It’s Never Too Late

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from the closing chapter of The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. The story takes place in the late 19th C., and the narrator of the book has spent the summer in the coastal Maine village; but now it’s time for the narrator to bid good-bye to her friend and landlady, Mrs. Todd, and return to Boston and her job as a writer….

“At last it was the time of late summer, when the house was cool and damp in the morning, and all the light seemed to come through greeen leaves; but at the first step out of doors the sunshines always laid a warm hand on my shoulder, and the clear, high sky seemed to lift quickly as I looked at it….

“I was to take the small unpunctual steamer that went down the bay in the afternoon, and I sat for a while by my window looking out on the green herb garden, with regret for company. Mrs. Todd had hardly spoken all day except in the briefest and most disapproving way; it was as if we were on the edge of a quarrel. It seemed impossible to take my departure with anything like composure. At last I heard a footstep, and looked up to find that Mrs. Todd was standing at the door.

” ‘I’ve seen to everything now,” she told me in an unusually loud and business-like voice. ‘Your trunks are on the w’arf by this time. Cap’n Bowden he come and took ’em down himself an’ is going to see that they’re safe aboard. Yes, I’ve seen to all your ‘rangements,’ she repeated in a gentler tone. ‘These things I’ve left on the kitchen table you’ll want to carry by hand; the basket needn’t be returned. I guess I shall walk over towards the Port now an’ inquire how old Mis’ Edward Caplin is.’

“I glanced at my friend’s face, and saw a look that touched me to the heart. I had been sorry enough before to go away.

” ‘I guess you’ll excuse me if I ain’t down there to stand round on the w’arf and see you go,’ she said, still trying to be gruff. ‘Yes, I ought to go over and inquire for Mis’ Edward Caplin; it’s her third shock, and if mother gets in on Sunday she’ll want to know just how the old lady is.’ With this last word Mrs. Todd turned and left me as if with sudden thought of something she had forgotten, so that I felt sure she was coming back, but presently I heard her go out of the kitchen door and walk down the path toward the gate. I could not part so; I ran after her to say good-by, but she shook her head and waved her hand without looking back when she heard my hurrying steps, and so went away down the street.

“When I went in again the little house had suddenly grown lonely, and my room looked empty as it had the day I came. I and all my belongings had died out of it, and I knew how it would seem when Mrs. Todd came back and found her lodger gone. So we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end.” [pp. 115-116]

The second reading is from Treatise on Atonement by Rev. Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist minister whose preaching here in New Bedford in the 1820’s led to the formation of First Universalist of New Bedford, which merged with this church in 1930:

“Let us pass to the prophecies of Isaiah; see chap. xxv. 6, 7, 8. “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all the nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall be taken from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.” No one will doubt that the provisions here spoken of are those which are provided in the gospel of salvation.

“In the first place, then, observe it is made for all people; this proves that it was the intention of him who made the feast that all people should share in its divine benefits.

“Secondly. It is testified that the veil of darkness which was over all people shall finally be taken away.

“Thirdly. That death is to be swallowed up in victory, and tears wiped away from off all faces….”

SERMON — “Never Too Late”

In the reading this morning, we heard how it is that New England Yankees say good-by. Sarah Orne Jewett writes: “I ran after Mrs. Todd to say good-by, but she shook her head and waved her hand without looking back when she heard my hurrying steps, and so went away down the street.” As a New England Yankee born and bred, that was certainly the primary way I learned to say good-by: You don’t go down to the wharf to wave good-by to a good friend as she heads off on the unpunctual steamer that goes down the bay; instead, you invent some good errand that will require you to be elsewhere so that you really don’t have to say good-by at all; and if your good friend runs after you to say good-by, wave your hand at her without looking back.

Modern psychologists would probably tell us that this is not a healthy way to say good-by. I respectfully disagree. It is a culturally appropriate way to say good-by. Living in the place we do, with the climate we have, we New Englanders have faced an quite a bit of loss over the centuries. Half the people who came over on the Mayflower died in the first winter; don’t forget that 90% of the Native Americans in New England had died from disease a few years before the Mayflower arrived. There wasn’t much good soil for farming here, many New Englanders turned to the sea to earn a living, and of course many ships went down, leaving widows on shore. We turned to manufacturing textiles, which went pretty well for a while, but now that’s gone too, and, with the exception of Boston, most of New England still struggles to base its economy on something other than tourism. Nor can we forget the Red Sox, who finally won another World Series in 2004, but now seem to have gone back to their old losing ways, dropping three straight games to the hated Yankees.

