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.

Readings

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.

A Universalist Easter

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

Readings

The first reading comes from the Christian scriptures, the book known as the Gospel of Mark. In this snippet, the rabbi Jesus quotes from the Torah, first from Deuteronomy, and then from Leviticus:

“One of the teachers of the law [asked Jesus]… ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

“‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no greater commandment than these.'” [Mk. 12.28-30]

The second reading this morning, which I take in part as a commentary of the first reading, comes from the Treatise on Atonement, written by the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou in 1805. I should add that the First Universalist Church in New Bedford, which merged with this church in 1930, traces its history back to the moment when Hosea Ballou once preached in New Bedford. Ballou wrote:

“The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men, have been believed to exist in God; and professors [of Christianity] have been molded into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel than the uncultivated savage! A persecuting inquisition is a lively representation of the God which professed Christians have believed in ever since the apostacy. It is every day’s practice to represent the Almighty so offended with man, that he employs his infinite mind in devising unspeakable tortures, as retaliations on those with whom he is offended.” [p. 147]

So end this morning’s readings, with these scornful words of Hosea Ballou.

Story for all ages

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian version of the Easter story. This is the Easter story I heard as a child, and I thought I’d share it with you this Easter. Why is our version of the story different? When we retell that story, we don’t assume that Jesus was God. And that leads to all kinds of little changes that add up in the end…. Tell you what, let’s just listen to the Unitarian story of Easter and find out.

If you were here to hear last week’s story, we left Jesus as he was entering the city of Jerusalem, being welcomed by people carrying flowers and waving palm fronds.

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem — the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus noticed that there were a number of people selling things in the Temple (for example, there were people selling pigeons), and besides that there were all kinds of comings and goings through the Temple, people carrying all kinds of gear, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and I imagine that a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer — how could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. We know he quoted the book of Leviticus, where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into fairly heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem at that time. The Romans were also concerned about Jesus. When Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder. (By the way, if you’ve ever heard of “Maundy Thursday,” which is always the Thursday before Easter Sunday, that’s the commemoration of that last meal; and while not all Bible scholars agree that least meal was in fact a Seder, many scholars do think it was a Seder.)

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t know how or when it would happen, but he was pretty sure he would be arrested sometime.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder. He was given a trial the same night he was arrested, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. (And the day of Jesus’ execution, the Friday before Easter, is called “Good Friday,” a day when many Christians commemorate Jesus’ death.)

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, which was a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill. There the body would be safe until they could bury it, after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

When I was a child, my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school teachers would tell me that what had probably happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had come along, and had already buried the body. You see, there must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’ friends were upset that he was dead, and they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not everybody got told when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body.

Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and following that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. But in our Sunday school, we say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t actually have to believe that Jesus actually arose from the dead. It’s just that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

SERMON — “A Universalist Easter”

I’ll start this morning by telling you a fairly stupid Unitarian Universalist joke. It seems that two Unitarian Universalists died and went to heaven. Somewhat to their surprise, they found themselves standing in line in front of a pair of large pearly gates, waiting to talk with someone who was unmistakably St. Peter. When they finally got to St. Peter, he asked them what religion they were, and they said, “Unitarian Universalists.”

“Unitarian Universalists?” said St. Pete. “Well, even though you’re heretics, you did so much social justice work on earth I’m going to let you in to heaven, instead of sending you to hell.”

The two Unitarian Universalists look at each other, and finally one of them says, “You mean you actually send people to hell?!” — using the exact tone of voice that vegetarians use when they say to you, “You mean you actually still eat meat?”

“Oh yes,” says St. Peter.

So the two Unitarian Universalists start chanting, “One two three four, we won’t go in heaven’s door/ Five six seven eight, we are going to close hell’s gates,” and next thing you know they’re picketing the Pearly Gates carrying signs saying, “God Unfair to the Damned,” and “Ban Eternal Torment.”

Needless to say, we Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in hell. To a Unitarian Universalist, the concept of eternal torment is most likely to be a fable used by certain religious leaders to try to frighten people into good behavior; and the more cynical among us would add that “good behavior” is defined as that sort of behavior that helps keep those certain religious leaders in power. We don’t believe in hell, and indeed the concept of hell is likely to fill us with a certain amount of righteous indignation, just as we heard in the stupid joke with which I began this sermon.

