Easter sermon with the UCA

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the online Easter service for the Unitarian Christian Association on March 31, 2024 using a lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 16:-8) and a meditation from the works of George Lander Perrin.

I would like to thank the Rev. Sheena Gabriel and the Unitarian Christian Association for having me speak today, and as a board member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, I hope the UCA and UUCF can continue to build trans-Atlantic ties of faith, fellowship and cooperation.

It is a particular honor to speak on Easter Sunday, the high point each year for Christians, when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over evil, death and the grave.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom preached his famous Paschal Sermon, which will be heard in Orthodox churches when they celebrate Easter in May, and which included:

If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!

If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.

Yes, Easter is the great festival, the high point — theoretically and theologically at least. But for generations — more than living memory, at least in the English-speaking world — Christmas has taken the first spot. Christmas has the warm family feelings, the feasting, the stimulating consumerism, and promises of peace and joy that overflows a particular religious interest. In fact, I’ve known several Jews over the years who absolutely love Christmas as a warm, generous and family-centered celebration without conflict over Christmas as a religious celebration. That’s perfectly reasonable, and perhaps the majority position. However, you can’t do that with Easter, the chocolate eggs notwithstanding. Easter comes with theological demands that can be addressed, modified or dismissed, but will surely come back each and every year.

For religious liberals and Unitarians in particular, Easter comes (let’s say) with concerns with those familiar theological maxims: Christ died for you; Christ died and rose again on the third day; Christ rose from the dead, and has gone before us to make a place for us; Christ will come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s kingdom will never end.

Honestly, how many of us think too hard about these acclamations? Perhaps spending a moment to translate the thought into something more approachable, mentally editing them or even flinching when hearing them. And if you have negative former religious associations, these acclamations can take on a disturbing note.

Never mind that these rather conventional statements of Christian faith are now counter-cultural, and we liberals stand in a middle ground of discussing and appreciating the Easter mysteries, without conceding much, and without mental reservations or the caveats that Unitarians past once made. Or perhaps I was wrong before: Easter might drift away into chocolates and bunnies and a ham dinner. But as long as we’re Christians, we will always have to think of it in theological terms.

Now, I’m a bit out of my element. Unitarianism in Great Britain and North America have much in common, including some shared points of history and certain figures like Joseph Priestley. But our cultural, religious and legal histories are distinct. We had another liberal movement, Universalism, my primary tradition, which has been long extinct in Britain, and we never had something institutionalized like Martineau’s Free Christianity. I assume we have much in common, I don’t want to assume similarities that don’t exist.

My point is that I may say something that falls flat, and perhaps even causes offense and if that happens please accept my apology. But I have been in the Unitarian Universalist orbit for nearly forty years, and a minister for twenty-five, and like many of you have a lot of experience in the faith which both invigorates and infuriates me.

So let me dive in.

I think Unitarianism’s great strength is also its weakness. Its impulse is to be honest in matters of conscience, truthful in facts and clear in action. If something seems wrong, misguided or superstitious, it will be called out as such, with varying degrees of front parlor manners and tact. It is both proud of its intellectual honesty, but is sometimes undone by its application. Having put so much into being right, not far behind is a fear that we might be wrong. Wrong in ethics or abstract concepts or (God forbid) wrong in ordinary fact. And even more, not be seen as a fool.

That makes Easter a hazard. So much of it seems unbelievable or naive or mythical. Thus it has to be carefully managed, over-managed, I think. True: we understand so much that the ancients could not, but I also suspect they could appreciate wisdom we cannot. They seem very far removed. Little wonder it’s a short step from pushing back against outmoded theology to rejecting the essentials whole cloth. How many Unitarian and Universalist Christians have you known who either end up practicing no religion, or holding a naturalistic philosophy, or returning to a more orthodox church? It’s a difficult balancing act, but one worth maintaining. We are called back to this current yet ancient faith and texts because they have something to say to us. Let’s let it speak. Like scripture itself, a lot of thought about God, humanity, the created order in the relationship between these was a solution sought to better understand what exists. Theology, in this sense, functions as a theory and is subject to revision. When it gets hardened into dogma, we have a different problem but that’s outside the scope of the sermon.

