as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 2, 2020
Today we launch our annual stewardship campaign. It is the season in congregational life when you decide how much money you will pledge to support First Houston in the coming fiscal year. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, churches are owned and governed by their members. Making an annual financial commitment is an affirmation of membership that signals that you have made a personal, spiritual, and monetary commitment to be part of this congregation, build the beloved community, and uplift Unitarian Universalist values.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Some of you might know her. She was on First Houston’s ministerial staff for a couple of years in the early part of the last decade. She moved on to serve a congregation in Austin. She drew inspiration for the phrase from the theology of our Universalist religious ancestors.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable… to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this? … This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation–the reality that we share a common destiny–is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
One of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. In the early nineteenth-century, he was a circuit rider who traveled widely spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. One such story was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding, he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it late at night carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by, we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you would not throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero–traipsing about and spreading the gospel of universalism. This portrayal elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from First Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like First Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was an ancient Christian theologian who lived in North Africa. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting… For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived close to two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism. It helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new acquaintance. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.”
You explain. You might tell them that Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. You perhaps share that we offer to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address the climate crisis, and struggling for democracy. It could be that you quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or perhaps it is that you cite Marta Valetin. She reminds us our world contains the good and the holy when she writes:
The golden present ever reaches for you
and wonders if you’ll come
to unwrap its gifts.
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
Now, what comes next? Do you invite your friend to come with you to First Houston?
I wonder what happened next in Ballou’s story. Did the farm family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. And if we serious about heeding that calling, we are called to build and sustain institutions like First Houston that empower us in our efforts to love the Hell out of the world. We cannot love the Hell out of the world by ourselves. We need others to do it with us.
I will return to the subject of the importance of building and sustaining institutions like First Houston at the end of the sermon. But, first, let us be honest, there is a lot of Hell in the world right now. For many of us, the current political situation seems bleak. The last several years have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms. And, as I have told you before, I fear the country to be sliding towards totalitarianism. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality of a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power and projects a totalizing view of society. Totalitarian leaders might gloat, as the current President does, of leading a country with “unmatched power, strength, and glory” and boast to their enemies “if conflict comes—we will dominate the battlefield, and we will, win, win, win.” They might propose, as the President has in reference to immigration courts, “we should get rid of judges.”
Rather than respecting the rule of law, totalitarians concentrate power in the head of state–often following the maxim of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In efforts to consolidate power, pit the populace against itself, and stoke a climate of fear, totalitarian leaders identify a racial or minority group who are cast as representing an existential threat to the social order. They claim this group must be purged from the body politic for the health of the country.
Such logic has been present in the current administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. This past week the federal government extended it to seven new countries as part of the President’s policy of, in his words, creating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has portrayed Muslims as purveyors of terror who threaten the safety of country and who must be excluded to ensure its security.
He has further brutalized this country’s policy towards migrants launching what he has called a “zero tolerance” approach. This has been manifested in a family separation policy that has removed least 5,400 children from their parents–babies, toddlers, and adolescents all torn from their parents’ embracing arms. It has also been manifested in the expansion of what many scholars of totalitarianism have disturbingly named the concentration camps along the border. Concentration camps are not necessarily extermination camps, where people are sent to be killed, they are places where, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody.” They are locations where migrants are put out of sight so that their suffering will remain out of mind. And suffer they do, with more than thirty of them dying in governmental custody since the President took office.
At the same time, white supremacist terrorism has dramatically increased and there have been numerous mass shootings. The situation is a stark reminder that in a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. People who live in a totalitarian society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that it is always possible for them to meet a terrible end at the hands of agents of the state, paramilitaries, or, today, supposedly lone actors whose violence is fueled by a shared white supremacist ideology. Arendt describes the phenomenon this way: in a totalitarian regime, “Terror strikes without any preliminary provocation… its victims… objectively innocent… chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” In such a society, “nobody… can ever be free of fear.” It is hard to find better words to describe the epidemic of gun violence. In 2018 firearm deaths reached a fifty-year high, costing almost forty thousand lives. Meanwhile, as mosque shootings, synagogue massacres, temple invasions, and other hate crimes have shown, white supremacist violence has reached historic levels.
All of this has formed the background for what can only be described as an assault on democratic norms. Foreign actors have been invited to interfere with federal elections by the President himself. Ample evidence–including accounts by some of his former advisors–exists that he pressured the Ukrainian government to influence the upcoming election by investigating one of his political opponents. This evidence led to the House passing two articles of impeachment. A Senate trial has now taken place–a trial without evidence or witnesses, a trial whose results appear to be foreordained, a trial in which the President’s acquittal seems to be guaranteed.
