Sermon: “Leading the Kingdom of God”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 22, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.


Good morning and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit and for you welcoming me.

The kingdom of God is such a basic Christian concept that sometimes it goes without careful examination. After a while, with our private thoughts, we might end up assuming entirely different concepts, some colored by cultural norms or personal desires. I'd like to defend us against that today, by dealing with some of the assumptions and conflicts we have when talking about, understanding and living in the kingdom of God. In the process I hope we will approach the kingdom of God not just as an idea of something to anticipate, but also participate in it as a practical reality today.

And it helps if we can consider this together. A kingdom, if anything, is communal. It's a political polity centered on a particular personality, and extended through family relationships. The kingdom of God is centered on our relationships with God, individual and collective.

But kingdom is a concept that's practically alien to us. Even a hundred years ago much of the world lived in kingdoms or in colonies subject to kingdoms. Some of those monarchs were constrained by parliaments or a shared authority, and others weren't. Some survive today, but they are the minority, and most of those are practical democracies.

It's easy then, perhaps a bit too easy, to speak of kings and queens and princes and princesses with a childlike glee or tasteful nostalgia; Disney has done its damage. While monarchies fell over the twentieth century, some were revived in order to bring about national unity (I'm thinking of Spain and Cambodia particularly) and proposed in other places. For the most part though, at least formally, more of the world is governed by the consent of the government than at any time in history. And recent events show how fragile and important this concept is. Making that work politically, while holding an idea of a divine kingdom religiously takes some work.

Why? Because attaining the kingdom of God can become an excuse for human beings to take on the divine prerogative in governing the world. Dystopian fiction (The Handmaid's Tale comes to mind) and real-life theocratic terror organizations (the so-called Islamic State, for instance) show that the kingdom of God can be made an ideological weapon. The profound moral collapse of organized Evangelicalism in the Trump administration rekindles fears of theocracy overcoming democracy in our governance. I can't blame anyone for resisting when religious people talk about God's plans for the world, myself included.

So we should be circumspect, perhaps cautious, not only for our neighbors' sake, but for our own as we approach the Almighty, who surely knows the hearts of would-be demigods and self-appointed spokespersons. For God has challenged prophets with power. Can we make life? Do we control the seasons or the rising of the sun and the setting of the same? Do our governments and still wonder and laughter? Do rulers comfort the inner soul?

The kingdom of God touches this world but is not restricted to it. And so as Christians we need to be careful to distinguish between what's God's and what belongs to the common human family, whether Christian or not.

But theocratic overreach is not only a problem with right wing and authoritarian power.

There's a temptation in liberal political and theological circles, even though these are different if someone overlapping things. That is, to hope for the kingdom of God without God, or to assume it would be more appealing if were described publicly as a strictly human endeavor. The twentieth-century rise of religious humanism made this transformation complete.

The problem is that there is no appeal to a higher authority when we start confusing what we like and what we esteem with what is actually good.

There's a little example from the history of our own church. Each week, we recite the declaration of faith that our church adopted a few years ago. It was based on a denomination declaration of faith from 1899, which itself was an authoritative interpretation of a statement of faith from 1803. (You'll hear more about these some other time.) The funny thing is that there was a denominational statement developed after 1899, the Washington Declaration of 1935, as an interpretation of the interpretation, updated for the modern age. As the name suggests was adopted by a convention in our own city: at the then-new Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, to be exact. (There were religious services at our then-new church building.) But even thought it was officially adopted in the denomination, as far as I can tell it was never used (or used regularly) by our own church. I suspect because it was over-optimistic, a last gasp of pre-World War One, pre-pandemic, pre-ecomomic collapse theology, being sold in the depth of the Great Depression to local church members, some of which were surely in government service or came to town with the New Deal. (I remember of the last, now gone almost twenty years.)

The 1935 declaration declared as an essential feature of Universalist faith, belief in

the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

Certainly some people do good, but this affirmation (in context) suggest a concerted, almost tidal effort to overcome the past and enter a new age by the work of our own hands on God's behalf. We did not march shoulder to shoulder into the dawn. The Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, and other horrors enacted by a set of equally dedicated men put that misplaced hope to rest.

But kingdom isn't the only concept for us to work with, as we turn to today's lessons.

How many of us work regularly with sheep and goats?

I think the closest I get is a goat cheese sandwich. I have a friend who had a flock of goats come over to eat up the weeds in her backyard, and that was such a strange but delightfully comic situation that she took video to share. You might know something about their little square eyes and horns, or the different kind of sheep and the wool they produce but these are optional things to learn today. In Jesus' time, sheep and goats were central to the economy and therefore well-being of the people who heard him. They knew these beasts.

We can infer from the gospel lesson that sheep and goats are not well-behaved. There's only so much grass to be eaten. The pushy sheep gets more. The domineering sheep eats. So a big sheep is a metaphor for someone who takes at the expense of others. Jesus taught his that the kingdom of God inverts our expectations. In those days, God will push aside the greedy and give good things to those who have gone without. This relies on God's purpose and will, an eternal intention, and not our own. If we correspond to God's ways, we will see the rightness of living in goodness, and put aside our own pushy, domineering ways. The more selfish and domineering, the more violent and cruel the more there is to give up. But the final say is God's. This is what we should understand when we hear threatening of "eternal punishment." This is punishment from the Eternal, namely God. And I trust God will act with justice befitting deity and not a human tyrant.

How will this change take place? That part is less clear. Some of it will surely happen in God's ineffable and eternal way. But the fact that the prophets proclaimed this, that Mary sang it, that Jesus preached it but that for millennia even the richest and most powerful people in the world have not expunged it — indeed, some having been transformed by it — gives me hope. I believe the kingdom of God will be revealed to us individually and collectively. Our portion is not to construct it, but to anticipate it. As Jesus said, "the kingdom of God is within you" so how shall it be known and released.

How then? Conscience has a role, as does teaching the young and advising the mature. Societies have a role in constraining the violent and viscous. We better identify it by reflection and prayer. Be patient for it.

I suspect that patience is the last thing some of you want to give. What makes the last four years so hard is to think about all of the progress that we had made be reversed or destroyed. We've lost four years on a very quickly winding down climate clock, and I'm worried that future courts can undo lifetimes of work in a flash. Time, when gone, doesn't get a do-over. Also, the current crisis over the truth is very troubling. Elections come and go, but whether people can be trusted to see the good and do it depends on them understanding the truth and doing it. People resisting masks because they think it's a conspiracy or thinking that that QAnon might be true or that the president actually won reelection all discourages me gravely. But human nature comes with its own set of self-deceptions and I know that I've not been true to the facts, have chosen something that benefits me over others and I might finesse it in ways that make it sound like less than self-benefit. Mask-denying conspiracy-theory grievance-seeking neighbors are doing something bad and ultimately destructive, but I'm not immune to this way of thinking and acting and neither are you.

Patience, seeking and the understanding that follows is a better place to stand. So the kingdom of God, as an ideal rather than a lived reality, depends on us knowing that our actions are always approximate and tinged with failure.

We keep it as an ideal, in part because we trust God, but also knowing that our contributions have to be tested, reviewed and open to criticism. What seems right in the moment will have consequences, and many of them unintended. We wish to do good but will often find the easiest way to accomplish it even if the results are not very desirable. Think about all the wasted recycling that props up a plastics industry that never believed in it. Or think about all of the tailors in low in middle-income countries put out of work because of floods of used clothing from rich countries. Our good intentions are not enough. Our plans are not enough. We need that spiritual core that guides us with care towards the good.

Dearly beloved: the kingdom of God is within you. Within you, but hidden yet ready to grow. The law of God exists, but is not written on our hearts. The age which is to be is present to the Eternal One, but is so distant from us as to be distorted, or at best seen in fleeting glimpses.

But do not despair. Day by day, if we are careful, caring and kind, we shall make more sense of the promises God has made for us.

God bless us today and forever more.


“Life and Trance of George De Benneville”

I was talking with a friend today about proto-Universalist George De Benneville and asking him if he knew about his mystical experience. He had, but hadn't read the account. I had it on my websites for years, but also realized my copy had errors it it. I quickly compared it to a 1882 reprint and I corrected my old file against it. In the two places where the versions diverse, I put my old version in brackets. There's also a long section in the 1882 version that's duplicated, presumbly a mistake, which I've silently removed.

I've also made an EPUB version of the document.

I'm not ready to fix my old sites, so I'm putting it here in the meantime.


Life and Trance of George deBenneville

An account of what he saw and heard during a trance of forty-two hours, both in the regions of happiness and misery; together with a short account of his cruel persecutions in France for preaching the Gospel. Translated from the French of his own manuscript.

I, George De Benneville, was born in London, July 26th, 1703. My father George De Benneville was a French refugee, persecuted for his religion. He retired with his family and connections into England upon the invitation of his majesty King William, who took a tender care of them, and employed them at his court.

My mother was of the Granville family. She had nine children in five years after marriage, having twins four years successively, and I being the last, she died as soon as I was born. She knew that she should die at that time, and therefore she was very often drawn whilst she was pregnant, to pray for me, and it appears that the Lord heard her prayers and granted her requests.

I was also very young when my father died, and was brought up by one of my uncles. After the death of my mother, Queen Anne herself provided me a nurse, and she had the care of my first years.

When arrived at the age of twelve years, I was very wild, believing myself to be of a different mass from mankind in general, and by this fond imagination I was self-exalted, and believed myself to be more than other men. But God soon convinced me to the contrary.

As it was designed that I should learn navigation, I was sent to sea in a vessel of war belonging to a little fleet bound to the coast of Barbary with presents, and to renew the peace with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck I saw some Moors who brought some refreshments to sell. One of them slipped down and tore a piece out of one of his legs. Two of his companions, having lain him on the deck, each of them kissed the wound, shedding tears upon it, then turned towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was much moved with anger at their making such a noise and ordered my waiter to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their noise, they perceived that I was angry, asked my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it and took part with him; and as tears were saltish, they were a good remedy to heal the same; and the reason of their turning towards the sun's rising was to invoke Him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother, and prayed he would please to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced, and moved within, that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me. My eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation, that I was obliged to cry out and say, "Are these Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!" Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian by a pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself but a heathen. But that was soon overcome and forgot. But God who always seeks to convince and save his poor creatures, did not leave his poor wandering sheep. For some time after my return home, being present by invitation at a ball, and having over-heated myself, I ordered my servant to prepare linen for me to change. And as I was putting it on, I fell into a fainting fit, and had a vision of myself burning as a firebrand in hell. And coming to myself again I cried out, "I am damned!" Prayers were desired in the French churches for one who had lost his senses and was melancholy. The ministers often visited me, and would fain have made me believe that I had not committed any very great sins, and that I had behaved according to my rank and station. Then I was obliged to answer them that if they had no other things than those to tell me, they could answer no purpose but as fig leaves to cover my shame, and my damnable estate; that it was in vain to come and visit me with such comfort, for that I felt myself condemned. Then they answered me in another manner than before, saying, since I would not receive their remonstrances it might be looked upon as a mark that peradventure I was destined from the beginning to condemnation.