So Easter has become a commemoration of the original event and centuries of interpretation of it. Some of that is understandable. Each generation builds on what came before. If we had to start from scratch in all of our human pursuits we would have nothing… except frustration. But if we go astray we have to correct our course.

Let’s look back at the text from Mark, surely the earliest of the hero-tales we call gospels. There’s no concern about atonement, vicarious or otherwise, Christ’s place in the economy of the godhead, the fate of particular individuals, or the end of creation. And to celebrate Easter today, we don’t need to introduce them. The women — at the cusp of becoming the first witnesses — asked “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

But the stone had already been moved. It was not a problem for them. Likewise, let’s not invite unnecessary problems. Easter is to be enjoyed, to be delighted in.

Easter celebrates life over death and the connection of heaven and earth without explanation. The answer was there all along. God sought us out before we were, or anything was. The bond between beings — human and divine — is to seek understanding, and (in the old Universalist profession of faith) is a result of God’s nature being love. To be the creator means to be the savior. It is not in God’s nature to abandon us, which we have seen unfolded through the prophets, through Christ and to the present day. But there I am building up theology again, and a particularly Universalist one. That’s not the only way.

Another approach, keeping with our tradition, is to stay optimistic, highlight the poetic and engage with our religion in a spirit of everyday practicality.

Take George Landor Perin (1854-1921), the Universalist minister who wrote today’s meditation. Shockingly little has been written about this nineteenth and twentieth century figure or his wife Florence. They were missionaries to Japan (a story for another time), and later he was a popular preacher in Boston, while she prepared anthologies and calendars of uplifting religious literature. Together, they can be seen as the forerunners of influencers and self-help gurus, while also having an active role in Boston’s relief work. What sets them apart — and this is conjecture — is that they spent little time rehashing the Universalist theological distinctives. Distinctives that made less and less sense, as the paralyzing fear of hell was losing its absolute grip. The Perrins’ work was unabashedly optimistic, both in practical and spiritual terms. Whom did he address? Those of a sensitive nature. How did he couch the “deeper meanings” of Easter. Not with straight-forward teaching, but ideas that point to what Easter evoked: “Victory from the ashes of defeat;” “Hope born from the soil of despair;” “Immortality crowning the grave.”

For us, this may mean we can worry less about Easter, and enjoy it more, for the rejoicing, opportunity and relief it brings. Easter is difficult if we wish to make it difficult.

And may I suggest one more thing? This attitude comes with a little dose of selfishness, but that’s not wrong. If Christianity, and Easter particularly, is not good for you, why should you care? A rich Christian faith should uncover the joy in life and lift you up in times of trouble. It should be better to have it than not have it, or at the very least give you the resources to survive and thrive in order to help others.

My point is that Easter is not something you have to be right about. It’s deep and glorious, reflecting the love from God and dignity to the whole human family. We can worry about the details later. On Easter Sunday, there is room enough for all. Like the father of the prodigal son telling his older brother: “we had to celebrate, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

Or as St. John Chrysostom preached: Christ is risen, and life reigns!

May God bless us this glorious Easter Day.

Dual affiliation

Last year, the Universalist Christian Association recognized my ordination and I have full standing within it, meaning I have dual affiliation with it and ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Here is the news piece.

If you a minister who holds to universal salvation and and looking for standing — or training and ordination — I can recommend the process as being well-organized and thoughtful. You can also ask me, and especially if you have UUA fellowship, either in the comments or by my contact form.

Happy New Year!

“Missing” Georgia churches found

As many of you know, I am from Georgia and started my career there. I even worked to an ill-fated and later abandoned master’s degree in church history; my thesis would have been about Universalist churches in the antebellum South. But resources were harder to get thirty years ago, and so left that behind, went to seminary instead.