The situation could be described as one of permanent emergency. This permanent emergency is a struggle over who shall rule. The coming years may well witness the further undermining of liberal democratic norms, the continuing erosion of the Voting Rights Act, an increase in gerrymandering, the appointment of two more reactionary Supreme Court justices, and the complete the normalization of white supremacist anti-human immigration policies. They might even pose an existential threat to humanity in the form of an administration that is committed to a denial of the climate emergency as the brief window to address it closes. The historical moment is evocative of George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The temptation in such a situation is to prepare, as more than one partisan has suggested, to go “all in” on the upcoming election. Now, I do not want dissuade anyone from mobilizing or participating in voter turnout and registration efforts. In fact, in the coming months I will be urging First Houston to participate in the campaign for the 2020 election that the Unitarian Universalist Association has named UU the Vote. But I also want to remind you that “going ‘all in’ is a gambling term” where, as activist Andrew Sernatinger warns, “you either win big or leave with nothing.”
Whatever happens in the upcoming election, and whatever side of the partisan divide you might fall on, we should not leave 2020 with nothing. Whoever wins the presidential contest the forces of love and justice should complete the year stronger than before.
One of the best ways we can do this is to live into the vision of our Universalist religious ancestors and commit ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world. It is to devote ourselves to building a beloved community that offers a foretaste of the world we dream about, a world where all are accepted and love is the organizing principle of the hour. Love has the power to create communities where isolation is vanquished. Love creates empathic bonds and inspires ideals that prove totalitarian narratives false. Loving bonds and loving communities, along with the loving truth that, to cite William Ellery Channing, we are each a “member of the great family of all souls,” are targeted by the totalitarians’ narratives of fears. But never yet, not in all of human history, have they been fully successful in completely breaking the traditions that foster love.
Khia’s moving testimonial of being welcomed by this congregation as a queer woman of color is a testament to the possibility of First Houston to live out a theology of love. Such a theology of love is why I am asking you to participate in this year’s stewardship campaign and support First Houston. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition churches are owned and governed by their members. Your financial gifts account for more than 75% of our annual income. This year we are hoping to raise $550,000 in pledges at the Museum District campus–a 10% increase from last year–so that we can continue to grow the congregation and our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. Committing to sustain and grow First Houston is one way that you can help ensure that no matter who wins the 2020 Presidential contest, no matter if the country as a whole continues its slide towards totalitarianism, there will continue to be religious communities where we teach that love is more powerful than hate. Where people can dream what historian Robin Kelley calls freedom dreams, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism… just free.”
Just free… the theme of worship this month is imagination. It is imagination that reminds us that however imprisoned we might feel by the historical moment there is always the possibility of casting a larger vision where we might, in the words of our choral anthem, dream of “[s]oaring and spinning and touching the sky” like the “boy who picked up his feet to fly.”
It is the imagination that helps us envision what our congregation and Unitarian Universalism can become: a place where, in the words of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, we can go “when the task feels too great, when life is too much, and it’s all too heavy, we can stop, breathe and lean into each other.”
Imagination is tied to stewardship because it inspire us to envision how we can transform and sustain our religious community across time into a place devoted to loving the Hell out of the world, inspiring collective liberation, and dismantling white supremacy. Where we can come together and constitute here, in the city of Houston, a different sort of vision for the world than the one pedaled by hate mongers and white supremacists, a community where all are loved and welcomed be they migrant, Muslim, transgendered, cis-gendered, white, black, Latinx, indigenous, or any other member of the human family. In such a place we can embody a kind of democracy that inspires the rest of society. Such a vision is not absurd. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams observed our religious ancestors “considered their free church to be a model for a democratic” society. We might foster such an ideal again and love the Hell out of the world.
Is such a vision foolishness or unwarranted? Perhaps the boot that Orwell predicted will soon come grinding down. Perhaps we will prove incapable of imagining our community thus and living as the beloved community. I cannot answer that question. I can only assert that amongst the purposes of religious community is the gifting of hope. And it is my hope that somehow, somewhere, maybe even now, maybe even here, as we consider our annual stewardship drive, a new vision for this country and our world will arise among us. It may grow from the smallest of seeds and in the most unlikely of places: the streets where we mass to protest, the neighborhoods we live in, or in religious communities like ours.
In that spirit, I close with a parable about that old metaphor for the beloved community, for creating a space for loving the Hell out of the world, the Kingdom of God, as attributed to Jesus: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered… Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Whoever has ears, let them love the Hell out of the world.
Let the congregation to say Amen.