as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 30, 2018
We begin this morning’s sermon with a fancy word, soteriology. Soteriology is probably not a term that is familiar to most of you. In theological discourse it signifies the study of salvation. Salvation, that is what I want to talk with you about today.
Salvation, just by mentioning that word I suspect that a few of you are now glancing around for the exits. You might be wondering if you wandered into the wrong church. Salvation is not a word you hear used in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. It might even be a triggering word for those of you who came to Unitarian Universalism from a more conservative evangelical faith.
Salvation is a concept that permeates most other religious communities. Our friends the evangelical Christians have a salvation story. They want you to join their churches so you can be saved from sin through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our Muslim friends teach that you must be believe in God if you wish to enter heaven. Our Jewish friends tell us that God will someday redeem the world. Buddhism and Hinduism, in their various forms, instruct that it is possible to reach an enlightened state and escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus… The philosopher Josiah Royce claimed that salvation narratives are fundamental to the religious community. Writing in the early twentieth-century, using the highly gendered language of his day, he claimed that humanity was in need of salvation based on two ideas. “The first,” he argued, “is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims… The other idea is this: That man as he is now is… in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render his whole life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of his true goal.”
Royce’s convoluted prose might be rephrased as this: There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it.
I want to ask you something: Why are you here? I mean, why are you actually here at the First Unitarian Universalist Church? And why are we here? Why do we gather Sunday after Sunday? Why do we devote our time and our money to maintain this institution? Why do we care about hospitality, the radical act of welcoming the stranger into our community?
I am not going to answer those questions. I am going to tell you a story. It is not my story. It comes from the historian of Christianity Elaine Pagels. Like many scholars of religion, Pagels long had a tenuous relationship with congregational life. Which is to say, despite devoting her life to studying Christianity she did not go to church very often.
This changed “a bright Sunday morning” when she “stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up.” She was “startled” by her response to the service that was underway. The choir moved her. The prayer of “the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments” grounded her. And she thought, “Here is a family that knows how to face death.”
Pagels was in the midst of a deep crisis. Her two-and-a-half-year-old son had just been diagnosed with a fatal illness. She had gone for a morning run and left him in the loving arms of his father. And she found herself in church. She writes, “Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a … community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”
She continues, “…the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt… In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible.”
Pagels came to church that day because she was in the midst of one of the most profound crises that any of us can face: her child was going to die. She came by accident, not knowing what she was seeking, looking for meaning, for comfort, in an unfriendly universe.
Why did you come here the first Sunday you came? Was it seeking comfort? Hope? Bright uplift from the wallows of despair? Or did something else bring you here? An escape from the weight of human loneliness? A desire for a religious home for your family?
These questions loop back to Josiah Royce’s claim about salvation as the heart of the religious experience. Making sense of despair, or recognizing that despair makes no sense, brushes up against whatever it is that is the purpose behind life.
It could be that there is some great purpose which will allow us to transcend our despair. That, as we read in 1 Peter 3:4, “we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.”
It might be that this purpose is that there and completely undecipherable. Forty-two, that is the answer to the query, “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” found in Douglas Adams’s novel “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” It is an answer. It does not make any sense.
Alternatively, it might be there is no purpose to life, no meaning to despair, beyond what we give it. The ancient Greek Glykon may have been right when he wrote:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens.
Or he might have been mistaken. After all, many people–myself, Elaine Pagels…–have had moments in their lives when we have experienced a profound sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. An instant when we find ourselves startled with a realization and exclaim, as did denise levertov,
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
The dance floor sways. New life comes into being. Glossy orange squash blossoms cast a translucent sparkle on the market table. Rain arrives in an unexpected torrent. That new friend, that other accident of being, stumbles into your life at precisely the perfect time. Or, like Pagels, you find yourself caught at the edge of the desperation, maybe even on the precipice of unbeing. But then something opens up, the purpose of life flickers into view, and we mumble, with Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
When this happens then we might find ourselves agreeing with Royce that there is a purpose to life, and that we are ever in danger of missing it.
Unitarian Universalism has been called a faith without certainty. We gather as a religious community willing to be humble in discerning the purpose of life. The covenant that is our Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles does not promise that there is a purpose to life. It does not offer us a salvation narrative, not even in the Roycean sense. It just binds us together in “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
This statement is an admission that we agree to seek the purpose of life together even if we cannot agree on the nature of that purpose. When we speak of hospitality we mean, in part, that we are a religious home for those who are willing to admit that it might be impossible to ever completely decipher the purpose of life. This is a position of humility. And it allows us to say, with the President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray:
If you are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist,
a theist or an atheist,
you are welcome here.
We can extend hospitality to all these theological viewpoints because we are willing to embrace uncertainty. To rephrase our friend, we say, “The purpose of life you find might be different than the one I find. But we can each gain something from our conversation. So, come, let us seek it together.”
Such a statement summarizes one Unitarian Universalist view of salvation. But it does not offer the totality of our soteriology. Here we might turn to the Unitarian Universalist minister Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley for guidance. She tells, “If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.”
This is a social view of salvation. It suggests that we do not find the purpose of life on our own. We find it, together, in community. You may come here with your pain. And I may bring mine. When we gather we might find it is easier to face pain. Sometimes, we even discover something more than that. Sometimes, we discover that we can do something about the world’s pain. Sometimes, we discover that by coming together we can change the world.