While we usually take this for granted, I would like us to take the time to explore a little of why we Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in those hoary old stories of hell and eternal torment. Easter seems like one of the best days on which to do this exploration; because some of our more traditional Christian brothers and sisters know Easter as the holiday where Jesus (they would say “Christ”) rose up from the dead; and they would echo the words of Paul of Tarsus, who wrote: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”; the third day being, of course, Easter. This is what our more traditional Christian brothers and sisters say and believe with all their hearts and minds; but we know this to be wrong, we know in our hearts and in our heads and in the depths of our soul that this is simply wrong. Let us, therefore, articulate why it is wrong.

At the most basic level, whether or not you yourself believe in God, it is quite clearly stated in the Christian scriptures that God is love. God is love; and God loves all persons, even the poor and oppressed. That God loves the poor and oppressed is one of the more remarkable innovations of Christianity; most earlier religious traditions were quite willing to neglect the poor and oppressed. Yet if God is love, and if God loves all persons no matter how despicable they might seem on the surface — how could that kind of god dispose of any person by throwing them into hell for eternal torment? To say that God would throw people into hell is illogical on an intellectual level; and it violates emotional logic as well, because a God of love would obviously be incapable of such vicious hatred.

That’s the argument at the most basic level; and really we shouldn’t have to go beyond that argument. God is love; therefore God will not damn anyone. Once we make that argument, it is up to people with other beliefs to explain to us why a God of love would dispose of persons; it is up to people with other beliefs to explain to how “love” can include torture, humiliation, and eternal torment. Nor do you have to believe in God yourself to make this most basic argument, because really what we are doing is pointing out the impossible contradictions bound up in the idea of the traditional Christian hell.

Let me give you an example of how this basic argument works. Each year on the second Sunday in September, a mile-long stretch of Solano Street in Berkeley is taken over by a street fair called the Solano Stroll. 250,000 people come to watch the clown parade (think Rasta clowns instead of Bozo the clown), to eat fantastic food, to listen to music from rock and roll to the Royal Hawaiian ukulele band; there are art cars, jugglers, and more. Naturally, the Unitarian Universalist church sets up a booth — these are obviously our kind of people. Well, the year I served at the Berkeley church, the organizers of the Solano Stroll put the Unitarian Universalists right next to a booth full of fundamentalist Christians. Some of these good people came over to find out what we believed in; needless to say, they were a little shocked by us. They wanted to argue with me, and we went back and forth, until I finally told them that everyone gets to heaven because God is love. That took some of the wind out of their sails. You could see the wheels turning in their heads, and almost hear them thinking: “If I tell him that he’s going to go to hell, he’s going to say, ‘You mean you don’t believe in a God of absolute love?’, and then he could say that I don’t believe that God is all-powerful….” And pretty soon, they all drifted away. All except for one young man whom I think I may have convinced; he kept talking to me, wanting to know more; but eventually he, too, went back to his friends.

So it is that the old Universalist ideas retain their power even today, 200 years after Hosea Ballou. Universalism has a saving message for many people, if they can but hear it.

Using traditional Christian language, we could say that message like this: “God is love; everyone gets to go to heaven: doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; doesn’t matter what religion you follow; doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight; doesn’t matter what color your skin is; doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman: all that matters is that because you are a human being you are deserving of love.”

Or we could use less traditional religious language, and actually leave out the word “God” altogether. We could say, “Love is the most powerful force in the universe; not television love, but the deep love we must have for all human beings; we know that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect no matter how much money they may have, no matter what religion they belong to, no matter what their sexual orientation, no matter what their racial or ethnic identity, no matter what their gender:– for your worth and dignity are an inherent part of you as a human being.”

Recently, I’ve been going even further beyond traditional religious language. I’m now willing to say that love is the most powerful force in the universe and I’m willing to extend that love to other living beings along with human beings. This isn’t romantic love; nor is this sentimental love limited to those animals and plants that I find cute and cuddly. It’s a love that extends to all living beings, to the entire biosphere, as ultimately sacred; and even though we have to eat other living beings in order to survive, we can do so with a sense of reverence; even though we have to fight against things like the influenza virus, we can do so in reverence for the awful beauty which is truly a part of all living things. But this is a pretty radical notion; and there are still quite a number of philosophical and theological points I’m trying to figure out. And I have to say I don’t recommend trotting out universal love for the biosphere when you get into a discussion with some of the more traditional Christians.