Then they gave me up and came no more to visit me. After that, I continued in the state of condemnation during the space of fifteen months, believing that all the world but myself might be saved, and that I never could be saved because my sins, as I thought, were too many and too great to be forgiven. At length, after the fifteen months were expired, after having passed through many temptations, it happened to me one day, having laid myself down to repose, that I was awakened out of my sleep, and heard a voice within me, which pronounced the sentence of my condemnation, and left me no room to hope. I then discovered the root of all my sins and iniquities within my heart. That discovery brought me into an extreme agony, and despair entered into my soul which was now pressed on all sides with misery, caused especially by such great unbelief and hardness of heart, which was the most insupportable of all my troubles. I could discover no remedy for my disease but thought that my sentence of damnation was going to be executed. The sorrow of my soul was even to death. I desired to die but death fled from me. I could have no remedy but to leave myself to the justice of my judge for a condemned criminal as I was. I knew that his judgments were just and that I had merited much more than I felt.

Thus abandoning myself to justice, and waiting for its accomplishment in me, I discovered between justice and me the criminal, one of a most majestic appearance, whose beauty, brightness and grandeur, can never be described. He cast such a look of grace and mercy upon me, and such a look of love as penetrated through me, the fire of which so embraced my soul that I loved him again with the same love. He persuaded me in my heart that he was my savior, mediator and reconciliator. And while I thought thereon, he began to intercede for me in this manner, saying, "My father, behold me with thy paternal regard. I have made expiation for this sinner, who has received in himself the sentence of condemnation. I have taken human nature for him. I have suffered all kind of ignominy for him. I have shed my blood even to the last drop for him. I have suffered the shameful death of the cross for him. I have descended into the abyss of hell for him, that I might deliver him. I have been put to death for his offences, and raised again for his justification, and where his sins abound, our grace abounds much more. O my heavenly father, pardon this poor sinner, and cause thy mercy to come to him." The judge or justice had nothing more to say. The sentence disappeared. Then I heard his eternal universal voice, which penetrated through me with divine power, saying, "Take courage, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee." Immediately all the burden of my sins and inquities was gone, all the stings and reproaches ceased in a moment; a living faith came in their stead, and the tears of sorrow were all wiped from my eyes. I cast myself at the feet of my mediator, reconciler, savior and intercessor, and embraced him with an enlivening faith, melting into tears of love, humility and nothingness.

O my Lord and my God, thou hast saved me through pure grace. What shall I render to thee for all thy benefits? O my divine love, whom I honor and adore, give me a pure and holy heart, filled with thy virtue and thy love, even such as thou wouldst that I should have; and renew a right spirit within my heart. Now I know that thy marvelous mercy hath given me a savior before I knew my danger and slavery; a physician who had the care of my disease before that I felt or knew the same; a redeemer who undertook to pay the debt that I was neither willing nor able to pay. Oh, my benefactor, guide me by the efficacy of thy spirit to walk in the way of thy truth and universal love. Teach me thy eternal and universal word; speak my Lord and my God, for thy servant heareth. Give me thy grace, O my divine love, that I may have the eyes of my faith fixed constantly upon thee, and that I may follow thee whithersoever thou mayest please to lead me, that thy holy will may be accomplished in time and eternity, to the praise of thy glory, and my complete salvation.

O my dear soul, sink thyself down into nothingness and the deepest humiliation, and adore in spirit and in truth; honor the ocean of love, and the great wonders of the wisdom and power of thy God who hath employed all these boundless incomprehensible miracles to restore and to save thee, and not thee only, but all the human species, through Jesus Christ our Lord. "O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and power of God. How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out. For of him and through him and for him are all things." To him be glory eternal.

In the present case his goodness shines, for God hath loved me before that I was born. O what grace! God himself hath loved me in my fallen estate whence I was wholly lost. O what mercy! God hath even loved me when I was altogether unworthy, and that freely too. O what love

He hath given me his well-beloved son. And in giving his beloved son, he hath given me his paternal heart; and at the time that he took human nature he became my parent that by his parentage he might oblige himself to have a right to love and to have the care of me. I feel him, the just, for my offences and wickedness which he had taken to bear as his own, brought before the most righteous judgment seat, where he himself alone paid the last penny of the dreadful debt of all the world. I beheld him upon the cross deface and destroy the obligation that was against me, and after that he entered once for all into the holy place by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption for me. Approach then now, O my soul, to the throne of grace, and adore this unspeakable love which hath loved the first. Love him eternally, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, who has made thee to know by experience the great mysteries of his holy love, respecting all his creatures. Hallelujah! Amen.

O what an alteration from being a child of darkness to a child of light. Now I know in whom I have believed, and desire to consecrate myself to my Lord, my Sovereign Good, the remainder of my days.

My conversion made a great noise among the people, for they saw me praising and adoring my divine savior on all occasions, and before all company where I came without exception, calling and exhorting each one to submit to the love of God, just as they found themselves; and although their sins were many and great, his grace was greater to receive and pardon, but that we must come as we are, for he is the beginning and the end of the conversion of all the human species, and whosoever is not converted by Him and to Him is not converted at all.

The French ministers were very uneasy at what they heard concerning me, doubting that I was a true Protestant, and therefore they demanded a written confession of my faith. I told them paper would suffer anything to be written upon it, truth or falsehood, but that I was not ashamed to confess with my mouth what I believed in my heart, and that if they would let me know when they would meet together, I would be ready to appear before them to give them an account of my faith and the wonders which the most Holy Trinity had wrought within me.

The time was fixed and I appeared before them. They asked me many questions, but we could not agree, for they held predestination, and I held the restoration of all souls; because having myself been the chief of sinners, and that God, through Jesus Christ, by the efficacy of his Holy Spirit, had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and had plucked me as a brand out of hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power. They answered me that I must not take it ill that they could not own me as a member of their church. I replied that I was very well content to be cast out and that my consolation was that they were not able to blot my name out of the book of life.

Soon after, I got acquainted with some persons who led a very retired life, having received a deep knowledge of themselves through grace. We sometimes met together, but we soon were persecuted with reproach.

After that, I received a voice of grace inwardly to go and preach the gospel in France. I resisted it more than once or twice, fearing persecution. But I was struck with a sickness and had pain like the agony of death, was ready to die; and knowing it was because I had not harkened to that voice that had called me to bear witness to the truth in France, I humbled myself before my God through Jesus Christ my Lord, asked pardon for my offences, and promising to submit myself to follow his voice, upon which I was immediately healed; and grew more robust than I had even been before. Then I heard his voice once more, calling me to go to France to preach the gospel, and I found myself obliged in my soul to follow the voice, though with fear and trembling.

I took passage at Dover for Calais, and immediately upon my arrival I began to preach and proclaim the good news in the market, even the eternal salvation by Jesus Christ within us; and that each one of us might be saved by pure grace, and that whosoever knowing himself, feeling the burden of his iniquities, having recourse to Jesus Christ, resigning himself without reserve, with all his sins, even had he found himself in his damnable estate, should be delivered and obtain the pardon of all his sins.

As soon as I had done, I was taken before a magistrate, who made me to know that my conduct was contrary to the statute of the king. I was then conducted to prison where I was no sooner arrived than all the fear of persecution vanished. My soul was strengthened in the Lord Jesus. I felt the love of my divine savior very near, accompanied with his divine light. After some days had past, I was brought before the justice, and examined by what order I preached. I told him who I was, and that I was drawn by the special grace of my God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to teach the nations, and that for refusing to obey the voice of my God I was taken very sick. While they were examining me, there came in an old man with a white beard. All the justices saluted him. He said to them: "Have nothing to do with this person, for I have suffered much this night past on his account," and retired immediately.

I was then condemned to eight days imprisonment, as it was the first time, and to be conducted by the servant of the magistrate out of the bounds of the city, letting me know that if I was found employed in the same manner a second time my life would be in danger.

I was about 17 years of age when I began to preach in France. In this manner I employed two years in that kingdom, preaching the gospel in high and low Normandy, the country of my father, for he was born in the city of Rouen.

There were many ministers of us together: Messieurs Durant, de la Chevrette, Dumoulin, L'Achar, etc. We met together in mountains and woods, to the number of 300, where God very often wrought great wonders by the power of the gospel, among men and women, even boys and girls of the age of twelve or fifteen years, that did not even know how to read or write. They were convinced by the power of grace and began to proclaim the gospel with a most marvelous strength of spirit, without any fear, being embraced by love divine.

We were many times taken prisoners during the two years, sometimes by means of our own brothers, who would go and inform the soldiers in the marshalsey where we were met together.

Many of us were hanged, others whipped by the hands of the hangman and branded with a hot iron; all their goods confiscated, and they sent on board the galleys. But all that did not weaken us, but on the contrary, the grace of our divine love strengthened us in a wonderful manner.

At last we were surrounded by a party of soldiers one day when we were assembled by the side of Dieppe, where many of us were taken prisoners, among whom was myself, and a M. Durant, a young man about 24 years of age, of Geneva.

After a month imprisonment we were condemned to die — he to be hanged, and I to have my head cut off. We were conducted together to the place of execution; he sang the 116th [126th] Psalm when on the ladder, and died joyfully.

I was then conducted to the scaffold. My eyes were ordered to be bound to prevent my seeing, but on my earnest request that was omitted.

I then fell upon my knees, and praying the Lord that he would not require my blood at their hands, as they knew not what they did, my soul was filled with exceeding joy. The executioner bound my hands, and while he was employed in so doing, a courier arrived from the King, which was Louis XV, with a reprieve for the criminal. Immediately the joy of my heart was gone and darkness entered into my soul. I was then reconducted to prison at Paris where I was confined some time before I was liberated through the intercession of the Queen.

Many things happened to me during my exile in France and the time of my confinement. One may easily discover here that the grace of our God never leaves those who trust in him and are faithful until death.

After my releasement, I retired into Germany where I began to learn the language with great difficulty. I found many souls who were convinced by grace and who led a very retired life among the French refugees at Bulin, Magdeburg, Brandenburg, Brunswick in the Palatinate, Hamburg, Altona, Stade, Gluckstadt, Bremen, the country of Hannover, in Flanders, Brabant, the low land of Holland, the country of Waldenses and many other places.

