“An Outstretched Hand”
We are Unitarian Universalists. Sometimes we shorten that and say that we are Unitarians because both is a mouthful, or we consider ourselves more Unitarian than Universalist, or we carry some leftover baggage about the merger of the two traditions in 1961, however expeditious it might have been for the two to join in order that they both survive. Today I want to focus on the Universalist piece of who we are. Unitarianism arose from a move in the 16th century away from Trinitarianism, meaning a belief that there was one God or that God was One, as opposed to Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Universalists believed in universal salvation, that no one suffers eternal damnation. It was a faith that bubbled up in opposition to the fire and brimstone of Calvinism which suggested eternity for only a select few meted out by a vengeful, jealous God, and in favor of a loving God who embraced all. It was a welcome message, based in a new Biblical interpretation, in the 1700’s as we were perched on the precipice of war and in need of ‘hope rather than hell’. There is a commonly tossed around saying that goes something like, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone and Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.” It’s meant to be funny, but there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere! Universalism is based in a reorientation from a focus on the self – and in Calvinist terms one’s own election into eternal life – a shift from that to a view of an ever-expanding circle of concern for all, or to put it in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, “loving your neighbor as yourself.” The Rev. Carl Gregg wrote some years back that, “Universalism calls us out of ourselves and into the world to love the hell out of this world — into a world filled with far too much hell that desperately needs the life-saving message that we are part of one another, part one human family.” It was this understanding of a message purporting universal love for all of humanity that led Universalists to be ready and willing advocates in areas of social justice – abolition, women’s rights, prison reform – in those early days. And we are still working on these things today, perhaps because of the tension we encounter internally as individuals and in our Association as well between the two facets of our makeup as a denomination. Certainly, our current study sponsored by the Commission on Institutional Change – “Widening the Circle of Concern” speaks to expansive inclusivity as a goal. It is our Universalism that grounds us in our efforts toward anti-racism work, consideration of the marginalized, and inclusion. It is the bookends of our Principles – the first, the inherent worth and dignity of each person and the second, our interconnectedness to all of life that speak to me of a living Universalism. No one is beneath consideration and what happens to one of us effects all of us. You have heard me say before that God is Love – among other things, but today we are focusing on love – a statement from my childhood catechism that I have taken quite literally. So, not that there is a loving god somewhere dispensing an all- encompassing embrace, but that there is a Love that permeates our existence. In the words of the Rev. Rebecca Parker, put beautifully to music in recent times, “There is a love holding me. There is a love holding all that I love. There is a love holding all. I rest in this love.” Universalism is about this love that I can count on, but that I am also responsible to because it is not going to be manifested without humanity as a vessel and a channel that is willing to share it.
Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained as clergy with the consent of her denomination by the Universalist Council in 1863, was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. I recently reread her 1872 sermon, “Christian Charity: A Doctrinal Sermon for Universalists.” She preaches a God of love who “looks with an equal eye upon all his children” and who will never be estranged from any of them, ultimately reconciling all. She references the separation of the Universalists from “partialist churches,” as she calls them, that taught persecution and condemnation. It is the power of this love, she indicates, extended to whosoever may come and with whatever baggage they carry, that strengthens the individual against bigotry, increases one’s eloquence as their acceptance is realized, turning from fear and timidity to confidence. This is the empowerment that my community ministry sought for the women who participated in WE CAN’s programs. To know one’s value and worth; to have one’s dignity recognized through the power of love is life altering. Our Universalism asks something of us. This notion of charity for all is not such an easy thing to put into action. It is easy to love the loveable! And really no claim to fame to do so. The harder thing is to love when we have been hurt or when we have seen evil or harm acted out; when we have heard violent speech or witnessed a disregard for a part of our human family. The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, in her recent book, “After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism” suggests that we don’t need a Universalist God in our era that is a “gauzy, hymn singing force of personal devotion” but rather “a fierce and compelling power that . . . calls us to choose the will to mutuality,” she writes, again and again even at the risk of remaking our very selves. She echoes Brown’s idea down through time that there is a part of the self that needs to be overcome in order that we are enabled to look with charity on persons and behaviors that offend our sensibilities. Our times call for us to dig deep in order that we muster the kind of love our faith draws from us. To know that we are loved is a starting point. To know that we all come from the same seed gives us pause to consider our response to that which at first blush elicits fear and condemnation. In the end it is a choice; it takes intentionality; bucks the system perhaps. African American author and activist, adrienne maree brown was interviewed last month by YES! Magazine. She has written another book and had emerged recently from a sabbatical time, so she had not been paying attention to social media and email and the tone of things in our nation. This gave her a balcony view of the world we live in. What she saw was a way of interacting with one another that had developed where the only response we have is to dispose of one another. Beyond boundaries, this was a joyful destruction of each other when any disagreement arose. This she found hurtful based on her beliefs and I wonder if we aren’t experiencing some of the same based on our Universalist values. I know it gets to me sometimes! I wonder, too, if we don’t sometimes engage in this kind of reacting to what we see and hear and then we notice that discomfort with how we have responded, because of what we want to be grounding ourselves in. It is so easy to get caught up in it. This rapid-fire calling out we are witness to, alongside the log of harms we keep based on perceived imperfections and flaws takes a necessary level of accountability to a level far beyond what is useful or healing in our world. She offers that none of us wants to be known for our
worst behavior and that we turn from associations with “those people over there who act that way,” setting ourselves apart without seeing ourselves in one another. In fact, I think when we do see ourselves in what we have come to abhor in others, it only serves to draw us further inside of ourselves, recoiling, we are unable to relate. But when we can see that commonality – see our humanity as on par with another’s – we are able to find the love we are called to. Inside of everyone who causes harm is oftentimes someone who has been harmed. This is a hard place to get to. adrienne maree brown is active in the Black Lives Matter movement and she shared an example that may be helpful because it shows just how vulnerable we need to be in order to do this work toward our Universalism. She speaks about the idea of defunding the police – calling to accountability those who have acted outside of their duty as public servants – and she says that we can’t out of one side of our mouths say to defund the police and out of the other place these few bad actors into a container that doesn’t allow them to change, to free themselves from mistakes and to recover. How do we wield accountability responsibly in ways that don’t dispose of people? To me this gets at the heart of our Universalist message. There is a love, but its not a gushy romanticized love. It is a love that asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and our world and to be the kind of love in our times that makes space for inclusivity and accountability both. I’d like to close by doing an exercise together to illustrate this concept. In her book Revolution and Equilibrium, the late writer and activist Barbara Deming presents the metaphor of the two hands of nonviolence, underscoring the creative tension that fuels both interpersonal transformation and social change. “With one hand held up, like this (one arm outstretched with palm facing forward) we say to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, “Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.” This is the boundary that disrupts the action. And we can use it in big ways like the nonviolent protest she is talking about and in smaller, more personal ways in our relationships at home or at work or here at the Meeting House. Hold that hand in place while we continue. “But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched (palm open and facing upward) – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched – inviting – welcoming … With this hand we say,
“I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.” This is the Universalism that calls to us today. Amen and blessed be.