Yet no matter what kind of religious language we use, we can affirm the central principle of Universalism. Traditionally, Universalism referred to the universal salvation of all persons; in other words, everyone gets to go to heaven. Go beyond the old traditional language, and universalism calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all persons here and now. Go even further beyond traditional religious language, and we might say that all living beings should be valued, and saved from extinction, as we try to create an ecojustice heaven here on earth. But always, love is the central principle.

And I firmly believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a Universalist, although he wouldn’t have called himself that. But clearly he knew the power of love. He said that all the teaching of the old religious sages and prophets came down to two simple points: Love your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. By the way he said this, you know that Jesus’s God loved all persons without distinction; and so we are told did Jesus live out his life, consorting with the poor and the downtrodden, hanging out not with the elite but with ordinary fishermen, and with tax collectors and prostitutes. When he spoke of love two thousand years ago, it was in a time and place that was quite different from our time and place; and today some of us might say that we shall love the universe with all our heart and mind and soul, and love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter how we say it, we remain in the tradition of the great teachings of Jesus: ours is a religion with love at the center; ours is not a religion that threatens eternal torment to anyone.

And why then do we celebrate Easter, if we don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead in order to save us from eternal torment? I think Hosea Ballou, that old Universalist preacher, would say that Easter is a chance, not for us to recall that Jesus died to atone for our sins; but rather, that Jesus lived to help us reconcile ourselves to God, and to God’s love.

Today, we are likely to tell Jesus’s story in a different way, like this: Jesus was arrested on trumped-up political charges, and then he was executed to serve the interests of the powerful elite of Roman-ruled Judea. Jesus’s message of love threatened to change the way the political establishment worked; Jesus’s teachings threatened to replace a corrupt political establishment with a heaven here on earth based on love and resulting in true justice and true peace. That is why Jesus was executed; and we remember his story in order to remember that love is the ultimate subversive act, one which has the potential to bring about true peace and true justice in our world.

Nor do we necessarily believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead. But we do know that his ideas, his teachings, his message of love, did indeed rise up to take on a new life after he was executed. Those ideas are still alive; they are with us even today. Even though Jesus was executed, love remains powerful. Love is constantly renewed; even when we think it is dead, love rises up and astonishes us with its power.

May your life be renewed by love; and may you find new life in the firm knowledge that you, too, are worthy of love.

Saint Barnum?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.

Reading

The first reading this morning is from the autobiography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P. T. Barnum, the great showman and circus promoter. In this passage Barnum talks about how he became a showman; and as is typical of him, he is not bashful.

“By this time, it was clear to my mind that my proper position in this busy world was not yet reached. I had displayed the faculty of getting money, as well as getting rid of it; but the business for which I was destined, and, I believe, made, had not yet come to me; or rather, I had not found that I was to cater for that insatiate want of human nature — the love of amusement; that I was to make a sensation on two continents; and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear before the public in the character of a showman. These thins I had not foreseen. I did not seek the position or the character. The business finally came in my way; I fell into the occupation, and far beyond any of my predecessors on this continent, I have succeeded.

“The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama, which entrances empires and secures for the gifted artist a world-wide fame which princes well might envy. Such art is merchantable, and so with the whole range of amusements, from the highest to the lowest. The old word ‘trade’ as it applies to buying cheap and selling at a profit, is as manifest here as it is in the dealings at a street-corner stand or in Stewart’s store covering a whole square. This is a trading world, and men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission, and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

The second reading this morning is from a letter written by P. T. Barnum on November 18, 1882. This letter reveals a lesser-known side of the great showman and circus promoter. The letter was written to Dixon Spain, a leader in the English temperance movement.

“I have been both sides of the fence in this liquor-drinking custom, and I know whereof I speak. From 1840 to 1848 I was a pretty free drinker and prouder of my ‘wine cellar’ than any of my other possessions. Thirty-two years ago I became a total abstainer. Had I not done so, I should doubtless have been in my grave long since, for I had gone so far in the miserable and ruinous habit or ‘treating,’ being treated, and ‘liquoring up’ that this unnatural appetite would have soon become stronger than resolution, and I should have succumbed as thousands do every year…. Indeed, this pernicious habit is the cause of by far the greatest portion of poverty, crime, and suffering found in any country where it exists.”

SERMON “Saint Barnum?”