I found work all round — souls who desired to be saved. I had also a large acquaintance among the nobility in Germany and Holland. We had a large communion of brethren and sisters in Jesus Christ our Lord.

I was wholly employed in traveling from place to place, in visiting the brethren and preaching to the nations in the German, French and Dutch languages. There were many assemblies of brethren all around. In some places we had liberty, and where that could not be had publicly, we met secretly in particular families. But nevertheless, grace wrought wonders in convincing souls and leading them to a real deep knowledge of themselves and of the damnable estate into which all men are plunged by nature; for none can obtain salvation without being first condemned in themselves.

I was much concerned about the salvation of souls and their estate deeply affected me. I had also an acquaintance with a company of gentry who dwelt together near Seigen. Some of them were married but only dwelt together as brethren and sisters — among them the baron of Peuchink, the lords of Fleishbein, and the Count of Marsey, who was employed in writing books which are printed in French and German. They led a very retired life, filled with love and friendship to all the world without bounds, and were very charitable both to friends and enemies.

Our acquaintance with each other happened in a wonderful manner. One day brother Marsey had a vision concerning me, when I had arrived in the Palatinate, being about twenty leagues from him. I was drawn by grace, being engaged in prostrating myself in spirit before the presence of the most Holy Trinity. And having a vision, I discovered a marvelous throne with seven footstools. Upon each footstool were two candlesticks of gold and upon the throne I saw a great table with seven candlesticks of gold placed in a round figure upon it. Then I saw many with robes whiter than snow who stood up near the candlesticks of gold on each side of the foot-stools and around the table. Immediately the candlesticks were lighted and chairs were brought that each one might sit down. Then they began to honor the most high, so that my soul was lost in admiration. Then altogether bending their knees, the whole company adored the most Holy Trinity. The vision vanished in an instant, and I came to myself.

Some little time after, my brother Marsey sent a letter to me, written after this manner:

My well beloved and dear brother in Jesus Christ our Lord, the most Holy Trinity discovers many wonders to his children who are rooted upon the rock of deliverance, and have their eyes of faith fixed upon their Sovereign Good. He honors them with his universal presence and embraces them with the fire of heavenly love; as I have been favored with the consolation of seeing you in his holy presence, I hope you will not deny that communion in the body that we have had together in spirit to the praise of the glory of our God through Jesus Christ our Lord by the efficacy of His Holy Spirit. Thus wishes and dwells for ever, Marsey your Brother, united by the grace of God, Amen."

After I had passed about 18 years in Germany and Holland, I became sickly of a consumptive disorder occasioned by being greatly concerned for the salvation of souls and much disquieted because the greatest part by far walked in the ways of perverseness and neglected their conversion, which caused me great trouble. And I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable. Sometimes I was a little comforted within by grace in some manner, but that did not last long.

I dwelt at that time in the country with the brethren near the city of Mons an [in] Haguiauth, near the borders of France, in the Emperor's dominions.

My fever increased in such a manner as reduced me almost to a skeleton so that they were obliged to feed me as an infant.

While I lay in this weak situation, I was favored through grace with many visions. In one it appeared to me that I was conducted into a fine plain, filled with all kinds of fruit trees agreeable both to the sight and smell, loaded with all kinds of the most delicious fruits which came to my mouth and satisfied me as with a river of pleasure: same time I beheld the inhabitants, they were beautiful beyond expression, clothed in garments as white as snow. They were filled with humility, and their friendship and love was towards all beings. They saluted me with the most profound reverence and most lovely air, saying to me with the voice of love which penetrated through me: "Dear soul, take courage, be comforted, for in a little time you shall see the wonders of God in the restoration of all the human species without exception."

The weakness of my body so increased that I was certain of dying. I exhorted my brethren to be faithful unto death, to be steadfast, immovable, and to be always turning inward with an enlivening faith to behold with a fixed attention the Lamb of God, with believing eyes, and to harken to his eternal word within them, and that they should receive of the fullness of Christ's grace upon grace, by which they should be strengthened to abide steadfast unto the end.

As I had communion with many assemblies of brethren, but in particular with that connected with my dear brother Marsey, the brethren there had a vision of my death and sent brother Marsey to see me.

When he arrived he found me in the agonies of death. He embraced me with a kiss of peace and love and saluted me in the name of the brethren, who recommended themselves to me, and desired that I would remember them before the throne of God and the Lamb.

He then took leave of me and I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body and saw the people occupied in watching it according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed from the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed. I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees, agreeable to behold, and which sent forth such fragrant odors that all the air was filled as with incense. In this place I found that I had two guardians, one at my right hand and the other at my left, exceeding beautiful beyond expression, whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts. They had wings and resembled angels, having shining bodies and white garments.

He that was at my right hand came before me and said, "My dear soul and my dear brother, take courage. The most Holy Trinity hath favored you to be comforted with an everlasting and universal consolation, by discovering to you how, and in what manner, he will restore all his creatures without exception, to the praise of his glory, and their eternal salvation. And you shall be witness of this and shall rejoice in singing and triumphing with all the children of God, therefore as a reward for the friendship and love that you have borne for your neighbors, on whose account you had many extreme griefs, and shed many tears, which God himself, who shall turn all your griefs to exceeding great gladness." Then he took his place at my right hand. After that, the second guardian who was at my left hand appeared before me, and spoke thus: "My dear soul, my dear brother, be of good cheer, thou shalt be strengthened and comforted after your griefs with an universal and eternal consolation. You must be prepared to pass through the seven habitations of the damned — be of good courage, and prepare yourself to feel something of their sufferings, but be turned inward deeply during the time and you shall thereby be preserved." Then he took his place at my left hand. Immediately we were lifted up in the air, and sometimes after we arrived in a dark obscure place, where nothing but weeping, lamentation and gnashing of teeth, could be understood. A dreadful place, as being the repository of all sorts of damned souls under condemnation with the torments, pains, griefs and sufferings which their sins had merited, for each one had his works to follow him in death. All iniquities and sins were reduced to seven classes or habitations. There was an eternal confusion. That which one made, the other destroyed.

The duellist, in his fire of anger, burns against his enemy, and they pass as a firebrand of hell, one through the other.

You might see fornicators, idolators, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, slanderers, ravishers, &c., each laboring and being employed with his sins and iniquities. One might also see all kind of conditions of men: divines, deputies, controvertors, advocates, judges, lawyers, and, in a word, one might discover whatsoever any of them had done upon earth. In each habitation I discovered that those who were abased and that appeared sorrowful for their sins were separated from the others of their sort that were not yet so. I was then conducted into each of the seven habitations of the damned where I knew one I had been acquainted with upon earth. I discovered also that he had an habitation among the damned and that they were able to see the elect from thathabitation where he was, but were not able to pass through because there was a great gulf between them so that all are obliged to dwell where they are.

It is impossible to describe my condition, as I had great compassion towards the sufferers, inasmuch as I had part of their sufferings.

After we had passed through, we were lifted up some distance from the place, where we reposed ourselves; and a messenger was sent to us, who watered or refreshed us as with a river of pleasure, saying, "Eat, my beloved, and drink, my friends, to refresh yourselves after all your toils and pains. My dear soul, and my dear brother (addressing himself to me), the most Holy Trinity always works wonders in all times within his poor creatures without exception, and he will order for a time and half a time that you shall return into your earthly tabernacle to publish and proclaim to the people of the world an universal gospel that shall restore in its time all the human species without exception to its honor and to the glory of its most Holy Trinity. Hallelujah."

Beholding the messenger attentively, I discovered that he had a most glorious body, dressed in a robe whiter than snow, filled with the most exalted love and friendship, joined with the deepest humility, which penetrated me through and through. And suddenly there was heard a great multitude of the heavenly host, and the messenger said, as he flew to join the same, with a sweet voice — "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and who is to come."

The multitude were innumerable, and there was one who surpassed in grandeur, beauty, brightness, majesty, magnificence and excellence, all the others; even the Son of the living God, being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power — when he had by himself purged our sins ― sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.

As the multitude approached, the glory caused us to fall down and to adore in spirit and in truth the son of the living God who marched in the midst of the multitude.

After they had passed us, we were lifted up and caused to follow them, for the air carried us the way they went, in a different manner than before. O the wonders of our God! When we arrived in the place of the seven habitations of the damned, we could perceive no more darkness, obscurity, pains, torments, lamentations, afflictions, nor gnashing of teeth. All were still and quiet and an agreeable sweetness appeared through the whole. Then all the heavenly host shouted with one voice and said, "An eternal and everlasting deliverance, an eternal and everlasting restoration, universal and everlasting restitution of all things." Then all the multitude adored the most Holy Trinity, and sang the song of the Lamb, even the song of the triumph for the victory gained by him, in the most harmonious manner. And at the end, all the multitude being upon their knees, said with a loud voice, "Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord, God Almighty, just and true are thy ways. O King of Saints." Presently they passed through the seven habitations of the damned and a multitude were delivered from each. And being clothed in white robes, they followed the heavenly host, praising and glorifying the most high for their deliverance. One might know them amongst the others: they all retired by a different way than that which they came. The messenger then came and conducted us into a most wonderful place and ordered my two guardians to conduct me into five celestial mansions where the Lord's elect abide; and then to reconduct me to dwell yet a time and half a time in my earthly habitation, and to preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel and that the most Holy Trinity has a pure universal love towards all the human race, without exception, and to each one in particular. Then turning himself towards me he said, "My dear soul, thou shalt be favored of the most Holy Trinity to be conducted by thy guardians who shall never leave thee when thou shall have need of their counsel. Thou needest but to call them and they shall be day and night present at thy service. They shall conduct thee into five of the heavenly mansions at this time, where thou shalt partake in a certain degree of the celestial glory as much as thy spirit shall be able to receive, as not being yet sanctified and purified sufficiently. And then thou shalt be reconducted into thine earthly tabernacle for a time and half a time and shall preach to the lower world the universal gospel and that the most Holy Trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race without exception, and towards each one in particular. The fountain of grace bless and preserve thee, and cause his face to shine upon and in thee, and enlighten thine understanding both in time and eternity. Amen." Our knees bending of their own accord, he laid his hand upon my head and blessed me, and immediately took wing and swiftly fled away.