Perhaps the most poignant loss of all here in New England comes with the changing seasons. Just when we get used to the heat of summer, with its long lazy days that seem to stretch on forever — just when we get used to summer, we start noticing that the birds are forming flocks and getting ready to fly south, and the days are quickly getting shorter and shorter, and then comes a cool night when we have to dig out the blankets we put away last spring. What makes it worse is that in our short New England summers, you generally don’t get to do all the things you had hoped and planned to do; here we are in the last weeks of summer, and as usual half of my plans never materialized.

Of course when fall comes, with gloriously-colored leaves on the trees, it doesn’t last long. The leaves are incredibly beautiful for about two weeks, and then they fall off. Along comes winter which, in spite of the sublime beauty of the bare trees, and the gray ocean, and the storms that roar through, is unpleasant at best. And just when you get used to winter, everything turns to mud and muck. Spring mostly seems vastly overrated, until at last spring is in full flower, and you want it to last forever; but spring too ends all too quickly.

Nor do the seasons end neatly and cleanly. If you say good-by to summer now, you’ll be saying good-by too soon, because we will have at least one more heat wave before we’re done with it. I imagine this is what the whaling captain’s wife fel, albeit on a grander scale: she said good-by when her husband got on the boat, but was she saying good-by for good, or just for a while? Was she saying good-by for one short year, or for five long years? No one could say. Her good-bys had no certainty in them.

Our religious traditions cannot be entirely separated from our New England climate and culture. The earliest European settlers brought some religious beliefs that fir in with the New England climate. The Puritans brought both the belief that most people were going to eternal damnation after death, and a strong sense that they could create a good society against all adversity, a society that would stand as a beacon for all humanity.

This second belief, that we can overcome adversity, and the climate, and the poor soil, and the fact that ships go down at sea, has become an integral part of New England culture. We are quite convinced that we can create a better world. We have often done so. When the whaling industry started to fade out, the good old New Englanders of New Bedford started manufacturing textiles; that served this city well for many decades. Now we are trying to figure out how this city can fit into the new post-industrial economy, and I have no doubt that we will solve that problem, eventually. The Red Sox constantly lose (except for that one year), but every spring we are certain that this will be the year when they win again. Deep within us is the certainty that the world can, and will, be better by and by.

We are quite convinced that we can create a better world, and this legacy of the early Puritans has turned New England into a land of reformers. We are always trying to reform the world, to make it better. We New Englanders have been ardent Abolitionists, we have advocated for universal education, we have fought for religious liberty, we supported the Civil Rights movement, some of us supported women’s rights from very early on. Today we are at the forefront of supporting equal marriage rights, and it is no accident that Massachusetts is the first state to legalize marriage for same sex couples. The fight for justice is part of our belief system. We truly want a world where all people are treated equally well.

Given all this — given the adversity of the climate, given the fact that New England has presented its human inhabitants with quite a bit of loss, given our deeply-held sense that the world can and will be made a better place, perhaps it is not surprising that Universalism flourished here in New England. Even though the old Puritan belief that most of humanity will be damned to eternal torment upon death remains strong in some circles, New England has also nurtured a strong belief in universal salvation, the belief that all persons will get to go to heaven upon death.

Now you personally may or may not believe in heaven, or in any kind of life after death. But even if that is true for you, I’m sure you can see how there is that in the New England spirit that would support the idea of universal salvation. Think about it this way: If there is a heaven, it must be a place where true justice, and true equality reigns supreme. We could not imagine heaven as a place where injustice is possible. Given that, those of us who are true New England reformers know that all persons must be given equal access to heaven; just as we know that all persons deserve equal access to education; just as we know that women and men must be equal; just as we know that we cannot tolerate racism. If we cannot tolerate racism, how can we tolerate heaven as a place that refuses to admit some people? From our vantage point as imperfect human beings, all we can see is how flawed other people are; a hundred years ago, white people thought it was a fatal flaw to have dark skin; a hundred years ago, men thought it was a fatal flaw to be a woman; today, there are too many people who still believe it is a fatal flaw to love someone of the same gender as yourself. But if we were able to take the vantage point of God, we would see that all human beings are examples of perfection. Not to say that human beings don’t do evil things; we can do evil, we can even be evil. But there is something within us, some irreducible core, that retains something of perfection.