Between those researches and recent (say, 1980s) UUA directories, I knew there were churches that had been in Georgia for which there was little evidence. Two that kept coming back up was the one in Allatoona, in the northern part of the state, and the one in Senoia, south of Atlanta.

I always wondered what happened to them. The last I heard of the Senoia church was that it was rented to a Pentecostal church, so I assumed it was still in those hands or demolished. In other parts of the South, I’ve seen a gap in a cemetery where a church should be; been shown by an elder where an extinct church turned into a house (and the graveyard into a vegetable garden); and once unwisely drove up a logging road to find the grafitti-ed ruins of an abandoned meeting house. Times takes our little works away.

In a moment of free-form web browsing last week, I visited the Georgia Digital Library and looked up the Universalists and got my answer.

The Allatoona church is in rough shape, but evidently is or was on the radar of historic preservationists. There’s even a picture.

No picture but a happier outcome for the Senoia church. According to the September 27—October 1, 2004 issue of the “Preservation Georgia online” newsletter, the church was given in trust by the last members and has been converted to a private home.

“Harmony Church, a former Revolving Fund property of The Georgia Trust, will be featured this October on an episode of HGTV’s Building Character. The show highlights properties that have been transformed into one-of-a-kind private homes and the owners who rehabilitated them.

Located in Senoia, the 1896 Harmony Church was built by a Universalist congregation that came to Coweta County from South Carolina. Last used regularly in the 1980s, the surviving members of the congregation donated the church to The Georgia Trust’s Revolving Fund in 2002. The vernacular religious architecture of the 1,450-sq.-ft. church has been retained, as have its original windows, doors and hardwood floors. While the pews and pulpit were removed, the interior is still paneled entirely in wood.”

I’ve not found that clip online, but Harmony is a typically Universalist church name. In any case, it’s good to know what happened to them.

Remembering Universalist Heritage at Jubilee celebration

The Universalist National Memorial Church held a convocation on October 7, 2023 entitled “Universalist Jubilee: Its Legacy and Promise.”

The video will become available at some point and I will link it here, but in the meantime these are the notes from my part of the service.

Friends, where have we as Universalist come from? A few words. Look to the window to my right. It depicts, or is intended to depict, the Hand-In-Hand, the vessel which brought John Murray from England to America on September 30, 1770. This is the anniversary we remember today: the point from which we mark the 250th anniversary of Universalism in America. By the time he landed at Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, he was already a broken man. His change of faith within British evangelicalism lost him most of his friends and probably successful career. Then his wife Eliza and their son died. He landed in debtors’ prison, and once out we wanted to lose himself in the world, particularly the great American wilderness. That’s why he came here. But even the ship, bound for New York, was off course. The grace — almost miraculous grace — of his encounter with Thomas Potter encouraged him back to the ministry, and back to life. It’s a well-known, oft-told story, too long to repeat now, but it’s a story we need to tell more often. Murray did not plant Universalism here. There existed groups and individuals up and down the Eastern Seaboard who felt, thought and believed as he did: believing in a perfect hope of God’s complete salvation. One such group was the nucleus of what would be the first Universalist church in America, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And one of those he met was Judith Sargent Stevens, a writer in her own right and today more famous than this minister she would later marry. The irony was that his own theological and homiletic approach to Universalism, the would-be denomination he supported and his lineage of leadership within the fellowship of churches faded in his own lifetime and he was quickly overtaken by others whose names are also a part of our heritage. But Father Murray was as much a model of Christian life and a preacher or pastor. He suffered disappointment, depression and loss. We can understand him, and trust that he would understand us. His faith that God saves, and saves completely returns us to hope. Little wonder this church’s first iteration was a memorial to him. While the vision in and from Universalism was grand, our numbers never were. Numerically, we have been been in decline for generations. In 250 years, will there be Universalists who look through us, to Murray’s landing in New Jersey? The question is not important. Rather, as with others before me, I trust God and trust in God. I trust God will be true to the divine nature, a nature that we profess as love. Not that God is loving, but that God is love itself. And that love will not betray or fail us. Our existence is not a failure in the universe. New people rediscover and reconstruct this faith all the time; it will not die. So I trust in God, that there will always be a witness for the larger faith, whether in our fellowship or another. Occasions change and plans fail, but the providing grace of God endures. Those who will listen will hear the truth. So at this anniversary celebration, we can look back to Murray’s landing and return to life. Behind him we see the Reformation, and the Apostolic church, and back to Calvary where this world was redeemed, and from that to the foundations of the world. There, with the Creator, “whose nature is Love” we find our legacy and our hope.