After that, my guardian conducted me into five celestial habitations where I discovered many wonders. Some had greater brightness, glory, and majesty than others. And, as the places were, so were the inhabitants: some were clothed in garments whiter then snow, others had transparent bodies, and others again had white bodies resembling crystal. It is impossible to express these things. They were moved by boundless burning love, rising up and then plunging themselves into the deepest humility; all their motions were penetrating, being filled with love and friendship. Their actions and manners are strengthened and animated with brightness, filled with light as with the rays of the sun. It was the fire of heavenly love, which by inflaming all their hearts, causes them all to burn in the same lire and to be animated by the same spirit. They have no need of any way of speaking there but the language and motions of eternal and universal love without words; for all their actions, their motions, speak more than all words. I was then conducted into five habitations of the elect. At the first, a great multitude came before us with songs to the honor and glory of the most high and of the victory gained over the damned. They received us with triumph, great zeal, love and friendship, saluting us with profound humility, and conducting us into a large room; there was a great table covered and furnished with all sorts of fruit, not only pleasant to behold but also exceedingly delicious to the taste.

In the meantime, while we were taking our repast, the celestial multitudes formed songs and sang psalms of praise and thanksgiving to the most Holy Trinity. After that, we were conducted into all the five celestial habitations (that I was to see) where I saw many wonders impossible to describe. First, many thrones lifted up of inexpressible beauty and magnificence and desired that I would remember them before the throne of God and the Lamb.

Upon one of these thrones I beheld the Royal High priest, surrounded with exceeding great brightness and clothed in most excellent majesty, being employed in kind intercession before his father for all human species, pleading the sufficiency of his blood-shedding to deliver and sanctify a thousand such worlds as ours. All the elect, with the heavenly spirits, joined their intercession with that of their Royal High Priest, the only chief king, being reconcilers, saviors, and restorers in the same spirit. This mutual intercession appeared like incense ascending on high into the sanctuary of the Lord. Over against the throne I discovered Adam with Eve rejoicing in the only mediator between God and men and adoring together the most Holy Trinity for the deliverance of their children out of the great miseries and eternal condemnation into which their sin and fall had brought them, and upon their bended knees adoring the only mediator for the intercession he makes in behalf of mankind. Also I beheld a multitude of spirits flying and enflamed with the fire of heavenly love, while we adored, humbled in nothingness, rendering our religious homage to the most high for his intercession and the deliverance of all mankind. Then my guardian, who was at my right hand, coming before me, said thus: "Dear soul, my dear brother, do you see these spirits flying, who are vanished in the spirit of love and gratitude, humbled and self-annihilated as it were, adoring before the throne of grace, and praying the savior for the intercessions he made for them? These are lately delivered from the infernal prisons. It is for them that the tincture of the blood of Jesus Christ hath been shed even to the last drop, notwithstanding they had dwelt a long time shut up in the place of the damned under the power of the second death, and have passed through many agonies, pains and tribulations." Upon that, I perceived that Adam and Eve approached. And Adam spoke to me after his manner: "My dear brother, rejoice with universal and eternal joy, as you are favored with the heavenly visions. It is in this manner that our adorable Royal High Priest, mediator, and intercessor, shall restore all my descendants to the glory of our God. And their eternal and universal salvation for the kingdom of eternal love hath power sufficient to draw all mankind out of their bondage, and to exclaim and say: 'O death, where is thy sting, &c.' But my dear brother, this love of our God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his holy spirit, shall not only gain the victory over all the human species, but also surmount or overflow the kingdom of Satan entirely, with all the principalities of the fallen angels, and shall bring them back in their first glory, which they have had in the beginning. I will make all things new," said the Lord of hosts, and the end shall return into its beginning. O my Lord and my God, what great wonders hast thou caused to pass before mine eyes! Who am I, O my God, dust and ashes, an ungrateful and rebellious creature. I should not dare to lift mine eyes towards the heavens if the blood of Jesus Christ thy son did not plead for me. My soul rejoices and is glad, she shouts for joy. O my God, whom I adore, love, and respect; before whom I desire to be without ceasing, self-annihilated at thy feet. O my God and my love, the seraphims and cherubims, burning with the fire of thy heavenly love, adore and honor thee. Give me thy grace also, O my God, that I may be consumed before thee, while I sing the majesty, glory, and the memory of God, who hath created and redeemed me. I would praise him incessantly, not in shadow or figure, but in reality and truth. I would continue devoted to thee, and always be swallowed up in the ocean of love without a wish to leave it.

Being in this manner conducted into five celestial habitations, I discovered many mysteries, saw many miracles, and beheld the wonders of the most Holy Trinity among the children, the elect, and heavenly inhabitants, and perceiving how some surpassed others in brightness, light, splendor, and majesty, in friendship, love, humiliation, and self-abasement, concerning of which things my tongue is too feeble to speak, and my pen to write. I adore the marvelous ways of my God, with all the happy spirits.

Many thrones, palaces, edifices, temples, and buildings were erected in all parts, with fruit trees intermixed, rivers of pleasure gliding along through the celestial land, which appeared like a garden of heaven, even the paradise of God. It is the court of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, which the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, and which the hearts of men have not conceived. It is the celestial globe where the New Jerusalem, or Mount Sion, is placed, where the bosom of Abraham is: where the sufferers who came out of their purifications are made to rejoice in Sion. O magnificent globe! O thou city of the Great God! Stately city of this place! Where shall a mortal find convenient phrases to lift out a little of thy glory and splendor? It is the glory and magnificence of the most Holy Trinity, where God is pleased to manifest himself in his pomp and beauty. The blessed angels have their employment in serving God — they compose the court of the Great King. O my God, I am not able to express that which penetrates me, of the grandeur, magnificence, splendor, pomp and majesty of thy dwellings or of the inhabitants in those transparent places. Hallelujah and victory for ever. Amen.

Then my guardian took me up and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, where I perceived the people assembled. And discoveriny my body in the coffin, I was re-united with the same and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle. And coming to myself, I knew my dear brother Marsey and many others who gave me an account of my being twenty-five hours in the coffin, and seventeen hours before they put me in the coffin, which altogether made forty-two hours. To me they seemed as many years. Beginning then to preach the universal gospel, I was presently put in prison but soon set at liberty again. I visited all my brethren, preaching the gospel and taking leave of them all, because that my God and Sovereign Good called me to go into America and preach the gospel there. I took my departure for the same in the 38th year of my age, and it is 41 years since I first arrived here. The 28th of July next, 1782, I shall be 79 years of age. Blessed be the name of the Lord forever.

FINIS.

Sermon: “John Murray in 2020”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 27, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:28b-32. [shortened lesson]


Wednesday marks the 250th anniversary of John Murray's arrival in America. Later dubbed the "father of American Universalism" and considered for generations its signal pioneer, in a person, John Murray stands for Universalism. The stained-glass window of the ship in our church building (second from the front, pulpit-side) represents the ship that brought Murray to America, so represents Universalism in the life of the Christian church. Our church's original name was the Murray Universalist Society, and for a long time the church was planned to be a memorial to him personally. So, today's anniversary celebrates him, the Universalist church, where it has been and where we are going.

You may have seen the lithograph of Murray in the vestibule at church. Not the big one in the rectangular frame of a man presiding over the Lord's Supper. That's Hosea Ballou, important in his own right, but he belongs to the generation after Murray and in many ways replaced Murray's theology. But rather the profile of a man in an oval frame just before you go down the hallway to the parlor. It's a bit faded, rather small and easy to miss — just like our understanding of Murray, and even the world's understanding of Universalism and what it points to: the empowered nature of God, which will save all.

There's a contradiction between John Murray as an emblem, and the common knowledge about him. Why is that?

The story so far

Since we will be joining First Universalist, Minneapolis next week in their service as part of Murray Grove's observance of the anniversary, I won't preach this sermon the way I normally would. There are usual and customary ways to talk about John Murray, his arrival, and ministry — Murray Grove, Thomas Potter, "this argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing" — so there's a good chance we'll hear all about it next week, and if not then, than eventually.

Suffice it today that Murray did not come to America to evangelize, but at age twenty-eight was already a broken man. The ship he was on was bound for Philadelphia, but arrived off the central coast of New Jersey and got stuck on a sandbar. He was part of the landing party to get supplies — so no auspicious disembarkation — when he met an elderly man, radical in his beliefs, who was convinced that Murray was the preacher of universal salvation that God had long promised. He even had a meeting house ready for him to preach in. Was it providence? A tale later reshaped to sound better? Simple luck? Whatever the case, later generations of Universalists made this the origin story and bought the site as a retreat; it still exists, you can visit, and the center — Murray Grove — will be our hosts next week.

Celebration

But first things first: let's celebrate this. We have come far in faith. We're not big but we have survived with our integrity, our community and our legacy intact. He have a heritage that has depths to inspire us and encourage us. It's like being the father of the prodigal son, who thought that his son had died. We have something to celebrate, so let's not take that for granted. I could use a little celebrating about now.

And further by looking at this heritage, and though the lens of today's lessons, we have notes that lead us to a better and more generous spiritual life, and a closeness to God that gives us strength in times of need (and why we gather as a church.) We have much to celebrate.

The anniversary

Of course, we are not the first to mark the day. 150 years ago there was a centennial convention in Gloucester, Massachusetts that attracted twelve thousand participants, the largest meeting either the Unitarians or Universalists ever held. Even fifty years ago George Huntston Williams wrote an essay, American Universalism, which is still a standard source for interpreting the history, and is still in print. (I recommend it.)

But what is it 250 years ago that we are marking, apart from a trans-Atlantic passage? What's the meaning of the story? I think it's the failure of misplaced intent and a redirection towards new life. In other words, life doesn't go according to plan and those changes can have their own consolations. Murray's voyage, or at least the way we usually interpret it, is itself theological.

A bit more context. John Murray was born in Hampshire, England in 1741 but brought up in Ireland, by his father, a merchant. He was a Calvinist within the Church of England; severe and smothering, today we would consider the elder Murray as emotionally abusive. John understandably, if selfishly, left his family when his father died, as a part of the famous evangelist George Whitefield's entourage, later settling in London and attending Whitefield's Tabernacle. That's when he met and later married Eliza Neale. (Her family did not like him.)

Nearby, a former disciple of Whitefield named James Relly was stirring up trouble by teaching that Christ took on human nature completely, and so in his saving acts, saved the human race completely. And the infection was beginning to spread.

So Murray was sent to correct one of these poor deluded Rellyites — and you can see this coming, right? — she got him thinking that Relly might be right: that all human beings were saved, not maybe or optionally, but as a condition of salvation itself.

But he and Eliza became convinced of Relly's teaching and joined his Universalist church. In falling away, they lost their friends.

Murray in London

He and Eliza might have had a happy life together, even if without material riches, and going down in the annals of English Dissent as a later rival to John Wesley. But their son died in his first year, and then Eliza's health declined. In a dreadful story familiar to people today, John did his best to care for his sick wife. They moved four miles out of town, to a healthier environment, even though that meant he had to walk eight miles each day to earn a living. He spent all he had on doctors, nurses and medications. But nothing worked, and Eliza died too. Widowed and destitute, John ended up in a private prison for debt. If his brother-in-law hadn't paid his debt and and given him a job he might still be there.

