as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, August 8, 2021
“[O]ne God, no one left behind.” This morning’s sermon is on that often awkward topic: Unitarian Universalist evangelism–the sharing of the good news. We Unitarian Universalists have good news. We should be sharing it.
“[O]ne God, no one left behind.” Most Unitarian Universalists I know, including many of you, I suspect, are somewhat cautious or reluctant to share the good news of our faith. If you are anything like me, this is in part because of bad experiences with evangelists from other faith traditions.
I once knew a fundamentalist Christian minister who had a reputation for being a very skillful evangelist. His approach was straightforward and simple. He taught it to his kids. So instructed, they attempted to convert their playmates.
Their effort went something like this: They would get to know someone–perhaps invite them over for an afternoon playdate. Find out what their new friend was afraid of–children have many fears: the dark, creeping bugs, squishy mud, loud noises… Explain to the other child that they have an immortal soul–that death is not the end of existence but the beginning of eternity. Inform their playmate that after life they would either spend infinite time in Heaven or Hell. Share the bad news that Heaven was only for those who accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Hell was for everyone else. Describe Hell in graphic detail as the perpetual, infinite, experience of being subjected over and over again to whatever it was they feared the most–darkness without end, unimaginable numbers of insects, oozing sticky sludgy soil, crashing clattering clamors… Offer the good news to their friend, who by this point was likely to be terrified, that it was possible to escape eternal torment by embracing Jesus.
Sound familiar? He and his kids seemed to be very enthusiastic about it. I learned about their enthusiasm when one of them tried to use it on my daughter.
I won’t recount the conversation that I had with the fundamentalist minister when I found out about that his child had tried to convert mine. I used words that are not exactly suitable for the pulpit.
I will share that I reassured her with a healthy dose of the good news of Unitarian Universalism. I told her that Hell is a story that some people made up to scare other people. And that no one really knows what happens when you die. But that God was another word for love. And that God loves everyone, no exceptions. Whatever happened after the end of life, we all shared the same fate.
This rejection of Hell and assertion of the common fate of humanity is part of our religious heritage from our Universalist ancestors. Contrary the fundamentalist minister, they believed that God’s love was all encompassing, all embracing, and all powerful. Mark Morrison-Reed has described how historically Universalism “came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’… 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.”
“[O]ne God, no one left behind.” I sometimes translate Sinkford’s words into the language of humanism. We inhabit a shared reality and share a single destiny. We are all part of the same human family, living on the same fragile, glorious, wondrous, muddy blue green ball of a planet. The philosopher Cornel West has put it somewhat more lyrically: “we’re beings toward death, we’re featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us, beings toward death.”
We share a common fate. We share the planet. There is only one human family. It is a simple message. It is the acknowledgement of what you and I already know. We are here. We are breathing the same air. “We are,” the nineteenth century Unitarian Frances Ellen Watkins Harper put it… “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
The idea that we are all part of the same human family, share the planet, and have a common destiny is a radical and dangerous idea. Yet, we deny its truth at our peril. If these last months have taught us anything, if there is anything to be learned from the pandemic and attempts to mitigate it through vaccines, masks, and physical distancing, if there is anything to be understood about the climate crisis–with its raging forest fires, unanticipated floods, and unseasonal weather–it is that we are all in this thing called life together.
We are all in this thing called life together, I have long loved Louise Glück’s poem “Celestial Music.” It points to the difficulty of living into this truth.
I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
…In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
In the poem, Glück and her friend both inhabit the same world. They understand it completely differently. One hears “celestial music.” The other “nothing.” Yet they are walking the same road, traveling in the same direction, sharing the same destiny.
The poem appeals to me because it reflects a core teaching of Unitarian Universalism. Religious experience–the experience of connection to something greater than our selves–is primary. Religious language–the words and stories we use to describe that experience–is secondary.
Glück and her friend encounter the same things–“a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it… the silence pierced by birdcall” and have similar experiences of them. “It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact / That we’re at ease with death, with solitude,” she writes. Yet there is a radical difference in the language they use to describe their experiences. One “literally talks to God.” The other expresses herself in atheistic verse.
“[O]ne God, no one left behind,” I do not take Sinkford’s words as a theistic statement. I understand them as a claim that there is core element to whatever it is to be religious that transcends the particularities of a specific religion. The Latin root of religion is religare, which is often translated as to bind together. There are things that extend beyond whatever language we want to use that bind us together.