Similarly, if the Bible is correct and there is a God, then logically speaking that God must be a God of love. Logically speaking, the God of the Bible, whom the Bible asserts is a God of love, would not ever damn someone to eternal torment; for, logically speaking, such damnation would not be what we could call in any sense loving. Human beings may be imperfect; human beings may indulge in sin; but an infinitely good an loving God would not therefore damn those human beings to eternal torment.

I go on at some length about this topic because belief in hell is making a comeback. So while you might not use the word “heaven” yourself, and while you might not use the word “God” yourself, you know perfectly well that many of our neighbors and friends talk about God and heaven and hell. And if need be, we Unitarian Universalists can still use traditional religious language to pass on what the old New England Universalists said. They said that God is so great that God can love each and every human being. They said that because God is a manifestation of perfect love, everyone gets to go to heaven. There will be universal salvation, because you and I are worthy of being saved. We may do evil, but God’s love is powerful enough to redeem us all.

You can also see how such a belief would be attractive to the New England character. The idea that most of humanity will be damned to eternal torment doesn’t sit well with the typical New Englander. We already have to put up with New England winters. We already have to put up with high unemployment, and a difficult transition to a post-industrial economy. We already have to put up with the Red Sox, who even as I speak are going through their usual late-summer breakdown, who as usual have no depth in the pitching staff and no real team leaders. Don’t tell me that I have to suffer through years of watching the Red Sox lose late-summer games, and then be denied admittance to heaven because I didn’t measure up to some impossibly high standard of behavior. A belief in eternal damnation is just a little too much for the average New Englander to have to bear.

This brings us at last to the second reading, by the great New England preacher, Hosea Ballou. Hosea Ballou is from a different era than ours: his language may now sound dated; his extreme reliance on the King James version of the Bible, without any reference to all the Biblical scholarship we now have, may now seem quaint; his propensity for interspersing his writing with too many Bible quotes may now sound annoying. But underneath that, underneath his awkward prose, there is a deeper poetical meaning, a non-literal meaning, that sounds surprisingly contemporary. Back in 1805, Ballou wrote: “It was the intention of him who made the feast that all people should share in its divine benefits”; today we would say that all persons have an inherent worth and dignity and therefore all persons should have equal access to all that is good in life. Ballou wrote “that the veil of darkness which was over all people shall finally be taken away”; today we are still working to help remove that veil of darkness over people. On some days we fell as if we’re making some progress.

I would like to go further. When Ballou says: “That death is to be swallowed up in victory, and tears wiped away from off all faces,” I would like to be able to agree with him. I would like to think that my life has been lived to some purpose, that I have not lived in vain. I would like to think that death doesn’t bring complete annihilation, any more than I wish to think that after death some vindictive God is going to send me to eternal torment for being a heretic or worse.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think not. None of us lives in vain. If you have wiped the tears away from one face, other than your own, you have not lived in vain. If you have brought joy to one other person at any time in your life, you have not lived in vain. If you really want death to be swallowed up in victory, go and do more of that: wipe away some more tears from other’s faces; recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; set a feast before those who need it; bring joy to someone else.

I would say: Heaven isn’t just about some life after this life; it’s about creating justice and love here and now. For some of you, this will not be enough; some of you will want to know what happens after death. If you are one of those people, take heed of Hosea Ballou’s proclamation of universal salvation: everyone gets to go to heaven. Take heed, and take comfort. And now take heed of what I have to tell you: it’s not enough to wait passively until you die, and then go to heaven. The underlying meaning of Ballou’s words tells us that. It’s not enough to wait passively for someone else to set a feast in front of you; you must be ready to wipe away the tears from someone else’s eyes when that is needed. If you truly want your eventual death to be swallowed up in victory, start working on it now: love other people, bring justice to the world in however small a way, proclaim that life is joy.

In this time of late summer, when the days are getting shorter quickly, it’s easy to look back with regret on all the things you meant to do all summer long, but never quite got around to doing. In your life, it’s easy to look back with regret on all the lost opportunities, on all the things that you did wrong. It can be all too easy to look forward to death as a release and a comfort, and to live passively towards that end. But it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to turn around when you hear those hurrying steps behind you, and to meet a good friend face to face, and to say that you love them. It’s never too late to express your love, to partake of the feast of life, to swallow up death in victory. You can transform your life into one of love and joy. It’s never too late to begin.