He was despondent. It seems he contemplated suicide, but considered a sin and chose instead to "to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all" in the wilderness of America. That's how he ended up on that ship, landing 250 years ago.

What a strange thing to celebrate.

Why Murray?

So maybe you're wondering, why does John Murray get the pride of place? He wasn't the first person to preach universalism and either Britain or America. There were already Universalists that met him on every important stage of the journey, some of whom had very different ideas of how God would save humanity. One reason surely is that he was the pastor of the first explicitly Universalist church in America, but even it rose out of group that studied the works of James Relly. He later became the minister of the first Universalist church in Boston. And he had a reputation of being a popular preacher. But there were other popular preachers, and (surprisingly) his particular theology barely survived his own lifetime.

Maybe it's because he was a careful and intelligent writer, but that's not really the case either. He didn't leave a systematic theology or textbook, or a series of arguments like other more influential theologians.

Even though three volumes of his letters and sermons exist, they were very hard to come by until the mass scanning of books a few years ago, and I was many years into the ministry before I actually saw a copy! That's because they weren't reprinted and kept alive by later generations, because, to put it nicely, they don't age well.

In the 1780s, Murray had some legal problem about the Universalist church being a separate entity, and so weddings he officiated that might or might not have been legal. He went back to England until the matter was settled. He returned on the same ship as Abigail Adams, and so we have her impressions of her in her journal:

Mr. Murry preachd us a Sermon. The Sailors made them-selves clean and were admitted into the Cabbin, attended with great decency to His discourse from these words, "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him Guiltless that taketh His Name in vain." He preachd without Notes and in the same Stile which all the Clergymen I ever heard make use of who practice this method, a sort of familiar talking without any kind of dignity yet perhaps better calculated to do good to such an audience, than a more polishd or elegant Stile, but in general I cannot approve of this method. I like to hear a discourse that would read well.

Snobbery aside, we can say that John Murray was not a polished writer. But there was someone who did write in an elegant formal style. In that book study group that became the first Universalist church was a wealthy young widow, Judith Sargent.

In time, John and Judith married, and if you happen to study eighteenth-century American history, you are more likely to know about her than him, in part because she was a published author, and particularly because of her her early 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Copley's portarit of Judith SargentIf you visit Gloucester today, the mural on the wall is of her. The research institute is about her, not him. The famous portrait (by John Singleton Copley no less) is of her, not him. And we know more about her inner life, through the preservation of her works and private correspondence, than his. A museum exhibit currently running is about her. And if John didn't write a training manual, Judith did, in the form of a catechism.

The critical John Murray

By contrast, John Murray is little known and little read, even in our church circles. There is no critical edition of his works, and apart from shabby print-on-demand copes, you can only find them in libraries or on-line.

Even the bit of Murray quoted in the gray hymnal (704) is not only not from Murray, but comes from a modern inscription, addressed as if to Murray.

But if I had to bring back one work, and to answer the question, "why John Murray?", it would be his autobiography, the Life of Murray and Universalists read inspirationally for generations. (Judith wrote the last section.) It was kept in print though the nineteenth century, and I have a copy given "from Minnie to Vesta" as a Christmas gift in 1899. I think because it had a reputation of being inspiring rather that deep, but from that must have come affection and recognition; the book is also how we know his story. Here was a man who knew early abuse, the temptations of friends and the allure of the city, grievous loss, imprisonment, a quest, the grace of God and a new chance. And all he wanted from it was the chance to tell you that God is love, and that all of us are included in God's salvation. That's why I think Universalists really cared about him.

Theology

Now, as I said before, John Murray barely outlived his own theological contribution to Universalism, but what was it he believed? It was easier for later generations to honor the man rather than his beliefs, so they weren't widely discussed. Precisely because his beliefs were controversial, he preferred to preach around them early in his career, leading hearers to come to the conclusion that all persons would be saved, rather than just saying it outright. We can use some of writings near Murray to get a reasonable reflection of what he believed.

What we do have at hand was the book James Relly wrote, Union; a late profession of faith by a church in Connecticut that was the last reference to a living example of Murray's theology and later secondary writing.

A distinctive feature of Relly-Murray theology is role of Jesus Christ as the captain of humanity. They believed that that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, meaning that God not only had a knowledge and participation in our human nature, but that as the Second Adam, Christ put on humanity — us, collectively — as you or I might put on a garment.

Thus it was not Jesus alone who died on the cross, descended to hell, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; rather, we all did. It is now a part of our human nature. To be human is to be saved.

Then what is the purpose of the Jesus' teaching or the role of the church? In a sense, it is to unlearn what we have come to believe, and be bound by it. Most people don't believe to be human is to be saved, so they (or we) must be saved from our unbelief in the goodness of God. Those who do not believe such will suffer a kind of living hell feeling, but not actually being, alienated from God. Thus we do no earn salvation, but know int. This gives the Universalist church its purpose: to spread the good news of what has already and what must forever be.

Rivals to Murray included Elhanan Winchester in Philadelphia, and his belief that God will fill all promises and salvation shall one day surely occur. (He and Murray did not get along.) Also, Hosea Ballou who made a common-sense argument from the nature of divine justice, that finite beings are not liable for infinite penalty, and this was already taking over in Murray's final years.

A word or two about our lessons.

Ezekiel

Ezekiel was one of the prophets, and probably one of the hardest to appreciate and understand. Culturally, he's known from the gospel song, "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," a reference to a manifestation of heavenly beings. These heavenly beings — an amalgam of eyes and wheels and wings — that on the one hand is a stunning metaphor for the omnipresence and omniscience of God. But on the other hand have encouraged lurid and literal images of what they would look like. Real nightmare juice. Ezekiel is fodder for 1970s conspiratorial pulp paperbacks to suggest that Ezekiel actually met beings from other worlds, the "wheels" being their spacecraft.

He's hard to understand because of the intensity of his visions. For Murray, that meant Ezekiel pointed a straight line to universal salvation, but from another part of the book. (Surprise, surprise.)

And yet Ezekiel is not so strange as to be ignored; at the church, in the chancel rail there are carvings of the four living creature within wheels, emblems which are also use to depict the writers of the four gospels. So think of Ezekiel like a live electrical wire: hazardous, but helpful with approached carefully and with understanding.

In our passage, God tells the prophet to end an ancient saying: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." What does that mean? That we each bear the guilt for our own actions. What this doesn't mean is that each of us are liberated from the actions of those who go before us. People, much too often, do not get what they deserve because the conditions they're born into. This passage tells us that children (for example) to do deserve to be born into war, into hunger, into being poisoned or threatened by their environment. They do not deserve this, and yet too many get it. Human justice (or injustice) is not God's, and we ought to remember that even if we carry a grudge or anger, that this doesn't compel God to share it. Rather, we should try to see situation from God's point of view, or at least another point of view before deciding what is right or wrong.

Matthew

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus speaks of the way of righteousness.

The John in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew was not John Murray, of course, but John the Baptist, who had been teaching and stirring up controversy. Jesus was having a dispute with learned teacher, and made the point that those who do the right thing do the will of God, rather than those who say the right thing. Or put another way, without the correct, corresponding action, pledges and promises are meaningless or worse.

The same is true of beliefs. You can agree with an idea, but if you don't understand it, what do you really believe? Or you can agree with an idea, and profess it, and really understand it, but act like it's not important, what then do you really believe?. In other words, you can be a hypocrite, but you're not fooling God.

What does this have to do with Universalism, past or present? In brief, it is one thing to profess Universalism and its another thing to live it. Living it is far harder, in part because it's not a matter of making a theological commitment and sticking to it. Life that comes from theological commitments requires continuous evaluation and moral decision making. Our life together challenges any hidden self-centeredness. We present one another with carefully considered models of living. This makes it easier to do the right thing, and not merely say it, and so live a life in harmony with God — even before the final harmony.

After Murray

I suppose it should go without saying that you can be a devout, sincere  ember of this church without believing anything John Murray preached. You could  have even done that in 1805. And so we announce each Sunday a definition of liberalism as "having no credal test for membership." At most. Universalists wanted to be known as having a common hope without dwelling in the details of how that might happen or what that might look like. Issues that brought other denominations to their knees barely set a ripple among the Universalists, and when there were controversies, the leadership tended to choose broadness over exclusion. It's a heritage worth keeping.

Closing

Dearly beloved, we are with this church because pioneers, founders and leaders built something that has continued to this day. But nothing is given, nothing is guaranteed.

Each of us must decide what is valuable and everlasting, and what is partial and ephemeral. What is essential and life-giving, and what is dispensable and secondary. As St. Paul said, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5:21.)

Reputation, legacies, plans and fortunes rise but more easily fall. Commit yourself in word and deed to the good, the God-facing direction that brings life and health.

God bless you this day and evermore.

Sermon: “Everyday Spirituality”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 26, 2020 using lessons (lightly) from the Revised Common Lectionary lessons from Paul's letter to the Roman, and the gospel of Matthew.


Thank you for having me speak to you again, and thanks to Pastor Gatton for inviting me back.

The last time I preached was the first Sunday in June, but who can remember back that far? It feels like months have passed, rather than weeks. That sermon was a long and rolling attempt to speak to the emotional temperature of the moment, invoking themes of disappointment and loss; and asking you to rely on two pillars of Christian faith: that God's nature is love and connects everything, and that there is a great sadness in the world that cries for salvation.

This time I'd like to talk about applied theology, namely our spirituality.

This is normal, now

Now if I had my choice, I'd like to step aside from the obvious problems of the epidemic, plus the breakdown in national governance and the withering economy. I'd also like to put aside the eerie sameness of these days and (even more) I'd like to dismiss the horrible ways the eerie sameness is punctuated by the something terrible. I would like to do away anything that's called unprecedented, for that's now the way to describe the breakdown of law, culture and morality. And to cap it all, I would appreciate some consistently pleasant weather: something that doesn't threaten to kill people exposed to it.

But we have (at least) months to bear up with all of those, and perhaps much longer before we can look back and say that life has gotten measurably better in this or that way. We are in the middle of this crisis. And to be fair, if it weren't this crisis exactly, we would have the pre-existing conditions of racist violence and climate change and much else to face. Holding our breath and pressing through is not an option. Bless those who can find a way to deal with all this, because I hear voices cracking.

We don't know what our lifetime will be. We have this moment and standing today, we make choices about how we live the rest of our lives. We shall inherit eternity, but we live day by day. Reflective, thoughtful religion teaches us that large and small crises are a part of human life, and that we can face the one we have now.