The Unitarian Universalist social view of salvation teaches us that we are collectively stronger than we are on our own. Here I want to share an illustration, perhaps inappropriate to this pulpit, that I learned from an old union buddy of mine. He used it in union organizing campaigns. And he learned from an aged radical, someone who was in their nineties in the 1990s and who had taken part in some of the great labor strikes of the 1930s.
My buddy would go talk to this sage, hoary with the scars of struggle, from time to time. And this old man would share stories. At the conclusion of each one he would turn to my buddy and tell him, “Remember, the working class is like a hand. Each finger is weak by itself. But you unite them and them form a fist.”
I warned you. Maybe not the perfect sermon illustration for your pulpit. But it is a tactile reminder of the point: We are more capable of changing the world when we come together. Indeed, we understand that the only way to change the world is by acting together.
Congregations like this one offer us unique possibilities for uniting in the work of changing the world. There is a story about congregational life that demonstrates this that I learned years ago when I was a member of a congregation that placed social justice at the center of its life. Many of the stalwarts of the community were longtime veterans of justice work. They had participated in the civil rights movement. They had marched against wars. They had been pioneers in the women’s rights movement, in the labor movement, and in the environmental movement.
A couple of the older members had turned civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. It gave their lives a great sense of meaning. This was a small congregation and it practiced joys and concerns. Each Sunday members were invited to get up and share some of the sorrow and some of the gladness in their hearts. One Sunday, one of the civil disobedience practitioners got up in front of the congregation. He wanted to share that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time.
The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin. He had been arrested with another member of the congregation, his longtime friend Elwood. Elwood’s health was precarious. He suffered from Parkinsons. He was then at a point where he was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he had wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put an execution hood of Elwood, strapped him in place, and lifted him into the middle of the street, blocking the entrance of San Quentin.
Sometime, later at Elwood’s trial, the judge threw out the charges. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. In the judge’s reasoning, this meant that Elwood could not be held responsible for blocking traffic.
I love this story. It illustrates the Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation at its best. We come together to accomplish things that we cannot do on our own. And we act from a faith that the world could be different than it is. And we do so with a knowledge that our individual actions may never tip the balance but that someday, somehow, our collective efforts might just do the trick. California still practices the death penalty. Hal and Elwood are long gone. But whenever their old state finally ends capital punishment they will have played some small part in the struggle.
Our view of social salvation is not unlike the old union song in our hymnal:
Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
This understanding of social salvation gives me comfort in difficult times. What about you? Sharing such a message is one way we practice hospitality. I recognize that we live at time when it is easy to give into despair. And that many people are coming to Unitarian Universalist congregations right now for hope. And they are seeking not just hope that their own lives might resonate with some deeper purpose. They are seeking hope that the world could be different than it is. For the news of the week seems ever bleak.
This seems especially true of this past week. And now I am going to talk about something that might be especially upsetting for many of you. The current nominee for the Supreme Court stands accused of a pattern of misogyny. Three separate women have come forward and claimed he tried to sexually assault them. And yet, unless something changes, he appears poised to ascend to the highest court in the land. The shaming of women, the shaming of survivors of sexual assault, the claim that “boys will be boys,” the attacks on the integrity of his primary accuser, the blatant misogyny of one of the major political parties, all collect into a stark reminder that this country has changed little in the last twenty-seven years. And that this country is systematically unsupportive of survivors of sexual assault. And that it values the privileges of powerful, mostly white, men over those of everyone else.
Our Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation tells us that things can be different. We recognize that the world’s problems have their social dimensions. If sexual assault is to be addressed and men like the current Supreme Court nominee held accountable, then the culture must change. We have power to change that culture, even if it takes us beyond my lifetime, beyond your lifetime, beyond the lifetimes of any of our children, to do so.
Almost two centuries ago, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled the United States trying to learn something about this country. The result was a book called “Democracy in America.” One of the core observations that Tocqueville made in his book was that American society is a network of little groups that people join voluntarily. These voluntary associations were, he felt, the root of democratic practice in this country. Participation in religious communities, in civic associations, in professional groups, in labor unions… This was where people learned democratic habits which he called habits of the heart.
Change these habits and you change the country. That is a Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation. And it means that no matter how despairing we might be about the current political landscape we can always work to change our own community. We do so with the knowledge that we are participating in the difficult work of making the world better. We can teach our children about consent knowing that in our actions we are making a small contribution to changing the culture of the next generation. We can ensure that our congregations are safe spaces for women and survivors of sexual assault. We can do so with the knowledge that by opening up one such safe space we can help make room for others. And when we do this we can admit that we are imperfect, caught in the same culture that has offered immunity to men like the potential Supreme Court justice. And that it is by changing ourselves that we can begin to change the world.
This is part of our mission to proclaim to the world a greater love. It falls alongside our obligation to be a community where people can seek the purpose of life. Sharing both forms of salvation—individual and social—is why we practice hospitality.
And whether you pursue both individual and social salvation, or only find that you need one, you are welcome here. Such a vision is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist hospitality and, with it, our understanding of salvation, our soteriology.
In the spirit of welcome,
in pursuit of the higher purpose of life,
gathered for the work of social salvation,
let the congregation say, “Amen.”