Correcting resources for very small churches

October 5, 2023.  My post about the Finnish Quakers and their small numbers received some welcome private comment and I want to put this back on the top of my list.

Last month, I proposed ten kinds of resources that might already exist to help very small churches. A commenter suggested an eleventh. I’d like to take a couple of months to start filling in a resource list. If you know of an applicable resources, please leave it in the comments and I’ll review it (for applicability) and add it to the list.

  1. Training manuals and spreadsheets for volunteer treasurers
  2. Resources for accompanying hymn singing without a trained musician
  3. Self-directed spiritual development resources with a group element
  4. Model agreements for supply preachers
  5. Templates for preparing attractive orders of service and newsletters
  6. Recipes and guidelines for easy-to-prepare but delicious (and safe) church lunches and dinners
  7. Model guidance for protecting vulnerable persons in small churches
  8. Resources for the delivery and organization of sermons for novice preachers
  9. Ready-to-print materials appropriate for children who come to services
  10. Trustworthy guidance about “how political” a church can be without disrupting its non-profit status
  11. Computers and internet access; worship without Zoom. (By request.)

UniversalistChristian.net updated

My current, main Universalist documents sites, UniversalistChristian.net is back up. I fixed some bad formatting and have added a last-edited marker on the front page. There are still typos great and small. I know about some, but and report (including any broken links) are welcome.

But getting more documents up or linked will be a first priority.

Wise words from Finland

Church decline in the West is a real if unwelcome phenomenon. We may not be able to have Christian life with the same cultural, political or financial force as we once did, but Jesus promised to be with us where two or three are gathered in his name. (Matthew 18:20) It would be lacking in faith to give up only because our numbers are few. But we may need to come up with other options about how we arrange our common Christian life..

As many of my readers will know, Quakers typically organize in a locale and conduct, worship weekly and conduct the business of their meeting (congregation) once a month. This is why a local Quaker church is customarily called a monthly meeting. Monthly meeting may come together in a region as a quarterly (four times a year) meeting, but more often these days in a larger area or in a smaller country on an annual basis, as a yearly meeting. Thus Yearly Meeting is the usual name for the broadest functioning body of Quakers, with these in the United States then often affiliated with one or more of the “denominations.”

Finland Yearly Meeting is one of the smallest yearly meetings in the world, with about 30 individual Quakers in the country. If they can keep body and soul (and website) together, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Fortunately, parts of their site are also in English. Naturally, I look to Northern Finland, assuming it would be the thinnest for Quakers, and indeed there are between five and seven Quakers there. But they still come together. One town has a “quiet room” with a small library.

When we meet it is usually for most of a day with the travel being part of our fellowship as travel can take several hours. We generally meet about 2-3 times a year, but we can usually arrange a [meeting for worship] in response to a visiting Friend.

This arrangement can’t be easy, but I find it encouraging given their current numbers.

Requests open for UniversalistChristian.net

I’ve build some of my sites, including hymnsofthespirit.org, universalistchristian.net (documents) and universalistchristian.org (original writing and perhaps more) using the Jekyll static site generator, but I’ve let them go so long that I’m having a hard time refreshing and adding to them. Did Jekyll change, or did I just forget how to use it?

Either way, I’ve decided to relearn it but that’s taking more time than I thought. I’ll post updates, but in the meantime can you go to those sites, and especially UniversalistChristian.net, and let me know what you would like to see added?