New solutions

So, failing an overaching solution, because so much is out of our control, let us build new responses. We have to find new ones because the solutions and resources we already have can only do so much, and only last so long.

For many years when I was a child, I lived in suburban New Orleans, and so got used to anticipating and preparing for hurricanes, or at least as much as children can. My family prepared, but could only prepare for so much disruption. The energy that comes from the initial threat is a kind of resource; I remember the nervous excitement of high wind and rain more than the flooded carpets, ruined possessions and swampy smell. In the same way, I was more frightened this March and April, but I also had more energy and (to be honest) more goodwill.

But back to my childhood. One of the men on our street who owned a small flat-bottomed skiff, also known a jon boat. Days after one hurricane — I must have been six or seven years old — us neighborhood kids were bored and restless. The power was out, the streets were flooded to the curb and the air was still and hot. This Good Samaritan loaded us onto the little boat and towed us around the block, him walking though the knee-high water, like it was some amusement park ride. It was the only safe way for us to get past our front steps, which we wanted to do, and in so doing gave both the adults and children a break. He couldn't have taken us out during the storm, but that little boat ride was exactly the thing we needed as the crisis dragged on.

Likewise, our needs change today, so our response has to change. Making homemade bread isn't going to cut it any more. And (of course) some of these new solutions won't have anything to do with this church. But those that do, I put under the heading of everyday spirituality. We can (and I think, should) engage in everyday, practial, even homespun spirituality. But this takes a balance, and negotiating a direction between two bad choices.

Totalizing spirituality

It's important that we make we distinguish good spirituality from bad, or if not bad, at least unsuited spirituality.

The first bad option is to go overboard. Religious people, and Christians particularly, are tempted to totalizing their religion. By this I mean, trying to put all parts of your life within the context of your religion, including religiously-condoned alternatives to the mainstread, often by filtering them through a cloying aethetic or constricted morality. Christian music, television and films are the most obvious examples.

From the animated series King of the Hill, Hank Hill, the protagonist, put it best to a worship leader when his son was caught up with a praise band:

"[Y]ou're not making Christianity better. You're just making rock and roll worse."

This totalizing spirituality avoids dealing with what it doesn't deal with very well — I would put the Faustian bargain Evangelicals have made with the president into that category — or worse, it forces its believers either withdraw deeper into a world of their own making, or everyone else into theirs.

A totalizing spirituality doesn't allow us to appreciate the world outside the one we interpret as being correctly religious, and so perversely makes the religion itself smaller. This leads to cramped, even fearful and undersized world that it makes me weep for those who are trapped in it.

But there is a better option: the difference is between making religion a total experience, and using your religion as a lens by which you interpret your relationship with the world.

Fashionable spirituality

Of course, there's the other extreme.

When we speak of spirituality today, or see it decribed online or in books, it often comes with a large number of cultural associations. I think of candles; clean, tastefully minimalist spaces; silence or else speech in slow, low tones; retreats in the woods or desert; coded language that invests everyday words with magical significance and the like. There's a certain forced effortlessness and breathy casualness about it all.

When critics of spirituality dismiss spirituality as so much wishful thinking, I think this is what's being rejected. Like the other extreme, it is a smaller world than it needs to be, and smaller than we need because it stands away from everyday life.

This desire for spirituality is also a way to distinguish practices from religion, which is declining in popularity and seems old-fashioned, manipulative and corrupt. But I tend to be less critical of these expressions of spirituality. At least people are trying something new. But I think there is a better option: a spirituality that's integrated with your life as you live it, and that moves you to where you want to be.

Spirituality practiced

Different branches of Christianity have different approaches to religious life. in the family tree of Christianity, Universalism falls in the broad Reformed tradition. As such, we tend to be very practical about how we approach our religious lives, discount tradition for tradition's sake and use a common sense approach. We tend to say, "does this work or not?" And we're are willing to experiment to find a better way to accomplish our religious goals. (There's an obvious downside and that we can confuse activity with development, and success with wholesomeness, so keep an eye on that.)

But it's the reason we don't build monasteries, and rarely if ever engage in pilgrimages. Our spirituality tends to be rather homey. Our church building is exceptional and that it is self-consciously historic; normally, it would be an plain if large room with clear glass windows. (The original UNMC plans would have given us a church that looks more like All Souls Unitarian.) The clear glass windows act as a metaphor for a clear, practical religion.

And for a number of historial reasons, we are part of an American Protestant sub-tradition that engages with with the secular world, the world of arts and letters, the world of commerce and ideas. The goal is balancing an appreciation for the world and its glories, and a healthy mistrust of its excesses and desceptions.

Today's lessons

A word about the readings.

The lesson from the letter to the Romans is a continuation of the reading Pastor Dave Gatton preached on last week. It's also a well-loved devotional passage, and one of my favorites. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew contains a series of teachings from Jesus that are also well beloved. The simple fact that they are so well-loved and often cited make me think that this sermon should be dedicated to the ways they might be applied.

Some mixed thoughts I had, as an example of how I respond to scripture in my reading:

  • We live by the grace of God, but we recognize different truths and do our best to hold them at the same time.

  • And so when we live by the spirit, it pulls us in different directions having us here and try to understand. Our spirituality should serve that perspective.

  • What is the Spirit? It is the presence of God in the world.

  • Paul's puts the Spirit's binding presence in terms of childhood and inheritance. The point? The value of our connection to God is a greater than any human honor. And it's not just power leading us towards the great and glorious, but the fear of pain, loss and despair.

  • The connection to God through the Spirit empowers us.

Likewise, the passage from Matthew is also well-loved and very special.

  • It's a collection of Jesus' teaching. Parables so short and memorable that I believe that the likely came from Jesus himself.

  • But here in the context of the passage from Matthew, and from our own lives, it takes on a special meaning. Not heaven but the kingdom of heaven, which is to say life here on earth, among the living, governed in a divine fashion.

That's one way to introduce scripture into your everyday life.

Suggestions

I'd like to leave you with four more suggestion for improving your spirituality. This isn't homework, but they're all free or very low-cost so what's to lose?

  1. Take up journaling. Use a notebook you already have, or do as I do: type it into a file on your computer. You could even email yourself notes. But the important thing is to read back in time. This will give you a better persective about your life, particularly about themes that do or do not bless you.

  2. Reach out to someone you've lost touch with that you miss. These last few months show how important, but fragile, human connection is, and you have it within you to cultivate grace by reopening connections. Write someone a letter; you can use me as your excuse. Here's a sample you can personalize and use:

    Dear Angela,
    The minister at church today suggested reaching out to distant friends. Since I know you don't like email or social media, I though immediately of you. Little has changed here, except we are thinking of adopting a senior dog and that Jackie is taking a gap semester this fall. Sorry about the notebook paper and odd assortment of stamps, but it's what I had at home, but I didn't want to wait another day to say hello.

    Love,
    Pat

    And send it. But be gracious if someone doesn't want the attention.

  3. Travel in your mind. Use the lockdown to "get away" another way. Take time to understand other people, places, ideas or times by reading about them (and this is the important part) from their own voices. And if not a book, perhaps music or some other medium. Maybe take in a religious service from another part of the world, since so many are being streamed or recorded now. The goal is a different perspective and stimulated empathy.

  4. Sing. Singing in worship is a problem, due to coronavirus transmission, but there's nothing but self-consciousness to keep you from singing at home, or outside alone with your mask on. Hear the words that come out of your body. For most of us, this will be a different way to communicate than we're used to. How does it make you feel? And what does your choice of songs tell you about where your soul is right now?

Can you think of others? These skills develop over time and are shared. You may have something to offer the world.

Your everyday spirituality needn't be difficult or arcane. It can put your life into focus, and strengthen you when you need help.

God bless and keep you.

Audio service, June 7 (published June 14)

The full text of the service for the First Sunday after Pentecost — last Sunday —  follows. Low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (2.0 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for June 7, 2020, the First Sunday after Pentecost

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” [Revelation 4:8b]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:
O Lord our God, who by your Son has taught us that love is the fulfilling of the law and of the gospel; fill us, we ask, with the spirit of universal charity, that we may love you above all, and our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the Gospel of John [John 3:1-15, NRSV]

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Here ends the reading.

Address

Greetings: my intention with these services was to create moments of worship for scattered Universalists and others, and to test how a lone person could produce them. This service, the last, is a week late because of the deepening sense of crisis and doom in the country. But it’s a canon of pastoral practice to not leave the people without hope, and so I’d like to conclude with a thought from today’s lesson.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus’ parallel between his own coming crucifixion and agony, and Moses lifting up of the bronze snake is not obvious. The reference is from a passage in Numbers where the people were attacked by snakes, and this was interpreted as being a curse from God because the people rejected the provision of manna. They wanted their own familiar food, but God sent serpents instead. The people interceded with Moses to intercede with God, and God’s response was for Moses to fashion the bronzen snake. “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:9, NRSV)

One connection seems clear. Sins against God requires divine response if we are to be healed and be whole. But does that make Jesus the snake? No, it makes him the conduit between heaven and earth. But there the parallel breaks down. Where Israelites needed only to look upon the bronze snake and be healed, Jesus said “believe.” Lazy habits then and now confuse obedience with a changed and good life. Belief without change is simply subordination, a kind of oppression. But if you should believe, and turn to the good, and do good, you will have eternal life here on earth.

Think of what happened to that bronze snake. It was later placed in the Jerusalem Temple, but as we read in 2 Kings, Hezekiah destroyed it, consolidating worship to the One God “for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4, NRSV) Rather than turning the people towards God, it became an emblem of worship in its own right. In the first case, God’s means of healing became a scandal, yet Jesus Christ took the cross, a scandal, and made it life for us. So it’s not enough to look to the cross. Let it move you closer by grace to God despite — perhaps because — its cruelty. Indeed, keep a clear eye on cruelty so you are not seduced into believing it can justify the good. The goal is peace, love and light.

May God bless and keep us today and always.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Collects

For peace

Let us pray for peace:

O God, who is the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Grant us, your servants, we humbly ask you, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away; that we, who in all our dangers rely on your goodness, may under your parental protection be defended against all adversities, and rejoice evermore in your blessed service, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For grace

Let us pray for grace:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us today with your mighty power; and grant that we fall into no sin, nor run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by your governance, to do always that which is righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For all conditions of humankind

Let us pray for all people

O God, the Creator and Preserver of all humankind, we humbly ask that you would make your ways known unto the breath and width of the human family, your saving health to all nations. More especially we pray for the good estate of the Church Universal; that it may be so guided and governed by your Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to your tender goodness all those who are any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate (particularly sick people and those close to death); that you would comfort and relieve them according to their various needs, giving them patience under their condition, and a happy result from all their afflictions. And this we ask for your mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

This is the last of these services but for more information, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Sermon for June 7

What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached extemporaneously for the Universalist National Memorial Church. Like a flower that's been pressed into a book, it only gives an impression of what I said: the context and the execution of preaching being lost. But perhaps better a representation of the sermon than none at all, particularly for those who saw it live. I've added the occasional bracketed word where the meaning may not make sense.