“[N]o one left behind,” whatever it is to be human, Sinkford is telling us, contains a certain set of common experiences that none of us can escape. The fundamentalist minister who taught his children to be evangelists and I, we had much in common simply by both being human. We are of the same species–both flightless, featherless, bipeds gifted with the ability to use language to attempt to make sense of the plight of mortality. It is true that we understood that plight very differently. He thought our ultimate destiny was for the believers and the unbelievers to be separated in the end–the believers provided eternal bliss and the unbelievers consigned to eternal torment. I believe that we all share a common destiny.
“[O]ne God, no one left behind,” embedded less clearly in that phrase is the suggestion that alongside a common destiny we share a common origin. This is an idea that is every bit as radical as the belief that we share a common destiny.
The radicalness of this idea is why Charles Darwin has so long been hated by white supremacists and religious reactionaries. When he articulated his theory of evolution, he put forth the truth that there is only one human species. Whatever the color of our skin, whatever language blesses our tongues, wherever we live, we are all, in Darwin’s words, “lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species”–you and I each share a common set of ancestors, we are all related to each other.
The fancy word for such a description of human origins is “monogenesis”–one origin. It reveals race to be what it is, a social construct, an idea that was created to justify the exploitation of one group of people by another. As I have shared with you in other sermons, we can actual trace the social construction of race back through time as it was created through legislation and theological treaties.
Critical race theory, so much maligned in the conservative media and recently banned from public school classrooms here in Texas, is nothing more than the documentation of how race has been created and recreated across time. It provides the same threat to racism and white supremacy that Darwin’s theory of evolution does. It reveals that there is only one human family and that we are all bound up together. It also shows that the efforts to reject, to counteract, this truth have been part of a grand fictive enterprise, a story told and retold through legislation, myth, and misinterpretation of scripture by those who seek to preserve and extend a system of hierarchy and power which greatly benefits them.
To demonstrate that race has been socially constructed across time is to show that it continues to be constructed across time. I suspect that the reason why the Governor and Lieutenant Governor object so strenuously to critical race theory is that its study will reveal them to be engaged in the project of attempting to continue the social construction of race. The Governor’s farcical border wall, his party’s assault on the access to the ballot box, indeed, a great number of policies he would enact or has enacted are designed to preserve the social fiction of race.
“[O]ne God, no one left behind,” it is a phrase that lives little room for race or any other form of human difference. It celebrates our common destiny and shared origin. I anticipate that many of the same people who find critical race theory to be objectionable would take issue with it.
“[O]ne God, no one left behind,” the phrase leaves out an important aspect of our faith. For generations, we Unitarian Universalists have not experienced a conflict between science and religion. One of the markers of our religious tradition across time is that we have faith in the power of human reason to at least partially understand the world around us. We think that science is a tool that can help us to understand what it means to be residents on this Earth, descendants of apes, and creatures conscious of our own mortality.
It is probably not incidental that Darwin came from a Unitarian family and attended a Unitarian congregation as a child. It is also not incidental that there is a connection between those who reject evolutionary science on religious grounds and embrace white supremacy, deny climate change, or support the most immediate past President of the United States.
I could linger on those points much longer–but I have discussed them with you in past sermons and, I am sure, will reflect upon them again in future ones. But for now, let me return to Glück’s poem:
My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–
To wake up… that is the final phrase I want to offer you this morning. In the poem, Glück’s friend is urging her to wake up to reality. Her reality is that there is a God to whom all things are connected. To wake up to that is to see, to experience, the world as it really is, that is the religious task, she wants Glück to understand.
I agree. I agree not with the religious language–some days I find the word God helpful, other days very much not–but with the proposition. Our religious quest is to wake up to what is: the truth that there is only one human family, that we have the same origin, that we share the same destiny, that we are all bound up together. In the past, I have named this waking up the resurrection of the living. It is the experience, so well described in Glück’s poem, of waking up to this world we live in and seeing it for what it is: a muddy blue green ball of planet on which we are born and on which we will die and on which the actions we take, the stories we tell, will make something–large or small–of a difference.
As Unitarian Universalists, this is our faith, our good news, that we have to share. We call it, “[O]ne God, no one left behind.” We might name it the resurrection of the living. You might use your own words. Or you might point to its aspirational teaching, articulated in our closing hymn, “We Would Be One.”
There we find the hope that all who sing the song will wake up to what is, the oneness of humanity, the acknowledgement of human community, the reality that we are all bound up together.
We would be one, in the hopes that all humanity will, someday, wake up to our common destiny and shared reality, I invite you to recall the words we sang:
We would be one in searching for that meaning
which binds our hearts and points us on our way.
As one, we pledge ourselves to greater service,
with love and justice, strive to make us free.
In recalling these words, might we set our intention to share the good news we to have offer. With that intention may we help ourselves and others come all a little closer to accepting the truth about our residency on Earth: we are all bound up together.
There is one God, no one is left behind.
Amen and Blessed Be.