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints. Yet sometimes I think we should have some kind of Unitarian Universalist saints. We need role models who aren’t quite as great as the great sages and prophets like Jesus and Buddha and Lao Tzu. I know I should be as caring as Jesus was, and as calm as Buddha was, and as insightful as Lao Tzu was, but I’m not. I’d like to have some more realistic role models to follow, people who set a good example for me and whom I can realistically hope to emulate in this life.

I have a candidate for a Unitarian Unviersalist saint: P. T. Barnum. Phineas Taylor Barnum is probably the most famous person to have ever been a Universalist. Everyone knows the name P. T. Barnum — certainly as one of the orginators of a circus that still bears his name, and as the man who was alleged to have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” (for although there’s no evidence that he ever said that, he certainly made his living at least in part from preying on the inherent credulity of human nature).

Already, you may be having some doubts about Barnum serving as a Unitarian Universalist saint. He doesn’t quite sound like the kind of person we should try to emulate. He was always trying to put one over on the public, as we heard in the children’s story this morning. He perpetrated many frauds, such as the famous Feejee Mermaid which was actually a strange example of the taxidermist’s art where a fish tail was sewn to the body of a woman. He was famous for recognizing that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and welcomed even the most scurrilous news reports about his various enterprises, and about himself. He boasted and bragged about himself, and in many ways represented all the worst of popular culture. If he lived today, he would probably be a rock star. Just imagine if a rock star like Madonna or Mick Jagger were a Unitarian Universalist — are those the kind of people we would want to make into a Unitarian Universalist saint? In short, it’s hard not to feel a little ambivalence about P. T. Barnum.

Yet when I read his famous autobiography, which he titled “Struggles and Triumphs,” I can’t help but fall under his spell. Yes, he was a boaster and a bit of a humbug, but he had his share of sadness and disaster too: the time his house burned just as he was getting married; the time he was swindled out of almost his entire fortune by some sharp operators; the death of his first wife. In his autobiography, he speaks openly and honestly about these things; and that makes him more human.

He also speaks openly and honestly about fooling the public, and he speaks about it so openly you are charmed rather than outraged. Like the time when his first museum got too crowded because people would spend the entire day there, so as to get their money’s worth. Barnum was losing money because he couldn’t fit any more people into the building. So he put a huge sign reading, “This Way to the Egress.” After seeing the rest of the museum, people wondered what on earth an “egress” could be (could it be a giant bird? or some other amazing animal? or what?), and they followed the sign down the steps and through the door — only to find themselves out on the street again, with no way back in. You are charmed by such a story, even as you realize how Barnum took advantage of the ignorance of the crowds, assuming they would not quite know what an “egress” was. We are charmed because Barnum knows human nature so well, and while he takes advantage of human nature you can also tell that he has a deep affection for humanity. And Barnum recognizes that he, too, is only human, and he’s just as open and honest about telling stories about how others fooled him, or uncovered one of his little deceptions.

My fascination with Barnum has grown because of the peculiarities of his moral world. Barnum’s moral world is not shaded in black or white; everything is shades of gray. Most of his actions are not entirely honest; but he’s never entirely dishonest. He justifies his many small dishonesties by pointing out that people want and need to be amused, and his dishonesties are always in the service of amusement. Or, as he so quaintly says it: “Men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature.” By “Author of our nature” Barnum means “God.” Barnum believes he is engaged in a vocation God has called him to. Even a dishonesty like the Feejee Mermaid is acceptable to God, insofar as it provided some amusement, some light entertainment for those lighter moods and hours, for men, women, and children. Barnum entertained people by using light-hearted deceit, while giving his audience a metaphorical wink out of the corners of his eye as if to say, We both know this is a bit of a humbug, but it sure is fun, isn’t it?

Yet for all the shades of gray in Barnum’s moral world, I can find at least two subjects where he claimed moral certainty. He was an advocate of temperance and was convinced that the drinking of alcohol was unreservedly bad; and he was a Universalist, convinced that all human beings would one day wind up in heaven.