The texts were from the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20, but from the Revised Common Version.


Good morning and thank you to Pastor Gatton for asking me back and for welcoming me into your homes and putting up with the fact that sometimes I don’t see the microphone button. But I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about each of you over the last several weeks, and I’ve been praying for you by name. Uh, special things this week to Lee Folia-Brunt who asked me what the sermon title was going to be. Not knowing that that was such a such a loaded and important question, because when she asked I didn’t have an answer, and that’s therefore there is no title today because how can you know what’s going to come? Two days ago, four days ago, a week ago. Who would believe that we would be where we are at this moment? And where will we be a day, three days a week, a year from now. So I didn’t have an answer.

And what do you then call what you’re not going to know what to say? Now I mean. And how can you even conceptualize the life that you’re in when everything is changing so quickly? So the sermon doesn’t have a title. But I’m hoping that it does have some threads which will carry back a day back, four days back. A week back. A year back. Back centuries and likewise centuries forward.

Let’s recap. It has been up until the last couple of days absolutely terrible. I don’t think this is controversial or news to anybody. When I started writing the sermon back when I thought it had a title. There were helicopters whirling overhead through the neighborhood. We were under curfew. And the only thing that would come up on the news — online or on television — were images of people being shot with rubber bullets or tear gas, or who knows what? And everything just seemed like it was going downhill continuously fast. These are not great conditions under which to write a sermon or for to think, or really to live.

So, we could be undercut by despair. We could be undercut by fear or anger or bitterness. We can certainly feel all these things, but to the fear of being pulled down by all these things is what worried me most of all. To think: what can we pull out of our religious lives in order to overcome this? Not just for this moment, because problems have come before.

Our problems are not a week, or a year, or three years old. Some of them go back decades and centuries. And whomever is elected in November, or whatever decisions are made in the next year or two, those problems will continue unless we are able to make systematic, deep-seated, heartfelt and hard-won changes.

We have a lot of resources. They’re not fairly distributed, of course. Some people have wealth and other people don’t. Some people have comfort at home and other people don’t. Some people have large and supportive families and other people don’t. Some people have health and their right minds and other people don’t. But collectively we have a lot of strength and one of the things that we can [also] call upon is our faith, because even though that is also not evenly spread out through the population, it is a resource which keeps giving and will not be exhausted. So I’m not [going to] talk about your wealth, and I’m not going to talk about your families, and I’m not going to talk about your political opinions and not even going to — and this is really rare for Washington — I’m not even going to talk about policy. But I am going to talk about our faith, because that’s something that we can do here and trust one another with. And that will give us some direction where we need to go with everything else.

Faith is not the same thing as religion, after all. Religion is sort of what we’re doing now. It is the customs and the folkways and the language and the texts and the stuff. Now that Zoom has become part of our religion. It’s the doing of the faith. But I want to talk about the faith part. The faith is what draws us into an understanding of the universe and the nature of God. It’s sort of the meta-level over which religion is the day-to-day piece. And it boils down to one question: What do you have trust in? Because sometimes we’ll talk to one another, and will say “I have a lot of faith in you”, or you may get this at a employment review. Or you may hear this among friends or within your families. “I have faith in you.” But in the larger sense, perhaps in the more proper sense, what we have trust in shows what we’re willing to rely on when we have to make those difficult decisions. And one thing that we can have trust in, and one thing Christian should have trust in, is the nature of God to be love.

Now that is so easily brought out that’s almost as bad as “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s so easily [used], just thrown out with no particular meaning and falls to Earth without a sound. But for us, who should be taking these things very seriously, there can be no greater and deeper guarantee than God’s nature is love, because it builds connections. And we can trust those connections that whatever else happens in the world, no matter what cruelty or power or strength or principalities, to use Paul’s language, we have that connection to the creator of Heaven and Earth who cares for us. And that’s important to remember when other people are willing —whether in your family or in the neighborhood or in government or around the world — who’re willing to say that you are nothing.

And that you were not important and what you care about is not important, you know, and can trust in your heart that the maker of Heaven and Earth cares for you. And the feeling is [ought to be] returned.

Of course it’s not just us, it’s not just a private property to be a member of a church, even the Universalist Church [it] isn’t to say that I have something that you don’t have. It’s not the AAA. you don’t call them up to jump your battery or to your car away, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get those things. But rather we know that based on that relationship — sometimes we forget — but we know that based on that relationship that same thing is true for everybody else as well. Which means that we are in an elastic but very strong network. Jesus had a word for it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So that connection that we have runs all ways.

God, we love to deny it though. We love to deny it in our casual habits and in our systems. The ones that we inherit, the ones that we built and the ones that we suffer under, whether we choose to or not. That’s sort of the one thing I think of: the first pillar of Christian faith that I was to come back to. But the other ones a little sneakier. That in a word the world is not what it seems to be. Because if everybody was decent and forthright and believed this way, or at least kind of fell along with the program, we could rely on God being love and God loving us and that we would love everyone and everything would just be OK wouldn’t it ? But it’s not that way. Never has been.

We know that there is another pillar to Christian faith that we have to rely on and that is knowing that the world has this deep strain of sadness in it. Something’s not right. I’m not going to get into whole doctrine of original sin because I think that’s been so overplayed that it kind of misses the point that we just kind of know that things aren’t right. That suffering continues and life ends. And they’re good people don’t get what they deserve. And that sometimes people, even if they’re not good, just don’t get the basics to keep going. We know that there is something sad and continuous in this world, but that the same faith that we have — the same trust we have in that God is good and loves us knows that the world is not as it seems, and that we just cannot trust everything that comes to us.

Just because someone says that the powerful rule does not mean that they have a right to that that the systems that they exist, even though they are long and inherited, does not mean that they are good. And that we can look and think that there are other ways that we can have dreams. And those dreams as they form in our consciousness can become ideas, and that idea is the basis of hope. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean God will flip the script on you really quick. There’s a line that I come back to every once in a while. I’m just going to read it.

This is Saint Mary and her praise of God at the in the first chapter of Luke. And she cries out, sings even. Speaking of God:

He has scattered the proud in their imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich, he has sent empty away.

I mean, you don’t have to agree with me on these things because we’re not that kind of church. But one thing I hope that I can encourage you to think about, or at least engage with is there. There are two pillars of Christian faith that we can rely on. [First,] God’s nature is love, not just some sort of thing that God pulls out every once in awhile to impress us or to get us to think that maybe we should join the club, but that God’s nature is love, and that connects everything.

And that just because things seem to be set in stone doesn’t mean that they are. I can’t promise you policy changes. (I told you I wasn’t gonna talk about policy.) Can’t promise you wealth either, or a long life, or all the dreams that you’d cooked up. But I hope that that something that you can carry away and give yourself a little hope, because hope is the anchor of the soul. And without which it doesn’t matter where else we come up with.

But this is Washington after all, and you don’t think I’m going to [not] talk about something that’s happened in practical terms recently. The president came up with a really good idea on Monday. I mean, you’ve seen it. You watch the news. He was going to make a stand, I guess. I don’t know what goes through his mind. So he had some people clear out [the] people who were protesting, which it was their thorough right to do. Clear them out: horses, tear gas, pushed them away. We saw that we’ve seen that. That would be bad enough, galling enough, abusive enough. Boy, he just took it that much further, didn’t he? (And I know that the tear gas and the horses and all that, that’s the serious thing; that’s the important one. I get that.) But then he came out and used a church and a Bible as a prop piece to remind us that power is the first and most important [thing]. We know that’s not true, but it came out to remind us of this “fact.” And I’ll tell you that just sticks, sticks right here. [Points to throat.]

Um, so it’s sticking so much that I actually decided to pay for a subscription to the Washington Post so I can see some of the photos in more detail. Now when I’m gonna spend money for something you know that there’s a problem. OK. So I was able to get a photo of the president in his photo op. Holding the Bible as, like it was a dead fish. And they gotta close up of it, and I saw it, and I saw the spine. And I just about… I saw it in my heart went cold. It said the Revised Standard Version on it, which is not a new Bible. This was the sort of the mainline favorite between the late 40s. President Truman was given the first copy of it. That might be his copy for all I know. I suspect it was a presentation piece left at the White House at some point. Between the Truman administration and say, though the first, Bush administration. That was sort of the highlight of that of that version and so I decided to redeem it a little bit today, and Alex very graciously read today’s lessons from that version.

Because I think that if we take our religious life. Seriously, we need to reinterpret and understand what corrupt and powerful forces would have us believe. This thing, [gestures a bible] we will open it. And we will find strength from within it. We will look into our hearts. We will open them. And we will know what we have to do. Let’s talk about the readings for a second. These actually are the appointed readings for the day. I didn’t come up with these. I didn’t invent these for the purpose, but there’s something that’s really interesting about both of them.Both the second Corinthians and the Matthew are the last passages from their respective books. And Paul offers council to this unsuccessful little church in Corinth that needed his help remotely. If he had Zoom, he would’ve had a much easier time of it. And in Matthew, on the other hand, you have the departing narrative of Jesus, the his earthly ministry is ending and he is transferring authority to his students that he might be — that what disciple means — to his students, so that he might create new students in a world that might understand this way of God’s relationship with the world. But both of them are parting stories; both of them are endings.

Something, something in our sad world is ending right now. Maybe something better will follow. I don’t know; people have said that a lot, too, over the centuries and generations. I’m not going to make any promises. But when it comes to endings, we know that there’s grief that follows. And there’s a lot of tears that haven’t been shed yet. Not only for these people who were slain and had no.… I just can’t say it … Who should be with us here today.

Not only are there not enough tears for them, but for the ones, for them [for whom] there was no camera nearby. An artificial report was written up, which itself is deception and lies. We have not had enough tears for the dead and not enough truth to address the lies.

Something old is ending. But we cannot step to what is new, even if it’s good, even if it’s holy, and wholesome and beautiful until we properly, accountably, and in a holy way remember the hurt and the dead. We’ve been through these things long, I mean. Years and generations. Of course, we know how the story goes. There will be another disease, or there’ll be another crisis, or the economy will probably tank out from under us and will be caught up in all of that. And people who for whom this is not the first concern. (Those people are largely white people. So let’s put a little bit little flag in that.) We want to move on. We will not move on, right? Because our hearts are not yet open for that love which God has for us. And at which we must have for one another! must have! And we have not yet trusted that the world in its stream of sadness, [which] tells us lies about what is right and wrong. It’s not there yet. But I have faith and I have faith in you, each of you, that you will not let this pass away with the next new cycle in the next distraction or the next possibility of something more pleasant.

