?


Perhaps the most powerful image that we have as Unitarian Universalists is captured in the Seventh Principle. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The interdependent web of all existence, the web of life. It’s a wonderful symbol for our interconnection, and we use it to talk about how the choices that we make every day affect countless other beings. We are responsible for helping care for that web. We are interconnected and must care for others.

But today, I want to use that image as something more. The web is not just an image of responsibility, it’s not a symbol of guilt. If that’s the image you’re looking for it wouldn’t be a web at all. It would look more like what you see on the front cover of your order of service, a single person holding up a boulder. The interdependent web of all existence both depends on us, and it SUPPORTS us in our lives.
We act as we can to help nurture and sustain life. And we know that countless other beings are doing the same to nurture and sustain us. We are supported.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion of helping people, not of asceticism. We believe in doing the right thing, not to purify ourselves, or to be good enough. We believe in doing the right thing because it gives us more faith that others will do the right thing.

Our salvation, our hope doesn’t lie in our ability to be perfect, fortunately. We earn our hope by doing what we can and having faith that other peoeple are doing the same. This is not a guarantee that all will be right with the world, or a guarantee of eternal life in bliss. It is however a recipe for hope, which I find to most fulfilling and comforting thing in the world. We earn our hope by doing what we can and having faith that other peoeple are doing the same.


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