I find Barnum’s advocacy of temperance particularly interesting. It does not seem to fit in with the rest of his character. How could the man who had no scruples about exhibiting the Feejee mermaid worry about a little social drinking? One biographer of Barnum believes that his dislike of alcohol came out of his fear of losing his self-control. In his book Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum, Neil Harris writes that around 1847, Barnum [quote] “observed a great deal of intoxication ‘among men of wealth and intellect’ and began to brood about what might happen if he became a drunkard himself. Barnum had never been in any danger of that [continues Harris]; his drinking had been moderate… but fear of losing self-control had always plagued him.” [p. 192]

The temperance movement was a big part of 19th C. Unitarian and Universalist history, and those 19th C. temperance advocates could sound quite patronizing: drinking should be abolished because it inflames the passions of the working classes; — or the reasons sound Puritanical: drinking alcohol is an indecent pleasure and therefore oughtn’t be allowed.

But as a temperance advocate, Barnum was neither Puritanical nor patronizing. He was not patronizing because, as his biographer Neil Harris points out, “his concern lay with efficiency, and he happily displayed statistics proving the financial rewards of temperance to the family and to the taxpayers of the community.” Nor could Barnum be accused of Puritanism; there was nothing of the Puritan about him; even his talks on temperance were known to be entertaining and amusing.

We could learn a lot from Barnum today. Today, we not only face the ongoing problem of alcohol abuse, we also face an epidemic of illegal drug use. And so many of the arguments against the abuse of alcohol and drugs still sound patronizing and Puritanical. We can learn from Barnum to make arguments based on efficiency and functionality.

Let me give one specific example so you can see how it could possibly work. Barnum would make sure that any church he belonged to would allow no alcohol to be served at church functions. His arguments would be functional: The church is open to serious legal liability if alcohol is served at any church function, especially considering that church endowments are tempting targets for lawsuits. His arguments would emphasize efficiency: The church’s insurance carrier is liable to raise insurance rates if alcohol is served at any church function. His arguments would be practical: Since the congregation includes people under the legal drinking age, a church that serves alcohol is in danger of allowing illegal drinking. It’s a matter of not wanting to see the church’s endowment decimated by a lawsuit.

Personally, I am not a teetotaller like Barnum. Yet I find myself nodding in agreement to his arguments for temperance. He doesn’t try to tell me I’m a bad person because I have a glass of beer once a week. Remarkably, he is not judgmental. I suppose it would be hard for someone who perpetrated a fraud like the Feejee mermaid to be judgmental. But I also believe that Barnum’s refusal to be judgmental stems from his deeply-felt Universalism. Because the fundamental fact in Barnum’s moral universe is that all persons are essentially good and worthy.

In his pamphlet, “Why I Am a Universalist,” Barnum says the ultimate result of existence will be that all persons get to enjoy eternal life. Yet as we heard in the opening words this morning, eternal life doesn’t carry the conventional meaning, eternal life doesn’t mean “a heaven filled with saints and sinners shut up all together within four jeweled walls and playing on harps.” (Can you imagine someone like P. T. Barnum wanting to go to a heaven where he had to play on a harp all day?) Instead, Barnum says that heaven means a “moral and spiritual status.” Salvation lies in finding eternal life here and now. And the example of Barnum’s life implies that we don’t have to be perfect to get to that point. We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to be worthy of love.

Barnum tells us that “this present life is the great pressing concern.” He tells us that some kind of salvation is available to us all; and that is the real moral certainty in his moral universe. Today, we might use different words to say the same thing; we might talk about inherent worth and dignity of all persons and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We might talk about acceptance of each other just as we are. Yet we still agree with Barnum in the essentials: conduct is three-quarters of life; and this present life is the pressing concern.

So it is that I propose P. T. Barnum for Unitarian Universalist sainthood because of his acceptance of humanity as it really is. No one is perfect, and Barnum is a perfect example of one who’s not perfect. He knows that he has had his moral lapses, his failures and successes, his struggles and triumphs, just as we all have had. As a Universalist, Barnum also knows that no one is better than anybody else, that in spite of his successes he’s no better than you or me, that even in his worst failures he was still as good as you or me, that underneath our various successes and failures we’re all the same. We’re all simply human.

P. T. Barnum is not exactly a moral exemplar. But I still think he deserves to be one of our Unitarian Universalist saints. He deserves to be a saint because he sets a pretty good example for us; he sets an example we feel is possible to live up to. He deserves to be one of our saints because he tells us that we ordinary people are just as good as the best of humanity. He is deeply human and therefore deeply flawed — but he knows that every person is ultimately worthy of the eternal life that has no reference to time or place but only to the simple fact that each person is worthy of love.

For all his bluster and bragging, he’s really saying something quite simple: we’ll all worthy of love.