There’s this evidence of this. There are signs. Last week was horrible. Early on it got a little bit better, and once again, that’s in part due to you. And for the people who turned out on 16th Street in front of church. Who showed up in the smallest little towns across America and around the world to say no. No. “But my life matters.” And the things are not going to be the same. And that is, tt’s not the new, but it is a foretaste of the new which, like someone looking for food in a time of hunger [would] be a taste to allow us to go forward.

I’ve said too much. Let us mourn. Let us reflect. Let us be open. Do not be forgetful or distracted. But have faith, knowing that God is love. And that we must love one another, and that has responsibilities with it, and duties which we will find in order to address our sad world. To cheer it and to create that city which comes down adorned like a bride and be united with God. Amen.

“We gave him a chance to put his head in the guillotine so we had to shoot him.”

I just got this email. I am utterly disgusted.


June 8, 2020

Dear UUA Religious Professionals and Lay Leaders –

I write to inform you that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) voted on June 5th to remove the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. The decision was made based on the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s refusal to engage with the fellowship review process after a complaint of ethical misconduct was filed by the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) in January of this year. After the Rev. Dr. Eklof refused to engage with the initial investigation, the MFC moved to create an independent three-person investigative team to undertake a full fellowship review. Participation would have allowed the Rev. Dr. Eklof to present his perspective and any concerns he had with the process, but again he indicated that he would refuse to engage with the review.

The MFC takes very seriously the requirement that our fellowshipped clergy abide by the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and the Rules of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. They regret that the Rev. Dr. Eklof refused earlier attempts to “come to the table” after the distribution of his book The Gadfly Papers at the UUA General Assembly in Spokane in 2019 was received as harmful - particularly by the LREDA, Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and other organizations representing Unitarian Universalists with historically marginalized identities. This refusal to engage forced LREDA to seek redress through a formal complaint process.

Ministry is a relational endeavor, and it is a sine qua non of fellowship as a minister in the UUA that one be willing to engage with others when there is a concern expressed that one’s words or actions have caused harm, particularly to those from historically marginalized communities. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to work to repair historic and ongoing injustices to Black, Indigenous and other People of Color, to transgender and nonbinary individuals, to those who are disabled, who are poor, and others who have been marginalized, and to do so both within and beyond our faith community. The Rev. Dr. Eklof has sought to focus public attention on his critiques of the UUA’s approach to this work of repairing injustice. Whether he agrees or not with a particular approach to this work is not the essential issue in the Committee’s process or determination. Rather, the refusal to engage in dialogue with others and to be accountable for his actions through the MFC process was the context of the Committee’s review, and the basis for which it has now removed his fellowship.

In Faith,

The Rev. Sarah Lammert
Executive Secretary, Ministerial Fellowship Committee
Co-Director of Ministries and Faith Development


Tomorrow’s (June 7) service may be delayed

Update (June 7). I'll be slow getting out today's audio service and the sermon text I preached. As it happens, I preached extemporaneously and so will need to transcribe it. But not today. Take care.

A word to my faithful audience. Tomorrow's service may be late, but I hope to have it up some time on Sunday. Given the situation, I didn't want to prepare something too early, and I'm also preaching (on different texts) for Universalist National Memorial Church tomorrow. I'll have that sermon text posted.

And there's a good chance I'll be out in or near the demonstrations, too. Wear your masks and stay as safe as you can be.

Black lives matter.

Audio service, May 31, 2020 (Pentecost)

The full text of the service for Pentecost Sunday follows. Low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (2.1 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 31, 2020, Pentecost Sunday.

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ [Galatians 4:6, NRSV]
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:
God, who at this time did teach the hearts of your faithful people, by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit; grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in your holy comfort. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 68. [68:4-10, NRSV]

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord—
be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
you restored your heritage when it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. [2:1-11, NRSV]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own [native] language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, [and] residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

Here ends the reading.

Address

On Pentecost, which we commemorate today, the Holy Spirit descended upon the assembly, forming the new Christian church. That alone should attract our attention. But delving into its meaning offers further rewards.

Pentecost was a pre-existing Jewish pilgrimage holiday, and so it makes sense that a global representative group would be present in Jerusalem, and others besides. The Jewish holiday, Shavuot, is still observed. Originally, it marked the wheat harvest. That’s no small thing to celebrate, particularly this year of sourdough and banana bread, and difficult grocery store runs and price increases. I can imagine the wheat harvest being an emblem of the provision of life itself. Jesus certainly made the connection, as we pray “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is shorthand for what we need; the harvest, the means of receiving it. But Shavuot’s meaning spread to become a commemoration of bestowing of the Law to Israel, thus its religious importance. I’m sure the participants that Pentecost — the Greek alternative name — got the parallel of the descent of the law and the descent of the spirit in their own time.

But let’s not wallow in that common Christian habit of contrasting law and spirit, so often to the denigration of Jews; rather, look at both law and spirit at their best: as a way to know the will of God, and do it. And at Pentecost of all holidays, clarity of understanding is of highest importance. “‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” How is the spirit of God calling you to? What it is empowering you to do?

If God’s promises do not speak to you in a way that you can understand them, then you might think that those promises aren’t made for you. Which is why we must be careful to consider our message to others: what we say and how we say it. We Christians have our own culture, folkways, custom and jargon, or rather many sets of these. And the more we want to distinguish ourselves from other Christians, or from others in the society, the more tempted we are to use distinct, even obscure, ways. A former sign of good preaching, for instance, was the “stained glass” voice which was supposed to suggest other-worldliness or piety, but now would just seem odd. Or worse, using prayer as a weapon, as in the phrase “I’ll pray for you” from someone who’s clearly angry or adversarial.

And yet we can also lose our way by surrendering to the local, dominant culture and using its ways. I want to overcome the violence, delusion and cruelty that our culture assumes is normal. We need a new and renewing language of the spirit, and to make the connections with the global church, and with the historic church to give us the perspective and moral force to not be co-opted. Doing that, and still being understood by people who have no experience or interest in either, is a difficult, but essential balancing act. Failing to do so makes the life-giving way of Christ’s church into a kind of cipher, useful only to a diminishing, self-referential few.

Let the Pentecost blessing come upon us, so that we may have a clear, empowered, holy and loving way of speaking — and the capacity to receive the same words from wherever they come.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Prayer

Let us pray:

You who called us out into your marvelous spirit, bind us in one fellowship with the helpers of humankind that we may be children of the spirit. Take from us the love of ease and the fear of power, and show us the simple things that we can do to help our neighbors. Brighten the daily rounds of tasks that we have undertaken and are tempted to neglect; make us faithful to the trust that life has put upon us; hold us to the humblest duty. Prepare our hearts in sympathy to be partners in suffering with the weak, partners in eager service with the strong. Reveal to us the wavering ranks of those that are struggling upward, that we may cheer and support our comrades unknown. Remove from us the love of glory and the thirst for praise. Give us in weariness refreshment, and in struggle peace; but when we are idle, send chastisement, and when we are false, send fear, to bring us back to you. By your love restrain our censorious speech and teach us to commend; by your wisdom enlighten our plans and direct our endeavors for the common weal. Give us the vision of that bright city of God on earth where all shall share the best in thought and deed, and none shall harm or make afraid; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it. Amen. [Adapted from Unity Hymns and Chorales.]

God of all nations, we pray thee for all the peoples of thy earth: for those who are consumed in mutual hatred and bitterness; for those who make bloody war upon their neighbors; for those who tyrannously oppress; for those who groan under cruelty and subjection. We pray thee for all who bear rule and responsibility. We ask you to teach humanity to live together in peace, no-one exploiting the weak, no-one hating the strong, each kindred working out its own destiny, unfettered, self-respecting, fearless. Teach us to be worthy of freedom; free from social wrong, free from individual oppression and contempt, pure of heart and hand, despising none, defrauding none, giving to all, in all the dealings of life, the honor we owe to those who are your children and heirs, wherever their home on our common earth. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (1979 Book of Common Prayer)

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all forevermore. Amen.

Notices

For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Manuals of Faith and Duty revisited

I don't know where people get all this time to read; I'm lucky to scratch out ten pages a day. So that prompts me to shorter books and that reminded me of an article I wrote in 2008 about a set of eleven Universalist handbooks, written at the end of the nineteenth century. And if you can read through the breathless optimism and pre-Einstein, pre-Freud thought, you can learn a thing or two. I just finished Heaven and got some food for thought about what the kingdom of heaven means.

Back in 2008, I used Google Books; now I prefer Internet Archive, both to reduce my "Google footprint" and because Internet Archive has a better reading experience, and a wider variety of download options. So, I'm reprinting a period advertisement, with links to the Internet Archive, with two exceptions. Also, I've not reviewed these for bad scanning, so leave a comment if you find a book that's a skew. The Internet Archive often has different versions of the same book so it's worth a re-search. Enjoy.

"Manuals of Faith and Duty"

Manuals of Faith and Duty
Edited by Rev. J. S. Cantwell, D.D.

A series of short books in exposition of prominent teachings of the Universalist Church, and moral and religious obligations of believers. They are prepared by writers selected for their ability to present in brief compass an instructive and helpful Manual on the subject undertaken. The volumes are affirmative and constructive in statement, avoiding controversy, while specifically unfolding doctrines.

The Manuals of Faith and Duty are sold at 25 cents each. Uniform in size, style, and price.

I. The Fatherhood of God. By Rev. John Coleman Adams, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y.
II. Jesus The Christ. By S. Crane. D.D., Earlville, Ill.
III. Revelation. By Isaac Morgan Atwood, D.D., President of the Theological School, Canon, N.Y.
IV. Christ in the Life. By Rev. Warren S. Woodbridge, Medford, Mass. [Google]
V. Salvation. By Orello Cone, D.D., President of Buchtel College, Akron, O.
VI. The Birth from Above. By Rev. Charles Follen Lee, Boston, Mass.
VII. The Saviour of the World. By Rev. Charles Ellwood Nash, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y. (book notice)
VIII. The Church. By Rev. Henry W. Rugg, D.D., Providence, R.I. (1891)
IX. Heaven. By Rev. George Sumner Weaver, D.D., Canton, N.Y.
X. Atonement. by Rev. William Tucker, D.D., Camden, O.
XI. Prayer. by Rev. George H. Deere, D.D., Riverside, Cal. [Google]